New brands pop up on the radar all the time if you pay attention to that sort of thing. When Echelon popped on my radar it was intriguing to say the least due to the abundance of technology and thought going into the products. Hype was building amongst the masses of readers that follow this and I knew it was time to dive into the interview world and see what they were all about. Don Engel one of the founders and owners was awesome enough to spend the better part of this fall answering emails with me to make this interview happen. Here’s what he had to say on what possibly could be the longest interview I’ve ever done.
AS: How and where did the idea come from to start a snowboard company in this economy in a market that already has an abundance of brands?
Don Engel: The idea to start Echelon came a few years ago, really, but like anything worthwhile it takes time to do things right. My partner and I own a defense contracting firm. As you might imagine, that line of work gets pretty intense, and we were looking to apply our engineering, integration, and technical know-how to a non-military industry. I showed some sketches of products and plans to him that I had done over the past couple years and he was all-in. Since we both really enjoy riding, it just turns out that it’s fun for us too! I’ve been trying to get to the point where I could start my own action-sports company for over two decades. Echelon is an attempt to put those two decades of thinking into tangible products.
As for the economy, there’s different ways to approach the “gloom and doom”. In any economy – even a challenging one – there’s both adversity and opportunity. On the adversity side, you need to really watch your costs (while spending enough to be relevant). Arranging credit is tougher, and buyers have a lower pain-point at the register, etc. However, on the opportunity side, it is far easier to negotiate partnerships, pricing, and more in favor of the consumer in tough times, than when everyone is driving a red Ferrari just for getting hit in the nuts on TV. The economy has really helped us to make great strides, technically and organizationally, in a short time. Basically, people will call you back on the phone these days, because if it’s tough for us it’s probably tough for them too, and no one in the industry wants to be idle. The best way to deal with recessionary cycles might be “refuse to participate”. That way, when the economy recovers, and it always does, you’re in a good place. The alternative is to wait around on one’s ass, which is something I don’t do well.
Regarding the abundance of brands, what I really see is an abundance of colorways. No names will be named, but many companies are copies of each other with different paint-jobs. I mean, to some extent everyone is guilty of this (we share some tech with Omatic, for instance, although with some modifications) but there really are companies whose contribution to the industry are things like “look, misogyny!” or “every product is made while we are high” or whatever. That’s cool, but to me if we can’t add something new to the mix then I don’t want to do it. Style is important, but our goal is to have a cool style that also functions well in innovative ways. We chose a military theme because we’re familiar with it and because the military makes really cool and useful stuff. Lots of companies try emulating the military, with mixed results – we just happen to go past emulation and into integration.
What we want to offer is some of the technology we use in the defense industry, and to inject it into the seemingly disconnected snow sports industry. While war and riding are dissimilar pursuits (unless you’re riding in a really rough neighborhood) in some small ways they are alike. Both tend to be done in extreme conditions, by people requiring varying types and arrays of equipment, and whose needs change constantly based on where they’re operating and what sort of support structure they have at the time. Also, making a big mistake in either pursuit can kill you, so there’s that. Resort riding has different needs than backcountry riding, park and freeriding are different, newbies have different needs from advanced riders, etc. To that end you either need to make tons of different versions of your products, or you have to lie and say that your product can do everything at once equally well, or you need to make your stuff customizable and extend-able when possible. We chose the latter route, and I think that for people that want something that works, and that don’t mind looking awesome, our products will hit home for them.
AS: What can snowboarders looking at your product expect in terms of integration from your military theme and background?
DE: One of the most important things isn’t a “thing”, so much as it is a process and a way of solving problems. Military products are, first and foremost, there to solve a need. When we are thinking of products, we start by asking “what problem needs solving”? Secondly is the design approach that is used to make military products is a bit different from snowboarding. Most snowsports companies are looking to follow this year’s trends.
That isn’t an indictment; the entire industry thrives on constant change. But on the military side, that’s not the case. Every attempt to solve a problem is an attempt to solve it ‘forever’. Because of the consequences of failure, you get used to thinking of things in terms of life and death based on how well you design something, so our mindset is quite different from that of a company chasing a trend.
The way in which we manifest that in our design is that we try to not make singular products, but instead work in the concept of systems. As an example, most might say that Raytheon ( a big defense contractor), makes the AIM-120 AMRAAM ‘missile’. But the part that goes boom is a single piece of a larger whole. Without the other systems designed in conjunction with the explode-y bit, the effectiveness of the missile is greatly reduced or eliminated. So, what they really make is a ‘missile system’.
