LESSON 2: Pay your dues

By June 15, 2015 5 Comments


At one point, even the most seasoned skateboarding veterans were the new kid. We all had that moment when we showed up at the local spot for the first time, wanting desperately to fit in and be accepted by the cool older kids. Which of course never happens right off the bat: instead they vibe you for sucking, having a dumb haircut, and anything else they can think of. But if you really love skateboarding, you keep coming back, paying your dues until you’ve earned your place.

Footage from “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography,” which you should definitely check out in full

My favorite example of this is Tony Hawk. While today he’s an icon who is all but universally respected, that was definitely not always the case. At the beginning of his career, he was the new kid. In stark contrast to the super cool punk rock guys of the previous generation who had smooth, spectator-friendly styles, he was a dorky, gangly kid pushing a style of super-technical skating that was not well received at first. He was straight up laughed at and clowned by the big names of the previous generation, and they weren’t gentle about it. As the infamous Duane Peters put it, “I didn’t like his style, he was just an annoying little fuckin’ kid with way too many pads on.”

Most of us would have quit skateboarding in the face of that or at the very least changed our style, but Tony didn’t and the rest is history: he’s the most iconic, successful skater of all time. Debates about whether you like technical skating or not aside, the point is that Tony got to where he is by sticking it out and paying his dues. He took his lumps from the old guard for literally years, until he became so undeniably excellent that they eventually not only accepted him but held him up as one of the sport’s all-time greats.

Another one of my favorite examples is motocross legend Seth Enslow, whose story is basically that he showed up as some random kid from New York with dubious skills and just kept doing insane shit until people finally accepted him. Today he’s a record-breaking icon of FMX, but like Tony Hawk, it took years of dues-paying for him to get there.

nike sb stairs

There are a lot of broader takeaways here for business, but let’s focus on what it means for one of the most common challenges in business: developing a new market. I look at market development/expansion fundamentally as community plays. You’re introducing yourself to a new group of people, and asking them to accept your brand as a part of their community.

Just like the new kid who wants to be part of the local skate scene, the key for brands who want to expand into new markets is simply to pay their dues, to stubbornly refuse to go away until they’ve proven themselves as a valuable part of the community. It sounds simple, but I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen companies try something once or twice, get underwhelming results, then declare it a failure and walk away from the idea (only to repeat this same cycle again and again, and wonder why they can’t grow).

It’s a testament to how committed Nike is to giving SB an authentic voice that they have an entire campaign devoted to essentially mocking stick-and-ball sports (the roots of Nike itself)

In my opinion, no company is better at paying their dues than Nike. I remember when they first entered skateboarding in the late 90s, and were all but laughed out of the scene by skateboarders. It probably sounds hard to believe today, but at the time, the idea of Nike creating a skate brand was absurd. But they stuck it out and paid their dues, slowly but surely introducing better products, signing highly-respected names like Paul Rodriguez and Eric Koston, and importantly, publicly admitting when they fucked up. They ate a lot of shit for a lot of years, but it paid off: today Nike SB is one of the biggest and most respected brands in skateboarding.

Developing a new market is never easy. It takes a lot longer than you think it will, and you are inevitably going to make a lot of mistakes along way– and that’s OK. Take your cues from Tony Hawk and Seth Enslow: just keep showing up, paying your dues, and it WILL pay off.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • cxj says:

    Another great post, but I wonder if a lot of successful people bypass the due paying by simply winning the hype lottery these days? I know bands like Terror have commented that they shared a tour bus with a band on their third tour, while they worked for years to get to the same level. Any opinions on this?

    Also, I’m fascinated that Nike is a major skateboarding brand. I’ve been out of the loop in skateboarding since about 2001, but am told there have been mindblowing advances in the sport.

    • Finn McKenty says:

      Yeah, it’s true, some bands/brands “jump the line” via the hype train, and good for them. You can’t fault them for taking advantage of the hype, right? So yes, very rarely some people do get to skip the dues-paying part, but that is most definitely the exception not the rule, and you should always assume that you’ll have to pay your dues.
      The other thing is that oftentimes “overnight” successes aren’t really overnight– for example, a brand might get shelf space at a big retailer like Zumiez and it seems like they came out of nowhere, but if you know the company’s actual history, it’s likely that they were toiling away in obscurity for years before they got their big break.

      • cxj says:

        “The other thing is that oftentimes “overnight” successes aren’t really overnight… it’s likely that they were toiling away in obscurity for years before they got their big break.”

        This is a great point, many bands are like this too, where the members have been in and out of unsuccessful bands for years before joining/forming one that becomes popular, and then not actually making that much money anyways lol. And then people randomly accuse bands like Xibalba of being “hypecore” when in reality Nate had been booking shows ANY hardcore band for 7+ years and having to play Sound and Fury before they actually let people into the venue etc before getting recognized.

        Also agreed, if a band sounds awesome, no reason to get mad at them for being popular without slogging through the trenches.

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