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Thursday, July 17, 2014

App changes outdoor-gear storage

DENVER – The University of Colorado students were tasked with crafting a business plan for their entrepreneurship certificate when one of them showed up to a meeting bummed that thieves had stolen his skis off the resort rack the previous weekend. Another student still was paying for two bikes stolen on the Boulder campus.

The thefts sparked the idea for SnowGate, a ski locker system that aims to transform outdoor storage with a B-
Cycle-type kiosk networked with an Uber-like app. ...

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DENVER – The University of Colorado students were tasked with crafting a business plan for their entrepreneurship certificate when one of them showed up to a meeting bummed that thieves had stolen his skis off the resort rack the previous weekend. Another student still was paying for two bikes stolen on the Boulder campus.

The thefts sparked the idea for SnowGate, a ski locker system that aims to transform outdoor storage with a B-
Cycle-type kiosk networked with an Uber-like app.

“We just wanted to figure out a way to secure all our equipment when we were outside,” said Christian Nitu, who developed the system with CU pal Cory Finney.

They hope the SnowGate name is only temporary.

Last winter – two years after their business school class – the pair of now-24-year-old entrepreneurs debuted 71 lockers at Winter Park. They hope to set up business in another three to five resorts by next winter, then retool the concept for outdoor bike lockers. Then for beach locations. Then for a takeover of the locker world.

“The skis are the tip of the iceberg for us,” said Finney from his shared work space in the Boomtown Boulder business incubator. “We’ve always said that the acid test for the company is if we have to change our name. If we have to change our name, that means we are on the right track.”

The idea has found traction since the pair launched the company in February 2013 with a 600-pound prototype loaded into a U-Haul. Initial seeding – some $375,000 – came from winning business contests and family investments.

The lockers are built by Louisville-based Kiosk Information Systems, the pioneering builder of Denver’s B-Cycle stations, which allow people to borrow shared bikes and pay via credit card or app.

Last month, Finney and Nitu won $20,000 in the Miller Lite Tap the Future contest. In August, they head to Chicago to vie for the contest’s $200,000 grand prize. They are lobbying for an audition on Shark Tank, the ABC reality show featuring entrepreneurs pitching ideas to a panel of investors.

Finney and Nitu are spending this summer courting resort executives by rolling their machines into high country parking lots.

It’s not a complicated sell: Resorts provide the space and help with the Wi-Fi connection, and SnowGate handles the rest – including 24-hour customer service. The business plan involves sharing revenue with resorts, which do not pay for the machines.

“For them, there’s no downside risk,” said Finney, a CU finance graduate who serves as chief executive. “There is no cost for investment.”

With a tidy brigade of the lockers flanking a major portal to the Winter Park base, the system delivered on the promise of guest convenience, resort spokesman Steve Hurlbert said. Finney said the 71 machines also delivered a profit.

“We’ve been impressed with those guys. They’ve been aggressive, and they really made this happen. You gotta tip your hat to them,” Hurlbert said. “It’s cool for us to be the guinea pig. We are definitely looking forward to having them back next season.”

At Winter Park, storing two pairs of skis – or skis and a board – runs $2 an hour or $8 for overnight. Each locker has room for poles and a pack. Overnight storage was the biggest success in the first season, with visitors using the system like a 24-hour ski valet.

Nitu, a marketing grad, and Finney helped design the software for the SnowGate app, which allows enrolled users to pay for and reserve lockers – and open them – from a smartphone anywhere on the mountain.

“The days of standing around waiting for the guy with the key to the locker are over,” Nitu said.

While technology sweeps through nearly every element of the resort experience – ticketing, scanning, tracking, reservations, mobile payment, etc. – lockers remain either unchanged with combination locks and token-obtained keys in dank basements or the domain of heavy spenders who pay several thousand dollars a season for a tony slopeside closet.

SnowGate is aiming for the middle ground, using overlooked spaces as overnight storage that could eliminate trundling through parking lots with awkward gear.

“We want lockers to be part of the experience,” Finney said, “not an afterthought.”

The outdoor market is ripe, Nitu said, mirroring the entrepreneurial verve that is transforming the static taxi industry with app-hailed ride sharing services UberX and Lyft.

“Can you name a locker company?” Nitu said. “It’s a very generic thing. A very boring thing. We see an opportunity there because there is no customer attention, no customer service and a lack of innovation. Why not make it more convenient and useful?”