For us, translating that to the snow means taking a problem, and developing a comprehensive systems-based approach to solve it as completely as possible, and to build in versatility and expandability in every design. Our new binding makes use of this design philosophy, as does our upcoming (and unannounced until now) C-WCS outerwear platform. Because we are so new, we can’t talk too much about the details for a couple more months, as we get closer to SIA and we get things into patent-pending status.
Of course we also have access to some people with… interesting skill sets, let’s say, which means that from a materials science, physics, and general technology standpoint we have access to some unique information that the general public won’t or can’t know about yet. Our binding is being designed in part by a former Forum binding designer and a Boeing engineer that designs, and conducts stress analysis on, aircraft parts for a major aerospace firm. I’d bet decent money that we’re also the only Snowboard manufacturer with members who have active SECRET level clearance.
I don’t wish to imply that we use classified technology in the construction of our stuff, because we can’t, and don’t. But by being
on the cutting edge of technology in our other work, it makes out-of-box thinking and top-notch engineering just sort of what comes naturally.
Thematically, we’re the real deal. We aren’t sticking a patch on our jacket and calling it mil-spec. I suspect that our C-WCS platform will be the biggest initial embodiment of that when it arrives; I mean I had to throw an IR visibility warning and export restrictions on the thing. The complexity of the concept required a tech-pack (what designers give to factories for them to work from) that is 32 pages long (most outerwear might take 4-5 pages). But we’re also not slavish with the theme either. Looking at the boards, you can see that we do a lot of color, which probably isn’t expected given the subject matter. So while everything we do is military influenced, that influence runs a wide range from “built to look and work like a tank” to “built with the integrity you’d expect of a soldier and the look of hello kitty”.
We’ve also started an initiative to bring local Echelon riders together into a larger national and international organization. Sort of like COBRA, with less grave-robbing and super villain cloning. That’s an end-of-2012 program, so it’s going to take a while due to its technical and organizational complexity.
For soldiers, we will sell them any of our boards for $150 shipped. They can get in touch with us directly to set that up. As pricing on other products becomes available, we’ll have special pricing for that too.
As we grow, we intend on an ever-increasing ramp-up of bringing military-bred technology into our designs. Some of that will take big volumes of sales to justify, so if you ever want to see hoverboards, start by asking your local shop to carry us!
AS: How did the idea to license Omatics B.S. Technology come about?
DE: I come from a skate background originally, and I still skate today. I always wondered why bases on boards were flat, instead of shaped in the way skateboards are. It seemed like a shaped surface could help in many situations on-hill, but not having the resources to change that back then I had to essentially wait for the concave concept to catch on with someone that did. When Bataleon came out with TBT years back, I immediately bought one. In general, I liked it, but there were a few things about it that I didn’t like too. Later, Burton started in with its EasyRider tech, which was like a mild TBT. One thing I really didn’t like in these approaches was the seemingly unnecessary stress put on the cores to make the curvatures; also it makes the top-sheet look odd and holds snow on the nose like an 80’s stockbroker.
I heard about BS in the trades and what not, and it sounded interesting. Fast forward a bit and I am at Bear with my little girl one day, soon after arranging the details to get Echelon moving. Luckily, it was a demo for shop owners that day, and I took a walk through tent city. I was riding a Gnu Pickle that day, testing Magnetraction. I stopped by the Omatic booth, and saw BS for the first time. The booth guy (Mike?) offered, unlike the other manufacturers there, to let me try a board- an Extr-Eco. I took two runs, and asked him if he’d trade the pickle for it :). It was just what I had been looking for- a simple, non-press formed 3D base bevel that still looked like a normal board up top. In the defense world, we call this a COTS purchase (commercial off-the-shelf). It’s what you do when you realize the problem you’re looking to solve was already solved by someone else, and it’s likely a better solution than the one you had in mind at the time. I met with Jason from Omatic to discuss things. He was super stoked to see 3rd party pickup of the tech, and through his involvement, the quality of our initial prototypes was about 90% on point.
We call BS “True3D”, simply because Todd R can get away with the BS joke whereas I don’t have that clout. We tuned it slightly for us, and we are also putting it on more boards than Omatic at the moment. We are doing it on a cambered model, as well as making a “Lite3D” variant on our V-Reverse models, where we found the True3D to be too much bevel in testing.
AS: Isn’t it a bit of a big undertaking to enter the market with boards, bindings, and outerwear as a new brand? Wouldn’t it have been a bit easier to just enter with boards and then slowly expand your lines and grow?
