Back when Keir Dillon was a pro snowboarder, traveling around in the contest circuit, and coming up to Killington from Pennsylvania to train, I was a regular in the shittalk circles on the deck of the halfpipe. Keir was older, wiser, darker and went way bigger than most people, and so it was hard not to notice him.
The Killington community was tight back then, and through one-hitter hike sessions and mutual acquaintances, we’d eventually become friends. Not the kind of FRENDS you start brands with, however. That was a special group of younger guys to whom Keir served as a mentor and adult-ish figure as they made their way around the world to X Games, Olympics and other events. Eventually, Keir’s time above the lip ran out, and he moved first behind a mic, and then behind a desk, running the brand while the younger generation did the tricks. Then in recent years, many watched in bemusement as FRENDS moved away from is snowboard roots, and into the women’s fashion market.
This seemingly strange choice caused one Yobeat reader, who’s called himself Billy Mays, to pen the following in an email.
“I got a question. What happened to the whole frends crew and their not bad headphones? It’s like one day they were a that cool core shop friend that would hook you up with deals, then next day you go back to the shop and it’s like a basic white girl took a Starbucks shit all over the place.
I’ve even emailed them in the past, but I always get they same typical reply from them. Turns out they don’t like my language too much. Fucking feminazis always ruining my fun. I bet they wear thrasher merch and don’t skate.”
So when this question arrived, I dipped into my OG rolodex and went to the straight to the source. A few months, and about a million texts and Linkedin messages later, Keir and I got on the phone and I asked him to set the record straight.
Brooke: My first question, and what brought up the idea of calling you was an email I got from a fan asking me to find out what’s up with FRENDS? What’s your version of how you decided to take the brand in a totally different direction; from snowboarding to a women’s fashion accessory line?
Keir: That’s a very broad question. A lot happened. Are you talking specifically about the pivot to really abandon our perceived heritage and pivot into women fashion, which was something that none of us really knew at all? For me, that would be the struggle of an undercapitalized company in very crowded space. Sony had just launched the Peak line, Sol Republic was launching its line. Nixon already had their headphones. We’d created something that was representing action sports and representing us in our design language, but I think from just a raw business perspective of ‘how do we create something that is self-sustainable, and creates a platform to further create as we’ve always wanted to do,’ headphones were just a vehicle to transcend what FRENDS actually stood for.
So that idea just kind of popped into my head. About half of the world’s population are women and if we made headphones that they can fall in love with like they fall in love with other accessories, there might be a little niche market here that we could really drill into. And also we’d have so much more creative freedom and new ways of expressing it. I don’t think the company was set up properly to compete in the headphone space, through a male dominated lens.
Keir: From the very beginning it was just Danny and I at Aspen at X Games. My mom and dad were entrepreneurs and I’ve always wanted to do a company. After we didn’t make the finals that year we were like hey, let’s do a company. I think he came up with the name that same night and it was a sticker company. When it went from that to “let’s actually do something with this!” And create a product that requires a little more R&D than just cutting out stickers. From a timing perspective, it was also the 2010 Olympics and I was like, you know what, I’m pretty washed. The cow has been thoroughly milked, and this would be a lot of fun. Take a step into a role that I’m uncomfortable with, yet still have support and still be surrounded by the boys and them snowboarding, and that was formation of it.
Through that formation, we went through a lot of legal work to try and make it as fair as humanly possible. There were a bunch of sliding scales. If certain revenues came through certain distribution channels, we would give credit to more of the action sports space. If it was through a more predominant CD distribution channel, the scale would slide the other way, because we’re probably not going to have as much of an influence on those sales. That would be more like channel marketing and the actual product itself than, ‘hey I’m buying this because Danny Davis or Mason [Aguirre] owns and rides for the company.’ We tried to take all that into consideration. There were a lot of meetings. We talked to Andy from Nixon, he sat down with us for a couple hours, and was just like, ‘here’s all the ways this can play out and at the end of the day, here’s what it’s gonna look like, are you ok with that?’ It wasn’t done lightly but it was definitely the move in the company that, in hindsight, I don’t know how else it could have been done. To create a focus, and also to have a leader to make tough calls. Looking back, it was the first rip of the onion.
