Steven Kimura Hump Day Interview

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Steven Kimura is one of the guys leading the renaissance happening in snowboarding today. As the industry tries to figure itself out a bit, Kimura is setting off confidently in his own direction. He doesn’t need big investors, he doesn’t need corporate relationships, he just needs his own insane ability to create and a sewing machine. Having a few influential friends like Gray Thompson, Eric Messier, and Joe Suta (Nightmare) doesn’t hurt either. – Paul Bourdon

Let’s get the essentials out of the way: Who are you, where are you from, and what is your place in snowboarding currently? I’m Steven Kimura, born and raised in upstate New York, and currently residing in Providence, RI. I’m co-founder of the clothing company Owner Operator, the snowboard company United Shapes, and snowboard specialty marketplace Parts & Labor.

When did you first get into snowboarding and what was the initial draw for you? Growing up skiing gave me a love for sliding down a mountain, but never captured my imagination in the same way snowboarding did. There’s a sequence in a James Bond film from the mid 80’s where he snowboards on a helicopter blade or something, and it was completely obvious to me from that brief flash that snowboarding was just inherently cooler than skiing could ever be. Once I discovered the world of pros, brands, tricks, I was obsessed.

What do you see as the major differences between when you started riding and now? If you never rode equipment from that era, especially as a little kid you have no idea how shitty it was. My first board was a 88 or 89 Gnu Antigravity, and it was just horrible. I still have it. It’s as stiff as an ironing board, and barely any sidecut. I think it took me a year to make an “S” turn on it. Add to that Sorel’s, bindings without ratchets or padding, and it’s a miracle I ever went back to it after that first day out. It’s easy to go high concept, but when you’re on the mountain all that matters is if you can turn, and how much your feet hurt. Things are unbelievably better now from a gear standpoint.

Do you have a favorite memory or funny story that stands out from “back in the day”? The US Open, before it moved. Watching Jeff Brushie ride the pipe while standing in between Jeff and Mike Jacoby’s moms. Plus, Mike Jacoby giving out free Butterfingers next to the pipe during the contest. Jumping on hay bales on a Burton Air 6.1. while night-riding at Maple Ski Ridge with my future business partner Pete Sieper.

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What role do you feel mainstream corporations like Target, Sprint, Red Bull and others have in snowboarding? Should they have a role? Red Bull belongs in a different category, since they’re financing and distributing snowboard films. If you want to make a big-budget movie these days your options are pretty limited. 

I don’t understand the impulse to put your name on the kind of junk they sell at Target. Does Sprint pick up people’s phone bills? If so, I want Sprint flow. I won’t put a sticker on my board though, sorry.

Snowboarding has a long history of shitty sponsorships. It pains me to see people making awkward compromises when their whole role is to inspire the rest of us mortals.

I was surprised to hear that you’ve been doing Owner Operator for 8 years. I think I first became aware of Owner Operator about 3 or 4 years ago. What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in developing that brand and increasing its recognition in the market? We’ve never run Owner Operator like a traditional brand. Ultimately, any kind of brand recognition we’ve ever had was more than anything else due to people being interested in what we make, and how we make it. We spend our energy making stuff, not building our brand recognition in any traditional way. It’s backwards, but because we’re totally independent we’re free to do whatever we want as long as we stay excited enough to keep working on it.

Why are you sewing your own garments for Owner Operator when you could just as easily have that work done somewhere else? It’s not easy to make stuff anywhere. No matter where you make your gear, you have to get a bunch of people in one place, making patterns, cutting, sewing, packing. You have to figure out where to buy or develop trims and fabrics. There’s no easy way to do it, though we pretty much chose the hardest way possible. We’re small, and love being totally hands-on, so we make our stuff close to home in New York City’s Garment District. The majority of the time, we don’t sew our own production. We work with a couple of small factories there that we know well. I did just personally sew a few pairs of mittens the other night for Eric and Gray though.

What is your philosophy when it comes to designing outerwear? We keep focused on making gear that we can wear in the city, but with enough technical functionality for our friends who are spending the Winter riding mountains, snowmobiling, and camping. Outerwear is super expensive, so we keep it conservative and classic. Mittens and stuff can afford to have a more fun vibe, since it’s more affordable. We’ve always just tried to make gear that we’re personally psyched on from a creative and practical standpoint.

