Industry Profile: Automaton Owner Brenton Woo
28 Jul, 2009
Shay: Tell us a little bit about yourself
Brenton: As a snowboarder, I’ve spent 10 full seasons in the mountains, predominantly in Summit County and Tahoe. As a person, I welcome being outside of my comfort zone. I like traveling, snowboarding, and surfing. I like seeing progression, and I have little patience for tradition. (True progression and tradition are mutually exclusive). Even though I’m not a city person, my favorites are London, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Melbourne.
Shay: What is your job title?
Brenton: Founder, CEO, President, General Manager. I have my hands in all aspects of Automaton’s operation, and since tasks change according to season, it’s tricky to put a title on my job. From branding to logistics to the supply chain to sales, I handle it all. A buddy also in the snowboard industry, Jim, when introducing me to people often says that I am Automaton. He says, “This is Brenton. He’s Automaton.”
Shay: Did your parents question your job choice?
Brenton: Well, my parents definitely questioned my way of life at the time, which predominantly consisted of traveling and chasing waves and snow. Now that they see what Automaton’s all about, I think they’re supportive of my business. I’m a big fan of re-evaluation, and I try to re-evaluate my life every couple of months to make sure my goals and actions are aligned. (This, by the way, is the most practical definition of happiness I’ve ever come across: happiness is when one’s goals and actions are aligned.) In my life assessment, I realized that nearly everything I did was in some way related to maximizing time on the snow or in the surf. So to start a company based in the activities that influence my life is a step closer to aligning my goals and actions. Being financially independent since 18, my parents really couldn’t stop me from doing what I want to do, and that’s how I liked it.
Shay: What was your first set up?
Brenton: It was the 1st K2 zeppelin model with switch step-ins and deluxe boots. Step-in bindings are one of the greatest concepts in snow hardware that just couldn’t work. I mean, a lot of the systems worked well, but they simply don’t give the same feeling that strap bindings offer. And in the end, it’s all about feeling.
Shay: What is your current set up?
Brenton: Automaton Time Fighter 151, 32 boots because 32 is one of the few companies that make adult boots in my small size. I generally use Union force bindings, but I find the bindings I like to use are Frankenstein versions of many bindings.
Shay: What was your first job?
Brenton: Cook. I really do enjoy cooking and food. I was a professional chef for 10 years. But my re-evaluation showed me that I was cooking to snowboard (and surf) more. The restaurant world is not the healthiest lifestyle. I just got burnt out.
Shay: What’s a great day of snowboarding to you?
Brenton: Snowboarding has really changed for me as I’ve gotten older. But my love for it hasn’t changed. I used to have to be on the snow from 1st chair, all day everyday. Today, my body can’t take that. I don’t really enjoy snowboarding unless I’m shredding at the top edge of my personal ability. This unfortunately means taking a rail to the gut or rag dolling down a pitch every now and then. Today, an hour or 2 a day is enough for me. I’m still in love with snowboarding today as much as I was when I was younger, but how I love it has clearly changed. I don’t need to be on the snow all day to love snowboarding.
I really like runs that have a bit of everything. A great day is getting that run that’s trees and pow right off the lift, then goes into a groomed park. I prefer to shred solo, but on a great day, I’d catch up with friends and take a couple laps with them as well.
Shay: Who are your influences?
Brenton: Inspirational success stories really catch my attention. (Not the Horatio Alger-based fairy tales like the “American Dream”). I’ve been taking many cues from global businesses and their history. I tend to be attracted to brands that are tight and focused. Steve Jobs and his vision of Apple is an example most people are familiar with. Volcom is a great example of a company that can grow without “selling out”. (Selling out means to surrender for a price. Volcom is only leading action sports brand that didn’t change because of market trends, regardless of how large the company has become. This is why their brand identity is the strongest in the industry.) I like Lamborghini’s story and strategy a lot. Google, too. Within the snow industry, I like Holden because their outerwear actually looks different than literally everyone else’s, and my favorite snowboard brand of all time was Jeenyus. It’s important to remember what snowboarding is all about and why it came into existence. Skate brands are great and they influenced Automaton in the formative stages. I dig Toy Machine, Zero, Foundation, Anti-Hero, Consolidated, just to name a few. Several times at Hood, kids mentioned that from the graphics they thought Automaton was Toy Machine snowboards. I take that as a compliment.
