September 8, 2017

Martial artist turns equipment gripes into business

Photo by Peter Cobb

Photo by Peter Cobb

What can you do when the equipment needed to fuel your passion, traditional martial arts, is not as good as you think it should be? For Jeremy Lesniak, the answer was to make his own gear.

Frustrated with the martial arts gloves, helmets, boots and other safety gear that was available, Lesniak decided to make his own equipment and sell to others, like himself, who were desperately seeking high-quality equipment that lasts. In 2010, Lesniak started Whistlekick, LLC.

His company sells sparring gear and apparel for karate, taekwondo and other martial arts. Currently, there are two full-time and one part-time employees. The company is run from his home in Montpelier.

“I founded whistlekick for a simple reason. I was tired of poor-quality sparring gear,” said Lesniak. “I felt trapped in a cycle. I’d purchase new sparring gear, get excited the first few times I used it, and then disappointed when I saw the first tear. I’d force myself to use my sparring gear for a year before buying new gear. I didn’t want to keep throwing it away and replacing it, but I didn’t know what else to do. I knew I couldn’t be the only one wanting a better option. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore. I spent dozens of hours scouring the internet, looking for a company that was making better sparring gear. I couldn’t find one. So I started one.”

In 2010, Lesniak used personal funds for the startup and initial operation of the company. It took three years of development before the first sale.

“I brought products to market through a lengthy research-and-development phase, finally getting them to retail in January 2013. It’s taken a lot of time, money and sweat, but I’m thrilled with the product and I stand behind it, personally,” he said.

The whistlekick gear — made of polyurethane with a vinyl coating — is manufactured in Mexico, according to Lesniak’s specifications, and shipped to a warehouse in Rockport, Texas, one of the towns flooded in Hurricane Harvey, and then shipped to his home office in Montpelier, and to Amazon and other internet sales companies. The Texas warehouse was not flooded but, at the time of this interview, there was no power in the town and none expected for two or three weeks.

“I don’t expect a delay in shipments,” he said, admitting he won’t know for sure until the warehouse is back in full operation. He is confident that sales outlets have enough product to cover the delay expected by the Rockport warehouse.

In addition to product sales, Lesniak also produces a twice-weekly podcast, “Martial Arts Radio,” which is free on iTunes. The broadcasts have included interviews with martial artists, both local and international, and the subject matter has ranged from commentary on the state of martial arts, to how-to content for both students and instructors. Lesniak has aired over 200 episodes, and now hires someone to edit and produce the broadcasts.

Lesniak grew up in Maine and graduated from Clark University with a double major in computer science and philosophy. He was a national champion in traditional martial arts when he was 16.

“I started winning state and regional titles in 1994, and won national titles in 1995 and 1996, with a hall of fame induction coming in 1996. I prefer referring to it as sport martial arts, though some call it sport karate. That term isn’t wrong, I just don’t feel it to be as inclusive. I competed last year, twice, for the first time in 10 years — with divisional victories both times and a grand championship once,” he said.

Part of the reason Lesniak returned to competition, after a 10-year break, was to help market his company. Getting the word out has been one of his biggest challenges, especially when most of the competitors are large multimillion dollar operations with generous advertising budgets. Returning to competition let potential customers know that he is serious about martial arts and not just a salesman.

So far, his main sales strategy has been setting up a whistlekick booth at tournaments and trade shows, his iPod broadcasts, which have been heard in 130 countries by over 100,000 people, and his whistlekick website. “Word of mouth” from the broadcasts and tournaments has generated most of his sales. In 2015 and 2016 he traveled to 50 events, nearly one every other week.

“One weekend I was in Maine one day and drove to Albany, New York, the next day,” he said.

His goal for the company is “to bring the traditional martial arts world the best products and content possible,” and to “reflect” the passion he has for the sport.

Lesniak won the August Road Pitch competition in Barre, netting $2,250 in prize money for the “Shark Tank”-like business pitch competition. Finals will be held in October.

Learn more about Lesniak’s company at whistlekick.com.

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