By Eric Peterson | Dec 07, 2020
Formerly an engineer who developed balloons for NASA, Howard Wu changed his career course in the early 2000s. Starting in his garage, Wu followed his passion for powder when he launched WSD Skis, a ski manufacturer that was a first mover in composites.
"He put in a bunch of time and money building all the necessary equipment," says Elinski. "He wanted to bring Olympic race-quality skis to the consumer market, building a ski for everybody from beginner to expert with these top-quality materials and build processes."
Launched as a custom shop in 2009, Wu "had a ski for everything," says Elinski, who started working for the company in design and marketing in 2012.
Hinterland Skis was born out of WSD when Elinski started running the operation in 2016. Rather than offer 100 different shapes, the operation pivoted to a catalog model. "We just tried to streamline things a little bit here and bring our most popular shapes to the retail market," he explains.
Elinski says he learned the importance of high-quality materials working for WSD. "I was an avid skier before becoming part of the business here. I thought I knew a lot about skis. I worked at a ski shop and I sold every ski under the sun, and didn't realize how much of a difference the materials and the build process that goes into each individual ski matters."
It follows, he adds, that quality is paramount when it comes to the supply chain for sidewalls, topsheets, edges, wood cores, and other raw materials.
"A lot of companies will cut corners here and there to be able to build faster or save a couple bucks on materials," says Elinski. "We actually started spending more manufacturing our skis over time. We'd find a better material and we'd throw it into the mix."
Composites are still a key ingredient. "Most of our skis are high-quality fiberglass with just a little bit of carbon fiber mixed in there in the thinner part of the skis," says Elinski. "On some of our models, we've introduced a new carbon-fiber material called Supercomp. It's a 3D carbon fiber that's new out of a company called Boston Materials."
"Traditionally carbon fiber is kind of springy and has a pingy feel to it. It's got a lot of power, but it's not necessarily a damp, fun thing to ride on." Supercomp adds "a Z-axis into the traditional carbon-fiber weave and creates a damper carbon fiber that doesn't have those springy qualities you don't actually want in a ski.
Hinterland Skis sell for about $1,000 to $1,250 a pair, and most of the business is direct-to-consumer.
The pivot away from custom skis is paying off. "Hinterland has been a huge success so far," says Elinski, noting that orders quadrupled in October 2020 over October 2019. The company built about 200 pairs in 2019, and 2020 volume will be double or triple that.
"It's been a crazy year to handle the growth," he adds. "The full custom ski thing hit its sweet spot, then flatlined and has been consistent, but Hinterland has hit a growth curve and accelerated from there."
The proximity to numerous ski resorts on the Wasatch Front provides an enviable testing ground. Elinski says he favors Brighton Resort and Powder Mountain for evaluating prototypes. "They've been really helpful for us to get up there and take photos and get athletes out there. They make it really easy to collaborate on marketing efforts and opportunities."
Challenges: Maintaining high quality with increased volume. "Every time you add more people and there are more hands on the skis, there's more margin for error, so we want to spend some time making sure every step of the process is consistent," says Elinski.
A pair of Hinterland Skis requires about 12 hours of labor, he adds, versus two or three per pair at major manufacturers. "It's a completely different ballgame," says Elinski, describing two paths to success: "You build something cheaper or you build something better."
Opportunities: "A better-quality ski," says Elinski. While many competitors' skis might last 50 days in the backcountry, some Hinterland customers have hit 300 days on a pair. "They break in, they don't wear out," he touts.
Elinski says he sees another opportunity: a "direct-to-retail" sales model. "We put our skis out into ski shops, and they can demo them out to customers . . . but they don't have any physical inventory of our skis," he explains. "It's kind of a win/win for everybody. The ski shops don't have to take a big gamble at the beginning of the season, but they still have the ability to sell our skis."
Needs: "We're going to have to bump up to a bigger shop next year," says Elinski. "We're jam-packed in about 2,000 square feet. We probably need to double that size."