JAKE BURTON CARPENTER: I mean, I was like Willy Loman. And I was a traveling salesman. And I would load up my car. It was a Volvo wagon at the time. And I remember once going out with 38 snowboards and I drove around New York state and visited dealers. And I went out with 38 and I came home with 40.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
CARPENTER: Because one guy had given me two back that he'd bought and said, this is a joke.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built. I'm Guy Raz, and on today's show, how Jake Carpenter turned a childhood novelty toy into one of the biggest winter sports in the world and from it, built Burton Snowboards.
So imagine being on an airplane in 1977. You sit down, you strike up a conversation with the guy sitting next to you, you ask him what he does. And he says something like, I make sleds for the snow, except you stand on them like a skateboard. You would have no idea what he was describing. You couldn't have imagined that within 20 years, snowboarding would become a multi-billion-dollar industry. And if that person next to you were Jake Burton Carpenter, there's no way you'd have predicted that one day, 1 out of every 3 snowboards sold worldwide would be a Burton snowboard - and not because he invented the sport - he didn't.
But there's probably no one on earth who did more to popularize it. And it didn't happen overnight. Ten years after Jake founded Burton Snowboards, fewer than 7 percent of ski resorts even allowed snowboarding. But today, it's hard to find one that doesn't. And the thing about Burton is it didn't just build snowboards. It built a culture around snowboarding. It was a culture that was inspired in part by family ski trips to Vermont when Jake was a kid.
CARPENTER: My dad sort of figured it might be something fun for a family to do when I was around, I guess, 7 or 8. And he would take the whole family. I just always had this attachment to snow. I mean, I - to me, it meant no school. And still, my favorite thing to do in life is go up to my kids' rooms and - I mean, those days are behind me - but tell them to get up for school and then after they get up, tell them it's a snow day.
RAZ: One winter in 1966, there was a brief craze across parts of America for a novelty toy called the Snurfer, as in snow plus surf. It was basically a stand-up sled that you could ride down a hill. And Jake Carpenter was one of the thousands of kids who bought one for ten bucks.
CARPENTER: It was a four-foot-long piece of wood that was about six or seven inches wide. And it had no edges. And you stood on it on these sort of staples that gave you traction. And you had a rope attached to the nose. It was a little bit like you were riding a bucking bronco just getting down the hill.
CARPENTER: But it was fun. And Brunswick made them. They sold 800,000 or something like that. But it developed this sort of cult in a positive sense of the word.
CARPENTER: And I had friends and we would do it together, and we would modify them. For me, a Snurfer was the opportunity to surf.
RAZ: It was basically surfing on snow.
CARPENTER: Surfing on snow.
RAZ: Now, in a lot of ways, Jake's childhood was pretty great, even idyllic. But then when he was about 13, things started to unravel. Jake's older brother George was killed in battle in Vietnam. And a few years later, his mother died as well. And for Jake, it was a pretty tough time. He even ended up getting expelled from his boarding school.
CARPENTER: I mean, I was a wise ass - and when I was young - and to a fault. And when I got kicked out of - Brooks was the school. And I went up to see the headmaster who was the headmaster when my father was there and when my brother was there. It was brutal. I mean, my dad made me get in the car, go five hours, see this guy, you know, for a five-minute conversation and then a long drive home. And that is why I decided to turn my life around and start applying myself to whatever the hell I did.
RAZ: And the way he did apply himself was by figuring out how to take what he was good at and make money out of it. So Jake's first venture was a small landscaping business. And then after college, he went to work for an investor in Manhattan. But in the back of his mind, he never forgot about the Snurfer and about its potential to be something much, much bigger.
CARPENTER: Yeah, I really, from the very beginning of Snurfing for me, I saw it as something that could be developed. And I was sure that Brunswick was going to do it or somebody was going to do it. And nothing happened. But, you know, in the back of my mind, I always knew it could be a sport. And I didn't have a business plan, per se. But I did the math that if I could make 50 snowboards a day, I can make $100,000 a year, and that would be awesome.
RAZ: You thought, I'm going to - I can do something and the thing to do is make a much better Snurfer.
CARPENTER: Yeah, make money on it. So I started the company in '77.
RAZ: And what did you do? Did you - 'cause you were living in Manhattan at the time, right?
CARPENTER: Yes. And I made my first prototypes in my apartment on the upper east - you know, on 86th Street.
RAZ: How? Like, did you have, like, a shop in your apartment and, like, table saws and stuff?
CARPENTER: You know, I was as clueless then as you are now (laughter). I did not know how to do it. I was a loser in shop class in school. Like, my napkin holder was by far the ugliest or the worst. And so there I was with a saber saw in my apartment making them...
