In this era of technology and instant information, it’s becoming increasingly rare to land upon a truly new invention. But PoleClinometer® founder Grayson King succeeded in doing just that.
“There aren’t that many really new ideas in the world today, so it was really fun to find one,” the Vermonter said.
It all started when Grayson took an avalanche safety course. In the course he learned that avalanches are much more likely to occur at certain slope angles. He also learned about inclinometers, the tool used to measure slope angles.
“I remember thinking ‘I’m pretty unlikely to dig this out my pocket that frequently while moving around in the mountains. I wish there was something on my ski pole,’” he said.
Grayson originally pictured a gadget strapped to his ski pole, which do exist. But then he found an online article detailing how to create your own inclinometer just by printing out a diagram on copy paper. The problem with that latter option was that it only worked on a flat plane.
“When you put it around a cylindrical pole shaft, it didn’t actually work, but I thought I could make one that would,” Grayson said.
Grayson dug into the math, drawing on his background as an electrical engineer.
“It was fun. I thought of it as a challenge,” Grayson said. “It’s actually pretty basic trigonometry and geometry, but it requires some spatial thinking.”
While immersed in technical challenges like fiddling with the equations for what would become PoleClinometer, Grayson often experiences what he calls a state of flow — very similar to the immersive sensations he enjoys in outdoor pursuits like skiing and windsurfing.
“I’d describe it as an immersive continuous flow of motion that is fully absorbing to the extent that the whole rest of the world disappears or merges with your motion, and that motion is all that exists in the universe when you’re fully immersed in the activity,” he said. “It’s very meditative and it’s something that soothes me. If I’m not getting enough flow activity, I tend to be less centered in my life.”
A few weeks after setting his mind to the task, Grayson emerged from that timeless flow experience with a ski pole inclinometer prototype. Grayson's creation would eventually turn into a full sticker kit complete with add ons like a loop for dangling your ski pole and a protective sleeve to keep it in good shape for the long haul, but that initial prototype was just a paper printout taped to a ski pole.
“I was playing with the first prototype and realized you could use it to sight down a slope,” he said. “Up until that time I had only been thinking about sighting across a slope. That was the moment I said this is pretty freaking cool. I’ve got to do something with this.”
His initial thought was to publish his design online and make it free for anyone to access. However, he soon realized that it would be quite easy for someone to scale the image wrong in the printing process thereby rendering it useless. He also realized that by tapping into the economy of scale, he could actually sell his inclinometer kits for less than what it would cost for someone to make a one-off unit for themselves.
So, instead he turned to Kickstarter, launching PoleClinometer on the crowdfunding platform back in 2014.
“It blew me away how well the Kickstarter did,” he said. “I reached the Kickstarter’s goal within 24 hours and it did way better than I expected it to.”
Before launching the Kickstarter, Grayson had submitted a preliminary patent application to protect his invention.
“The success of the Kickstarter solidified in my mind that I needed to continue with the patent application,” he said.
Patenting PoleClinometer through normal means proved to be cost prohibitive, so Grayson decided to tackle it himself. He meticulously worked through the paperwork, frequently referencing a good book he found on the subject. In the end, it took only a week between when the patent examiner first contacted him to the time the patent was issued, which Grayson said was an unusually short time frame and speaks to the fact that PoleClinometer is so different than anything previously created.
With a patent in hand and solid initial interest from potential customers, Grayson turned his attention to building a small side business.
“Garage Grown Gear pretty immediately became a retailer, and pretty immediately became the number one retailer,” Grayson said.
In 2017, a couple of years into his retail relationship with GGG, Grayson proposed licensing PoleClinometer. GGG jumped at the opportunity and an agreement was soon worked out.
“That’s been awesome,” he said. “From my end, being able to hand off the mechanics of assembling, selling and shipping, and the further efforts of promoting and advertising, has been fantastic for me.”
While most of the day-to-day tasks associated with running PoleClinometer are now in GGG's court, Grayson still plays a role as he’s able. For example, he recently filmed and edited two support videos: one showing how to use PoleClinometers and another that shows how to install PoleClinometers.
Prior to tackling this project, Grayson had very little experience with filming and editing. But per his MO, he immersed himself in learning how to do it, and ended up with a professional-looking result.
"I'm lucky enough to have an amazing spouse of 10 plus years who's surprisingly patient with my OCD 'project-ing,' and my solo adventuring, and who's a delightful partner in many other forms of adventure near and far," he said. "I often think I must've done something really good in a past life, because I feel inexplicably blessed in this one. Karen is just the top of a long list of things I'm incredibly thankful for."
Overall, the reception to PoleClinometer has been decidedly enthusiastic, with people saying things like it should be on every single ski pole, Grayson said. But he does occasionally get reactions he finds perplexing. Sometimes people are dismissive, he said.
“They look at it and think it can’t be accurate enough,” he said.
People who jump to that conclusion typically don’t bother to test its accuracy or review Grayson’s math, to which he’s devoted an entire page on PoleClinometer’s website. They also, of course, don’t know Grayson personally. If they did, they’d know he’s an extremely precise, detail-oriented guy who in his words is “fairly obsessive compulsive by nature.”
Another assumption Grayson battles is people not realizing PoleClinometer’s versatility.
“They see an image of it being used to sight across a slope and they think that’s the only way it can be used,” he said. “Sighting down a slope is difficult to portray in an image or concise description, which is its most powerful use mode.”
The best way he’s found to address these misconceptions is to actually get PoleClinometers into people’s hands, especially the hands of qualified professionals, such as avalanche safety instructors and forecasters.
PoleClinometer supports and collaborates with avy organizations throughout the country, including the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, the Utah Avalanche Center, She Jumps and others.
Grayson is a self-described gear head who spends a lot of time dialing in his equipment and systems.
Whether it’s the “bottomless” amount of modifications he makes to his 2013 FJ Cruiser, which he uses for overland adventures, or solving the problem of fast and accurate on-the-go slope angle measurement while backcountry skiing, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is more devoted to getting things right than Grayson.
PoleClinometer is a registered trademark of SnoWander LLC