Tod Swank: Foundation’s Edge

March 29th, 2004 | 5 Comments | Category: Interviews

Tod SwankTod Swank started Foundation Skateboard Company (the name comes from the Isaac Asimov sci-fi series of the same name) fifteen years ago. That’s no small feat in the cutthroat skateboard industry. Skateboard brands come and go as often as the tides of the Pacific lap the shores of San Diego. He’s since built a small empire, launching such brands as Pig, Toy Machine, Zero, Dekline, and Deathbox, among many others.

The name Tod Swank has been a part of skateboarding history since the early ’80s. Aside from being an industry mogul and organizer, he’s also been a professional skateboarder, a photographer for Transworld Skateboarding Magazine, and an avid ’zine-maker. I clearly remember the first time I saw a Swank ’Zine. A friend of mine in Alabama got one in the mail, and we all rushed over to his house to see it. They were so rare. To us, it was a photocopied piece of gold.

Swank’s house sits on a cliff in San Diego that overlooks Mission Valley and the intersection of Interstate 8 and Highway 163. I rode my bike over there through the sculpted neighborhoods and wide streets one Sunday evening in March. “This is what I do every Sunday,” he said as we settled in to chat. “I usually do yard work, then come out in the garage, have a beer, watch the sun set.”

Roy Christopher: How did Foundation originally come about?

Tod Swank: In 1989, I was riding for Skull Skates, Steve Rocco started World Industries in late ’88, and I went to him because I wanted to ride for World Industries, but he wouldn’t let me. He said he’d help me start a company, but he wouldn’t let me ride for the team. So, I thought about it for a few days and decided to do it even though it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Stayed with him for two years, until 1991, after we did one video — one last effort to see if it would go with those guys. Nothing really happened, and they were getting busy with their other brands, so I told Rocco I was going to do it on my own. He was like, “No problem. Here’s the shop list. You can have whatever inventory’s out there. Gimme a call if you need anything.” There wasn’t much inventory, so it wasn’t a big deal, and he’s always been really supportive. No paperwork: just a handshake deal. So, from 1991, I just ran it. And 2004 is our fifteen-year anniversary because I count those first two years with Steve, because that was the start of the brand.

RC: What’s it take to create a brand?

TS: It’s a team of people really. I mean, Foundation’s been floundering for years financially, but I believe in it. Ed [Templeton] came to me and wanted to do something; I got Josh [Beagle] to start Pig, and we did that together. We work on that together and we work on Foundation together. Ed pretty much does Toy Machine, and Jamie [Thomas] did Zero. Basically we’re the financial resource and the infrastructure support team, so that these guys can make their ideas happen.

RC: But you obviously haven’t said “yes” to every idea, right?

TS: I’ve said “no” to a lot of ideas, and we’ve done ideas that didn’t work out. Poot, our girls clothing company, which was, I think, a little bit ahead of its time, and we didn’t know what we were doing. Landspeed was a big failure.

RC: How did Skateboard.com get started?

TS: Actually, that was one of the failures too. I got it in 1996, along with Snowboard.com and Surfboard.com. At one point, we had like six people working fulltime: two tech guys, this one girl working on editorial, Miki Vuckovich. We were trying to do a bigger version of what Skateboard.com is today: multi-sport, putting companies on the web for them, putting all their products on the web for them, basically doing web development. That didn’t work. Nobody jumped on that one. So, flash-forward to 2000, I just sat on Skateboard.com and let Snowboard.com and Surfboard.com lapse, which was a stupid thing to do. Then I met Chris Mullins and Lloyd Jobe. They came to me. They met up in Seattle trying to think of a new business to do, and Chris had the idea for an e-commerce site. They called me because Chris knew my history. That’s what I was waiting for. I was just sitting and waiting for the right time to come around again to do something with it. Tum Yeto [Swank’s distribution company for all of the brands he’s helped found] sells to all of the mail orders, but they just buy so little. It’s so hard to get your product out there on the market. So, I just thought of Skateboard.com as an avenue — not just for Tum Yeto, but for all companies — to be able to have a better, wider presentation of their products. We do it through technology that lets us buy thin and wide; instead of buying just a couple of items and buying deep, we’re buying a lot of items of a wide variety so that companies have the opportunity to get stuff out there — stuff that might not get out there when dealing with a shop owner or a buyer. The technology that we use just takes it off the website when it hits zero in the quantity field. It just disappears, so people don’t see stuff that’s not available. [We started this] coming up on the beginning of the dot-com crash. So we got a little bit of money to get it going and then the ground fell out from under it. We’ve just been trying to build it, doing everything we can without spending a ton of money.

Just to clarify, Skateboard.com is not a part of Tum Yeto. It’s a totally separate business with a totally separate group of owners. Skateboard.com pays its bills to Tum Yeto just like it does to any other company. I’m officially chairman and mainly VP of industry relations. And that’s really just me trying to keep it on scope with the best interests of the industry. I think Skateboard.com can lend itself to being beneficial not only to manufacturers, but even to retailers. We have different strategies where retailers could use Skateboard.com to bring in additional income because of its wide breadth of products that it has. For the consumer, it’s about getting the right product information, having the best selection, and quality customer service.

RC: Do you ever think of all of this brand-building and doing skate companies as creating culture?

