Nick is Founder and CEO of Gilson (@gilsonsnow), a manufacturer of snowboards and skis located in Winfield, PA. He is a 2011 graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a degree in Earth & Planetary Sciences. He taught middle school science in Nashville, TN before launching the company out of the classroom.
He has received numerous awards in innovative product development and leadership and holds several snowboard and ski patents. Gilson made Wired's "Gear of the Year" list in 2015 and in 2016 the company was named as one of Outside Magazine's favorite brands born in America.
- Embrace your failures, it's never too late to course correct
- If retailers don't show love go directly to the end users
- Build a strong team and you can outthink any problem
[Podcast Transcript Using Artificial Intelligence]
Umar Hameed 0:06
Are you ready to become awesomer? Hello everyone. This is Umar Hameed, your host and welcome to the No Limits Selling Podcast, where industry leaders share their tips, strategies and advice on how to make you better, stronger, faster. Get ready for another episode.
Today I'm privileged to have Nick Gilson of Gilson snow. Welcome to the program.
Nick Gilson 0:39
Thank you for having me. It's great
Umar Hameed 0:41
to be here. Nick. We're on the campus of Johns Hopkins University at a hatch conference.
Nick Gilson 0:47
Yeah, absolutely. So you
Umar Hameed 0:48
were one of the keynote speakers. It really intrigued me, one of the things you talked about was the importance of failure, being a great lesson. And I know we're supposed to start off with how amazing you guys are and what you built. But that really struck a chord because failure is where we learn.
Nick Gilson 1:04
Yeah, absolutely. There's no way in God's gonna be here today, if it weren't for the failures along the way.
Umar Hameed 1:09
Give me an example of when you realize you were making a mistake of failure.
Nick Gilson 1:14
first major business failure was a belief that I had an assumption that we could grow this company in the traditional paths, that we could build this company to the success that some of our competitors had, that it started a decade or two decades or more before us people
Umar Hameed 1:30
that have an established brand name Exactly. And already have a channel in place.
Nick Gilson 1:34
Absolutely. But what we found is that the retail and distribution side of the industry completely rejected us. Now at this time, we are in our 1976 Airstream trailer and our Ram truck with 212,000 miles on it, traveling the country from coast to coast, doing free demos and letting people test out our boards that add mountains across the country. And it was very clear that that demographic, the skiers and riders themselves were responding in hugely positive ways to the boards and the grassroots stuff was
Umar Hameed 2:03
Nick Gilson 2:04
Yeah. And the boards look like garbage. At this point. There are Minimum Viable products. I mean, they're practically falling apart. They had no artwork on them. But people were loving the way they performed.
Umar Hameed 2:15
So you took that information. And you went to the retailer saying, hey, carry out boards. And what was the reaction you were getting? The reaction
Nick Gilson 2:22
was, this is too weird. This is too different. I remember one retailer in particular told me that the company would be dead and gone before he grew out of our daddy's basement, I believe is what he said, you know, we were in a dog in or stable at the time that did not belong to him.
Umar Hameed 2:37
Because he had self respect, he wouldn't
Nick Gilson 2:39
own you guys, this this idea that this is a very young company as this group of kids, you're gonna fail before you know it. Why would I invest in you? And you? Yeah, exactly. And and I harbored this belief that we had to pursue that channel, otherwise the company would fail.
Umar Hameed 2:53
So what was the moment of epiphany where you realize that, hey, wait a minute, we need to change something. What was that pivot point?
Nick Gilson 2:59
Well, it came after about 18 months of our team of 910 people at the time, basically beating our heads against the wall cold calling retailers. And we started out with lists of thousands. And then we, you know, we realized that maybe we need to focus and really build meaningful relationships, because business is built on relationships. So we started to focus on the ones that we really cared about. And we went and rode with them. We went and skied with them. We rode lifts with them. We had drinks after the ski day, operate drinks with them. And we built these relationships, and we made great friends and still nothing. So the shotgun approach did not work. The relationship didn't work did not work. People were not retailers, I should say we're not responding to our work whatsoever.
