A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.
In this second installment of my conversation with George Powell, Founder and President of Skate One, he describes how Tony Hawk and the other members of the Bones Brigade revolutionized skateboarding and made it cool again, after its near death in the late-1980’s. He also shares his frank thoughts regarding his long-standing relationship with Stacy Peralta.
Skate One is now the world’s largest skateboard company, with best-selling brands such as Powell•PeraltaSkateboards, BONES Wheels and Mini•Logo Skateboards.
You can read part one of our discussion here, which covers a number of insightful topics, including the origin of Skate One and George’s multi-decade partnership with Stacy Peralta.
In the late 1970’s, George partnered with Stacy Peralta, who at the time was a 20-year old world champion skateboarder. Together they created The Bones Brigade skateboard team which launched the careers of not only Tony Hawk, but many of skateboarding’s other stars, including: Alan Gelfand, Mike McGill, Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Lance Mountain, Tommy Guerrero and Kevin Harris.
John Greathouse: How did the Bones Brigade come together?
George Powell: This is Stacy’s (Peralta) fault entirely! He handpicked all the skaters, determining who was going to be the best of the young, just emerging amateurs, and bonded them together into a team we called the Bones Brigade. The key for him was to NOT steal well known skaters from other companies, but to start over completely with a new crew of unknown skaters, to make it fresh and inspiring. Using unknown skaters in his unique ads made them even more interesting.
You and Stacy parted ways in the early 1990’s and then re-united almost 20-years later. What led to this hiatus?
By the early 1990’s, our successful partnership was being used against us. WE were successful, and BIG, one of what the smaller companies called, the BIG 5 (PP, Tracker, NHS, Thrasher, Vision). They felt we were so big and so successful that they could not compete with us, so a skater named Steve Rocco, formed a coalition of skaters to start their own company or join his, and wrest the industry away from what we had built, for themselves.
This turned out to coincide with the switch from Vert (vertical) skating to Street skating, a change we had orchestrated ourselves, to expand the industry, and those top skaters like Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Tommy Guerrero, Mike McGill, Mike Vallely and Rodney Mullen, all saw opportunities to leave our team, and start their own brands, in order to stay relevant, and run their own company, which they did.
Stacy and I disagreed on how to handle this. He wanted us to create a brand for each guy and let them go on their own, just manufacturing decks and wheels for them. I did not think that the economic model Stacy wanted us to use would work, and we would just use up all our resources launching a brand for each of these guys, and loose the margin that paid for the marketing to keep us at the top. I was for fighting to keep our leadership roll, and as much of our team intact as possible.
Stacy was broken hearted, because he loved his team, and wanted them to have what he had achieved. My refusal to do this caused him to give up on our partnership and the industry entirely. He picked up his skate film-making career and took it to Hollywood. This estranged us for more than a decade.
Over time, I think we both saw that it was silly to be ignoring each other and I reached out to Stacy to at least reestablish communication and attempt to resolve the hurt feelings we both had. Over a period of a few years, we gradually spent more and more time together again, and his interest in the skate industry and our legacy partnership, which had by this time evolved into Legend status, began to draw us back together again. His films Dogtown & The Bones Brigade: a documentary have both reforged relationships within the industry, and partially healed old disagreements that time has clarified, between the Bones Brigade team, he and me.
Doing the BB doc was a real ice breaker for all of us, and I think it was the real beginning of our reforming of a partnership to promote skateboarding again. Today, Stacy works with us between his commercial projects to create films that showcase our skaters, brands, and skateboarding. As time continues, I think the impression that we were both probably better when we worked together than when we worked alone, will keep us doing fun projects together going forward.
Greathouse: That’s cool that you and Stacy are working together again. How has your history together impacted your relative roles at Skate One?
Powell: Stacy and I are both creative people that function best when allowed to focus on what we do best. At this time, I have the luxury of an incredible staff, who are better than me at handling our company’s day to day responsibilities, allowing me to focus on product development and graphics, my strong points.
When we initially worked together, I had to abandon my R&D roll, in order to run our madly growing company. Stacy was more or less free to focus on marketing and team promotion, but this dual roll used up a lot of time that kept him from focusing on his filming and marketing. Now, we are both more experienced in our rolls, and freed up to do what we do best, with a great group of friends at Skate One to support our efforts. I expect this more mature level of focus and separation to enable our new partnership to proceed forward even more forcefully than it did 30 years ago.
Greathouse: You started working with Tony Hawk when he was 14. Was it clear at that young age that he would become the most recognizable face of the sport? If so, what made him standout?
Powell: When he first came on the team, he was exceptional, and very driven, so we recognized that he was going to be successful, but neither of us would guess that he and Rodney would become the trick creators and innovators that they both became. They are both so creative, driven, and sensitive. It was a pleasure to work with them both, even though they both went through some very rough times as they matured and became skate stars. These issues are examined in much more intimate detail in the BB Documentary, and provide fascinating insight into the stress of adolescence and growing up as sensitive, driven, young star athletes, in a world that discounted their skill and incredible creativity as childish folly and a waste of time.
Greathouse: Is it true you once issued Tony a royalty check for .85 cents?
Powell: Yes, that’s how bad things got in the 1980–1983 dark ages period, when we were hanging on like the picture of the cat clinging to the bar by its claws.
Greathouse: There was tension among your executives that these ‘kids’ were making so much money. How did you deal with this and keep the company rowing in the same direction?
Powell: It was hard for us to see a 12 year old kid join the team and a few years later, after we had given them tons of equipment, clothing, love, travel expenses, and guidance, suddenly make more money than any of the people who were supporting them at the time, and without whom they could not have risen to the level they did.
