Since partnering with Damon Way on Eightball Clothing in 1991, a label that set the stage for Droors, Dub, and finally DC, Ken Block has been at ground zero of action sports' explosion and helped lead many of the changes that grew the industry from small runs of core products to a multi-billion fashion and lifestyle tour-de-force. We caught up with Block for his insight on the evolution of action sports and DC.
Over the past fifteen years DC has grown from a skate specific shoe brand into a wide array of sports. How does that expansion fit with your original business model?
For a really long time…our consumers were only skateboarders, but with the growth of snowboarding in the late 80s and early 90s and surfing making itself cool again in the mid-90s, we saw an expansion of [the] consumer base buying our products and it was a matter of us embracing that and adding [them] into our targets. In the late 90s we added first snowboarding, then surfing, and then shortly after that we added BMX and motocross.
We were looking at skateboarding being the core and these other sports being the basis of what we understood action sports to be at the time. Being a boardsport company it was very obvious and easy for us to go into snowboarding and surfing, but BMX isn't a boardsport. That took a bit of thought, [but] most of the kids that were into those sports in the 90s, it was a general interest in, I don't want to use the word rebellion, but away from mainstream sports – stick and ball, team sports.
How would you define the term "action sports"? What fits under that umbrella for you in 2010?
Today's definition of action sports is so much different from what it was 15 years ago. Motocross and some of these other sports that are individual sports closely related to the attitude and feeling of skateboarding where you can start off very young, do them by yourself, and [they] generally don't take too much money. Motocross tends to get pretty expensive, but at the same time a lot of parents really support it. It's something a family can do together. That's really where I mentally draw the line of what action sports are. Once you get into actual auto motor sports it becomes so expensive and so dynamic that you start losing people that can do it at a young age and by themselves. I wish I could go out and drive the rally car everyday but the costs of it and the locations of it are so prohibitive that there's no way you can do it. I don't look at auto motor sports as having anything to do with action sports – the only link rally has is the fact that X Games decided to include it in their event.
How big of a role do you think you personally played in that happening?
I'd say I had something to do with it, but Travis Pastrana had much more to do with it than I did. X Games was looking to add more, interesting things into their events. They've constantly added and subtracted things over the years based on a business model that works for them. It costs a certain amount to do an event and depending on their viewership return they'll keep it or get rid of it. In the past couple years they've axed surfing and wakeboarding but they've added things like rally because they think it has a draw or a different draw from what they have from their other events.
Rally's definitely a big departure but it seems like you guys are having really strong success in that space. What opportunities do you see for growth in motor sports?
As long as DC has [current] athletes like myself, Travis Pastrana, and Dave Mirra involved, it's not a huge cost for DC [and] it's turned out to be a great retail sales initiative. The business that we've been doing with our licensing and selling products related to the three athletes in the sport have been really, really successful – way beyond what we imagined here.
For example, Pac Sun has been a huge purchaser of all the product related to myself and the graphics on my car. It's been a really big surprise for us how much those consumers have walked into those mall stores and bought that product.
You had to have received some hate from skaters along the way as you started diversifying into these other areas. What have you done to remain authentic in all the spaces you're in?
Unfortunately everybody likes new stuff. When skateboard shoes were the new hot thing in the late 90s, I think we counted 30 different brands at one time. From where we started to where we are today, the whole industry and market has changed many, many times and it's been something that we've had to change along with and make as dynamic a brand as possible. To try and be cool to the core skateboarder for 15 to 20 years is very difficult. Even a brand like Vans or Nike, they're doing it in ways that really are counterproductive to what people thought in the past would work. Those brands do everything, they sell everywhere. Vans and Nike are both sold in JC Penney's. Who would think a brand that sold at JC Penney's would still be cool to a core consumer and a core skateboard retailer today? Well, they're doing it and it proves that as long as you can send the right messages to the right people you can pull off some pretty interesting business moves. It's the same thing that we do today, and every brand in our market really does – you have to continue marketing in the right way, to the right people, with the right messages. It's pretty easy to fuck up, but there are ways to find the right paths.
How do your messages differ between the various sports you're in?
It's all about being very knowledgeable about the markets you're in and catering to the consumer's tastes and or trying to lead those consumers' tastes. If you're tyring to sell the wrong shoe to a particular market or you're trying to send the wrong message, you're not going to succeed.
Snowboarders aren't always into the same things as a BMX'er or a skateboarder. A lot of times the general trends follow the same directions but there are definitely sects and paths of things that happen in each of these markets.
The recession has really shown how important is to be diversified. Do you think your involvement in these other sports has helped you come through it?
Diversity is a big advantage in doing what we've done over the years. When certain markets are down, others really aren't. When the recession really hit hard, a lot of the skateboard shops really struggled. We did our best to help with that but if we were only reliant on that it would have really affected our business a lot more than it did. 90
How much of a role do you play in running DC now and what does your role of Chief Brand Officer really entail?
That's a good question. I don't play as big a role anymore but I still help guide and direct some of the things that happen here. It's mainly just making sure as we have new employees and as new ideas come along, we help keep them in line with our heritage and things that we're doing around the whole company.
Has it been difficult handing off that day-to-day oversight?
It's always been difficult. I started off as the shoe designer, team manager, ad director, creative director – everything all at once. Over the years I've had to let go of every piece of that to the point where I'm just sort of a big picture director. It's always been difficult because I really enjoyed the hands on part of what I did in the past.
What's next on DC's horizon?
Continuing to grow and focus a lot more on better products, better marketing, and really making sure that our systems and processes are the best that they can be so that we can make the best products and best marketing. It's always a struggle as a company gets bigger and bigger to get better and better along with the increased sales. That's a big thing on our plate – to keep that value and quality and innovativeness at the forefront.
DC's a pretty big ship these days. How easy is it to steer?
It's easy because we have processes in place to be quick to market with products, but the bigger you get the more people you have and the harder it is to react sometimes. It's something we keep in mind and keep as a goal to be able to react as quick as we can.