When SnoPlanks founders James Nicol and Ryan Holmes won the BendBroadband Early Stage Award at the 2015 Bend Venture Conference, they were handed one of those comically huge checks for $15,000.
A month later, Nicol is talking about the experience in SnoPlanks’ sanding room, which is bigger than that big check — though not by much.
“BVC was just a great opportunity for us to stand in front of multiple groups of people at different times to tell our story,” he says. “We were happy with just that: to be able to reach literally a group of people that would probably never know SnoPlanks existed otherwise.”
Indeed, there may not be much overlap between the powder-hound snowboarders and skiers that SnoPlanks hopes to reach and the investors and entrepreneurs who flock to BVC each fall. But that didn’t stop Nicol and Holmes from convincing the latter that their idea — handmade bamboo snowboards and skis — was worthy of the conference’s biggest prize for startups.
The $15,000 was a game-changer for SnoPlanks, Nicol says.
“We’ve bootstrapped this whole thing. We don’t have millions of dollars in funding. We don’t have any money,” he says. “That BVC money was so big for us. It changed a lot of things.”
Namely, the prize allowed SnoPlanks to buy a snowboard and ski press that will boost the company’s production from four pieces per day (and that’s “working hard,” Nicol says) to four pieces an hour. It will also take the guesswork out of SnoPlanks’ pressing process, which had been done on machines Nicol built by hand.
“That’s huge because it means the boards and skis are going to come out perfectly pressed every time,” he says. “It’s going to make the rest of the process much, much smoother.”
More boards means SnoPlanks now has the ability to take on bigger orders from bigger dealers. And that’ll be key when Nicol and Holmes make their first trip to the country’s biggest snowsports trade show in Denver early next year.
“This is just a huge manufacturing boost for us,” Nicol says, “and we couldn’t have done it without that money.”
Nicol and Holmes got serious about SnoPlanks in 2014 after years of R&D, riding different kinds of boards made of different materials in different conditions. Their goal all along: To create the ultimate floating experience on fresh powder.
“That’s our focus. That’s the niche we’re going after,” Nicol says. “We’re not trying to be a half-pipe board company. We’re not trying to compete with the Burtons of the world. We’re going after a very specific niche and we’re going to stay in that space.”
Nicol has some of his earliest prototypes hanging around the 500-square-foot space SnoPlanks shares with his other company, Easybar, which manufactures beverage dispensing systems and was started by his father. Next to the sanding room is a finishing room, and up in a loft are the presses. Stacked against walls are dozens of beautiful bamboo snowboards and skis.
Nicol and Holmes landed on bamboo because it’s lighter and stronger than most American hardwoods, making it ideal for gliding over soft powder, Nicol says. Holmes works at SnoPlanks on weekends away from his day job at the G5 marketing firm, while Nicol spends seven days a week working at his startup.
It’s a refreshing job after years working in just about every field for Easybar before taking over as CEO two years ago, he says.
“This was a very different outlet for me,” Nicol says. “It was something that was more creative (and) more along the lines of my passion.”
And that’s exactly why both men put a ton of elbow grease into SnoPlanks. It’s the price you pay to pursue a dream, Nicol says.
“To get into something like this, you really have to want it. It’s as hard as it gets, pretty much,” he says. “We developed a product from scratch and we’re manufacturing it. We didn’t develop something and outsource the manufacturing to China. We’re literally making every single board and every single pair of skis. It’s as grassroots as it gets. We’ve put our heart and soul into this thing.”
Besides buying the press, SnoPlanks spent some of its BVC money on labor, marketing materials and sponsoring the upcoming Dirksen Derby at Mt. Bachelor. They’ve recruited a team of riders and ambassadors that help to not only spread the word, but also improve the product. And they’re focusing on SEO on their website, plus social media. “Guerilla marketing,” Nicol says, “because that’s where we live with this brand.”
With the BVC experience in the rearview mirror, the new press in place and that Denver trade show on the horizon, things are coming together for SnoPlanks. Now it’s time to let the product shine, Nicol says.
“We’re building the brand and then we’ll see what happens,” he says. “Hopefully it pays off and the orders roll in.”