Now into its eighth year of business, Melbourne-based Box Altitude works with world-class athletes from top sporting teams, but can’t rely on word-of-mouth marketing to entice new customers.
Founder Rico Rogers, a former road bicycle racer, tells SmartCompany he uses a combination of targeting and customer support to double his business year-on-year.
Box Altitude creates tents that simulate conditions of higher altitudes by controlling oxygen levels. The physiological benefits of acclimatising your body to these conditions include weight loss, improved fitness and recovery, Rogers explains.
Having stumbled across academic studies while racing in Europe, Rogers spent the lead-up to significant races and events in altitude tents to mimic mountain conditions whenever he travelled home. During this time, he noticed a significant change in his health and fitness.
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Even now, having approached other athletes and sporting clubs as a retailer, he’s found the industry considers altitude technology to be an emerging training secret.
“Top endurance athletes, down to 100-metre runners, can get benefit from it,” he says.
“I think the majority of successful athletes are already using it.”
Despite this, available products were limited. Tents on the market were largely limited to training rooms, didn’t prioritise comfort, were loud, and didn’t filter out carbon dioxide.
“I never really did research into the viability of our products. I just saw a need for a better system. It seemed like a no-brainer,” he explains
This relaxed confidence is consistent throughout Rogers’ approach to business.
“There’s nothing else in the market to cause such a reaction in your body.
“I’m confident that we’re going to end up retiring on it,” he adds.
Building the brand
Box Altitude began as a personal project — without any prior business experience, Rogers bootstrapped the business into the market with his cycling money.
“While I was racing, I did some prototypes for myself with tent designs, taught myself how to sew and did research on the materials. Then I had to develop the machinery behind it as well.
“It was a lengthy process of trial and error,” he says.
And despite doubling his business year-on-year, he only has one full-time employee helping him with sales and relies on contractors for almost everything else.
His focus is reserved for research and development, especially within the last 18 months. Google, he confesses, is a “really good friend”.
“Sports science has always been an interest of mine. I would go out for five hours on the bike and come back and be interested in my hydration and absorption rates of carbohydrates.”
This interest isn’t just the backbone of Box Altitude’s products, but it informs how Rogers wants his customers to interact with their own health and wellness.
Openly disparaging naysayers who don’t cite medical research, customers are instead encouraged to form their own opinions by recording their body’s reaction to altitude training.
Rogers even suggests serious customers stay on top of their own physiological changes by learning about their blood profiles, which can be studied by comparing blood test results. Typically, users see a 5-6% increase in their haemoglobin count.
“If people don’t know what it feels like, five to six per cent doesn’t seem like a lot. But it’s like being slightly sick all the time and then being healthy.”
Although this method of customer conversion seems extreme to someone who doesn’t own a bathroom scale, Box Altitude’s professional sporting customers seem to appreciate this lengthy follow-up approach.
“It’s all about getting a good customer response and their body getting a good adaption [to the system],” he explained.
About 30% of customers choose to rent a tent initially, with the option to buy after the rental period. And most do, Rogers says.
“We haven’t left anyone behind.
“We’ve never rented or sold a system to someone and then wiped our hands of them,” he says.
“Just radio silence”
Despite being a patron to top sporting names, Box Altitude faces a unique challenge: it can’t rely on word-of-mouth marketing.
In fact, if athletes are satisfied, they have more incentive to keep the training system to themselves.
“It’s the culture in sports,” Rogers explains.
“They don’t want their competitors to know what works in their training. And actually, we’ve got people that are using our system who are top-class athletes.”
Retired players have less to lose by promoting training systems they found effective, but their clout falls as soon as they’re out of the spotlight.
“It’s a little frustrating for us.
“When you’ve brought some of the absolute cream of the crop of the world onto the system, and yet, just radio silence,” he says.
“We’d like a competitor to come in”
In addition to doubling his business year-on-year, Rogers has opened four more branches on three continents, in pursuit of exposure and long-term growth.
And even though he’s not actively on the lookout for competitors or copycats, he would consider them useful for raising exposure too.
“In some way, we’d like a competitor to come in — because then we wouldn’t be the only voice promoting this.”
But Box Altitude was never about athletes, Rogers explains, even if they were the perfect base to launch off.
His target audience is the general public.
“I have large aspirations of it becoming a large international player in the altitude space.
“But that’s not our benchmark. Our benchmark is other health and fitness companies,” he adds.
Expanding to a broader market
Of course, having a niche product that sells gives Rogers the advantage of dedicating more time to research and development.
Looking to the future, Rogers wants to see non-athletic users exploit the benefits of oxygen-controlled environments, and has developed a sleeping system he wants to become a feature of the everyday home.
“You produce most of your growth hormones at nighttime and so if you can sleep tactically at altitude, it’s quite an advantage.”
Modelled like an air conditioning unit, these systems are marketed to be quieter, more accessible and less invasive than competing versions. Sensors monitor oxygen levels and the whole unit can be controlled via a smartphone app.
“We’ve also been testing heart rate variability and how they can make corporates more efficient. Business executives have just as much to gain from spending time at altitude as athletes.
“And in some ways, they’re easier to talk to, because they’re more receptive. And they’ll talk about it,” he explains.
With such a niche product, the biggest challenge is education. Asking people to read what the product is and the research behind it is a stretch. But the benefits of oxygen control seems too conceptual for Rogers to communicate visually too.
“I think if we get the message right, we should be able to attract a lot more people,” he says.