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What do you say to those out there who feel that snowboard companies who contract out their manufacturing and production to factories that aren’t their own are “just another folk stealing pieces of the pie”? The vast majority of companies in every industry don’t own their own factories. The same is true of snowboarding. 

Niche and Spring Break are made in the same factory, but they’re shaped differently, have different cores, different cambers, graphic approaches, and different stories. A Jones Stormchaser and a Yes 20/20 aren’t the same board, or same vibe, even if they share manufacturing and a parent company.

Burton presses a small number of special release boards themselves, but make their regular production in contract factories. Smokin’, Marhar, Venture, Powderjet and Gnu/Lib Tech have their own factories. If you can build a cool brand, and make great boards too than that’s great. Snowboarding has a long history of brands with their own factories, and it’s awesome.

Chances are though that your favorite snowboard brand is made in a contract factory, whether it’s Forum (RIP), Jones, or Gentemstick. Brands that have their own manufacturing are awesome, but to say that ones that use contract factories aren’t legit seems pretty naive to me.

What makes it so financially difficult to build snowboards stateside for an emerging brand like United Shapes or even larger, more established brands?  It’s a complicated issue, and all tied up in our 8 year’s experience with Owner Operator. We learned a lot of hard lessons about what it means to manufacture here in the USA.

Our first boards were made in a domestic factory, and we’ve worked with samples from four or five other factories. We moved production to a state of the art factory in China initially not because of price, but because the build and finish quality we can get there is amazing. We can’t at this point get the boards that we want made here in the States.

Build issues completely aside, if you want to do a wholesale business, it would be very difficult to make your boards here in a domestic factory unless you own it yourself. Using a domestic contract factory would add at least $150-$200 to our MSRP, even if we could get them built the way we want.

I’d love the chance to build a factory here, but wouldn’t start pressing our own boards here until we can deliver a superior product to what we can develop overseas. Everybody loves a good story, but ultimately what you really want is the best board you can get.

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What is your design philosophy with United Shapes? Obviously the boards are unique in their look, but who are you looking to target with these boards? Our primary audience is ourselves. We want to make United Shapes the kind of company that we’d be psyched on as fans. After that, everybody else. United Shapes isn’t necessarily a niche brand at all though. People who are pretty distant from the current snowboarding scene can still look at our boards, and see that they’re going to be fun and different. There isn’t a board in our line that you can’t ride every day, in any conditions and have more fun than you would on a popsicle stick.

Talk to me about producing your own content and approaching media outlets vs. trying to have those outlets fund a project you’re wanting to do. I’ve learned a lot from watching Eric and Gray over the last 5 years. They have had all different kinds of relationships with media, film companies, and the like. It was when they took control of their own projects that they were really able to build something really inspiring and unique on their own terms. Now that they’re been able to really tell their own story, it translates naturally back into the more traditional media outlets.

I would definitely rather spend $15k and make a cool and unique snowboarding film that nobody sees, than use the cash to buy a few pages in a “gear guide”.

What is your approach to advertising and marketing your brands? Do you feel it is valuable to devote resources toward traditional marketing or is there a better way to generate buzz? We do very little in the way of advertising and marketing. We’re totally grassroots, and too busy making stuff, be it snowboards, films, or whatever else to have time to figure out the best way to get it seen out in the world. It’s definitely a shortcoming, but a trade-off you make when resources are tight. For the price of a single page ad in a magazine, we can finance an entire film project. We’re really in business primarily in order to make snowboards, films, and photos rather than making that stuff in order to move units. 

I would definitely rather spend $15k and make a cool and unique snowboarding film that nobody sees, than use the cash to buy a few pages in a “gear guide”. 

How important is it for you to appeal to those outside of the “core” of snowboarding? Given than the “core” represents ~5-7% of the market and it seems that everyone is fighting over that same market segment. Do you place any value in those customers that have a more casual relationship with snowboarding? If you want your brand to survive, you probably need to sell to people outside of whatever that “core” of people you’re describing. Fighting other brands in that market is fun, but missing the ball. If we want to get more people into snowboarding we should just focus on nurturing the scene. People on the outside might not get every little nuance of a snowboard company’s story, but everybody can recognize authenticity, fun, and creativity.

