Hitting The Mark
Conversations with founders and investors about the intersection of brand clarity and startup success
with your host, brand strategist and author Fabian Geyrhalter
Ep011 – Mark Wallace, Co-Founder, Parlor Skis
In this episode, Fabian is joined by Mark Wallace, Co-Founder of Parlor, a custom ski brand from New England that is taking the art of customization and personalization to new heights. We learn how Parlor skis are “customized for you, by you and with you, each one as individual as you are.”
Fabian talks with Mark Wallace for whom skiing has always been the driving force in his life. It took him from Saddleback to Park City and then all over the world as he lived the dream as a semi-pro ski racer. Mark learned the nuances of ski building during a job at a Boston construction firm, dedicating countless hours during nights and weekends. He started Parlor with two friends in an abandoned funeral parlor in Cambridge, honing the science and art of ski building.
We discuss his company’s focus and dedication to the sport and its tribe, how far the brand is able to take the important brand traits of customization and personalization and how Parlor leads with authenticity.
If you are, just like me, into skiing or snowboarding, this episode is a must. If you like to learn more about connecting with your tribe or honing in the art of customization, this is a must-listen for you as well.
You can learn more about Parlor via parlorskis.com, or as Mark showcased his approachability, you can just call him up, “anytime” at 413-884-4747.
F Geyrhalter: Welcome to Hitting The Mark, which is now a regular show coming to you every second Friday, so be on the lookout. Today is all about personalization, so much so that this episode is catered to one of my favorite things to do when I am not busy running my brand consultancy: And that is snowboarding. In fact, I just came back from beautiful Mammoth Mountain here in California where they – as of February 25th – received a whopping 562 inches of snow (that’s more than 46 feet or, for our many international listeners, it is over 14 meters of snow). But I am just as happy to be back at the office since today I am joined by Mark Wallace, Co-Founder of Parlor, a custom ski brand from New England. From the first time his mother carried him down the bunny slope, skiing has been the driving force in Mark’s life. It took him from Saddleback to Park City and then all over the world as he lived the dream as a semi-pro ski racer. Mark learned the nuances of ski building during a job at a Boston construction firm, dedicating countless hours during nights and weekends. He started Parlor with two friends in an abandoned funeral parlor in Cambridge, hence the name! Over years and many late nights honing the science and art of ski building, fueled by desire, beverages, and the most delicious pizza in all of Boston, Parlor Skis was born. Welcome to the show, Mark!
M Wallace: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
F Geyrhalter: Absolutely, it just occurred to me that even though we are only 11 episodes into Hitting the Mark, you’re the second Mark I’m having on the show. I totally don’t believe that this is by accident. Just like there’s an unusual amount of dentists called Denis, women named Louise that are more likely to move to Louisiana and running my consultancy FINIEN with a name like Fabian. It seems like naming has a bigger subliminal impact than we thought. But sorry about my detour, I’m very happy to have another Mark on Hitting the Mark. Tell us a little bit about Parlor Skis, how it started, why you love what you do, and more importantly, why do your customers love what you do?
M Wallace: Absolutely. You hit on something in the bio, but we started building skis in 2009, and we incorporated the business in 2013. We really saw that there was an unmet need, especially in New England, for both a brand that focused on a high-quality laminate construction, so a race style ski, but with a little bit more of an all mountain flair. That’s how we started building and designing skis. We very quickly realized that personalization was core to delivering the best product for people. So, in order to, you need to understand the skier in order to build them the correct ski and be able to personalize it with graphics. So really the only way to do that is to build all the skis in house.
M Wallace: So we set out with the goal of delivering the best ski and the best product to people possible, and we built a factory and a system around building custom skis in order to meet that need.
F Geyrhalter: So, last year, I published a book titled Bigger Than This, in which I lay out eight traits that I saw startups embody in the way to turn into brands that people love. One of those traits is individuality. I talk about how customization is the best way to make a brand personable and to deeply connect with your audience. And even further, I discuss the idea of blending personalization and customization to create limited and often complete one-off products, and how it works magic for any brand. Your brand’s tagline is custom to the core. In what ways do you customize your clients’ skis? I mean, how far do you actually go?
