GUMBALL SPEAKS: Interview with Best Kiteboarding Co-Founder Alex Shogren
By Ryan Riccitelli
Originally Published in the February 2008 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine
Best Kiteboarding is one of the most controversial brands in the history of our sport. In their first year of business, they were blackballed from certain magazines, banned from a demo testing event and often criticized for their aggressive marketing strategies. Under mountains of opposition, Best has matured into a major player in our sport. Alex Shogren, co-founder of Best, has worked behind the scenes since their launch. In the past, Alex has been extremely outspoken publicly and on forums under the screen name “Gumball.” Whatever your opinion may be of Alex or Best Kiteboarding, their success has motivated many new emerging kiteboarding companies to enter the market. Alex is an interesting character to say the least and his passion for kiteboarding is a story that deserves to be told. Alex agreed to do this interview only if we assured him we would not change a word.
What were you like growing up as a kid and what were you interested in?
I was an athlete in high school at St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., one of those preppy boarding schools. Lacrosse was my big sport and as a sophomore, I was recruited to play it by a bunch of colleges. But I also enjoyed touring with the Grateful Dead and all the mind bending “antics” that went along with following Jerry and the boys around the country. So for a few years I partied hard, followed the Dead and had a good time. I quit the hard-core party life when I was 20 and I ended up getting my high school equivalency diploma. I then went to college for a year in Pennsylvania before transferring to Georgetown University where I received a degree in business with a focus on marketing.
How did you get involved in kiteboarding?
My little sister sent me a video clip back in the late 90s of a guy jumping over a rock jetty. As soon as I saw that – well, my whole life I’ve loved being airborne – I new I had to do it so that was my first introduction to kiteboarding. I went down to Florida soon after and took a lesson from the only school I could find on the internet. It was with Neil Hutchinson, who is now a Slingshot rep, and he gave me a lesson. It was a disaster. The technology was so poor back then, but I think probably, still to this day, he made the largest sale from me than he’s ever made off of anybody! I think I bought eight kites, two boards and bars and harnesses – the whole getup. He told me to take up wakeboarding to hone my board skills, so I bought two Mastercrafts. I kept one in New York and one in the Bahamas, and learned to wakeboard. Then in 2002, I took a trip down to Cabarete with Scott Harwood, my buddy who was teaching me how to wakeboard, and Gavin Butler, who’s Best’s photographer, and lo and behold, Jeff Biege, one of the founders of Best, taught us to kite. And that was it.
What made you want to start a kiteboarding company?
Originally, the thought was to write off all my travel expenses. I was traveling all over the world kiting, searching for great conditions, and I thought, “Geez, I’ll just start a little kiteboarding company so I can write off my expenses.” That was the original concept. Then as soon as I took a look at the industry, I realized there was an incredible opportunity there: I saw an easy business model to sell through the internet and to sell direct to retailers and cut out the distributor. And it seems to have worked.
What was the goal of starting Best Kiteboarding?
The goal was to become the largest, best and most dominant brand in the industry. I don’t like to be second or third in anything.
Is the vision of what you had for Best Kiteboarding a reality today or did consumers, the market, and industry change it?
The original vision I had was that we would actually be more internet-focused than we turned out to be. I always knew that we would be using retailers and selling direct to retailers but now the website only accounts for about 10% of our sales and we do 90% of our sales through retailers around the world.
Who are some of the people who have helped make this possible?
My sister, for sending me that video clip, but what I excel at is being passionate about something and starting a venture. I’m very good at that, however when it comes to day-to-day operations as a business matures there are people who are better qualified, and that’s why I hired Ian Huschle to be the president and CEO of Best. He more than anybody has taken a start-up venture and brought it to maturity, and he’s made it a fantastically valuable company now. And then of course, there’s Shannon and Jeff, who helped me start the company back in 2004, and without them I couldn’t have gotten anywhere.
When Best Kiteboarding started it was like something out of a Hollywood movie; Ferraris, models, and an entourage of young riders. How has this changed?
We just have more Ferraris, more models, more young riders, and did I say more models?
What do you have to say to the people who claim Best Kiteboarding hurt the retail shop?
I’d say they’re misinformed. Like I said earlier, 90% of our sales are through retailers. In my opinion, we’ve helped the sport and kiters tremendously, especially with our introduction of the Waroo in 2006 which made kiteboarding easier to learn for more people.
Best once ran a “Buy two kites get one free” promotion. What was the idea behind this and why are you not doing this anymore?
Originally, the idea was a penetration strategy. We made a name for ourselves very quickly by using disruptive marketing techniques, and we wanted to get our kites in the hands of as many riders as possible. We got a lot of kites into the market and people realized that our kites were not going to fall apart after a month. You need to pay attention on bestkiteboarding.com. We still do this promotion every once in a while – we just ran it on Yargas.
Many new kiteboarding companies have been started in the last few years, but none have been able to develop the same amount of interest as Best was able to at the beginning. What made Best different and why has there ben so much interest in the brand since day one?