Unfortunately, a big early influence was Horatio Alger’s rags to riches concept coupled with the “American Dream” concocted to attract immigrants to this country in the 19th Century. (More citizens = more tax revenue!) I say unfortunately because it’s all a lie. The idea that you can get become successful on hard work alone is not true. You can get by on hard work alone. And it’s all relative. A convenience store clerk is getting by just the same as a doctor. Why? Because neither are risking anything, just following directions. A clerk or a doctor goes into their work, does a good job, and that’s just status quo. They are in limited jobs, not unlimited careers. I personally am not content with just getting by.
To me, snowboarding has been a major influence in my life. Every place I’ve traveled to, the people I’ve met, the friends I have, and my life experiences are in some way connected with snowboarding. Because of this, I feel that I owe snowboarding everything. Snowboarding owes me nothing. And I should leave snowboarding in better shape than when I came in.
Shay: How long have you been snowboarding?
Brenton: 12 years. I’ve had 10 full seasons living in the mountains.
Shay: How many days do you get to ride a year?
Brenton: In Truckee, I live 6 miles from Northstar, we have 3 other major resorts within 15 minutes drive, 4 ski areas, and plenty of backcountry access when the pow is good. I used to get at least 100 days per season. That ended in 2004 when 2 discs in my back decided to blow out. These days I’m perfectly content with 70 days on snow. It’s funny how I can shred less but still love snowboarding just as much.
Shay: How did you get your start in the industry, what opened up more opportunities for you?
Brenton: I read somewhere that the best way to get something done is to go ahead and do it. I had a life savings of $3k, and felt that snowboarding had a need for a brand that’s true. That’s all I had when I started Automaton.
Shay: What’s the story behind Automaton?
Brenton: As a 100+ day shred, I thought it was a travesty that there weren’t any brands I wanted to pay for. The reason being that none of them spoke to or for me. But there comes a time when one needs to put his money where his mouth is. Automaton was conceived. I’m building a snowboard brand based on the 3 core values of snowboarding: being young, different, and creative. These are the same 3 values that make snowboarding different than skiing. Snowboarding is based on progression while skiing is based on tradition.
Every year, Automaton has a campaign that ties in our graphics, philosophy, and snowboard values. 07/08 was Honesty is the New Black. 08/09 was Stand Alone. 09/10 is Shred Today (Because Tomorrow It May Melt).
I also felt that the industry is completely missing the mature shreds, meaning 24-32 year olds. Adding adult sensibilities isn’t a new concept. Even comic books developed into graphic novels. So I wanted to build a brand that the kids and older shreds can appreciate. Take the Time Fighter for example. Kids see the colors and art and think it’s a cool graphic. Adults see it and understand the joke. Others will see the message of the joke.
Shay: How are you looking to expand Automaton?
Brenton: I’m not. I want to keep Automaton’s board line tight and focused. The industry, let alone customers, doesn’t need another all-consuming tier 1 brand that offers head to toe gear. What snowboarding does need are stronger brands. In snow/skate/surf, brands and the cultures are nearly the same thing. This is indicative of a fashion based industry as opposed to a product based industry. Guess what? There are at most a handful of product based industries on this planet. One thing that lends to a stronger brand is a focused product line. When a person hears “Ferrari”, what do they think of? Easy. A red Italian exotic sports car. What does a person think of when they hear “Ford”? A pickup? A car? A van?
The plan for Automaton is to keep producing the world’s finest freestyle snowboards, period. Freestyle is the future of snowboarding, it always has been and always will be. Non-freestyle snow riding is called skiing. Freestyle doesn’t mean you have to be hucking your carcass over 100ft gaps. To me, freestyle is simply the creative approach to enjoying snow.
Shay: What were some of the challenges of starting Automaton?
