Born in Boulder, CO, and one of the only custom ski companies still around. What’s their secret?
So, Mike McCabe, you’re the CEO and Owner of Folsom Skis and you’ve been there from the start. Take us back to the beginning.
Well, in a galaxy far far away, a long time ago, Folsom Skis was born…
Folsom Skis inception really began in 2006 when I was finishing up my professional ski career as well as college, and I had met Jordan Grano through my employer at the time. Jordan had this project started in his garage under the name Core Manufacturing. He had some solid foundation of ski building in place and a lot of good equipment set up in his 800 square foot garage. This garage was right near Folsom Street in Boulder, Colorado near 18th (where the name came from). So it was a funny joke when I first met Jordan that he had more power pulled to his garage than his house with all the equipment set up in there. When we first met it was really so I could help with prototyping the skis via my skiing experience, and it was quickly clear that we were speaking the same language and had a common understanding of the mechanical tooling required to actually build skis. I inserted myself into the manufacturing process and became more involved, and across a whole year of us prototyping together we launched the company together in 2008 – by then in a small 1,500 sqft. facility in North Boulder.
How many prototypes did it take to transition from prototyping stage to go-to-market?
We identified different skis we would need to be a marketable and sustainable ski company. We made mostly freeride, all mountain, powder skis… anything and everything for alpine ski. This required well over 100 prototypes before launching. We differentiated from other ski companies out there by being fully custom. We wanted to talk to the client, see what was relevant to their skiing, their body type, skier type, and how they planned to use the ski, to make sure we were building the right ski completely around that skier. That was what we did and still do to differentiate ourselves from competition. At that time there was only one other custom ski company (Wagner) in the US, so we were second to market with the idea.
Our first clients were friends and family, Boulder natives and Colorado skiers. We established a decent group of team members who are now my colleagues as well. Boulder surprisingly wasn’t a huge local market for us at first, we moved to Denver sooner than later, but our first organic clients were through word of mouth.
What challenges did you come across? What happened next?
Our first year in 2008 was tough to say the least… we launched on top of one of the worst economic disasters in US history. Luxury custom skis weren’t in a lot of people’s budgets. We certainly had a rough go. Jordan and I operated the business together in Boulder until 2011, when Jordan was at his financial threshold and needed to back out. Myself and a couple other members (Ryan Prentice, Andy Patchin, and Jesse Durrance) took the business over to move to Denver in a larger facility. Once there we started a healthy intern program which yielded my first real employee, Christian, who is now Production Manager. He’s the OG.
What role did Colorado play in all of this? Could you have launched elsewhere?
Any state with really rich ski culture could have provided the same opportunity, but Colorado certainly gave us a good leg up. The fact that so many other small CO born ski companies have started since then is proof that this economy supports it, takes care of local businesses, and cares about where their skis come from. Being a company from Boulder, we were interested to see if our custom ski manufacturing idea would catch on as well as the custom bike thing did. Boulder is really known for their road biking culture, and often they’re custom built. That was one model we looked at when going to market. We moved to Denver just for general need for growth to basically triple the size of the facility but keep our rent costs affordable.
When did you go international?
Right away, Canada year one. Then we went over the pond in year two. Our international clients have always been a large and important piece of our market. There’s a much richer ski culture in much of Europe than in the US, they really respect unique and well-built things.
How do you stay competitive – why are you still around when so many other boutique ski companies go under in a shorter period of time?
A lot of different elements go into that. I’d say the most dominant theme throughout the reason that we’re here is that Folsom’s product is really good, and we have incredible customer service. We built these strong relationships with folks that trust us, it’s a no brainer. People are busy and don’t have time to do all their market research and hope they find the right product. We have a history, they know who we are, and we continue to build great skis. We’ve also been insanely lean financially from day one. We never got in bed with too many investors, never got into bad debt, and ran as lean as needed until it really became a profitable business (and it took a long time to get there). Many small businesses get in financial trouble way too quickly, investors fracture the brand, and they end up imploding. We had a great product, customer service, and were able to make decisions unimpeded on how to continue to be who we are at Folsom Skis.
What adjustments have you had to make due to COVID, what was the result over the last year?