DE: Easier perhaps, but we don’t mind working. We have the resources and know-how, so waiting around wasn’t a priority for us. In combat, a key to success is continuous forward movement. If you want to succeed, hit hard, fast, and non-stop until you’ve advanced to the objective- then you can rest a bit. This is just snowboarding, but the base strategy is valid anyway. I’ve been working on some of these concepts a long time, and life is short. Boards are great- and they’re an ‘easy’ way to get in there, but then you’re a one -trick pony. Retailers want to know you have plans for the future, and so do customers. They don’t need another company that’s just a marketing device; there are tons of those.
On a more personal level, the products I’m making are things I personally can’t wait to ride. When you’re making cool ideas reality, you want ‘cool’ to happen as quickly as possible!
AS:One of the hot topics in the snowboarding world is the local retail market. Shops are struggling and everyone has a different theory on what they can do to help them. You have the Allies program care to shed any more light on what that is all about? Also beyond that will you be doing more to help foster the local scene in various regions?
DE: The Allies program, as described on our site, is a program to award early adopters. Taking a chance on a new company can be scary for a retailer. They put money, employee time, floor space, and more, only for the company to maybe under deliver, etc.
Allies get (based on participation levels) a 3 or 4 percent discount on purchases for 3 or 4 seasons, regardless of future purchasing levels. Compare that with other companies, where every year retailers are required to buy-in thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of inventory to get discounts just for that year. First year commitment gets retailers long-term discounts for relatively little risk. Additionally, it can assist in a bad year. In Bear this past year, we had a major road closure that impacted business on the west end of town severely, leaving a lot of unsold inventory. How likely is it that this season they can buy in volume to get their regular discounts? Not very. With us, that discount is in effect for years to come, as part of our commitment to those that stand with us in year one.
At seasons end, that discount can be the difference between profit or loss, and so we’re hoping that it helps, without shutting us down in the process.
As for local scenes, we have a fairly intensive community outreach going on. This summer, we attended 13 skatepark events all over SoCal. While many don’t see a direct connection, for us it’s a no-brainer. You have to promote before events, not during or after. In snowboarding, the ‘event’ is the season. If your company shuts down off-season(especially if you’re new) then come fall, people will gravitate in the vacuum to the same old thing. You need to be pressing the fight year round, or you’ll lose ground every year that must be regained in winter. Is it any wonder that many companies products sit on the shelf till mid-winter? Hell, people don’t know they exist until mid season, due to lack of promotion in the off season. As we grow, we’ll expand these kinds of events.
We have an interesting social media program we are working on to tie together riders, mountains and more. This will also be tied into our product line, in details specific to certain areas, resorts, and the like. Sorry I can’t be more specific yet on a bunch of stuff; OPSEC is pretty important at this stage of the game.
AS: Tying into with what you just said about the Allies program where do you see the biggest growth areas for retail and your brand?
DE: Retail-wise, I think that growth is best developed by offering something different, and supplying a one-stop lifestyle nexus. If your big thing is to carry ‘popular brand x’, that’s fine but then what do you offer beyond an online retailer? You certainly can’t price compete, and increasingly it is hard to even compete on service. The large online retailers do a great job in remote-service. But there is one thing that is hard for online to do, and that is in developing a local-tailored lifestyle environment. Shops that treat their local scene holistically, where riders can express their lifestyle with a mix of fashion, hardgoods, music, and even refreshments can get repeat business year-round, and get tons of chances to educate their customers.
The next big thing in retail now seems to be brand- specific retail locations, but I don’t think we’ll be there until 5-8 years down the road. That’s fine with me for now anyway- I’ll do what I do best, and let retailers do what they do best.
As for brand growth, Echelon has a simple philosophy- if someone else already does it, and we can’t make it better, we don’t do it until we can. This keeps us from developing me-too products. I’m not going to throw out some bullshit copycat stuff that I’ve encrusted with a bedazzler in the basement. And that means that if i make something (other than something like a t-shirt), then there’s a reason- and people that appreciate good and useful stuff will want to at least check it out, and hopefully buy it if it helps their riding. This keeps our growth to a manageable level, since I don’t worry about me-toos it means all development effort is useful. The general public would be shocked at how many products out there are completely cosmetic variations of a standard generic product- the snowsport equivalent of a $60 Armani plain white t-shirt.
As an example, this is a big reason that, for now, I am not pursuing boots. Salomon, 32, DC, etc have been making boots for decades. Making a good boot is tough, and so far I haven’t identified a way to do it better than these guys. When I do, I might make a boot. Until then, the closest I’ll get is likely a collaboration colorway or something like that. By the way- any great companies interested in a boot collab, hit me up!
