I sat down with Freeskier Magazine to answer some questions for the 2018 Trend Book. Check out the full interview below to read some of my honest views on today's ski industry!

 

The first thing I do in the morning is… Check my computer or phone to see if I sold any skis while I was sleeping. Still crazy to me this is even possible, I’m not sure I’ll ever get use to it.

One thing people might not know about me… I’m not a small talker. I can talk to an audience of 500 people about something I know, but talking to someone I don’t know about nothing is super hard for me.

The quick and dirty version of what led me to found J Skis… After 17 years of trial and error, tons of failures and a few successes creating and running a ski company, it became crystal clear to me there was an opportunity to do it completely different. Thanks to new technology, consumer buying habits and ways of communication I could create a financially sustainable ski company in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the size while requiring a fraction of the resources. So I set my sights on doing everything the opposite as I previously had, including not selling to any shops and instead selling direct to consumers exclusively at Jskis.com

Something I’m extremely proud of as pertaining to J Skis’ success is… My 2016 tax return! After 3 years in business, I proved what no one thought was possible. I’m actually a profitable ski company selling only 2,000 skis a year. I’m honestly as surprised as you. My first company “Line”, took me 15 years after selling the company twice to get out of debt. To put it simply, you need to sell over 25,000 skis a year to become profitable selling to retailers. By selling exclusively direct, I need to sell only 2,000 pair a year.

The worst-ever “oh sh#t” moment I recall as pertaining to my company is… In 1997 I was 23 years old at my 2nd SIA trade show in Vegas. I accidentally made my hotel reservation a day later than our arrival. I ended up driving an hour outside of town, still unable to find a vacant room we drove back to the strip and parked the tiny hatchback rental car at a gas station. I put all my sample skis in boxes on the roof so 4 of us could sleep in the car. When we woke up, all my skis were gone! I called my one employee still home and he built and Fedexed new skis in time for the 2nd day of the show. Viva Las Vegas!!!

With great power comes great responsibility. One way I respect and adhere to this notion in my day-to-day work is… Every decision I make is unconsciously in the name of doing what’s is best for the sport of skiing. This is the reason we’re all in this business. If we wanted to make real money, we’d be doing something else!

My advice for other business leaders in the snow sports realm, in regards to where they should focus their energy in 2017... Nothing changes, nothing improves, nothing gets better just because you want it to, or because more time went by. Things only improve because you make a change to create improvement. The reality is, the rest of the world is changing at the speed of a 2017 downhill racer, rolling their ankles on a ski with deep sidecut to carve turns in complete control at 80mph using a fraction of the effort of years past. However you continue to insist on doing stem Christy turns using your Olin Mark IV because that’s the way you’ve always done it. Do you actually believe the reason you can’t catch up is because it didn’t snow this year? There has never been an easier time in the world to improve what you’re doing. Do a little experiment with a new strategy, new product or even method of sales and distribution with a minimum investment. You have the experience, the knowledge and even the next generation of great thinkers working under you. Take a small risk with a small part of your business and it may not take you in an entirely new and profitable direction that dwarfs your current business. Like your 3rd grade teacher said, you never know till you try… what do you have to loose? Anwyays, it’s better to jump off the cliff than be pushed off!

The typical J Skis customer... is a skier that wants to have more fun, doing more on their skis with less effort on a larger variety of terrain. This is the same customer I’ve always sold skis to, from retired lawyers to 15 year old park kids.

A few ways I’m working towards fostering customer loyalty... is to make awesome skis that feel different in a good way, backed by customer service that’s personal and second to none.

The most eye-opening aspect of going 100% direct to consumer has been… how real-time everything can be. I’m literally coming up with new product ideas and making changes that I can bring to market the same day. There are no board meetings, sales meetings, tradeshows and layers upon layers of people requiring approval only to be stuck with what you decide on for a full 12 months before the next opportunity to make another change. Instead, if I decide to raise the price by $50, I immediately update my website and the next customer pays $50 more, that day! If someone mentions an idea for a funny hat, I photoshop it, put it up for sale online and get paid by customers pre-ordering immediately. Two weeks later I ship it with half the inventory sold out and money in the bank. It’s insane!

Do you feel that you’re missing out on sales by not being present in shops, where customers rely on personal relationships, employee knowledge and top-notch service to purchase skis?

My customers still receive all the personal relationships and knowledge, but it’s from me, the guy who actually created their skis instead of a shop employee, and they love it! I have tons of repeat customers and others that buy multiple pair at a time. The shops also indirectly work with me and my customers by servicing my skis when a customer brings them in to get bindings mounted or a tune. These days it’s normal for the customer to decide where they buy what, and who provides what service based on what they perceive as the best experience.

