How Burton Got Started - In Jake's Own Words
I've always been attracted to snow. I associate it with being a kid on Long Island and not having to go to school and coming home with snow packed in my clothes and soaking wet. I skied as a kid and loved it. So in 1968, when I got a Snurfer for Christmas, I identified immediately with the concept. I understood being able to go down a snow-covered mountain, but in comfortable footwear this time and not holding onto ski poles and just being so free in the process. That appealed to me: the freedom and the simplicity of it, thinking, god, this is so pure.
During the late 60s, I modified Snurfers until 1977 when I started the company and built my first production prototype. I was a complete loser in shop class in school, yet there I was, working out of a barn in Vermont, figuring out how to manufacturer a snowboard. There was no road map. I combined some skateboarding and a little bit of surfing experience with the Snurfer, then added some common sense--which is probably why it took so long to make a product that was rideable.
I made about 100 prototypes. They were entirely different constructions, from marine plywood to fiberglass to solid ash I steamed and bent, as if making a chair. I remember making a board in a furniture factory in upstate New York. Driving back to Vermont, I saw a massive embankment covered in a foot of snow. I parked the car in the middle of the highway, pulled out that new board, hiked that embankment in my street shoes and just shredded down, having the time of my life.
I finally settled on a skateboard construction for my production board, and in 1977 I made my first Burton snowboard in Londonderry. I hired two relatives and a good friend, and we set out to make 50 boards a day. We accomplished that, which was great. The problem was, we only sold 300 boards that entire winter, mostly to ski shops. I'd go out with a station wagon full of boards and I'd come back with a station wagon full of boards, like a traveling salesman, Willy Loman-type stuff.
Finally I hit rock bottom. I went back to New York for a couple of summers to teach tennis and tend bar just to keep the business afloat, sending money orders up to Vermont to pay my bills. What pulled me through was my belief that surfing on snow was a good idea and that, eventually, more than 10 people would realize that. In the fall of 1979 I went back up to Vermont and hired some high school kids to assemble all the partially produced boards. We started getting orders, and that year we doubled our sales. I thought, if I can keep doing that, we'll be okay. You could only ride those early boards in powder, and that's all we hadwe weren't allowed on ski resorts. We got into the tiny ski areas, but if you wanted to snowboard, you had to hike. Consequently, the market was 15- to 17- year-old-boys who were willing to buy the board out of a box and teach themselves to use it. I owe everything to them.
For the last ten years, I have snowboarded 100 days a winter. I actually mark the days on my calendar. Last March, I went riding in Russia with some members of the Burton team and my oldest son George, who's 16. A helicopter dropped us off on top of this mountain in the Caucasus range. Terje Haakonsen pointed out this great line to me, and it was just that same vibe as always: looking down this field of untracked virgin snow and just going for it and feeling so much comfort and exhilaration and fun. That feeling hasn't changed from day one.
Jake Burton, Founder and Chairman, Burton Snowboards