CU Denver Business School marketing class helps KOTA Longboards refine demographics, brand
DENVER—CU Denver Business School students supplied “heart and soul” to a marketing project that is pushing an innovative local longboard company—named after World War I fighter pilots—to greater heights in the action-sports sector.
The fast rise of KOTA Longboards LLC and its visionary founder, Mike Maloney, a former U.S. Navy Top Gun pilot, was celebrated in a lively ceremony in the Business School lobby on Thursday. KOTA received a $150,000 Mission Main Street Grant from JPMorgan, which annually distributes $3 million in grants to promising and community-minded entrepreneurial businesses across the country.
Last fall, a team of five students in the CU Denver Business School’s brand communications class conducted surveys and provided analysis that helped KOTA, which stands for “Knights of the Air,” refine its customer demographics and brand. During the ceremony, which included several local business dignitaries, Maloney singled out the students in the graduate-level course taught by Associate Professor Vicki Lane, PhD. “Those are wonderful students in a great class,” he said. “It was a great experience and we learned a lot.”
The project with real-world applications is representative of the kind of partnerships that CU Denver Business School students enjoy with hundreds of local businesses. Business SchoolDean Sueann Ambron said the marketing students provided valuable research that was used for a KOTA product launch. “In the Business School we do probably 200 or 300 research projects a semester for companies, and this was a great example,” Ambron said. “I want to thank Mike for letting the students put their knowledge to use and helping to build the brand.”
At a factory in Denver’s River North (RINO) district, KOTA builds signature longboards from American Hard Rock Maple and finished with artistic designs. Ryan Everett, who describes himself as a “primary helper” at KOTA, was also a student in the brand communications class last semester. When Lane told students to divide into teams and choose a business for their special marketing project, Everett suggested KOTA, which had launched in 2012.
“We had a stellar group and I wanted to hear their perspectives,” Everett said of his teammates. “I asked them things like, ‘When you look at this board, what do you see, what do you think?’ Having that fresh perspective from people was great. In a lot of ways they provided very good criticism … It was a great project. It was fun.”
Other students on the KATO special-project team were Amber Shafer, Allison Dietz, Lauren Salisbury and Connie Jimenez.
Lane said branding and marketing is a lot like a cake. The cake part is made up of the science, or the fundamentals, behind branding. “But it needs icing—that’s the creative layer,” she said. “That’s the heart and soul that students, with all their different experiences, bring to the project.”
She said her students benefited from Maloney’s class visit where he commented on each team’s project, including the one focused on his entrepreneurial endeavor. “That is important to the process—having the business community come in and share their skill set,” Lane said. “Oftentimes, like in this case, Mike just has a real market savvy. You can see that.”
KOTA boards sell for about $350. The company hires veterans and supports veterans groups while also developing activity programs for teens and post-traumatic therapy programs for veterans.
Thursday’s ceremony featured Paul Washington, head of the City and County of Denver’s Office of Economic Development; Tami Door, CEO of Downtown Denver Partnership; Michael Sondak, Google senior account executive; and JPMorgan Chase Market President Todd Munson, who presented the check to Maloney. As a Mission Main Street Grant winner KOTA will join the other 19 national winners (out of 25,000 applicants) at an exclusive small business marketing workshop at Google’s headquarters in California.
Highlights of the program included specially-designed KATO boards presented to Munson, Washington and Sondak, as well as to Ambron, who promptly boarded her longboard, emblazoned with the CU logo, next to the podium. Also, a group of students from Denver’s Merrill Middle School were on hand to demonstrate the boards. The more than 75 people in attendance parted to allow the students to ride the length of the lobby.
Before everyone headed to the burrito and coffee bar, Ambron pointed out how Maloney and his team exemplify Denver’s booming entrepreneurial scene: “With Mike’s leadership, KOTA is a great example of education, corporate sponsorship, civic organizations and city government all coming together to support an incredible entrepreneur and an incredible company.”