Tastemakers: Signal’s Dave Lee

I was fortunate enough back in the 1990s to briefly share a house in Whistler with Dave Lee, where he coached at the Camp of Champions for many summers. I say “fortunate” because this was an era when a lot of riders, both pros and wannabes, were trying way too hard to be either gangsters or rock stars and Lee and his fellow Seattle pros seemed like the exact opposite: mellow, humble, down-to-earth and smiling all the time instead of scowling or throwing vibes. A chair ride or coffee with him always made your day a little happier.

Lee’s current success with Signal Snowboards, one of the few brands actually building their boards here in the good ol’ USA, is no surprise to anyone who’s met the man. The snowboard industry has certainly taken notice, as have mainstream outlets such as Entrepreneur, Wired and Gizmodo.

Through Signal’s groundbreaking web series, Every Third Thursday, we get to watch Lee and his crew building ridiculous-yet-functional concept boards every month (see above).

In some ways, Signal is a natural outgrowth of Lee’s long involvement in snowboarding. Before he turned pro in ’93, he was a factory employee at Mervin Manufacturing which, he says, “definitely led to my comfort in building the Signal factory.” A nasty back injury slowed down his pro career for a season in ’98, and that led to an opportunity to start Supernatural, a boutique Mervin brand that lasted until 2003 and left him wanting more:

“In 1997 I started dreaming of owning my own company,” explains Lee. “I knew pro riding wasn’t going to last forever and Mike McEntire [Mack Dawg] was always telling me that the pro snowboard scene was a meat grinder and I should save my money and always be looking ahead. Some of the best advice I’ve ever got back then.”

Read on and find out why it matters that snowboarding still be in creative hands such as Lee’s.

Dave LeeCourtesy photoCan your company owner still bust with style? Lee can…
ESPN.com: How is designing and building boards here in the USA a natural evolution from your previous involvement within snowboarding?
Signal is becoming a very special brand. It’s very much a labor of love and most days I’m absolutely in love with what we have going on. Some days are tough, typical for any small business really, but that keeps us on our toes. And, at the end of the day, we’ve built this business and its snowboards with years of hard work from the ground up and I’m proud of that.

There’s no shortage of brands out there. What does Signal bring to the table that would otherwise be missing?
It’s fair to say that ETT [Every Third Thursday] has brought something completely new to the table for our industry. Most snowboard factories are pretty tight-lipped about their processes. We felt it was important to blow the lid off and let everyone in on how snowboards are made. We also found that this show is a great way to connect with other brands or interesting people we care about.

It’s high time that this sport evolve. When you open up peoples’ minds to new ideas, good things can happen.

What’s funny about the whole thing is now our whole RD department is pretty much viewable online every month. I’m super happy about this as it’s high time that this sport evolve. When you open up peoples’ minds to new ideas, good things can happen.

Have you been surprised at the success of ETT? How does Signal gauge that success?
Definitely. This show has completely transformed our brand. Not just in sales or bottom line, but inspiration from top to bottom as a snowboard brand. Internally, we find ourselves measuring its success by how much fun we’re having. Our YouTube channel does really well and our reach through Facebook and Twitter has become pretty intense for [a brand our size]. It’s exciting times over here and the little write-ups in Wired, Entrepreneur, along with spots on channels like Gizmodo and Discovery Channel don’t hurt either.

Why do you care about “making the factory cool again” — i.e. what’s been lost now that most boards go from napkin to Mac to China and then get shipped back again in containers packed with baby toys and Aeropostale T-shirts?
It’s not so much making the factory cool, but showcasing that it’s okay to work hard, get your hands dirty and build something meaningful. I’m a huge fan of the more humble approach to business and the community that snowboarding opened my eyes up to as a young rider. I like connecting people and bringing ideas together. A “rising tide lifts all boats” mentality.

Do you worry that the outlandish creations of ETT might label Signal as a wacky factory or, like, more sizzle than steak?
Not at all. We’re having fun and I think most people feel that. I’ve been completely surprised by the positive reaction from people in our industry.

Dave LeeCourtesy photoDave Lee believes in graphic honesty and Every Third Thursday pretty much puts Signal’s entire RD department in public view each month. Risk meets reward.
I’ve personally always kind of idealized the Dave Lee/Jamie Lynn/Peter Line/Todd Schlosser era of Pacific Northwest snowboarding, not only from a style standpoint but because Washington pros were such nice guys.
I never even noticed back then that the Northwest was any different than any other region as far as snowboarding. I think growing up with riders around us like Craig Kelly and Mike Ranquet a half generation behind us, and having Mervin in our backyard, we were pretty confident that Washington had a good snowboard scene. That led to all of us getting along and bonding over what we knew was a special time in snowboarding and the discovery of progression.

I know you barf in your mouth a little when you refer to Signal as “a lifestyle brand” but how has this played out in reality?
We take that to heart! We always said snowboarding is something we do, but it is all of our passions in life that make us who we are. Art, music, travel, family — we wrap it all up in ol’ Signal. I think it’s played out well for us.

What is a “tastemaker” to you and do you think of yourself as one?
A tastemaker is typically someone who finds or makes something cool or popular. I don’t know if I see myself as one … I feel that’s a term which is well used when talking about someone other than yourself. More of an outsider’s view on another’s accomplishments. Having said that, I do give us all credit and believe what we are doing has meaning and is important and I love seeing people get behind it.

Who are a few tastemakers you admire within snowboarding?
Wooly [Richard Woolcott] at Volcom. I happened to be around in ’91 when they started the company. I feel he’s been able to keep the core values strong there throughout all the changes they’ve been through over the years. Terje Haakonsen: his commitment and confidence to be on top for so long and do it with such style.

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