The Butterfly Effect: Gilson Snow’s Story of Change
What started as a happy accident has become one of the fastest growing ski and snowboard companies in the world. Sometimes, all it takes is stubbornly chasing down answers to questions, a dose of luck, and support from private financial backers brought together under a program of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).
It began with a question that kept Nick Gilson up at night: What if it was possible to create a unique board that used multiple scientific methods to change the world — and have a fun time doing it? Gilson Snow, located in Winfield, Pennsylvania, designs and builds winter sporting equipment that enhance a customer’s experience on the slopes. The company combines modern technologies with traditional, Appalachian craftsmanship to deliver one-of-a-kind snowboard products. By demonstrating time-honored skill at woodworking while applying science, Gilson Snow takes advantage of the properties of snow that allow liquid water to fill microscopic gaps in the crystals snow’s to offer advanced, fun-to-use snowboards, skis and related gear.
Nick Gilson, founder and CEO of Gilson Snow, left his native Rhode Island to attend Johns Hopkins University. After graduating in 2011, Nick journeyed to Nashville and began teaching science to a diverse group of middle school students. That is when the trip back to his roots — and ahead to his company’s future — began to take shape. “What started as a middle school science project ultimately grew into this company,” Nick said. “We launched this with our students at the time. It stemmed from a desire to have real, hands-on learning so that every student in the classroom — regardless of background, access to technology at home, finances and other constraints — would all have access to the same mindset and learning that we were developing.” Nick rekindled his life-long interest in board sports when he encouraged his science students to create year-long curiosity projects as a class assignment. He found himself daydreaming about his own “what- if” board idea. As a teenager, he’d taught himself to surf on a board he crafted himself. He’d fallen in love with the creative process…and with cutting turns on the waves on a board he’d designed personally. “In high school, I almost burned my shop down with a candle,” he said. “I went to college at Johns Hopkins and got in trouble for having fiberglass and epoxy in the dorm rooms. I had my surfboards on campus and taught a number of people there how to build their own surfboards in the basement of someone’s house.
“You know when you’re working on something and you completely lose your sense of time, even reality? You’re just so zoomed in and so focused, in a state of flow. You’re completely and totally immersed. That’s a feeling that I would get when I was making things. It didn’t really matter what it was. I just had to care about it. What really caught my early attention were objects that move through a fluid. I started building boats with my dad, which was just for fun because he wasn’t doing it professionally. He grew up in New Zealand and liked building, racing and sailing boats. He was an amazing engineer and sailor. So, I grew up with the benefit of his workshop.”
While on a ski trip with Dad, Nick noticed that his father on skis kept beating him downhill when Nick was on a snowboard. That was the motivation for Nick’s racing-oriented inquiry into physical properties of snow. He went into the workshop and produced early prototypes of snowboards. And although high school and college turned his focus, his passion for the snowboard project was never far gone.
“Along the way, there was this constant focus on the curvature and the shape, which ultimately impacts fluid dynamics,” Nick explained. For years, Nick had been keeping records of his experiments with three-dimensional board shapes. He used those experiments and general curiosity to guide him as he visited and revisited a succession of snowboard designs. Time in the classroom reinvigorated his ambition to bring forth a superior snowboard concept. By mid-2012, he was joined by fellow science teacher and his eventual business partner, Austin Royer.
Supported by a small, close group who were enthusiastic about Gilson’s ideas (including Nick’s 6th grade students who came up with ideas for design performance tests) the pair worked on a new wave of prototypes. It took two months, but that December, Nick and Austin took two prototype boards to Colorado for testing. “We rode these boards, and Austin described them as trying to ride a canoe down a mountain,” Nick recounts. “It was an awful failure, and I was devastated. And incredibly stubbornly, I rode these things for four days. … We had designed all of these studies to then show our kids what great success looks like. Instead, we collected a whole lot of data on what rock-bottom failure looks like.”
