Handmade, Surf Inspired, and Ready for the Deepest of Powder Days

SnoPlanks is a snowboard brand based out of Bend, Oregon producing handmade, bamboo powder boards. An experienced surfboard shaper, SnoPlanks Co-founder James Nicol was seeking a snowboard that allowed him to surf the snow. When he didn’t find what he wanted, he began shaping it himself.

James Nicol and Ryan Holmes, co-founders of SnoPlanks, grew up skiing and snowboarding in Oregon. However, the two actually met while attending college in San Diego. With an apparent lack of snow nearby, James threw himself wholeheartedly into surfing. He caught the surfing bug and even started shaping boards in his backyard. His love for surfing kept him in San Diego for ten years.

After James met his wife, who was originally from Oregon as well, the two decided they wanted to return to their roots to start a family. Both sharing a love for Mt. Bachelor, they packed up their bags and called Bend their new home.

Several years later, Ryan moved to Bend and the two college buddies reconnected. They began discussing how sick it would be to start an outdoor brand. The two of them would meet up for beers, going back and forth on business ideas. At that time, there was no snowboard brand out of Bend. For a mountain town, that was a shocker, but it provided James and Ryan with a good opportunity to tap into the market.

Taking James’ previous shaping experience, they began messing around and pressing snowboards in his garage,  literally bending plywood and cutting out boards. Utilizing Mt. Bachelor as their testing facility, James and Ryan would try out their new shapes, turning heads wherever they went. Constantly testing and trying new materials, the shapes began to progress.

When they discovered bamboo in 2014 and began using the wood material to produce boards, they found just what they were looking for. A board that was was light, had an incredible amount of pop in the wood, and was extremely responsive in powder conditions. Knowing they were onto something, they continued to dial in the product and SnoPlanks was born.

2016 marks a big year for the brand as they showed for the first time at SIA and are looking to get into more shops nationwide.

SnoPlanks cofounder and shaper James Nicol sat down with TransWorld Business to discuss the bamboo difference, the rising popularity of surf inspired snowboarding, and what lies ahead for the emerging brand.

What are your thoughts on the growing popularity of surf-inspired snowboarding?

James: I think it is incredible and smart. It is timely for the industry because it reaches more people. Not everybody is going to drop into the park and throw a 1080. Turning and concentrating on carving is something that every rider can get into.

The surf inspired riding and culture we have here at Mt. Bachelor is awesome. We have Gerry Lopez hosting the Big Wave Challenge and Josh Dirksen with the Dirksen Derby. The culture is very alive and well here in Bend.

You see the Gentemstick Crew and all the Japanese riders focusing on surfing the snow. Watching them and seeing how they ride the snow, it is beautiful. People can tap into that. Any rider can say "I can turn a snowboard. I'd love to go do that." They go buy a snowboard, head to a mountain, and start riding. There is a need for that because we need people to be investing in the sport.

The rise in participation numbers for snowboarding has slowed down in recent years. It is good to see that the focus is shifting more towards our roots, to the beauty and aesthetic of the sport.

SnoPlanks, James Nicol

SnoPlanks cofounder and shaper, James Nicol

Can you  explain your background in shaping surfboards and the impact that has had on SnoPlanks?

James: I shaped boards recreationally for myself when I was down in San Diego. I was self-taught, just kind of started doing it in my backyard. When I moved back up to Oregon I was riding snow again and wanted a board that could get me into sections of Mt. Bachelor that my snowboard wasn't able to.

I started shaping reverse side-cut boards that were super fun in pow conditions because they float like crazy and are super loose. The first probably 30 boards I shaped were all reverse side-cut. They were basically surfboard shapes. A set back stance, fish tail, and a bunch of board in front of you. Basically allowing you to surf the snow.

My shaping experience is 100% trial and error. I never worked for a company. I never had anyone train me or tell me how to do any of this stuff. It was just a matter of trying to create something that was really fun to ride and maybe have something that I could start off of it. People look at our boards and there is no sidewalls or top sheets. People tell us this is crazy and ask us what we are even doing. Then they stop on a SnoPlank and go "whooooaaaaa this is all-time".

