Interview by AJ Daulerio
Archival images courtesy of Burton Snowboards
Sports like baseball and football can trace their roots back for centuries. From there, so many people contributed to the games’ growth, all pitching in a little something to get it to its current “professional” status. But take into account snowboarding’s popularity, age, and the number of pioneers involved, and it’s an anomaly.
Snowboarding—or at least the pastime of riding a plank down a snowy slope—goes back to the 1920s. The Snurfer, invented by an engineer named Sherman Poppen, came 40 years later. It was a slight upgrade from a plain-old wood board, so the equipment still had leaps and bounds to grow. The accompanying sport and culture had yet to appear.
From that point, instead of being nurtured by countless practitioners and evolving at a slow and steady pace, snowboarding skyrocketed in popularity, it’s growth aided by a very few. One man in particular helped take snowboarding from hilltop hobby to Olympic sport in just over two decades.
Jake Burton founded Burton Snowboards in 1977 and didn’t look back…often. He was gracious enough to speak candidly about what it takes to pioneer a product, start a successful company, and inspire a global culture.
When you first started Burton Snowboards, did you have any inclination that it was going to be as successful as it has become? What was the goal initially?
When I started out it was kind of a get-rich-quick scheme. I’d just finished college and I didn’t have this vision that the sport would be anything like what it’s become, but I thought that there was something there and I could probably make some dough doing it. It was so tough in the beginning, making all those prototypes. I was a loser in shop class, and I was trying to figure out how to make something. Production? I didn’t know.
You had no background in carpentry?
No, I was not very good with my hands.
And how have you dealt with making mistakes over the years?
It’s been pretty perpetual dealing with that. But we were pretty much there first, so that gives you the opportunity to make some mistakes along the way. The most important thing is learning from mistakes—not making them twice. That’s what we’ve been good at.
A mistake I remember early on was with board inserts. At first we made all of our own boards out of wood here in Vermont, and then we started getting them made in Austria. We still work with the same factory there. It’s a super cool spot. But there were inserts that hold the bindings, and every insert ripped out of every board. We thought we’d tested it, but obviously it was a Murphy’s Law thing. With developing product, you change anything or tweak anything and the ramifications are incredible. That was just hell to live through, because people would get their snowboard and go out for their first run and the thing would basically blow up on them. The company was super small at the time. It was something we lived through, but never did it again.
Did you ever feel overwhelmed by the business?
Oh yeah, especially in the early days when we were like doubling every year. It was a little bit like a runaway horse or something—it was tough to keep up with.
And did you ever think of getting out early on?
Out of the business? Yeah, I thought about bailing in the very beginning. It was just so gnarly getting the whole thing going. Probably six months after I first got started, before I had production boards, I was just motivating myself to get out of bed. As I said, I wasn’t good with my hands, and to make these prototypes, it was tough. I can remember going on planes to test some product or see a potential supplier, and people would ask me what I did and I’d just make something up because I didn’t want to try and explain what I was up to.
What did you tell them?
I worked in New York City for a little investment-type company during my senior year at NYU and right after I graduated for a couple of months before I started Burton, so I’d just tie it back to that.
Was there ever a point in your life where you wanted to work for somebody else?
There have been times where it’s been very lonely, especially earlier on, where I sort of missed working for somebody, getting a pat on the back and that camaraderie stuff. But the camaraderie, I’ve got that in spades now. I’ve got so many friends that work here. I’ve gotten so accustomed to working for myself and motivating myself.
When you started out, were you your own sales team?
Yeah, I was like the traveling salesman in the beginning. I had some people help me out. We would make boards and I would load up my station wagon and go out and visit shops. Once I went on a trip—I had like 35 boards loaded up in boxes in the back of the car—and I went out to try to sell them, and I came back with more than I’d left with! One shop where I’d sold boards before said, “They aren’t gonna move. Take them back.”
So early on, the salesman thing was part of what I had to do, and I wasn’t particularly good at it, and I didn’t really enjoy it, but it’s always been part of the game. Since then I’ve been blessed with good people doing that, who are fun to work with. Obviously I take interest in it, but it’s just not in my skill set.
How many people did you hire within the first year?
