Looking Back on Vermont Innovation
Jake Carpenter — Burton Snowboards
Napoleon once said, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books – books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe.” This observation about war and politics can be applied easily to business and innovation.

If you were to search the internet for “Who invented the snowboard?”, you would instantly come to one name, Tom Sims. In 1963, at age thirteen, Sims constructed the first snowboard in his seventh-grade shop class. By his own account, Sims blew his chance to be the winner in the history books of snowboarding because he was more interested in snowboarding than making money.

He started his surf, snowboarding, and skateboarding company, SIMS, in 1976, and is still creating cutting-edge equipment today. Even though he was a top athlete and 1983 World Snowboarding Champion, Sims didn’t have the needed drive to obliterate his business competition.

An engineer in Michigan, Sherman Poppen, is also in the history books as a snowboard creator. In 1965, he began tinkering in his garage in Muskegon, Michigan, and in the process invented an entirely new winter sport.

To entertain his young daughters, he took a pair of children's snow skis and bound them together to make a single, wide board. He was thinking, as he explained later in his patent application, of a new snow sport that incorporated the features of summer pastimes, namely surfboarding, skateboarding, and slalom water skiing.

Delighted with her husband’s invention, Nancy Poppen called the new toy “Snurfer,” a contraction of “snow surfer.” Sherman Poppen went on to patent his invention and licensed his creation to Brunswick Corporation of Lake Forest, Illinois.

Within a year, Snurfers were flying off store shelves, just in time for Christmas. Unfortunately, the Snurfer was marketed as a toy and not a serious winter sports equipment and was not allowed on ski slopes because it did not have bindings.

There are plenty of articles and information about Tom Sims and Sherman Poppen, but the person who really won the snowboarding history book competition is Jake Burton Carpenter.

Ask almost any Vermonter “Who invented the snowboard?” and you would get “Jake Burton!” as the answer. Numerous articles, books, and information about Jake Burton Carpenter and his snowboard “invention” position him as victor in the history of snowboard invention

Most of the articles, books, and information outline the same biographical history. Born in New York City in 1954, Carpenter grew up on Long Island, and began skiing in Vermont at the age of seven.

He proved a quick learner and spent winters on the slopes in Vermont and summers on the tennis courts. Carpenter first came across the Snurfer in the late 1960s, when he was around fourteen years old. He was hooked on the concept.

In high school, his entrepreneurial nature had him running his own landscaping business. He studied finance in college, first at the University of Colorado at Boulder, then at New York University. He later worked for a small Wall Street investment firm that dealt with mergers and acquisitions. In 1977, Carpenter, still thinking about the snowboard concept, decided to quit his job and establish his snowboard manufacturing business.

The first five years for Carpenter’s company were rough. He set up shop in Stratton, Vermont, where he was house-sitting for the winter. He taught himself to use woodworking tools and hired a couple of friends and relatives to help.

The first year, he sold his $88 Burton Snowboard, constructed so that a traditional ski boot could fit in the board’s bindings, out of his car at New England ski resorts; ski-equipment stores were uninterested in carrying them. He was left with unsold inventory at the season's end, and a mounting debt load, and returned to New York City to work as a bartender and tennis coach to keep his business afloat.

He had better luck making cheaper boards with no bindings for the ski boot. The inexpensive snowboard sold for under $45, and instantly caught on with teenagers. The sales helped keep his company afloat, but in 1980 he was more than $100,000 in debt.

Carpenter didn’t foresee that snowboarding would become something that competed with skiing in winter resorts. He called the $45 board the "Backyard," because that's where he assumed most of the purchasers would use it. A small community of passionate boarders grew and searched out steeper slopes, but they were rebuffed at ski resorts.

Jake Carpenter’s journey from his company’s start in 1977 to the important transition point in 1984 is much more fraught with ups and downs than outlined in this article.

A true innovator usually has to continually push through one block after another, and Jake Carpenter’s business during the early years of Burton Snowboards was difficult. The lifestyle, experiences, and events that shaped Jake Carpenter's life in this period were paramount for what took place next in the world of snowboarding and why many consider Jake Burton Carpenter the father of the snowboarding industry.

In 1984, the true story of Vermont innovation took place. Carpenter had a change of mind about what was needed to expand his business. For many years he’d focused on selling the concept of his equipment, but realized he needed to create a market for the equipment and a place to use the snowboards.

Many innovators go through transitions that help them to see their industries in a new light. Steve Jobs is an important model for this transitional view of innovation.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent the concept of digital music equipment. At the time there were many MP3 digital players and Napster was the leading digital music download website. Unfortunately for Napster and its creator, Shawn Fanning, the model of free downloading of copywritten material was not a sustainable business model.

What Steve Jobs did that was brilliant was to wake the music industry up to the fact that times they were a-changin’ – that if they didn’t get on board with the future of digital music, they would be left out in the cold.

Steve Jobs had enough power and prestige to gather all the major players in the music industry together under one roof to negotiate new contracts that would give birth to iTunes. Jobs hired visionary graphic design, engineering, and industrial design talent at Apple to create a marketing campaign and new equipment design to change the world of music.

Jake Carpenter did much of the same for snowboarding.
He convinced Paul Johnston, Mountain Manager at Stratton Mountain Ski Resort, to allow snowboarders on the slopes, even though the board of directors had unanimously voted it down.

This is a crucial model in innovation that replicates itself over and over again in business. For an innovator to succeed they must find allies, especially an ally like Paul Johnston, who had enough of an open mind to see the possibilities of snowboarding on Stratton.

At the time the ski industry was in decline, and they were not catering to younger people. Paul Johnston may have felt he was doing Jake Carpenter and the snowboarders a favor, but in fact, this decision may have saved Stratton Mountain Resort and even the ski industry in Vermont.

As the doors started to open and expand in the snowboarding industry, Carpenter took another step that is parallel to Steve Job’s journey with iTunes, and hired a young, talented graphic designer, Michael Jager. Jager later became partner in the powerhouse design firm, Jager, DiPaola, Kemp, in Burlington, Vermont, whose clients included Magic Hat, Patagonia and Microsoft.

Jager did for snowboarding what Apple designers did for digital music – he made snowboarding a culture that was “cool, really cool,” and celebrated Vermont. Young snowboard riders converted parents and grandparents to the love and excitement of the board and it opened a whole new world of mountain visitors and major spectator events.

Thinking outside the box, looking at all the angles, and finding crucial allies can launch an innovative business into the solid black. Through a series of outrageous board designs and marketing campaigns, creative business strategies, and by dominating the sponsorship snowboarding circuit, Burton Snowboards became the world powerhouse it is today.

SOURCE:
Smithsonian, National Museum of American History 2019
Esquire, February 2006, p. 77.
Forbes, March 27, 1995, p. 45.
FSB, October 1, 2002, p. 62.
Inc., March 2006, p. 112.
Independent (London, England), January 29, 2000, p. 5.
Investor's Business Daily, November 12, 2004, p. A3.
New York Times, March 9, 1987.
Snowboarder.com

 

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