COVID, the beast that it is, unexpectedly spiked our business up in a great way. We had a couple rough months upfront. When the first closedown happened and ski resorts shut down, you can imagine the sales pipeline also shut down. My Operations Director Max Tabor motivated us to quickly pivot our manufacturing capabilities over to PPE and we started making face shields, then different custom plexiglass partitions, and big custom installations. For example we did a huge installation for Evo across the US to allow boot fitters to interact more safely with customers. Also Universities like Regis in Denver, we did their entire food court. So just by being a nimble company we were able to pivot pretty seamlessly, especially with my background in general construction, it was a natural extension of what we did.
Then, ski sales picked right back up in June 2020 when we turned on our Summer Sale. Thankfully our clients came right back and supported us, and we continued to make PPE until November when skis got crazy busy again and we simply did not have the capacity to be building both skis and PPE full-time. Over the past year, we’ve had record breaking months nearly every month in overall ski sales and manufacturing numbers, like many other outdoor brands have seen. Not having to deal with supply chain shortages has been a huge benefit to being a manufacturer, and this keeps our customer base very happy.
COVID has certainly added a lot of complexity in the way we run as an organization, especially with our retail place up in Aspen, but at the end of day Folsom Skis had its biggest year yet economically. I’m also incredibly thankful that our team has stayed safe and healthy, we’ve been really fortunate.
Speaking of the team, who are your core members now and how many hats do you all wear?
Oh we all wear a lot of hats. Our main team is Christian Downing – Production Manager, Max Tabor – Head of Operations, and Joel Ives – Sales and Marketing Associate. We also have multiple production engineers in Denver and an additional custom fit technician in Aspen. Christian specifically is balancing all production, I barely help in that anymore with everything I have going on. He’s organizing and doing a lot of heavy lifting, manufacturing upwards of 20-30 custom skis every single week. He’s also generally managing interns and new hire targets. Joel wears maybe the most hats, other than myself, down in production and sales. He’s actually very blended in both – running everything social media, grinding every pair of skis from finished trim to full complete tune, managing interns, customer service, etc. Max also balances an insane amount up in Aspen, trying to keep a cohesive relationship between our two locations, plus a significant audience of ours in our favorite ski town. He’s managing the Aspen store, as well as a lot of financial elements as well as bigger picture marketing / brand direction. I guess every single one of us also does graphic design. The list goes on…
Why do you think you’ve kept such a loyal team – especially under such lean conditions?
I like to think selfishly I’m a great leader. These guys look up to me and listen to me. I always step in and help with heavy lifting, I’m very involved in every process (which I’m sure my wife can vouch for simply based on the insane amount of hours per day I spend in the facility). Our team is very respect oriented and company culture is just rad. Building skis – it’s fun as hell! There are downfalls here and there of course but overwhelmingly it’s a really cool product, you go to sweet places, and meet awesome people. At the end of the day, we are all passionate and having fun everyday.
What about females in ski manufacturing?
We’d love to have ladies on the team! We had a couple interns that really dazzled us and I extended job offers but they had other things going on. We actively try to get more female interns because that’s the only way we really hire is through our internship program to see how well you blend with the team and if you have the drive. I can’t wait to get a full-time female team member, there’s too many bros in the industry!
Main advice for folks in your position – bringing a custom product to the outdoor space or any industry?
The singular most important piece in my opinion is customer service. I’ve mentioned it a lot but it’s just a fact. All your other stuff can stink, but without customer service, you won’t survive. In any custom company, it’s also important to be cautious with how you scale it – you need to maintain the product and customer service necessary to keep clients happy and sales flowing in. There’s definitely a certain threshold of too much too soon.
Favorite ski shapes this year? What’s to come?
One shape I’m super excited about this year is the Spar Turbo. It’s made skiing the same terrain that I have been skiing for the last 30 years super fun again. Plus the Turbo keeps getting more and more fun as you put more energy into it. Thus it does not promote lazy skiing so it is great for me coming back from an injury to get my legs back in shape!
Our Denver manufacturing facility is about to expand another 2,000 sqft. Our manufacturing numbers are the highest ever, product quality keeps getting better, and throughput is on point. The future is bright as long as we keep getting in front of the right clientele. Folsom Skis will certainly find its balance. We’ll grow a fair amount more but there will be a cap at some point once we find our equilibrium. We’re stoked, and good snow always helps.
Stay safe, and keep shredding!