Jake Burton talks about why he ditched Wall Street to help launch the sport of snowboarding.
Interview by Dinah Eng
I grew up on Long Island, and I’d always wanted to be a surfer. When the Snurfer [a snowboard forerunner created by Sherman Poppen] came out, it was my form of surfing on snow. I was 14, and from then on, I was convinced there was a sport waiting to happen.
I started Burton six months after graduating from New York University in 1977. I was working for Wall Street investor Victor Niederhoffer and wasn’t super-happy. So I started researching how skateboards and skis were made, moved to Vermont, and hired two friends and a relative. I had some money saved, some I’d inherited, and $100,000 from the bank; I lost it all before I knew what had happened. I underestimated the cost and time it would take to get the business going.
We sold only 300 boards in 1979. The ski, skate, or surf shops weren’t interested. So I advertised nationally and began selling through mail order. Once I became focused on growing the sport, instead of just getting rich, things took off. People started talking about snowboarding, then the dealers started calling and making orders. Still, financing was an obstacle along the way. We’d hook up with banks for a year or two, then they’d say, “This has got to be a fad,” and jump off.
In 1985 my wife, Donna, set up our distribution network in Europe, and Innsbruck, Austria, became our home for three years. It opened my eyes to being a global company.
After 25 years running Burton, Donna and I took a year to travel with our three boys, following winter around the world. We wanted to immerse ourselves in the business from a fresh perspective. Part of that involved letting go of my day-to-day duties, and ultimately the CEO title in 2005. This past May, I made the difficult decision to return as CEO, feeling that I was the best suited for the opportunities and challenges that face Burton. I’m fortunate that I didn’t take on shareholders who would expect numbers, or Burton wouldn’t be the success it is today. Everything is still in Donna’s and my hands. We don’t have an exit strategy. In many ways, the company is like our first child. We want to see it have a long, healthy life.
My Advice: “Plan lots of lead time for starting any business. It will take longer than you think, and it will cost more than you imagine.”