Not long out of college, Jake Burton traded a potential career on Wall Street to starting to produce snowboards. Though in 1977 the snowboarding sport was in its infancy at that time, Burton pursued a dream to create snowboards for the core user - a goal that has proven stable and profitable for 25 years.
Burton's operations were very low scale in the beginning. In the winter of 1978-1979, Burton sold 300 boards and a year later -- 700. These numbers hardly caught the attention of any of the traditional ski manufacturers, but considering the small scale of the production process (Burton was working from his garage) it gave him confidence that people were excited about the sport and that there was a market for his product.
Interestingly, he learned the tricks of the trade by visiting some of the production facilities of European ski manufacturers who willingly showed him how to create a board that was both strong and flexible. At that time Burton mostly sold his snowboards directly to end customers - he was largely dependent on word-of-mouth marketing. He attended trade shows and participated in demonstrations and competitions.
Over the years enthusiastic snowboarders, amongst them Jake Burton and Tom Sims of Sims snowboards in Seattle, inspired and challenged each other to come up with increasingly innovative designs. The materials used also changed over time. Rapid improvements were absorbed by the 'market' easily and being positioned as "cutting edge" was one of the more sustainable competitive advantages in this industry.
Burton's commitment to the riders and to its people is unparalleled. Burton has always ensured focus on riders. The company challenges itself to understand how it can improve its product to provide a better riding experience. Keeping with its heritage of working with the best snowboarders, Burton products are all inspired by the best snowboarders. The riders are intricately involved with the research and design process. It is a virtuous cycle as Burton has always worked with the best riders, these riders then provide feedback to improve boards, and the boards are developed to such high specifications that the riders stay loyal to the company. With substantial market share and brand credibility Burton can afford to invest more than his competition in both R&D and sponsorship of top riders in all categories of snowboarding.
Key Success Factors
1. Product / Corporate Culture. By being "all about the riders" Burton has strived to build a product and company culture dedicated to snowboarding. He has employed snowboard fanatics and allowed all employees to frequently do what they most liked: snowboard (Burton himself makes a point of being on the slopes for a minimum of 100 days a year). The company and the staff are focused on the product and are great ambassadors for the sport.
2. Marketing/Image. The company has remained closely involved with the sport, nurturing its name association and retaining its radical image. It has kept the core of the brand "pure" by not leveraging the Burton brand into other markets.
3. Operational Execution & Service. Burton as the innovator was able to create - and be at the forefront of - the standards in the industry.
Locating corporate headquarters in relatively isolated Vermont kept the company off the radar screen of the larger, mostly European ski manufacturers while keeping Burton executives in touch with the end-user. Additionally, snow sport conditions in this part of the US are terrible compared to European standards. Therefore Vermont is the ideal testing ground for a new board to be put through its paces. Finally, as there are few industries in Vermont, locals were proud of their local boy, who quickly attained hero like status allowing him to make in-roads with the local resorts that were looking to increase traffic to their resorts.