Issue 77: ProFile: Daniel Prentice (pt 1)

A quiet force in kiting, part one…

Before we get started, let us “summarize” a bit. Daniel Prentice has been integral to the kiting scene in the USA and indeed the entire world, for more years than many of you have been alive. He has created produced, and sold products – from line-winders, and kite-lines, and kites, and even created major kiting events and the organizations that beget and support them. He was the owner/publisher of one of less than a half dozen kiting publications that some of you may recognize. He created and ran one of the first truly national kite circuits/leagues here in the USA. Yet, Daniel is something of an enigma to most of us kite fliers. He was usually busy working behind the scenes, and Daniel now still seems to be pretty quiet about his involvement.

Still, Daniel’s imprint on kiting is most assuredly “there” nonetheless. So Kitelife is both pleased and honored to have this opportunity to discuss the many facets of his long career with Daniel. Therefore, before we even begin this ProFile – Thank You for this opportunity, Daniel.

Hello, Daniel. Let’s start this ProFile off in the traditional Kitelife way – asking about your early involvement in Kiting. How did you originally get seriously involved with the sport, and how did it happen. What prompted your interest and involvement?

Thank you for that kind introduction. Perhaps we should just stop there before I have a chance to put my foot in my mouth…

I was studying philosophy at Duke and I decided to take a few years off to find God and become a Hippie. It’s sounds funny to say it, as if one has to go somewhere to experience either of those things, but it seemed necessary at the time. So I was teaching yoga in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury and I got a part-time job working at Little People’s Kites, making Mylar dragons and box kites. The owners, Rick Horst and Andy Anderson, were only a couple of years older than me and I liked the vibe of the place. Neil Rose, who now owns Quicksilver Kites, was the manager and he was a master of organization and production systems.

A couple of months earlier, I had met Dinesh Bahadur flying fighter kites down on Fisherman’s Wharf and I was delighted and amazed at the control he had flying such a simple kite. I had built kites as a kid with my father and in the sixth or seventh grade I spent the better part of a year trying to build a circular kite, which I was going to patent and make a lot of money from. My older brother and sister teased me relentlessly but I kept at it. I gave up for a while, but I guess you could say I’m still at it.

Were the line winders and spools your first products for sale to kite enthusiasts? What is it that prompted you to start creating winders and selling them?

So these fighter kites and Mylar kites were totally new in America. It was very exciting to be around them and make them. I wanted to be a part of this new thing so I asked Rick and Andy if they’d let me be their exclusive distributor from the Appalachians to the Rockies and they said yes. In June of 1974 I went down to City Hall and formed Shanti Kites. Then I bought a 1950 Metro Van, basically an old milk truck with a three-foot loft on top, painted the words “Shanti Kites” on back along with a rising sun and an “Om” symbol…and off I went to sell kites to mid America. Along with my girlfriend, three dogs, two cats and this absurd looking truck that was 11 feet 10 inches tall and only went about 40 mph, we were quite a sight.

We stopped in toy stores, did craft fairs, and flew wherever we could to try to sell kites but it was no-going. The oil embargo had just ended and people were tight with their money and here was this hippie with a long pony-tail and bare feet trying to sell a $12 kite when everyone’s concept was that a kite was something you made from butcher paper or at most, spent 49 cents for and the Dime Store. We did a ten-day fair in Davenport, Iowa. It was a big deal, the Mississippi Valley Fair with tens of thousands of visitors and we didn’t sell one kite. One day I dropped the price of a 45-foot Mylar dragon down to $4 and people still said the same thing, “You gotta be kidding. Why would I pay $4 for a kite when I can make one for free?”

Along the way, I realized that we didn’t have any spools to sell with our kites.

Again, our own naiveté and ignorance, was equal to the rest of America. We hadn’t thought about spools even though we knew these kites would not fly well with fat cotton line from the hardware store. When I got back to San Francisco, I told Rick and Andy they could have their exclusive distributorship back but that I wanted to make them spools and line. They agreed.