What are your thoughts on the best way to convert those on the periphery of our culture and lifestyle into new members of the core of the culture?  When snowboarding blew up in the 90’s it was because snowboarding had vitality and originality that got people’s attention. Plus the global economy was a hell of a lot better. Nobody ever reached out to me to make snowboarding easy. My Dad didn’t want me to give up skiing. I got vibed at the pipe. It was expensive. Gear was shitty and hard to find. But it was just so cool and fun that we all fought to do it anyway.

Tell me about your latest idea, Parts & Labor. What is it you’re hoping to accomplish with it? How is Parts & Labor different from SIA? We founded Parts & Labor because SIA is boring, and expensive. United Shapes is a small company, and focused on working with maybe the best 30 or 40 shops in the country most of whom don’t even go to SIA anyway. We’re better off driving around and visiting them personally. 

At the same time, there’s something magic about having so much of the snowboarding community in one place at one time. We’re providing a more affordable, more fun place to meet up and talk shit.

Who are some of the brands that are going to be at Parts & Labor? We’re showing around fifty brands. Our initial goal with this show was to have five, which I think shows that people have been waiting for something like this to happen. I’m personally most excited by brands like Moss, Offshore Snowshapes, Hightide Mfg., Korua Shapes, and TJ Brand that most people have never had the chance to see in person before.

What do you say to those who say that creating a new trade show solely for snowboarding separate from SIA creates a more fragmented snowboard industry that is weaker in its fragmentation than a unified industry that only has one trade show? Parts & Labor has definitely fragmented the trade show industry. But we’re not in the trade show industry, we make snowboards.

We dropped SIA because it’s super boring, and super expensive. Our only concrete plan was to stop wasting money at the show. Snowboarding is maybe 30% of SIA at best at this point. Burton doesn’t even show there.

I didn’t feel a part of the snowboard industry at all ‘till we started Parts & Labor, and found myself surrounded by a sea of like minded people. It turns out there actually is a snowboard industry, we just haven’t had a place to go before now.

How do you respond to people who suggest snowboarding as an industry and culture is a bit nepotistic? How do we welcome new people into this culture? New people are coming into the culture every day, and they don’t give a shit about conventional wisdom. They just care about what’s cool and new, and that’s what they’ll support. The gate keepers are the ones struggling to keep up with next generation. Dinosaurs will die.

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What is your prediction for the future of snowboarding? Where do you see us headed? Fewer snowboards will be manufactured as market realities catch up with unrealistic growth expectations. Big companies don’t know how to shrink, and are all ready struggling. Small companies will grow to take their place, and the cycle will begin anew. From our ashes, new flowers will sprout. 

Time for thanks and acknowledgments….

Thank you to snowboarding for introducing me to so many of my best friends. Thanks and congratulations to Yobeat for surviving for 20 years. I first saw the site sometime around ’98 or ’99. The Burton site, and Flake Zine were the only other snowboarding sites that existed. This is pre-google, pre youtube… Black backgrounds and gritty gifs.

30 replies
    • Heavy Tools
      Heavy Tools says:

      I’m sure Steven is well aware of that…he seems to reference it as a proof that, through the years, countless brands–including some legendary ones–have relied on contact factories to press their boards.

      • Heavy Tools
        Heavy Tools says:

        I’m sure Steven is well aware of that…he seems to reference it as a proof that, through the years, countless brands–including some legendary ones–have relied on contract factories to press their boards.

    • YER'
      YER' says:

      YOU’RE typing on YOUR computer to impress their vision over there. Is it YOUR intention is to sound smart? Are we supposed to believe YOU’RE educated? YOU’RE using YOUR like a fucking idiot. An idiot cannot make THEIR point very clear if THERE is no brain in THEIR head to know how to spell the word YOU’RE. YOU’RE an idiot, YOUR opinion totally matters.

  1. Damian Sander's Hardboots
    Damian Sander's Hardboots says:

    Nice! Great insights from a dude making all the right moves… Props to Pete and Steven for their vision and desire to simply do something different. It’s great to see them slowly getting the recognition they deserve.