RAZ: Like, out of what? You buy sheets of wood?
CARPENTER: Yeah, out of wood. The very first - I was modifying some Snurfers that were around, and then I said I've got to move to Vermont to start this company.
CARPENTER: Well, you're not going to start a snowboard company in...
CARPENTER: Yeah. So I left my job in New York City in, like, early December and I thought, well, winter's here. You know, I started a landscaping business when it was spring and you start raking lawns.
CARPENTER: And I had a car, a station wagon, that inherited from the family and a box of garbage bags and a couple of rakes, and that's what I started my landscaping business with. Manufacturing is a lot tougher than mowing lawns, but I thought, OK, it's winter. Now's the time to start the company. I almost missed the next winter, literally. It took so long to develop a product.
RAZ: And by the way, how did you finance it? Where did you get the money?
CARPENTER: Well, my - because my mother died at a young age, when my grandmother died, she had some dough. And instead of it going to my mother, it came to me and my two sisters. And so I inherited almost $200,000, and I spent $150,000 of it developing Burton.
RAZ: So you're middle name is Burton.
RAZ: But your last name's Carpenter, so why did you call the snowboards or the company Burton?
CARPENTER: I just always had this interest in the guy I was named after, John Haus Burton (ph), and I thought that Burton was a cooler name. And I wanted to name it Boards. I mean, Boards was part of the name. It was Burton Boards, and then I drove down to Montpelier, Vt., and incorporated, went to the - it was cool - did all the paperwork and everything. It was a big moment for me. And I - it started as a Burton Corporation or maybe Burton Boards. I sort of did some form of crude trademark or - put TM next to it even though I didn't have anything official.
RAZ: So you - OK, so you moved to Vermont and then - to start this thing - and then what was your next step?
CARPENTER: Yeah. So I went to this company called Shushan Bent Wood Company, and they made curved wood for people that made furniture out of solid ash.
RAZ: Oh, wow.
CARPENTER: So my first prototype was a piece of solid ash that was just put in this thing to curve the nose. And then I just start riding them on hills. And I'd literally made a hundred.
CARPENTER: But of those hundred prototypes, they weren't all solid wood. I got onto laminated wood, vertically laminated and horizontally laminated, like plywood. I went to a friend who lived in California who had a surfboard company, and they would let me make boards in their factory at night. And I would take a surfboard blank, which is six or seven feet long and maybe three or four inches thick. And by the morning, I'd have whittled the thing down to a snowboard, and they would just - these guys were so cool, but they laughed at me.
RAZ: When you went to these factories and you said I need you to give me this curved piece of wood or this piece of material, and they would say, well, what is it for, what would you tell them?
CARPENTER: I mean, the Snurfer - there was some awareness of it. It had been around, so I was telling them that I was making a modern rendition of that. And I always feared that, like, the minute ski companies caught wind of this that they would just jump on it and I'd be out of business in no time.
RAZ: But nobody cared.
CARPENTER: Nobody cared.
RAZ: And was it just you, like, with this thing, like, messing around on hills?
CARPENTER: Dude, I was so alone, yeah.
RAZ: Wow. Did you ever come across people like, what is that? What are you doing?
CARPENTER: Yes. It was to the point literally if I was on a plane and somebody would ask me what I did, I would make something up because it was just too embarrassing.
RAZ: 'Cause you couldn't explain what it was. The concept of snowboarding wasn't something that - it would be like saying today, yeah, I ride clouds. Like, that's my job. I make skateboards for cloud skateboarding.
CARPENTER: Yeah, for sure.
RAZ: Like, it was so weird. So at what point were you able to say I got it, I've got - this is the one I'm going to make?
CARPENTER: I hadn't thought about this in a long time. But I remember that specific moment on Mount Washington in June, and you can hike up Mount...
RAZ: This June of...
CARPENTER: Would have been June of '78.
RAZ: '78, OK.
CARPENTER: And now I'm hiking up there in Hillman's Highway. It was the trail, and I had the board or what I was testing, the final test. And it was horizontally laminated rock maple - very much like a skateboard but thinner and more flexible. And I rode down - you know, just hiking up a little bit and riding - and was like, OK, this is it. And then I've decided on the construction now. So I go out and I rent this place that's going to be this little sort of factory. And I hire two relatives and a friend to help me take these pieces of curved wood and shape them, drill them, paint them, put fins on them, put mat on them, put bindings on them. It was a long process. And we - as I said, my original plan was to make 50 boards a day. That was always sort of my goal.
RAZ: Because you thought that they were just going to - this was going to blow up. It was - you were going to need...
CARPENTER: I didn't - I majored in economics at college. I had classes with Nobel Prize winners. But I don't know if I really understood supply and demand.
RAZ: Did you have a shop?
CARPENTER: Yes, in Londonderry, Vt., with Burton Boards written on the front of it in big letters.
RAZ: But who are the kinds of people who are coming into your shop in Londonderry, Vt., and saying, yeah, I'll buy one?
CARPENTER: Yeah, it wasn't people out for a walk and buying a snowboard. And we didn't sell any - maybe a few T-shirts. But most people that found out about us that would come there and people - we would advertise in the skateboard magazines and a little bit in the ski magazines. We spent some money there. I mean, I - because there were these pockets around the country, in Michigan, in Arizona. There were these places where people had snurfed and like me. And they'd sort of stuck with it, and they got it. They understood it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: That first year, what kind of feedback were you getting from people who bought them? Did they love it? Did they - were they like, this is going to change the world?
CARPENTER: Yeah, it was - I mean, I was like Willy Loman, and I was a traveling salesman, and I would load up my car - it was a Volvo wagon at the time. And I remember once going out with 38 snowboards and I drove around New York state and visited dealers, and I went out with 38 and I came home with 40.
RAZ: Forty snowboards
CARPENTER: Because one guy had given me two back that he'd bought and said this was a joke.
RAZ: You would visit ski shops basically.
CARPENTER: Ski shops, yeah, that was my first, and then ultimately, you know, some surf shops. And it was - in the beginning, skateboard shop, surf shop, ski shops - nobody wanted any part of it.
RAZ: I mean, did you have - were you discouraged at all after that first year? Did you think maybe this is not going to work and maybe I should just cut bait?
CARPENTER: Yeah, I had some - I had a few days it was tough getting out of bed, just motivating myself.
RAZ: Right. I mean, you were getting rejected all the time.
CARPENTER: All day long.
RAZ: And you were all by yourself.
CARPENTER: Yeah. And I am - like, I'm an emotional guy, you know, having lost people and I always have been.
CARPENTER: So I had to let go of my two relatives and my friend very quickly, and it became back to me in year two because we made enough boards in that first winter. I don't know - what did we make? - a thousand or - we made enough for three years.
RAZ: So they're just sitting in your...
CARPENTER: Yeah, they're not fully...
RAZ: ...Shop in...
CARPENTER: ...Fully assembled or boxed, but yeah, they're pretty much done. And so I had one high school kid helping me out part time and that was it.
RAZ: And how many boards did you guys sell that first year?
CARPENTER: First year was 300 or 350; second year was 700. I remember one day in that second winter of selling and packing up the 700th board and thinking, wow, that's, you know, that's over doubling.
RAZ: So what happens between that first year and that second year when you go from 300 to 700? Why? Why did you double the number of boards? Was it just luck? What was going...
CARPENTER: Exposure. It was just getting out there, word of mouth. I mean, marketing our, you know, advertising, placing ads in these ski, surf or skateboard mags. I mean, I remember going to check the mailbox because dealers really weren't that interested in, you know, stores. And so we would send out these brochures. Right from year one we had brochures. And we would send them out with a little mail order form in it. And I would go to get the mail every day, and I remember looking in the mailbox and there would be, like, you know, nothing or a couple of envelopes or some days there'd be five or six envelopes. And then you'd open up the thing, and it had this crude little order form and you could get it. You'd open up the envelope and it would be, you know, two T-shirts or something. And then you'd open up an envelope and it would be, like, four snowboards for a family in Connecticut. I mean, I can remember it so clearly.
RAZ: And where could you actually use them? I'm assuming you couldn't take it to a ski resort and just go down a mountain.
CARPENTER: No, but it was presented - I mean, skiing at the time was 20 bucks a day. It was a lot of money. So this was an opportunity to express yourself and have fun at and do with friends, and it was a cheap way to have a lot of fun when there's snow on the ground.
CARPENTER: You could not go in a resort and, to be honest, I didn't start it as a resort thing.
RAZ: You didn't care.
CARPENTER: No, it wasn't - that wasn't the intent. It was like a low-cost alternative to skiing. But then these kids who - then I started hiring more kids. This is maybe year three.
RAZ: To do what? To just...
CARPENTER: Help assemble these boards, put them in boxes and get them out the door.
RAZ: 'Cause you were still doing all the assembly in that place in Vermont.
CARPENTER: Yes, yes. And...
RAZ: By hand.
CARPENTER: Totally, yeah.
