Despite some early missteps, Jake Burton's snowboarding company became a household name. But a mysterious disease almost took him off the slopes for good. --As told to Liz Welch
When I started Burton Snowboards, it was a get-rich-quick scheme. I thought, "If I can make 50 snowboards a day, I can make $100,000 a year." I hired two relatives and a friend--classic mistakes. I sold only 300 boards that first year. I had to lay everybody off and go back to square one. Eventually, I was like, "Fuck it. I don't care about the money. I just want to have been right about my vision." When I started living just for the sport, everything fell into place.
I got hit by a skier once, which broke my leg. Then I hit a tree and broke my leg again. In February 2015, I got my knee replaced. I had the surgery, and then took a run three weeks later. I needed to prove to myself I could do it.
A few days later, I started seeing double. The next day, I felt flulike symptoms and went to the hospital for an MRI. The neurologist thought it might be a stroke. After more tests with a different set of doctors, they said, "If it's what we think it is, tomorrow you won't be able to swallow, the next day you won't be able to open your eyes, and the next day you won't be able to breathe."
I didn't believe it. But they had me try to blow these stupid little Ping-Pong balls up a tube, and I couldn't move the Ping-Pong ball.
The diagnosis was Miller Fisher, the gnarliest form of Guillain-Barré. The myelin sheath around your nerves gets damaged. No one knows what caused it--a flu shot, the surgery, a bad oyster.
At first, it was, "OK, I'm sick. I'll be missing this meeting or whatever." But I spiraled down quickly. On the third day, they jammed tubes down my throat. People would visit and walk out crying.
Part of the disease is confusion. I couldn't open my eyes, but I also couldn't sleep. When I did sleep, the nightmares were horrific. Breathing was the worst: I could never get enough air. All my life, I had had the lungs of a swimmer. Now I was putting all my energy into getting the next breath.
I literally talked to my middle kid about suicide. I was just so over it. One day, my doctor asked, "Are you suicidal?" Remember that German plane, where one guy went to take a piss and the other guy locked the door and drove the plane into the mountain and killed 150 people? I was paralyzed except for my right hand, so I scribbled, "Yeah, possibly--but I'm not going to take 150 people with me."
The middle finger is our unofficial signature at Burton. (A snowboarder did it in one of our catalogs and it stuck.) When my wife, Donna, told the company how sick I was, everyone gathered for a portrait with middle fingers up. That photo hung in my hospital room. It was my guiding light.
After seven weeks in the hospital, I was transferred to rehab. I still had a tracheotomy, and couldn't walk. When I was finally sent home six weeks later, I was 135 pounds, down from 175. I had a speech therapist, an occupational therapist, an acupuncturist, and a trainer--all to start talking and walking again.
Donna became CEO in 2016. I'm still a product manager. I love it. I'm back to snowboarding 100 days a year. We get riders together and go somewhere to test every product in the line. That keeps me in touch.
Donna's taught me to think differently, for sure. When I first heard about paternity leave, I almost fell off my chair. I didn't even get it. I've become much more open-minded. I'm better at communicating. And my tolerance for bullshit is at an all-time low. I can see through it. Like, "Buddy, I've stared down death. I've seen worse than your shit."
The company has a sense of irreverence, but we've always been fiscally responsible. Being privately held has been such an incredible edge. Donna and I own 100 percent of the company. We don't have some analyst looking over our shoulder. If we did, I'd be fired, for sure. Gone. And I shouldn't be gone. I should be right where I am.