At the time, there were three or four kite stores in America that I knew about and two of those stores were importing spools from India. One could say it was a small market. But I didn’t need much and I had a lot to learn about manufacturing. I jammed woodworking equipment in my basement, on my front porch, dyed parts in my bathtub and wound spools on my kitchen table. But a year later, there were seven or eight kite stores and by ’76, there were maybe 20. At the same time new companies were springing up, making kites; beautiful, creative, cloth kites…and all of them needed spools. Daniel Prentice – the early days

Since I wasn’t making kites, the kitemakers didn’t see me as competition so they all referred their customers to me for line. That’s how Shanti became focused to lines, spools and winders.

Checking some of the early AKA records, we notice that you are listed as an early 2nd Vice President… Were you involved with the AKA from the onset, or was the organization just something that attracted your attention, and you joined and then got involved? How did that all come about?

I think I joined the AKA in 1975. It was very simple. I sent $5 or maybe $10, I can’t remember, to Bob Ingraham for a subscription to Kite Tales magazine and not only did I get his magazine, but he also sent me a card saying I was an official member of the American Kitefliers Association. Bob was really the guy who deserves the credit for forming the AKA. He intuitively understood that adults needed an AKA card in their wallet to legitimize flying kites. It wasn’t just something for kids.

When Valerie Govig took over Kite Tales she changed the name to Kite Lines and separated the AKA as a stand-alone organization. She was deeply involved with the Maryland Kite Association and that group set the tone for what the AKA would become. Their vision was very different than Bob’s carefree, let’s-fly-kites-and-have-fun attitude. In 1978, with the help of Bill Ochse, Valerie organized the first AKA convention in Ocean City Maryland. That’s where I met Dom Jalbert, Peter Powell and so many of the old-guard kite people. It was a great gathering and very inspiring to learn that this kite craze was going on all over the country.

Red Braswell was elected president and Ted Manikin and I were elected vice-presidents on that first board of directors. My first act as VP was to stand up and ask for a show of hands for how many people in the room made money in the kite business. The whole room booed me. It’s laughable now, but it happened. The general feeling in the room was that making money off kites was somehow a bad thing. But I went ahead and organized a meeting for the next day. There were maybe 20 of us in the room and we talked about the kite business and how we could help each other. That group continued to meet every year and became known as the Kite Trade Committee of the AKA and eventually the KTA, Kite Trade Association.

So – early on – we see you involved in kiting as a sport, and perhaps also as an avocation.

Actually the “sport” aspect of kiting didn’t really start happening until the mid-eighties. Until then it was mostly a craft or hobby activity.

When you first produced products for sale to the kiting public, were you “just meeting a need” or were you planning on making a career as a manufacturer and wholesaler to the sport/industry?

No. I had no idea I was beginning a career as a kite-spool maker. In fact, for the first ten years, anytime anyone asked me about my future, I told them I was planning on going back to school. But as I was “filling the need” I was also learning a craft. I was learning how to work with employees and what it meant to run a company. And the work I was doing fit nicely into the concept of “right livelihood” which is a Buddhist teaching about working in a conscious way. So Shanti wasn’t just about kites, it was an exploration into our relationship with people, the nature of quality and how to find value in whatever we do.

And what’s the story behind the name “Shanti” that has been your Trade Name for many years? Can you enlighten us about the name, please?

“Shanti” is a Sanskrit word which is generally translated as “peace.” While it could mean peace in the world, it’s more generally thought of as “peace of mind” or as written in the Bible, ‘the Peace which passeth understanding.” It is said that repetition of the word Shanti itself, helps to bring a peaceful attitude to one’s being. My thought was that if I named the company Shanti then every time I answered the phone, I would be reminded not to become too materialistic. Of course the joke of this has been that for 37 years virtually everyone in the kiteworld has called the company “shanty” instead of using the “ahhh” sound in Shanti. I can’t tell you how many times people asked me why I named my company after a shack. It still makes me laugh and it reminds me not to take myself too seriously.

Shanti and Kiting Products:

Daniel, over the 36 years Shanti has been in existence, you and your company have created, and made, and sold kiting products to our kiting community. The list seems nearly endless when we think about it. And as far as we know, all of them have been manufactured here in the USA, while nearly all of your competitors have gone to China and elsewhere for their manufacturing.

