Jen Gurecki: "Size, size plus stiffness. What’s important to every woman, right? The package, that’s what we’re going for.”
Julia: Welcome to Range: Stories of the New American West. I'm Julia Ritchey.
Amy: And I'm Amy Westervelt. You just heard from Jen Gurecki and I swear she was talking about skis.
Julia: Yeah… skis…. But more from her later. We started this podcast because we wanted a place to share the stories of people who not only embody that outlaw spirit of the Old West but are really paving a new path in the New West. I, for one, just moved here from the east coast last summer, but I’ve always had this fascination with the frontier and starting over out West.
Amy: I was born and rasied in the West, but I’m still fascinated by how new everything is here, and how much opportunity there is to just reinvent yourself, and do whatever crazy stuff you wanna do without anyone really noticing. Those are the kinds of stories we hope to tell with this podcast.
Julia: Whether you were born here or just moved here, we’re gonna find those stories in the wide open spaces that really define the west. In Range’s first season, we're going to be looking at everything from water rights, to the cult of Tesla to the medical marijuana industry, what American mining looks like these days and, of course, wild horses and hookers.
Amy: Of course. Our first episode is focused on female-led startups, and I swear it's not because of Sheryl Sandberg. (laughs) Honestly, we don't have a specific reason for starting with these ladies, except that we happened to have gathered the most material on that topic first. But I will say that these women really embody that whole go your own way, build your thing in the desert and they will come sort of attitude that we associate with the West.
Julia: We met some real live calamity Janes and Annie Oakleys during a Lady Boss breakfast we both attended in Reno a few months ago... and I thought we should play some clips of a few of the female entrepreneurs there:
“I’m Annie Burns, I’m the promotion manager at KTBN Channel 2 news, that’s my day job, but my side job, my passion, I’m creating a reality TV show called Jet, Set, Go, and it’s a fitness adventure travel show..”
“My name is Patty and I’m the owner of The Design Hub. The Design Hub is a co-working space that’s actually made for cosmetologists.”
“Hi everybody, I’m Kelly Northridge, I’m actually working on my doctorate at the University of Oxford in England, but I came home to Reno to do my disertation research on investing in women.”
Julia: There were about 20 people there, but you get the idea. So Amy who did you decide to focus on?
Amy: Jen Gurecki. She was not actually at that breakfast, but she's part of that group. She's the CEO of a ski and snowboard company called Coalition Snow. She won the Nevada governor's startup pitch competition, and has a really interesting take on why it's important for women to be in business … especially certain businesses.
Just a quick note, you may hear some road noise during our interview.
Jen: “I was on a back-country ski trip on the east side of the Sierra. And, you know, just having a conversation. More so about the way women are treated in the industry. How professional female athletes are treated. How they get paid at different amounts than men and how because of compensation you don't see them in as many films and you don't see them competing [in some places] and just how women are treated and that it actually has nothing to do with their skill in comparison to men. It's just that literally they don't have the financial backing that men have to be able to be front and center in the industry. And so I think that Lindsay Dyer putting out Pretty Faces really sparked a lot of dialogue about that. Her open letter to Free Skier around hey, by the way, when you put a picture of me on your website, can it be of me skiing? Can you guys do that? And then like Molly Baker followed up. So there was stuff going on at the time and we were having a conversation around that.”
Julia: Just to give you some context here, Lindsay Dyer is a pro-skier who started getting really fed up with the treatment of women in the industry a couple of years ago, and made the first all-female ski documentary Pretty Faces.
[Short clip from film.]
Julia: It was a huge success and has been something of a catalyst in the outdoor sports industry in general to re-think how women are treated. Here's Jen again.
Jen: “Then the conversation kinda got into, well what's going to change that is that women need to come to the table and women need to start changing the industry, and so you need women's companies. And then there was the conversation of like well, but if you're just a woman making clothing then that's like what women are supposed to do, right? Accessories, clothing … ‘stay in your lane, ladies.’ That's what you're ‘supposed’ to do. So, if you wanna mix up the industry and make a statement, get out of your lane. And getting out of your lane would be women designing skis and snowboards. Because that has not been done a lot.”
Julia: That's really interesting. So maybe this is a dumb question, but what is it exactly about all the women's skis that are out there that don't work?
Amy: That’s not dumb at all, I'm not an expert skier, so I asked her about that, too, because I have no idea.
Jen: "I mean honestly? It's not rocket science. We just have a stiffer flex. So, if you take the traditional perception of women it's that they're not as strong as men. Therefore, they can't initiate a turn or push a ski around the way a man can. So we have to take a man's ski and we literally have to shave it down and soften it up so that a woman could use it. Well, that's like a pretty smart thing to do maybe for beginner skiers. But not all women need soft skis. So one of the things that differentiates us the most is that we just have a much stiffer flex, which is what you want if you're an advanced skier. Because you just can't do what you want to do on a soft ski. Or board. You just can't do it. So I would say that's the biggest difference. And then appropriate sizes, right? We have lengths that women have said that they want. So like, size plus stiffness. What’s important to everyone woman, right? The package. That's what we're going for."
Julia: (laughs) I had no idea.
Amy: Right? The other thing I wanted to know was how the hell you go about starting a ski company. That seems really ambitious and really expensive, but Gurecki found sort of a new way to do it.
Jen: “We were really lucky that we got...we just got a great deal, [from] the factory that we’re working with. Most of the time, and this is what I think is really difficult for ski companies, your minimums are huge. And you're sitting on all this product. We didn't have to do that. So, I really approached this business through like the Lean Startup method. That philosophy. That's how we got Coalition off the ground. It wasn't about having this huge line and all the sizes and perfection and massive quantities... I didn't want to go that route. It was all about get something to market, let people give you feedback on it. You're never gonna get true feedback unless you're in the market. And then, be lean."
