They say you find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but what do you find on the Rainbow Chair at Mt. Bachelor?
For James Nicol and Ryan Holmes, cofounders of Snoplanks, they found was a spark of inspiration to create a new kind of snowboard — one that connects the mountain to the waves.
“On the chair we were discussing board and ski design and looking for something that had a more surf-like feel than your everyday “all mountain” equipment,” Nicol said “Being a surfer, I was also hoping to bring some of the concepts from surf design to snowboards in terms of rocker profiles and side cuts.”
The idea of Snoplanks would not remain a concept for long. James harkened back to his surfing past — one that included shaping boards — and started the process of creating the initial prototypes.
And in that process of shaping, James found clarity for the concept and, ultimately, for himself.
“In the past I had shaped surfboards. And what I found is the process itself is a very peaceful and insightful undertaking. Shaping is a lot like riding powder or surfing. It’s a completely mind clearing activity, and I always walk away from the shaping room feeling better than I did when I entered.”
Crafting the plank
So with a cleared sense of mind, the duo began testing both the shape and the materials.
“I started working with our first boards in my garage that winter by building extremely primitive shapes from plywood, bending them with steam, and glassing them like surfboards. The original boards were very basic, but actually extremely fun in powder. These first shapes were the backbone of the brand that led to where we are today.”
Nicol knew that birch plywood, e-glass, and resin could only take them so far. So he started to look for options that would not only perform better but allow them to scale.
“I built a homemade press in spring 2013 and started experimenting with maple and birch veneers, doing a variety of layups to produce different flex and strength. When I found bamboo, however, that… that was a game changer. The strength to weight ratio was unmatched and I knew when I stepped on the first bamboo plank that we had something truly unique.”
Bamboo enabled the Snoplanks team to hone both the supply chain and production. But the choice to use bamboo was not solely based on technical performance alone. Bamboo from a sustainability standpoint appealed to Nicol and Holmes, as well. They wanted to make every plank as environmentally friendly as possible, which includes using tung oil as the finish, donating all of the scrap materials to Hangr Supply, and donating a portion of every sale to Protect our Winters.
But as many craftsman know, being sustainable in your production does not result in a subpar product, and these planks are built to last.
“Our boards our extremely durable. We provide a refinishing kit if you want to sand and re-stain the deck. As the boards are 100% bamboo and fiberglass, they do need a bit more care than your standard board, but they can take a solid beating and we have not yet seen one break to date.”
Lessons learned and opportunities ahead
With sales doubling year over year, and a brand that has received its fair share of press, you’d think James and Ryan had done all of this before, but in fact they are first time founders. Not unlike many entrepreneurs, they have maintained their other jobs and hustled to get to this point.
“This is the first startup either of us has ever been involved in. I still work another job to pay the bills and keep the company rolling. Of course, the dream is to grow the business and employee our local community,” Nicol said. “We’ve learned a great deal to this point in terms of branding, product development, and marketing. The key element is figuring out where the most bang for your buck can go on marketing yourself when you have no marketing budget to speak of. I think we have done a good job of that thus far and are taking time in every step to ensure that it is done the right way.”
Snoplanks is striving to be a reputable US manufacturer of snowboards and skis within the next 5 years, all while building a company and culture in the town they call home. That plan includes expanding operations and hiring local talent.
“We hope to grow and prosper right here in Bend, Oregon. One thing we decided early on is that we will never outsource our manufacturing abroad. We are a craft company making handmade boards right here in the USA, and that is how things will remain,“ Nicol said. “Bend in itself is a brand. Breweries, Mountains, Rivers, Art/Music… Bend has it all. We feel blessed to be able to have a business here and to be able to represent such an amazing community with our product.”
That community of supporters and followers extends throughout the Northwest. They are looking to expand sales on the West Coast this winter through strategic outreach and collaborations; with one of those recent collaborations being with Bend based Deschutes Brewing, where they had the opportunity to build boards for their national marketing team.
With growth comes both opportunities and challenges, and the team at Snoplanks is focused on addressing each in equal measure.
“To grow we are going to need to upgrade our equipment so that we can fill larger orders and expand our distribution. This obviously requires capital and therefore we are going to be working on raising this capital for the 2016/17 season. ”
But with the hopes of El Nino bringing much needed snow to the NW, they do not foresee their fundraising slowing down their business trajectory nor distracting them from continuing their sales growth — growth that is best experienced in knee deep powder.
For more information on the photographer, Pete Alport visit his Facebook page.