Brenton: The biggest, in retrospect, was not having the proper relationships or experience within the industry before launching Automaton. I was naïve and probably took the American Dream stories a little too close to heart.
Shay: How did you come up with the name Automaton?
Brenton: I remember sitting on lifts and hearing people next to me talk about how much they love the snow and it’s like the 7th day they’ve had that season. Eventually they’d ask me how many days I’ve had that season, and I’d answer truthfully, which is usually 5-20 times as many as they’ve had. They declare that I’m so “lucky” to be able to shred so much. But in reality, luck has nothing to do with it. Snowboarding is one of my true loves, so it’s top on my priority list. Everything else revolves around it in order for me to maximize on-snow time. The beauty of America is that you can do generally do whatever you feel like (so long as it doesn’t victimize anyone else). If these people wanted to have 100 day seasons, there’s nothing stopping them. Except they think there is. They’re following a pre-programmed homogenized “American Dream”. They’re following a life they aren’t truly happy with, for whatever reasons. This is evident since they need to escape their lives with vacations. (I know what vacations are, but I honestly don’t understand them. If you’re living your life true to yourself, why would you ever need a vacation?) They’re literally mechanical animals: automatons. An automaton is a mechanism in the shape of a human; synonymous with android. So to name my company Automaton is an inside joke right off the bat. Not necessarily to insult people, but to poke fun at the social chains that people think are holding them back (but don’t even exist).
Shay: What’s the best part about founding a company?
Brenton: Where to begin? I spend all the time I want working towards something I care about. Not just building my own business, but participating in snowboarding. This is the upswing of a “career”. Like Chris Rock said, when you have a career, there’s not enough time in the day. When you have a job, there’s too much time in the day. Being at the forefront of a company, there are no upper limits, and I like that.
I don’t necessarily like being the boss, or managing people, or handling sales. But I do like being able to steer a company I believe in, and being involved day to day with something I don’t ever plan on quitting.
Shay: What is your favorite Automaton Snowboard?
Brenton: Right now it’s the Time Fighter 151, mostly because it’s the board I’m currently using. I think the graphics are hilarious, and are of near perfect layout. They were done by Alex Funderburk who is currently the senior graphic designer at Paul Frank. I get excited with each season’s new crop of decks. But right now, I think the 09/10 line is the closest yet to my vision of a perfect snowboard line. It is the best I know how to produce thus far.
Shay: What were you steps you took to making your first prototype?
Brenton: First ever was in 2004. Automaton had a 1 board line. It was based entirely on my experiences with riding various boards in previous seasons to know how different board designs feel, what makes a great freestyle board, and what I like personally.
Shay: Where are Automaton Snowboards currently produced?
Brenton: By the best factory in the world: Elan in Austria. Automaton has been working with Elan since 2005.
Shay: How many times a year do you visit the factory?
Brenton: Generally I have the time to travel in the summer months. Coincidentally, this is also when production at Elan occurs. While an annual visit isn’t necessary, I’ll drop by when I happen to be near Austria. Austria is a great place. I like driving fast. From what I remember, the coffee is strong, and there’re plenty of attractive women hanging around. And in the summer, Austrians eat ice cream like the power went out and they gotta finish it all before it melts. I like ice cream. Almost as much as driving fast.
Shay: What steps are taken to ensure durability and quality of Automaton Snowboards?
Brenton: Quality control and durability are incredibly critical to a small company, even more so than for a large one. Every warranty claim or defective board costs us money in time, labor, shipping, etc. So believe me when I say that ensuring durability and quality are top priorities for Automaton.
Year after year, I listen to feedback from Agents, customers, distributors, and work with Elan to figure out the best ways to improve our product. As the general level of shredding rises, snowboarders are becoming increasingly hard on their equipment impact-wise. What’s kind of interesting to me is that it seems that the higher level riders are actually less harsh on their gear than lower level riders. Most likely this is because they have the ability and experience to land their moves properly more often (hence they’ve become high level shreds). The result is less wear and tear on their gear. It’s the middle level guys that snap truck loads of boards and bindings every season. A guy running another small board brand told me that one of his contest am’s once went through 30 decks in a season while one of his a-list filming pros went through 5 and didn’t even use 2 of those.
Back in 2005, Elan invested 10 million Euros to retool and build new, exclusive machinery for their factory. They have the tightest tolerances for quality control. The result is the lowest rates of non a-quality boards of any major snowboard factory and a reputation as the highest regarded snowboard producer on the planet.
But despite all the efforts anyone can take in the construction of their product, the reality is that if it can be built, it can be broken.
Shay: Do you see social media as an important future in marketing?
Brenton: Well, I see everything as marketing. So to answer the question, yes. From my experiences with Automaton, I have a tough time seeing the difference between business and life. The principles are identical. I am Automaton. A job interview is the same thing as going on a date. Maintaining a successful company is identical to maintaining a healthy family. Relationships are all about identifying and fulfilling needs. Relationships are at the foundation of business and life, so therefore social media is going to become increasingly integral.
Shay: Does snowboarding need more honesty and brutal truth?
Brenton: This is a yes, for sure. Hell, Automaton’s 07/08 campaign was “Honesty is the New Black”.
Ever read an industry related press release? If you’ve read one, you’ve pretty much read them all. They all say that whatever event/new hire/product/collaboration has them really excited for the future yet never explain why they felt there was a need for what they did. Few companies ever explain the problem that they’re solving. They just think that making a bunch of all-over print stuff somehow makes snowboarding a better place.
Ever read an SIA industry report? Somehow every year looks better than before despite the number of snowboard participants have been on the decline since 2004 and the economy has slowed to a crawl.
The truth is that snowboarding needs to settle down and establish our identity. If we don’t know who we are, then how will the public? The truth is that more expensive products aren’t doing anyone any favors. The truth is that many companies seem to take for granted that there is a core of people who love snowboarding to death. The truth is that snowboarding saves lives.
Shay: What are your thoughts on the current state of the snowboard industry?
Brenton: My initial thought is that it’s really difficult to gauge the health of the snowboard industry at any given moment. I’m fairly certain that many companies don’t report accurate numbers to SIA, or they use accounting complexities in their favor in order to shape revenue reports to fit their current strategies. I know that across dealers, it’s nearly impossible to get a consensus on what brands are selling and which aren’t. Literally one brand will sell like hotcakes at one dealer, and not move with another. One thing that is consistent across dealers is which companies are and aren’t diligent in business operations.
Here are areas that NEED improvement:
1. Resorts. I think many US resorts need to change their models to fit the modern market. I mean, can you believe that a resort today doesn’t have a well-designed and maintained terrain park? I can think of only a handful of resorts that are aware it’s not 1963 anymore. I think resorts in general are missing a key revenue stream in huge by not leaning snowports more towards being a culture, rather than an expensive 1-week vacation. I mean, this is how they do it in Europe and Scandinavia. In Finland, kids go snowboarding everyday after school. Shredding is not a big deal, it’s just what they do. Like surfing in SoCal. I understand that much of a resort’s overhead is liability insurance, which in turn jacks up pass prices. This is entirely the fault of the health care system in the USA that’s setup by our government. If resorts can cater to both the high spending vacationers and normal everyday winter sports participants, they’d be developing a culture that will net them stable business in the long run.
Also, resorts have to understand that if they disappeared, snowboarding will not. The number of participants will most likely decline drastically, and the industry would collapse, but snowboarding won’t go away. Look at any vid produced today. There is little resort footage at all. Most snowboarders that are getting work done are doing it on the street or in the backcountry.
2. Distribution. I think relationships between brands and dealers can be better as well. I don’t understand dealers that continue to do business with brands that lose them money. It makes no sense to me. And you’d be surprised at which brands these are. I also am VERY tired of anyone in business that’s not willing to take calculated risks. Risk is the only thing that pays off in this world. Period. This pretty much explains the entire industry when the economy was “good”. No one wanted to change. They wanted to milk it while the milking was good. It was only when the economy slowed down did all businesses flail and start cutting the fat to become lean machines. I think it’s a better idea to be able to anticipate changes, rather than react to them.
I think many would agree that for a new, small, startup brand, distribution is the weakest link. There’s clearly a huge gap that could be filled with a distributor in the same model as the skate industry’s distributors.
3. Snowboard awareness. I think that the biggest problem with the snowboard industry is that it’s too esoteric at the moment. We definitely need to open up to a wider audience, and this absolutely can be done without “selling out”. Some people clown Shaun White because he’s in Mt. Dew commercials, but guess what? He’s a household name. He’s drawing interest to snowboarding, and that’s good for the industry. Even though I’m not a fan of White’s riding style, he definitely deserves to be called a professional snowboarder. Look at skating and surfing. Bam Margera and Tony Hawk are household names. Andy and Bruce Irons have had covers on Outdoor magazine. Kelly Slater just had a decent article in Sports Illustrated and at one point he was dating Pam Anderson!
3a. Pro snowboarders, as in any endorsement relationship, need to understand that their job is to generate product sales. End of story. If a company isn’t generating revenue, how can they pay anyone? Many snowboard brands go under because they’re paying their team too much. Too many people think that nailing a “banger” video part is enough to be a pro. But they don’t think how that video is selling product. Alone, it generally doesn’t. Promotion only goes so far. Pro’s have to understand that they need to be so hot that, like any successful celebrity, kids wake up and want to be them. A subsequent problem is that the snow industry has bred a culture of kids that all think they deserve free stuff. It’s BS, because giving stuff away is not helping anyone. And personally, I think it’s much cooler to be able to afford the things I want, rather than have someone give it to me. I’m not a charity case. I can stand on my own 2 feet.
3b. Contests. As it stands right now, they pretty much all blow. Why? Because they’re not watchable. As cheesy as it sounds, organizers need a way to add more emotion to their event. Something other than the actual event to capture spectators’ interest. How do we know contests today suck? You win a contest like the X-Games, no one remembers your name in a week. (The exception is if you win every single freaking contest in your season a la Shaun White ‘07). Who won X-Games 08? Hell if I know. Or care. I’m not the biggest fan of contests because they really only reward consistency. Consistency is an important factor of performance, but not the only one. Snowboarding was also built on creativity, and risk, neither of which are weighted enough in traditional contests. Jam style events do consider creativity and risk, but at the sake of consistency. The WCT tour is the closest example I can think of a great contest circuit in surf/snow/skate. If organizers can make us care about competitors, they can get us to seriously pay attention at contests.
4. Snow Media. This is actually an area that’s seeing recent improvement only because of increased activity in the blogosphere. Traditionally, the snow print media was slaves to their advertisers, when it should be the other way around. Advertisers should want to be in specific mags because of that publication’s reputation. But I guess the snow media doesn’t care about their rep when they don’t have any competition. That is until bloggers came around. I’ve had a magazine literally tell me flat out that I had to buy editorial space. I understand I have to pay for ad space, but ed space? It’s not possible to be any more corrupt. Right now, I’d say bloggers are consistently out-scooping the mags in news stories. And since they don’t have ad revenue to worry about, bloggers have an added level of trust (which is how they get interviews like this one!)
Traditionally, snow mags are filled with mostly ads and garbage for copy. It’s like they think their existence is to directly push product sales for their advertisers. Yes, we need to sell products to stay in business, but the media should be the voice for the culture first. They should report news. By getting people interested in snowboarding culture, sales will follow. For example, look at Car and Driver magazine. They just ran an article comparing the 2010 Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, and Mazda 6; three of maybe the most boring cars in America, possibly the universe. But the article was a great read! It almost made me want to test drive a practical family sedan! How’d the journalist, Tony Swan, do that? Because he’s a freaking writer, that’s how. He can take 3 ultra boring cars and make a great reading article. So the snow media can’t take something as exciting as snowboarding and write at least a couple decent articles a year?
Magazines generally sell because of their content. This is how Time and Newsweek don’t put each other out of business. They’re both news publications but they compete on putting out the highest quality content, not selling their advertiser’s stuff. Right now, bloggers have the best snow content in terms of copy. The mags have an edge in photos, probably only because their photogs can get media access to events and have direct contact with pro shreds. What I’d like to see is a magazine addresses both pop culture and snowboarding. Look at magazines like Wired which combines tech and culture, and Rolling Stone which mixes music/entertainment and culture.
5. Brands. It seems that nearly all of existing snowboard brands are going after the exact same market: 12-20 year old males. This is a problem for several reasons: That demographic 1. Doesn’t have money, 2. Doesn’t want to spend money because they all think they should be “sponsored” (even though they don’t understand what it means to be sponsored) 3. Doesn’t contain enough people to sustain the industry, and 4. Doesn’t reflect that the snowboarder population is changing. Apparently the number of snowboarders isn’t increasing, but rather, the current participants are growing older. If the brands don’t address the older shred market, people are going to lose interest in snowboarding for sure. It’s really silly to see an older person (26-34) shredding in gear designed to appeal to a teenager. I sometimes wonder when snowboarding became a clown show. I can think of literally 2 brands in snowboarding that consistently appeal to mature sensibilities (Automaton and Holden). Skating and surfing have mature appeal. A person can grown with skating and surfing. In the current state of the snow industry, it’s challenging to grow with snowboarding.
But it’s in the light of all these “problems” that makes me believe Automaton has a legitimate chance of success. In general, the snow industry as a whole needs to mature and grow up a bit. Start operating like a business. Make long-term strategies. Consider a wider audience. The fact is, the general population thinks snowboarding is cool. We can’t take that for granted. Otherwise we’ll fall into the same trap the music industry has.
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Shay: What do you see in snowboarding that is promising?
Brenton: Snowboarding is not going to go away, and that’s that. Several things constantly remind me of this. Like how the populations of mountain towns explode in the winters. People pack 10 to a house, eat crappy food, and work crappy jobs, basically rearrange their lives because they want to snowboard more. Or seeing all those kids camping out in the trees at the bottom of Timberline to snowboard IN THE SUMMER.
I like seeing all the styles. From urban to tight pants to xxxl. Not all of the styles are for me personally, but that’s good because it demonstrates variety. I like how no one in snowboarding digs all the styles. Controversy is good. What I don’t like is seeing kids rocking a style everyone else is and thinking they’re original when clearly they’re not. But that’s how kids are. They get strength from numbers. They haven’t experienced enough life to have the strength to Stand Alone (Automaton’s 2009 campaign).
I do see the industry changing, and that’s promising as well. Back when the major players were in Southern California (and away from the mountains), I think the industry didn’t realize that there was a backlash against them. Being in SoCal, they were a bit too removed from real snowboarder culture. People just sported their gear because there was not other choice. For example, for years it wasn’t cool to wear outerwear (unless it was dumping snow). I remember seeing kids at Northstar wearing jackets they painted to get prints, and tailoring their gear to get slimmer fits. Now more brands are based away from SoCal like Portland, Seattle, and I think the proximity to the mountains is allowing them to produce items that are more true to snowboarder’s tastes.
Personally, I’m looking very forward to when the snowboard industry matures.
Shay: What’s your average day like at work?
Brenton: I like how I don’t have an average routine day. Generally there’s lots of emails and phone time involved. Snowboarding (or surfing) will happen at some point contingent on weather conditions. A lot of my job is coordinating with people like artists, dealers, the factory, etc. I also have to pick and ship orders since the bulk of Automaton’s sales are direct via web. So making that afternoon pick-up is important.
My favorite “work days” were in the 06/07 season when Tahoe had those 7 weeks of ridiculously good snow conditions in late spring. I’d wake up at 6am, take care of emails from Europe and Asia. I’d be at Northstar getting some pow time in by 9am. 11am I’d be back at home for lunch and taking care of shipping and whatever else needs to be taken care of. I’d be back at Northstar by 3pm to lap the park until closing. Back then I was also working nights at Sugar Bowl, so I’d be there until maybe 10pm.