Amy: So Jen got strategic while working with a factory in Japan. And her recounting of her conversation with the factory’s manager is pretty epic here...
Jen: “I'm just a negotiator, like I just won't accept the first thing sent to me. And I fought for what I thought we needed. And at some level people … I think they were like ‘who is this woman and what are they trying to do?’... I think that that sometimes - when you put yourself out there a little bit and you’re doing something different, if people think it's interesting, sometimes they'll work with you just to see what's gonna happen. And I think that's kinda what happened. [In Japan,] Haseo-san was like 'women's skis? that size? that flex? No, Jennifer-san, women don't ski on that.' Oh Haseo-san, yes they do, this is what we'll be making. ‘Jennifer-san, are you sure?’ Yes, Haseo-san.”
Amy: So, even with the deal worked out with the factory in Japan, it still seems like a really big endeavor, to me, to start a ski company, so I pushed Jen for a little more information on the money side of things.
Jen: “You know, when you first start a company, friends and family. People say fools, but I wouldn't call any of our investors fools. We're not working with like angels or VCs or anything, it's people we know. People who know us."
Julia: And Jen also has a business principle that I think is rather admirable...
Jen: “We kinda have a rule about investors that we won't take money from anyone we wouldn't want to sit down at the table and have dinner with. So we're not chasing money... It's just people who believe in the company and believe in us. Believe in the team. And then in terms of amount, I don't want to get into specifics, but SMALL. Like we’re bootstrapping... And as we grow we'll definitely need more capital and I think we'd look at taking on more significant investment and potentially even working with angels or VCs. Although a lot of times they're really only interested in tech. So if you're not a tech company, you're not even on their radar. I didn't want to go after, you know, a million dollars in investment. I don’t know, I just didn't want to do it. I don't think you need to do it your first year or two, I really don't.”
Amy: So Julia, I got Jen to tell me later what their seed funding was and it was WAY less than what I would've thought it takes to start a ski company. You wanna guess how much?
Julia: Um, 250,000?
Julia: Uh, wow. $100,000?
Amy: She said it was actually around $75,000. And then they did their Kickstarter and got $31,000, so all in just over $100,000 to start a ski company. BUT she said they had a bad winter their first year, so now they're going into year two and really need to make sales. It’s a good thing for them that it snowed.
Jen: "Yeah. I mean, honestly last year was hard. I think it was hard for everyone. The whole ski industry struggled. So, we didn't do as well as we wanted to do. But we did well enough to have a second year. We had sales, and then we had our Kickstarter, which really helped a lot. To get $31,000 in a month, that also helped to demonstrate, yes you should have a second year, Coalition... So, we didn't do as well [as we'd hoped], but didn't need to make a lot -- like I said, we're very lean and the point was never to be a million-dollar company in year one…. Now into year two, we do need to make sales."
Amy: So when Jen says they need to make sales, she’s talking about pretty small numbers, it’s like around 200 pairs of skis. She’s not trying to compete with the big guys, and it turns out even if she wanted to, that would be pretty difficult to do given the way the whole ski industry is set up. Here she is again, explaining that:
Jen: “I think one thing people don't realize about the industry is that when you're a small company you don't have access to the things the big companies do. Like with the corporatization of ski resorts, for example, ski holdings will have contracts with specific companies and you can't even get in. You can't have a sponsored event somewhere, you can’t do certain things. So there's like entire mountains and areas that are off-limits for us, besides just our own organic, like showing up on the mountain and skiing. Even getting into some of those gear reviews, sometimesit's like $5 - $10,000 minimum just to... even have your product to be reviewed. We are really pretty grass roots in terms of using our ambassadors and social media to get the word out about the company, and that will either prove to be successful, that our vision around a bottom-up ski company will be successful or … it won't.”
Amy: I know we’re not supposed to say this, but I kinda hope they make it.
Julia: Me too. I don’t ski and I think it’s pretty cool.
Amy: Yeah, it is cool. And she talked about all this kind of feminist, Lean-In, women in busines stuff, too, that usually kinda bums me out (laughs) in a way, not because I hate women in business or anything like that, it just makes me feel like why do we still need to focus on that. Why can’t it just be business people and not this, like, “It’s women and they’re in business!”
Julia: We talked about this with journalism start ups, too. Yeah, there was Jezebel, but then Vice News now has their own “girl feed” and other sites have started those, too.
Amy: Yeah, and I feel like every business magazine has this “Women CEO” column and venture funds are starting to do funds that are specifically women-led companies, and all that stuff, and I think that yes, we need to do more to further equality, but I feel like the way it’s being done is this separate but equal thing that feels icky...Talking to Jen made feel like, okay I get it, I get why maybe in this first wave we need to make it really obvious and push for these things, and be like “by women for women” and be a little bit rah-rah about it.
Julia: I used to be a business reporter and I did notice that I would search out women in business, not necessarily because they were women, but because we just hadn’t covered it before. And a lot of times they are doing really interesting things, it didn’t really matter what their gender was.
Amy: Yeah! Totally. Anyway, so what are we doing on the next episode?
Julia: On the next episode, we're looking at something totally different -- coyotes!
Amy: Yes! I can't wait!
Julia: This episode of Range was produced by me, Julia Ritchey…
Amy: ...And me, Amy Westervelt.
Julia: All of our music is by the incredibly talented David Whited. You can subscribe to Range by going to iTunes store or find us at RangePodcast.org.
Amy: And please consider giving us a rating while you’re in the iTunes store if you liked what you heard today. If you have ideas for western prospectors, gunslingers or outlaws you’d like to see covered, send us an email at howdy [at] rangepodcast [dot] org.
Amy: Women can make stoner films, too, is what I’m saying.
Julia: (laughs) Yeah.