One might argue that the partnership that exists between certain buyers and sellers benefits both sides immensely. Have you ever second-guessed the route of going it alone?

I don’t have the option to sell to retailers; it’s simply not affordable for a small business like me. By the time I pay for sales meetings, reps, a sales manager, distributors, tradeshows, give up 50% margin to the retailer and don’t get paid by 10% of them, I’d loose money, so why do it? Ski companies literally need to sell a minimum of 25,000+ pair a year to afford to sell to retailers. Selling direct, I cut out all the middlemen, and expenses that go with it, make 3x the profit and get paid immediately so I can run a profitable ski company selling only 2,000 pair a year! I’m not looking to exclude shops and take over the world, I just want to have fun selling awesome skis without going out of business.

You DO have partnerships, albeit in a different sort of way. How does J Skis choose which brands and skiers to partner with for top-sheet artwork, etc?

I collaborate with artists, brands, musicians and influencers that I think are cool and believe my customers have respect for and would appreciate the added depth and dimension they bring to the product collaboration.

Brick and mortar stores in my opinion… are awesome and have a permanent place in the ski industry, I simply can’t afford to sell to them at my size (see previous answers). Instead I enable shops to offer my skis for demo and if a customer is interested in purchasing, the shop orders it for the customer through my website with zero inventory commitment or risk. I essentially drop ship to the shop so the customer gets the ski they want and the shop and I both make money on the sale.

Some constructive criticism I might throw to the folks at SIA... Their website says “SIA is focused on the growth and development of the snow sports market”. That is exactly what they should be focused on, unfortunately at this time they’re instead focused on selling floor space at a tradeshow convention center that no one needs anymore. Years ago, the SIA show was critical in enabling communication between manufacturers and retailers.  Today that is no longer the case with the internet, cell phone, websites, emails, PDF files and dozens of local shows aimed at saving cost and time for a declining industry working to be fiscally honest with itself. SIA instead should re-focus on developing new and innovative ways to coordinate manufacturers, retailers, mountains and potential consumers to grow winter sports participation. This is the most valuable thing this industry can do for itself and SIA is best positioned to drive it. 

From a business standpoint, the importance of community and giving back to the community is… one of the best ways to build awareness and enthusiasm for the sport and your brand. I donate skis to local organizations, offer internships, speak at schools and would like to do more as we can grow.

The emergence of backcountry skiing… is not an emergence of anything. At what point in our long history did people not like skiing powder off trail? I think it’s the same thing, with a new name and awareness. I’ve got customers calling me all day asking if my skis are good for AT or skinning. Are they really asking if my skis are good for walking??? If you want to spend more time walking in their ski boots than skiing go for it. Maybe I’m just an east coaster that really appreciates the convenience of chairlifts and thinks skiing is way more fun than walking?

The book I’m reading right now… is in the form of emails. I don’t have the time or attention span to read anything else.  

One book I’d encourage everyone to read... don’t read any books and leave your phone at home! Go do something by yourself that gets you day dreaming, for example I hate jogging but I do it a few days a week to keep my legs from disintegrating and I always come back with the best ideas.

When I interact with customers today, one thing I notice that’s markedly different from the time I first making skis all those years ago… is they already trust me and it simply comes down to figuring out which of my skis is best ski for their current needs.

One thing that has stayed the same, though... is I am never as confident in what I’m doing as others are in me. It’s never been possible for me to shake the stress and anxiety that comes with owning your own business, knowing there are no guarantees and there will always be a new seemingly impassable challenge ahead when you least expect it.

What will the retail landscape look like five years from now?

Five to ten years from now most of today’s off-mountain winter sports specialty retail shops will not exist, just like the huge number of snowboard specific shops that disappeared the past decade. Instead they will evolve into or be replaced by “sporting goods” specialty shops with a multi sport focus so they’re not financially affected by good or bad winters. In addition they will dramatically reduce their booked orders, thus inventory risk, while exponentially expanding their product offering by utilizing manufacturers drop shipping programs. Ten years from now, over 70% of their sales will be drop shipped per customer’s in store request, at no shipping cost. A much larger proportion of profits will also come from online sales if not from their own site, from selling product in conjunction with existing larger online retailers utilizing your physical locations for in-store pickup. In addition local camps, lessons, instructions, trips, group outings as well as services like fitting, tuning, building products, will also become a larger part of their business. It’s already happening outside our industry, ask any mom!

What will the ski manufacturing landscape look like five years from now?

Five to ten years from now most of the publically owned ski companies will be broken up and owned privately so they can get back to making smart decisions based on what’s best for their business ad skiing instead of what’s best for wallstreet investors who require more growth and profitability than is possible. The mid size ski companies that continue trying to act like the big companies with unaffordable athlete budgets, ad campaigns, excessively large product lines, too many employees and selling to retailers will go bankrupt or be sold to an online retailer to become vertical. OR they will dramatically reduce their spending, product selection and start also selling direct to become a profitable mid size brand. The rest of the small ski companies (under 4,000 pair) will go out of business if they continue over spending, manufacturing their own product and selling to retailers. OR they will start selling 100% direct, outsource their manufacturing and keep overhead to a few employees with a few laptops so they can start working less than 80 hours a week while living the dream!

The greatest area of opportunity and potential growth for winter sports hardgoods business lies in… simplifying and streamlining product lines so you’re selling more of fewer skus across multiple seasons to reduce costs, discounting, inventory risk while increasing margin and ultimately scale your business to today’s smaller industry reality.

Balancing J Skis’ image in the eyes of the “core group” while still trying to appeal to a wider market… is easier for me than others because my brand image is not resting on the shoulders of a single athlete required to stand on a podium, or super expensive ad campaign or discounted pricing. My brand’s image is based on the old, yet simplest and most powerful strategy of customers buying product from an actual real person. In this day and age, this is very rare, making it more powerful, yet thanks to technology more possible than ever before.

Are you content to produce more or less as many skis as you are now, annually, or do you have aspirations to grow this venture vastly? (If you answer yes, what are some factors that you suspect will help you grow your business to another level?)

Building my skis in my garage I was pressed to grow or die. Working for a public company I was pressed to grow or be cut. Now that I proved I can sell my break even quantity of 2,000 pair annually to be a financially sustainable, I am eager to grow at a pace that is comfortable. If and when I naturally hit my glass ceiling, so be it.

Three pivotal moments that have gotten me to where I am today…

1) I built a twin tip ski as a college senior project in 1995 at the University at Buffalo NY.

2) I won a bronze metal at the first X Games skiing event.

3) I sold Line skis to K2 Sports.

I value the nimbleness of J Skis over… anything else in the world. I don’t have much of an attention span so my company finally perfectly matches the my personality.

Some say the skiing hardgoods space is oversaturated. I say… there’s plenty of room for more brands, but every brand also needs to cut their quantity of products in half. The big companies copy each other, model for model, price for price in hopes of taking each other’s market share. The result is too much of the same product leading to customer confusion, lack of innovation, lack of brand differentiation, lower volumes per sku, thus higher COG, ridiculous wholesale and retail price wars, excess inventory, reduced margins and ultimately a more costly, thus financially weaker industry as a whole. I literally sell 6 different ski models and have never been asked for a ski I don’t have. Even if I doubled it would be half the quantity of other brands.

Wacky, out-of-the-box advertising methods suit J Skis’ mission because… you’re not going to get anyone’s attention by doing more of the same thing. Different is powerful, even if it’s opposite of what you think it should be.

Ski graphics are important because they help a product to stand out. What is the strategy you use with the various runs of J graphics? Are you confident that each one will resonate? Can you cite examples of a home run and perhaps one that flopped?

Our industry has already proven you can sell a lot of crappy skis with an amazing graphic or a lot of crappy graphics with amazing skis. Knowing what works and doesn’t in advance requires thinking like a cook, each time you tweak the recipe, you need to learn from it’s results. I’ve got hundreds of skis worth of recipes imbedded in my head combined with a deep respect for my target customer’s perspectives about product aesthetics. Honestly though, the easiest way to know if a graphic is good is to simply show your customers in advance and they’ll tell you. I post on social media and voila I have the answer! The best selling graphics actually create an emotional connection like my “Ski The East” collab spoke to east coast skiers but it also had wood grain which I knew aesthetically appealed to age 30+ skiers so it was an automatic win. However the Newschoolers.com collab, had the emotional connection but the artwork lacked so I barely sold any. I always create some automatic wins, plus still take some risks I’m curious about and if I fail, I learn from it.

The person who has been most instrumental in my success with J Skis is… Francois Sylvain, who is the engineering side of my secret formula turning my random visions into magical award winning skis. He’s a legendary Quebec ski racer from back in the day, self taught engineer, and created with me some of Line’s most legendary game changing skis from 1999-2007. We always have fun trying to out due our last ski design.

The ski community’s reception of J Skis... has been very positive and supportive. Everyone shares the common goal and comradery of trying to make skiing better regardless of how we each go about it. The fact is, the more brands, the more different way we all do things, the more flavor brought to the sport, the better chance we continue to prosper.

Having a small company among a sea of bigger fish is… awesome! I love being the small guy, the underdog! It means I’m not competing with the big fish. This enables me to focus on doing what’s best for me instead of wasting time trying to be a follower of everyone else. I can take more risks, experiment on the fly faster, and put into action things that work better without other companies noticing. The big companies are giant ocean freight liners, I’m a jet ski!

Producing skis in a sustainable manner... is impossible. The ski industry is EXTREMELY BAD for the environment. Snowmaking, tree cutting, diesel, chairlifts, snowcats, real estate, wax, un re-recyclable products. We need to be honest with ourselves. Seriously! Using a bamboo core is not doing shit for the environment except polluting the oceans on the boat it’s delivered on from the other side of an even dirtier earth. The only good thing gained is a skiers appreciation for the beautiful scenery at the mountain… as we destroy it.

Something I’ve struggled with during my time at J Skis is…

How do I stop working so much? How do I do less and sell more? How much risk do I take ordering product without any bookings? Who can I hire to work customer service 24/7, including holidays? How do I stop looking to see if I sold anything since the last time I looked?

To others looking to break into the ski manufacturing business on their own, my advice is… Don’t start a ski company! That would be like saying, “I want to work in the automobile industry so I’m starting a car company!”. Start by working at a ski shop. You’ll learn a ton about products, brands, and meet people from every winter sports company while getting paid! One thing will lead to another and before you know it you’ll be running a giant ski company. Seriously I’ve seen it happen multiple times. Go get a job!

The next major evolution of the ski shape… is to simplify! The most radical changes and experimentation in ski shapes are behind us and now. It’s time to take what we learned and hone it in to give skiers more ease and versatility from fewer different skis. No skier needs more than two pair of different skis to handle everything from east coast ice to bottomless pow.

One giant void I see in the ski industry today… is creating skis that are easy for skiers to learn to ski on and continue skiing on. We give them outdated, stiff, unforgiving, uncomfortable products, then charge them a ton of money for an exhausting, painful experience and expect them to come back?

A few key things that need to happen to get more people onto the snow each season and clicked into a pair of skis… Ski companies, mountains and shops need to commit some of their profits to work together to get NEW skiers on the hills. This would be in the form of free demos, free or discounted gear programs and free and heavily discounted lift tickets, lessons etc for new participants. This is all of our responsibility in guaranteeing a future for our industry.

 

3 comments

  • Great message. I think Donald T is doing exactly what you are doing and the rest of use do not get it. Still dragging my feet on the ski purchase at 79 years old. thanks for the ski advise last month.
    John/Clifton Park, NY

    John Weldon on
  • SO much good info in here. J is the man! Amazing company, amazing product, amazing stoke. Thanks Freeskier for doing this interview!

    Distant Cousin on
  • Jayson Levinthal is an amazing guy! Last year, I wanted to step outside the racer/traditional/big name box. Hell everyone was skiing on these fat skis and I wanted in on the action. Since I don’t ski as much as I use to and i did not want to spend a ton of cake on a pair of Fat skis i shopped on line. Just and J Lev has said, I did some research, found a pair of Line skis at a discounted price and I bought them. Then I found out the real master mind behind this entire evolution of skis and skiing and I was pissed. I found J Skis. I watched all the video’s from giving his knowledge at a local school to his showmanship pitch of “I want to sell you a pair of skis” vids. So what to do? I got on his site, clicked on live chat. After a couple of questions and a short pause from the company chatter, a message in the box said Hi this is Jason Levinthal, what going on. It was like 7:45 PM. I was blown away, that the owner and cutting edge ski guru was on the text chat line with me. Just as J said, we talked about my skiing history and where I wanted to go with skiing. Amazing! No one has ever asked me that in 50 years of buying skis! Being a amateur videographer I produced a couple of Vids for J, kind of a funny promo spot. You can view at RJunleashed@youtube. So in Fall of 16 I go to the ski show in boston like I do every year, with a few buds. When I noticed J Skis was there I was excited to think J Lev maybe around. I got to meet J and it was great. I tried to encourage my buddies to look at his brand and check it out, they like most, JUST DON’T GET IT! But thats ok cause I do. Even at 59 years old, just love J’s enthusiasm, dedication and inspiring articles, like this one. It makes my Love for Skiing come back! Thanks J Lev for being the hero of so many young skiers doing amazing things on skis. You will influence them for the rest of their lives, just as Jean Claude Killy, Billy Kid, Stein Eriksen and Warren Miller did when I was young. Keep up the great work and as Zig Ziglar always said, We’ll See You at The Top! Peace, Out! RJ

    RJA on

Leave a comment