Umar Hameed 3:43
What pivot did you take? What did you do differently to turn things around? So
Nick Gilson 3:47
after about 18 months, it became clear that no matter how long we did this, no matter how hard we tried, we were not going to be successful through this avenue. And so at that moment, it was the first sort of company wide memorandum, if you will, that we put out that basically said nobody is to spend a second of their time or a penny of company money pursuing a retail relationship. It's over. We're not doing it. We then took our group of 910 exceptionally talented smart people and got them off the phones. And then they started to work on figuring out how then are we going to connect with our community? If not through distributors, wholesalers retailers? How do you go direct gotta be a different way to do it. So So what did that look like? So there's a huge barrier to entry there. And that's that we're manufacturing skis and snowboard. So these things are big, they're long, they have a curvature. So the box that actually needs to contain a snowboard say, way more expensive to ship hugely expensive. Yeah, because the nose and tail curve up so the actual box that needs to be packaging, this thing is actually pretty tall. Even though the snowboard itself is really thin because of the curvature of the box here. It's a five inches tall, and so you're mainly shipping air. And so at the time, the average cost directed doorstep was something like 100 dollars for a $500 product totally cost prohibitive. And so what we figured out though in this moment, when we stopped wasting our time calling retailers barking up the original channels in the industry was that if we took a really thin piece of cardboard and put it on the top, and a really thin piece of cardboard, and we put it on the bottom, we could create kind of a cardboard snowboard sock, and it would use less material and there'd be no air inside, it would be it would follow the curvature of the board. And we figured that at these, these FedEx and UPS facilities are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, there's no way they've got a guy with a tape measure, they're measuring the dimensions of the box, right? They have these cross sectional laser scanners. And as it turned out, we just tested it empirically, we wrapped up a board and some cardboard like this, taped it up and, and sent it to an address nearby of someone that we knew and to see what would happen. And in fact, what happened is that no matter where you measure along the curvature of the package, because even though the package still takes up five inches of vertical height, no matter where you measure along the length of the package, the box is less than half an inch tall, brilliant and a drop the shipping costs $180 closer to the 30 domestically 60 internationally and at that moment, we said hey, look, we're gonna build meaningful relationships with the community. And we're going to build skis and snowboards for riders and skiers directly deliver them to their doorsteps globally, and we're going to pay the shipping.
Umar Hameed 6:18
And so how did you build the audience? like you'd gone to the grassroots? You met people on slopes? Give it a test drive? Yep. But now you need to go broader. So how did you go broader and access that market?
Nick Gilson 6:29
Yeah, so Historically, the only way to do that would have been retail. And so we're very fortunate to have started this business in the age of the internet and the age of x in the age of social media growth, right? Because we had something that was and have something that was highly differentiated, it's still to this day turns heads, people. It's like a unicorn on the mountain and the last 365 days, I think our global reaches over 20 million, but still, they're only a couple thousand of these things out there. So when people find them on the mountain, it's like, oh, my God, let me This is our number one customer complaint is that is that they can't go through a lift line without getting other people to see them on the board. great problem to have. And so and so because of that, those key functional points of differentiation and because we had a snowboard that people just were having more fun right in. Our community became incredibly talkative. And it was small at first, but they started sharing their experience evangelists, well, yeah, they're evangelists of the brand. And our social media account started to grow very much organically. And we started to take a lot of our key messaging and share it on on the internet via social media. And the really cool thing was is that we weren't just a software brand with an online presence, we were actually tangibly manufacturing something on American soil, traveling the country and sharing it in person interactions, then we are capturing those interactions and then sharing those online. Exactly. So we weren't just in this cyberspace, we were really tying a pretty strong tether between the real world and the digital world.
Umar Hameed 8:01
So before we go back to the beginnings of the company, I heard in your presentation that you guys are actually have an international presence now. So it's not just domestic us, New Zealand,
Nick Gilson 8:12
Australia. Yep, that's what we started in New Zealand, Australia. My father is a New Zealander and much my family still lives, their families in the state. So I personally have an affinity for New Zealand and I've been there it's gorgeous, a beautiful place. I think my my real appreciation for the outdoors is certainly rooted in America, but also very much tied to New Zealand as well. The interesting thing, though, is that it's on the other side of the world. So when you're in a seasonal business, and it helps winter winter name, it helps to winters, right. And so right now we're recording this in the spring, we're just seeing our northern hemisphere season taper. And we're starting to watch the orders come in from New Zealand and Australia.
Umar Hameed 8:51
Brilliant. My wife and I went to New Zealand and amazing waterfalls. And after the third day there, look, honey is a waterfall. Yeah, whatever is so amazing how quickly we went from like total odd to, we've seen one too many.
Nick Gilson 9:05
Well, there's good wine for when you get bored with the water.
Umar Hameed 9:09
One of the things that really intrigued me was your story of leaving Johns Hopkins, and being a school teacher, was it in Tennessee?
Nick Gilson 9:18
Yeah, it was in Nashville, Tennessee.
