Longtime outdoor entrepreneur chases backcountry skiing's Holy Grail

David Ollila, the founder of Viosport (V.I.O), is ready to unveil the Marquette backcountry ski, an all-terrain hybrid that climbs, glides and retails for less $200.
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Creating the winter equivalent of mountain biking has long been a dream for the snowsports industry. A snowshoe that glides, or a skin-less ski that can both climb and slide, could create a whole new generation of backcountry travelers, the argument goes. And now, David Ollila claims that he has created exactly that, all at a retail price of $179.

Ollila, known to many in the action sports industry as the founder of Viosport Camera Systems -- now known as V.I.O. -- one of the original and most innovative brands in the POV video category, told SNEWS in an exclusive interview that during the second week of November, he will unveil his backcountry ski. Built out of his garage in Marquette, Mich., the ski is blow-molded out of polypropylene, glass, silicone and brass. With a unique “upscale” design, Ollila said the ski can climb with slipping, and ski without catching. For now, he plans to offer the ski for sale exclusively on the Internet, and at two specialty retail shops in Michigan.

We asked Ollila about the production process, the potential market for the ski, and why it is that he can’t seem to stop starting new companies.

SNEWS: Thanks for introducing the backcountry ski to SNEWS. It really is a very interesting new product. You say you’ve been working on this idea for 15 years. Why?

David Ollila: The short answer to why is because I’m seldom satisfied with what’s offered off-the-shelf. I guess I’m a tinkerer by nature. I’ve been working on the concept of sliding snowshoes or climbing skis, simply for personal desire. It’s really very simple, I want to be able to explore the woods and hills in the winter much like I do in the summer on my mountain bike. But here in Marquette, skins aren't really the solution. You have to don and doff them every three to five minutes; it’s just not practical. Most existing skis with scales are good for kicking and gliding on relatively mild terrain, but don’t handle the tight woods and steep terrain that we have here. There have been other skis with similar focus over the years, but I’ve simply been unsatisfied with their performance.

SNEWS: What do you think this adds to the market?

Ollila: I think the skis fill a void in the market. I like comparing it to different types of biking. Nordic skiing is like road cycling, alpine/resort skiing is like lift-service mountain biking, and the Marquette backcountry ski is like trail riding. I think the trail riding analogy is what’s missing from the sport right now. Big-mountain backcountry skiing can be intimidating. It’s just not a sport where you go buy a “kit” and head into a mountain range. It takes years of experience to read the weather, learn about avalanche danger and self rescue.

Resort skiing has barriers as well. Mostly the cost, but also the logistics, and personally, I’m not all that interested in sharing my outdoor experiences standing in a lift line with a couple hundred other people. And Nordic skiing on a groomed track is great for exercise, but my adrenal glands seldom kick in. My grandfather used to tell me stories of skiing on barrel staves; I hope I can bring back that type of simple pleasure.

SNEWS: Your production process is as much of a story as the product itself. How’d you discover this, and why do you think it works for skis?

Ollila: It was kind of a serendipitous discovery. Once I decided that I was going to commit to commercializing the ski, I set some fairly tight parameters around the manufacturing process, and more importantly, around how much they should be sold for. Plastic was always on my mind. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge over the years on the molding and manufacturing process, and appreciate the fact that once a mold is made, you can produce a significant volume at a relatively low cost. But it wasn’t until I was restoring an old snowmobile and purchased a set of blow-molded snowmobile skis that I realized the answer was quite literally under my nose.

I think blow-molding works for a few reasons. One, it’s already qualified in the snowmobile market, and two, once dialed in, you can get a very regular and consistent build with a very low labor aspect. Another added benefit to the process is that even after the design has been completed, I can still run variations of the composite or even try entirely new materials to tweak performance.

SNEWS: In this economic climate, and despite your success at V.I.O., this has got to be a tough time to start a company. What’s your investment and amortization strategy?

Ollila: I actually think it’s a great time to start a business. All of this disruption is creating all kinds of opportunity. There is an erosion of the status quo, nothing is a given anymore. It’s an entrepreneur’s dream land.

My investment is comparatively small, tiny in fact. When I shifted back into start-up mode, my goal was to create a series of what I call pocket brands. Or a brand that can go from concept to launch within one year for less than $100,000 with zero employees. I’m just under the year at 11 months and well bellow the $100,000 mark. Therefore, my break-even threshold is not insurmountable. That means I don’t need to force feed the product to the market with overly contrived marketing or through traditional channels. This product could actually be a nice little success story over time just by servicing the local market. But I have a feeling that the ski is going to be used around the globe.

SNEWS: Why are you no longer with V.I.O.?

Ollila: I actually still do some product consulting for V.I.O. but in a much different capacity. Really when it comes down to it, I’m a start-up guy, not an operations guy.

SNEWS: Now that you’re onto your second start-up, what have you learned?

Ollila: This is actually my sixth start-up and I’ve learned that you are always learning. I’ve learned nothing is impossible. I’ve learned that “no” is not an answer if you don’t want it to be. I’ve learned that you will fail 99 times out of 100. I’ve also learned that success is a self-imposed goal.

SNEWS: I imagine the name kind of gives away your first target market, but where and how are you going to start selling the Marquette backcountry ski?

Ollila: For this first season, there are two ways that people can buy the ski. You can come to Marquette and buy it at two of our local specialty retailers or you can buy it online at www.marquette-backcountry.com.

--Peter Kray

On Oct. 6, 2010, veteran journalist Peter Kray joined the SNEWS team and is now editor of the new SNEWS WinterSports channel. We trust you are enjoying the full offering of WinterSports news. Be sure to email your friends and let them know the best WinterSports news has arrived -- just in time for the start of the winter season. Got WinterSports news? Send your WinterSports news to Kray at pkray@snewsnet.com. Subscribers can also post WinterSports news releases directly to the SNEWS website. Email us at snewsbox@snewsnet.com to learn about posting your own news releases, or for any other questions or comments. We love to hear from our readers!

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