From community college classroom $100 M in sales; DC Shoes’ day by day grind to become one of the most iconic lifestyle brands.
This is the Part 3 of our Lifestyle Brand Series where we explore how brands become associated with aspirational lifestyles. Read Part 1 to understand what is a lifestyle brand and why it is so powerful, and Part 2 to understand Beats by Dre.
DC Shoes is a brand with deep associations to the skateboarder lifestyle. If you are not aware of DC Shoes, you might assume they just sell shoes, but they have a wide range of apparel including shoes, t-shirts, sweaters, and even winter jackets. They do have some technical innovation on the shoes and coats, but most of the value that they offer their customers is the self-expression and self-actualization they receive when they wear a piece of clothing with the DC emblem. This makes them a quintessential lifestyle brand.
It has been a long road for founders Ken Block and Damon Way. Ken had been screen printing t-shirts since 1989, Ken and Damon joined forces in 1991, and they sold the brand to Quiksilver, another great lifestyle brand, in 2004 for $87 million dollars. This wasn’t the overnight success we saw when we examined the Beats by Dre brand. This was a steep hike up the mountain to success with some stumbles along the way. I am going to focus on the years before the Quiksilver acquisition where perseverance and calculated risk are the themes.
You might ask, why cover DC as a case study if it is not an overnight success? If you read our Beats case study, then you know we weren’t sure whether the Beats success was repeatable because of the founder’s relationships to top music artists. There is no advantage that the founders of DC had, and therefore their success is repeatable by people like you and I as long as we navigate with the same savvy and grit.
That faithful community college class.
Ken Block had been screen printing t-shirts for a couple of years to fund his snowboard bum lifestyle. He connected himself to the music, art, and design of the snowboard culture. He decided to take some computer design classes at a community college in San Marcos, California. Ken met Damon Way in an algebra class. The pair were like minded in their lifestyle and business aspirations.
Ken Block and Damon Way went off and started Eightball Clothing. There was only one problem; there was another company called clothing company called Eightball, and that company had the copyright of the name.
Ken and Damon would be the first to admit that they had no idea what they were doing from a business standpoint when they started.
“We enjoy doing all the creative stuff: designing the apparel, the logos, the ads, hiring athletes,” said Ken Block in an interview. “That is the stuff that Damon and I were really good at. But the business back end stuff: dealing with the banks, inventor… we sucked at it!”
Thankfully they hired Clay Blehm, a friend’s father, take on the business aspects they sucked at. They made him a partner in 1994.
Back on the right track, or tracks…?
Ken and Damon started many ventures in 1992: Blunt Magazine, Type A Snowboards, and Droors Jeans. The one that had the most traction was Droors Jeans and became their focus. Droors Jeans became Droors Clothing, which became DC. The official corporate story is that DC stands for Danny and Colin, their first signed athletes because Droors Clothing was spun out later on.
“[W]e decided in 1994 to change skateboarding shoe style,” Ken and Damon told Fast Company in their “Fast 50” of 2003. “With no experience, we set out to make skateboarding shoes more durable and incorporate performance-based elements along with an athletic design. Until that time, no one had ever produced a performance-based skateboarding shoe.
“We did simple things that made a big difference, like putting nylon loops around the spots where skateboarders shoe laces would wear away from abrasion. Damon convinced his pro skateboarding brother Danny Way and fellow skateboarder Colin McKay to defect from their shoe sponsors and put their names on our first two DC shoe models.”
“[…] The immediate result was that the first DC model was back-ordered by retailers. By the end of 1995, the three brands we created grossed almost $7 million. We developed teams within the action sports categories that consist of some of the sports most exciting and dominant athletes.”
Literally attached to athletes and their success.
Skateboard culture was going from the fringes to the mainstream in a big way in the 90s to a peak in the mid-2000s. It was a rebellious, thrilling and active pass time for 14 – 17-year-old teens. You could find skate magazines in every convenience store, Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 and 2 were best selling video games, and the X Games were championing skateboarding as a sport worthy of pro level coverage.
DC Shoes were on the feet of some of the top athletes upon the rise of the sport. Danny Way and Colin McKay were the originals, but the team through the growth included Rob Dyrdek and Josh Kalis.
These guys weren’t just in the media, they were the media. Danny Way was a world record claiming stunt skater. Rob Dyrdek was a perennial personality on MTV. And Colin McKay and Josh Kalis were making skateboard video after skateboard video. This early team both got them broad promotion (Rob) and niche / targetted content (Colin and Josh).
Thrasher skater of the year, twice. World record holder for longest jump and highest jump, records where he bested himself multiple times over.
Prolific skateboard video star.
Starred in the MTV reality series, Rob & Big and Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory. Three-time world record holder.
Starred in 15 skateboard movies over his 18-year career.
A taste for stunts.
If there is something DC has perfected, it is the art of a media grabbing stunt. But it is hard to call them stunts because that implies a foolhardy-ness. Their stunts are calculated risks and excellently planned.
They keep the piece of the ramp that Danny Way landed on in his first world record attempt for biggest air in 1997. The only thing larger than the skid marks is the DC logo. Danny’s seven world record attempts were all opportunities for DC to splash their logo onto the public consciousness, and cement the associations with the risk taking skateboard lifestyle.
The sheet of plywood in their lobby is not just a reminder of what lifestyle they are a part of, but a symbol of calculated risk taking and what it can do for the brand.
Gymkhana is a series of viral videos featuring the motorsports and stunt driving talents of DC Shoes’ founder: Ken Block. They actually all come after the Quiksilver acquisition, but any discussion of DC’s prowess at viral stunts would not be complete without touching on them.
There are now 10 videos (although everyone agrees that #1 was a warm up to the real action) and they garner anywhere between 30 million and 90 million views… each! Many marketers say that viral videos cannot be engineered, but Ken Block has made it a fine art. Only he could tell you the secret to it, but whatever it is, he discovered it when planning Danny Way’s record attempts and the famous jump from a helicopter. I would say the secret is brainstorming something that is perceived as very risky to regular people that you know you can take 99% of the risk away through planning. Ken, am I close?
The only inherent advantage the founders of DC had was that Danny Way (skater) was Damon Way’s (founder’s) brother. But, unlike Beats, there is nothing in their success that isn’t repeatable. It is a combination of savvy and hard work.
In the early days, Ken and Damon did a number of things, and one of those things took off like a rocket. They divested the rest of the ventures and put their full energy behind the shoes because that is what the market signaled they wanted. This is a strategy that lends itself to more than apparel; Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka founded a company, Milk, whose strategy was to launch several mobile apps and double down on the ones that saw traction.
Notice that DC, much like Beats, were in the media the people in their lifestyle was consuming. They were not content to just be a sponsor or an advertiser; they needed their shoes and apparel in the media in a big bad way. They made their opportunities for media coverage as much as they took advantage of what was pre-existing.
There is also a calculated risk taking that is a hallmark of the pre-acquisition era. DC Shoes’ founders were risk takers in their media, their designs, and their marketing. But they were smart enough that they could limit the downsides, so it was really only upside and glory.
If you like this article, you will also like other articles in our Lifestyle Brand Series.
“20_Ken Block and Damon Way” for Fast Company.
“DC Shoes, Inc. History” for Funding Universe.
“DC Shoes Startup Story” for Fundable.
“All of Ken Block’s Gymkhana videos, ranked” by Jake Lingeman for Autoweek.
Colin Finkle is a brand marketer and designer with ten years of experience helping Fortune 500 companies tell their story at retail. You can see his work at Colin Finkle’s portfolio site. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter. He is also the author of the book series, the Neverborn Saga.
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