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Ep. 054: On Launching a Snowboard Outerwear Company — The Mike West Interview
20th April 2018 • Product Launch Rebel • John Benzick
00:00:00 00:56:26

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Hear how Mike West, the founder of 686 Outerwear, launched his snowboard brand just out of college, with no formal design experience.  Listen as Mike describes his past mistakes as a “blessing in disguise.” Hear him express the importance of curiosity, listening, and remaining humble, as an entrepreneur.  Additionally, Mike encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to not wait for the perfect time to start a business.

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Top Takeaways from this Episode:

(1)  To become an entrepreneur, put yourself out there and take a chance; be prepared but don’t aim for perfection.

(2)  It helps to be a regular customer for the types of products that you’ll sell as an entrepreneur.  This helps you understand the needs and desires of your customer base.

(3)  Starting out, you can do a lot with a little. You don’t need much staff to start a clothing business.  Much of what you do can be outsourced to other suppliers and freelancers.

(4)  Counterintuitively, business challenges and mistakes can be blessings in disguise.


John Benzick:  Oh man, in this terrific episode I interview Mike West, the founder of 686, The Technical Snowboard Outerwear Company. And one of my favorite parts in the interview was when Mike emphasized a key decision point of entrepreneurship, which is the importance of not waiting for the perfect time to start a business, and learning to be comfortable, or courageous enough, to just get started and to take the leap.

Mike West:  Putting yourself out there, and maybe going out and learning it firsthand is okay. You will never be ready and everything set to go. You have to be ready but you won’t have everything perfect. I would have never been able to be where I’m at without taking a chance. And you will give excuses to yourself about why you can’t do it, but if you want to try it, try it. And if you don’t, it’s fine. It’s not for everyone, believe me. There’s so much pressure right now to be that guy. You don’t need to. But give it a try if you want to.

John Benzick:  Greetings product launch rebels and welcome to the Product Launch Rebel Podcast, brought to you by, where we help double your entrepreneurial courage, even if you’re in a sea of self-doubt. Please visit the Venture Superfly website and check out the contact page to join our mailing list.

John Benzick:  Today I’m stoked to interview Mike West, the founder and CEO of 686 Outerwear for snowboarders. He started the brand just out of college with no formal design experience. When you go into many outdoor retailers across the country, you’ll see 686 prominently displayed. In fact, our family is a happy customer of 686. All of my three step kids, even Nadia and Pierce, wear 686 when they’re riding on the slopes, keeping them warm and dry and stylish to boot.

John Benzick: Mike also launched Matix Clothing, which is a lifestyle apparel brand stemming from the skateboard and surf culture of Southern California. Mike is a partner in North America’s largest action sports and outdoor warehouse fulfillment center called NRI Distriubtion, where they help distribute leading brands like Electric Eyewear, SurfTech, Outdoor Research, Black Diamond and many others.

John Benzick:  And finally, later this year, Mike is planning to launch a new direct to consumer apparel brand called Westwell, which will play in the larger menswear and soon womenswear markets. Stay tuned for that. Mike’s a really creative force, that’s for sure.

John Benzick:  Without further ado, let’s say high to Mike West. Mike, thanks for being here and welcome to the Product Launch Rebel Podcast.

Mike West:  Thanks, John. Thanks for having me. When you list all those things up, I don’t really realize that things are on my plate, but it’s been a great ride. Whatever I can do to kind of tell my story, I’m pretty stoked to do that.

John Benzick:   And I listed the abridged version. You’ve got a lot more things going on, I know that. That’s for sure.

John Benzick:  So Mike, there are three segments in this podcast. The first is called Give Me The Basics, which helps set the context about your companies for our listeners. The second segment is called Let’s Get Personal, where we get into some of the more personal topics about what it’s like to start a business. And the final part is what I call Tell Me How, where we’ll get to the heart of the matter, on issues that aspiring entrepreneurs want to know now, to help move them forward.

John Benzick:  Mike, what do you think? Are you ready for some questions?

Mike West:  Let’s do it.

John Benzick:  Fantastic. All right, here we go.

The Back-story of Mike’s Entrepreneurial Journey

John Benzick:  Mike, let’s start at the beginning. Tell us the story. How did you originally come up with the idea to start 686?

Mike West:  I think a lot of my ventures and just what I do is really based upon the feeling, the gut feeling, and kind of being the customer myself, right? Back in the day, I grew up in Southern California, my whole culture was based upon skateboarding. Street skateboarding, it was this kind of movement close to Southern California and Venice Beach particularly, where just this uprising like angst and kind of all the things about what we couldn’t do, into just this form of expression in the skateboard.

Mike West:  I grew up kind of as a sponsored skateboarder. You know, back then, you weren’t looked in the way that you were looked today. People were like, “All those guys on the side, what are they doing? They’re creating trouble.” For me, I was a shy kid. That was my way of actually getting my expression out, so that eventually led me to meeting people, and being in this kind of artist kind of creative culture. That was a part of the mid ’80s, and I transferred that to snowboarding in the local mountains, and became instructor there. Just did that while going to school at the same time.

Mike West:  That was my foundation of just finding myself, and my hobbies, and things I was just really passionate about. That’s how it all started before I actually started quote unquote business, which I do today.

John Benzick:  Right. And you started with the outerwear component pretty quickly, right? You didn’t just start with T-shirts or things like that.

Mike West:  Yeah, more or less, initially I just spoke about it is I didn’t initially have any design experience. I hadn’t gone to school, I learned from someone. What I did, I guess understood, and when you’re young, you really didn’t understand exactly those sets because you didn’t have the tools you have today. You know how to assert eyeing something. When you have an eye like, “I like that, I don’t like that,” and I learned how to maybe communicate that on more of a formatted process.

Mike West:  When I was going to school, the few things changed me in terms of hey, the instructor told me, “You could actually do something for a career and in aspects you like to do.” It’s something as simple as that today is really hard to understand. You go to a prestigious school back then, you pay a lot of money, and you have to essentially do what maybe your parents were expecting you to do, which is become a professional. That was not necessarily my mindset back then.

Mike West:  I learned the things I liked to do, which is basically back then was moving, being in the mountains, and thought about how I can center myself around that, and I thought about creating something, and I just did it by a speaker, and he told me to do this and do that. I got into … I actually did create a hat, a beanie, a T-shirt and a pair of jeans first. The second year I went to creating technical apparel because I realized that you can only get so far in protecting yourself from a T-shirt and a hat when you’re in the mountains.

How 686 Clothing Got Early Traction

John Benzick:  Mike, talk a little bit about what was so unique about 686 when you started it. Apparel is such a tough industry. How did you cut through the clutter early on amongst so many outerwear and clothing brands that were out there?

Mike West:  The interesting thing is we have so much transparency nowadays. Back then, you only knew what was in your little proximity of not even watching your phone, and handling phone. It’s more what you knew locally. I think that’s something that I knew really first-hand because I was the customer. I was really passionate about doing this, and I wanted to hear what people wanted. The first step is let me make something let me get the response directly right then and there and it kind of steamrolled.

Mike West:   Back then it’s like, “Okay, wow you made something. I like it. Where did you get I?” and you kind of grassroots kind of grow a marketing that way. Then it kind of builts. Back then, the competitive landscape was different. The technical landscape was different. I think when I speak to some people, it’s the right place and the right time, it was the right time in terms of the industry was growing, which I didn’t know. It was mainly by larger companies, but they all started in a similar way. I came from a authentic point of view from where I was, what I was about meaning the city meets the mountain point of view where my initially concept was you can actually use this here and there, meaning you can use it in the streets and in the mountains. It’s very versatile where people kind of appreciate that. It was more this street style. Not high tech, very low tech, but very street oriented. That was kind of my point of view that continued throughout.

Mike West:  Was that one of my successful points? I think it was one of them, but it was really the right time and the right place with a point of view that made the difference.

John Benzick:  Just for some context to our listeners, how many products did you have on the outerwear side when you started producing outerwear, meaning that second or third year, did you have two or three jackets and a pair of pants? Did you have more than that? Did you start with less than that?

Mike West:  Yeah, it was really specific, meaning I made it for myself and my friends. I had a T-shirt, a hat, a beanie, a pair of jeans, and then the outerwear was only an anorak jacket which was really a poor cut boxy 90s cut, which is actually back in today, and this wide pair of shell pants that you just really back then, you just protect yourself from getting wet. It didn’t really protect yourself from being cold. That was the first step.

Mike West:  Then the next one really was the game changer, I could say, in the brand over the 26+ years is…you know I took a trip outside Southern California to Banff in British Columbia. It was a realism factor that I realized it’s not 40 degrees out and sunny all the time, it was really, really frigid in all aspects. I go, “Wow, you really need to actually have some sort of insulation than pure shell.” I actually got a pair of sweats, put in my pants, and I put my shell over it. I put some Velcro on it and sewed Velcro on my waist pant.