Rather than single out a single product or a line of products, we think the best way to give Kitelife readers an idea of the scope and magnitude, is to borrow a section off your Shanti website and just display the information found there:

First, a list of the Kite Lines:

  • Speed ™ line, the world’s first Spectra line.
  • Skybond ™ line, the world’s newest HMPE coated competition line.
  • Power ™ line, the world’s leading Kevlar kiteline.
  • Zip ™ line, an innovative hybrid line for beginners.
  • Crazy-8 ™ winders for tangle-free line storage.
  • Hardwood spools and Winders, sold with a lifetime guarantee.
  • Plastic Grip-Light ™ and Spinner ™ spools for recreational use.
  • Patented Sky Claw ™ handles and winders.
  • Patented Adjustable straps.
  • Bulk braided line and more…

Then, the “rest” of the offerings:

  • Sky Pilot ™ Rock n Roll ™ and Airwave ™ and Skywave ™.
  • Chicago Fire ™ Magnum Opus ™, Allegro ™ and Bee(tm) kites.
  • Aerie ™ FX ™, Diablo ™, K-3 ™, and Mystic ™.
  • Sky Zone ™ Skytrain ™, Santana ™ and Zebop ™
  • Sky Lark ™ Deltas, Cubes, Tails and much more…

WHEW! That’s a ton of “kite stuff” Daniel! Now on to questions about a select few of your “line” products…

Please tell us about “Speed” line, and how it came into being. How did you discover Spectra fiber, and tell us what it took to have it manufactured for use as kite lines.

How did you market spectra fiber? Did Shanti do its own distribution? For that matter, these questions apply not just to spectra but to all of the Shanti products. Did Shanti form its own distribution network, or work through wholesalers and distributors?

Thank you for saying that. 37 years is a long time so maybe it’s not so much.

Actually, some of the inventions I’m most proud of, very few people in the kiteworld have ever seen and that would be the machines and jigs that we use to make all these products. I couldn’t go down to the hardware store and buy a machine for winding kite spools so I had to make one. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been very lucky to have this job for so long.

And yes, it’s true that almost everything we’ve sold, since the beginning, has been made in our shop. When everyone started going to China in the nineties, I could read the handwriting on the wall and I toyed with the idea of setting up some production in Mexico or Vietnam. My idea was that I could set up a company where I could control the working conditions, the pay and everything else, but I quickly realized that it wouldn’t work that way. I didn’t like the idea of exploiting people half way around the world so I could make more profit. I didn’t like the idea of telling my employees that had been working for me for ten years that they were being laid-off so I could make more profit. And finally, I didn’t like the idea of not-making our product. One of the great joys of the company was sawing, drilling, sanding and lacquering a piece of maple and turning it into a kite winder. Or cutting up a piece of sail cloth and sewing it into a kite. At Shanti, we make kite products. If we had bought stuff from China, we’d be nothing more than a distributor…kites, shoes, what’s the difference.

That’s all about profit. That’s not what we do.

But you were asking about Speed line…in 1985, I got a call one day from this guy who introduced himself as a consultant working on a project for NASA. He was interested in my kiteline, or my knowledge about making kitelines, in order to make a tether for launching a satellite in space. He made an appointment to fly up from San Diego the next week, which I promptly forgot about until he showed up at my shop. He was the real-deal, a button-down, pens-in-the-pocket, engineer and we had a great couple of hours talking about line construction and spools and how to prevent tangles. At the end of the meeting he opened his briefcase and pulled out an experimental new fiber from Allied Signal called, “Spectra” and asked me if I could braid it into a suitable line for his testing. I said I would in exchange for 300 feet for kite testing. He agreed and that’s how the first Spectra kite line was made, which I then trademarked “Speed” line.

Back then, we were all flying at 150 foot lengths which was why I needed 300 feet. We were into flying Kevlar and at first, the Spectra didn’t seem that much better. A few weeks after I flew it, I let Ron Reich fly it and he liked it but wasn’t terribly impressed. It was a few weeks later when I was out flying in my classically bone-headed style that I flew a kite into 15 or 20 twists and was amazed at the control I still had. There was no way you could do that with Kevlar. Suddenly I realized how great Spectra kiteline was. It was slippery and it didn’t stretch!

Then tell us about your Skybond products… Please mention both the “original” Skybond, and the current, new Skybond product.