  2. you know it, i know it, everybody knows it
    you know it, i know it, everybody knows it says:

    Steven is great and seems like he has a good head on his shoulders but he really needs to ditch that kook from Nightmare if he wants PAL to be successful. Guy seems like a loose cannon and the new Nightmare graphics are an obvious bite of FA’s pro decks.

    • fuckingaewsome
      fuckingaewsome says:

      Steven cannot “Ditch The kook” that invented the show. Nightmare is 100% responsible for Parts & Labor existing, see you there asshole! FA ripped off every skateboard graphic that identified with companies from 1989-1993 – send them a letter and know what the fuck you are talking about.

    • aunt mabel
      aunt mabel says:

      Everybody in snowboarding should be replaced with loose cannons. Shit used to actually be a counter culture, now everbody wants to be a fuckign micro-brewery

        • summit county sucks dicks
          summit county sucks dicks says:

          You’re joking, right? In what way does the snowboard world NEED Nightmare? Wouldn’t be surprised if the brand goes under in the next two years with their shitty ass “cool guy” attitude towards the “industry”. If Steven were smart he would find another business partner for Parts and Labor because Suta and Nightmare are not promoting an inviting image. WITH THAT BEING SAID, I think Nightmare has a very talented snowboard team of super rad dudes doing their own thing.

          • Cool Story
            Cool Story says:

            Half of The Hard The Hungry and The Homeless was filmed in Summit County. The first era of jibbing started there as well. Never Summer makes snowboards for beginners. Your story is not great.

  3. Denver Local
    Denver Local says:

    Yobeat hasn’t been around for 20 years? Show me proof of snowboard internet sites in 96 or 97? And why is there no talk about Never Summer in here. They are as core as it gets. I own an oversized truck and rep that huge sticker all year. Colorado 4 life!!!

      • Denver Local
        Denver Local says:

        Looks like a great high school project. Glad you still respond to your comments. Now answer the damn Never Summer question.

        • zuckerkorn
          zuckerkorn says:

          @DenverLocal I’m pretty sure you’re trolling Yobeat, and I love you for it. “I own an oversized truck and rep that huge sticker all year. Colorado 4 life!!!!”. LOL

          If you’re not joking tho please go die. THX

          • zuckerkorn
            zuckerkorn says:

            Omg he might not be joking fam. @denver local hit me up on Instagram @zuckerkorn69 I’ll explain to you why Never Summer is the absolute worst.

          • Rara
            Rara says:

            I thought the dude was trolling also. Nope, just an ass-hat front ranger, like 98% of them. I’d rather be around Texans.

  4. Mark Heingartner
    Mark Heingartner says:

    You’ve been in business 8 years and no one still knows who you are? Hmmm, maybe change the program up unless your trust fund is keeping you afloat. And if your boards are made in China, and your clothes are made in a factory in New York, then what are you actually doing that makes you so busy? Not snowboarding, since you live in that snow less state of Road Island.
    Sorry but this interview is a series of contradictions and the only explanation is that this dude is on mushrooms and dreaming that he’s in the snowboard business.

    • Fred Durst
      Fred Durst says:

      Hey Mark,

      How long have you been one? I wonder the age of this Mark. Was is a gradual process or did you just wake up one day and find out? “today i feel special, today i feel like a mark who doesn’t know shit but comments on the internet like i do” Well mark I hope you stay busy!! Keep it up little bud!!! One day you will be a grown up Mark and then you will still suck at being human. REGARDS MARK ASS BITCH

      • Mark Heingartner
        Mark Heingartner says:

        Hey I think about the day
        My girlie ran away with my pay
        When fellas come to play
        No she stuck with my homeez that she fucked
        And I’m just a sucker with a lump in my throat
        Hey, like a chump
        Should I be feelin’ bad? No
        Should I be feelin good? No
        Its kinda sad I’m the laughin’ stock of the neighborhood
        You would think that I’d be movin’ on
        But I’m a sucker like I said
        Fucked up in the head, not!!
        Maybe she just made a mistake
        I should give her a break
        My heart will ache either way
        Hey, what the hell
        Watcha want me to say
        I wont lie that I cant deny

  5. Man Bun Tool
    Man Bun Tool says:

    You don’t like pill style shapes because you got sick of sucking at snowboarding and have to ride an odd shape to make yourself feel like you’re having fun again. Sorry, its the same problem Never Summer had.

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