September 25, 2012 Issue
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Founder of Skullcandy, Rick Alden

Founder of Skullcandy, Rick Alden

Photograph by Jessica Gross.

"Skateboarding and snowboarding have always been a central theme of my existence... also, I think my emotional growth stunted at about age thirteen, and I have never been able to get my mindset beyond that point," says Rick Alden, when asked how it is he understands the youth market so well. Alden has managed to keep his brand popular for nearly a decade now; selling primarily to the brand-conscious and often fickle outdoor sports enthusiast.

Among this demographic, Skullcandy is the brand for headphones and other audio products, and the recipe for success is simple: "We say at Skullcandy, 'We have to be the best version of our own customer,' which means we constantly strive to hire the best versions of our own customer.  So as long as we live the lifestyle, are passionate about what we're doing, and hire people who are passionate about what they're doing, then all we have to do is build product we want, and chances are, other people will want it as well."

Forbes magazine agreed with Alden just this past June, when Alan Hall wrote of Skullcandy in the article To Succeed as an Entrepreneur, Know Your Customer:

"What has been this company's secret sauce for success? The founder knows his customers. He truly understands the needs of individuals who want his funky products. His target audience ranges from 12 to 26 years of age. They are hip. They love music. They ski, surf and skateboard. He knows what they wear from their toes to the tops of their heads... Look around your neighborhood at the youth on your street. They all have Skullcandy headsets or ear buds. In fact, they have multiple units. Around the world it's the same. Kids from every country on earth are wearing headsets with a skull on it."

Rick Alden, founder of Skullcandy

Photograph by Mark Owens.

Alden founded Skullcandy in 2003 after an "ah-ha" moment on a chairlift: fumbling with his gloves as his cell phone rang and rang, he envisioned headphones that can jack into both an MP3 player and a cell phone at the same time. Skullcandy expanded from this technology (for which Alden holds a patent) to audio in helmets, ear buds for the active and other technological and design innovations. He has remained on the board of directors of Skullcandy, after stepping down as CEO in 2011; the year the company went public and finished with net sales of $232.5 million.  While Skullcandy is his most successful venture to date, Alden began on his path as an entrepreneur in 1986. "My partner, Jim Gardner, and I had started a business while attending school at CU Boulder called National Snowboard Incorporated. NSI was a snowboard events marketing company which kept us travelling around the country running snowboard events. It was a killer gig... free snowboards and free lift tickets all while getting paid. Meanwhile we were both trying to finish school, doing all this traveling, and for me it was mostly about trying to come up with next semesters tuition."

Big changes were in store for Alden in 1991, before he could finish his undergraduate degree. "We were approached by a company called American Ski Association, they had offices down at 13th and Sherman, and they came in and offered to buy the company and roll us into their operation. It seemed like a great opportunity, so we sold the biz, and suddenly our offices were in downtown Denver, but neither one of us had finished school." Alden's partner chose to stay in school at Boulder, but for Alden, "I was dating this hot chick at the time, and decided to marry her. My new wife and I moved into an apartment downtown, and CU Denver was the perfect place to be married, skate, work, and finish up school." Alden's wife, Holly, got her education degree from Metropolitan State University of Denver (after attending Brigham Young University for 2 years) and they have now been married for 23 years. "It's a fantastic campus, amazingly convenient," says Alden of their time at Auraria.

Alden earned his BA in Political Science in the summer of 1996, as he describes it, "I started on the business school track and switched to political science, first because I hated statistics, and second because I found the professors in the poli sci department fascinating.  They had incredible, real-life experience, and I just found the whole subject matter to be really captivating."

When he accepted the award for Entrepreneur of the Year from Entrepreneur Magazine in 2009, Alden told a story of how his drive led him to get creative in funding his first company, including using his textbook money. As a result, he spent several semesters studying in the bookstore, on the floor, frantically reading through the books he could no longer afford to purchase. But no matter how difficult it became to juggle a business, family and his studies, Alden never considered dropping-out of school an option. He says, "I had two motivations to finish school, even though I was working pretty much around the clock at that point. First, I always knew that some day I was going to have to stand in front of bankers and investors to ask them for money. Instinctively, I knew I never wanted to be the guy explaining why I had never finished college. Since that time, every banker and every investor that has diligenced me or the company has always dug into this.  I always know that box is checked for me. That matters, and whatever happens it's a big deal."

Alden's second reason resonates with him just as much today, but for different reasons: "And then I knew someday I'd be telling my kids that they needed to finish school. I always knew I could never ask my kids to do something I hadn't done myself."  Alden's' eldest son is now twenty-one and still in school. Alden builds his life around his family and his passions, and he describes his company's home base of Park City, Utah as the perfect place for both. Alden's sixteen-year-old daughter, Autumn, qualified for finals in half-pipe and slopestyle at the United States of America Snowboard Association National's last year at Copper Mountain. His sons have also competed on local snowboarding teams, and Alden's perfectly aware of how lucky he is to have synergy between his professional and personal lives. He says, "There's nothing better than taking your kids out and having them school you in the backcountry, all while they're wearing your headphones."

While Alden has made Utah his home and base of operations for Skullcandy, "I'm continuously flying back to Colorado to snowboard; that's where my people are and that's where the best terrain is. But if you want to run a business in a ski town I feel like Park City is the best option. You can't live 15 minutes from a chairlift in Colorado, still be near an airport, and recruit from a large-population base like Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, it's just not possible in Colorado." Alden's frequent travel and growing number of staff made him consider other options for Skullcandy's location, "It would be far less expensive if we would move our offices down into Salt Lake, but folks are happy to drive to Park City to work here." Park City is thirty miles or less of a commute for most of his employees, many of whom live in Salt Lake, and Alden makes sure they get a chance to take advantage of the location.  In summer the staff mountain bike daily over lunch, in the winter they're cutting out to snowboard together, and the office space even has its own skateboard half pipe. One of the many employee benefits at Skullcandy is a season's pass at either The Canyons or Park City ski resorts.

Alden's continued engagement in the world of outdoor sport inspires him to keep launching new ventures. Stance makes socks for the same market Skullcandy has cornered with audio. The company's website describes the brand thus: "Stance unravels the spool of convention to create an original canvas worthy of the art it is paired with. A commune of creativity, Stance is dedicated to the spirit of individuality. Celebrate bold expression with this free-thinking fabric as it becomes thread poetry in motion. Send a crystal clear mixed message that's silently loud and quietly bold." Not the average marketing lingo for socks. "It turns out that most everyone you know has feet, most of them have two, and all of those people buy socks," is how Alden describes his inspiration for getting into the "men's hosiery market."

The company is based out of San Clemente, California, which Alden describes as perfect for serving his surfing needs. "I only do business travel where I want to be, so these days that typically rotates around meetings near surf spots and mountain biking.  We've always had the saying at Skullcandy that, 'There's never been a good idea found behind a desk.' So I make sure that whatever management team of whatever company I'm working with, if we want to have a really creative session we are NOT inside an office while we're doing it."

"The only rock star team working as hard as the guys at Stance are the guys at Skullcandy. They are both unbelievable management teams," credits Alden. Never satisfied to sit back and let these rock-star teams do all the work, Alden is now in the pipeline with a venture so new all he can say about it is that it will be named after a his favorite peak here in Colorado where he spends most of his time snowboarding. Reflecting on if that means he still keeps Colorado close to his heart he says with a laugh, "Yeah, fortunately, I can't quite get Colorado out of my system."

3603 views | Issue: September 25, 2012 | Archive: Feature Stories

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