CARPENTER: Yeah, they would just help me get the boards out the door. This one resort, Bromley, you could drive up to this village that was a quarter of the way up the mountain. So we would pile into the car, drive up to the village. Everybody would - if there were four of us, one guy would stay in the car, the other three would snowboard down the hill. And then we'd meet at the bottom and do it again and again. And then ultimately, snowcat drivers would give us rides, and we'd bribe snowcat drivers with a six pack or something.
RAZ: And they would drive you up to a point...
CARPENTER: The top of the mountain. But it was so challenging to ride those boards. People now, they have these vintage races and they get on old snowboards and I, for the life of me, don't get it. I mean, it's, you know, hard. But it was just these young, rebellious - I mean, what snowboarding and Burton did is we revolutionized winter life. And this was the beginning of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So, I mean, do you remember a moment when in those early years when this thing, like, really started to take off?
CARPENTER: Well, I mean, in terms of the sport or my company, I mean, it was nothing - I think in the - now in the context of starting a business, people think of Internet companies. They're just exploding day one. And there just was not a defining moment in the context of the sport blowing up. I mean, there were big milestones along the way, and I think Time was quoted as calling it the worst new sport.
RAZ: When - do you remember when that was? It was in the '80s?
CARPENTER: Yeah, that would have been early '80s.
CARPENTER: And part of that Time thing, the worst new sport, was they said it was more about raging hormones. And this was these rebellious, young men that were making it happen. And then some cool girls, very courageous women, got into it and started doing it. And I realized, OK, we're not going to lose any more money. We might not make money, but I can, you know, manage this financially. So it just grew and grew and grew but at a manageable pace.
RAZ: Why didn't ski resorts allow snowboarders in the beginning?
CARPENTER: Well, it was - there was actually a famous case at Stratton, which was a resort, one of the first resorts to let us on, where this guy had...
RAZ: Where's Stratten?
CARPENTER: It's in southern Vermont. And this guy had broken his leg because of some sign or something skiing, and he sued the mountain, and I think he tried to get half a million, and he got a million dollars. So there was this liability. There was this just paranoia about getting sued.
CARPENTER: And so that was their fear, but they ultimately would give us a chance, and we would lobby with them, and their kids sometimes helped. And we would lobby resorts, and then if a big resort like - we got on Stratten, then Bromley had to come along and Magic Mountain. And it took years, but it was - there was no stopping it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Did you at that point also I guess start to identify people who were really good snowboarders and sponsor them?
CARPENTER: Yeah. Well, for a minute there, these kids that had worked for me just happened to be the best. And then there was a rider, Craig Kelly, who actually rode for this company Sims who started making snowboards after we did. But they were pretty a well-known skateboard company. And this guy, Craig Kelly, rode for them, but we were good friends, and I'd always told Craig if he ever had the opportunity, we would love for him to ride for us. And then Sims ultimately sold his company to a bigger skateboard company. And so we cut a deal and he rode for me, and I paid him 17,000 bucks a year. And this guy was - Craig Kelly was a godsend.
RAZ: And he always used Burton Snowboards.
CARPENTER: He was Burton head to toe.
RAZ: So Burton was all over his body.
RAZ: So having him represent Burton, that must've been pretty transformational.
CARPENTER: It was beyond transformational.
RAZ: Yeah, 'cause you're - all of a sudden, not only do you have this advertisement, but you've got the coolest and the best guy who can do all this cool stuff, and you've got kids seeing this. And they're like, well, I want to try this, and I guess Burton is the way to go because this guy uses Burton.
CARPENTER: Yes. You know what? That's pretty much it. Craig made the sport cool and the brand cool.
RAZ: When did - I mean, as snowboarding started to get bigger, the ski companies must have thought, well, there's money to be made here, right? Like, K2 and Rossignol, like, didn't they - didn't they start to make snowboards?
CARPENTER: It's just so funny that the ski companies were so oblivious to what was going on in front of their eyes. I mean, talk about close-minded, you know?
RAZ: 'Cause they could've crushed you early on, right?
CARPENTER: Oh, they could have destroyed us, and there were all these rumors that some ski company's going to start making them. And they - we went from being, you know, a fly on the windshield of the ski industry to all of a sudden we became a threat.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: In just a minute, how Jake dealt with the competitors who now wanted a piece of the action. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So in the early days for Jake Carpenter, building Burton and at the same time trying to build the whole sport of snowboarding was sometimes lonely. But because he stuck with it and because the sport caught on, the big ski companies, as you can imagine, started to notice. And all of a sudden, the market for snowboards wasn't so lonely anymore.
OK, so when the big ski companies started to make snowboards, what happened to you guys?
CARPENTER: Well, by the time they started making them, we were maybe on a third of the resorts, and they didn't want the sport to happen, right? I mean, these companies did not want snowboarding to succeed. So snowboarders didn't like ski companies. I mean, people did perceive them as not being the real deal, and we didn't keep that a secret. I mean, we made it pretty damn clear that we were the real deal. And - but they did have manufacturing ability, and some of those French and Austrian companies were subsidized by their governments to keep their factories going. So from a cost perspective, they were lower cost producers for a minute there? But it was just - they were too late. They missed the boat.
RAZ: Did you ever have - as snowboarding really began to take off in the early '90s, did you ever face serious threats from competitors either big or small?
CARPENTER: Well, it was always - like, in the early days, there was a rivalry between Burton and Sims, but we were - we've doubled the number of snowboards sold for the first 20 years, I think, of the companies. So Sims was a threat at one point. K2 was somewhat of a threat. They got more aggressive earlier on. But no, we've been - we've been the number one manufacturer of snowboards since the day I, you know.
RAZ: Did you - you know, I mean, even though you had this market share and you had this loyal customer base, I mean, a lot of these companies had a lot more money to work with. I mean, you were - your money was coming from sales.
CARPENTER: Yeah, and ultimately, we were borrowing money from banks, but it was very secured. And then we would get bigger and bigger and obviously we're doubling our sales, so we're doubling the money that we needed from the bank. This isn't long-term money.
RAZ: You needed the money for marketing and for what?
CARPENTER: We needed the money to make the snowboards because in this industry, in skiing - we didn't start this, but you ship them the stuff in whatever, August, September. And then you don't get paid until December or January. So it was always working capital. We've never needed long-term debt, but we've always had this need for working capital. And so we would work with these Vermont banks, and we'd get up to a certain level - this happened like three times - and then we'd get to a certain level and they'd say, you know, this is maybe a fad. We're going to bail - and never because we were late on a payment or...
RAZ: They just got nervous.
CARPENTER: I mean, we were religious about paying people money that we owed them. But they just sort of figured, you know, this has been a good ride. We're going to bail. And then we'd go to a bigger bank and then a bigger bank and then we borrow - we still borrow some working capital, but it has become less and less.
RAZ: At any point, did you think about going public, doing an IPO, seeking, you know, venture capital, outside investors, anything like that?
CARPENTER: Yeah. Interestingly, there was this one company called RIDE, and they started out and then a guy that worked for us went to work for them and he was sort of a mid-level manager for us.
RAZ: It was a competing snowboarding company.
CARPENTER: Competing snowboarding company. And he went to work for them, and then they went public and they - at a very low price. And the stock went up to - it split and then went up to 35 bucks. It was up to 70 on a...
RAZ: So this devaluation was huge.
CARPENTER: It was huge. And this kid was a millionaire all of a sudden. And I felt this enormous amount of pressure, like, on taking care of my people.
RAZ: Yeah, I bet.
CARPENTER: And like just am I doing the right thing here? And so I went and I met with a couple of big New York investment banking firms, and I just couldn't deal. The vibe was - it just was like this is not us. And then all of a sudden, RIDE stock, which was at 35 bucks at the time, went down to two bucks because they had these expectations that - like, Wall Street just - they take things and they project unrealistic expectations. So ultimately, people have realized working for a privately held company has many, many advantages.
RAZ: I guess it was in, like, '98 that snowboarding became an Olympic sport. That must've been crazy. I mean, you - I know that you don't like to say this and you deny it, but you are widely credited as the guy who really made snowboarding what it is and this became an Olympic sport. How - what did you think when that happened? Like, that must've been a pretty amazing moment.
CARPENTER: It was not a cool moment at all.
RAZ: (Laughter) Wow, I was not expecting that answer at all. That was not the answer I was expecting. What happened?
CARPENTER: Well, FIS, which is a International Ski Federation, it's a Swiss, you know, whatever governmental body, and they controlled the scene, and then they started having snowboard competitions when they just had - aside from their ski races, and we were wondering what they were up to. And then they just arbitrarily decided, OK, snowboarding's going to be in the Olympics. I mean, they didn't even give me a phone call. They never told us anything. I will take credit for pioneering the sport, and you would think that you might pick up the phone and tell that person what you're up to or how do you think we should do this. None of that. They just arbitrarily - it's like the baseball player that finds out he's traded when he reads it in the newspaper. And then I go to the Olympics. We've got our team there, and I get to the venue, and they've got snowboarding misspelled at the venue?
RAZ: How'd they spell it?
