Starting a successful skateboard brand in Canada is extremely difficult. It’s an industry that is built upon the distribution and reselling of US brands. In the past, local companies have found it close to impossible to compete with the marketing budgets and influence of their neighbors to the south. However, this has begun to change. The internet has and continues to level the playing field, giving local brands access to audiences on a global scale. The momentum behind independent, skater-owned brands continues to surge, and skateboarders everywhere continue to seek out things new and interesting from far outside of California and New York.
For years, Studio Skateboards founder, owner and operator, Jai Ball was sponsored by US brands through Canadian distributors. In 2002, a close friend of mine and I took a trip to Montreal and were star-struck when we arrived at Peace Park and found Jai there, prominently wearing his DC tee and shoes, displaying the same unique ledge-mastery we had seen him perform for years in all the “biggest” Canadian videos and magazines. But it was in 2008, Jai decided to create something he could call his own: something he believed in, something that represented his passion and a crew of skateboarders that grew up skating the Canadian versions of LOVE and EMB.
This is the story of Studio Skateboards.
As an independent brand out of Montreal, Canada, how did you get Studio sold in Supreme?
I met Pryce (Holmes, the buyer at Supreme) in Montreal a few years ago out skating, then again in Vancouver when I moved out here in 2013. Wade (Fyfe) is good friends with him and we were out having beers. I asked if he’d like to carry the brand and we went from there.
Is running Studio your full time job?
It’s a full time job with a part time salary, haha.
When did you start the brand and how long did it take to where you could make a living from the brand? What were you doing to pay your bills in between?
I became a partner in 2008 and I’ve been able to sneak out a living during the Canadian dry months over the last 2 years. For the first five years in Montreal, I worked a full time job at a print shop. Even now I take contract work over the winter months when needed. I think everyone in skateboarding has to be versatile to survive. Especially in Canada.
You started the brand with two other people. What happened to them?
Ryan (Blaxall) left early on in 2008 for a sales job and then went back to school, and Darrell (Smith) left in 2011 and now works for Take Five Trading.
With the brand taking years to grow and your co-founders stepping out, did you have doubts you were on the right path? Did you ever think of quitting and doing something else?
Oh for sure. There were so many times when I didn’t think it would ever turn into an actual self-sustaining business. I still do sometimes. I don’t want to glorify the last eight years in anyway. It’s been tough mentally at times and an insane amount of work, even to be underground. One day you’re cool, the next day your pants are too long or your tricks are too hard. You know how it is. So, yes, I have thought of quitting, but then something awesome happens and reminds me why I do it. And that is to be creative and keep the skate stoke alive in a world that wants to crush your spirit and freedom at every turn.
What made you decide to launch your own board brand in the beginning?
I was in my mid-twenties at the time. I had been flow on ZOO YORK for a few years in Montreal. They changed distributors and it just seemed like it was time to start something in Canada, something we could build for the future. There were brands, but nothing we felt reflected what we wanted to see. I grew up watching the EMB, Pier 7, Brooklyn Banks & Love Park scenes. Being from Montreal, we had similar big city plaza meet up spots with City Hall and Peace Park. I always felt we needed to have more love for our own skaters, spots, scenes, etc, and that hopefully there was an audience for what we liked.
When you told people close to you that you were going to start your own brand, were they supportive or were they concerned that it’s a lot of time and money to sink into something?
My family has a very entrepreneurial, free spirited attitude. My grandparents were jazz inspired beatniks and they raised my mom and aunts to do whatever made them happy. My parents raised me the same way, so they backed it right away and I’m very grateful for that. That being said, I also got a few “don’t quit your day job” remarks from some industry people, which is normal given the track record of Canadian hardgood brands.
What ideals have you built Studio on?
Creativity, quality and personality. Good hearted, creative humans first. Great skateboarders after that.
How do you differentiate Studio from all the other brands out there?
I think representing our cities and skaters is first. Since the beginning, we’ve tried to film and meet people in Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, and other Canadian cities whenever possible. If every company films their videos in the same top three international destinations, it all starts to look the same. In terms of art direction, I just make what I like and try to work with talented contributors who share a similar taste. Our boards are sourced and made in eastern Canada as well.
What was the reaction to the brand when you first started to hit up shops? Has that reaction changed?
