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Interview with evo founder Bryce Phillips

Bryce Phillips is easily one of the most influential figures in the Northwest snow-riding scene. Founder of Seattle’s evo ski and snowboard shop and online retailer, he’s played a vital role in fostering a vibrant snow-sports community, cultivated largely through his entrepreneurial spirit, core company values and passionate staff.  Phillips launched in 2001 and opened a brick-and-mortar shop in 2005. The location quickly became a central hub—a welcoming hotspot—for the local snow-lusting tribe through its events, parties and premieres. Evo celebrated its 10th anniversary this past weekend with a blockbuster party, and before it went off, I sat down with Phillips to get a peek behind the curtain of his iconic brand.

Ten years—that’s a huge accomplishment for a core shop given this lingering bad economy. What do you credit for evo’s growth and success?

A number of things. I think there was a huge market opportunity. We saw, at least locally, there was a need to really anchor the community. Everybody we knew went up to the mountains, there were some great stores out there for sure, but there seemed to be an opportunity to really bring all these different elements together. Within our space, we do a bunch of movie premieres, art galleries, non-profit benefits.

Also, ski and snowboard had never really been done well together. When we opened our store, it was still pretty surprising to a lot of people for the two to have equal footing.

What helped fuel the growth, too, was the web. The web in 10 years has changed commerce in a big way. That allowed us to really scale things up. It’s amazing what you can do when you start cranking—you can get the back-end of the business dialed in.

Photo: Alex Obrien

The company recently published a catalog. Why the decision to go to print?
If you think about walking into the store, you get an experience of the brand; you can walk through and see it. On the web, you land on a product page and, [there], it’s hard to make sure that the viewer really gets all that evo’s about. The catalog’s a great way—a kind of tangible medium—to be able to tell the whole story. It just really rounds out the way in which we communicate with the customer—allows us to say something about the brand, the personality of the company, but put forward product that we think is new and exciting.

What’s that story you’re trying to convey to customers?
That the business isn’t just about buying and selling products. We do that, and that’s what drives the company and allows us to grow, but there’s so much more. We look to tie in the cultural elements that make up the lifestyle: the music, the art, the opportunities we have to give back. We’re passionate about all those other things outside of just the gear itself. What really has driven so much of the passion behind us is the fact that this is what we love, what we live and breathe, and that shines through to the customer.

Proudest moments as a company so far?
There’s one by far: We had a woman named Christine Koller [who] ran our merchandising team. In April of ’08 she got sick and ended up passing away in four months because she was HIV positive. It was a weird mix of emotions but the thing that I was really proud of was to see the team step up at every level. There was no pause or hesitation. And we’d always said that’s what we were about as we were growing and having fun—that we were a family—but when you actually see that [effort] at every level, you’re like “Whoa.” That was huge. All the other things are cool milestones … but when I really think of proud moments, the Christine time is what really stands out.

Biggest challenges over the 10 years?
We’ve had plenty. We had a terribly challenging couple of years starting when Christine got sick in 2008. We were looking to open a new distribution center which was going to be internally operated, and that’s like open-heart surgery on a retail business—open up a D.C. when 90 percent of your business is on the web.

And then that December in retail shit hit the fan, the economy crashed. We had, literally, the imperfect storm. Everything that could happen, hit us that year. It tested us to the core. There’s already this operational and financial canyon you need to cross in retail and we were crossing it and all these external factors hit us as the same time. We came out the other side really strong and it came down to the people. But I believe we’ll look back and say that was the defining time for evo.

You were still hosting events during that time. From the outside, we couldn’t tell.
Oh yeah, we did some things that we look back on that were some of the coolest things. We never scaled back to not being evo. We had to make some hard decisions and say no to a few things, but you still have to stay true to the good things that got you to where you are.

Photo: Tim Burke

Which companies do you admire and take business cues from?
There are businesses that I have a lot of respect for in different ways—from a cause [standpoint] and a brand [standpoint]. I think Patagonia is amazing; they’ve made their brand synonymous with preserving the environment. REI is solid—they’re $1.6 billion, multi-channel; they’re a co-op, which is cool. I think an amazing brand is Red Bull, the way they infiltrate these tiny niche communities and become as credible as anybody.

Business people like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates—people that are really changing the world in a positive way with their wealth, making their companies synonymous with whatever cause they’re passionate about. That’s amazing.

You’ve taken initiative to do the same with evo, right?
As we can be that preeminent brand within our category, it creates an opportunity for us to have an impact, give back, do things that are good for the community. We have more opportunities to work with at-risk youth. At evo, we support whatever [employees] want to get behind, but growing up, a number of experiences that I had and things that I’ve been involved in, that’s where I wanted to focus my energy.

We’ve done partnerships with Seattle Children’s Home, The Service Board, Big Brothers Big Sisters. I actually just became a big brother. But we’re just scraping the tip of the iceberg. There’s a passion around it, but the execution of it and making our brand synonymous with it is still what we have to accomplish.

Fremont shop. Illustration from evo.

As a store, what are you focusing on for the future?
We want to do what we’ve done, just way bigger. The opportunity is just massive. In the grand scheme of things, our web presence is strong but small—we see that as an opportunity. The more people we can touch, the more we can bring into the fold, means the more we can share our passion for what we do and really inject a level of energy and excitement into this sport and the industry.

Our store is awesome:  We took an old warehouse and turned it from what it was into what it is. It’s been fun, but we’re all like, “K, what’s next?” We see big opportunities [to open new locations]. We really want to round out the experience to all of our customers on a national level, and then beyond—so that leads to all kinds of things on the radar.

You ski for K2. How would you describe the NW ski and snowboard scene?
When people outside think of great skiing and snowboarding, they think of Colorado, Utah, Tahoe—marquee destinations—but having skied in a bunch of those places, Washington is incredible. The terrain is absolutely out of control. I lived in Whistler for six years and I’ve traveled to a lot of the major areas around the world to ski—and Washington is special. People here know how awesome it is: the mountains, the snow-pack, the views. Snowboarding basically is from Washington, right? And in skiing, with K2 based here and so many passionate enthusiasts…. It’s not a scene, that’s for sure. It’s not a ski town like you think of ski town, but in a way it is.

What’s been most rewarding about watching evo grow?
Hearing other people speak on evo. I could talk all day about it, but what matters is when people give others the feedback. I had a guy come up to me once and say, hey I don’t think we’ve met before but I want to introduce myself: I met my wife at your first anniversary party. I got a lump in my throat. Here’s this guy thanking me because he met his wife at an evo event. It was the coolest thing ever. That kind of stuff is priceless.

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