In the past year, Gilson Snowboard & Ski Co. became the fastest growing snowboard company in the world. Applying their innovative concept for snowboard design to skis with the release of Gilson skis in Fall 2017, there is no doubt the Gilson ski market will soon follow their snowboards. Gilson Snowboard & Ski Co. is truly “your American ski and snowboard company.” It sources materials locally, is committed to community and the environment, and is driving sustainability in an industry that, for as much as we love it, is not traditionally “green.” But to get to where they are today, business partners Nick Gilson and Austin Royer are clear that it took one thing: failure.
“Success and innovation comes from either the lessons learned during repeated failure or from total accidents,” laughs Nick in total seriousness. “Our education system is training us to fear failure and to avoid it at all costs, but failure is the moment when we have the opportunity to learn the most. When something goes right, all you can say is, ‘Don’t touch that dial!’ But when something goes wrong, you can figure out why. As painful as that moment of failure is, we need to squeeze that moment for every last drop of insight.”
After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2011, Nick moved to Nashville, Tennessee with Teach For America for a job as a 5th and 6th grade science teacher, where he met Austin, who was right next door teaching 7th and 8th grade science. While the two found themselves in front of a classroom of amazing students, the students’ experiences were vastly different- one at a second grade reading level, one at a 12th grade level, one student just learning English, all amongst a system that taught to a much-feared standardized test, notable for repercussions for students, teachers and school.
Teaching to a test was not something Gilson and Royer saw as achieving the goals of education, so they re-invented curriculums to teach the critical thinking skills needed to excel on the test no matter what the material, and more importantly to inspire their students to love science and elevate the students to teach and learn from each other as a team.
A foundation of this new Gilson and Royer curriculum was the development of “curiosity projects,” which were individual student projects in which each student had the entire year to fully dive into something that really excited them. To introduce the assignment, Nick brought in a snowboard that he made when he was 14, describing that when he was in school, he couldn’t wait to get through the day and make it home to work on it, and he and Austin were going to take on designing a new and innovative snowboard for their own “curiosity project;” after all, they were part of the team too.
Nick and Austin’s snowboard project was based upon a concept that Nick had thought about for a long time, which is that almost all objects that move through a fluid are designed in three dimensions (think boat, plane, car… yes, air is a fluid too)… except snowboards up until that point. Moving through snow is quite similar to moving through water. Snow and water are both H2O, and so it makes sense that fluid dynamics matter in both. By treating snow like a fluid, the theory was that the two could design and build a snowboard that was not only fundamentally more advanced, but perhaps more importantly, way more fun to ride.
It took the science teacher duo two months to come up with two prototypes, which they took out to Colorado to test during Christmas break. Austin described the experience as “trying to ride a canoe down the mountain.” It was an absolute, incredible failure.
Dreading facing the students in January and presenting the data of the boards’ complete lack of performance in acceleration and maneuverability capabilities, Nick worked through it. While the hope had been that the teachers would realize a shining example of what success looks like from hard work and exploration, they actually showed them an “example of rock-bottom failure.” To conclude, Nick told the students that the teachers were stopping their project because they’d already invested too much time and money, but that the students had to keep doing theirs.
The room was silent and then one student raised his hand and, when called upon, stated, “Mr. Gilson, if you can quit, we can quit.” As Nick notes, “Nobody will humble you faster than a fifth grader.” Nick and Austin went back to the drawing board with their students and began systematically journalling all of the failings of the process and prototypes, figuring out what went wrong, why their design didn’t work and how to potentially fix each problem.
The result was Gilson Snowboard & Ski Co.’s development of “the Soft Edge,” a bend in the baselayer of the snowboard and ski that elevates the center from the snow and unleashes the benefits of the new 3-dimensional design. Managing to develop 3 different prototypes that winter, Nick and Austin took the new boards out West for spring break and found the designs to not only be incredibly fun to ride, but that they were accelerating 26% faster than a standard snowboard.
At the end of the school year, the classes had a conversation with their teachers, encouraging them to pursue and invest in making their “curiosity project” of revolutionary snowboard and ski design into a business. Inspired and motivated by their students, Nick and Austin moved to a cabin with no running water with a donkey stable as a workshop in central Pennsylvania and began the process of building a company. Needless to say, they’ve come a long way.
From the beginning, Nick, Austin and the Gilson team committed to making snowboards and skis that take the environment and people into account in addition to bringing the revolutionary “more fun to ride” technical design to the market. Royer describes, “We try to source as many materials as we can locally and within the United States. The cores are all Pennsylvania Poplar sustainably grown and harvested out our back door, and there is a lumber mill up the road that makes our blanks that we make into our skis and snowboards. We hire local talent to run our manufacturing facility.” Nick continues that, “With a background in environmental sciences, we have a deep respect for the earth and forest resources. While we did not specifically set out to address the problems in the industry, we did focus on a much higher quality product blend, and a commitment to environmental stewardship and building a sustainable business that makes good decisions about how we treat people and what raw materials we use.”
Upon Gilson learning more about Recover, it was obviously a perfect fit for Gilson’s apparel partner. After a conversation with Recover’s co-founder Bill Johnston, Nick notes, “We really believed in and adhered to Recover’s mission and approach big time, and the value proposition from the get go.”
You can check out the new Gilson apparel line, snowboards, and skis online or catch them in person to demo on the Gilson Demo Tour. Every winter, the Gilson team sends out their 1970s airstream to tour the U.S.’s ski resorts and offer FREE demos… they let their designs speak for themselves. This February, the tour will be hitting Smuggler’s Notch, Mad River, Montage, Purgatory, Crested Butte, Loveland and Bretton Woods, so be sure to check out the schedule and road trip or get out there accordingly.
Hearing about Gilson Snowboard & Ski Co., it’s fair to say, failure looks pretty good when you take it as an opportunity to learn, adjust and try again. While we don’t all have fifth graders around to call us out, we all do have that something, which drives inspiration and motivation to turn rock-bottom failure into success.
As a thank you to our shared community, we're offering you the chance to win your choice of a men's or women's Park or All-Mountain Gilson snowboard and a gear package including a Recover BikeTube Backpack, Hoodie, Beanie, Socks, Long Sleeve Sport, Recover Tee, and Trucker Hat. Prize package amounts to $1,000.