Shay: What are some memorable experiences from working in the industry?
Brenton: A group of us took a 2 week trip to Japan in 08 for the Nippon Open. That was my first time shredding outside the USA, and the first time Brent, Jerod, and Joe had ever left America. The trip was awesome, just a great opportunity to experience Japan, their snow, see Automaton’s Japan distribution operation, and get to know the Agents (American and Japanese) on the trip. In 2 weeks, we drove all around the mountains and had 5 snowstorms in a row. The 2nd storm snowed for about 30 straight hours, and we got 18 feet (6m) of new snow. That’s not a typo, and I had never seen so much snow in my life. We shredded the entire of the next day. There was so much snow I remember my head almost hit a chair lift on a run down.
Photo: Jerod Anklam. Japan.
Shay: How is working for Automaton (any cool work events, work environment, job perks)?
Brenton: Since the miracle of the internet, laptops, and mobile phones, my office is 100% mobile aside from warehousing in Truckee. It does get kind of lonely when I’m working from home because there’re not a whole lot of related businesses in Tahoe. But a fair amount of time each season is spent on the road, so eventually I cross paths with other industry friends, reps, etc. A great perk is not being tied down to a location. I couldn’t deal with having to spend 8 hours a day (1/3 of my life) in the same office space.
A pre-season event Automaton hosts annually is our art opening, usually in Oct. or Nov. It’s a way for us to get everyone together before the snow hits and showcase the art of the artists that work with us and also introduce Automaton’s upcoming campaign.
Shay: What education/experience did you have before Automaton?
Brenton: I have a BA in political philosophy from the College of William and Mary ’99. I worked as a professional chef for 10 years. I’ve traveled a lot. In fact, my last passport has every page filled with stamps and visas. In 2000, I moved to Australia because I was sick of the USA, and I knew Oz has surf. I ended up living and working in Coolangatta which was the epicenter of Australia’s pro surfing at the time. I’ve always liked Europe and I’ve spent many summers in London, but the reason why I couldn’t live there is lack of surf. I’m not down with the Atlantic. I haven’t yet been to Africa, but I’m hoping soon. I try to travel every May-June, mainly to get out to keep perspective and have adventures. And find waves, too.
Shay: What’s the best perk you’ve gotten from your job?
Brenton: My sanity. I like working (maybe I’m too absorbed in my work), but only at things I care about. Spending years doing 40-hour weeks at something I don’t care about literally gives me headaches. I know because I’ve done that before.
Shay: Any disadvantages of your job?
Brenton: It’s rough learning and going at the same time. But it’s not impossible. Every movement as a startup is super critical. A little mistake in the eyes of a bigger company could be fatal for a smaller one.
Shay: Since you started in the snowboard industry, what’s been the biggest change?
Brenton: The snowboard industry in general is very dynamic. Brands come out that are the hottest thing ever just to disappear in 3 seasons. Styles change almost overnight. Personally, I’m looking forward to the industry maturing and becoming more like surf and skate. I think in general the snowboard industry is becoming more like the skate industry, which is good and which it should. More and more people are accepting that this is a brand-based industry, not product. Most products work really really well these days. So the product that’s the most attractive is the one that evokes an emotional response from the customer, rather than a rational one. The difference between board brands is more so of preferences rather than practicality, especially since many of the brands come from the same factory!
One change I’ve noticed is that I think snowboarders today are putting less weight on pros than in the past. Pro’s were the major influence in the early part of the decade. Forum proved that brand is important, and they were on top of their game when the Forum 8 were together. But today, I think kids are less impressed with pros than back then. This is because the general level of riding has progressed by leaps and bounds. Pros were way better than the general population years ago, but that gap is closing. Remember in Video Gangs (2003) when Heiskari’s 270 onto the street rail was mind-blowing? 270 on, 270 off, became standard with “normal” park shreds 2 seasons ago (at least at Northstar). Heck, one of our Agents did a 450 on, 450 off at a Mt. Creek PB&RJ 3 seasons ago. People are also realizing that a pro doesn’t make their board perform better. In reality, a pro’s salary make that company’s boards more expensive! This isn’t to say that pros aren’t important anymore, but their influence has just changed since even 5 years ago.