When I got started I had these illusions of the whole thing taking off really quickly. I don’t know if you’d call it a business plan, but I sort of figured out, “If we can make 50 boards a day, then I can make like 100 grand a year.” So I hired two relatives and a friend—kind of a mistake—and we all worked our asses off. We had this little factory and we were making 50 boards a day, but the problem was [that] in the first year we only sold 300, so that was like six days of production! I had to let go of those three people and dial it back to really just myself for the rest of the year. Then the following year I had one high school kid helping out part time, because the boards were already made. They’d been made the year before. We sold 700 boards that year. I can remember shipping out 700 boards. You know, when numbers start doubling they can get pretty big pretty fast.
When you started out, did you have seed money or something like that?
I had my own landscaping business in college, so I had some dough from that. My mother died when I was like 17 years old, so when my grandmother passed away, just before I started the company, I inherited some money there that would have gone to my mother. So all told I had like 100 grand. I burned through it all in the process of just getting the company off the ground.
How much did you pay yourself initially?
I didn’t pay myself jack. I didn’t pay myself for a long time. That just wasn’t in the cards. What became more important to me than the money was the right idea, that there was a sport there. And once I got focused on that, everything started to connect and work out. Obviously the money came in over the long haul, but it took a long time.
How long did it take?
It probably took about ten years before I was making any kind of a salary to speak of.
Did you ever take on debt?
Yeah, having debt, until probably the last ten years, has always been part of it. And even now, because we ship products to dealers in July, August, September, and they don’t pay us until like December or January. So we need working capital. It’s not long-term money, we’ve got all our equipment paid for. There’s no long-term debt associated with the company. But short-term it’s always been an issue. Back in the early days, I needed dough and I’d hook up with a Vermont bank. I went through three or four different banks. I would always pay everything off on time, I was a super good customer from that perspective but after a year or two they’d be like, “Okay, this is enough of this!” They thought it was so trendy and they were sure that snowboarding was this fad that was going to come and go. They would get nervous, so we just kept going to bigger and bigger banks, and eventually got out of state and now we work with pretty big national guys.
Were you influenced by anyone else’s business model?
I used to look up to local people. CB Sports was a company in Vermont that made outerwear when we were first getting going. Then all of a sudden we got bigger than them. I looked up to a lot of people that sort of crashed and burned. I’m not into reading business books and stuff like that about Steve Jobs or whatever. My wife reads a lot of that stuff and is sort of a student by nature, and she fills me in on a lot of it. But I feel like it’s just better to follow your gut.
And your wife’s worked with you the whole time, right?
Yeah. I started the company in ’77 and then we met like ’8, ’82. She’s done all different stuff, whatever needed to be done, pretty much right from the day we met.
Are you involved in the minutiae of the company?
I am pretty detail oriented, but more specifically when it comes to product. There are areas that I get into when it comes to product, and there are areas where I delegate. And I delegate a lot, but I think that people appreciate when I get into the product, because they know I give a shit. That works out. My interest has pretty much always been in product and marketing, and that’s what the company’s about. Sales is incredibly important, and the whole operational-finance side of things gets more important every day, but what the company got built on was the product and marketing.
When did you realize you had the ability to make decisions quickly?
I think it’s always been in my nature to make decisions quickly. Probably when I was a kid I would make them too quickly—like any kid. It gets tough. There are decisions that are challenging and you’ve got to think them over and figure them out. You can’t just sit there and think about it all day, you’ve gotta bust a move. I think I get that.
What’s the longest you wait to make a big decision?
If it’s a bigger decision, like changing the interface on a product, it’s something that you want to make sure you get a lot of opinions on, and sometimes that can go on for months. The going back and forth is what tends to screw up companies and take away people’s motivation. As long as you’re making a decision, if you’re in the process of getting more information to make that decision, that’s good. But if you’re going back and forth, you’re kinda screwed.
Do you pay attention to what your competition is doing?
I’m sure there are people here who are very aware of what our competition is up to, but my style, and I think the style of the whole company, is to lead, and lead through innovative design and good R&D. That’s what we’re all about and definitely what I’m all about.
Who’s your ideal employee?
The ideal employee is somebody that’s as passionate about the sport as I am, smart, capable, competitive, and driven. If they love to ride and they’re good at developing product or selling product or whatever the heck they’re doing here, and they live it…no issues.
Do all of your employees snowboard?
