Skiing has always been something of a nightmare for me. I first “learned” how to ski in middle school, and still to this day don’t really understand how to stop. I once went to a “black diamond” mountain in Minnesota (read: gently sloping Midwest hill) and had to slam myself into the ground before skiing straight into the ski chalet.
I’m hardly alone in my fear of skiing. The ski and snowboard industry is suffering a generational downturn in the sport, driven by less snow due to climate change as well as an increasingly sedentary population of young athletes more addicted to their smartphones than to the slopes. While several top resorts are growing exceptionally well, many other locations are shrinking and at risk of disappearing.
Cue Sno-Go. The product, the brainchild of Utah-based co-founders Chase Wagstaff and Obed Marrder, is a “snow bike” with three skis and handlebars that allows any person to get back onto the mountains.
Riding the bike is simple. Riders stand on the back two skis just as they normally would with traditional skis, but instead of holding ski poles, they grip the handlebars connected to the front ski. The whole bike articulates as you move your weight from one side of the bike to the other, allowing the rider to navigate hills with ease.
For Wagstaff and Marrder, the product — and the startup they are building — is the culmination of a years-long pursuit of a better ski experience.
The two first met in seventh grade, and both faced similar challenges with skiing. “I come from a family of five boys, and all of my brothers are practically professional skiers, so from an early age I was forced to go to the mountains,” Wagstaff explained. Yet, he didn’t like skiing, and couldn’t get into snowboarding either. Marrder tried skiing, but on his first attempt broke his wrist, and on his first attempt to snowboard, broke a thumb.
Instead, the two got into mountain biking, and biked every summer. That worked great when the mountains were clear, but was hard in winter when snow made biking impossible. “Winter-time was just dreadful since we didn’t participate in any winter sport,” Wagstaff said, and so he and Marrder would be left behind as his family and friends headed up to the ski resorts for a weekend of fun.
After graduating high school, the two hatched a variety of businesses, together and separately, including businesses in auto detailing, mobile phone repair, and nutrition supplements. Despite hard work around each of their entrepreneurial ventures, the two walked away with a string of failures, and their goal of becoming millionaires impossibly distant. Then an epiphany came. “Our businesses were all failing, and we hadn’t had much success,” Wagstaff explained. “We realized we weren’t passionate about what we were doing, and we were just starting businesses.”
The two ran into the snow bike concept online and were intrigued by the technology. They ordered a couple of models and for the first time, started to enjoy their time on the ski slopes.
The two decided to try prototyping some snow bike concepts. Wagstaff noted that at the time, only one resort in all of Utah would allow ski bikes — Brighton Ski Resort. So the two started inquiring what the resorts concerns were. Two main issues came up that blocked allowance: the challenge of getting a ski bike onto a chairlift, and the risk that the bike would cut deep treads into the snow, making the mountain unsafe for other skiers.
Most ski bikes at the time used two skis, but the two founders realized that a three-ski model made far more sense. They could align the three skis in such a way that the treads they left behind were identical to a standard pair of skis. They now had a concept, but prototyping a bike was expensive. Engineering and production would cost tens of thousands of dollars to get a model out, and unlike in Silicon Valley, there wasn’t an immediate rush of venture capital to launch the company, nor was their exit money from a pervious venture return.
So Wagstaff and Marrder did what any bootstrapped entrepreneur knows dearly: they worked side gigs to fund their dreams. “What we did was do door-to-door sales every summer, and then we just poured that money into development,” Wagstaff said. Over a period of five years, the pair built a series of seven prototypes, each one getting better and more focused on their vision of what a snow bike could be.
In 2015, they were ready to go. The two scouted out a manufacturing partner in Utah with factories in China to produce the units. And then they launched a Kickstarter, which raised $42,710 from more than one hundred backers, with sales to more than 15 countries. “We realized we were on to something, so we started talking with some local investors,” and the two built a syndicate of local Utah business leaders to fund the first round into the company.
Fast-forward a season, and Sno-Go has launched an Indiegogo that has already raised almost $60,000. The base cost of their bike is $1,699, with a special rate for Indiegogo backers of $1,399. Part of that cost is the state-of-the-art Rockshox fork, which itself is hundreds of dollars per unit. Moving forward, the company intends to build a kids bike targeting a $700-800 price point so that whole families can come together skiing.
For Wagstaff, seeing the vision for the product come to life has been rewarding, but the true value has come from customers who have suddenly gained the ability to ski for the first time. “We get a ton [of customers] from the adaptive community,” Wagstaff said. He noted that several customers are veterans with injuries who can’t use traditional skis, but can ride a snow bike because it gives them more stability while riding.
Wagstaff noted that, “When we started this business, it was just for us, we didn’t have any intentions of impacting the lives that we are. So many people can benefit from us.” For two bootstrapped founders, toiling summer after summer has suddenly meant building a far more vibrant winter, and a path to becoming the ski business moguls they always dreamed about.