How to start your own skateboard company
Throughout skateboarding's history, some of the best skaters (Ed Templeton, Rick Howard, Andrew Reynolds) have started some of the best companies (Toy Machine, Girl, Baker). We tend to take it for granted, but it's a remarkable feat. Often lacking high school diplomas -- let alone MBAs -- these literal "self-starters" are nothing less than highly successful, entirely self-taught, entrepreneurs. Like skateboarding itself, it's the American dream.
And it lives on. Within the last couple years newer board brands like 3-D, FA, Bianca Chandon and Primitive have been popping out of the ground like maple tree saplings. (Most decks are made of maple.) But just how difficult is it to start your own skateboard company?
We contacted a distinguished panel comprised of Paul Rodriguez, who recently started Primitive, Brian Anderson, who recently started 3-D, Chris Cole, who recently left longtime sponsor Zero and has been independently releasing limited edition boards, and Pat "Sinner" Pasquale, co-owner with Nick Trapasso, of Life Extention, to find out. By the end of the tutorial, we were equipped with the knowledge to do what any self-respecting entrepreneur would do: Make a list.
Here are 12 key managerial concepts and sound business principles that can help keep your new skate company rolling.
BEFRIEND THE BORING
Since starting his board brand Primitive in April, Rodriguez has gotten into details, details, details. "I've had a lot of fun learning how the nuances of balances and cash flow work and [more about] the relationship between retailer and manufacturer," he said. "When I was younger I was not as interested in learning the minutiae of the business. But now it feels good learning it. And I realize how businesses I thought were really cool as a kid went out of business because they didn't pay attention to the boring stuff." In short: sweat the small stuff.
"It's really important to have diversity," Anderson, owner of the boutique board company 3-D, said. "Some big places like Active and Zumiez will want certain boards. And I try and do some artsy stuff with places like Supreme too. It's all about variety. Some shops are heavy metal. Some shops are sporty. It's actually really hard to create diversity and not compromise your integrity. I feel like I'm alright at that." Apparently this strategy paid off. In January, Justin Bieber purchased a skateboard from a Miami shop. Brand of choice: 3-D.
Some say skateboarding has been consolidated by big contests and recent team upsets, but several upstarts are ringing in a new crop of independent skateboard brands. Whether they hail from Los Angeles, New York City streets, or from "across the pond," these brands all share a mission to support their local communities and celebrate skateboarding. Alex Olson, son of skateboarding legend Steve Olson, was born to make waves and has done just that by leaving Girl Skateboards to start his own company. "The reason why I wanted to start my own brand is that I was simply sick of seeing the same thing repeated over and over in companies. I want a company that's small, yet expressive and experimental. I don't want to say too much about the company, but we're going to be working with different people to make different things. For me, it's all about bringing in different artists from other cultures, who know nothing about the brand, and making something unique and different," Olson explains.
"When I was younger I admired people like Bruce Lee. Now it's people like Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla," said Rodriguez, who's become an avid fan of entrepreneurial-themed reality shows. "I'll see interviews and read how he puts everything on the line -- even his own personal fortune. I'm obviously on a really small scale. That still inspires me."
BUT ALWAYS THANK YOUR JANITOR
"My dad would always hold a door for an old lady," Anderson said. "He would do it without telling me to do it. Something I heard a long time ago is, 'Make sure and thank your janitor.' No matter how huge your empire-building gets, remember the people who help keep it clean and do all these small things for you -- just thank them, you know? It's something my father instilled in me."
FATHER TIME IS AN ABUSIVE PARENT
Chris Cole's departure from longtime sponsor Zero was front-page news in the skateboarding industry and gave rise to speculation he would establish his own board brand. But Cole -- a consummate professional with a plethora of potential suitors -- appears to be in no rush.
"Number one [starting a skateboarding company] is time consuming," said Cole. "And it's a risk. It's an investment of time and money. And a lot of time. And a lot of money. If it doesn't work out -- if you're a well-known person -- that's a blemish on your record. And if you're a professional skateboarder, you also don't want to have your time taken away from skateboarding. You don't want that to suffer. It will be a pretty bad scenario if you're not skating to run this company. And then the company doesn't work out. Now you've really shot yourself in the foot because you kind of screwed yourself in the skateboarding department and the board company didn't work. That's a pretty huge bummer. That is what I would warn people about."
By releasing a limited edition pro model board ("The Blackout") directly through his website, Cole avoided many of these potential pitfalls while carefully planning the next chapter in a storied career.
