Skateboarding’s roots will always be in disruption, as the simple idea of using a “toy” to subvert the intention of architecture for fun is contrarian.
Words and Interview by Anthony Pappalardo
Anyone in skating knows “start-up” culture. In speaking with Villager Goods President Ryan Kingman about his journey in life and business, a throughline in his endeavours emerged and became clear. Kingman’s always been invested in projects whose soul is in skating, but with the intention of answering larger needs.
From scraping the excess paint off skateboard decks in a print shop started by friend Mark Oblow, to following Oblow and Natas Kaupas to their start-up shoe brand Vita, then Element Skateboards, and later Stance socks; Kingman’s been part of some big projects.
Whether it’s shoes, socks, or hard—goods, Kingman’s had a passion for taking on big, yet simple ideas, which is why playing in the beverage space, with the athlete-driven brand Villager Goods, is a logical challenge. What’s also interesting about the coconut water start up, is that it’s a massive statement by the surfers, snowboarders, skaters, and creatives who are investing. Some are literally trading energy drink paychecks to buy into the brand. Villager Goods seeks to grow a community through experience and product, powered by the pursuit of wellness and health, one of the fastest growing lines of business. The list of investors is dense, including Guy Mariano, Eric Koston, Paul Rodriguez, Andrew Reynolds, Jed Anderson, Koa Smith, and Taj Burrow, to name a few.
I spoke to Kingman about the challenges and goals for Villager Goods and just how difficult this new path is, despite many of his friends and peers saying it’s a “slam dunk idea.”
After Vita you were Team Manager for Element skateboards in the late-90s, right before the company exploded. What was that like?
I got exposed to different business opportunities within Giant (Element’s former distributor). Then as they were going through an acquisition, as Element was bought by Billabong, I was privy to the whole process, and at the time it was a really big deal in the action sports world. Obviously there were some negative vibes around the acquisition, as you’d expect when a surf company buys a, ‘core skate brand,’ but at the end of the day it was the team riders who were the backbone of the company. And the success that we had with team riders like Bam was just unheard of.
Tell me about Stance…
That began in 2010, and man, that was another wild ride. Here we are trying to convince people to believe in a commodity. That’s not to say there weren’t other existing sock companies, but we really wanted to be synonymous with the category. So we started in our core community, surf skate and snow and where it is today, it just blows my mind—official on-court sock of the NBA.
With Stance becoming so successful, was it the challenge of entering a new space that sparked your interest in Villager Goods?
I met with a friend Josh Landon, who I’d gotten to know during my tenure at Stance. He started a beer company called Saint Archer. He didn’t know anything about beer at the time, but he’s an entrepreneur and he started this beer company with a band of friends that were all athletes, snowboarders, skaters and artisans. They had considerable success in a really crowded space, and they were recently acquired by MillerCoors. Josh had a concept for a non-alcoholic beverage company. We went and had lunch one day and after an hour, I’m like, ‘That’s great, what can I do to help?’ And he wanted us to do it together.
Everyone has ideas, but executing them, finding the right team, and then the timing is just a part of bringing a new business to fruition. People forget that.
Yes, that’s like anything from the bottom up, everyone’s doing everything. That’s probably the best way to learn. You learn more from your weaknesses, but they’re tough lessons to learn. I’ve spoken about this with Eli Gesner (who founded Zoo York) and one of the most insightful things I found, was the need to bring in someone who understands the financial side of the business. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and asking for help when you need it is vital.
Was one of the things that appealed to you about Villager that the idea is to tell the story through an athlete lens?
I always appreciated the athlete perspective and what they do for brands. They’re the ones out in the streets, doing it. That’s where a lot of the inspiration for a brand comes from, are these ambassadors that live the life that a lot of people aspire to. For us, and for me, I think I’ve always wanted it to be deeply authentic. In this day and age, there’s so much information that’s readily available, you can pretty quickly read into when brands are not doing it authentically. For us, the athletes being the owners/ambassadors is where it all starts.
There are a lot of challenges in marketing coconut water, especially to people unfamiliar with the product. How do you plan to turn people onto the product, as well abut the ethos behind it?
I think that’s one of our biggest challenges. I’m sure some energy drinks struggled with it in their early days as well. For us, it goes back to our ambassadors or ‘Villagers,’ these guys and girls were already drinking coconut water because of the health attributes. So if we can actively portray this message, then that’ll be the best way to turn people on to our product.
How hard is it to get something on the shelves of WholeFoods?
It’s difficult. There’s so much speculation around what’s natural, what’s pure, what’s organic and what message you convey. You need to legitimately be able to back that up. We wanted to be a premium product that’s organic, that’s not from concentrate, that’s well-thought through from a supply chain standpoint, and that’s healthy for you. We also want to make it accessible. A lot of whom we’re speaking to in the beginning is going to be surfers and skateboarders and kids that don’t have a lot of discretionary income. At the end of the day, we want to inform the consumer that you should be cautious of what you put in your body, to expose a younger demographic to what it means to be healthy. It doesn’t have to be so high energy and extreme. Slow down, be present, enjoy life.