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Skateboarding News

Saturday, October 31, 2009

From skate stardom to business stardom.

Written by Xavier Lannes

Thanks to Dogtown, Gonz and Rocco, skateboarders have long been seen of as the unconventional rebels, the only authentic alternative to the mainstream pursuit of happiness. The essence of skateboarding is that its is less about competing with opponents but more about competing against yourself, moving with the elements, defying gravity and fears and sometimes the law and the cops. There's a certain fervent passion within skateboarders that you won't find in mainstream sports ; the kind of passion that springs from being alone with the environment, whether that's respecting the awesome power of the ocean (for surfing, the grandfather) or feeling your way through the rhythms of a city sidewalk. If most surfers respect the sea, the environment and are green by essence, then skateboarders have a vision of the city that regular pedestrians don’t have; they screen the different elements of the architecture to find the best spots.

And it is this same passion and thrill that drives many skateboarders to successfully launch and run businesses of their own. The ability to face fear head on and push themselves to succeed at feats others will never try is also a quality found in every successful entrepreneur. In an interview with Pierre Andre Senizergues in his mansion of Malibu in April 2009, I asked him if it is difficult to copy difficult tricks invented by others, he answered that the key of success is not being able to repeat all the competitor’s best tricks, but to create one’s new trick. Although core skateboarders market themselves as “Skate and Destroy”, the very essence of skateboard is “Skate and Create”. Only the best skaters have the ability to see beyond everybody’s tricks and it is the same ability that helps them create a successful venture. The following stories of Pierre Andre Senizergues, Tony Alva, Per Welinder, Tony Hawk, Bruce Logan, Steve Rocco, Tony Hawk are that of amazing people creating skateboard empires by breaking all the rules established before them by already non conventional companies.

The first example of skater legends turned successful entrepreneurs is that of Bruce Logan, the granddaddy of Skateboard entrepreneurs. After he began skateboarding in the 50s on a board he built from a two by four and roller skates, he turned being a founding member of the once prestigious Makaha Skateboard team and was one of the first professional skateboarders. Bruce Logan is originally credited for making skateboarding an international spectator sport, by traveling around the world in the early seventies, putting on exhibitions, performing amazing tricks that he created competing in international competitions, winning dozens of world champion titles, including the first trophy ever given for Skateboarding world champion. One of the last titles he won was against a cocky new comer by the name of Tony Hawks. In 1973, he switched from skate stardom status to business entrepreneur by manufacturing skateboards with his brother Brad Logan, out of their garage on Cambridge Ave in Cardiff. Logan Earth Ski was born and was soon to be one of the world’s biggest skateboard companies through the 70s. His name was synonymous with success, fame and lots of money: the Bruce Logan skateboards were the best seller at the time, with millions of units sold. To that date, Bruce stills skate as a pro and is even sponsored by Gravity.

Alva is another one of the first real skate entrepreneurs. One of the pioneering founders of skateboarding, he has witnessed the evolution of skateboard from its grassroots beginning in the 1970s, through its lull in the '90s, and to the multibillion dollar business it is today. "Skateboarding is about getting on the board and feeling that exhilaration, the speed and control of it," says Tony Alva, "and, not to be too metaphorical, but the business relates to that same thing with me."

"I was really lucky," says Alva, 51, whose story was recently documented in the movie “Lords of Dogtown”. "I think a lot of it had to do with the timing and the fact that I was born and raised in the '70s at a time when there was a huge revolution for surfing and skateboarding. So going from being the punk kid sneaking into people's backyards, and skating their empty pools, to being an entrepreneur was kind of a natural progression for me."

Alva started skateboarding at 16 and at 19, he paired up with a friend who was experimenting with a new lamination process that made the skateboard decks lighter and more flexible, while retaining their durability and rigidity. Alva knew this new process would revolutionize the skateboarding world. Together he and his friend put together $50,000 from savings, family loans and competition winnings, and started manufacturing skateboards with other pro riders in mind. In 1977, Alva opened Alva Skateboards in Oceanside, California, where he sold skateboards, clothing and other skate apparel. Alva opened a new store in Los Angeles in December, 2005, and projects combined sales of over $1.5 million in 2006. He's also looking at opening retail outlets in key cites such as New York, Tokyo and London, where skateboarding has a huge following.

Per Welinder
Per Welinder, 47, a professional skateboarder from Sweden made a name for himself in the early '80s by being the only person to have ever beaten Rodney Mullen in a contest. He also had pro skaters in mind when he launched Birdhouse Projects with Tony Hawk, 42, in 1992. "We love skaters," says Welinder. "We were living and breathing skateboarding. We started Birdhouse because we felt that we wanted to have a brand that really reflected what the pro riders wanted to have out there in the marketplace."

So Welinder and Hawk began creating skateboard components, such as decks and wheels, designed for competitive skating. It wasn't long before they began building their brand recognition through Birdhouse's competitive skate team and started selling their boards, T-shirts and hats in specialty sports shops throughout Southern California. Blitz Distribution is located in Huntington Beach, CA and distributes some of the most important brands in skateboarding, around the world, from mom and pop shops to sporting good stores. Through the years the goal of Blitz remains providing highest quality products at reasonable prices to encourage the continued growth of skateboarding as a passion, an activity and way of life.

Then, about one year ago, in October 2008, in a press release from Tony Hawk, Inc., Tony Hawk announced that he was now the sole owner of Birdhouse Skateboards. Blitz Distribution President Per Welinder will continue his focus on the remaining Blitz Brands—Baker, Flip, Fury, Sk8mafia, and Hook-Ups. Blitz will also continue to distribute Birdhouse. Tony Hawk and Per Welinder, business partners for the past 15 years, reached a definitive agreement whereby Tony Hawk has acquired all interest in the Birdhouse Skateboards brand from Blitz Distribution, Inc.
By purchasing the brand, Tony Hawk will initiate integrating Birdhouse into his overall activities and his business, Tony Hawk, Inc. Full ownership will also give Tony increased oversight and involvement to his biggest priority, the Birdhouse team riders.
The asset purchase will allow Per Welinder to continue his passion of incubating core brands. Blitz continues to distribute the Birdhouse, Baker, Flip, Fury, Sk8Mafia and Hook-Ups brands.

Tony Hawk Inc. is a world leader in skateboarding with the unprecedented ability to bring alternative sports and their unique lifestyle to the masses while maintaining an indispensable edge of authenticity with the market’s hard-core, trendsetting audience. Founded by Tony Hawk in 1998 and based in Vista, CA, the company is organized into five segments: Merchandising, Events, Endorsements, Film and Digital Media. These lifestyle sports include skateboarding, BMX, Motocross, surfing and snowboarding. Consumer goods bearing the Tony Hawk brand have dominated several markets, including video games, skateboards and sporting goods, lifestyle apparel, toys, interactive content, food, publications and more.

Another genuine skateboarder who turned successful skate entrepreneur is Pierre-André Senizergues. As President, Owner and CEO of Sole Technology, Senizergues runs one of the world’s best and most successful skateboarding footwear companies. Born in L’Hay les Roses, in one of the lush suburbs of Paris, France, Pierre-André spent much of his youth skateboarding around Paris at “Les Bassins” and “Le Trocadero”. After winning several European championship freestyle skateboarding titles, he moved to California in 1985. The first years in California were not that great, as he recalls assembling Tracker Trucks “with the Mexicans” and living at Per Welinder’s flat. But at the same time, he was riding “a donf” in HB & Venice. Unlike in Paris, crowds gathered to watch Senizergues showcase his talents. In the crowd one day was Steve Rocco, team manager for Sims Skateboards, who offered to sponsor Senizergues. Then, sponsored by Sims and Tracker, the French phenomenon entered his first professional contest and won the event, beginning a professional career that would see him capture 12 French championships, five European championships, two World Cup events, and one World Championship.

Thanks to a degree in Industrial Software that he earned from Paris Universite de Technology in 1984 he started to design his own pro model skate shoe called the Xavier Lannes & Pierre Andre Senizergues at VeroneSenix (an abbreviation of his last name) for a then obscure brand called Etnics, originally started by a French shoe company called Rautureau Apple. In 1988, Etnics rapidly evolved to Etnies, because of fears that the new company would be sued by Etonics. After retiring from professional skateboarding the following year, Pierre-André went on to distribute Etnies in the U.S.

Pierre Andre was actively involved in the creation of innovative designs for Etnies, including the Lo-Cut, Rap and Intercity. In 1995, Pierre-André started a new athletically inspired and technologically superior brand of skate footwear called éS, as well as a brand of incredibly advanced and lightweight snowboarding boots called ThirtyTwo . Catering exclusively to the core skateboarder Pierre-André created another skateboarding footwear company in 1996 called Emerica , a core skate brand embodying the individualistic, non-conformist attitude from which skateboarding was born.

