How do you go from the initial outdoor startup to a of the Pioneer of the Snowboard industry?
For 686 it was a rocky road but their success is rooted in hard work, sweat, and passion!
To find out more behind how 686 got its start and what’s in store for the future, Josh interviews 686 founder, Michael Akira
More about the episode...
Josh sits down with 686 founder Michael Akira. 686, a pioneer for technical snowboarding apparel, has certainly left it’s mark on the outdoor industry, but have you ever considered where they got their roots and how they got started? All successful brands need to start somewhere and for Michael that would be as simple as following his passion for snowboarding. Tune in as Akira walks us through his initial progression to dreaming up 686 and the rocky trials and tribulations they faced early on!
Have an opinion? We want to hear it! Join the conversation and leave a comment, check out show notes, and get all the links mentioned in this episode below.
- Check out 686’s website
- More about the technology behind 686’s Apparel
- Follow 686 on Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter
- More about 686
How did you grow up form growing up in LA to starting 686?
“None of this stuff was planned. Growing up in LA is probably the furthest from the outdoor industry. I came up as a sponsored street skater from the beach area and was in the progressive street scene doing my thing...I ended up working at a local resort at bear mountain, became an instructor, and that helped guide my passion to really get into snowboarding...for me it wasn’t really a sport it was a lifestyle and what I liked to do…I was in this business program at USC and I remember my instructor said ‘you can actually have a career and you can enjoy it’ and as a kid I thought ‘holy crap you can do both?’...686 started out as a class project, more or less”
686 started as more of a lifestyle brand correct?
“...Back then snowboarding in particular was influenced by not the most technical stuff, big baggy jeans, sweatshirts, just crappy gear...I figured that’s what I wear at big bear, that’s what I look like when I skate, so I want to emulate that…”
What was the next step?
“In the first year, I created a name, figured out how to register it and make my creative mark… I took a trip to BAMF, year 2 and I realized it was a totally different scene, it’s cold...I only had jeans and a shell, so I said, ‘I’m going to make snow pants where you can have a shell and have sweatpants underneath and that was my first pair of snow pants…I ordered fabric and I got a premade pattern. So, I got it and I adjusted it and sewed it together myself not knowing what to do...”
How did you start growing and build momentum for the brand?
“I had a lot of humility in terms of whether I was doing it right or wrong. From ‘92 to ‘96 that was just refinement, then we found out there was a trade show in Vegas where you can go and sell to stores and that was a huge game changer…”
During the early stages of 686 what were you doing to pay the bills?
“...I was working at the mountains until about ‘97. Back then as snowboarding was starting to get really big, the Japanese went to the trade shows to find American brands and would buy your product out oa catalogue and give you 50% of the deposit down before they ship it. So they found it online, they ordered it, and gave me a $100,000 order at my first trade show…It was this kind of goal rush time from the mid 90’s to the late 90’s...”
What was it like going from 2000 to today?
Up until the 90’s it was the heyday, it was the wild west. We actually went from LA manufacturing to Mexico. When you make products...it’s just a lot of risks, so we did that over in MExico because they had more skilled labor than what we had over here...This one guy showed up at my doorstep in downtown LA and he asked us if we wanted to make gloves...The biggest transition was we started producing overseas...so that enabled us to scale to the point where we were starting to actually make profit…in ‘99 the entire market changed and our competitors just went away. In 2000 that’s when we started rising...”
From that first year in ‘92 to now, what does the growth and success look like for 686?
“We’ve been doing our thing for a while and I think everyday is fun, it’s always different. We’ve gone through our struggles ourselves...What makes us still relevant is it comes down to everyone here pulls their weight. We have to deserve our place here...We differentiate ourselves but, not only living it, but we have to be different in product offers and how we deliver. So, our operational background has been really helpful because we’ve been able to always ship on time consistently for decades…”
What has it been like being in a business that relies on the environment and how do you tie that into your operation?
“...95% of our business goes to Taiwan first...it’s very important that we comply with the certain regulations, besides the labor laws, but using the right fabrics and materials and be conscious of what we’re doing. It’s interesting because the outdoor industry, it’s great but it’s one of the things that is counter intuitive to what’s going on...it’s really important that you have the responsibility of making you have the best business practices at the factory level, with the waste stage and the right type of materials that you make. It’s a full circle that you have to consider…”
What has been one of the hardest parts about starting 686?
“From the beginning we had a slow build. We never had a spiked and then went down, we’ve always been building...Nowadays, the expectation is that you need to do things quick...For us, this was never about getting rich and dying quick, this is a lifestyle that we want to preserve for ourselves, our career and the people who believe in what we want to do...it’s very important to figure out what works best for you and that’s challenging today…”
How does 686 stand apart from other brands out there?
“We’ve never been motivated to grow for the sake of growing. I consider us a product first company and the best things that worked for us is completely opposite for what worked for those guys. We have to introduce something that’s so different that there’s a reason people come to you...At the end of the day you can’t show them the same damn thing every year…”
What have been some of your greatest fears?
“I’ve looked back and what you can’t control you just don’t worry about. Being season, I put that aside, because I don’t care what the almanac says or what people think. It’s more like I have to operate with what I have if everything is going to crap...I don’t prioritize what’s scaring me...it really just comes down to people…people are very important to manage in way that is going to get to the right objective and endpoint...”
What advice would you give someone that wanted to start a business?
“I think you have to differentiate in terms of why you want to do it. I think that entrepreneurs think because they put the time into it, that people need to accept it. You can’t put yourself on any podium because you did this or did that… The best place to start somewhere is to learn from someone else and really look at all their mistakes…I think it’s very important to have someone that you can turn to with some experience that can help enable you to get there...”
What are some of the mistakes you made while building 686?
“There are so many things that we should have been forgiven back in the day. We didn’t have the best product out there...that almost took us down in the mid 90’s and all those things make you wiser. Back then, you’re kind of expected to do a lot of things...I encourage people that there are certain things you need to follow; create good business, hire good people, deliver on time, have a viable concept...you can do things differently but, get the foundation right...As far as failures go there’s so many. We’ve had boats sink...back in the day we didn’t have shipping insurance…”
What does your day to day look like?
“We have like four pillars of marketing and sales, operations, finance, and product; I used to manage all of that until last year...We plan concepts about two years ahead of time before it hits market place...nowadays you shouldn't have to plan that long because people want it quicker to market...you have to one up yourself because if you don’t do it someone else will and you’ll miss out…it’s never dull because I work on every aspect of that...”
What’s in store for the future of 686?
“I have this grandiose idea of creating new categories, creating how people perceive things and react to things. We’ve been around for this long but still a lot of people don’t know who we are...For us that’s still kind of exciting. We just launched this new project called the multishell series and it’s more off shoulder type stuff…”
What’s the best part about running 686?
“You can still tell that I’m really stoked to just keep pushing things and that's really the best part. We have such a diverse group here...that’s really exciting to me because I can see the same passion that we have and especially when someone reacts to it in such a positive way, it just gets you so pumped up…”