IASC Skateboarding Summit – Have We Found a More Valuable Way to Talk With Each Other?

So there I was sitting in the conference room of the Embassy Suites for day one of the IASC Skateboarding Summit waiting for the dreaded retailer panel to start.

You all know the panel I mean.  They have one at every industry trade show and conference I’ve ever been to.  Three or four retailers sit up on stage, a moderator feeds them questions they often have in advance (well, that’s what I always did) and they give cautious answers that aren’t that useful, typically aren’t a reflection of actual business conditions, and make unrealistic requests of the industry and the brands to “fix” skateboarding, or snowboarding, or whatever.

Then, something strange happened.  Brent Futagaki, VP of Marketing for Active Ride Shop, David Toole the owner of Bluetile Skateshop in South Carolina and Sam Schuman, the owner of 303 Boards in Denver started talking openly and honestly about market conditions.

Under the always subtle and gentle guidance of moderator Don Brown, Sole Technology VP of Marketing, they talked about how important shop decks and their proprietary apparel brands were to their shops, and that they needed them to be profitable.  One of them (sorry, forgot who) acknowledged that they knew that brands were going to do what they thought they needed to do.   There was no call for brands to change or restrict distribution.  Sure, “It would be nice if they did, but…”  There was some discussion about how some exclusive shop product, or at least product that they had for maybe a week or two before it went to broader distribution, would be nice.  But there were no unrealistic expectations- no outrage because each business was doing what it perceived to be in its own best interest.

You know, this sounded like three businessmen talking about running a skate business rather than three skaters trying to run businesses.  What a fascinating juxta positioning.

This refreshing, somewhat unexpected (to me anyway), and immensely valuable trend continued in spades with the next panel.  Attorney to the industry Greg Weisman moderated a panel that included (from left to right as you looked at the stage)  Zero and Fallen founder Jamie Thomas, Blitz founder Per Welinder and Sole Technology founder Pierre Andre Senizergues.

Quite a lineup.  Three founders, who started as pro skaters, had some huge successes, then some challenges.  For the most part, they told us openly and honestly about those problems.  How fast growth can make it hard to look up and see what’s happening.  How too much success too quickly can create self-assurance that may not be justified as market conditions evolve and make it hard to react to changes.

All the people in the audience are dealing with exactly the same issues these successful industry veterans were describing.  And yes, I just called them successful regardless of the fact that some highly publicized bad things have happened to them.

Because “bad things” happen to everybody who runs a business.  The measure of your success isn’t whether or not you have them, but how you acknowledge or react to them.  My hope is that everybody in the industry will be a little more comfortable acknowledging these bad things.  Perhaps we’ll see fewer bullshit press releases describing a severe business dislocation as “Taking it to the next level.”  We can all hope to learn a bit more from each other if it’s okay to admit your mistakes.  Maybe we can even help each other.

Five years ago, if any of these panelists had called me and asked if I wanted to invest in one of their projects, I would have said no.  Now, even though I’m pretty risk averse, I’d at least listen.  I don’t think you’d find my attitude in this regard different from most angel investors, venture capitalists, and private equity guys.

Not to sound over dramatic, but failure is the crucible good business people are forged in.  Okay, it’s a little over dramatic.

Jamie Thomas ended the panel, which ran way over its allotted time, by an emotional description of what he’d been through, what he was doing now, and how he was working in a small space with a couple of friends to refocus on the Zero brand and how happy he was to just be making product he thought people wanted.

When he finished, Greg Weisman wisely said, “Okay, we’re done.”   There was just nothing to add.

We also heard short presentations from some worthy nonprofits.  My takeaway is that there’s a lot of need (skate related or not) out there and some organizations doing good work are struggling to keep going.  I can’t help them all, but I’ve made a small donation to one.  Hope you do the same.

The conference actually started with IASC executive director Thomas Barker presenting an over view of the State of Skate Industry Survey, done in conjunction with Transworld.  Thomas sped through an overview.  On every slide I wanted to stop him and ask questions.  Happily, the complete presentation is supposed to show up in the attendees’ inbox today, and I’m guessing I’ll get lots of my answers from that.  There was so much great data and he was going so fast that I can’t even give you a summary here.

At the end of day one, we heard from HookIt COO Carl Thomas.  Carl’s company has software and algorithms that allow brands and professional athletes to track their online engagement and put a value on it.  Poor Carl had to rush through a complex presentation on an important idea because the conference had run a bit long and people had to get on a bus to go the Adidas video premiere.  The bus, of course, ended up leaving late.

His presentation generated quite a few questions, many of which I’d label as cautious.  People, what HookIt does is coming.  Maybe somebody will do it different or better, but it’s coming.  You need to check it out and, I’m guessing, ultimately use it.

And Carl, the next time you talk to us, I recommend you not try and relate skateboarding to golf or assume we’re all for skate being in the Olympics.

The second day started with an update on skateboarding and the 2020 Olympics from International Skateboarding Federation President Gary Reams.  I knew what we were in for when he had to start his discussion with a list of the acronyms we needed to understand in order to make sense of what he was going to say.  In spite of that (because I don’t remember any of them), I had a few takeaways.

First, this is a complex, highly political process with a lot of money at stake.  That’s just the way it is.  Second, Gary listed the people who are involved in his organization and all I can say is if that group can’t represent skateboarding well, nobody can.  Third, Gary and his group apparently have the support of the International Olympic Committee and a close relationship with the U.S. Olympic Committee.  You might think that’s enough to get us whatever we want however we want it, but it’s not.  I suppose that’s indicative of just how convoluted the process is.  Finally, I decided that skateboarding may or not end up in the Olympics, but given the work the ISF has done, it’s their ball to run with and nobody else can pick it up.  Let me know if I can do anything to help Gary.

Next, we had panel on woman’s skateboarding.  It featured Mimi Knoop, Kim Woozy, Lisa Whitaker and YuLin Olliver from the Woman’s’ Skateboarding Alliance.   The woman’s market is growing in importance so we need to pay more attention.  The most interesting thing to me was some of the discussion about how girls/woman are received/perceived at skate venues.  I hadn’t focused on some of those potential barriers.  I guess I learned that selling to woman is the same as selling to men, except that it’s completely different.

The “AHA!” conference moment for me was the retail and brand owner panels, where I heard what I hope was a major change in how we communicate with and help each other.  That could be worth a lot.