At about the same time, Pierre-Andre took his four brands (Etnies, éS, Emerica and ThirtyTwo) and organized them all under the Sole Technology umbrella. Hiring professional footwear designers and many other employees with veteran experience in the action sports world, he was able to focus more on overall vision, company structure, production and distribution. In 2001, Sole Technology established the first-ever biomechanics research organization dedicated to the study of skateboarding shoes called the STI (Sole Technology Institute) and in 2003, opened an on-site biomechanics laboratory at Sole Technology’s Headquarters in Lake Forest, California.

Today, Pierre André Senizergues is one of the most widely admired and respected skateboard entrepreneurs in the word. With a presence in more than 70 countries, Sole Technology is now the largest private action sports company. In the last three years, Sole Technology doubled in size, to more than 400 employees and revenue approaching $200 million. Though his life has become quite demanding, Pierre André still manages to find time to produce movies like “The Eleventh Hour” or film his own movie “Greend”, based on his life. Greend is scheduled to be released in December 2009. Pierre Andre is a skater at heart and still finds time to skate, snowboard and surf with all his old pals from France despite of his incredibly busy schedule.

Logan, Alva, Senizergues, Rocco, Welinder and Hawk were able to capitalize on their fame and start businesses of their own, but what about the hundreds of other aspiring entrepreneurs who want to start a business based on their passion for Skateboarders sports? Surprisingly, you don't have to be a professional to make it in this business, and many of the obstacles you'll face are the same the pros do.

Even the biggest companies started from the ground up, struggling to grow as they learned their way. Welinder says he got a little better at running the business day by day, learning as he went. "The big day was when we got our first vending machine," he says. "That was the best day of my life because I felt we'd finally become a real company." Which sounds funny coming from a man who's now CEO of one of the largest, best-known skateboard companies in the world. His company's products are found in more than 2,000 stores worldwide, and he predicts sales of well over $10 million in 2006.

Of all the lessons learned and experiences shared between these Skateboarders entrepreneurs, the biggest one has been realizing the importance of creating a brand their customers can connect with. When someone forms a connection with your brand and begins to identify themselves through the products they buy from your company, you truly create customers for life.

"[When we began,] the average skater was probably about 16 or 17 years old. He's seeking his identity, trying to be cool, grown up, and he wants to make sure he's different than the next guy," Welinder says. He began creating many more brands under the Birdhouse label and created Blitz Distribution in 1997 as an umbrella company for them all. By offering different brands to choose from, it allowed their diverse younger audience the chance to pick a brand they could identify themselves with the best.

Alva agrees that the image his company maintains is something they work hard to have their customers connect with. "The image needs to be hardcore and grassroots, and not too commercial or trendy," he says. "Just keeping it real, to us, is kind of like sticking to where skateboarding came from."

To Alva, that means creating quality boards that kids can afford. "We were kind of like rag-tag, poor kids on the west side of L.A.," Alva says of the initial skateboarding movement of the '70s. "It's never really been that expensive, you know? You can get a pair of Vans tennis shoes and a skateboard, even today, for like $200." Other sports, he points out, cost a lot more money to participate in. With snowboarding, for example, once you pay for a board, shoes, bindings, outerwear and a ski lift ticket, you can be out nearly $400.

"Snowboarding is almost exclusively for kids that are either upper middle class or have money. Skateboarding is accessible even to third-world kids. There are a lot of Latin countries and poorer countries where kids can still skate. They have access to free skateboard parks, and they can get a board and get something thrown together so that they can progress and eventually become a professional skateboarder.

"If we can sell them a product that really works, but also something that the kid's going to come back for, you're going to have a regular rapport with them," says Alva. "You establish yourself with a fan base and clientele--all that is really important in skateboarding."

Bell couldn't agree more. Not only is he getting parents to connect more with their kids' interests, he's also connecting to the kids themselves once he finishes building their ramps.

"A major thing about our company is that on the day the ramp's finished, I skate with the kids for one day and show them how to do tricks on the ramp. That's really the muscle that drives everything," Bell says about helping the kids develop their skills. "You almost want to shed a tear because it's something that you did: [You helped take] a kid to the next level. And I'll tell you what's going to be really surprising: when I turn on the TV one day and there's one of the kids I built a ramp for going up against someone like Tony Hawk."

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posted by Xavier Lannes @ Saturday, October 31, 2009 

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