By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Jan 28, 2016
"I started Donek when I was in high school actually," says Martin. "I started snowboarding in 1987. I got my first snowboard as a Christmas present from my folks."
It didn't last, and Martin set out to build a better board himself. "Like a naive teenager, I said, 'I could make one of those,'" he recalls. "The very first board I made said Donek." (The name is derived from a Macedonian pigeon breed that's known for its aerobatic prowess.)
After studying mechanical engineering at CU Boulder, Martin went pro. "That dream of making snowboards was something that just kept on coming up," he says.
He would play bagpipes on the 16th Street Mall in Denver for tips, and invested that in shop tools, and launched the company with investments from family and friends. He moved the company from Lakewood to Aurora before building the current 5,000-square-foot facility in Watkins, 25 miles east of Denver, in 1999.
Donek's big differentiator is its math-based, made-to-order model. "As a custom fabricator, we have the ability to do anything the customer can imagine," says Martin. "There's nobody in the world of custom snowboards who can do what we can do."
It's all about applying physics to snowboarding. "Over the years, I've developed a mathematical model for the boards that I build," says Martin. "I design everything mathematically." The approach makes Donek stand out, he adds. "Most snowboard manufacturers struggle to grasp that aspect of it."
After an interview with the customer, he uses the model to develop the CNC files to cut the board's profile. "Then our machine operators and people in the shop build the snowboard." The process takes two to four days for snowboards that typically cost $600 to $1,200 to the end user.
"We hold incredibly tight tolerances to what we can do," touts Martin, noting that Donek's ability to make the exact same board over and over appeals especially to pros. "Our tolerance is about 1/50,000th of an inch."
The secret? "A great deal of care," he says. "It comes down to knowing your machine and your materials."
The remarkably low tolerance "is why we're so successful with the racers in the snowboard industry," Martin says. "We are the only manufacturer in North America who has a race-specific snowboard."
But its custom approach means Donek has boards for every kind of rider. "We make more styles of boards than Burton does," says Martin.
Donek also makes skis, but Martin admits he prefers to do so with a collaborator. "I'm not a skier," he says. "We don't have a good development skier within the company, so we need to partner with somebody who is."
Two years ago, he started working to modernize his processes with Matt Diaz and the company's in-house software developer. Diaz's first innovation was an app that cut artwork placement from 20 minutes to 15 seconds. "He and I are working on this piece of software as a commercial product down the road," says Martin. Donek has also computerized press controls, tracking systems, and other processes.
Martin has also commercialized tools developed in-house with Donek Tools, a separate company now run by his wife, Jenifer. Launched in 2013, the startup makes a drag knife for CNC routers. "I went searching for this tool," he says. "It didn't exist." So he made one that now sells for $229.
Next up for the spinoff: "We're looking at another tool for edge bending." He says the $8,500 tool will cut the time required edge bending for skis and snowboards by up to 80 percent. "It's a dramatic reduction in labor costs."
Challenges: "My goal has been to find ways to get me out of the shop," says Martin. "As I get older and have kids, I can't be everything." The solution? "The only way to get me out of the operation is to grow it," he says.
But to grow, the company needs to free up capital for a marketing push. "I'm an engineer, not a marketer," he adds. "Our biggest challenge is reaching our target customer." Martin has targeted a specific athlete to hire "in a part-time marketing aspect who has some unique ideas. We're hoping she comes on board in the next year or so."
Opportunities: Adult snowboarders; the industry markets pretty much exclusively to the 17-and-under crowd. "They've neglected the 25-and-older market for a very long time," Martin says. "There's nothing for adults."
But Martin also sees an opportunity for growth in general. "We have dramatically more capacity in our shop than we have demand," he explains, "and that's by design -- a long game instead of a short game."
Needs: "More automation," says Martin. "Finding ways to automate certain processes and engineer the mistakes out of those processes."