Mike West:  And they go, “Wow, I can actually wear a pair of sweats and keeps me warm. And then after that, I can actually take my sweatpants and then wear my sweatpants as I’m lounger.” And that really created the next concept which is known today, which is our smarty collection is it’s a convertible three in one system here. And we were really the first ones to create this kind of branded three in one experience. There was another company, Columbia, you know that had that. But it was totally not in my realm. I didn’t know about them back in the day. So I we created this new feature called Smarty which is zip out zip in technology of interchangeable liners, which people related that to all that was a Kleenex or coke moment where like, if you take your liner out, they referred to us as Smarty, which was, you know, very learned later on, it’s a very powerful thing when people can associate not your brand, but other people’s products to what your name is.

John Benzick:   And with that three in one concept, did that really differentiate you among retail buyers at the time? Did that really sort of get you the traction that you needed?

Mike West:  Absolutely. I think that you know, like, if anyone starts something, you know that when they asking, “Hey, you know, what do you want to do?” Well, I want to make clothing, “What do you want to sell to?” I want to sell to everyone. You really need to really have a point of view and really have a certain niche in terms of who you want. And that’s what we did is we go, “Hey, this came from a really first person point of view in terms how we discovered this, why related to it.” and then this perceived value of going well, you can actually do more, more than one specific thing, was really powerful.

Mike West:  And then also we concentrated strictly on pants, not jackets, we didn’t do jackets so many, many years later. So and today, you know, quarter of a century plus later, we’re the leader and no one else does in pants, you know. So that really kind of blossom our company to do other things while we really own one thing.

John Benzick:  That is really a great little piece to the story. How many employees did you have perhaps in that first year or two? And how many do you have now just for context?

Mike West:  You know, when people ask that, they kind of have an assumption towards that is, but back in the day, I mean, you had me and a friend, right? And then my first employee but those… when you do that you’re really searching for people you feel like you can trust. not really have the best biggest skill set back then. And then you do everything right? And today, they’re still here. The one that’s been made for almost the same time and he’s still here, he’s the president and I have a couple others been here for over 20 years. And, you know, we all kind of grew up in this realm, and we all really hone our skill set. We have about 20 something people right now. But we’re really tight meaning, you know, we were really efficient. And we do quite a bit for the assumption of people how big we are, but we’re not that big at all.

John Benzick:    Sure, you can outsource a lot of that stuff nowadays, everything’s so fluid and, and that really helps out as well. And when I started my outerwear company, I was the one employee for a good few years, and we were getting into REI and a lot of semi large retail chains regionally across the US and you can do a lot with a little, especially the more efficient and effective you can get over time over each season.

Mike West:   Absolutely.

Being Honest, Showing Humility and Being Forgiven

John Benzick:   Mike, most entrepreneurs go into business with a set of assumptions. And many of those assumptions proved to be different from what they expected, thereby making them scramble to make changes in order to survive. If you can think back to the early days, regarding your company’s uniqueness in those early days, did your original assumption about that uniqueness prove motivating to consumers? Or did you discover a different product selling proposition after being in business for a while and getting some customer feedback?

Mike West:   You know, it’s a little bit of both. We like I said before, we have our point of view, which, you know, in our space, it’s people love this kind of like authentic storytelling, you know process. And I think that, you know, when you’re doing in the early 90s, not knowing what people are really thinking and having this long lead time, you just did it really honest, you know, and I had a lot of humility going, “It’s okay, you can tell your story, you can tell people what you’re doing.” So it was this how it was, I think people began to trust us, by the way of just going, you know, I were at the same level, you’re not coming to me, somewhere else, you’re coming to me just like anyone wanted. And I think that’s a big part of how we were relative to a lot of our customers.

Mike West:   And, and as we are today, you know, I think we didn’t have any like, we shouldn’t do that, because that’s going to happen. We kind of just did it and in another day, we were forgiven a lot. I had some really great products. And I see that products are actually still used today. But we made a lot of mistakes, too. So that process was forgiven because it was somewhat accepted back then because it wasn’t an quick, you know, the aspect of today and yesterday completely different. Right? It’s completely different.

The Personal Side of Entrepreneurship

John Benzick:   Sure. Mike, let’s get personal on a few topics. Many aspiring entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know. I certainly...