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I was fortunate enough back in the 1990s to briefly share a house in Whistler with Dave Lee, where he coached at the Camp of Champions for many summers. I say "fortunate" because this was an era when a lot of riders, both pros and wannabes, were trying way too hard to be either gangsters or rock stars and Lee and his fellow Seattle pros seemed like the exact opposite: mellow, humble, down-to-earth and smiling all the time instead of scowling or throwing vibes. A chair ride or coffee with him always made your day a little happier.
Lee's current success with Signal Snowboards, one of the few brands actually building their boards here in the good ol' USA, is no surprise to anyone who's met the man. The snowboard industry has certainly taken notice, as have mainstream outlets such as Entrepreneur, Wired and Gizmodo.
Through Signal's groundbreaking web series, Every Third Thursday, we get to watch Lee and his crew building ridiculous-yet-functional concept boards every month (see above).
In some ways, Signal is a natural outgrowth of Lee's long involvement in snowboarding. Before he turned pro in '93, he was a factory employee at Mervin Manufacturing which, he says, "definitely led to my comfort in building the Signal factory." A nasty back injury slowed down his pro career for a season in '98, and that led to an opportunity to start Supernatural, a boutique Mervin brand that lasted until 2003 and left him wanting more:
"In 1997 I started dreaming of owning my own company," explains Lee. "I knew pro riding wasn't going to last forever and Mike McEntire [Mack Dawg] was always telling me that the pro snowboard scene was a meat grinder and I should save my money and always be looking ahead. Some of the best advice I've ever got back then."
Read on and find out why it matters that snowboarding still be in creative hands such as Lee's.
|Can your company owner still bust with style? Lee can...|
It's high time that this sport evolve. When you open up peoples' minds to new ideas, good things can happen.”
What's funny about the whole thing is now our whole R&D department is pretty much viewable online every month. I'm super happy about this as it's high time that this sport evolve. When you open up peoples' minds to new ideas, good things can happen.
Have you been surprised at the success of ETT? How does Signal gauge that success?
Definitely. This show has completely transformed our brand. Not just in sales or bottom line, but inspiration from top to bottom as a snowboard brand. Internally, we find ourselves measuring its success by how much fun we're having. Our YouTube channel does really well and our reach through Facebook and Twitter has become pretty intense for [a brand our size]. It's exciting times over here and the little write-ups in Wired, Entrepreneur, along with spots on channels like Gizmodo and Discovery Channel don't hurt either.
Why do you care about "making the factory cool again" -- i.e. what's been lost now that most boards go from napkin to Mac to China and then get shipped back again in containers packed with baby toys and Aeropostale T-shirts?
It's not so much making the factory cool, but showcasing that it's okay to work hard, get your hands dirty and build something meaningful. I'm a huge fan of the more humble approach to business and the community that snowboarding opened my eyes up to as a young rider. I like connecting people and bringing ideas together. A "rising tide lifts all boats" mentality.
Do you worry that the outlandish creations of ETT might label Signal as a wacky factory or, like, more sizzle than steak?
Not at all. We're having fun and I think most people feel that. I've been completely surprised by the positive reaction from people in our industry.
|Dave Lee believes in graphic honesty and Every Third Thursday pretty much puts Signal's entire R&D department in public view each month. Risk meets reward.|
I know you barf in your mouth a little when you refer to Signal as "a lifestyle brand" but how has this played out in reality?
We take that to heart! We always said snowboarding is something we do, but it is all of our passions in life that make us who we are. Art, music, travel, family -- we wrap it all up in ol' Signal. I think it's played out well for us.
What is a "tastemaker" to you and do you think of yourself as one?
A tastemaker is typically someone who finds or makes something cool or popular. I don't know if I see myself as one … I feel that's a term which is well used when talking about someone other than yourself. More of an outsider's view on another's accomplishments. Having said that, I do give us all credit and believe what we are doing has meaning and is important and I love seeing people get behind it.
Who are a few tastemakers you admire within snowboarding?
Wooly [Richard Woolcott] at Volcom. I happened to be around in '91 when they started the company. I feel he's been able to keep the core values strong there throughout all the changes they've been through over the years. Terje Haakonsen: his commitment and confidence to be on top for so long and do it with such style.