Well, I’m very good at disruptive marketing, and I like to be the company in the industry that’s different. Our strategy in the beginning was to be disruptive, and we were very successful. And there was a love-hate relationship with Best when we first started, but everyone who kited heard of Best within the first two months that we were in business. We did things differently, we did things that got attention and that stirred emotion, and we did things to create extreme customer loyalty. As for other companies starting now, it’s such a crowded market and a capital intensive business, that I really don’t see the allure for somebody starting a new brand in today’s environment.
You were deeply immersed in the day-to-day business of Best Kiteboarding. How has this changed?
I handed the day-to-day running of the company and reins over to Ian Huschle about two years ago, and he’s done an excellent job of bringing Best to maturity. I’m still involved on a daily basis as the Chairman of the Board, and I’m involved in every major decision that we make as a company.
What is your role in the company now?
I am the official kite tester. I try to kite every day, and test new kites. I am the toughest kiter to satisfy probably in the whole world, so Peter Stiewe, our kite designer, always has his work cut out for him, all year round.
Ian Huschle, the President and CEO of Best worked for an Investment Bank before joining Best Kiteboarding. How has his leadership changed the company?
Well, as I tend to be a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants kind of leader, Ian actually thinks things out and gets opinions from others before making decisions, which is an excellent way to run a company. I don’t think there’s anybody better suited to run Best Action Sports than Ian.
You are very vocal on the kiteboarding forums under the screen name Gumball. What do you think of kiteboarding forums in general?
You didn’t ask where the name Gumball came from and that’s far more interesting. Right before I started Best, my best friend and I did a thing called the Gumball Rally, which was a car race from San Francisco to Miami, and I was still high off the adrenalin of going cross county in a very fast car. I logged onto Kiteforum and I had to pick a screen name, so I chose Gumball. I was just on there (kiteforum) doing research on the kite industry and I realized that these kiteboarding forums were an exceptional way to market a product or a brand, but not only that, it was an exceptional way to connect with one’s customers and figure out what they’re really thinking. It’s like a giant focus group.
Many people do not realize that you spend a lot of time on the water kiteboarding. On average, how much do you ride in a week?
Generally, I spend six months of the year in Brazil where we do the majority of our product testing. When I’m in Brazil I kite every day. When I’m not in Brazil, I split my time between my home in the Bahamas and my home in Florida, and I kite whenever it’s windy. I also like to do a trip to Utah every year to do some snow kiting.
Were you the brains behind the Best Girls and how do you think they contributed to branding the company? Are the Best Girls still integral to the marketing of Best Kiteboarding and are there any plans to do more with them?
The Best Girls were part of our disruptive marketing strategy when we started. Again, it promoted a love-hate relationship with Best and still, to this day, the Best Girl’s section is probably the third most view part of our website, behind the Waroo and our videos.
How did the experience with the Hellfish affect Best Kiteboarding?
Well, honestly, the Hellfish was a complete disaster. Our excitement for doing something truly innovative and different and using a different material got the better of us and we released the product too soon before it was fully tested, and as everybody knows, all the Hellfishes blew up. But that said, without that experience, I don’t think Best would be where it is today, because we gave everybody who bought a Hellfish their money back, plus $100. We created tremendous brand loyalty by doing that. Plus, the Hellfish was our introduction to Cuben Fiber and now the Nemesis HP is our fourth generation Cuben Fiber kite. As our research with Cuben Fiber continues, the kites with Cuben Fiber are getting better and better and are proving to be, in my opinion, the absolute best kites in the industry, both in terms of performance and durability.
How active is Shannon Best in the company?
Shannon’s our face man for the company. He travels around, signs autographs, kites, does clinics, and promotes our sport and our company.
Do you still ride and hangout with Shannon as much as you used to?
Yes, we were just in Brazil together for about four months and we rode together every day.
What role does Jeff Biege, the other founder of the company, play in Best Kiteboarding?
Jeff is kind of like a sweeper… he does whatever is necessary. He’s integral at getting feedback from our accounts and our customers, he’s a product tester and he really focuses on developing our new line of surfboards, since he’s a really amazing surfer. He’s also an amazing musician and makes a lot of the music for our kite videos.
Who are the up and coming riders that impress you most?
Pros are pros, and having ridden so much with Shannon over the years it’s kind of tough to impress me. The kiters that impress me the most are the regular people I meet all over the world who push themselves to new things, whether it’s riding toeside, doing a back roll or committing to throwing their first kiteloop.
Why do think the industry has not been able to attract a large number of other board sports enthusiasts like wakeboarders, snowboarders and surfers to kiteboarding?
The industry is still in its infancy. We’re growing at 80 to a 100 percent a year and that is phenomenal growth. But the barriers to enter kiteboarding are getting less and less. It’s getting easier and easier to learn to kite, because of the technology like the Waroo with maximum depower and the safety it entails, and I think you’ll see in the next few years that the numbers of kiteboarders will start to rival those of wakeboarders and surfers. I don’t know if we’ll be able to catch up to snowboarding.
What does the future hold for Best Kiteboarding?
Well, we’ve already been successful beyond our wildest dreams, and that’s sure to continue. And as for the future, let’s just say that we have a lot going on behind the scenes…
Originally Published in the February 2008 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine