Crafted: Owner Operator

Steven Kimura and Peter Sieper are building their vision of snowboarding.

Above Photo: Atsushi Nishijima
Words: Taylor Boyd

Steven Kimura is juggling. He’s raising a family, building a snowboard brand and an outerwear brand, and starting a trade show at which to exhibit his softgoods and hardgoods, along with a number of other brands his size and larger. Steven is an outlier in the snowboard industry. He didn’t leave a job at a big brand to start his own thing. He was a weekend warrior who paid inordinate attention to snowboarding growing up. Many people in this industry can relate to that concept. You’re an outsider looking in until you’re not, and suddenly you’re part of this thing you had only voyeuristically observed. Once behind the curtain is generally when you start seeing the problems. But Steven saw those problems early on. It’s part of what drew him in to begin with. The further in he got, the more problems he noticed, and he’s done what he can to work around them and create solutions.

Of Steven’s ventures, Owner Operator was first. It launched in 2008—arguably a low point for outerwear stylistically and less arguably a low point for the snowboard industry in terms of revenue. Holden had been creating products that diverged from the loud norm for a few years, but if you flip open a magazine from that era, you’ll notice an overwhelming amount of allover print adorning ill-tailored pieces. Steven and his childhood friend and snowboarding buddy Pete Sieper were unsatisfied, gravitating more toward vintage thrift-store finds than what was available in snowboard shops. Steven explains, “Pete and I were traveling a time or two a year to go on snowboard trips together. I remember being at this shop; I needed a jacket, and Pete needed pants or something. But nothing there appealed to us. When you grew up looking at Jeff Brushie and old Burton stuff, outerwear from then [2007] doesn’t look that cool. That’s where the idea for Owner Operator sparked.”

It’s been a struggle since. The brand has encountered about every hurdle imaginable—by default as a small business and due to the fact neither Steven nor Pete came into this endeavor business-savvy. They’ve learned the hard way about pre-booking, manufacturers’ minimums, the scary power of Amazon, and generally what it’s like to be little fish in a big pond. Trial and error led them to the decision that selling direct and on-demand is the only way to deliver the quality of Owner Operator product they strive for at a price that their consumer can afford.

Steven and Pete’s subsequent endeavor, United Shapes, is a product of learning and skepticism developed through their first. A prominent snowboard brand was interested in producing a collaborative board with Owner Operator, and after a series of meetings the co-branded board neared production—until Steven got cold feet and pulled the plug. If you want something done right, do it yourself. That’s what he and Pete did, and the timing was right. As snowboarding tired of the same twin outline dominating a brand’s entire catalog, and riders sought directional and unconventional profiles, United Shapes showed up offering nothing but the latter. Instead of an existing brand adapting to a changing market, United Shapes arrived on-trend, representing a growing consumer demand. Steven believes, unlike Owner Operator, that United Shapes makes sense within a retail model.

Of Steven’s three distinct endeavors, I would vote United Shapes “Most Likely To Succeed.” Look at Welcome Skateboards. If you told the skateboard-industry illuminati 10 years ago that one of the most successful board brands today was going to be launched by a name they’d never heard, have no traditional popsicle-stick-shaped deck in their lineup, and no prominent pro on the team, they would have laughed you out of their proverbial temples in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Welcome’s website is now the top result on Google when you search the generic word “welcome,” and the brand consistently outsells some of skateboarding’s most established players.

Steven’s latest project, Parts & Labor, has yet to deliver a product. When it does, that product will be in the form of floor and wall space. It’s a new take on a snowboard trade show, and its debut is set for Denver in late January—the exact same time as the SIA trade show, which has been all but requisite for a brand looking to play ball in the ski or snowboard space. Like Owner Operator and United Shapes, Parts & Labor is ultimately a result of frustration with the status quo. In this case, the dissatisfaction stems from the idea that brands— especially small ones—are being priced out of the industry’s most prominent business-to-business display of product and ideas. “I think more than anything else it’s a way to put more dollars back into snowboarding,” Steven says.

Somewhere right now at a table in a creative agency or a large brand’s marketing department, someone is throwing around the term “disrupt.” It may or may not apply to the concept they’re pitching. Meanwhile, Steven Kimura and Pete Sieper are putting that buzzword into practice. “For us, it was kind of like, ‘Hey, if we don’t really dig into snowboarding and make our own thing within it— something we can get excited about—in a few years we might not even be doing it anymore,’” Steven explains. “Our friendship was rooted in snow and skate, and it was something we wanted to keep doing together.” In that regard, it worked. According to Steven, he and Pete are spending more days on their snowboards than they ever have.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding. Check out more from the magazine here.