From Zero To Black Box

Jamie Thomas is a hard worker-you don’t get a nickname like “Chief” for nothing. From pushing the envelope with big rails and bigger gaps to creating one of the most successful skateboard companies, Thomas has been a busy man for the past ten years. But he’s far from finished-his latest venture, Black Box, is a distribution for Zero boards, wheels, and clothing. In creating his own distribution, Thomas seems to be thinking about the future.

From Alabama To Zero

After a number of false-start companies in Alabama, Thomas moved to California to pursue a career on the professional end of skateboarding in 1992. Years later, he skated for Ed Templeton’s Toy Machine from 1994 to 1997, under Tod Swank’s Tum Yeto distribution. It was here that Thomas’ dreams of entrepeneurship came to fruition.

Borrowing half a name from ex-sponsor Zero Sophisto clothing (with Owner Andy Howell’s blessing), Thomas approached Tum Yeto Owner Tod Swank with an idea for a company. “I hoped that if the project didn’t require much of an initial capital investment Tod would be into it. I didn’t really think as far ahead as it succeeding.” But it did-its popularity snowballed, and soon Zero was manufacturing boards, as well.

A 30-second commercial in Toy Machine’s Welcome To Hell gave the skateboarding world their first glimpse of Zero, and created some confusion, as well. Thomas explains: “When we put the commercial together Zero was considered a clothing company, so I had a trick in the commercial. But by the time Welcome To Hell was released we had started making logo boards, so it seemed like I rode for Zero and Toy Machine.” As the fledgling company grew, Thomas became more and more attached to it. Soon after, Zero had its first pro-Jamie Thomas.

Before long, kids all across the country were wearing black jeans and Zero skull T-shirts. Zero’s Billy Weatherford recalls the impact Zero had: “That was the big hip-hop era when Zero first came out and Zero brought back the things that I liked as a kid, skulls and Pushead-y old Zorlac-style graphics. At that point it was really new, now everybody’s kind of on that bandwagon.”

The Tum Yeto Split

In 2000, Thomas decided to remove Zero from Tum Yeto in order to provide a focus and stability he felt it beckoned. “I knew that if running my own company was ultimately going to be my future and contribute to the future of Zero’s riders, I inevitably needed to do it on my own,” recalls Thomas. He wanted to provide an opportunity for his riders-the same way Swank had helped him start Zero.

“If one of the riders really steps up to the opportunity and says, ‘I have this idea for this brand,’ he (Thomas) just wanted to able to offer an avenue for something like that to take place,” adds Weatherford.

Once it was decided Zero was leaving the Tum Yeto umbrella, Thomas created Black Box Distribution in late 2000. “Knowing that move was in the near future,” Thomas explains, “I knew we would need a new infrastructure to run the operations and finance.” While Swank and Thomas hammered out the deal, Thomas began Black Box in Vista, California, where they distributed Matt Hensley’s clothing brand Innes for a year, and then took on the marketing for Zero. Little by little, Black Box took on Zero’s sales accounts and manufacturing. By Spring 2002, Innes had left to pursue their own distribution, and Black Box was busy keeping up with Zero’s success. One year later, Black Box is wholly responsible for all Zero products.

Black Box’s Ambiguous Staff

While it may seem big, Black Box is a relatively small operation. With scarcely over a dozen employees, everyone’s constantly busy. In fact, each employee has so many responsibilities, to put one title on their business cards would discredit them. Weatherford explains: “Everybody’s got their general area that they specialize in, but everybody helps out with business planning and future ideas. We’re all involved to some extent with everything. It’s nice because nobody really feels left out-everybody’s opinion is valued.” Each Black Box employee was handpicked by Thomas himself. Weatherford says, “Everybody here was hired because Jamie had a good relationship with them and knew that they were capable of performing.” This unique structure has helped shape both Black Box and Zero’s success.

“I now see the team and the staff as one and the same, it’s just an extended team,” explains Thomas.

Over the years, Thomas’ role at Black Box has intensified: “I used to primarily only work with the team and the marketing side of things. Now there’s not really anything I’m not involved in. For me, it used to be an afterthought, now it consumes my thoughts.”

Zero and Black Box’s success can be partly attributed to Thomas’ reputation for being a motivator-both with the employees and the team. “The team’s been working harder-they’ve been touring more than ever, more interviews, more covers,” says Zero’s Mirko Magnum. This extended coverage, especially with the release of Zero’s third video, Dying To Live, has kept Zero-and Black Box, in turn-on the tips of retailers’ tongues around the world.

Lessons Learned: Zero Today

Clearly, with any business, mistakes will be made. Asked what lessons have been learned, Magnum replies: “I wouldn’t call anything a mistake, I think it’s all a learning experience. If I’ve learned anything it’s that there’s the same 100 people in the industry, so keep it honest, and keep a good working relationship.” Magnum feels that maintaining a good relationship with others is a key factor in running a good business: “If I were to quit today, that’s what I’d pride myself on. I’ve been in this (the skateboarding industry) for ten years, and every shop or distributor I’ve worked with I could still call and still have a good rapport with them.”

From concept to completion, Thomas feels his vision hasn’t changed at all: “I’ve always dreamed of skating for a team or working at a place where everyone works hard towards the same goal, and every bit of success makes everyone involved rejoice, whether it’s a video or accomplishing our monthly sales projections. I guess Black Box is my dream come true.”

When asked what lessons he has learned, Thomas replies, “To pick and choose my battles-that’s probably the toughest thing to do-it’s not something you can train for, you just have to figure it out as you go.”

And it’s Thomas’ learn-as-you-go attitude, coupled with his determination, that’s become his recipe for success.