CARPENTER: Well, you spell it with a W - snowboarding - but they had S-N-O-boarding. This is in in Nagano, Japan. I was like, not a good sign, right? So - and then they proceeded to have the - the racing thing was hard conditions, and they decide - it was a driving rainstorm, and they said, OK, we can't have the men's down event. We would never have this prestigious ski event in a rainstorm. But no, they're snowboarders. They can go. They can get - risk life and limb and not be wearing goggles it's raining so hard and so - but nonetheless, they've gotten better, and they're doing a better and better job. In the American arm - it's a form of national associations - they care about the sport, and they've got some people that care about the sport. And they're trying to do better. But the last two Olympics, the venues for the freestyle stuff, which is what people care about, for the halfpipe and slopestyle, the venues have been really sketchy.
RAZ: As your company grew, describe the culture of the company. Was it - I mean, I'm looking at you right now and I cannot imagine you ever wearing a suit and tie, and being like a boardroom boss. Like, for example, like, where do you have your meetings with your top team and stuff? Like, how do you...
CARPENTER: Well, our meetings - you know, you look at my office. It's three sofas, and two chairs and a coffee table, and there's no desk. And our senior conference room where we have our board meetings, it's sofas, and you throw your feet up and bring your dog to work. And we've got 132 registered dogs. Our people - you know, we sort of keep track of the number, and it's - resembles snowboarding's lifestyle.
And we're a tribe, and we are so focused on this sport. Everybody in that - you know, damn near everybody in that company snowboards and - because that's our source of energy. That's where you recharge your batteries.
RAZ: And what if somebody was like, Jake, I'm going to be in late today because I'm going snowboarding.
CARPENTER: It's pretty much the - I mean, if it snows over 2 feet, it's an automatic day off for the whole company.
CARPENTER: And last year, there were three of those days.
CARPENTER: ...Which is almost too nice. I mean, I like people to work too. I'm not a - it's a - but people come in late and work late. You know, people work hard there. So that's - as long as people are giving us a solid effort, I get it if they want to get up there and catch a few runs on a great day.
RAZ: So your wife, Donna - she actually, at some point, became - took over as the company's CEO, right?
RAZ: And how did that happen? And what's the story there?
CARPENTER: Well, she came and went, and then she was even CFO for a while. This is in the early days. And then, when we had kids, she backed off some. She wasn't working as much then. And then when the financial crisis hit, which was really rugged...
RAZ: Which one?
CARPENTER: The big one.
RAZ: The '07 - '08...
CARPENTER: 2000 - Lehman Brothers, all that crap...
RAZ: Yeah, how did that hit you guys?
CARPENTER: Well, the bank charged us $4 million to change one paragraph in our loan agreement, which was called a covenant. When you're borrowing money, your earnings had to represent a certain ratio compared to how much money you were borrowing, and we slipped on that one because it was a very tough year.
And we weren't losing money. We were making money. But literally, they said, oh, well, you broke this covenant, so you're going to pay a $4 million fee. And that - boy, I mean, we had to lay people off. We weren't making the money that we had been, and so we had to...
RAZ: Because people weren't buying snowboards because of the recession.
CARPENTER: Yes, exactly. You know, it's always been a youth-driven market, and it's kids. I mean, people would buy two or three snowboards a year. Then you look at Italy or Spain, two very big markets for us, and the unemployment rate amongst people under 20 was 50 percent.
CARPENTER: It was a very tough time. And through this process of this crisis - and I think it's not unique to Burrton - our company culture kind of got destroyed.
RAZ: What happened?
CARPENTER: Well, I think a lot of people would blame other people for things - negative things that were happening - and there would be finger-pointing, and the culture at our company was messed up. And at the same time, I felt there were no women in our top management, and that just felt wrong to me.
So I got in there, and I - and Donna came along with me, and at that level, we were running the company. And I brought her in sort of specifically to help with the culture and get more women in leadership positions at Burton.
RAZ: When you say the culture - I mean, I'm just trying to get in through the innuendo. Was it, like, bro-ish (ph)? Was it, like, male, sort of macho? Was it, like - I mean, what was the thing you wanted to change?
CARPENTER: Well, I mean, you're not happy when you're being managed by fear, or you instill fear in yourself that you're going to lose your job or it's just - you need to make people - people have to understand when and why stuff happens.
RAZ: Were you responsible for any of that?
CARPENTER: For any of that fear-based stuff? Well, I think I hired many of the people that were in and around it, and I think that we were all responsible to a certain extent. I mean, I don't think that's ever been a tactic that I've used, hopefully. But I certainly let it happen under my nose.
RAZ: Do you think that you have a hard time with criticism? And I ask that because, you know, it can be really problematic - right? - if you're unwilling to listen to somebody that says, listen, I know you built this thing, but I'm trying to make it better; listen to me.
