George Powell – Doing Well By Having Fun

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A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

George Powell is proof that you can do well by having fun. Rare and fortunate is the person who successfully converts their passions into a lucrative vocation. Mr. Powell, Founder and President of Skate One is such a man. The world’s largest skateboard company, Skate One produces many of industry’s best-selling brands, including Powell•Peralta Skateboards, BONES Wheels and Mini•Logo Skateboards.

I am always on the lookout for inspiring entrepreneurs who have leveraged their passions into healthy livelihoods as they serve as instructive role models for my UC Santa Barbara entrepreneurial students. After speaking with Mr. Powell, it was clear he fit the bill.

This is the first of a two part, extensive interview I recently conducted with Mr. Powell.

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George spent the first ten years of his career, gaining experience in the aerospace industry, before founding his skateboard company in 1976 at the age of 33. During that time, his tenure as a young engineer at HP caused him to vow that when he started a company, he would create a culture that treated all employees with respect and humility. He clearly met this goal, as the average tenure of Skate One’s 150 employees is nearly 10-years, with a number of folks who have been with the company for two and three decades.

In 1978, George teamed up with 20-year old Stacy Peralta, a world champion skateboarder. Together they created The Bones Brigade skateboard team which launched the careers of many of skateboarding’s biggest celebrities, including: Alan Gelfand, Mike McGill, Steve Caballero, Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Lance Mountain, Tommy Guerrero and Kevin Harris.

John Greathouse: You pulled out your old college skateboard in the early 1970’s when your son wanted one. How did that lead you to experimenting with wheels and eventually become an industry icon?

George Powell: Within a month of starting to skate with my son Abe, he came home to tell me his friends had yellow wheels and they were WAY better than our clay wheels. After trying to tell him color made no difference, I went to the Palisades Hobby store to humor him, and discovered yellow polyurethane roller skate wheels being sold for skateboards. It excited immediately, because I instantly knew that I was looking at the future! This was the missing link in the skateboard’s three main parts, the deck, truck and wheel. It’s failing was inadequate traction in the wheels, and PU was the perfect solution to this need.

After riding the new PU wheels for a while, I began to dream of better shapes for the wheels for skateboarding, and developed the double radial skateboard wheel. This gave me a little improvement, but not as much as I wanted, so I began to look for PU compounds that would roll faster.

My first wheels were poured in my kitchen and baked in my oven, using premixed, frozen compounds. As I began to want to experiment with the chemistry, I had to find commercial PU processors, and moved my experiments out of my kitchen, never to return.

Greathouse: What was the turning point, from making a wheels by hand in your kitchen to creating a business?

Powell: To experiment, I needed about 10 molds. To go into production, I needed to build hundreds of molds and invest in a cost effective quantity of wheels. This is the scary time, when you sign that check for 10 or 20,000. In order to try your ideas in the real market place.

Greathouse: I know that your son’s interest is what drove you back to the sport, but I am curious as to what extent you were a skateboarder growing up.

Powell: I never had any desire to do anything with my skateboards other than use them to have fun. I was, however, very competitive when I was young, and had played football in high school well enough to get scholarship offers from what would be called division 1 schools in today’s world.

I had grown up with team sports, but the sports that I gravitated to just for myself, were skateboarding and surfing. These were sports that you taught yourself by watching others, and just pushed yourself to progress for fun, with no coach or parent influencing you. This was an inspiration to me.

I grew to love many things about skating as I got into the industry I helped to create. I love that there are no coaches, and kids learn how to learn by teaching themselves. I like its anti-establishment bent, and its DIY nature. It teaches kids skills that can help them to succeed in life, gives them a sub-culture of their own to support them, if they want one, and provides them with endless hours of self-challenging, self-expression and fun. There is no other sport like it. I fell in love with skating, and never wanted to do anything else but try to help it grow and progress, while trying to keep scoundrels and those who merely wish to exploit it for money, out of it. In today’s world of multi-national public companies, this is getting harder and harder.

Greathouse: What was it like to watch the Lords of Dogtown movie, given that you witnessed the true events and knew all the main characters?

Powell: Stacy did a great job introducing the world to Dog Town, in his wonderful documentary of the same name. I believe DT is largely responsible for the wide spread interest in legacy and old school things today, for sure in skateboarding, but perhaps more broadly too. Stacy told it like it was, and it rang true. The Hollywood version, sadly fell short of his documentary, in my mind, but many people enjoyed it, even if it was a little distorted.

Greathouse: How did your relationship with Stacy Peralta develop? You were dealing with a lot of young talented skaters at that time, what was different about your relationship with Stacy?

Powell: I seem to have been fated to be in this industry, from my first 2x4 with steel roller skate wheels, to using Blue Chip Stamps to buy Hobie skateboards at Stanford, to living in the Pacific Palisades, near where many skaters lived and skated. Skateboards just came into my life, when no one around me I knew skated, or even had a skateboard. These strange, outlier, foreshadowing events were activated by my son Abe’s desire to skateboard, and then by meeting Stacy Peralta and Tom Sims at the Pali High parking lot, called the horse shoe.

