How Signal Snowboards Changed an Industry With Subscriptions
Owner Dave Lee discusses how he took his imprint from snowboard manufacturer to content producer and now subscription service innovator
Dave Lee spent the 1990s in the Pacific Northwest as a pro snowboarder for legendary brand Lib Technologies. After a back injury lead to his departure from pro status, Lee went on to help run a small brand out of Mervin Manufacturing—home to Lib Tech, GNU, Bent Metal Bindings—called Supernatural for a few years before it shuttered. Though the closure left him jobless, the experience acted as a crash course in how to build a brand from the ground up.
Using the knowledge gained at Mervin and a bit of money saved from his pro days, Lee launched Signal in 2004. Initially the company took a conventional approach in sponsoring riders, taking on a wholesale accounts, and generally just doing what they could to keep up with the big dogs. Over time though the usual struggles of being a small business began to wear on Lee and his team, forcing them to think more creatively. The result was a monthly web series called Every Third Thursday, which very quickly became a hit.
Each video installment follows a wild and crazy snowboard concept as it rapidly moves from sketch to prototype within Signal’s Huntington Beach-based factory. Think recycled skateboards, glass, 3D printed carbon powder—some seriously zany stuff. They even test the boards on hill to see real world applications of the experimental builds. The videos garnered a sizable following on YouTube, where Signal found an audience not in the core, endemic snowboard community looking to see the latest tricks, but more with more casual enthusiasts and generally curious onlookers wowed by the creativity and ingenuity of it all. And as a result, the series began to float the brand, instead of the other way around.
“We were making more money on content then we were snowboards,” says Lee. “It definitely taught me that you can look at business in a different way and find different avenues for revenue, and that you can find different ways to connect with people. It just gave us the freedom to try new things.”
From this freethinking philosophy came the subscription service approach, another first in the snowboard industry. Before Birch Box was even around, another health-food centric subscription service caught Lee’s eye. And after some tinkering Signal launched a Beta test just three years ago. By working closely with feedback from the 50 odd beta subscribers, Lee fine tuned the concept and in fall 2016 launched what is now Signal’s hallmark product, the Signal Subscription Service.
How does it work? Well, when customers buy a snowboard, they’re now given the option to pay in 12 month installments, bringing the cost of a $399 snowboard down to $35 a month. Perks of opting into the service include a “no questions asked” warranty (Signal will repair or replace any damaged board for free), and more interestingly, access to the Members Only Demo Program, or MOD, as they like it.
"If we can help up participation, everyone wins. The entire industry wins.”
The MOD program allows customers to demo any board in the Signal lineup for two weeks free, each season. Suppose you’re a park kid in Michigan but you’re headed to Utah for a week to ride powder. Call up Signal, request the all mountain friendly John Jackson Sierra board, and they’ll ship it ready to ride—with paid return shipping label—to your hotel. The idea is based on letting folks get time on a board without committing fully. Later this month Signal will even introduce their first split board, further opening up a world of opportunity to riders who would love to try the backcountry access option but would otherwise never likely get the chance too.
To further shake things up, Signal recently began releasing boards throughout the winter, instead of just in the fall like the rest of the snowboard industry (and ski) industry. Most brands spend a whole year developing a new line that drops in August—and then has effectively four months to sell through in order to make a profit. Because of this many customers have been conditioned to wait until after the holidays for the inevitable sales. Signal’s twice-yearly drop allows them to cater to both customers, while also building based on their customer numbers, and not retail projections. This keeps boards from sitting on shelves, and allows for the limited product to feel more special—every loves a hint of exclusivity, after all.
“The core mission [of Signal] has always been accessibility and participation,” explains Lee. “The hardest part of snowboarding and staying in it is, it’s just so damn expensive. So we want to lower that barrier of entry. If we can help up participation, everyone wins. The entire industry wins.”
So what’s next for Signal? Well, as every marketer worth listening to will tell you, kids these days are more interested in experiences than material things. So, Signal is extending their subscription model to, you guessed it, snowboard trips. A visit to legendary Baldface Lodge in Nelson, B.C. will run you $3000, which is no small chunk of change, but break that 3Gs up over 12 months and all of a sudden a bucket list trip becomes slightly more attainable. Plus, each trip subscription comes with a brand new snowboard. So there’s that.
Next year they're headed back to Baldface, with additional slots, and may also step into partnering with snowboard camps. Though that’s TBD. Either way, it seems Signal is worthy keeping an eye on.