August 31, 2006
Skateboard Creator Builds Business on Performance
Don Tashman doesn't look like a skater boy, not with his scraggly, brown hair and three-day-old unshaven stubble that's yet to materialize into a beard.
This religious boy from Beverlywood doesn't even look like a surfer boy -- which he is, as these things usually go hand in hand, along with snowboarding. Tashman certainly doesn't look like the creator and owner of Loaded Boards and Pigeons Inc., the hip skateboarding company that has brought performance boards back to the industry.
No, 31-year-old Tashman doesn't look like a dude, not with his short-sleeved, button-down shirt, untucked over loose, brandless blue jeans, but that's OK, because his co-workers do. The long, lean, sun-kissed blond boys stack skateboards according to styles (Fish, Hammerhead, Pintail, Vanguard) or sit on yoga stability balls at computers, looking like they're playing video games or designing specs -- something that makes them almost as happy as riding a board -- any board: skate, surf, snow.
Tashman doesn't need to look the part of the people he designs skateboards for, because he's got the attitude, for sure -- laid back, imperturbable, chill. These are the qualities that have gotten Loaded a reputation for authenticity in a world clannishly obsessed with it. It's been four years since he founded the company, and Tashman said he can't keep up with demand (he declines to give actual figures) and will be forced to move offices soon from mid-Wilshire, where he shares space with his father and brothers, who work in real estate and futures exchange.
Skateboarding runs in the Tashman family, although not on the paternal side. His mother, who also grew up religious, skateboarded when she was a kid. She was sponsored by a local Velcro company. "She took her old roller skates and nailed them to a two-by-four for her first skateboards," Tashman said. Since he was 3 years old, "she would attach me to my skateboard and pull me down hills and our neighbor's empty swimming pool," he said. "She always wanted me to be a cantor, though."
Tashman didn't become a cantor. He grew up Orthodox, attended Yeshiva University Los Angeles (YOLA) and then moved to New York to become an English major at Columbia University in 1994.
"I was short-boarding and couldn't get around," Tashman said, referring to the shorter boards in vogue then, which were hard to maneuver around the streets of Manhattan. He started developing his own boards for his own use. After he finished college in 1999, he went to study at a yeshiva in Israel. After a few months there, someone convinced him to work as a traveling salesman for an Israeli technology company. He spent a year at that, then, in his wise and quiet way, Tashman cashed out his stock options two weeks before the market crashed in April 2000.
With about $150,000, Tashman spent the next two years developing the boards he'd begun designing at Columbia. Performance was key but so was finding environmentally friendly materials, like bamboo instead of oak.
Tashman said that because he surfed here growing up, he became interested in making the environment better.
"Surfing in L.A. water is to feel the toxicity -- people aren't even aware of it," he said. Although Tashman's is a small company, he believes that if other small companies like his and big ones like GE are more environmentally conscious, "I think we can inspire people to be aware of what they consume, what they use and how they can live more sustainable lives."
In the end, the company created longer, high-performance skateboards, tailored for hills or parks or streets or long distances. The skateboards were unlike the other black-topped, fancy logo boards.
"We had no graphics," Tashman said. "It was the ride first and foremost. Most boards were driven by graphics, and we wanted to separate ourselves."
Separate the company he has, with clean, bamboo long boards that appeal to 20- to 40-year-olds, as opposed to the "17-year-old male from the O.C.," Tashman said. The boards sell for $215 to $300 and are sold in about 350 stores nationwide and have been featured in men's magazines like FHM and Maxim. Loaded is looking into expanding into apparel as well as snowboards, and the prototypes are laying around the office. But the company will always focus on skateboards, Tashman said.
Now that he has established the company for performance-driven boards, Loaded is adding graphics in the form of a bird -- a kite to be precise, a kind of a sparrow drawn sparingly in white and gold on the undercarriage of the Vanguard. "We're seeing what we can get away with, and where we can go with it," Tashman said.
Imagine standing on a high wire, suspended midair and bouncing on it. That's the experience of being on the Vanguard, a long and flexible skateboard designed for stability. There's a sensation of coiled-up energy, as if the rider is a spring ready to be sprung, an arrow ready to be shot -- loaded, like the company name. For Tashman and his five full-time employees, the key to the business is having fun.
"Stoke 'em," is part of the company motto, which, Tashman explains, means, "We're here to get people excited about the underlying excitement, to promote the visceral experience of the flow."
Some people talk about finding meaning in life, and others talk about religion, but for adrenaline junkies, flow is the buzzword. "There is a spiritual thing [about skateboarding] -- the flow, the pure exhilaration of the experience." Tashman also finds inspiration in Los Angeles' Jewish community.
"It's an exciting time to be Jewish in L.A. Jewish culture seems very vibrant -- people are excited about their heritage; it's starting to filter out from New York, and it's like it never was when I was growing up."
Tashman admitted it's unusual to be a religious skateboarder, but he finds similarities between the two worlds.
"My religiosity has existed synergistically with my skateboarding. The visceral sense of flow, the intense personal engagement and the stoke it has generated and allowed me to pass on are enriching. Skateboarding culture has historically exhibited a strong sense of community. Like Judaism, I find that it promotes personal development and environmental awareness," he said.
Aren't they so different, these two separate worlds of Jewish life and skateboarding?
"They go hand in hand -- a big part of skateboarding is how you present yourself," he said. In the skateboarding industry there's always the question of authenticity, whether you're a "core" company -- the rap equivalent of street cred -- or an outsider trying to make a buck.
"I've always skirted the issue. If I can make people excited, great; if not, OK, I don't need to classify myself in a group to achieve that," Tashman said. And that's how he feels about religion. He said he's "traditional, shomer Shabbat" but doesn't define himself as Orthodox. "I do the things I find meaning in, and I don't do things I don't."
"Both worlds can be alienating, in that myopic, or xenophobic tendencies, tend to miss the broader universalist picture," he said. "In my opinion, the need to promote in-group behavior at the expense of creativity and exploration is sad. I can't really be bothered by those approaches -- there's too much fun to be had."