Lake Tahoe, California / Nevada
Snowboards and splitboards
This is the story about two guys who just wanted to snowboard, and ended up businessmen. Spoiler alert: Their business is making snowboards.
"I race, and I was maxing out performance-wise on everything on the market," says TahoeLab co-founder Abe Greenspan. "And Lee's a big guy, so he was just breaking every board he rode."
That would be fellow founder, longtime friend and veteran snowboarder Lee Collins. Both men are more than mere snowboarders. They're also pioneers in splitboarding, a sport that's rapidly gaining converts in advanced snowsport circles.
Splitboards are essentially snowboards that have been cut lengthwise so they can be outfitted with snow-adhering "skins," allowing riders to penetrate remote backcountry areas as cross-country and telemark skiers do. Once at an appealing slope or chute, the two board sections can be locked back into a standard snowboard configuration, allowing the rider to carve down virgin -- and, invariably, steep -- terrain.
But the two pals found that the splitboards on the market were even less satisfactory than standard snowboards. Both had worked in the back rooms of ski and snowboard shops tuning and repairing equipment, and they had a pretty good idea of what they wanted in terms of board specifications and materials.
"I'd been making DIY splitboards for a while -- basically cutting snowboards in two and reconfiguring them," says Greenspan. "That's not the same thing as designing and building your own boards, of course."
Bottom line: Greenspan and Collins wanted to manufacture snowboards and splitboards, but they had no real idea about how to launch a snowboard manufacturing business.
"Then one day I was driving around Lake Tahoe and I found a perfect shop space just about a half-mile from our houses," Greenspan recalls. "So I sent a photo to Lee, and in a week we were in business."
But while they had a manufacturing space, they didn't have the equipment necessary for fabricating boards. "The industry is so small that there's no starter kit for building snowboards," says Collins. "So we literally had to make our own tools before we started making boards."
Bolstered by their back shop skills and firm concepts of what they wanted out of their gear, the two men soon began turning out snowboards and splitboards -- boards designed for the bleeding edge of performance, strength and reliability. The duo was laser-focused on production. Marketing and sales weren't really part of their game plan -- and to a large degree, that's still the case.
"At first we sold to friends," says Collins. "Then their friends wanted our boards. And now we're in several retail shops and we're doing direct-to-consumer sales, so we're finally selling to strangers. But we never really planned that end of it. We're mostly growing by word of mouth."
So far, that strategy has worked to TahoeLab's advantage, giving it a great deal of street cred -- or slope cred, at least. "The vast majority of snowboard companies don't make snowboards," observes Collins. "They just sell snowboards. They buy boards in quantity from large manufacturers, usually foreign ones, and just market them under their own brand. We make every board by hand in our own shop. We use bindings produced by a company in Montana, and our skins are produced by another Montana company. Our boards are made completely in America, and they're made to the highest standard. And the people who buy our boards -- people who really care about this sport -- know that and appreciate it."
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for many American businesses, but not for TahoeLab. While the virus has closed or restricted access to most ski and snowboard resorts, it hasn't kept the most dedicated riders off the snow. It's just driven them out of bounds, to the backcountry -- to the regions ideally suited, as it turns out, for TahoeLab's splitboards.
"There's a real backcountry boom going on right now, and it happened that our products were tested and ready for it," says Greenspan. "Just because people can't get to the resorts doesn't mean they don't want to ride. And that's driving our numbers up."
That said, the partners emphasize that backcountry boarding is nothing to undertake lightly. Avalanches, injuries, getting lost -- the hazards in the out-of-bounds zones are real and significant. "We're in partnership with the Sierra Avalanche Center, and education on safe backcountry practices is part of our mission," says Collins.
So what's for the future? The partners plan to refine their marketing chops, including greater emphasis on e-commerce.
"The advantages of direct-to-consumer sales are obvious," says Greenspan. "You make a lot more on every board. On the other hand, it often involves a lot of one-on-one interaction with the customer, and that eats up time. But on the whole, we're happy with our progress. We set what we thought was a pretty ambitious goal of doubling our production by the end of 2020, and we hit that mark well ahead of schedule."
And of course, both men intend to spend a lot of time on the slopes. "We love the backcountry," says Collins. "That's not going to change."
Challenges: "Mainly finding the time to keep up with demand and make enough boards in an efficient manner while still handling the other crucial aspects of the business -- sales and marketing, accounting, and so on," says Collins. "Cash flow is also an issue. We are at the size where we need to order a lot of materials to keep making the boards we need to make, but we sometimes don't have enough capital to buy in the big batches that would supply us year-round. That means we are forced to constantly monitor our supplies and re-order in small quantities so we don't run out. There are more than 20 different materials in a board, and some of them require a one- to two-month lead time to fill an order.
Opportunities: Notes Collins: "Our main opportunities for expanding beyond the Tahoe region are through our website and online sales. D2C marketing allows us substantially more profit than brick-and-mortar retail. Also, if the pandemic doesn't interfere, we're hoping to attend several special events called Splitfests -- basically events where splitboarders from around the country convene in areas with good backcountry riding. These are great opportunities for building brand awareness, getting feedback and driving sales."
Needs: A sales and marketing boost, and employees. Greenspan forecasts one to two hires in 2021.