By Dean J. Miller
On weekends and after school growing up, Mike Kinner pedaled his bike to the family business where he worked under the encouragement and guidance of his father. In time, he gained strong work ethic, became a skilled supervisor, and learned the value of community support as the family literally rolled in the dough establishing the award-winning, regionally renowned, “Donut Mill,” with legendary bear claws, cinnamon buns and more.
While ownership of the Woodland Park, Colo., Donut Mill eventually changed hands, Mike recalls that sweet treats of the ‘Mill were enjoyed by all – a key point that would guide Mike’s journey as an entrepreneur nearly 20 years later in Colorado Springs.
“My wife, Stephanie, and I are really big on sports and backyard games,” said Mike. “Today, we have two children, daughter McKenzie, age 4, and son Samuel, age 1, and we’re all about barbecues and backyard fun.”
But in 2017, the couple realized not everyone was having fun. “It seemed every game in the backyard would isolate somebody,” said Mike. “Games were either too competitive and a grandparent or child couldn’t play; or a teen thought the game wasn’t ‘cool’ enough.”
In that moment, Mike and Stephanie, a New Hampshire native, were sparked to design something new: a game that would be fun for all ages, allow for individual or team play, be adaptive to people of all abilities, be challenging in the backyard or park, and scalable for tournaments at schools, clubs, camps and for inside or outside play.
Over the next 18 months the couple hand-crafted six prototypes, worked with manufacturers and brought designs to local parks to seek community feedback. A true family affair, daughter McKenzie regularly helped with quality control, adding water balloons to the game as a personal favorite.
To ensure adaptability, students at the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind were introduced to the game and provided crucial feedback. Bells were added to allow visually impaired athletes to enjoy the thrill of a game-winning shot.
The result: Air O Sport, a tower of brightly colored, reactive rockets that fall with a direct hit from beanbag-discs through multiple ways to play: individually or with teams, casually or high speed, and options to add bells, glow sticks, water or strength-training movement. Development included game rules, scoring and strategy.
Throughout the effort, the Pikes Peak Small Business Development Center provided confidential consulting, offered entrepreneur-focused workshops, and provided guidance in accessing federal assistance.
“Our Pikes Peak SBDC volunteer consultant, Carrie Clarke, was a game changer,” said Mike. “She provided pivotal insight that allowed us to fill our first orders and she was incredibly helpful as the pandemic hit.”
With a background in law and a passion for business growth in Colorado Springs, Clarke helped the Kinner’s through considerations in planning, marketing, business systems and operations.
“Consultants provide entrepreneurs a fresh look at their business plans,” said Clarke. “A trusted outside perspective can make a world of difference. The Kinner’s are a perfect example of entrepreneurs who had a great idea and sought assistance to produce it and take it to market.”
And bring it to market they did. In 2019, with their prototype racing toward initial production, Mike went on trade show tours selling directly to schools, camps, colleges, and recreation programs.
As game development and pre-sales climbed, there were realities: the young parents had to continue to earn a living. Stephanie carried on as a dental hygienist; Mike served as a consultant in the home remodeling industry. And there was bigger news: Stephanie was pregnant with Samuel and doctors were worried about his health.
“There were heart breaking discussions with doctors and long nights,” said Mike. “We put our faith in God and prayed as the pregnancy continued.”
After two years of development and late nights, the Kinner’s committed nearly $150K to initial production. In June 2019, their manufacturer delivered: their garage was stacked to the ceiling with Air O Sport games. Following a quality inspection, they shipped orders on time to 40 states. Through camps, schools, and colleges, more than 50,000 would be introduced to the game that first year.
Two months later, the Kinner’s welcomed Samuel into the world. The child was born with medical challenges and spent some of his first months in intensive care. Stephanie has since completed certified nursing assistant training to care for Samuel.
“I feel it’s my duty as his mother to give him the best care possible,” said Stephanie. “At one year old, he’s a warrior; he shows us each day how personal our decision has become to make Air O Sport accessible to all.”
In November, Air O Sport was the featured product at the Orange County, Calif., National Adaptive Physical Education Conference resulting in sales from throughout the country.
While Air O Sport online sales and social media buzz continue, arrival of the pandemic hit the company hard. Trade shows, community demonstrations, team sports and summer recreation are at a full stop.
“Pikes Peak SBDC has been crucial throughout the pandemic; Carrie provided great advice to examine our marketing,” said Mike. “While we hadn’t initially marketed for home use, Air O Sport is the ideal game and gift for families and groups social distancing together – it’s a game the whole family can enjoy.”
Today, a new version of the game for pool use is in development along with user guides applying both versions as character development and social-emotional learning (SEL) tools for home school and other academic environments.
“The focus and importance of character and SEL skills couldn’t come at a more crucial time,” said Mike. “The pandemic continues to impact us all and we will need safe, effective ways to ensure emotional well-being. Air O Sport will be part of the answer and so will the Pikes Peak SBDC.”