AS: A lot of companies are based in Southern California but not many can claim they’re located right next to a resort. What was your reasoning for choosing to live up in Big Bear and have one of the most progressive terrain parks in your back yard?
DE: Well, I personally didn’t see the reason to open anywhere else. Like basically every other company out there, I have to work at least in part with overseas manufacturing, so it was an ideal choice in that regard. Trips to/from China, Japan, and Korea are easier from this coast. Also, with so many other major players operating from SoCal, it is easier to make partnerships and contacts. However, it also made sense to remove myself from the SoCal scene a bit, and understand better what the end customer wants by living in Bear. If you aren’t in close proximity to your target audience, it is really easy to miss small details.
Bear’s park is rad, regardless of being left off this year’s TWS 10-best list. Bear attracts a wide range of riders, from local semi-pros to LA hipsters and never-evers and for more of the season than Xmas and spring break. It’s a great laboratory for watching riders interact with the sport.
With my house .25 klicks from the mountain base, and .10 from the office, my team and I are constantly reminded of riding. In the off-season, when others move on to thoughts of the beach, or whatever, we’re still gazing at lifts. It helps us stay focused on the objective- make cool stuff so the coming season is maximally awesome.
Lastly, it has helped me scope out some great talent for our team, and to work with them directly through the on and off season. Donk Antrobus, Evan Heckman, Melissa Spillman, Erika Vikander, and several more are great people and great riders. I’d likely never have met them had I been downhill sipping margaritas on the oceanfront.
The one negative of operating from Bear is that no one else does. The downhill meetings with partners, etc. are getting frequent enough to warrant a satellite base in SoCal proper that I can work from part-time, because driving 12-14 hours a week is not an efficient use of my time.
AS: How has the team development been going thus far? You’re starting to stack a solid team of up and comers that have some pretty solid skills and big ambitions.
DE: Team development has been moving along at a rapid pace; we are fortunate in that Bear (and SoCal in general) has a ton of great talent out there, both on board and off. I’m a “full package” type of guy. If a rider is difficult to work with, or an asshat, or as the military says “that guy”, they are removed from service quickly. Luckily, I am happy to say that all my riders are good at riding and good people. I’m a professional, and I want my people to be professional, and so by definition I try not to get people involved that can’t operate at that level. I think that by demanding that attitude, we attract more of it to us, and so eventually we will stack the team with quality people, who will do good things.
Erika Vikander, Donk Antrobus, The Heckman twins, Bob Webb, Zach Soderholm and Tylor Bereth, Molly Aguirre – really all of our riders – are chosen on attitude first. Their amazing riding is merely an external reflection of that inner attitude. We also haven’t slacked on support roles. Etta Riles kills it as an all around “make things happen” person, and I can’t thank her enough. Kyle Ryerson, Jared Hatch, Chad Schmidt – these team filmers are great riders in their own right, but are driven by other internal mechanisms that put them in different roles. Often a filmer has to be nearly as good as the guy he’s filming, so I’m pretty stoked on them. Our grom team is an incubator program that aims to teach them early what it takes to get to the next level, and Joey Venner, Justin Hill, and Christian Collins are working on doing that.
My shadowy partner that assists us to “go big” when we need to is an invaluable team member – but will rarely, if ever, be seen. Just imagine the partner is an alien, or doesn’t exist – it will make things easier for everyone.
As an aside, I have to say that I couldn’t do anything I do without the love and support of my most important team member, my wife Summer. She’s an amazing person, and I’m pretty lucky to have her on my side.
AS: From the start of the inception of the idea to start a company to now what have been the biggest lessons learned and how has that helped you going forward with SIA and 2013 season?
DE: The biggest lesson of all is the lead times required to make even the simplest of things happen. In some cases, it is because something is hard – Outerwear development, for example, is pretty complicated, especially if you are trying to do something truly new (which we are). In other cases, the times get long because of what might just be an industry attitude, where it seems some people believe there is all the time in the world to accomplish an important, time-sensitive task. I’m used to making things happen, and doing them VERY fast, so I have had to recalibrate my turn-around expectations a bit to coincide with industry norms. They are a lot slower paced than I am used to.
The other is that the worst decision in life is to not make one. Assess, decide, act – but always get to that third stage, or nothing will happen, it’s a trite-sounding maxim, but failure is useful in that it teaches you what not to do. Inaction just makes you wonder what might have happened.
AS: To round out this interview what would you tell to the average snowboard consumer that’s looking to potentially buy some of your products.
DE: I would tell them “thank you”.