Nonetheless, it was equitable, necessary and appropriate in the light of what professional athletes make, or movie stars make, but is it fair? Who is to say. I did have trouble rationalizing it with our management team, for sure it was a tough sell, but we made it. Who is to say what’s fair. Why should the union longshoremen on the west coast make more than twice as much as police, or teachers?
Greathouse: It seems that Lance Mountain had an attitude that my students could learn from — he consistently showed up ready to do whatever was required. Even though he might not have been the most talented skater, he made himself a valuable member of the team.
Powell: I think that point is best covered by what Lance says himself in Stacy’s BB doc. He did what no one else wanted to do, look like a dork, and not always just show himself making great tricks. He provided the comic relief, and in return, he got the extra publicity that endeared him to millions of young skaters who were inspired to play around like Lance did in the films, and feel good about themselves. He was an enabler supreme. In retrospect, he brought in more customers than Tony did. Tony impressed, but Lance provided an on ramp into skateboarding for everyone else. This was an example of Stacy’s genius.
Greathouse: If you had a do-over with your entrepreneurial career, what is/are one or more mistakes you would like to avoid?
Powell: What! Who me make mistakes? <pauses> Let me count the ways.
1. Do not listen to what your competitors say about you or your company. Create your vision and hold to your plan to achieve it. Understand that in today’s global business environment, those who would like to have what you are perceived to have will lie, cheat, and steal anything they can from you, and rationalize it as just business. As I was finishing college, my father use to say, business is a jungle son, and I laughed at him, smugly knowing he was being over dramatic and out of date…sadly, I was wrong. Human nature has not changed at all, and there are now even more ways for others to steal from you and/or assassinate your character or company.
2. Do not allow yourself to be put on the defensive, or rerouted from your plan in order to address a perceived insult, lie or problem. Just like the Islamic State terrorists try to provoke us by doing thing’s so outrageous that we are manipulated into reacting to them, instead of working our long term plan to defeat them on our own schedule and way. The way you win is to get to the finish line first and/or with the best product and marketing. If you allow yourself to get distracted, you will fall behind.
3. Be continuously vigilant in guarding against the natural arrogance, conceit and infallibility that comes with the smallest success. Be constantly cautious and wary of your ego.
4. Never assume that tomorrow will be like today or yesterday. When things are going really well, and you are succeeding beyond your initial expectation, it is easy and convenient to think that this will go on forever, and your growth curve is unstoppable. BEWARE! Life is not a constant up or down curve, but goes in cycles. Look for them and use them like a hill or a wave.
5. Be VERY cautious of over reaching financially, when you can, based on the above foibles. Consider “what if” scenarios to account for the normal business and economic cycles that will surely affect your future.
6. Follow the advice in Zero to One, by Peter Thiel as best you can. I found this book embodies much of the lessons I’ve learned over the past 50 years in one little book. It is a nice distillation of smart strategies and tactics.
7. Persevere! There are cycles, up and down. When things go south in the economy or your company or your industry, don’t quit and look for greener pastures. Here is where your love of what you do, and belief in its integrity come in to reward you, for only your love of what you are doing will motivate you to keep going, endure the pain and loss that will happen at these times. So just put your head down, go into survival mode if you have to, so you will be there, plugging away at what you love and believe in, when the tide turns and it is your time again. You will be in place, ready to go, with a head start. I suppose I should temper this advice with the caveat not to believe in the typewriter, when computer word processors arrive, but I’m sure you get my meaning and will not become ostriches with your head stuck in the sand.
Greathouse: What advice do you have for students who are looking to combine their passions with a startup career?
Powell: Do so! Do not plan a career in a field you are not passionate about. Do not just think of making money. Think about making insanely great products, services, or whatever your passion is. Never settle for being a “me too” company. Strive to be the leader, the innovator, the best. Follow your heart. Life goes by pretty fast (warp 9.0 at my age), so don’t settle for less than being the best you can be at what you do. Word.
Greathouse: How do you think the future of skating will differ from the past decade?
Powell: Skateboarding has undergone a number of cycles; decade long economic cycles, sociological cycles, cultural cycles, and maturity cycles. While this is not the place for a long treaty on the essential nature of skateboarding and its evolution, I believe we are embarking on a brand new cycle, the likes of which we have not seen since 1975. A forty year cycle.
Each of skating’s major cycles have involved a new generation coming into the realm, in order to experience it and reinvent it for themselves, after the previous generation has taken it as far as their vision permitted, and stalled. We are at the most dramatic “reset” I have seen in 40 years! It is very exciting to me because we have transitioned in just a couple of years from a mono focus activity to a multi focus culture that is embracing diversity of age, style, and intensity. It is very healthy right now, and this is giving us the opportunity to address each of these new centers of interest and activity with new insanely great products!
Greathouse: I know your passion is product development. Can you give us a hint as to what you are currently working on?
Powell: Ha! Well, as you can probably tell, I’m a big fan of Steve Jobs, and he learned the lessons I’ve mentioned to you earlier than I did, but I’ve learned them. I will give you this general information, though.
Our future products will employ new materials not found in today’s skateboards, and will be designed for all the facets of skate culture and terrain. We will be redeveloping each skate component to optimize it for each intended use. The skateboard is a very efficient transportation tool, and recognizing this, we will be making it even easier and more fun to ride, carry, and use. Our R&D budget is as big as we can possibly make it. Everything we make goes back into new products. We are the current leader in polyurethane wheels, and quality bearings, and aim to be the best in trucks and decks too. We are very excited about this opportunity to reinvent ourselves as the sport reinvents itself.
You can read part one of my interview with Mr. Powell here.
Follow John’s startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse.