Although Huntington Beach may be known as the surfing capital of OC (and arguably the world), it's also home to the only snowboard factory in Southern California. But rather than crafting snowboards to ship out to various shops and online retailers, the guys at Signal Snowboards are working with a different model.
Instead of forcing you to drop a few hundred bucks at the beginning of winter for a new board that may end up sitting in your closet for several months, Signal is the first brand to sell them on a subscription basis. For $35-$55 per month, you get a new board every year, free replacements and tuneups whenever you need them, and everything else you could possibly need to shred wherever and whenever you want.
"About three years ago, I got into all of these subscription models and started thinking about how we could use it in the snowboarding industry to benefit the riders," says Dave Lee, the former professional snowboarder who founded and runs Signal. "Once you sign up, we'll ship your board within a week. Every subscription comes with Signal Care, and I really love our MOD [Members Only Demo] program that allows riders to try out different boards in the line for two weeks out of the year. It's all about the riders for us, so we want to create this new culture with where we're heading."
But beyond just getting a new board every 12 months, Lee and his crew want their customers to be able to sample their other products as well. That's the reason the subscription also includes the MOD program; for one week twice a year, riders get a taste of something else for free (and don't have to ship their own or rent a crappy board if they go on vacation). In addition to providing the boards, Signal also gives subscribers their decades of expertise for everything they might need to know for their next trip.
"The next layer is the concierge-style customer service that we have," Lee says. "A lot of people want to know exactly how to set them up or how to tune them or how to keep them for the summer, and we want them to feel like they have a place they can trust with us. They might be traveling somewhere they've never been and want some advice on where to ride there or what restaurants are good. Everything is tailored and open enough that the community can continue to build on itself. That's where this is all headed."
"It makes it fun on the customer service side of things because people are challenging us to see if we know things," says Signal's COO, Billy Anderson. "It's pretty funny the things people will ask, and I think as dedicated snowboarders we kind of have the East Coast, West Coast, and everything in between covered. If we don't have the answer, we'll figure it out pretty quick. In snowboarding, we've got that Kevin Bacon six degrees of separation going on."
The whole package is really just Lee's way of creating something that he and the rest of Signal miss from their days as a young rider: the local boardshop culture. Snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, and so many other action sports used to be based around the communities formed at the only place in each town where people really knew and cared about the sport and the lifestyle surrounding it. With the industry resigned primarily to automated web pages and giant chain stores, shopping for the perfect snowboard just doesn't have the same personal touch that it used to (and that can still be found in skate shops scattered throughout the country).
"With the consolidation of a lot of the core snowboard shops, it's really hard to find a place where you can talk to people and get the answers that you need," Anderson says. "If we can communicate with people online, on social media, and all of that, then we can build that in-store experience for everyone. We can make that community accessible no matter where you are."
With seasoned veterans like Lee and Anderson at the helm, Signal is as poised as any snowboard brand (other than maybe a super-recognizable and established name like Burton) to take the industry in a new direction — particularly since it stems from a desire to return to an older part of the snowboarding culture. But as with any company looking to carve a path away from the pack, there were plenty of times when Lee doubted his decision to pull Signal's boards out of retail stores. Limiting customers' options for buying their boards is still a gamble for the Huntington Beach-based company, but so far the response to their program has been exactly what they're looking for.
"The most difficult part was getting off of retail as a small brand," Lee says. "We had to do that over time, because we didn't want to just launch the subscription service while we had our boards in all of these shops. We weened ourselves off for three years. We took a huge hit and a huge risk by leaving that model behind, but I think that's why this is going so well for us is because we did it right. We've been building this program, and we've been building other things to replace our income while we were getting ready to launch this service. I feel really good about how we did it."
"We joke about how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and as a small snowboard brand, it's really hard to launch," Anderson adds. "With the subscriptions, it's a different model. It's a chance for us to do something different and be disruptive. For a youthful anti-establishment industry, action sports have really fallen in line year after year. If our model works, it can be really successful, and if we fall on our faces, then we learned a lot about business and each other. Right now it's a fun process that's working."
After over a decade as a modestly growing small snowboard brand, Signal may have found an unoccupied spot in the increasingly saturated snowboarding. Since launching their subscription model in September, Lee's found that the brand he started as an artistic passion project in 2004 is looking at a whole new market for the future. Snowboarding no longer requires a serious chunk of a paycheck to get started (or even just to buy a new board), and that's exactly what Signal's counting on to keep their boards flying off of the factory's shelves.