Industry Profile: eesa Founder Stephen Cleary
23 Sep, 2008
Stephen: Let’s see, I’m 6’2″ 185, fit, Sagittarius, married, three kids, live in Waterbury, Vermont and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world for the moment.
Shay: What is your job title?
Stephen: I am the President, CEO, and founder of eesa lux layering. However, my business card reads brand enabler. To be fair, my main focus is to oversee the eesa brand and make sure we are hitting on all fronts, web, media, product, riders, etc. I map out the short and long-term goals for the business while juggling all aspects of marketing, product, accounting and sales.
Shay: Did your parents question your job choice?
Stephen: Well, I have a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts – Design degree from the University of Massachusetts and I moved to NYC after graduation to work for an architectural firm. But the call of the mountain was too much and I decided to move back to Massachusetts to manage a couple shops while I bugged Burton to hire me.
Shay: What was your first set up?
Stephen: Whoa, that’s a tough one, I believe the first legit set-up I had was a Burton Cruzer Elite 165, I can’t fully remember, it was 1985. I can tell you I purchased a Sims Terry Kidwell in ’89 that I thought was the raddest board ever.
Shay: What is your current set up?
Stephen: I rock a couple different set-ups depending on the weather. I have a Rome Design and a Rome Anthem ready to rock and I’m lucky that Rome is down the road from us, they let me pick through the warranty pile if I’m in need of a “new” used deck.
Shay: What was your first job?
Stephen: First job?! Damn, I was in fourth grade and I had a paper route, I also used to ride my bike into town before school and raise the American flag on the town common for a little while. My first real job with real money was working on a farm in Western Massachusetts picking cucumbers. Working on a farm has to be some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life. We worked 10 hour days, six days a week and it was super hard manual labor. The upside was getting that fatty check every couple of weeks. Man, there’s nothing like having a fat stack in your pocket during summer vacation.
Shay: What’s a great day of snowboarding to you?
Stephen: Some of my best days are riding alone. I like to hike the mountain before the lifts open and ride down. There’s something very rewarding to watch the sunrise while you hike up and have a chance to really absorb the beauty of it all before you get to shred the whole mountain by yourself. It’s really something special that everyone should try one.
Of course everyone loves a good pow day, but couple a good pow day with a hike to a line you know is going to be untapped and it feels that much sweeter knowing you got it first and you earned it with the hike!
Shay: Who are your influences?
Stephen: I’m into my faith and surrounding myself with positive hard working people. Jesus was a super rad dude and if you take a look at what he was trying to teach, be good to people, be honest, don’t kill people, treat people like you want to be treated, etc. Well, that’s pretty rad. My wife Rose has been a major influence, she super supportive, positive, upbeat and we’ve had some great adventures. In the end I think everyone influences your life whether it’s positively or negatively. Ultimately though, life is whatever you want it to be. If you want to be happy, be happy, if you want to be negative, that’s your choice. You can do and be whatever you want to be. Really.
Shay: How long have you been snowboarding?
Stephen: My first year snowboarding was 1984, but that was on hills in and around Amherst, Ma where I grew up.My first day snowboarding at a mountain was New Year’s Eve 1985 at Jay Peak.It was a frickin’ skating rink and it took me 2.5 hours to get down from the top of the tram. My ass was so sore I couldn’t sit down for a week, but I was hooked. I had grown up skateboarding, so I was super stoked to do something similar in the winter.
Shay: How many days do you get to ride a year?
Stephen: It really depends, on average I ride 25-50 days a year. The year I took off from working in the industry I cranked 70+ days, that was amazing. I hiked the mountain 32 times that year and really got my stoke back on for working in the industry.
Shay: What is your role at eesa
Stephen: Anything and everything. Main focus is steering the company in the short term while keeping an eye on long-term objectives. When you’re starting a company you have to do it all. Source factories, pick orders, ship product, manage the team, do the books, write press releases, create the catalog and websites, sell product, basically you have to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
Shay: What prompted you to make eesa?
Stephen: When I was working on anon for Burton, I traveled around the world meeting with riders and the one thing I noticed was that a lot of snowboarders were wearing cotton t’s and hoody’s. I asked them why they didn’t wear technical products to which they replied it wasn’t cool and they wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that stuff. So I said well, what if I made you a technical rugby or button-down? The first 10 riders of the 12 I called said hell yeah and that’s how eesa got started
Shay: What were some of the challenges of starting your own softgoods company?
Stephen: I think the biggest challenge would be sourcing a factory. I had previous experience doing that for Burton so that actually was fairly easy for us. There are millions of challenges to starting a company, selling product, getting product made and hitting factory minimums, getting riders on the team, getting people to know about eesa, etc. I like to tell our employees and interns you have to keep your feet moving which means, if you’re standing around looking for something to do, someone or something is going to blindside you. You have to be proactive and anticipate problems. Another big saying for me is ‘find a solution’ which means if and when you encounter a problem, and trust me, you will encounter a problem, find a solution. There’s always a solution and you better be ready to run through a wall to find it. I have a quote outside the office right now that says ‘99% of all failures happen due to people who have a habit of making excuses’. George Washington Carver – think about it.
Shay: How did you come up with the name?
