How I Started A Ski Company

Posted by Cyrus Schenck on

Hello,

My name is Cyrus Schenck and I run a ski company. 

People say I have the best job in the world — but let me set the record straight.

It’s been 8 years, 6 months and 21 days since I started RENOUN. It’s been one of the hardest things I have ever done — taking more time, and more money than I ever though necessary to get where we are today. It’s not always been fun, and often times has made me feel stupid and crazy for even attempting to start a company in a shrinking, over-saturated market. Well, maybe because it is a stupid idea to start a business in a market like this.

Yet, here I am.

I funded RENOUN by washing windows — for 7 years. Yep, I was was washing windows all summer years after we won our first international ISPO Gold award. Years after we sold our 100th ski. Years after our first Patents. RENOUN wasn’t funded by some big investor group or wealthy parents - it was funded by a squeegee and a heavy dosage of podcasts. Thank you Radio NYC.

Today, RENOUN is one of the fasted growing ski companies in the world — being featured from everything like The New York Times to the in-flight airline magazine Hemisphere’ to winning the biggest awards in the industry — twice.

You can trace the roots back to a Materials Science class at Clarkson University with a professor, Ajit, who admitted to ‘hating teaching undergrads’ (I didn’t blame him, we where all a bunch of knuckleheads back then). Yet he proceeded to teach us the physics behind the building blocks of our world as we know it.

Ultimately, Ajit showed us a fancy material called a ‘non-newtonian polymer’ which had some really bazaar characteristics — it was a goopy substance that, when hit, would feel super hard. As a skier, it was the lightbulb moment. Why not put this magic polymer inside a ski?

I researched what other ski companies had used this material before. Which as a millennial, means I Googled it. Nothing. I could’t believe this simple concept hadn’t been done before. It’s one one of those things that once you think about it just makes sense.

At this time, I had just completed an internship with General Electric, and had firmly decided I never, ever, wanted to be a ‘normal’ engineer and sit in a cubicle. So when I found this polymer, I didn’t need a second nudge.

I dropped out of college in my Junior year and started RENOUN.

I spent the next 3 years in a mix of shear panic, working like crazy, and building skis as fast as possible. It was a mess.

But during this time, I learned valuable lessons — the industry was broken and everyone is too scared to try something different. Nobody was making money. Most ski companies you know were being sold off to different private equity firms like hot potatoes (at huge losses) or being propped up by government subsidies. For example, Rossignol went out of business 5 years ago, if you didn’t know. K2 was on the market after Rubbermaid, it’s parent company, needed it dump it after years of consecutive loses. Armada would later be sold as well at a $18 million loss.

The business model all of the legacy brands are built on no longer works. Doing business-as-usual meant failure, so something had to change.

Fortunately, because I was self-funding RENOUN, I wasn’t burning through loads of capital to figure this out. Being scrappy forced me to be brutally honest and listen to the market. More money would have been nice, no doubt, but it would have insulated me from the real currents of the market — after all, the big guys had it differed out, right? Wrong.

These lessons forced me to re-think what I thought of the industry and how it operated before RENOUN sold a single pair of skis. It is what forced me to decide to sell 100% online and offer crazy good return policies so customers could send skis back even if they skied them.

Yet, with all this bounding around, it wasn’t until the winter of 2014 that we suddenly became #1 — by accident. 

My mom (no joke) had sent one of our skis to the judging committee at I.S.P.O., an international tradeshow in Munich, Germany and by far the largest in the world.

As it turns out, that winter we ended up winning the top award for innovation, “ISPO GOLD”, before we had a functioning website. Keep in mind I had just ‘learned’ we needed to sell 100% online. I built a website quick enough to capitalize on the first rush.

Winning I.S.P.O. got us picked up by the New York Times, then Hemisphere’s Magazine (United Airlines’ in-flight magazine) and a host of other publications ranging from Ski Journal to Entreprenuar to Mens Journal to Aspen Magazine. 

Tday, now that we’re more established, I’ve tweaked our operations a bit, but the same dogged undercurrent is still here. We’re constantly on the lookout for clever ways to hack growth or a unique ways to spread the work (like making a pair of Tesla skis for Elon Musk). We test things as fast as possible and shut them down the second they stop working in order to re-focus on a new idea. Every other company that sells through shops make changes every season once they see how sales did. We can check in on sales day by day, and make adjustments. This allows us to literally work years faster of the competition.

On a day to day, my job is to just keep my ears open for crazy ideas and test them out to see what works. 

So, now after 8 years, RENOUN starting to get really, really fun. Like “wait, designing and skiing is my job?!” fun. 

I have the best job in the world because I made it the best job in the world.

~ ~ ~ 

Do you want to work in the ski industry? I feel I have this conversation with people every day. If you really want to get into it, then read this blog So, you want to get into the ski industry? first. It’s unfiltered and unedited, so put your big girl pants on. 


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