OC-based Signal Snowboard transforms offbeat ideas from imagination to reality
Imagine a snowboard that works just as well off the slopes as it does in the ocean and instantly transforms into a surfboard. Or how about a board that doubles as a karaoke machine, fires paintballs or has an iPad embedded into the deck so you can surf the Web from the mountain top?
Huntington Beach-based Signal Snowboard transforms those offbeat ideas from imagination into reality in "Every Third Thursday," a monthly online video segment that features innovative custom creations.
"There's enough normal snowboards out in the world, but it's cool to have something unique that also rides really well," said Signal founder Dave Lee.
After working in the snow industry representing other brands, Lee, a former professional snowboarder, moved to Los Angeles from Seattle in 2004 and launched his own brand. His goal: make every element of Signal Snowboards in the United States. Lee teamed up with manufacturer Marc Wierenga three years later to run a full operation in Huntington Beach.
Most snowboard companies are based in colder climates like Colorado, Utah or the Pacific Northwest. But Lee and Wierenga loved Orange County's laid-back surf lifestyle, not to mention a mild climate that keeps heating costs down. They are the only snowboard manufacturer operating in Orange County.
Although the rent is higher here, they consider it their "luxury tax," Lee quips.
Expanding an action sports business in 2007 – just as the economy crumbled – wasn't easy. Banks were tight with loans, so the owners funded the entire venture themselves. One of the biggest challenges was persuading shops to carry a new snowboard brand while existing boards filled the shelves unsold; retailers feared the lesser-known boards would be a tough sell.
"It was the worst time to do it, but it made us very resilient and we figured out a way to weave our way through by doing unique things," Lee said.
Duke Edukas, co-owner of Surfside Sports in Costa Mesa, is one retailer who took a chance with Signal Snowboards. He knew Lee from the owner's days as a professional snowboarder, and liked the idea of supporting a local Orange County company.
"It's really a cool brand, plus with their reputation, they make a great board," Edukas said. "Why buy a board from 3,000 miles away – why not buy from people who are local?"
Edukas said his employees have visited the Signal factory to get an up-close look at the production process.
"A lot of these kids have never seen how they are made," he said. "It just adds to product knowledge of the brand."
Unlike bigger companies such as Burton, Signal is more of a niche board for serious snowboarders, Edukas said.
Snowboard products are a $3.5 billion industry, said Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America, the major trade organization that does research on the sport.
Snowboard sales were $132 million in the 2011-2012 season, down from $139 million for the 2009-2010 season, according to SIA reports. Davis couldn't specify exact figures, but she said Signal's sales have doubled since the 2009-2010 season.
"They connect with their community," she said. "They do an amazing job of bringing snowboarders into a community."
Of the 7.6 million snowboarders in the United States, about 1.4 million of them live in California. Producing products in California is another reason for the brand's strength, Davis said.
The need to be different is what led Signal's owners to launch the online segment "Every Third Thursday." Friends would come through for factory tours, and the owners wanted a way to share that same behind-the-scenes experience with a wider audience.
"We knew it was going to be our marketing tool, eventually," Lee said. "But there was a lot of risk it in it. We could have been deemed kooky board builders. But because we have so much passion for what we do and we live that life anyway, people took it with that intent – that we were just out having fun and bringing a cool concept to them."
Showing how Signal makes its boards in the online videos also had the risk of opening up the operation to manufacturing competitors.
"Factories always keep a closed-door policy. They don't want anyone seeing what they are doing, or how they build stuff," Wierenga said.
Wierenga and Lee decided it was worth the risk, and the videos also could help educate buyers about the process.
"A lot of snowboards are sold on hype or on concepts. I want people to question the quality of the board," Lee said. "The boards coming out of China are made well, but they aren't made for riders. They're made for mass consumption. You want better equipment, because better equipment is going to make you a better athlete."
In 2010 Signal launched its first segment – a board covered in old records, a head-turner that showed a snowboard could be made with recycled materials.
Since then, the concept has evolved into featuring multi-functioning boards, and forging partnerships with companies outside the action sports industry. The boards aren't made to be sold, but simply to create buzz around the process, Lee said. For example, they teamed with the National Association of Music Merchants to make a snowboard that also played music as a xylophone. They incorporated the video game "Call of Duty" by making a bullet-proof snowboard, which they tested by shooting at it.
They also teamed with the Leatherman tool company to make a board that could help someone survive if he or she was stuck in a snow cave. The tool incorporates a shovel, compass, fire flint and a hidden knife. From that idea, the two brands collaborated to create a snowboard-specific tool that has a scraper for wax, a screwdriver to change out bindings, a carabiner and a bottle opener all in one.
"We're not interested in teaming up just for marketing, but partnerships are fun and organically things coming from that," Lee said.
Sometimes, in the process of creating something unique, they create a board that is life-changing.
For September's creation, Signal made an adaptive snowboard for former pro rider Tim Ostler, who was paralyzed 12 years ago after an accident while doing an air off a half pipe. While adaptive skis exist, adaptive snowboards for people in wheelchairs are not sold.
The snowboard company contacted Crankbrothers, a mountain bike company based in Laguna Beach, to figure out how to attach terrain tires to a seat for stability on the snowboard.
They took the special board up to Mount Hood in Oregon for a test, but the board proved difficult to maneuver, and broke in pieces after a few runs. The board makers went back to work on the spot to make sure Ostler could ride it down the slopes, the first time he has snowboarded in more than a decade. The video – which has more than 133,000 views on YouTube – shows Ostler beaming after a few runs.
"Wow, that felt really, really good," Ostler said, a smile splashed across his face.
It took a while for the reality of what they had done to sink in.
"You're so consumed by making it happen, you don't stop to think about it," Lee said. "There were moments where we saw Tim's face and we were choked up. But when it was over, it was like 'wow, we just changed someone's life.'"
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