The second pivot, and this is the one that hurt the most, is while we were going down the road for women. A COO’s job is to manage the board and also investors. Especially being founding investors, I did a very poor job of pausing and bringing [the boys] along for the journey that they had helped create. That’s something that I know left really deep scars for them and for myself. That’s a true failure of, ‘sorry, I got caught up in this, we’re going over here here and it’s not fully attached so I gotta put all my focus over here.’ And it’s all glitz, glam whatever. And I can imagine [from their perspective] it was pretty much like, what are you doing? You’re abandoning us?
Brooke: They were probably like, yeah man, now Rhianna is wearing our headphones so you can’t call me back?
Keir: It’s such a simple thing to not allow happen and that’s probably why I like sharing it. It’s the small little stuff that keeps a culture together or rips it apart. It’s all those moving pieces, but when things are flowing and moving along, it doesn’t really matter how many moving pieces there, are or plates that are on fire or whatever. Everyone is just kind of burning together. But when something starts to put the flame out a little bit, it really just changes quickly.
Kier: I put my life savings in FRENDS. Everything, my IRA, everything, so when it didn’t full work how I anticipated it was like, oh, so I used to not live on earth at all when it came to budgets. But it’s a good lesson. When you think budgets are tight and then you really have to tighten budgets. I actually felt like I did the company’s budgets and modeling well, because it wasn’t mine. But I think for yourself it’s always harder, especially as a creative. Budgeting! Uhg.
Brooke: I hate it. I spent like three hours today trying to pay my bills and I didn’t even get anything paid.
Keir: It’s not a waste though.
Brooke: No, it’s good. Running a business is really hard and I don’t think people truly appreciate how many pieces there are to it. And then when you’re running a business with your friends it adds an extra emotional level, which if you’ve never done it, you could never grasp it. But it can definitely make or break you. And if doesn’t break you, it’s only uphill. I feel your pain and I appreciate you spelling it out. There’s always been a lot of unknowns and you don’t want to burn any bridges when you’re talking [to the media.]
Keir: That is my whole goal too in a lot of these things. I feel like I’ve been to hell and back many times and just being open and honest with what I feel I did wrong. These are areas I’m not proud of and these are things I did wrong, and these are areas I am proud of it. It is what it is said from a very humble spirit and I tried the best I could and there’s many areas that I failed.
Brooke: You can’t succeed unless you fail.
Brooke: Speaking of failure. I saw you on Shark Tank, and I was really bummed Ashton Kutcher didn’t want to invest. I read what your “I learned from Shark Tank” thing on Inc, but tell me more. How did that come about? How did you decide to go on Shark Tank and in hindsight, did you get a bump in sales at least? What are the positives and negatives you took from that experience?
Keir: They called us up and that year they were trying to focus on getting one million dollar investments. So they were having different celebrities come on to try and increase their ratings by having higher investments made in certain companies. They pitched us on it and then we went through a six-month screening process and signed so many legal documents. I’m sure the president doesn’t sign that many things. It was so crazy.
I think the process itself for me was just so different because I’ve done TV work. I felt like very early on I could feel the editing room starting to get excited. ‘Wow, we have a lot of great material here to destroy these people if we want.’ You just kinda know, like ‘that’s going to come back to haunt me.’ I had this voice in my head already playing, so I feel like I gave up on it probably within the first two minutes. I just went in super unprepared. And I guess the wildcard is, and this is a good reminder, that Ashton Kutcher’s mentor is one of our investors. So I actually thought he would be cool to us. TV did a really good job of editing out how not cool he actually was.