Hopefully, everyone reading this knows that if you tie a knot in high-modulus lines like Kevlar or Spectra, you reduce its tensile strength by up to 65%. Back in the late 70’s Steve Edeiken and I were marketing Kevlar whereas everyone else was selling Dacron or even nylon stunt kite lines. Imagine flying on nylon with 30% stretch! Steve’s answer to the breaking problem was to splice loops in the line-ends and my solution was to braid a Dacron cover over a Kevlar core. I called that product “Skybond.” It was fat and bulky but compared to nylon it was great. Somewhere along the way, we figured out that we didn’t have to sleeve the whole line, only the parts that we knotted, so we began ‘pre-sleeving” linesets which was a huge improvement. And when we invented Speed line, Kevlar quickly became taboo and we quit producing Skybond. But I always liked the trademark and in the back of my head I always wanted to reuse the name.

During the years, everybody tried to copy our Speed line and soon there were a bunch of Spectra kitelines on the market. When the fishing industry got into Spectra lines, they liked the low stretch, but not the slipperiness, so they coated their lines. When some of those lines got marketed back into the kite industry a whole generation of flyers got used to flying coated lines. I never understood this because the coated lines had more friction and to me, didn’t seem as good as our Speed line. This was a classic case of an inventor being blind to the marketplace and not listening. Eventually I woke up to the fact that some flyers like coated lines so in 2009 I started working with some chemical engineers to design a coating that would give the line the “feel” flyers liked and still be as slippery as Spectra. We introduced this new line in 2010 and called it Skybond. So far, flyers love it. I tell flyers to put 15 to 20 twists in their lines and then test it. It’s exciting to be able to make this stuff that people like.

Many of us thought it was impossible to buy Kevlar anymore since the U.S. Government and other entities (police) are using so much of it for military purposes. Do you still manufacture and sell the Power line made of Kevlar?

Yep. I never stopped selling Kevlar. I sell it under the trademark “Power” line which is a name a lot of people have tried to rip-off.

And we should probably ask you, does Shanti still produce the Chicago Fire and Aerie kites, or are those kites out of production at this point? We know that Shanti manufactures Deltas, Cubes, and some “line-laundry” products, and also still produce the Shanti line of winders and hoops as well as kite lines, of course.

Well if you recall my original business plan was that I would not make kites so that kite manufacturers would refer line business to me. When kite companies started selling their own spools, I was free to manufacture kites, which was great. In the late eighties, early nineties it was a level playing field, meaning I was competing against other American kitemakers with similar cost structures.

Shanti grew to over 30 employees and we made thousands and thousands of kites, along with everything else.

Somewhere in there, I bought the Chicago Fire Kite Company and the Aerie Kite Company. I still think Eric Wolff and Ken McNeil were two of the best sport kite designers in the world and I was proud to make those kites. Ken is still making great kites at Blue Moon.

But in the mid-nineties, when other kite companies starting taking their production to China, it became harder and harder to compete. Think about this: I could buy finished kites from China cheaper than my cost of raw materials. It was only a matter of time until we had to shut down our production line on kites because few people were willing to pay the price for an American made kite.

That said, yes, I do still make Chicago Fire, Aerie kites and many others. It’s hard to wholesale them and keep the price reasonable, so that’s the one thing I will make and sell direct to flyers. Since I now do all the sewing, it’s mostly during the winter, off-season, that I make kites. In the spring and summer, I concentrate on lines, spools and winders.

Finally, there are a couple of other items that are listed on that one-page “About Shanti” listing that we need to ask about…

The first is an item called the “Voltair Cube.” We’re asking about this one because we’ve never seen one, and are very curious about it. Yes, there’s a brief description in the text, but it is difficult to envision the kite (presumably line-less, from the description) and we would like more complete information, including where-to-buy, where-to-buy-the-kits, or the location of detailed plans. Here’s your chance to tout all of the wonders of the Voltair Cube to the Kitelife readership.

In 2000, I got a call from a man named, Dr. Lance Liotta and he wanted to buy some of my Cube kites. He told me about a patented airplane design he created that flew with no movable control surfaces. He was a brilliant guy, very interesting and by the way, head of cancer research at NIH. So I flew out to meet him and we hit it off immediately and he licensed me to bring his prototype to market. That was my first introduction into RC flying and it was a huge learning curve. It took a year to redesign his prototype but eventually we began production under name Voltair Cube.