Umar Hameed 9:20
And so you've got a bunch of elementary school kids and to inspire them. You wanted them to have a passion. So you actually designed a curriculum for education that's actually being replicated right now, even though you've left years ago. Tell us about what brought you to the point where you had to actually get inspired these kids in a different way. Throw away the curriculum that the school board wanted, create a new one. And part of that was having this passion that last year. Tell me about that?
Nick Gilson 9:47
Yeah, it's a great question. So So Austin, my now business partner and I he was teaching seventh and eighth grade, I was teaching fifth and six. And we were confronted with the same problem which is that the the most amazing group of kids with the hugest range in past education and ability. And so we have a student in one seat who is reading at a kindergarten level while they're in middle school. And the student next to them is reading chapter books on a college level. And the next kid over is learning English for the first time. And the next seat over. There's a student named Abdul Basit asked me theoretical physics questions of objects entering black holes from different reference frames. And, you know, it begs the question, how do we teach one class to reach all these students and to create gains across the board. And it was a major challenge. And the way that we answered that was with this sense of unity, that we're all in this together, if one of us fails, we all fail. And secondly, we're going to address this with hands on learning so that students ahead can be teaching students behind and vice versa, reinforcing concepts and all unconscious, because you
Umar Hameed 10:49
don't realize what you know, until you're teaching it and the depth of learning and mastery of the subject doesn't come from knowing comes from teaching. Absolutely. So how did you get buy in from establishment at school? Because this sounds like we just do it naturally permission later.
Nick Gilson 11:07
You know, the The amazing thing is, as a teacher, once that classroom door swing shot, you have to do what you want total autonomy. Yeah. And so I had a set of beliefs about how we would make that the greatest gains. And when Austin and I first started, we had an average classroom proficiency of 18%, right, teen one, eight. And so clearly, the system wasn't working. Right. And so we had to adapt, and we had to bring on, bring new concepts to the table. Because we didn't need to teach one year's worth in one year, we need to teach four years in some cases in one year.
Umar Hameed 11:43
Right. So you gave them I guess, monthly projects? And daily projects? Yep,
Nick Gilson 11:49
Umar Hameed 11:50
then the year long curiosity, tell me about that year long curiosity project, because that's was the spark that helps you kind of relaunch your company and do something amazing.
Nick Gilson 11:59
Yeah, exactly. And so the idea was that I brought in the prototype, the prototype one, the first one that I built when I was in middle school snowboard, yep, first prototype snowboard. And it was totally rudimentary. It's built out of plywood and a little bit of fiberglass. And, but the idea is there that it's designed in three dimensions with fluid dynamics in mind, although exceptionally rudimentary, and I said, You know, I held this board, and I said, This is what I was thinking about when I was your age, this is what I was going to school and and daydreaming about, or doodling about in the classroom, this is what was really getting me going, this is what I was looking forward to getting home to work on. And so in this year long curiosity project, I encourage I encourage each student to find something there is no criteria, they just defined something they really cared about that they really wanted to pursue, and that to have a question around something that really meant something to
Umar Hameed 12:52
me an example of some of their projects,
Nick Gilson 12:54
great question we had, one of my favorite ones was a student who pursued a project on dreams. And I'm trying to better understand what they mean are and how they impact our wildest reality. So something that wouldn't be coming out of a, you know, middle school classroom, otherwise, I don't think
Umar Hameed 13:12
No, not at all. I love that. Because ultimately getting someone to be passionate about American history. I mean, get a gun to my head, and it all now. But if you get somebody like one of my friends, kids, he became obsessed with Egypt. And he just did a deep dive himself. every conversation you have had was about the pharaohs. And this but he knew the subject really deeply because his passion for it. And what you're really teaching is people a Find your passion, but this is how you learn. And just, they build their own model of how learning can be fun,
Nick Gilson 13:42
right? And I think in the historical school model, where we're forced to still be taking tests with pencil and paper, mind, do classrooms still look the same now as they as they did, it hasn't changed at all right? In the time when we've put people into space. And we've connected billions of people globally with devices in our pockets. I mean, we're still teaching with pencil and paper. And we're also given four of the answer choices and just telling kids to bubbleman. I mean, we're creating 20th century factory workers, if we change what we're doing here, the world's changing,
Umar Hameed 14:11
so for you. The other thing I like is that leaders have to walk their talk, and you were saying, hey, if you follow your project, I'm gonna follow my project and build a better snowboard.