Some shops were excited and some didn’t give a shit, haha. I learnt so much over the years. You have a certain perception when you’re a young sponsored skater vs. what it takes to actually have someone hand you a check for product and keep that going. Like in life, a good return is based on value provided. In the beginning, Studio could only offer so much to skateboarding because we were so part time. But the more creativity and time we put in, the clearer the vision became and the easier it got. With the help of shops who got it and pushed it, we grew in certain markets and started to sell through faster. It’s definitely easier to get into a new shop now, but you still have to make sure the product sells.
With that said, how important is a brand’s relationship with the shops that carry it?
It’s everything. I still personally deliver orders to local shops in Vancouver. I feel so grateful for all our accounts and I try to give back any way I can. From being available to talk anytime, sponsor events, and look at all the potential flow kids, to understanding their market and why they can or can’t carry the brand.
Also, in Canada where all the shops deal with bigger distributors, buying one brand from yet another supplier can be a headache. So, I try to make it as quick and easy as possible to work with Studio. It’s just me though and I can only do so much. Hopefully we grow the sales team soon and do a better job.
It feels like there’s a lot of excitement about the brand right now. What factors do you think have played into that?
I think it’s just everything coming together: team, product, video, learning the business. It takes time. Obviously, the indie brand movement and social media have helped as well. Skating is always changing. The streets like what they like. There are all these little niches. Some are quick trends, some more long lasting. I just want Studio to be here long term. Like an old movie or a great album: reliable, comforting, clean and classic.
The Canadian industry can be extremely difficult to navigate through for an independent brand. It’s an industry mainly of distributors and resellers. What challenges have you faced and had to overcome in building a meaningful and long lasting Canadian brand?
The first obstacle was perception and belief, i.e. what is skateboarding in Canada? Are we just a regional promotional tool with the odd breakout guy? Or is something local and long lasting possible? When you assert yourself and say “Hey, we’re here!” You have to face a lot of fears and insecurities: are we good enough? Do we matter? Does anyone care? Basic life questions really. Answer those questions for yourself and in a way you’ve answered them for potential buyers.
Also, in the beginning, shops think you’re a flash in the pan, some new brand who’s going to be around for a year or two until the reality of the hardgoods market sets in. You have to prove that you’re serious and more than just an Instagram account and a few boards. Once we established some consistency with our seasons, team, creative output and products, it felt like we gained some traction. I think it’s really important to find your voice and vision and express it 100 percent. I see a lot of the younger generation of Canadian skaters with these very clear visions and strong senses of self, starting brands, making videos and creating fan bases. The future of Canadian skateboarding companies looks brighter than ever.
The brand is currently carried in a handful of countries outside of Canada. What is your strategy to expand the brand globally?
I just want us to grow organically and create content and products that excite the skateboard community. When we first started, we weren’t even sure Canada would be on board, let alone other countries, so it’s awesome to get that interest and start growing that way. Ideally, we would travel a lot more and really get to know different cities and countries: their skaters, shops and distributors. Logistically, we’re learning a lot about selling internationally and getting the word out to those markets. It’s definitely a work in progress and I want to thank all the international distributors who’ve supported us so far.
How has the growth of social media and the importance of online content benefitted independent brands?
It’s probably the biggest factor in the indie brand movements’ success. When we started, we were spending $1,500 on print ads in Canadian mags and taking three years to make a full length, hard copy video, thinking that’s what you had to do. Now there’s one magazine left in Canada and skateboarding is essentially consumed on iPhones. I was seriously slow on changing. When Darrell left in 2011, I had to take over the Facebook page and that’s when I got my first personal page, just to give you an idea.
I was a skate media purest and kind of pushed it all away. It took me a while to turn on to social media and find a way to put out daily content that didn’t make me cringe. Now I enjoy making Instagram videos every morning, all the while working on a full length, which I still feel gives the best sense of what a company is really about.
If someone wants to start his or her own brand, what advice would you give?
If you have a great idea that you really believe in, just get started. Even if you don’t have the whole plan mapped out. When you take chances, good things happen and the next step reveals itself as you go. In a personal sense, not caring what people think is a huge one. I grew up a pretty insecure kid looking for acceptance from skating and my peers. That goal of “pleasing” and being cool can seriously handicap you when it comes time to execute your own ideas. Not everyone is going to like your ideas and support you, which forces you to find resolve and determination within yourself. That determination and belief in your goal is what will keep you going. Lastly, when you get stuck and need help, seek advice from people who are doing it and understand what you’re going through.