Failure

How One Entrepreneur Survived Five Years of Errors

Only now is this company poised to make money.
How One Entrepreneur Survived Five Years of Errors

Cyrus Schenck atop Stowe Mountain Resort.

Image credit: Bobby Fisher
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This story appears in the November 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

In 2011, my five pals and I were driving home from one of our weekend ski trips in Vermont. We were engineering students at the time and used to throw out all kinds of ideas during those three-hour drives. On this one day, my friend Donny suggested building skis that were based on engineering principles and thus unequivocally better. We loved the challenge. Surely we could build a better ski.

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During my material sciences class, I learned about a rare class of soft materials that harden the instant you apply force, which meant we could produce a ski that was soft in powder but stiff in icy conditions. We made a sample and ran some tests, and the numbers were astonishing: Because of the variability of their dampness (a ski’s ability to adapt to conditions), our skis were 300 percent better than anything on the market. The other guys stayed in school, but I quit and took the lead on product development. I also had a side business washing residential windows, and every dime I earned went toward building Renoun. One of my clients had some business experience and was curious about my friends -- what do they do, exactly? I explained that they’d launched the brand with me. “But what do they do now?” he asked.

The truth is, I was doing all the work. They were still in class while I was trying to get a product to market. It didn’t bother me until I realized investors saw them as liabilities. That was the first really difficult decision. I called each guy individually and said I would quit Renoun if they didn’t sign over their shares. Some guys were hurt -- and understandably so. But in time, every one of them relented. It’s a testament to how awesome they are. By handing over their stakes, they allowed me to keep going.

Related: This Startup Launched Without Titles Or an Organizational Structure. Here's What They're Doing Now.

I set out on sales missions, but they were disastrous. I visited Japan, the second-biggest ski market in the world, and my translator never showed, so I tried, and failed, to sell skis with hand gestures. I flew out West to visit every ski shop I could, and left with nothing. Everything I’d learned about the industry started eating away at my confidence: The market was saturated, and to make a profit through retail stores, I’d need to sell about 20,000 skis. I’d sold zero.

If I was going to flame out, I thought, I’d flame out hard. I spent the last $300 in my bank account driving to Denver for a trade show. And on the way, a string of good news rolled in: An investor I’d been working with wired me money. Then test results on our latest skis came in: They showed the best dampness numbers yet. And then the ski industry’s most prestigious show, called ISPO, gave Renoun a gold medal for innovation. I reached Denver on a high and hung a banner over our booth: ISPO gold medal winner. We earned some publicity in a couple of ski publications and The New York Times wrote about us. Even so, I received exactly zero orders at that trade show.

Soon after, I nearly lost the business because a design firm played me for a chump. I’d put a 75 percent deposit down on some graphic work for the skis, and I’m pretty sure they saw me as an easy paycheck and handed the work to an intern. After they failed a few revisions, I enlisted a second firm to advise me on how to handle the problem. I was throwing good money at bad, and I overshot my marketing budget by 300 percent -- and the delays meant I didn’t have skis ready for the start of ski season. I had to continue washing windows to keep the company afloat. 

The 2015-2016 ski season was Renoun’s first real one on the market. I landed in a couple of ski shops, which seemed great -- but after visiting one undercover, I realized the sales reps had no clue how to explain our technology. So I decided to sell exclusively through our own website. That would change the economics entirely: With retail, I needed to sell 20,000 units just to break even. Now my margins would be much higher, and I didn’t have to spend money educating in-store salespeople. 

I’m discovering other perks to being small: I’m able to create buzz with limited-run products, like our “Feel the Bern” ski, which doubled Renoun’s email list in 48 hours, even though everyone told me to steer clear of politics. I’ve decided that the key to success is following my gut. People say to sell through shops, and I say no. They say avoid controversy, but this year I’m selling a "Hillary versus Trump" ski. Our skis are expensive -- $1,200 versus the industry average of $600 -- so we’re not going to pinch pennies or take investments from people who want us to grow fast and sell out.

Related: 3 Entrepreneurs on Their First Big Mistake

I expect 2016 to be Renoun’s first profitable year. We have nobody on payroll -- not even me, technically -- but I have a dedicated group of designers and suppliers who work on contract to keep the brand going. I can’t say for sure that the worst struggles are behind me, but I’m becoming less beholden to my window-washing gig. With any luck, I’ll soon be able to hang up the squeegee.  -- As told to Clint Carter

Edition: December 2016

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