There are people who don’t, but there aren’t too many. People work pretty hard here, and it seems like snowboarding is the way we all get our energy back. If we go out for a day of riding, it’s that much easier for us to go into the office and work late and get stuff done. So by and large it makes it a lot easier for you to work here if you do ride. And a lot of the benefits are built around riding, too. You get a free season pass and stuff like that.
There are a lot of dogs in the office.
I always felt that dogs have a calming influence on people, so I’ve had an open door policy for dogs all along. I know they sort of bring your heart rate down and make things mellower. People are really good about taking care of them.
Who’s the most impressive person you’ve met as the company’s evolved and you’ve had a chance to interact with people?
Probably Craig Kelly, who was the best snowboarder in the world. He’s since passed. He died in an avalanche. Really tragic, he was a very careful guy, it was just super bad luck. He taught me so much about listening to people, and that’s ultimately what the company was built on and how we distance ourselves from our competition: the ability to talk to riders—team riders in particular—and decipher what they’re talking about and get their feedback and incorporate it into better and better product. He was the best snowboarder in the world for a long time, but he was sort of an engineer by nature. He was a really interesting dude, and he taught me so much.
At what point did you realize the sport had exploded?
It wasn’t like an overnight internet-type thing. It just grew. The company doubled for 15 years in a row. Then obviously it got to the size where it couldn’t keep doubling. It continued to grow, but not at the same pace. But there was no big moment, which is kind of good. I’m glad that it didn’t happen overnight. I don’t know how these companies deal with it. We grew fast enough. But we have a seasonal thing going and it happens at wintertime, so you’ve got all of spring, summer, and fall to get ready for the next year. The growth and the pace that it happened at was pretty much perfect.
Do you consider yourself an ambassador for the sport?
In our position, we’ve got power, maybe, for lack of a better word. We’ve got a fair amount of that, and I exercise it in any way I can to look out for snowboarding, whether it’s in the Olympics or trying to drive participation for the sport, whatever we can possibly do. I’m pretty focused on that.
What kind of impact does somebody like Shaun White have on business? Is it like Jordan and the NBA?
Somebody like Shaun is great for business. Primarily because the guy’s having fun doing what he’s doing. If he had this sour look on his face and looked like he wasn’t feeling it, I don’t think he’d do anything for the sport. But people can see that the kid is having a good time and he’s passionate about what he’s doing. Even if there was no money in the sport you know he’d be out shredding. And that in and of itself helps sell the sport, even though the stuff he’s doing is so unapproachable. It’s something that people can’t even dream about doing themselves. I think he’s still emblematic of the sport in a very positive way.
What would you say is bad for the sport?
What can be bad for the sport is people who are making decisions about it but don’t live it or do it—people that are in for a quick buck. There have been a lot of people that have come and gone from the industry, but I think it’s a pretty solid group of people in there right now. The people that are passionate about the sport and passionate about having fun are the ones who have really survived.
Is snowboarding culture closer to surfing or skiing?
Snowboarding is way closer to surfing than skiing. I mean, it’s a board sport, right? And board sports, whether it’s skateboarding or snowboarding, all go back to surfing. And it’s so weird, because surfing’s kind of the weirdest one of them all. It’s like these waves out in the ocean and you’ve gotta paddle and catch them. Whoever thought that up, it seems like it’s more complex than snowboarding or skateboarding. But it’s cool that everything kind of goes back to surfing. When you’re snowboarding, you’re definitely surfing down a mountain.
Why did you choose Vermont as your base of operations?
I was living in New York and I wanted to start making snowboards. As a kid I’d come up here and ski, so it was like, “I’m just gonna go to Vermont.” I didn’t necessarily intend on moving here for the rest of my life when I came here, but it just felt like the natural place to go to start making prototypes. It feels so comfortable living in this state now. Everything about it: the mountains, the vibe, the politics…it’s all pretty cool here.
Do you think you could ever live in a city again?
I went to school in New York. I lived there for a long time. I love all cities, but more to visit than to really hang my hat.
Do you plan on doing this forever?
This is pretty much my life. It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time, something I’m really passionate about. I still ride 100 days a year. As long as I am doing that and getting in snow and living the sport, then I’ll feel pretty comfortable that I’ve got the skills to handle the job.