M Wallace: Well, it depends a little bit on the level, right? So we have three main product lines. We have our limited edition skis, which are sort of off the rack, ready to go, and you get all the sort of quality and design that goes into a Parlor, but without the personalization. Then we have two levels of custom ski. Our most popular ski is a custom graphics ski, which it allows you to change the outline, camber, construction and graphics of the ski sort of within a set parameters designs that we use a lot that we know work well. Then we also offer our raven series of black label, which is a full custom experience. With that, you get to control every detail of the ski. Outline, camber profile, construction, side cut, length, graphics, materials, sort of the whole nine yards. So it depends a lot on the needs of the skier and what they’re looking for, but all of our skis are done through a personalized fit, so myself or my partner talks to the [inaudible 00:04:51] of our clients to make sure that they have a ski that’s both personalizing and customized for their style and aesthetic.
F Geyrhalter: So really, each ski is built to order at Parlor. How do you keep prices to a still affordable manner while growing your brand?
M Wallace: I mean, it’s been really … there’s a lot of pricing pressure in the hard goods market, especially retail. We felt that there are some custom builders that are much more expensive than we are. We’ve really worked hard to stay direct to consumer to provide that level of personalization and to keep our skis as affordable as possible. I mean, they’re not inexpensive, right, but we feel we build with a higher quality and certainly more attention to detail. We provide a really good value on our skis.
F Geyrhalter: For sure. I mean, it’s truly amazing, because you let people like me come in for two straight to actually build my dream skis that are exactly to my very own specs, where I will build the basis, and cores, and all the way to printing my custom designed top sheets to sanding and then finishing the sidewalls. It’s actually rather affordable, right, that entire experience is around the 1,500 bucks, where most top tier off the mill skis will run you around a grand. It’s really the same price plus 500 for the two day of schooling, which to me sounds a such unique experience building your own skis hands on. When did you have that epiphany to push customization so far to actually let your customers take over the shop? Is that one of your biggest differentiators from other boutique ski makers? It seems very different.
M Wallace: Yeah. I mean, we have the largest ski building class, if you will, in the country by quite a bit. It was a, like a lot of things here, one of the key elements to Parlor is the community that exists around it, which is largely based off our clients, but also just sort of people who have a passion about the sport, who’re involved in … we took a page out of Grain Surfboards playbook, we know the owners up there pretty well, it’s a handmade wooden surfboard company in Maine where they offer class. They kind of urged into it, and we resisted for a while, because we didn’t know how we do it. Then we had a group, a small group of people who really hounded us and wanted to come build skis.
M Wallace: So we let them do it, and came up with a system and a program, and they had such an amazing experience that we decided to roll it out as a product. So it was really driven by our clients’ and communities’ desire to delve deeper into understand how skis go together, and create that sense of ownership and pride in that. It did allowed us to develop that product.
F Geyrhalter: You hit in something super important, community, it seems to me with your events, you have one event called shop night, and you actually invite people over just to watch you build skis. And they can sip whiskey, and have a beer. Is it that community that you built over the years that spread the word organically with Parlor, like through those events? Or was it actually with the help of a PR agency? What was that big breakthrough moment? Was it all organic or was it like a big article or something that really pushed Parlor?
M Wallace: No, it comes … we love skiing here, we love talking about skiing-
F Geyrhalter: You better.
M Wallace: … right. We do, and I think that a lot of that sort of grassroots and organic growth came from being very open and inviting to people and sharing that love and passion for the sport. We sort of, we act as a resource for a lot of our clients, we also provide a little bit of ski culture in Boston, you can come here and it smells like wax, and there are ski videos on, you can drink beer and tell lies about skiing. That’s a big piece that draws that community together. It’s a huge amount of our business is repeat and referral right now, and we’re very grateful for that, but I think it really comes from just wanting to really focusing on providing good client service, building relationships with people and providing them with something that’s different. Nobody wants to go back and buy a pair of Volkls after they’ve been to the shop, it’s just not … there’s no reason to do that. So, that message has gotten out there, and it’s slow and it’s hard work, but we believe that if you care about what you’re doing and you talk about that honestly the word is going to spread.
F Geyrhalter: It’s about authenticity. You guys do it for the love of doing it, and you have that background, so people can sense that and they can shoot the shit with you and just share that stoke and be the real … hanging with buddies basically, that happen to build your skis. That’s pretty cool for anyone who’s a real dedicated skier.
M Wallace: Right.