YOU CAN DO BUSINESS WITH (SOME) FRIENDS
"Luckily I am very, very fortunate to have Brad," Anderson said of longtime friend and business partner Brad Staba, whose Big Time Distribution company houses 3D and Staba's company Skate Mental. "He and his lady work on the distribution end and do the books -- which is lucky because I'm still very much a skateboarder. In the beginning, Brad and I would work together for 12 days in a row and get graphics done, get packaging done for the bolts, and sit there with rulers measuring cardboard. I mean, yeah: I'm trying to film a video part for Nike. And I'm going on Fourstar tours. And I'm designing a shoe and doing graphics. And I'm jumping down stairs. And I have a dog."
FULFILL THE DREAM
Cole points out that successful board companies are always more than the sum of their parts. The successful brand is not merely a purveyor of hard goods. To use a marketing cliché they "tell a story." "Look at what your idea is," counseled Cole. "Is that idea unspoken for on the skate-deck wall? Is that something people want and can't get? Because the market is saturated. Companies are going out of business, partially because they need to start selling boards for $10.00 more than they are. They've been $50.00 since the dawn of time. It's tricky. The companies that are doing well have somebody at the helm who is really forward-thinking or is changing with the times. They've got a keen eye for that. Think back to the brands that were really hot for a while and you loved. What did they do? Why were they so iconic? There was a grouping of extremely influential skaters pushing the envelope and being new and exciting and rad and they were all on one team. And it was just right, right at that right time. The right image. They just nailed it. So like, what's in your image that's not nailing it? Are you lightning in a bottle? Or are you another drop in the bucket? Having a team, that's just like, 'This is the only team that I can afford is probably not going to cut it.'"
IT'S NOT JUST A TOILET, IT'S A STEPPING STONE
Chris Cole's work ethic is the stuff of legend. "It comes from liking my job," he said. But Cole said humble origins also helped forge his notoriously dogged approach to skating. "The dudes I skated with, a lot of them came from the lower-income homes and just kept grinding away," he said. (Ever the overachiever, Cole even gives one of the best interviews in the industry. It's relatively rare for a professional skater to offer an incisive critique of contemporary American culture, as he does so here: "Even when I was a kid I thought about how people came to this country for opportunity," said Cole. "They grinded away to make a living for their family. I feel like in a lot of ways that ethic is lost. We praise bad-behavior on TV. Like, 'This person is a trainwreck, let's watch it on TV.' Now people want to be paid, and they want to be paid a lot, for nothing. There are things that irk me and self-entitlement is probably the biggest.")
And here's an even more important lesson in humility.
"My good friend Chad was cleaning toilets for a living in Alabama," recalled Cole. "And his Dad said, 'Well, you make sure you clean the toilets the best they can possibly be cleaned. Clean them better than the next guy and you won't be cleaning toilets for very long.' That's pretty true."
GET A LAWYER, NO JOKE
Lawyer jokes are a dime a dozen. But even skateboarding's DIY ethos has its outer limits. For example, Pat "Sinner" Pasquale -- co-owner of Life Extention -- sought out an attorney in part to copyright "Life Extention." The spelling of which is deliberate. "One of our buddy's sisters is a lawyer," Pasquale said. "You send the lawyer the logo. Then she sends it in to the State. Then it's official. [We] got a certificate in the mail. It's pretty simple, man. It's like a gnarly trick -- once you decide to do it, it's not that scary."
"I guess I just hate math," Pasquale said. "We have an accountant, but I definitely have to do some of the numbers myself. It's not really complicated. Just keep the numbers in your head." Fun Fact: The board company Sk8 Mafia shares an accountant with Life Extention. "That's a good dude, right there," Pasquale said. "The Sk8mafia homie, he went to college to do all that stuff."
WILL THE BOARD BRAND DISAPPEAR? YEAH, RIGHT
Though as a whole, board brands are not as dominant as they once were, they remain essential to skateboarding culture. "They have something that you can rally behind," said Cole. "That's why a board company, as a team, is something rad. Kids buy the shirt of that team, instead of just one person. You know the whole team is what they like to associate with. They are providing people with something to identify with, like a band. People wear a band t-shirt so that people know what they're about."
THERE'S ALWAYS MONTANA
"If tomorrow morning, I had to move to Montana and go live in the woods, I wouldn't care," Anderson said. "I don't think about material things that much. If it all ended tomorrow, I'd just live. If I had to go to war, I'd go to war. If I had to work at McDonalds, I'd work at McDonalds. I don't care. I just go. Right now I know I'm being a good skateboarder and a good company owner. But those are just little things. You can't let them mess with your head."