Stephen: I made it up one day when I was having lunch with our team rider Jesse Fox. I was putting together combinations of letters and came up with eesa. I turned the paper over, show it to Jesse and he was like ‘whoa’ I was like ‘that’s it’ and he said ‘that’s it’. It was one of those moments. We wanted to come up with a clean name with no associations, meaning we could build the brand story of eesa lux layering around the name instead of having the name dictate what the company was. Think about Gucci, Prada, Nixon, Volcom, those names mean nothing if you don’t know the brand, it’s a very definite strategy used to build a brand.
Stephen: I worked for Burton for five years and helped launch anon optics. That was an amazing experience and really allowed me to get my feet wet on what it takes to launch a brand.
Shay: What’s the best part about founding a company?
Stephen: Knowing that all those long days and nights are spent working on something you love in an industry you love.
Shay: What is your favorite eesa product?
Stephen: Right now I’m really stoked on our bamboo tee’s. I grab a Munroe at least once a week. I’m also really pumped on our bonded fleece pulse hooded sweatshirt. It has a really nice large hood and great product details. We also started getting in some of our 010 promo bamboo tee’s and I’ve been sneaking them out of the product room while our product manager is in China. I’m not supposed to be wearing them because we need them for photoshoot, but I can’t help myself, the bamboo tee’s are way softer than a cotton tee, are anti-microbial, quick-dry and moisture wicking which we fondly call M.A.Q. tech. Basically it’s like wearing the nicest cotton tee you’ve ever felt but it’s packed with tech to keep your temperature regulated and your stink down.
Shay: Whatwere the steps you took to making your first product?
Stephen: The first thing I did was met with the team. I asked them what they wanted, what were the top three products we could make them? Then, I met with our apparel designers and had them draw up some designs. Tweaked up the designs with the team and once we had approval, started making samples.
Shay: How did you select your production factory?
Stephen: I went to China and spent a couple months sourcing factories. I looked for a factory that could work with our minimums, could hit our timelines and pricing and ultimately was someone I wanted to do business with and trusted.
Shay: Is designing softgoods a collaborative effort?
Stephen: Hell yes, the product you see on the shelve (really any product) has been touched by so many people it’s amazing. From the designer, to the team, back to the designer, to the technical designer, to the factory for a sample, back to the designer, to the technical designer, another sample, approval, shipping, on and on it goes. You can’t do it yourself and everyone has to check their ego’s at the door.
Shay: Is the snowboard industry a hard place to work?
Stephen: It depends, there are a lot of people trying break into the industry, so it’s very competitive in that regard. I think the action sports industry is a hard place to work to get your voice heard. You or your brand are up against established companies that have massive marketing budgets so it can be hard for the voice and message of your brand to be heard. It’s as hard as you think it is.
Shay: What are the stages of the ground-up design?
Stephen: I take a look at all the categories and products that did well for us last year and develop a line-list for the designers. We then take a hard look at what’s happening in design, fashion and other relevant industries. Once we have a pulse on what’s going-on, we have the designers pull together the first round of designs. I meet with our team, our reps and distributors and some key accounts for feedback. We go through this process three times and once we have a solid line-up we make our first round of samples for the team to look at. Once the team is onboard, we make sales samples for our reps who then show them to shops/accounts to take orders. Throughout this process, we are constantly improving the product based on team on-snow feedback, rep and retailer feedback.
Once we have our orders we then make our pre-production samples before our bulk production and occasionally we’ll make improvements to the products throughout that whole process. Really the product you see on the shelves, has been under development for almost two-years.
Shay: What’s your average day like at work?
Stephen: I usually roll-in around 8 and leave around 6. I put another couple hours in later in the night. Average day would be way too hard to say, since no two days are alike. It really depends on the time of the year. Right now, we’re deep into shipping product to retailers and right after that we move into our next selling season which we kick off with our Winter Sales Meeting in November.
Shay: What are some memorable experiences from working at eesa?
Stephen: Driving the RV across the country visiting shops, meeting with team riders and ending up at Mt. Hood and then on to Whistler to shred was an all-time summer! Shipping our first production order was pretty amazing and getting our first product review didn’t suck either.
Stephen: Amazing, every day is a new experience. One of the best perks is shredding before work at Stowe with the crew. Of course on a pow day all bets are off, meaning you get in when you get in.
Shay: What education/experience did you have before starting eesa?
Stephen: I mentioned earlier about college and Burton and really all the experiences of life are what come together to present you with your opportunities. I’m a big believer in pushing yourself and making mistakes and more importantly learning from your mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not pushing yourself.
Shay: What’s the best perk you’ve gotten from your job?
Stephen: Free clothes, traveling the world and shredding with our pro team.
Shay: Any disadvantages of your job?
Stephen: The travel and hours can be a challenge with the family. There are also times where you’re going to resorts and not shredding, damn, there should be a law against that, that is full-on torture.
Shay: Since you started in the industry, what’s been the biggest change?
Stephen: I would have to say that product and riding are insane. There are so many dope companies in the industry right now, really solid product on the shelves. The riding is ridiculous; there are kids at hills now that aren’t even sponsored who would easily have been pro in the early 90’s. Kids are killing it right now.
Shay: What’s the busiest time of year for you?
Stephen: From now until May.
Shay: What advice would you give to people wanting to start a softgoods company?
Stephen: Make sure you have a handle on all aspect of running a business. Make solid product, know how to market your brand and make sure you get orders, which also means sell, sell, sell, cause if you ain’t selling, you ain’t in business and I don’t care how cool you think your company is.
*Photos courtesy of Stephen Cleary
*Photos courtesy of Stephen Cleary