F Geyrhalter: So, from a branding perspective, obviously with skiing and snowboarding, brand recognition is huge. You want everyone in the slopes to know what you’re riding. Parlor is a little bit different, it’s obviously extremely unique, but you want it to be a talking point when you’re in the chairlift, right. From a branding design perspective, which elements actually stay unchanged on Parlor Skis so that I immediately recognize that those are a pair of Parlors, even though you let people completely customize the skis. Is there some consistency from one pair to another?
M Wallace: All of our skis have a red base inlay that says Parlor on them, black bases, which are the highest quality base with the red inlay, it’s sort of one of our signatures. We don’t require that our logo is on top of all the skis, we really rely on the sort of word of mouth, again and the people wanting to talk about their product. And answering the, “What are those? Where did you get those?” And having that sense of pride I think, from the imagery standpoint, certainly the word Parlor in our logo font is our most recognizable mark, that’s what’s on all of our hats and merchandise and stuff like that. That’s what lives on the base of the ski as well.
M Wallace: Those are the things that we use. We also, for people who are into the details, all of our skis have a hardwood sidewall, which is pretty unique in the market, we use a maple sidewall. If you see a unique pair of skis, we also have a pretty standard design aesthetic in regards to the shape and the line of the tip and tails of the ski, although they change a little bit. So people who are familiar with the brand will recognize this short of shape and feel of a Parlor ski certainly if they’re close by it.
F Geyrhalter: It’s very cool. How hard is it, how difficult is it for you to keep owning those details and those shapes? Isn’t like every season the big guys are coming out with something that might look similar? Or do you pretty much own this kind of style?
M Wallace: I mean, I think yeah, I mean, the big guys, they move around a lot with shapes and designs. A lot of that is just there’s a lot of pressure to move new products, and introduce new products and a lot of that is just marketing stuff. We really believe that if you use the highest quality materials and you customize the fit, you don’t need a lot of [inaudible 00:12:47] to sell good skis and to make really high-quality skis. We just have a different sort of set of priorities. I would argue that most of the big retail machine does not have the end consumers’ best interest always in mind. Not that they’re anti-consumer, but the pressures that are on them to control their material cost, and to move more units, and to refresh their product line, don’t necessarily serve the need of providing the best, most consistent product to the customer.
F Geyrhalter: For sure. For sure. With Parlor, is actually you and the co-founder, are you guys still hands-on creating skis? Do you still, are you still going to the shop on a daily basis?
M Wallace: I’m in the factory every day. I fill in when I need to. I think it surprises some of the guys sometimes that I actually know how to do all the stuff. But I teach a lot, Tyler, my partner, and I teach all the classes. So one of us is always around for the class. It’s hands-on for that. I certainly fill in when there’s help. I do most of my role now is sales, and marketing related, as well as sort of the day-to-day operations. Tyler runs the shop, we’ve got a couple of people that help in the office, graphic design, PR, digital, et cetera. So, most of my work is doing that, but oftentimes I’m down in the shop grinding skis or making sure process is working right or fixing a machine. We’re very involved in the business. It’s a hands on company.
F Geyrhalter: Multitasking. Yeah. For sure. You have only been around for seven years, I believe, right?
M Wallace: It seems like a long time, but when you say it that way I guess it’s only seven.
F Geyrhalter: So what are your growth goals if any? Will you expand, or will you even franchise in the future? How far will Parlor as a brand go? How far do you guys actually want to go? Because bigger does not necessarily always mean better as we know.
M Wallace: Yeah. We’re very opportunity focused. But our goal, we’ve been growing about 30% to 40% year over year for most of those seven years.
F Geyrhalter: It’s great. Yeah.
M Wallace: We started small. We’ve cash flow finance the whole business, so that’s a very intentional decision on our part. We want to continue to grow to the scale where we can provide the quality and the service that we currently do to our clientele, and maintain the community. So we are building this business to run it, we love what we’re doing. We’re not sort of … there are a lot of things we could do to sell more skis, and that’s not necessarily our focus, we want to sell to the right people and we want to provide the right product. We are going to continue to grow. We’d like to continue to scale, but we don’t have plans for bringing any huge amount of investment and making sure there are Parlors everywhere. The world doesn’t need another Volkl, or Rossignol, or K2 in our opinion, but they do need more specialized, personalized companies like Parlor.