Some people just resonate on your frequency and some don’t. Stacy did. We just hit it off, and when both of us needed to improve our situations, we came together in a sort of magnetic way… our chemistry was really good. Stacy was only about 20 when he decided to leave Gorden & Smith, where he had become the top star in our little industry. In addition, Stacy was 20 going on 30. He was head and shoulders more mature and thoughtful than any of the other young “pro” skaters I knew. In a class by himself.

Greathouse: Although you were both young when you met, you were a bit older than Stacy. I assume you become his mentor?

Powell: This is funny, because in the beginning I thought I was mentoring Stacy. I was 32, had a college degree and a decade of experience in the aerospace industry and business. And in some ways, I’m sure he learned many things from me about the business side of our company, but at 20, Stacy was more savvy about how to market skateboards than I was to become (even) 20 years later.

Stacy is an amazing human being, and I soon found myself learning many things from him, and I think he quietly mentored me along, while I thought I was mentoring him! As this relationship developed, it caused some tensions as we learned how to be equals, instead of employer and employee, but it turned out to be a great partnership and friendship that is still rich and rewarding to this day.

Greathouse: Prior to entering the skateboard industry, your background didn’t involve a lot of marketing, yet Skate One has proven to be world-class marketer. How involved did you get in marketing the products you were creating?

Powell: I will give any credit for world class marketing to Stacy. I have learned how to persevere, and to build products skaters need and appreciate, even if they don’t know they do at first.

In our industry, the marketing companies usually sell most of the skateboard decks and clothing. After Stacy and the main members of the bones brigade left to do their own things, I was left holding the bag, and it has taken me over 20 years to recover, and to rebuild my business to be a major player again. I focused on those niche components that were not “in your face” like bearings and wheels, and worked really hard to be way better than my competitors were. Eventually, I found ways to get the top riders to promote our products because they wanted to ride them, even if they were not getting paid to do so, because they were the best. This is not marketing genius, it is just desperation serving as the mother of invention.

Greathouse: Like most successful entrepreneurs, it sounds like you did a heck of a lot of on-the-job learning.

Powell: I have learned so much working to just stay alive! I don’t think any amount of college classes can really prepare one to succeed as an entrepreneur, starting a company. I sort of had that gene in my DNA, having started a couple of businesses earlier in my career, one in college to sell my lighting designs and sculptures, and one as a young product designer to sell myself as a consultant to Silicon Valley startups.

You learn the most from your mistakes, and I was really good at making mistakes, so I had ample opportunity to learn there. I also learned from working with Stacy and my fellow employees to watch what they did and add their successes to my quiver of tricks and skills.  One of the best skills I learned was to delegate to those who knew more than I did about any particular part of my business.  I can micromanage with the best of them, but once I get confidence in someone, I back off and become a supporter and mentor.

Greathouse: Tell about the ad in which you burned a car in front of your parent’s house.

Powell: That was pretty edgy for me at the time. Stacy said, “Craig (Stecyk, Stacy’s marketing mentor) wants to burn a Cadillac with Ray Bones standing in front of it, do you think we can do it in your parent’s driveway?” And not wanting to seem uncool, I said, “Sure, I think we can get away with it if we don’t hurt anything.”

So Craig trailered half a Cadillac he had cut up for an art project over to the concrete cul de sac my parents lived on in Brentwood, late in the afternoon. We waited until it got dark, then coated it with a combination of acetone and rubber cement, a concoction Craig learned was used in the movies to provide a big flame and then self-extinguish itself in about 10-15 sec. I think we had to coat the car with this volatile mixture about 5 times before we felt we had the “shot” for sure. All the neighbors on the cul de sac came out and went WTF are you doing here? But we were able to convince them it was just an art project and perfectly safe. <laughs>

Greathouse: Your ads generally did not contain product shots, which was very different from the other companies. When did you realize that going a different direction was the right approach?

Powell: That was a BIG hurdle for me. Stacy and I argued about it for some months, before I said OK, let’s try it. I was using a Brooks (Institute) graduate, Tom Doty, to create beautiful studio images of my products, and they looked insane in the magazine ads we did first. Stacy and Craig said we had to focus on the skaters themselves, and let the product be incidental or an accessory to the skater, which was a new concept for me. I saw quite soon that he was right, and his new ads made me laugh, smile, and come away happy. Skaters resonated with them and remembered them. Our competitors struggled to understand them or copy them. Even today, thirty years later, I occasionally see a competitor “borrow” one of our old PP ads and try to pass it off as original… These ads deserved the kind of acclaim that the old VW ads, and Apple Ads got. They were way above the herd and progressive for the time. 

We were also one of the first to develop skateboard graphics for our decks, and our “bones” inspired graphics have also proven to be very enduing.  Our well known VCJ “Ripper” graphic of a skull ripping out of a surface has been sampled, stolen, copied, and inspiring to many artists, designers, and companies in a number of different industries around the world.  Many of our customers have tattooed their favorite Powell Peralta graphic onto their bodies, which shows how our customers feel about our products and skaters.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never tweet you about politics or that killer burrito I just ate. 

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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