CARPENTER: You know, that's - couldn't be more true, but less, and less and less every year. I mean, I did every job in that company. I mean, I made the first board. And for a while there, I mean, we might've had 50 employees, and I was convinced - not in a bragging way, but I could do anybody's job better than they could. But that's not the case anymore.
You know, we've got engineers now that I don't even - have a hard time having a conversation with them. But I got better at it, and I had the sense to surround myself with people that were better at things than I am - that I'm not good at. That's been good, and I've learned to delegate. That's not an easy thing to learn how to do, especially when you're detail-orient (ph), to learn to let go like that.
RAZ: You have to trust people.
CARPENTER: Beyond trusting - you have to let them screw up, and live with it and live through mistakes. And if they repeat the mistakes, then that's not a good sign. Burton's made every mistake in the book. But I don't think we've made too many twice.
RAZ: Why didn't - I mean, I'm sure, at certain points, you were offered money to buy your company.
CARPENTER: I just didn't take those phone calls, you know?
RAZ: Yeah, but, I mean, you could - I mean, you could've sold this company, you know, been, like, a philanthropist and - I don't know. I'm not saying that's a better life, but it sounds pretty cool. It sounds like a pretty great life.
CARPENTER: Well, I - for a long time, if people would asking - me that question, I would say, well, I think I'd become a couch potato, and just eat chips and watch "SportsCenter," you know?
CARPENTER: And so - you know, and snowboard plenty - but I mean, it's the best job in the world. Why would I ever walk away from it? That's selfishly - admittedly, that's always been part of it. And I think that we're doing a great job, and we're humming along. If we were really struggling, it might be more appropriate for me to look at that more seriously.
RAZ: How important is money to you? Like, how important is being rich to you?
CARPENTER: Well, to be brutally honest, I mean, I enjoy having, you know, the ability, financially, to - we're going surfing for a week in the Maldives next week - my whole family.
RAZ: Oh, cool.
CARPENTER: And we're going to have a speedboat that's going to take us to the lineup, and it's going to be epic. And this stuff's not cheap. So I love that, and I would be a liar if I told you I didn't. But it's not the most important thing in life.
RAZ: Yeah. You had a really tough couple years, and you're just now experiencing the recovery of it. You had knee surgery - I guess in 2015, right?
RAZ: And then before that, you had to have heart surgery.
RAZ: And then you battled cancer - testicular cancer.
CARPENTER: Yeah, and I dealt with the whole process of chemotherapy, which is dreadful. And in the tail end of that, I was in a plane, and I had a pulmonary embolism, which really still affects me. And then I came down with that Miller Fisher, that form of Guillain-Barre.
RAZ: Let me ask you about the Miller Fisher because probably not a lot of people know about this, but it's - I guess it's an autoimmune disease that can make you temporarily paralyzed. So, like, what was that - what was going on? Like, how did you even discover what was going on?
CARPENTER: Well, I'd gotten the knee replacement, and then I got home. And I was with the doctor the next day, and I started seeing double, and I told him about it. And he's like, we'll check it out, see if it's - if it might just go away. And the next day, I was seeing double, and I felt really lousy. And I waited till Donna went to work. I didn't want - she'd been through so much with me.
And I was just like - and so I went to Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and they very quickly analyzed what was going on. And within 24 hours of me being there, they said, if you have what we think you have, tomorrow, you won't be able to swallow. The next day, you won't be able to open your eyes, and the next day, you won't be able to breathe.
RAZ: And were they right?
CARPENTER: Yeah, that's how it went down.
RAZ: That's it. You get to the hospital, and you are confined to the bed, and you're paralyzed.
CARPENTER: I'm in an ICU for six weeks.
RAZ: Wow. You couldn't move your body.
CARPENTER: Yeah. And then people - you know, the ICU people go for hours or days, and I was there for over six weeks.
RAZ: You're like a prisoner in your own body.
CARPENTER: Yeah, very much so. I think it's like ALS, just condensed into a couple of weeks.
RAZ: So first of all, how did you breathe?
CARPENTER: Through a ventilator. And the ventilator was behind me. I could hear it, but I couldn't see it.
RAZ: Did you have feeling in your body?
CARPENTER: Yeah. Yeah, my wife would stretch me every night, and I could certainly feel that.
RAZ: And how did you eat?
CARPENTER: Through a feeding tube.
RAZ: Did you think you were going to die?
CARPENTER: For sure.
CARPENTER: For a minute. And then, you know, my wife did - you know, she told me I was getting better, and eventually, I would see these little, like, hints of improvement.
RAZ: What'd you start to notice?
CARPENTER: You know, that I could open my eyes and that I could - I was so into physical therapy right from the get-go, and then I could do something a little better than the day before. And once you get to that point, them it's game on, then it's up to you.
RAZ: How does that experience change the way you live your life and you interact with the people you love?
CARPENTER: Well, I sure as hell don't take my family for granted anymore, and I do live life for the moment - I mean, much more than ever. I mean, I think it happens through something like that. I don't know why or how, but it does, or did to me.
RAZ: It must put into perspective all your success, and wealth and the things that you built. Like, obviously, that stuff matters. But, like, in the context of your life, nothing else really matters.
CARPENTER: Yeah, yeah. That stuff couldn't have been further from my mind. I think it is now, though. Now I'm, like, prepared to die.
CARPENTER: Yeah, I am, much more so. I could die, get hit by a bus walking out of your studio, and I still think I'm - luckiest guy in the world.
RAZ: Because of the life you've had.
RAZ: Could you ever have imagined when you were in that first year, and you had to fire your employees, and I don't know - that you would've built something this big?
CARPENTER: I had no idea that - what would happen with snowboarding. I mean, I saw a sport, but I did not see Shaun White on the cover of "Rolling Stone" twice, or snowboarding being in the Olympics or the stuff that's happened. And it's been the athletes that've made it happen, and we've facilitated it, but it's been - exceeded - I wouldn't even say dreams because I never dreamt anything on the level that we're on now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Jake Burton Carpenter - by the way, Burton just celebrated 40 years in business since Jake built that first snowboard in a barn in Londonderry, Vt., back in 1977. And despite his health issues, Jake still snowboards a hundred days a year and always when there's fresh powder.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That.
JANE OCH: So my name is Jane Och. I'm from Scarsdale, N.Y. And one day, I was just so sick of opening my refrigerator and seeing brown guacamole.
RAZ: Brown guacamole - we've all been there, right? You scoop out the soft avocado flesh, you mash in some onions, salt, lime, and maybe some cilantro, you stick it in the fridge, and then a couple of hours, later that bright green dip looks kind of gross.
OCH: This is absolutely a problem that people have, and I say to them, would you like a container that prevents your guacamole from turning brown? And they're like, oh, my God.
RAZ: So anyway, about four years ago, Jane started to experiment in her kitchen. She made a lot of guacamole, and she just started to observe that guacamole changed color.
OCH: If I make some and put it in a bowl with Saran wrap, it turns brown. But if there was some way that I could eliminate that air in that space, then maybe I could solve that age-old problem.
RAZ: So Jane recruited her stepsister to help out. They found a designer, and together, they came up with a plastic container with kind of a little elevator underneath it that pushes the guacamole to the very top, so there is no space between your guac and the lid.
OCH: And then you simply close the tab to cover the air hole, put it in refrigerator, forget about it - literally, forget about it, I mean, a week. However long you're going to eat your guacamole, it will not turn brown.
RAZ: OK, so they had the right design, but for two years, they ran into one problem after another. They were using the wrong materials or the little elevator thing wasn't fitting properly. But finally, last year, they got it out of the factory and into the market, and they called it the Guac-Lock.
OCH: You can lock anything up - so tuna fish, egg salad, you know, chopped vegetables, pesto, hummus. And the more you can smush it and remove the air holes, the better it's going it save.
RAZ: So Jane, this is not my main problem with guacamole because when I first heard the name Guac-Lock, I thought it was to lock your - you know, your kids out of the guacamole so they don't eat it all before your guests come.
OCH: (Laughter) No, it is not. But you're right, that's a good idea.
RAZ: That is a problem in my house. That's our problem. I get into the kitchen, and I just see, like, green guacamole around the mouths of my children.
OCH: I feel your pain.
RAZ: That could be the next iteration of the Guac-Lock. You could add a combination lock on the...
OCH: ...Like, a child lock or something.
RAZ: Yeah, exactly.
OCH: Well, actually, it's very funny that you said that because a lot of people say, I never have leftover guacamole.
OCH: So why would I need this? And what I always say to them is, now you can make it in advance.
RAZ: Jane Och is the co-founder of the Guac-Lock. It's now for sale on Amazon, and Bed Bath and Beyond and at Whole Foods. And you can find out more about the Guac-Lock at our Facebook page. And of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org.
We love hearing what you're up to. And thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes, you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. You can also download our podcast at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts. You can write us. Our email address is HIBT@npr.org. And if you want to send us a tweet, it's @HowIBuiltThis.
Our show is produced this week by Casey Herman with original music composed by Ramtin Arablouei. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Claire Breen and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Diana Mustak (ph). I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.