TS: I probably never thought of it until realizing that we’re at our fifteen-year anniversary for Foundation. Foundation’s not the most successful brand out there. I mean, it’s had its heydays, and it’s doing well right now; it’s got an awesome team, and we just did an awesome video — probably our best ever. We couldn’t even reach the point we’re at right now without going through all the trials and tribulations. So, realizing that it’s our fifteen-year anniversary and realizing that there is somewhat of a culture surrounding it. — I never intended that. I just wanted to be a part of the skateboarding culture, but at the same time you end up building loyalty and people who are really into it because it’s done something different. So, that’s pretty awesome to think about.

It’s always been a really independent, fragmented, and almost selfish industry. I get torn thinking about the purity of skateboarding and the culture of skateboarding, and selling out skateboarding to bigger things. But the way I see it, skateboarding will always have its purists, and people who want to skate however they want to, and they’ll always do that no matter what else happens. Potential future benefits are only going to happen if we take the reigns. It sickens me sometimes looking at payroll checks to riders. These kids are out there killing themselves and I wish there was a way that we could calculate it out so that they would reap the benefits of what they’re doing.

Skateboarding is just too small. Here we are in its third downturn and it’s been around forty years. It sucks how small it can get. I recently met with my CPA, who works with all kinds of other industries, and I asked him about the change in the climate of our industry compared to other industries. He said, “This is gnarly. I don’t see this anywhere else. You’re going through a huge, huge change in such a short period of time.” And it’s not just Tum Yeto; it’s the whole industry. I think that if we had our shit together as an industry, this kind of down cycle wouldn’t be as significant. And it goes back to the riders and what they’re getting out of it. People don’t realize that if we’re not making money, nothing’s going to happen, no one’s going to get paid, everyone’ll just skate on their own because they love it. But wouldn’t it be better if we could go skate, love it, and get paid? That’s the dream job!

RC: Where did all of the previous era’s infighting come from?

TS: I think the crux of it was when Rocco started and busted up the Big Five of the ’80s: Powell, NHS, NorCal, Tracker, and Vision. Those guys didn’t talk to each other. They were at war with each other. There was no working together for the benefit of the industry. I wasn’t there. I didn’t sit next to these guys and hear what they had to talk about or anything, so I don’t really know, but because we haven’t had an association this whole time, just makes me think “okay, well, they didn’t do shit” basically. So, when Rocco started World Industries, what he really did was liberate skateboarding so that it could move forward. He helped a lot of people start companies, not just me. He lent money and gave advice to a lot of other skateboarders who wanted to start companies. He wanted to see the industry run by skateboarders. The funny thing is, here we are ten years later or whatever, and all of the guys that are running the companies, are guys that I skateboarded with or knew before any of us even fathomed that we were going to be working in the industry. So that’s a pretty cool bond, and there’s been pretty good communication between all of these guys, and we talk about how to make things better overall. If the industry’s strong, it’s going to be better for everybody. And then it comes down to having that competitive edge of doing a better job than the next guy. But if the industry overall is doing shitty, it’s not going to do anybody any good.

I’ve been watching hip-hop culture, and I’m pretty amazed by it. The music is so different, the videos are awesome, and the movement is just full of good, creative energy, and the industry around it is just amazing. They maintain their fan base even though they’re selling everywhere and they all have clothing companies that sell in all the major department stores. I think, “God, I wish skateboarding could do that!” And someone might say that that would suck and it would mean skateboarding sold out, but how can they do it and still do cool things and still be edgy and still make a ton of money? When everybody’s making more money, the pie just gets huge and everybody’s doing better. That’s what I’d like to see. Then I wonder if it’s the right thing for skateboarding. I wonder if it’s supposed to be organized. But then I always come back to the team riders and what they’re getting, all these guys who are doing such amazing things on their skateboards, and what they’re getting out of it, and it’s shit. It’s a joke. It’s a shame. That’s one thing that keeps pushing me to try and see skateboarding do something different. The industry has to evolve. If we’re working together, we can dictate what is presented out there. And then we can reap the benefits of it. If we don’t organize as a group and be unified, then someone else is going to do it and they’re not going to do something that’s in the best interest of skateboarding. They’re going to do something that’s in the best interest of what they’re doing right now. Fuck those guys. We can do it. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do it.

RC: Any final thoughts?

TS: Skateboarding has always amazed me, because the couple of times that I thought it had reached its limit, it always moved on. I totally gave up that way of thinking. Skateboarding right now is at a point that it’s never been before — ever — so we should really be stoked about that and keep pushing for what’s in its best interest overall. It does amazing things. It turns out amazing people who are creative and interesting and have great ideas. It’s amazing when you watch TV or look at magazines for other sports and see the sweating-out of skateboarding. It’s all over the place. I’m not saying that skateboarding should be on TV, or maybe I am. Maybe part of it should, because if that part of it is, it’ll help the rest of it. All of those pool guys, and all of those guys who don’t care about any of that shit would have more resources. If the companies could afford to have their few guys that go to contests, their few guys that are their style guys because kids look up to them, and then they have their core group out there that deserves to be backed up, but doesn’t really get backed up. These guys are purists, and they do it on their own, and they work their jobs. I’d love to have a team that was just that group of guys who just love skateboarding and go out and skateboard. Maybe if skateboarding was bigger, I could fund that more.

I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’d like to get to a point where I could sit back and relax and enjoy it, because I get so wrapped up in working and whatever’s going on. It would be nice to be able to enjoy it more, go out and ride more.

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