Nick Gilson 14:22
Yeah, and we certainly got carried away right when we started this out in the name of education that we were developing this snowboard as our year Austin and is our year long curiosity project. And that it would be used as an example to show kids what product development looks like what it means to start with an idea and a concept and then take it through the stages of prototyping and the scientific hypothesis and all of this right. You know, what ended up happening is that it was a total failure. We actually built two snowboards and it took us the better part of two months to do it and took them out to Colorado and they were awful. They were
Umar Hameed 15:00
awful. And what was interesting was, you had mentioned that when it really comes to this point where it's easier to give up, you've gotten in front of the class, tell me about the time you told them like, Okay, I'm giving up on this project, because I think that's a, an important lesson for everyone listening.
Nick Gilson 15:16
Yeah, you know, I, in hindsight, it wasn't exactly fair. And I think that's what the students were reacting to. But I told them that, hey, look, this idea failed, or at least the execution did, right? There's two pieces, there's the idea and the execution, at least the execution has failed. And we're gonna we're gonna call it quits. But all of the students in my class, I told them that they were still responsible for their year long projects, but that
Umar Hameed 15:39
don't do what I do, do what I tell you, right,
Nick Gilson 15:41
but we're calling it quits on ours. And I mean, think about how unfair that's gonna sound to to a middle schooler, who's been told that our big goal of the class is to be the fastest growing fifth grade science class in all of Nashville, right? I mean, these kids are united at this stage in the school year around this idea of being the fastest growing class. Now we're all doing this together. And if one of us fails, we all fail. And here the teachers saying we're done, we're tossing in the towel. Kids are crying, this this kid cashes. I will always remember him for this and be so thankful for this moment, but he raises his hand and he he says Mr. Gilson, if you can quit, we can quit. And it was the most humbling thing. I mean, no one will humble you faster than a fifth
Umar Hameed 16:21
grader. So can I make a suggestion? Yeah, one of the upcoming boards in the future of the company should be called a Casio board. And there's a great story behind it. And I think ultimately, we will give up for ourselves quite easily. But when you have 30 kids in the classroom, that if you give up, there's a good chance that a lot of them are going to give up on life. Right. So for your responsibility for them. Is that what kept you going?
Nick Gilson 16:50
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, what can I do, I was totally floored, I went back to the drawing boards, we detailed all of the failings and the engineering. And we came up with four potential solutions with our, with our students to how we're going to dress each one of these. And the amazing thing is that out of that exercise out of those conversations, we invented the soft edge. And that is what has made us successful today. And so you know, I think really successful ideas can come from only one of two places, and it's never one and done. It was either from it's the combination of all of the lessons learned during repeated failure, right. Or it's from a total accident. But that's where inventions come from. There's never, you know, there's never just a one and done moment. One of my favorite quotes is that it takes years to become an overnight success. I mean,
Umar Hameed 17:35
ask any band that's made it overnight success of a Yeah, yeah. 12 years of dive bars. Yeah, bikers, but yeah, it was overnight.
Nick Gilson 17:44
Yeah, exactly. So let
Umar Hameed 17:45
me tell you one of my failures. Yeah. And this question intrigues me to no end. And I heard it in your presentation. I'll kind of tie it back to your presentation. I started to get my private pilot's license.
Nick Gilson 17:55
No way. You're there way acessar 152 Cessna
Umar Hameed 17:58
152, one. And after nine hours or 10 hours, I did my solo perfectly. And then it was like, did you go fly? And so that's amazing. But if you don't have a destination to go, after a while, it's like the waterfalls like Yeah, whatever. It's kind of boring now. But there was this one intriguing thing that was amazing. Do you need to 4500 feet of space between you on the ground, and you would give you a plane full throttle, and then start pulling up the stick. So you go higher and higher at a steep climate. At some point, the engine isn't powerful enough to fly, and it stalls and as it falls out of the sky, if you give it full rudder, you are into a tailspin. Right? heel spin, dive full throttle towards the ground spinning out of control. And then what you do is the first thing you do is you cut power, so you're not accelerating towards around Wait, how's
Nick Gilson 18:48
this one of your failures? You're still
Umar Hameed 18:50
talking to me? Yes. Once you kill the power, you're still going towards around spinning, you give opposite rudder to stop the rotation. And then once you stop, then you just pull back the stick and it bleeds off the speed of the airplane and you level out and everything's okay. You can get full power in here. Okay, but you need 4500 feet to do that.
