Editor's note: Snowboard pioneer Jake Burton Carpenter died yesterday at the age of 65. To celebrate the life of this iconic entrepreneur, Inc. is resurfacing this 2014 interview with contributing writer Liz Welch.
Carpenter was 14 when he got a Snurfer, the first snow surfboard. It became such an obsession that 10 years and 100 prototypes later, Carpenter produced the Burton Backhill, one of the first snowboards. (He figured Burton was a better brand name than Carpenter.) That was in 1977, and Carpenter thought he would get rich quickly selling these boards. The same year, he opened Burton Boards in southern Vermont, expecting to sell 50 boards a day. Instead, he sold 300 his first year.
Snowboarding was just a backyard hobby back then, but Carpenter slowly built his favorite pastime into a real business. Today, snowboarding is an Olympic sport, and Carpenter's Burlington, Vermont, company, which he co-owns with his wife, Donna, remains the industry leader--with five international offices and 845 employees. (The company wouldn't reveal financials.) Carpenter, 59, explains how he pulled it off and what he has learned along the way.
As a teenager, I loved my Snurfer and knew there was a sport developing there. But I wanted to make a better board, so I tried all different types of constructions--water ski, surfboard, skateboard. It took almost a year to develop the final product and another year trying to get people to buy it. That was the loneliest and toughest time. People were like, A skateboard for the snow? Hardly anyone had heard of snowboarding. It was borderline embarrassing. I was a punky kid, and my dad, who was always in my corner, said that I never finished anything. That was it. I wanted to prove him wrong.
My second year out, I hit rock bottom financially. I was taking my boards door to door like Willy Loman, but no one was buying. I remember one trip when I loaded my station wagon with 35 boards and came back with 37 because one of the shop owners returned two he had previously bought. It was depressing. So I decided to stop worrying about immediate profitability and focused instead on cultivating the sport itself. I don't know if that was luck or timing or foresight, but that's what I did then and have done ever since.
We started sponsoring the world's best snowboarders in 1981. Craig Kelly [who died in 2003] was among them and taught me the importance of listening. At first, I made all the decisions--from the graphics to snowboard design and everything else. But Craig got the point across that snowboarders, who are on the snow 200 days a year, have important opinions, too. Every year, I host a roundtable where I bring in six or seven men and an equal number of women from our team, and we go through every product in the entire line. It takes a whole week, but it's crucial to making the best possible products.
The first people I hired were two relatives and friends. That was a mistake. I didn't know how to manage people then--that skill comes with experience. What I've learned is that from the very beginning, you need to surround yourself with people who are different from you and who complement you. Do not hire your spitting image--or people you like. I did, and that failed for me. After that, I started hiring high school kids on a part-time basis. They lived and breathed snowboarding, and a couple of them went on to become world champions. Through them, I learned more about the sport and the market than I knew possible. That turned out to be a brilliant move, because they understood the market differently than I did.
At a Glance
We have 35 percent-plus market share in a youth-driven sport, which is not easy to maintain. People want variety and individuality, but they always come back to our brand because we're so focused on product. We invest way more than anyone else in research and development because we have to continue to make the best product out there. The minute we get beat on an innovation or make a mistake on quality, we lose our lead. Most of our competitors look at what we're doing and try to do it better. We don't have that luxury. We have to always be coming up with new ideas. That is a burden and challenge, but you can never let go of that ambition if you want to maintain that leadership position.
We started out with snowboards. But then it became clear that people needed specific footwear for them. So we got into boots. And then we started making jackets, and then more technical waterproof outerwear. I pushed product extension. There were naysayers and purists who would say, "We can't make long underwear!" I'd counter, "Yeah, we can!" I realized that there was no room for conservative thinking if you want to lead a successful company.
I learned the hard way that you cannot presume anything is going to work well. You have to think through every possible failure and test the hell out of products. We released a board with binding that fell out when you were on the slopes. We had not tested them properly, and that was a catastrophic mistake. When you are out there in the freezing cold and something breaks, it is a real letdown. Our mantra is to assume the product will fail--and then make sure it does not.
I snowboard 100 days a year. That's my first goal as a CEO: to stay connected to and be part of the sport. When I come back from snowboarding, I come back to the office amped up and infused with energy. It's also where I get my best ideas.