Calgary isn’t exactly world-renowned as a skate city. Serious winters mean seriously short seasons. For Ian Twa, one of our country’s top skate exports, that meant finding ways to head South and ride as often as possible. That led him to a spot on the pro touring roster with Zoo York, and branded boards sporting his name in shops across the continent. More recently he’s taken up residence here on the coast and is grinding his way though a marketing management diploma at BCIT. We sat down with him to talk about the transition from boarding to branding.
When I think marketing, I think suits. When I think skating, I think punk rock. What sparked the move?
The aspect of the skateboard industry that I participate in isn’t exactly contest based as much. I spend a lot of my time working with photographers, and different sponsors to get on team tours and produce magazine coverage and articles and things like that so, how I ended up progressing in the industry was almost purely how I marketed myself through the industry, and how I worked with different sponsors to promote their brands and to promote myself at the same time – whether this was magazine coverage and quantifying the amount of photos I have run with my sponsors logos on them or, releasing YouTube videos and measuring the amount of hits we get from different countries and different demographics…
Specifically my board sponsor, which is Zoo York, the brand manager there, him and me would just kind of sit around at night talking about how so many talented different skaters maybe didn’t make it very far in the industry, whereas maybe somebody with less talent just blew through the industry to such an extreme level. And generally it kind of comes back to how did this person market themselves, what image did they end up selling to the public, what new trends and things like that are the target market and the end user… What really appeals to them, and how are you going to sell yourself to them besides a statistical number that would place you as a better skater or a worse skater within the industry.
So is that then a reflection of the industry – that you have to be able to brand yourself in order to be successful?
Definitely. The skateboard industry is very self-image self-branding reflective. There is a very small portion of the industry that maybe rates themselves on a contest level. But honestly out of a thousand or so professional skaters, there’s probably only about 50 or 100 that really excel in that contest environment. So the other 900+ or so professional skaters have probably sold a personal image, or style, or maybe even a cause behind their image or style to increase their sales with their brands.
What have you learned as pro skater that has transferred to the work you do here at BCIT.
A lot of little processes.. Skateboarding is very big on social media and online presence. A lot of skaters might not realize it to the aspect that I realize it now. Skaters are just “Oh, I’m going to put out a video of my best stuff and hopefully people will like it.” But from a marketing professional’s perspective it’s about ‘how is this measurable and how many people are actually influencing with this video? Did it increase our sales?’ Even the average professional skater might not really read into that stuff – they’re more focused on filming tricks and shooting photos and things like that. So definitely bringing that mentality with me to the business management marketing program, it really helped me understand from the companies’ perspective of what’s quantifiable, that actually benefits them, and how much does it benefit them… how much does it affect their bottom line.
BCIT is notorious for its intense workload. How do you find time to skate?
Honestly, it probably does affect my grades at some moments. Theres just no question about that. BCIT is very intensive with a very extensive workload. I get off school I go straight to the skate park for an hour or two, I talk less to my friends while i’m there and skate more, just because I love the act of skateboarding so much, and then I go home and I study.
And it’s tough. I’m not going on as many trips in the winter. I’ve definitely had to sacrifice a lot of my presence in the skateboard industry to achieve my objectives of grades at BCIT. It’s actually been a very tough transition for me. At moments I have to tell myself, ‘I have to leave the skate park and go home and do homework’ – whereas vice-versa, sometimes after weeks and weeks of term projects, all of a sudden I’m just like ‘for my own sanity and to keep my presence in the industry going I’m just going to put down this school project and go skateboard for a while” – so it’s really a give and take, back and forth.
But having this workload is very tough on an activity that really takes a lot of time to get good and stay good. I’m not a very naturally talented individual. I got to the level of skateboarding I got to by working and skating my ass off every day. I can definitely take a couple days off and not lose tricks and skills or whatever. But I can’t take weeks off or it will show. Whereas I know people who can take weeks off and get back on a board and not blink an eye. But for me being in shcool and being in this intensive full time program, it’s been a very tough give and take relationship between still skateboarding and keeping up with my school studies.
Are you approaching this as a way to further your skate career, or more as a future job?
I’m currently in the sales option and I could see myself definitely taking a career path as a sales representative… At the moment I’m not too concerned about staying in the skateboard industry, even though it is something that I have a lot of knowledge of and I love. The Canadian industry as a whole is actually very small. So there’s kind of a lot of low salary caps for sales reps in Canada. With the sport being very seasonal there isn’t as much time to sell skateboard products as there is maybe in a country like the US.
And even on another level, our population is quite a bit smaller – the state of California has a bigger population than Canada as a whole. So if you’re a rep for a brand, and you only have California, you have a way larger target market and end user with more months of the year to skateboard than if you are a sales rep up here in Canada. And you probably wouldn’t be the sales rep for all of Canada, it would probably be a geographical area like BC and Alberta. So coming out of this program, as far as working for a Canadian distribution goes, you’d probably be overqualified for the job. You could definitely learn a lot, and there’s definitely a lot of smart sales managers working at Canadian distributions and things like that.