My shaping experience is 100% trial and error. I never worked for a company. I never had anyone train me or tell me how to do any of this stuff. It was just a matter of trying to create something that was really fun to ride and maybe have something that I could start off of it. People look at our boards and there is no sidewalls or top sheets. People tell us this is crazy and ask us what we are even doing. Then they step on a SnoPlank and go "whooooaaaaa this is all-time".

The construction of the board being that different does give it a different feel on snow. If I had gone and understudied at Mervin, I would be making Mervin boards right now. If I had gone to work at Burton, I would be making Burton boards right now. There is a way that things have been done forever and I think that is because people go that route.

If I had gone and understudied at Mervin, I would be making Mervin boards right now. If I had gone to work at Burton, I would be making Burton boards right now. There is a way that things have been done forever and I think that is because people go that route.

If you want to start something new and change how things are done, you can't learn from others. You have to teach yourself. My shaping experience has really been teaching myself to do it. Just spending a lot of time in the shop ruining boards going through a lot of material, resin, and fiberglass. The learning experience has been by trial and error for me.

What made you decide to try bamboo in the board construction? Was this the magical moment that changed the direction of the company?

James: We were struggling with weight in our boards. Everything we tried with board construction was heavy and didn't have enough flex. I started studying possible board materials. I was looking for types of wood that were light, strong, and responsive. Bamboo just kept appearing during my searches.

If bamboo was what we were going to use I needed to start figuring out what type to get, how thick it needs to be, etc. Once we got all the specs dialed in with what we wanted, we made our first order of bamboo. We received the initial shipment, pressed some different layouts to try, and went out riding to test the boards.

The bamboo was a game changer for sure. The boards were so light, responsive, and had an incredible amount of pop in the wood. It was that moment as I was riding them with four of my friends that we all looked at each other and were like "dude these boards work really well". After testing the initial bamboo boards and being stoked on the results we decided to order more bamboo. The idea was to build more boards, get more people out demoing, and dial in the product.

I think that first year of utilizing the bamboo was game changing in the sense that people started to recognize that SnoPlanks was a brand. When people see a SnoPlanks board they immediately stand out because they are simple and the wood is beautiful. The boards have a black base and a branded logo on them. That is it. More people started seeing the boards and began to ask about them. The bamboo alone catapulted the company forward. The response we got was just incredible.

SnoPlanks, Will Dennis

Team rider Will Dennis laying down a deep turn

What are the main challenges you've faced in starting SnoPlanks?

James: As a startup brand you sort of hit this point where you are like "well if we want this deal then we need to invest". That has been our biggest hurdle. Winning the Bend Venture Conference was huge for us. With the $15,000 prize we immediately bought a new press that allowed us to quadruple our production output.
We've also ran into marketing hurdles. We've tried to go gangbusters on social media because obviously that is a huge outlet that we can hit for free. Social media has been something that we have really concentrated on for our marketing efforts. Partnerships with other companies have worked well for us too. It is very easy to partner with a company and gain some of their larger following.

It is one of those things where the more boutique our brand can be, the more sought after I believe it will be. We want the brand to be more about the feeling. We want it to be about more than just buying a snowboard. When you get a SnoPlank we want you to feel like it is an extension of yourself as a rider, artist, and person. I think people can appreciate the work and love that goes into a SnoPlank. That draws a certain customer. We want to make sure that customer is invested in that same mantra that we as a brand are putting out there.

Obviously money is always a factor. If I had a million dollars to throw at this company I could probably blow it up and make it huge. Honestly, most people probably could. But there isn't a million dollars. There are very little dollars. We are doing everything we can from sort of a guerrilla marketing standpoint to push this brand and get it out there. That is usually the best received brand. The guys that are all up in your face with marketing… a lot of those brands fail. Customers usually accept the brands with a more grassroots marketing approach better.

It is one of those things where the more boutique our brand can be, the more sought after I believe it will be. We want the brand to be more about the feeling. We want it to be about more than just buying a snowboard. When you get a SnoPlank we want you to feel like it is an extension of yourself as a rider, artist, and person. I think people can appreciate the work and love that goes into a SnoPlank. That draws a certain customer. We want to make sure that customer is invested in that same mantra that we as a brand are putting out there.