Keir: His last statement was “I don’t trust you, I don’t believe anything you’ve just said, something something something.” He went on this huge rant just tearing me apart and then he said, “but I know the brand, I have headphones at my house, and all my friends wear them.” So I was like, yeah, that’s why we’re here. I’m not an operations operator. We need serious financial stability and leadership in this company. We got it to a certain point. And yeah, we made a lot of mistakes on the way, but we created a brand that you actually know. So I think that was a disheartening ‘wow!’ We thought we had one in the pocket but it was really just the opposite.
Brooke: He punk’d you!
Keir: He totally punk’d us. We went in so stoked, like, ‘he’s definitely gonna hook us up!’ Actually all the other Sharks were all really cool. They definitely make them look more gnarly on TV, but you can tell they do it every week. They have a softer spirit towards the entrepreneurs, even though it’s still firm. But overall I think it was a very neutral, blah, whatever for the brand. I think for me personally it was a good slap in the face on many levels. Just set realistic expectations. Know your business better. Have things clearly defined. That was in a state where the company was starting to unravel and there were a lot of things that were challenging me as the leader of the company, that just weren’t tight. I didn’t take it as it hurt the company, I took it more as, I looked like an idiot up there.
Brooke: Are you still doing any stuff for X Games, or are you just focused on family and your business now?
Keir: No. The last three years of Frends I had to stop completely. I think winter was the last [X Games] I did. I just sat in the seat and I didn’t know any of the tricks. I knew half the riders. I had a day and a half to learn all that and also adjust to live TV after not having done it for six months. I was just like, ‘why am I exposing myself to this kind of stress?’ My life is already stressful enough and I’m also not glorifying snowboarding or connecting with viewers the way I would want to. I think of it like being pro snowboarder. When your time is done, take a seat. Let the next passionate crew that is up on all that come in and take over.
Brooke: That’s an interesting way to say it. There’s definitely two schools of thought out there. There’s some people who say, we need to support our legends and he’s done this and this and this for snowboarding and you can’t just cut him off. You hear that kind of rhetoric all the time. And then the other camp says, ok, you get 5 years. Or you get 10 years if you’re really good. You seem to be in that more acceptance of ‘snowboarding is temporary’ camp.
Keir: To speak specifically to what you said, I think there should always be a blanket around the heritage of things. I think the legends of the support should always be respected and held up. What Terje did and what Brushie did, and that that’s not lost is important. And that will come in time. Snowboarding will mature further just as all other sports had their hall of fames mature. I’m sure snowboarding will figure out a way to do it cool. I think for me, if I just look at myself, that mindset is more, ‘yes I love snowboarding.’ ‘Yes I love TV hosting.’ ‘Yes I love business.’ But I looked at them as just that was the vehicle I was driving. With snowboarding I was head down, ADHD, dyslexic and I’m all in, and I’m doing it. Then next thing was TV hosting. Passionate, all in, focused. And then the business was the same thing. I look at it as changing your car. But your passion and your vision and what you’re trying to accomplish and differentiate and disrupt and to add and make better, none of that ever changed.
Brooke: It’s a vehicle. That’s a great way to put it! So, I have to ask, do you still go snowboarding?
Keir: You know life got so twisted at Frends in a negative way, and I look forwarding to sharing this more in the future that will hopefully help other people not get so twisted like I did. I just started telling myself lies to make me work harder. ‘I don’t like snowboarding.’ ‘I’m over it.’ ‘It’s annoying, it’s expensive, it’s so far away. The ocean is here,’ even though I don’t go in the ocean. I literally, over a two-year period, talked myself into not liking [snowboarding.] So this will actually be the first year. London is 10 and Cash is 6, so we’ll probably do a bunch of trips up to Mammoth and Big Bear and embrace those gifts that I literally just threw away.
Brooke: Wow. I kinda did the same thing. It’s easy to get burnt out on something that you’re so passionate about when you get too involved. You get too deep down the rabbit hole and you’re like, why did I even like this in the first place? I don’t understand. And then enough time passes and you’re like, well actually, I do like fresh air and exercise, and my friends and beautiful places.
Keir: Yeah. I don’t know the official name for it, but there’s a balance. Your nourishment, exercise, relaxation, family, you friendships, learning, occupation and contribution are the nine buckets. And my bucket was only work. Everything else was just being destroyed or malnourished, so over the past six months I’ve really been focusing on building the other blocks back up. I think that was a gift that snowboarding gave too. You’re outside, you’re exercising, you’re traveling, you’re in friendships and relationships. It creates such an environment for holistic, balanced living, that when I threw it away, I didn’t realize I threw away so many tools.
Brooke: That’s deep, man. So what does your life look like now? You live in So Cal, you’re a dad…
Keir: Yep. That’s funny the way you say that because that’s how I feel, actually. As though it was just anointed a dad. I still live in the same place, in Carlsbad. That’s the one constant through all the madness of FRENDS. My wife is doing homeschooling with the children and just super involved in their lives and filling in a lot of the areas that I left blank. This is now the first time in probably a decade where I’m home in the morning and cooking breakfast. Being around and doing more dad stuff. It’s been pretty rad. It’s been hard though. Learning how to be a father, especially because I didn’t have the greatest father role models. Some people, when they pick up babies you’re like, oh my goodness, you’re so good. And then others it’s just a little more struggle. But it’s been a welcome struggle.
Keir: I think also I look at FRENDS as the true essence of the gift and the curse. If I would have kept going with FRENDS, I would have woken up five years later and my daughter would have already been out of the house and my son would have been on his way. I would have seen them for maybe five days.
I’m such an optimist and things happen for a reason. Everything that happened at FRENDS, good and bad, seemed to happen for reasons. That’s the way I internalize it. There’s other people who have different feelings about that, but for me, it was a huge gift of saving myself to not be involved ongoing with it.
Brooke: So you’ve completely stepped away from the FRENDS brand?
Keir: Yeah, we sold the brand to our European distributor, which is also cool. He’s been a friend for 15 years. He ran our European office. We built the brand with a lot of blood, sweat and tears from a lot of people. And all that he has now. He has a really solid foundation to continue to build from.
Brooke: It’s out of your hands now. You have no idea what’s going to continue to happen.
Keir: Yeah, which is also kind cool. I think it’s almost like an analogy I’ve heard with your children. You can only really hold em so much. Even if you look at FRENDS from day one. Action sports, youth lifestyle and then morphing into a women’s fashion company. You can only control things so much. There’s an analogy in golf, ‘hold your club lightly and it’ll actually have a perfect swing.’ I think brands are the same way. The next stage will be cool to see where he takes it, and it’ll find a rhythm. And I’m nurturing the areas that I completely blew up in my life, like family and friendships and exercise. I lost 37 pounds over the last two months.
Keir: I couldn’t even believe that I weighed 208 and I felt kinda normal. I’m just getting back to basics. Wake up, Go the the gym. Come home. Cook the family breakfast. Then do some work. I’m just doing some consulting work in completely different industries, but kind of leaning in the skill sets that I’ve more honed in on. I love problem solving. I love seeing ways of making things better. Or finding when people think it’s completely done, but actually finding there is an escape you can take.
That’s what I loved at FRENDS. I wish I was mature enough at the time to then bring in the support to actually back that up. That’s the one take away that I would have done. It would have been nice to have hired a CEO or a COO early on at FRENDS. I think a lot of entrepreneurs, I know for myself, making a new wheel always felt like a really good use of time… There’s always a better wheel.
Brooke: Well I’m stoked for you. I’m glad that you are able to just do your thing now. And I’m sure whatever you do next is gonna be awesome.
Keir: Thanks, and if it’s not, the next thing will be, or whatever. We’re artists right! Our worst stuff may someday be looked at as our best. I am who I am and hopefully that person improves, owns where I fall short, learns and pushes forward. We are all judged, sometimes from our past, sometimes by not even anything, but we all have today and the next to further growing, helping others and being helped.