Matt and Pep hashed it all out last week. Salt Lake City, UT. Photo: Carson Meyer (@carsonmeyerphoto)
Last week, Matt, Pep, and many folks in our little community gathered together for a livestream Q&A. It was the perfect opportunity to grill each other on our past, present, and future, and of course, to hear from members of our community amid a time where we’re otherwise distant from one another. Without further ado, here are the highlights.
On Pep's Legacy
Matt: When did you first feel you had “made it” as a pro skier?
Pep: Well, I wanted to veer away from calling myself a pro skier. I always wanted to be an amateur, ‘cause I felt like amateurs are always the ones who are pushing the sport. Like, once you become pro you kind of become complacent and kick it on the sidelines. But I think that the defining moment was when I got a check in the mail and that allowed me to put a down payment on my first house. So that’s when I was like, alright, I think I can make it.
Matt: You are one of the first documented skiers to land legit park tricks switch in powder. Given that skis were still quite a bit behind the curve at that time, what made it possible for you to transition from park to powder so easily? I mean, I look around and see people with skis properly built for landing switch in powder just tomahawking all over the place, so I wanna know what your tricks of the trade were?
Pep: [Laughs] Uh, don’t get me wrong - I have had my own fair share of switch tomahawks, and I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon. But I think that my evolution was actually from the mountains and freestyle skiing into the park. So it was natural to take those park tricks and do them anywhere. It wasn’t like I was thinking, oh, I need to take these tricks somewhere else, it was like, well I’m gonna be skiing anywhere and I might as well try to ski like I do in the park in other environments. So I think it was a natural progression, and of course I like challenges a lot, so after realizing it was possible, I was like, I’m gonna try this all the time!
Matt: That’s awesome. And obviously you made it work with the skis that you had at the time. Did you ever have to modify your skis to accommodate stomping a cliff switch?
Pep: No, I didn’t ever explicitly bend up tails to accommodate switch pow skiing but in previous years, as twin tips were kind of starting to come out, I didn’t have the money to purchase some so a high school buddy of mine and I took and bent up the tails of some mogul skis. We just heated up the tails and stuck ‘em under a door with a chair on the other side.
Reflecting on Our Identity
Matt: Why did you join WNDR Alpine?
Pep: Oh man, there’s a lot to unpack here. It was a bit of a multifaceted decision. But I think the main couple of reasons were that it supported my ecological worldviews, it really has the potential to make a mark, not only in the ski industry, but I think it has a wider, broader ability to influence the greater industrial complex. WNDR Alpine can be a model of what’s possible in this realm. With the backing of Checkerspot and the biotechnology platform, there’s the ability to change the world, really. It also combined that with my passion for skiing and ski development. Altogether it was a hard opportunity to walk away from. And thinking about the whole company itself - I mean, is there any other company that’s developing materials specifically for skiing? I think that’s very, very unique, and that was a compelling argument for joining.
Matt: Yeah, just in my history in the industry attending trade shows and stuff, you see a pretty clear divide between people who are on the raw materials supply chain, and the people who are in product development as product managers on the brand side. It’s very rare that you see somebody come over from the materials side to the brand side. I think there needs to be more continuity there, as we continue to evolve with our ambitions to build products - to not just make a product from the same material that everybody else uses. And I hope that will lead to a snowball effect on the people who are thinking about the materials they’re working with.
Pep: Absolutely. And it’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of amazing skis out there, and they’ve figured out ways to utilize all these existing materials in interesting ways that make skis ski really well. But we haven’t been able to make our own stuff specifically for skiing before, and therein lies the opportunity to innovate.
On Matt's Legacy
A pow day of seasons past. Photo: David Reddick (@davidreddick)
Pep: Speaking of joining companies… I was there in Tahoe in 2002 and I remember when you came up to me and said, “Hey Pep, you wanna start a ski brand with me?” I was still in my formative years and my career was just starting to blossom and I had a lot of opportunities on my plate, and I was like, whoa, I dunno if I wanna take that on, that sounds crazy [laughs]. So, that leads us into the question of what made you want to start 4FRNT in the first place?
Matt: Yeah… So to anyone who’s new to me, 4FRNT is a brand I started in 2002 in Truckee, California, and I think that was around the time you and I were traveling a bit, skiing with one another for big air comps. And a lot of the people we skied with at the time had a desire to be on better skis - not that the skis they were on weren’t constructed the way they wanted - I mean, we didn’t know much about ski construction then. We were all just skiers. But we knew we wanted to see innovation on ski shapes. And we saw that everything was developing so rapidly on the snowboard side. So as soon as we started to figure out where we existed in that space, we knew our skis were just underperforming.
So at the time, I was working with a ski racing company called Fischer based out of Austria at the time, and I was actually graduating school in Minneapolis, and one of my senior projects was to pitch to them how I would take control of this new division of their company, where we would have free range to design new skis and go all in on this new emerging “freeskiing” segment. And it just so happened that they were behind the curve on that. They did work with me to develop a ski, and that gave me a chance to see how thoughts and ideas can come through to fruition. So, I built up some false confidence of, dude, I can design skis!
But I hadn’t really designed anything; I had just asked for a ski that was a bit different than what they had already done. And fortunately, they were accepting of my feedback at that time. But, much like you, I was becoming more established and realizing where I was in that space of the industry as a whole, and where I stood in the pecking order of being able to make a viable income off of this. And we were coming up on the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. There was a lot of energy and emphasis around American ski racers at the time, and so I lost the support internally among the North American subsidiary of Fischer to back my ideas, and Europeans didn’t need any additional reason to dive right back into ski racing. They found ways to leverage that popularity and use that additional exposure to innovate on recreational race skis. And I remember thinking, man, we are heading in two different directions. And I remember just sitting around the table up in Whistler while we were coaching the Camp of Champions thinking that this wasn’t going to work, and that the only way to do this would be to just collectively get all these other like minded people that I was around to go in on a ski brand. And if we can do that and be successful at it, we’d be able to ultimately leverage those brands that were sponsoring us to eventually make the skis we wanted them to make.
So 4FRNT was basically a collective campaign, which you were invited to join, along with many others who did. We were able to get the brand off the ground and work pretty diligently for the first five years to make it happen, and eventually we were able to get demand up enough to get an entry into the Elan factory. And there were some people who skied for 4FRNT who had past experience with the Elan factory via other sponsors. So we really did complete that circle of converting our sponsors into our suppliers. I think it gave freeskiing a little bit of identity and gave people a better sense that they were really at the top, and able to help drive these decisions, and slowly year by year, helped us change what people perceived to be modern day ski shapes. And we ran that brand for fifteen years by just launching signature ski after signature ski and worked with some of the greatest skiers of our lifetime, and it was a super rewarding and fulfilling experience.
The big companies eventually saw the world like we did and became direct competitors, even though they initially said they didn’t want anything to do with freeskiing.
Pep: So was that was the short winded version of that story?
Matt: Yeah... well, shoutout to the Powell Movement, as we definitely went into a lot more of the detail on the story there. If anyone wants to experience all the gritty details, they’ve got a podcast where we sat down and hashed it all out.
Pep: Well that brings us to the question of what compelled you, after selling 4FRNT, to launch another brand? You know, after just washing your hands of one business, to jump back into another? Disemvoweling it properly, of course!
Matt: Yeah, it’s pretty ironic that I got into another ski brand - and it was not the original intention, I can assure you - but when you enter into a project, you’re working with new people, and they all have different backgrounds, you try to bring everything from your past with you and spotlight how your strengths can offer a contribution to collective success. And that’s ultimately how we ended up arriving to the conclusion to launch a consumer brand focused on backcountry skiing.
On WNDR Alpine's Name
Pep: And coincidentally there is a question in the chat from @luclvrt asking what is WNDR short for?
Matt: Luke, your question’s good. Everyone gives me sh*t for it all the time, like why do you always disemvowel things? But I assure you, my son has two vowels in his name, so it’s not like I’m super on brand all the time [laughs]. When you can change up the spelling of a word, that gives you a lot of optionality of how you can trademark that word. You know, “wonder” isn’t a trademarkable word the same way WNDR is. Like Backcountry.com learned, you gotta be careful about trying to take plain words out of the English dictionary and make them your own. 4FRNT also had the advantage of being in the front page of every buyers guide, since it starts with a number. So we actually got talking about naming this consumer brand for Checkerspot, and naturally I was like, dude we gotta bring in a number. So I came up with the idea of Wonder. And of course it was gonna be spelled 1DER. In the end, we decided we didn’t need to play that game. But we did enjoy the balance of four characters, so I’m pretty pumped on the disemvoweling of WNDR. But hey, don’t be surprised if you see a t-shirt logo with 1DER someday!
Pep: The pronunciation would probably be more clear if it was a 1.
Matt: Sure, there are misleading issues when you disemvowel a word that could be substituted with an A, like “wander.” But there’s also the argument that the number 1 in other languages doesn’t make the sound of “one,” so it’s not necessarily an across the pond solution.
Pep: I think Xan brought this up, but if you went over to Germany, everyone would be saying “ein-der!”
How Skiers Got Excited About Biotechnology
Pep: Okay, I’ve got another question, which is kind of a personal question that I’ve had, even from when you were trying to get me on board. So the question is, where did your expertise of biotechnology come from?