But the snow industry in general is a victim of fads and trends. I mean, even skating has tech fads, and their industry almost has a consensus on product! Almost every skate company has some sort of improved board construction from slick drops to bone-ite. Maybe they’re better than normal skateboards, maybe not. But those boards make up an almost negligible fraction of deck sales. Snowboarding is unfortunately not like that. It seems that the general snowboard consumer will completely fall for the latest gimmick only to realize years later that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. 10 years ago it was carbon in everything: bindings, boards. It took years for people to realize that carbon in boards doesn’t do anything except make your board stiffer and cost more. Then it was “true twins’ before people realized that they’re really rail specialized boards. At about the same time, people were obsessed with soft boards, because of the renewed interest in jibs. But then they realized that super soft decks were pretty much worthless when they wanted to ride this thing called terrain. So medium stiff boards are the sellers today. Now we have reverse camber that people are going nuts over. When are people gonna re-realize that camber and effective edge have a purpose? I just read an interview with Travis Rice and he said that none of his competition boards (08/09) are banana. So when money’s on the line, Trice doesn’t have his money on banana! I understand that we as an industry have to make people excited about snowboarding, but isn’t it more effective to create that excitement within the culture rather than the product? I don’t see Ferrari putting some super hologram paint on their cars. Ferrari made their name through racing, an integral component of automotive culture.
Shay: Do you try out other company’s products?
Brenton: Of course, but more so in the earlier years when I was developing Automaton’s preliminary board recipe. It’s important to know what your competition is up to. It’s part of your homework as a business. When I was living in Summit County, my favorite boards were Unity, specifically the Pride. But I can’t make a serious claim to say I’ve ridden every board out there. I’ve ridden my fair share, but it’s still probably less than 1% of boards on the market. Nowadays, it’s fun to try out competitor’s board concepts, but realistically it’s best to get feedback from a wider range of riders who like a wide range of terrain. I definitely rely on our Agent’s opinions on competitor’s products.
Shay: What’s the busiest time of year for you?
Brenton: September to March. This is the most labor intensive and time critical half of the year for me. I have to make sure all the distributors are set up for the coming season with the current production boards as well as the following season’s samples and marketing material. I have to make sure all ad material and catalogs are ready to go to press and are on schedule. Tradeshow schedules need to be finalized. Automaton’s operations need to be paid for. The annual plan is the annual plan, but this is the time when everything needs to be effectively executed. The bulk of Automaton’s revenue is pulled in November to January through direct sales.
Shay: Education vs Experience…which do you think is more important?
Brenton: If it’s a choice between the 2, then experience, for sure. What’s really the most important is intelligence, which is the interpretation and application of knowledge. But even before we get to education or experience, the best way to maximize both is a person who is humble, open-minded, and willing to work. Believe it or not, it’s not the best to launch a company and be profitable right off the bat. The company is financially successful, and that’s the goal of business for sure. But that success came without discipline and breeds arrogance and stubbornness, which in the long run often leads to the company’s demise. I can think of examples within snowboarding and other industries as well.
Shay: What advice would you give to people wanting to start a snowboard company?
• You can’t build something from nothing.
• I find that people who flat out say “no” to things tend to paint themselves in a corner quickly. I think the best way is to keep as many options open as possible.
• Be diligent and considerate.
• Know when you need help and don’t have too much pride to ask for it.
• Do your research, and do it well, before investing your time and money into something.
• Never trust a woman with an Adam’s apple.
Shay: Final thoughts?
Brenton: Snowboarding is a great way to live one’s life and I don’t have any regrets about it. If by remaining true, Automaton can help people get stoked on snowboarding, then it has done its job as a brand. Money is tough to make, and there’re so many easier ways to make it than in being the snow business. But when do you know it’s enough? When do you give up? The answer is that when you love something truly, there’s no such thing as enough. Automaton’s in it to the end.