“It took me years before I could even start THE process of forgiving myself for allowing things to continue as long as they did and hurting people as a result, including my own family.” Justin Stephens on the fall of his Company Wakeboards
Justin Stephens is an innovator, he was at the forefront of many wakeboarding media movements that we take for granted now. His full-length features such as Relentless, Metronome, Boombox & Push-Process set new standards for movie production, and his partnership with Liquid Force Films was unprecedented at the time, but then he made a decision that was to change his career, life, and friendships for good. Out on his own, his ‘Company Wakeboards’ brought A new approach to both products and marketing. Sadly though, it didn’t last. But in that loss, was there something that Justin Stephens found?
Lets talk about Liquid Force Films first. How did you get into the industry and ultimately end up with LF?
My core connection to the industry has always been as a rider, first and foremost. I was exactly that kid who was reading the mags cover to cover, wearing FLF Films VHS tapes out, and spending time in local board shops because I just couldn’t get enough. That foundation of energy, understanding and love for riding has always carried me.
Early on I always considered myself a snowboarder who would wakeboard during the summers. It was the perfect crossover for me… Wake eventually began to consume me though. I worked for a board shop in Vegas before I turned sixteen and met a lot of the local industry reps etc. because of it. It was the first time that I started to see the other side of the coin. I eventually crossed paths with local reps like Lance Gilman and Paul Hymas who were always very warm and kind to me. They took care of me as a regional rider in Las Vegas, in both snowboarding and wakeboarding, and ultimately they connected me to people like Don Wallace at Liquid Force. Everything just snowballed from there!
By snowballed you mean into a relationship with LF?
Yeah. One of my earliest independent film projects was focused entirely on Shawn Watson, who at the time was still pretty new on the scene. Don Wallace helped us connect some dots with this project, and that was actually the beginning of the Liquid Force relationship for me.
Over time as I produced more films independently, an understanding grew between Don and myself that we needed to work more closely together. The idea for Liquid Force Films ultimately surfaced because of that, and things just sort of shook out from there. Initially it was bittersweet for me, because I was extremely excited to focus on LF’s story and team, but it also meant that I wouldn’t be able to work with the other riders that I was filming outside of LF. It was a decision that I made to be able to better support my family, and to better innovate filmmaking within the industry at the same time.
Ultimately though, you didn’t stay at LF. You started Company Wakeboards, which was essentially in direct competition with them. How did that come about, and what was the reaction from your friends at LF?
I never felt like I was capable of launching a new brand completely on my own, and actually pitched launching something new to Don over the course of a few years. I can’t imagine that he would have been that surprised when I eventually moved on to make it happen on my own. I don’t know though…It didn’t just happen immediately. I actually parted ways with LF to focus on Push Process first, and then Company surfaced shortly afterwards.
Even though I was somewhat discouraged by certain things, LF was still my family, and it felt right at the time to talk to them about this. I had zero intention of trying to hurt anyone or becoming a competitor of any sort to them. They were also the only ones that I knew who seemed capable of supporting a movement like this. The initial idea was that it would be an exclusive LF sub-brand of some sort. I was pretty uneducated at the time as to the reasons why the idea didn’t make sense to them. So eventually I just took things upon myself to do something about it because it became clear that it was not going to happen otherwise.
So what ultimatley caused you to do something about it?
As a kid I was constantly taking things apart and putting them back together just to see how things were made. As a filmmaker I was in a unique position where I was seeing both sides of the coin pretty regularly: from the rider’s point of view and from the brand’s point of view. I was right in the middle; from my perspective the riders seemed to be innovating way faster than the product was, so I started to feel like I needed to do something about this. I started to develop an opinion over time that there had to be a better way to do things across the board.
I tried to bury this feeling over the course of about three years, but it kept surfacing… I had to do something. All I wanted to do was innovate. I wanted to find better and more efficient ways of doing things, and in the end just improve everyone’s experience on the water. I knew that if we could focus on those things then everything we needed to be successful in our mission would surface over time. We wanted to be the riders’ brand. So with Company, focusing on the feeling that riding brings is what everything pointed to for us.
Did you have a falling out at the time? Do you talk with Don now?
Of course it made things difficult at the time because we went from working together to essentially working for competing brands, but we always had a mutual respect for each other. We work in different industries now so we don’t cross paths like we used to anymore, but I still very much consider Don a friend. I’ll never forget those days. Ever.
Who was involved with Company? Did you start it yourself? Did you have investors or riders involved?
I had originally talked with Shawn Watson. His contract had expired at the end of the previous year, so as soon as he was in the clear we got to work and moved pretty fast to get things going. But LF came back and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, so we parted ways and continued forward on our separate paths. I remain very much grateful for his friendship though, and I always will be. This goes without saying I think, and his friendship means more to me than just being a part of my foundation. It goes beyond the industry.
Around the same time that this all went down though, Gregg Necrason and Tino Santori both stepped in on a large level to help support our efforts in moving forward… then we all knew that we were really onto something when Randall agreed to come on board. That was a big day for all of us, and our dream team would only continue to shape from there. Not only were our team riders the best in the industry, but our engineering and design team was second to none, our factories made miracles happen, and our media partners showed us a tremendous amount of support as well. Our entire team both inside and out was honestly a dream!
You had what you say was a great support team. What was the overall plan from that point?
We focused on scratching our own itches and trying to solve problems that it seemed like other brands were not solving. We focused on the strength of our riders and team. We had amazing talent across the board. It was crazy. It was literally a dream. We had the best of the best working together to develop and build the best. This seemed to translate into the market more and more over time, and I think that people were starting to really feel it.
Did you do all of the artwork, logos, catalogues etc. for Company? What is your background? Graphic design? Filming?
I communicated vision and I was the creative director, but didn’t actually execute the design myself. I would shoot some of our product photos and stuff like that, but my time was very much focused on brand development and operations. I had spent a lot of time working on my own design prior to Company, so I understood and loved the process. I had a pretty specific vibe that I wanted the brand to reflect, and was fortunate enough to work with some amazing designers (friends) who jumped in with us to make the magic happen. I’m sure I drove them crazy from time to time, as I’m pretty obsessive compulsive about creative things… my fingerprint was on literally everything that went out the door in one way or another.
I thought your image was really solid—amazing graphics and marketing. From the outside it seemed to be working, but then it kind of fell apart. What happened? Why didn’t it go further?
Initially we didn’t have a strong enough foundation to support our launch. In hindsight we probably should have waited until we did, but I personally had no reason to believe otherwise at the time. You go into business with people you trust, and I think that was my largest weakness during everything—I trusted people that I didn’t really know that well, I trusted too quickly. Don’t get me wrong because I am indeed grateful for our initial investments… There were just certain financial commitments and expectations that were not able to be made, which created a wedge in the business partnership that ultimately became our cancer over time.
Financially and/or emotionally, was it worth the stress?
Very much on the emotional side, yes. I am very proud of what we accomplished together and what has become a foundation of strength and experience for me personally and professionally. My bandwidth and capabilities as a human grew tremendously during this time. No question.
On the financial side though, no. Even though we were growing fast as a business, everyone began to lose quickly when my business partnership went south, a lot of people lost out because of it. It took me years before I could even start the process of forgiving myself for allowing things to continue as long as they did and hurting people as a result, including my own family. We lost everything and have had to literally start over from scratch. No exaggeration. It has been scary and extremely difficult.
You lost everything. Do you feel like you at least made your mark? Do you think Company left a legacy?
Big picture…? Yes. I very much feel like we left a positive mark on the industry. I feel like it was more of an underground/behind-the-scenes impact that it left in the hearts of riders and industry people though, rather than in the market overall. We hadn’t completely reached the market at mass levels yet, so there are a lot of people who don’t even know that Company ever existed… We really had something though, and trying to replicate it again would be nearly impossible…if not completely.
Would you do it again? And if so, what would you do differently?
That’s a good question. My heart tells me yes, but the pains of the world tell me no. If I had any advice for someone who wanted to do something like this, it would be to identify and clarify all partnership expectations in advance, and then hold each other 100% accountable on producing those results. If not, those people need to move on.
Right, so that is the somewhat negative out of the way, what about the positive? You obviously had a positive experience at Liquid Force, but what was the best one?
Getting recognized by everyone at an LF sales meeting for my efforts. It was a total surprise, and to this day it still means a lot to me.
What about with Company?
One that really stands out though was seeing our team hoist our logo up onto the top of our first Surf Expo booth. It was like seeing our entire team raise the flag together, and the official starting point of their hard work finally being recognized by the public.
You’re not in the industry anymore?
I’m no longer involved in the industry, but it will always remain a huge part of my foundation. I made a personal decision after Company that my involvement needed to be focused on enjoying the sport recreationally again rather than working in it. Because of that I’ve had some amazing experiences with my wife and kids on the water that would never have happened otherwise.
I’m still paying attention and watching from the sidelines, but from a career standpoint I’ve been focused on building brands in the ‘event’ space that encourage people to get out and experience life more. It’s something that I believe in, and it’s something that I need to be better at, not just for myself, but for my kids.
What now for Justin Stephens? My children’s future 🙂