F Geyrhalter: Amen. On your website it says, “Our skis enable you to go beyond your own expectations. We craft confidence, confidence to go a little faster, and a little further.” You really use language to bond and to create that stoke to talk skiers language, which for you comes completely organic. Do you write all of the copy? Because you said that you’re kind of like put on more the marketing hat these days, and do you have a set of rules? Is it really just you guys changing it up whenever you feel like it needs a little pizzazz?
M Wallace: Yeah. I do some of the copywriting, we’ve been really lucky to work with some good consultants over the years. Some of our digital marketing guys are very talented in that front. So, again, you work … a lot of that is just authenticity. I would say we don’t have like … I mean, we do have brand guidelines, but not in the way that a lot of companies do. We sit down as a group a couple of times a year, and we talk about who we are as a brand right now, are all of our [inaudible 00:17:20] supporting that? What do we want to be doing? What do we care about? What’s refreshing? A lot of times, you know, this esteems a passion for this work and quality engineering and delivering a better product and experience to our client sort of always come up. So when you look at language like crafting confidence, or pushing people to go further. If you have the right product, you will have a better day on the snow. It’s like, it’s the difference between pants that fit and pants that don’t fit. If your pants are too tight, you’re going to have a bad day. You might not necessarily know that’s why you’re having a bad day, but you are. So what we do is we sort of sit at that intersection between design and delivery of the product, which gives us a huge advantage. Because the people we’re designing skis for the big companies are not connected to their consumers the same way we are, they get a design brief and they have to design a ski for this condition and this market segment, or this person. Every ski we build is tailored for that individual, which just kind of puts our priorities in a totally different alignment.
F Geyrhalter: Well, it’s impossible for any company to be closer to its audience than you are, because you literally create every ski customized, in one way or the other, or to order. So absolutely. I’m actually very positively surprised that a brand like yours, that is trying to stay small, and is trying to really focus on that one product, that you guys meet every year, every two years, and actually talk about what your brand stands for, and really the values of the brand. I think that’s really refreshing. Because I keep using the word organic, right, like all of this is just kind of falling into place. But it isn’t. And I love that you kind of stop at times and go back to like what’s the big Simon Sinek’s why? What’s the why behind this company? I think it’s really refreshing to see you guys do that. What does branding mean to you? We’re kind of in midst of that conversation now, but what does it mean to you?
M Wallace: I mean, branding is sort of the … it’s the way that people view what you’re doing. It’s the way that your activities and your products are sort of viewed by the world. I think that’s an important distinction and something to think about especially for marketers or younger marketers out there. You have an image of what, or most founders right, or people who’re deeply involved in a company, an image of what they’re doing and what it looks like. It’s very difficult sometimes to flip that around and say, “Okay, what are people actually seeing? How is this perceived?” You know, those two things align. I think that there are two challenges, one is sort of finding your vision, and being true to that, and also being able to adapt that based on what people want to see and how they want to perceive a brand. I think that’s how I would define it.
F Geyrhalter: No. It’s great. It’s the idea of also stepping outside and looking back in, that’s really, really the difficult part and you hit that nicely. I’ve got a question that is a little bit about brand expansion, but it’s actually more of a personal question because of my fascination with the sport. I started snowboarding a long, long, long, long, long time ago. I actually built my own snowboard at the time because I couldn’t afford buying one because they had maybe 100 of them in Austria. It was like a long, long time ago, I was like six years old or something. So in the first 10 years, there was this friction, skiers versus snowboarders. Snowboarders are kind of like the young punks and the skateboarders in the slopes, and they’re just not good for the mountain. They’re the bad guys on the mountain. The troublemakers. Now, Parlor just recently, I guess, empowered one of your guys to like start building snowboards. I think you guys are doing that now pretty officially. So, do you see any friction in your community? Because you guys, your community is hardcore skiers. A lot of them, I’m sure, at the price point, are not like 20-year-old somethings and a lot of them most probably have been around when snowboarding and skiing was kind of like very separated. Did you find any of that when you started introducing snowboards? Or is that so long gone and we’re all kind of like getting along these days?