Matt: [Laughs] Well that’s great, I’m honored to be an “expert” in the field of biotechnology for you, but I can assure you that I’m far from it. I guess if anything, I’ve just been able to catch onto some of the nomenclature from the conversations that we have with our science folks at Checkerspot in Berkeley. But I’m starting to get a better understanding of it, and prior to my introduction to this project, I knew very little. I understood leveraging biology to create materials, but in terms of the mechanics of it and the latitude of things it can have an impact on, I really didn’t know much. Biotechnology can exist in a lot of different ways, and everyone has their own process in terms of deriving their materials. Our technology platform is unique, and ultimately is designed to produce oil from Microalgae. So we use fermentation. Anyone who has experience seeing a microbrewery should be able to relate to this. We use fermentation to get from a microbe to a material to build skis, and the way that we can convert that microbe to a material is again, using that brewery concept, taking a microbe like yeast, and if you feed the yeast sugar, through fermentation the yeast converts that sugar to alcohol. And so with our biomanufacturing platform, it’s the same. We take our microbe - microalgae - and it goes into a big stainless steel fermentation tank. We feed that microbe sugar and it converts the sugar into oil. What’s cool about this oil is that it can mimic petroleum that you can get from the ground. Or, you can even design new types of oils that petroleum can’t produce. So you can unlock this whole new subset of new types of materials that can be built off this novel type of oil that you fermented using microalgae. We use these new oils to create new types of plastics, composites, etc. And our materials work in unique ways relative to traditional oils. So that’s why we often talk about unlocking new performance characteristics in our products. When we build materials for skis, we use skiing as the end application, and reverse engineer down to what it is that we ask that material to do to enhance the performance of that complete ski. Then we use this biomanufacturing platform to create an appropriate material. So it’s a pretty unique end-to-end string of experimenting. But we will also see that some things will kind of work as we hoped them to, but man, it’ll blow some other applications we didn't intend to work for out of the water. So you also stumble upon that 3M Post-It note concept of serendipity, where you’re going for one application, and end up being very successful with another. So the more time I spend with this platform, the more I get excited and motivated around how we can try to introduce these materials in novel ways. We’re just starting to scratch the surface. And fortunately with ski construction, there’s a whole range of polyurethanes. We’re experimenting with all different componentry of the skis to find out how we can introduce our technology platform to improve it.
On Our Life Cycle
Let's admit it: we're all a little over ski furniture. Pep Fujas holds some ground up waste from the ski production process. Salt Lake City, UT. Photo: Carson Meyer (@carsonmeyerphoto)
Matt: Okay so a question from @ski_climb_sleep: So it seems like this new polymer is making a cleaner process in terms of creation, but what do you guys know about how this improves the process in terms of end of life of a ski? Does it make it any easier to break down?
The hope is that we’ll be able to start putting some post production waste into new skis in the future. So yeah, we offer a takeback program. If we can get skis back, we can learn more about their behavior throughout their lifetime, as well as be able to repurpose those materials in meaningful ways. And of course, if the skis are still good and you just want a deal on a new pair, that gives us access to get more data about the skis that you owned. If they’re still in good integrity, we’ll find a way to repurpose them and get ‘em back on the snow for people who are less fortunate and can’t buy skis all the time. There’s a lot of optionality. Both in vetting the integrity of the materials that we’re using to build our skis, but also with the intention we have to extend the life of them. Cause, I dunno about you guys, but I’m kinda over ski furniture [laughs].
Sage Advice on Pursuing Your Passion
Hustling, multitasking, and smiling through it all. Salt Lake City, UT. FOW: Matt Sterbenz // Photo: Carson Meyer (@carsonmeyerphoto)
Pep: Okay, here’s one for you Matt. @yakechapes asks: What’s the biggest piece of advice when transitioning a personal hobby or project into a business?
Matt: My biggest piece of advice there is to make sure that you surround yourself with the proper reinforcements to preserve that passion. Because business has a really clever way of dissolving passions because of the added stress of everything that comes with funding, operating, and the failures and successes of selling. It’s always been, for me, about returning to what makes me the most passionate. There was a long time when I was just learning how business worked, through the vehicle of 4FRNT. I wasn’t taking a paycheck, ‘cause there wasn’t any money for it. And I don’t recommend that by the way, but that’s where I was at. Fortunately I still had sponsors that would support my travel needs to maintain relevance as a skier, and I was able to do local work around Tahoe to stay on top of the bills. But through that, the passions would always ensue. I’d go to the hill and see people skiing on the skis. And that just filled me right up. It made me so fired up to keep going. And that just perpetuated year after year after year. So I think the main thing is, insulate yourself so that your passion is preserved, and you’ll find yourself living a life where work-life balance is super manageable because you’re doing everything you love and you don’t feel like work is work. I know we all strive for that, and it’s often used in a cliche way, but it’s true.
Reflecting on Recent Global Events
Pep: Well, switching gears for a second, someone also asked if WNDR will survive the pandemic. We’ve only been in this for like a year, so it’s a perfectly legitimate question.
Matt: Yeah, we are gonna survive. And a big part of that is that we’re somewhat in control of our own destiny in the way that we distribute our own products directly to end consumers. The big thing for me is just trying to make sure that we maintain a positive connection with our audience and make sure that these new materials we’re developing are performing the way that we intend them to. And for sure it’s scary - it’s scary for a lot of the industry and a lot of the brands that are in a delicate situation. But yeah, we’re gonna survive. We’re still on that startup trajectory where we have a lot to prove - as we know - but we were still able to get a lot of the season under our belt before this thing really set in. It definitely ruined the vibe for the Spring. We had a lot of demos planned, were building out a demo fleet, and then bam, felt like we got our season cut short. I’m sure a lot of people out there felt that way. So yeah, we’re good, we’re gonna survive, thank you for your concern, we appreciate that a lot. And a lot of respect for those who are also weathering the storm out there. We hope to see you out on the snow this fall!