20 Questions: Jason Levinthal, J Skis

20 Questions: Jason Levinthal, J Skis

Jason Levinthal, Blister Gear Review. Let’s open with an understatement: LINE Skis founder, Jason Levinthal, has had a significant impact on the shape (or shapes) of modern skiing.

He built the first twin tip skis in 1995, he won a medal at skiing’s first X-Games Slopestyle, he got the Raichle Flexon boot brought back under the Full Tilt name, and he’s built LINE into one of the most progressive ski companies in the industry.

Now, Jason is leaving LINE.

Last week, Jason and I talked about the current state of the ski industry, and about his new venture: J Skis.

It was such an interesting conversation that I didn’t feel like cutting it down. So we’re going to run it in two parts. And if you care about skiing, or entrepreneurship, or innovation, or not playing it safe, you’re going to want to read the whole thing.

Part I

JE: How long ago was it that you first started thinking to yourself, “Hmm, maybe I’ll split off and do something new all over again?”

Jason: That’s interesting, that’s the first time anybody’s asked me that.

I’d say…10 years ago, early 2000s. I was definitely seeing the whole internet thing come to life, and selling direct, and kind of a craft–brew strategy from other businesses and brands. And back then I was also thinking, “This is hard to get into all these retail shops. I swear I could just start selling direct. I could make more money in sales, maybe there’s an opportunity there. No one’s doing it in skiing.” And that idea just kinda came and went.

People I worked with at the time would say, “You know what, forget about this.” We skipped going to SIA one year — it was taking so much time, so much money in the heart of the season to basically not be in front of your consumer. I’m spending all my time talking to the stores, and the stores want me to be talking to the consumer, but I don’t have time to do it all, or the resources. So it always went through my head: “What if we sold direct?”

And then I was also always thinking, “If I did this again, what would I do different, what could I do different?” And you’re never satisfied. I’m always thinking, “We should be doing this. We should be doing that.” But we can’t do everything with one brand.

Jason Levinthal, Blister Gear Review.

Jason Levinthal signing a ski core of the first pair of J Skis built.

Over the years, I’ve always been a fan of any start-up ski company, and I’ve always thought, “This is awesome, they’re going to bring a totally new flavor to this sport.” What’s lacking in the sport in my mind is variety of attitude, image, product. We need to do things so that when you look around, you see a huge spectrum of all of that.

You look at skateboarding, and they do a very good job keeping it very, very fresh. You’re guaranteed when a new brand comes out that they’re not just doing the same thing with a different logo.

So whenever someone would start up a little ski company, I’d always be like, “Man, I can’t wait, I hope they do something different!” But it wasn’t always different enough—for me, anyway. I’ve just had so many ideas brewing over the years, and I was waiting and waiting for this huge variety that never came to be, and I have a lot that I want to add. I want to add more flavor to the sport. I could start ten brands right now all with completely different attitudes and images, and in my mind, that would be better for skiing.

And so things came to a head when I said, “If I don’t do this now, when am I going to do it? And why aren’t I doing it now?”

Well, because it’s going to be a risk, and there would be all of those challenges – challenges to your personal life, the challenge of giving up a paycheck. I’d have to leave my job, and what I was doing was pretty easy—I didn’t have to worry about everything, I got to focus solely on what I do best, and let K2 do the rest. I had a huge team of the best of the best in the business. So why would I take a risk right now?

But I’m more of an entrepreneur than a business man, so I’d rather fail trying something new than keep doing something just because it’s easy. And things finally came to a head and I thought, At my age, it’s now or never. Everyone is starting their own ski brand, and I’m like, “Hey, I want in on this shit too, man!” I want to be part of the fun, start with a clean slate, and do everything the exact opposite of what’s being done today.

JE: Everything the exact opposite. That’s a pretty good tagline.

Jason: (Laughs.) Change is good! You know that—that’s what you’re doing with Blister. You gotta change. More times than not, it’s about first looking and asking, What if I did the opposite, what would that be? And 9 out of 10 times you come up with a better scenario—if I don’t do A, B, and C, I could then do D, E, and F. But you can’t do both. You can’t talk out of both sides of your mouth.