Just to get our nomenclature right: A kite flies on a tether. An airplane flies with its own propulsion. And a glider has neither. You might recall that the Wright Brothers were the first people to convert a kite into an airplane. Well in “modern-terms” the Voltair Cube was the first “hobby” kite to be converted into a RC Airplane, at least that I know of. I’ll put some pictures up on the website but basically it was a single propeller mounted in the middle of a Shanti Cube kite. The kicker was that the propeller moved right and left to steer the plane.

Very cool.

I stopped producing the Voltair Cubes commercially because given everything we’ve been talking about, I didn’t have the capital to market into the RC world and the kite industry wasn’t ready for it. Now there’s several large companies promoting what they call “RC Kites” and most of them are some variant of the Voltair Cube. We were just ahead of the curve and in business, as in life…timing is key.

And – to end it all – you also lay claim to something called “Icarex.” Is this the same Icarex that fine kite makers world-wide are using as their polyester fabric of choice for sails? Why is it that we do not readily know that Daniel Prentice of Shanti is responsible for that fabric? Honestly – we had NO idea that was one of your babies! Bravo, Sir! We have to compliment you very highly on that effort, but we feel sad that we did not know that the creation of Icarex was your doing! For all kite builders and kite pilots everywhere, Thank You VERY MUCH!

Thank you. I lived on a sailboat in San Francisco Bay for three or four years and I got to wondering one day why all my sails were made of polyester and yet my kites were made out of nylon. I did some research and found a company in Japan that was making a very fine ripstop polyester cloth, so in ’92 I flew over to talk to them. Polyester only stretches half as much as nylon which makes it good for kiteline but makes it very hard to weave, because if you over-tension it, the fibers break in the loom and create flaws in the fabric. There weren’t any American companies who could work with this material.

I met with some third-generation silk weavers who were able to weave these small denier polyester yarns because silk is also fragile. Then I met with a chemical company that could give the cloth a “hard” coating which reduced stretch on the bias. Kite people now associate this hard finish with polyester, but we could have made it soft and flowing. The goal was to make a cloth that would hold its shape and could be put under a great deal of tension. After three days of touring around, I found myself sitting a boardroom with about 15 Japanese businessmen telling them that this new cloth would revolutionize the kite industry but that we needed to produce 15 to 25 new colors and it was all big fun, until they politely asked the question, “How much would you like to order?” It’s embarrassing to admit, but in typical Daniel fashion, I hadn’t really researched this basic question. Did I mention I wasn’t much of a business man? So I said, “How about 100,000 yards?” They smiled and I was in the fabric business.

This was a product that we timed right. The industry was ready for it and I went to some friends in Europe and offered them the opportunity to help me introduce Icarex to the kite industry and together we made it happen. Working with other people was the key.

You ask me these questions, in a very flattering way and my ego loves it.

Did I make this or did I invent that? And in an external way, the answer is yes.

But in an internal way, the answer is no. Each one of these products, inventions, ideas, whatever…came from somewhere else. I can trace the inspiration for each one back to somebody else, or some event, or waking up in the middle of the night with an idea; so there’s a part of me that wants to say, no I didn’t do any of this. Psychologists talk about this as the “impostor syndrome.” Buddhists talk about it as the “interdependence of all things.” My actions are only a reflection of life around me.

In business, it’s very simple…if you made a profit you succeeded. If not, you failed. That’s why many people love business and other people resent it. Was the Voltair Cube a success or a failure? From a business point of view it was a failure. But from my point of view it was a great success; it taught me a great deal and others were inspired by it to do other things. Timing is critical in how we perceive these things. I was lucky enough to be in San Francisco in 1974 when the kite industry was being born in America and my life’s conditioning allowed me to interact with this phenomena and Shanti Kites was born. Simple.

That’s quite a story Daniel, and being the kite enthusiasts that we are, it’s been incredibly interesting reading about your many involvements in the kiting industry, and especially how you found yourself in the business.

We’re most grateful to you for taking the time to speak with us and are very much looking forward to part two of this interview in our next issue where we’ll step out of industry discussion and learn more about your community-based endevours like American Kite Magazine, the national competition circuit that came out of that, and of course, the World Cup.

Until then, namaste… See you again in June.

View Part 2 of the interview!