What has the transformation from snowboarder to entrepreneur been like?

James: There are definitely parallels. It would be different if I was going from being a snowboarder to making water bottles. Being able to go into the shop and shape a snowboard that I'm going to ride is enjoyable for me. This has helped make it easy to transition into being an entrepreneur. Of course I have days where I find myself in the shop grinding to get an order out when I would rather be on the snow riding.

Having a business partner in Ryan has been huge because you have somebody to bounce ideas off along with enduring the highs and lows of a startup together. That aspect cannot be overlooked. When you are alone you can get bogged down really easily. There are people out there who say it is not good to have a partner but for us it has been an awesome experience.

You and Ryan both have day jobs. Describe the balance between your day jobs and SnoPlanks. Would you recommend this to other aspiring entrepreneurs?

James: Working two jobs is tough. It really is non-stop. You are working all the time. It has been a grind. It affects not just you, but your family and friends as well. You have to make sacrifices, that is part of starting your own business. You have to be willing to accept that or you are not going to be successful.

The drive to do something that you love is where it has to be. You can't be an entrepreneur doing something that your are lukewarm about. You have to be all-in and send it.

The positives from working two jobs is that you learn a lot from it that you can go apply to your own business. I work in manufacturing and learn a ton from my day job. Immediately I can turn around and apply that knowledge to SnoPlanks. That is a unique situation. Learning all these skills prior to and during SnoPlanks has been really helpful.

Going completely cold into business would be really hard to do. Having some knowledge and experience to help avoid the pitfalls of business is crucial. It is very similar to having a mentor that can help guide you and avoid these pitfalls.

I know Ryan feels the same way. He is busting ass at two jobs right but now he is learning a lot during the day that he is able to immediately apply to SnoPlanks. As hard as the balance is, it has been so helpful. What it does is brings money in, allows you to have a paycheck, the ability to fund your startup, and it takes the pressure off.

Say all of a sudden we quit our jobs and go all in on SnoPlanks. Now we are pressing. You are in peoples' faces trying to sell boards because it is all on the line. We want our brand to be very low-key, easygoing, and grow naturally. We don't want to be always pressing to make this happen.

In the snowboard industry it takes a long time to make it. There are not a lot overnight success stories. There are a lot of ten-year success stories. That is probably what we are going to be.

In the snowboard industry it takes a long time to make it. There are not a lot overnight success stories. There are a lot of ten-year success stories. That is probably what we are going to be.

 

What are the next steps for SnoPlanks? What is your focus for 2016?

James: From a sales perspective we are definitely trying to grow. We are eager to get this brand out there and get boards on peoples' feet. Having people experience the feeling of riding a SnoPlanks is important towards becoming the next board they purchase for their quiver. We want to be the go-to pow board in your snowboard quiver.

This is the first year that we are really trying to expand into retailers. Our goal is to be in 30 high-end retailers across the country. We want them to be key, core retailers and that is who we are going after. (If interested, contact James via email at [email protected])

SnoPlanks, SIA, SnoPlanks SIA, SnoPlanks splitboard

This splitboard will debut next season and was a crowd favorite at SIA

We are increasing our production of splitboards this year going from one model to four different split models. People love the split so we have decided to expand the splitboard product line drastically for next season.

We are dropping a ski lineup as well that will feature an all-mountain shape and a pow shape. Tapping into that market as well just makes sense because there are lots of skiers out there and a lot of people in the skiing community are stoked on what we are doing.

For the 2016-17 season SnoPlanks is trying to appease both snowboarders and skiers.

Where can someone buy a SnoPlanks today?

James: Buy one online. Our 2015-16 lineup is still in stock and available at www.snoplanks.com. The entire lineup is also available locally at Skjersaa's and Crow's Feet Commons here in Bend.

You should buy a SnoPlanks if…

James: You should buy a SnoPlanks if you like to ride deep pow.

To learn more check out the SnoPlanks website

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