JE: Yep, I totally agree. Ok, so ten years ago, you were first getting these ideas, in part because of the frustration of dealing with retail shops—

Jason: I don’t want to say that I didn’t like dealing with the retail shops. It’s just that at that time, we weren’t very accepted, and it was hard to build a brand. It was hard to become accepted. And today, we are accepted, but it’s just a matter of where I want to spend my time, and I think there are plenty of good skis in retail right now—I don’t think retailers need one more. So I want to experiment, if nothing else. I want to experiment with selling directly to the customer that I should be speaking to anyway.

JE: I can easily imagine, back in the day, you’re walking into yet another shop, and you go in and you’re thinking to yourself, “They’re not going to get this.” But you still go in anyway and you give the best pitch you can, knowing that they’re probably not going to get it and won’t care. And that’s an energy drain in a major way.

Jason: Yep.

JE: So ten years ago, you have the first kernel of the idea. But how long ago did it get real? How long ago did you actually decide, “I’m really going to peel off and go do this thing”?

Jason: That was like six months ago—I can’t believe it was that recent. There were maybe a couple of years of I should … I could … This is what I want to do… basically till my wife and then my friends were getting burned out of hearing the same story. Then finally about six months ago, I was almost done with the next product line for 2014-2015, and I said to myself, “Am I going to do this for another season? Am I going to go through Groundhog’s day one more time?”

And I just said, “Fuck it. I’m going to do everything I can to figure out a way to do something new by the new season.”

And it was record breaking time. And that’s my whole point—today you can do things at the speed of thought. You couldn’t do that 10-15 years ago. That’s my whole premise for this whole new business—operating at the speed of thought. Whether it’s going from, “I want to do this,” to, “This is the kind of ski I want to make.” I basically left Line three weeks ago, and I already have skis for sale on my website. I never could have done that—no one could have done that—through traditional distribution models.

In the current system, you literally design a product this winter, so it’s ready to show retailers next winter, so it’s ready for consumers the following winter. That’s a 24-month cycle, a two-year cycle, from concept to product-in-hand. I’m turning that into a 4-8 week cycle. I mean, I’m going to the factory right now to work with the engineers to get the first prototypes out of the press. We’re going to have tested them, tweaked them, and finished them, and a few weeks from now, the ski [called the "First!"] is going to be in consumers’ hands. And that’s what I want to do continually. You just can’t do that with the traditional model.

Jason Levinthal, Blister Gear Review.

J Skis First!

JE: That sounds…tiring.

Jason: (Laughs.) This is what I do. This is what I know. So I’m not trying to do anything else, and also, 40% of what I used to do, I’m now no longer doing. I’m not selling to retailers, I’m selling to consumers.

Plus, there are no expectations. If you go through a traditional model and you’re giving up all that margin, you need to sell so many more skis to get the cost down and make it financially feasible. You have to hit 20,000 pairs, that’s what most people in the industry will agree with—if you don’t get up to 20,000 you’re not going to ever be profitable and you’re probably going to go out of business. Whereas on this model, I’m figuring I need to produce about 2,000 pairs. I don’t need to do that this year, and it’s pretty reasonable. Think of it this way—if you own 20 storefronts, you’ll be 20 times the size of owning one, but you’ll have 20 times the headaches, and 20 times the expenses.

I want to be one guy with a laptop doing what I need to finance my own quality of life, put back into the business, work with cool people, and make people happy skiing. I’m not in it to make a million bucks right now, I’m in it to just have a nice, fun, little business.

Of course, once again I’m working around the clock for now to get things going. But I don’t need to be this huge behemoth. I don’t have any employees. I’ve got people on contract doing work for me who are the best in the biz, and whoever that is, that’s who I’m going to be working with.

Comments:

  1. I’ve got people on contract doing work for me who are the best in the biz, and whoever that is, that’s who I’m going to be working with.

    xx

  2. I think the cats are just lovely…
    Great Interview J and J.

  3. Great reading. Sounds like he is going in the direction that Kingswood Skis in NZ took a number of years back, and look how great that has worked out! I look forward to seeing what he brings to the market and some good reviews on them here.

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