Maybe it’s something I will end up doing purely out of comfort or because after driving down a different path for a while it might just be something I come back to for personal interest and knowledge. But I maybe see myself taking a different approach after finishing this program. I’m not exactly sure what it might be but maybe just outside of the lifestyle or skateboard brand industry.
You touched on the differences with the Canadian industry. What’s it like being a Canadian pro in an industry totally dominated by Americans?
So skateboarding in Canada, it’s almost comparable to CFL to NFL. It’s very difficult to become a professional in the American industry even being a Canadian citizen. There’s such a large population of good and young and up-and-coming skateboarders. There’s a lot of states in the US that have a longer skateboard season, it gives them more time to practice, and achieve a higher level of skill than for someone in Calgary who can only skate for four or five months a year unless they have a local indoor skatepark.
Because most of the companies are based in the American industry, the industry as a whole has more money than the Canadian industry does. Almost every city I’ve visited in the US has indoor skateparks. Vancouver ,which is kind of the home base, for the Canadian skateboard industry doesn’t even have an indoor skatepark.
These days its tough, you can be a great skateboarder up in Canada… And from a business perspective, that company is thinking – ‘We’ve got this kid and he’s amazing. But he doesn’t have a green card, we don’t know how the American population is going to respond to him, yeah he’s popular up there in Vancouver, but we’re going to have to spend upward of $5000-$10,000 just to get him a green card, just so we can pay him more money- and then it’s going to cost us $40,000 of advertising just to introduce him to the American market. And if he doesn’t catch on, and he doesn’t sell- it’s a lot of money invested compared to picking up the kid in the county next door and taking him on a couple of trips that way.
You don’t have to worry about working visas, flying someone around the states is much cheaper than bringing a Canadian over the border continuously over the year. And that Canadian can maybe only stay for a three month visa if he doesn’t have working visas and things like that. So there’s a lot of roadblocks, whether it’s seasonality or government regulations and things like that… and there’s just a way bigger pool to pick from down there to begin with, and it’s cheaper to pick one of them then a Canadian rider.
So then how did you get picked up?
Initially, I just dedicated a huge portion of my life to breaking into the American industry. And while I was doing it I wasn’t necessarily thinking ‘I want to go pro, I want to get into this industry.’ As a skateboarder, travelling and skateboarding in new cities with new people is generally highly sought after.
So I actually spent a couple of years in a row working very hard at unpleasant jobs. And generally I would quit my job, maybe rent out the place I was living, or maybe give it up all together and go spend the three month maximum period in the US. For several winters in a row- I went to SF for three winters in a row, for two to three months each time. I spent time in Miam, New York, which I would go to in the summer, because they are seasonal in the way Canada is. And just slowly meeting people and creating a name for yourself and having people remember you. And also just a bit of knowing people, like any industry. I met a couple of people who linked me up with other people, and through trying me out, whether it was through team tours and things like that eventually I placed myself on the Zoo York brand, and they decided to eventually sell a board with my name on it.
What’s your favourite spot to skate in Vancouver?
The Vancouver Skateboard Plaza (featured in video below). It’s actually a park located under the viaduct between Science World and Stadium. The park is generally designed to mimic street skateboarding … which is something where you’re out downtown, building complexes and courtyards and things like that. Very natural, and not as much quarter-pipes and bowl skating, ramps. For the most part, because Vancouver has a bigger season than other cities in Canada and a huge distribution base, Vancouver attracts a lot of the highly skilled skateboarders in Canada. And I believe the plaza as a skateboard park itself attracts a lot of the top skateboarders in the city. In skateboarding, in that aspect, unless you’re at a contest you’re not really competing with each other. But there’s such a high level of skill at the Skateboard Plaza that it constantly pushes you to take your skill to a higher level, whether you’re competing with your friends or just yourself.
Is Vancouver a friendly city for street skating?
People’s mentality here is generally friendly to skateboarding…. but on a whole Vancouver is actually one of the more skate-proof or skate-stop cities that I’ve experienced maybe anywhere. I’ve actually been told – I don’t know if its a fact – that the skate-stopper was invented in Vancouver by an ex-skateboarder that didn’t care about the industry any more. And he initially went around to companies and said ‘I know how to fix this problem.’ Now, construction workers and contractors are just building skate-stops into their new buildings and complexes. And you can actually see it in Vancouver, businesses just jumping on the trend so hard. You’ll actually see money spent on skate-stoppers downtown on something that you’d never actually skate, or is actually unskateabkle to begin with. But they’ve gone through the effort and spent the money on skate stopping them.
You know, going to other cities in Canada, like Montreal, they cap way less stuff. Or taking it even further to places like Barcelona, business security guards will just come out and tell you to come back after it’s closed. They don’t mind you skating the spot, they just want you to do it after. In Vancouver you can experience a security guard who’ll say, ‘Hey, you can’t skate here.’ He doesn’t actually own the building, he’s just a hired security guard, and you’ll say, ‘Well is there a good time when I could come back, if I come back at two or three in the morning when no one is around, is that okay?’
And a lot of their mentalities is, ‘No, it’s not okay to skate here ever – what you are doing is illegal, you can’t skate anywhere.’ And it’s kind of just a dead halt mentality instead of being like, ‘Yeah you can come back at one in the morning when no one is around and skateboard for a little bit.’ I think people have a misconception about how much damage skateboarding actually causes to their property in the long term.
And you can really see that in countries like Spain, specifically cities like Barcelona, where they haven’t skate-stopped spots and they let people skate them. And fifteen years of people skating this spot, and they’ve never had to put the money into redoing their architecture because it’s not that damaged. You know, people have spent more money skate-stopping spots than they would have maybe spent over a 20 years waiting for something to actually get damaged to the point where it needs to be replaced.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen touring as a pro?
Skateboarding is a pretty loose activity – considering it’s an athletic activity and pro skateboarders are looked at as pro athletes. There isn’t a lot of negativity towards drugs and alcohol consumption. You could show up on tour at a new location, and the promoters that actually pay to bring you there are trying to get you to party. Maybe you have a demo the next day that’s being hosted by this promoter, but he’s more concerned about you having a good time at that party on the Friday night before the demo.
That type of mentality is tough, and I think it affects some individuals differently, they get caught up in the party. And they don’t know how to throw down the next day at the demo, or vice-versa, they don’t know how to enjoy themselves and they’re all ready for this demo. And it goes back and forth, because you’re selling yourself and a personal image. You can actually create a higher likeness of yourself just being at that party and saying hello – obviously only to a certain extent of keeping composure of yourself.
Some kids probably think ‘this guy’s got it made – paid to skate, paid to party…’ What’s the biggest misconception about pro skating?
Well definitely for the Canadian industry, that a lot of the sponsored skateboarders in the industry probably actually aren’t making that much money. And from the American industry, how quickly it can all fall away. You get hurt, and you have surgery in a couple of months, and a couple of months after that if it doesn’t look like you’re getting better… All of a sudden your sponsors are going to drop you. They’re going to cut your paycheck and slowly they’re going to cut you from their team. And this might be the same sponsor that was promoting a partying aspect of you as an individual- so all of a sudden instead of your sponsors really looking after you and your best interests, they’re trying to just sell you as they can. If all of a sudden you get hurt and everything gets taken away from you, really all you might be left with is a drinking problem or something like that.
It’s all hearsay towards individuals – a lot of people are smart with their money and they’re putting money away because they plan on starting their own brand or distribution or skate shop or things like that – but really just how quickly it can all fall away. And I think that’s something at the same time that helped make skateboarding what it is because, when I started skateboarding, nobody was making millions of dollars off it. So it was something that I never even really conceived as being something that could be a career. It was just something that I loved and was passionate about and wanted to do.
It’s a give and take industry. You can be one of the hottest skaters in in the industry one minute, and then do something stupid at a demo or a shop signing and get kicked off one of your major sponsors and you could go from making $100k a year to $30k a year like that. Just because you’re a skilled individual and you’re highly qualified to make as much money as that next person, all of a sudden your image and your personal brand is tainted, and you might never climb back to that level again, and a lot of skaters have done things like that – where they’ve salted their own image and their own personal brand, and they’ve gone from being one of these top high-payed skateboarders to being just somebody else around the bottom of the barrel that’s just trying to scrape by and make it.
So we’ve got to ask – what’s it like having a board with your name on it?
It’s a little nerve-wracking in it’s own way. Before I had a board with my name on it, skateboarding for me – despite the fact that I had sponsors that may have had certain obligations of me – I didn’t feel as much pressure to be at a certain level of the industry or produce a certain amount because it was more for myself. And then when I got a board with my name on it, and came monthly salaries and things like that, it kind of put me from a level of comparing myself to the industry around me, the local industry, to comparing myself to the skateboard industry as a whole.
And then at the same time just a lot of positivity – you see a board with your name on it, you get a little hyped up, you get stoked. It makes you want to push yourself that much farther. Overall a very good experience and I feel very blessed to have been given that opportunity when so many amazing Canadian skateboarders – probably some much more naturally skilled than myself – never got that opportunity. whether it was through poor personal marketing or brand imaging of themselves, maybe low work ethic, or maybe sometimes not knowing how to talk to people and work with different people and different segments of the industry.
Before turning to journalism, Simon dabbled in many things.
He earned an honours degree in political science, and still treats elections as if they’re the playoffs.
He nearly started a brewery, and remains a committed beer geek with a well-stocked cellar of vintage brews.
He was a cycling activist, who co-founded East Van Bike Polo and once pedalled from Amsterdam to Istanbul.
He was (okay, still is) a big ol’ nerd who loves pulp film and science fiction.
Now, he writes about these things and others. And he’s committed to bringing you one fine magazine all year long.