Nick Gilson 19:09
Yeah. 10,000 if you're smart,
Umar Hameed 19:12
but they've got the second rule. And the second rule is, you can't play instruments yet. You're just learning. So never ever, ever go above the clouds. So one day, because I'm bored. I'm flying in the clouds that are about 24 2500 feet. And I've got two rules in my head, you must have 4500 feet of space to do this maneuver. Yeah, the other rule, which is not as important, don't go above the clouds. So I follow the cloud rule and not the 4500 foot rule. I saw grass blades. That's how close I came to own my buying the farm. So what intrigues me is sometimes we have two rules inside our head. And we follow one rule when we should be following the other and in your presentation, what it actually resonated with you we're talking about, you know, it's the technology of the board is the most important. And I don't want any stinking graphics on my board, it should not be even an option and thinking. So you have those two rules. One is, you know the purity of the science and then the market reality of no one's buying. So tell me about that contradiction where you finally had to go, Wait a minute, we need pretty boards as well. Not only that, the engineering of it, but also the look of it. Yeah, it's that was you held on to the I'm not? I'm not bending my way.
Nick Gilson 20:29
Yeah, you know, and, and, and it's actually a great story when we were making the minimum viable product. And right, as we got beyond that, we started to get pretty good at construction, and pretty good at developing the right flex profiles and boards that were performing in the way that we wanted them to. But we had not at that time focused at all on the aesthetics other than having them have a high quality of construction. And at this stage, I was very adhered to this idea that people should be buying snowboards and skis based on how they perform not right how they look. In hindsight, I think that that may have been because I did not know how to put graphics on a snowboard at the time. So is it convenient belief to hold. But we played that out over a while. And it was very clear that the market was giving us the feedback that people wanted boards that had an artistic and an aesthetic character to them, they really wanted to see snowboards and skis that were a canvas for an artist as opposed to just being one solid color.
Umar Hameed 21:30
So I think there's three things, three words that are really important to me. One is being relevant, being relevant to your employees being relevant to your customers. And that's an example of not being relevant, right. Second thing is integrity of what you truly stand for and maintaining it. And then the third one is focus. And it sounds like that's what you're doing right now at your company is irrelevant to your audience. you're focused on, you know, your market is, and then you've got this integrity to make sure you guys deliver high quality products in the best possible way.
Nick Gilson 22:07
Absolutely. And the only way we got there is that in that moment, you know, you need to know when to pivot and when to hold your ground. And it's not always obvious. And that was a moment where we very clearly needed to pivot as a company. And I went to our team and I and I admitted that I was wrong. And I was vulnerable and instance. And I said, you know, we've really been driving this train pretty hard. But I'm wrong here. And I've been wrong here. And I need to listen to what you guys and girls think because we need to shift direction, you know, and I think that it wasn't anything that was planned. But the reality is, is that level of vulnerability builds so much trust.
Umar Hameed 22:49
Absolutely. And it seems like a paradox, but it really isn't. Right. Last question for you. How many employees do you have?
Nick Gilson 22:56
So between full and part time? We're right around 20?
Umar Hameed 23:00
So about 20 employees, as a leader, co leader for this organization? What's your biggest fear? Hmm,
Nick Gilson 23:09
that's a great question. I think my biggest fear is that, you know, if the markets not, it used to be that if the markets not ready for this, we'll get that feedback. And we'll fail if, you know, we don't deliver in terms of building equipment, that's really great, you know, we'll fail and we deserve it. And at this stage, we've gotten to the point where we've proven that the markets ready for us, we've proven that we can carve out meaningful market share, we've proven that we can have incredibly positive interactions with our community and build really meaningful relationships. So now we're at a point where if this doesn't go the way we want it to if this is not as successful as we think it can be. That's internal. And that's scary, because there are a lot of people at this stage that depend on us for their own personal careers, their own livelihoods.
Umar Hameed 23:57
Yeah. Other people have families in this business, maybe you can start a new thought process that Cassius imperative. Yeah.
Nick Gilson 24:06
When you quit, we can quit. Yeah. And so you know, that is a it's a daunting thought. But it's also highly motivated. You know, it's important to be involved in a line of work where people care. And I'm very lucky to be in a place where my team and the people that that make up this organization really care about the work that they do. And I'm very fortunate to be in a role where the people that make up our organization really care about the work that they do, and they really care about our community. And we're very fortunate to be to be building an environment where our community really cares about the work that we're doing. So really important, Nick, thanks so much for sitting down with me. Who am I thank you so much for having me on the show.
Umar Hameed 24:52
If you enjoyed this episode, please go to iTunes and leave a five-star rating. And if you're looking for more tools, go to my website at nolimitsselling.com. I've got a free mind training course there, that's going to teach you some insights from the world of neuro-linguistic programming and that is the fastest way to get better results.
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