M Wallace: No, I mean there’s still a tension. You got to remember, the thing that unites Parlor customers is their love for sliding on snow, and also being outdoors, and being with their friends and family. Those things are sort of universal. I mean, there is a little bit of tension still between the communities, but I think it’s become very sort of lighthearted at this point, certainly within our shop there’s some banter about it. But I really view Parlor in a lot of ways as a carving company. We make long boards, we make skis, we make snowboards, we’ve certainly play around with surfboards, kiteboarding is sort of exploding right now. Anything where we can add value and create a better product, I think sort of falls under the Parlor umbrella. As we’re sort of expanding the brand, and we were always looking at these different options and opportunities, I mean, snowboarding was the obvious next step, and we’ve been really successful. Again, we don’t build park skis, and we don’t build park snowboards. Our snowboard design is very inspired by surfing, it’s sort of a throwback in the earlier day in the sport, it’s about how you interact with the mountain and creating tools that allow you to do that more efficiently and in more creative ways. Again, there are lots of companies that make great park skis, and great park boards, but that’s not really where we sit in the market. Also, I mean, there are a lot of jerks who are skiers too.
F Geyrhalter: Oh yeah.
M Wallace: Not anymore than the jerk snowboarders. Again, we felt that those people don’t really gravitate towards our brand, so we don’t have to worry about it.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah. Yeah. It’s on the mountain, off the mountain, there are jerks and there are others. You build the community around the others. So, I have a lot of investors and a lot of entrepreneurs listening to this, especially a lot of like young entrepreneurs, meaning not age, but the age of the company. They’re just getting into it. They’re playing the startup game, which you and I both played at some point. Do you have a piece of brand advice for any founders as a takeaway of like how they should create their brand and what should be important for them in the first maybe couple months or year?
M Wallace: I think this applies to all business ventures, and I talk about it a lot, especially I’m doing mentoring or anything like that. You do not be paralyzed by not having all the pieces. My sort of word of advice is just always be doing something. And don’t over-commit until you know it’s going to work. So, my favorite example of this is there was an executive at TripAdvisor several years ago who if somebody came and wanted to develop them a product for their website, he would give them the button but not the product. If they got enough clicks on the button, he’d allowed them to build the product. I think that is just like I remember learning that in business school and being like, “That makes total sense.” Who cares if you piss off 25 people who click on your button and you tell them they got to wait? It’s a much bigger deal to build a ski, or build a product line, or develop a whole company around something that nobody cares about without … you know, you can put up a website right now in like two days for 100 bucks. If you have an idea, put it out there, put a buy button on it, and just tell people you’re sold out after they click on it. If a bunch of people click on it, you got an idea, and go run with it. You don’t have to raise 10 million bucks to figure out if you have a good idea or not. Just start doing stuff. Don’t quit your job, learn, fail fast, and then be able to be fluid enough to make adaptations along the way.
F Geyrhalter: Yeah. That’s really great advice. It’s interesting because I’m sure that you guys do the same thing with just shaping your skis and trying different things and just like putting it out in the slopes and seeing if sticks. If it sticks with enough people, maybe it’s a new line. So, listeners who like the idea of owning a pair of Parlor skis, and really who wouldn’t, where should they head to learn more?
M Wallace: The website, ParlorSkis.com. We’re also on Instagram and Facebook, we’re @parlorskis, and anybody is welcome to call me at 413-884-4747, anytime or put an inquiry into the website. Those are definitely the best places, but I’m happy to talk to anyone any time about skiing, obviously.
F Geyrhalter: That’s awesome.
M Wallace: We’re very accessible here, so reach out.
F Geyrhalter: Yes, you are. Because … thank you for accepting my call to outreach via LinkedIn to be on my show. It was such a guilty pleasure to have you here. I think I might have to book a weekend to build my own board in New England with you soon. You also do boards during those hands-on sessions, right?
M Wallace: That’s correct. We’re offering build your own boards and split boards this year. So, we’ve got a couple slots left. The classes are pretty full. We have been sold out with the class for the last three years. So we have a couple slots open in August, and if you’re around, reach out and we’re happy to slot you in.
F Geyrhalter: Awesome. Very cool. Thanks everyone for listening. I appreciate it, and I hope you enjoyed the Parlor story and got some inspiration out of it. I sure have and I’m thanking you, Mark, for being here, really appreciate it.
M Wallace: Thanks for having me, it was a pleasure.
F Geyrhalter: Cool. If you guys enjoyed this show, please hit the subscribe button and give this show a quick rating. This podcast was brought to you by PocketNote, a new site that helps founders and entrepreneurs find thoughtful, succinct answers to their startup questions. You can learn more, read through the topics, or submit your own question at PocketNote.co, the Hitting the Mark theme music was written and produced by the one and only Happiness Won. I will see you in two weeks, when we’ll once again will be hitting the mark.