As he presented the quantitative and qualitative data to the students, he told them he was going to end the project right then and there. One of his students told him, “If you can quit, so can we.” That moment of truth hit home: Nick knew he couldn’t give in to initial failure. Instead, he used failure as an accelerant to fire his passion, documenting new experiments in detail, adding solutions to problems he uncovered along the way. Gilson Snow’s trademark feature, the three-dimensional soft edge, was a design reaction to multiple, prior failures.
When the next testing opportunity arrived, the improved prototype snowboard’s speed was 26 percent faster than a standard snowboard. A new board shape radically changed the overall performance characteristics. Success with the design prompted Nick to take the entrepreneurial business “plunge” by launching the Gilson Snow company with himself running the new business full time. “It was an intense focus on a question and a real curiosity about this specific product,” he said. “It was why we launched this company: the inevitability and culmination of a lot of work. In order to keep working on this, we needed a company structure. We didn’t start a company just to start a company. We wanted to organize to keep working on this incredibly interesting problem. “We also didn’t start this company with the idea of making money. There are two different ways to start a company. You can crunch the numbers and identify the right space or you could fall totally and passionately into a question and a subject of extreme curiosity. At some point, you have to eat, so you have to figure out how to make money. When we left being teachers and decided to move forward with the company, we moved into a cabin in the woods with no running water or electricity. We began hiking out each day when we were building our first shop, which was really a donkey and horse stable. We started to develop our manufacturing process. I didn’t know how to build a company. I didn’t know that was really what I was trying to do. I very much had my head down, nose to the grindstone.”
The development phase was integral to Gilson’s company DNA as well as Nick’s leadership journey because it established the company’s cardinal values and set in place habits underlying the firm’s resilience.
“This company was not going to exist because it was just going to happen,” Nick said. “This company was not the ‘build it and they will come’ model. This is a company that needed to be willed into existence by incredible and persevering founders. If it were just me, this company wouldn’t exist today. This has required insane amounts of drive and persistence from a relatively large — and growing — number of committed people. There are so many things that could have gone wrong and just taken the company sideways along the way. It really does rely on everything from being fortunate, persistent and working incredibly hard.”
During its first 18 months, Gilson Snow products were rejected by 3,000 retailers. After going “back to the drawing board” in frustration, the Gilson team began an outreach to prospective customers directly using business-to-consumer tactics versus traditional channel partner selling. Within a short time after making the shift to direct-selling, Gilson Snow started to grow, keeping focused on offering higher-performance, American-made products, manufactured entirely in Gilson’s Appalachian Pennsylvania shop. Gilson products feature captivating and custom artwork, and the company sources locally in an effort to keep its processes, workforce and supply chain partners within Appalachia. Gilson Snow’s sales and marketing now cover the United States, and extend into New Zealand, Australia, Asia and Europe. Its products outfit hundreds of thousands of board-sports athletes and enthusiasts. Gilson boards are meant to meet individual users’ particular needs, giving their customers fun and unique experiences at each step, from the sale to the slopes.
By 2020, demand for the company’s products was growing faster than the business could support from its own resources, which brought Nick to a decision point: scale back operations that threatened to overwhelm exiting capacity, or seek outside investments to continue to grow the business at what was becoming an exponential pace. Still a young startup, Gilson was seeing their business grow 100+ percent every year, requiring the founders to double the size of their company. “We were in a constant state of not being able to afford next week from this week’s business,” Nick recalled. “Because next week could be so much bigger than this week. As a result, we had to make a choice.”
To maintain the company’s growth and continue filling demand from around the world, Nick and the company decided to seek outside capital. Their search for investors led them to the Appalachian Investors Alliance (AIA) and its affiliated Alleghenies Angel Fund (AAF). “We got laser-focused as to who the right partners would be,” Nick said. “We are very fortunate to have turned down an extraordinary amount of money at this point. A lot of young founders want to raise as much money as they can possibly get, but we didn’t do that. We wanted to raise money from people who, if they were in town, we would grab dinner and drinks with them. People who can bring muscle memory and talent to the team and are just great people to work with. It’ s no question that we found that with
(AIA leaders) Justin Mandel and Jim Hart. What a truly phenomenal group of people.” Ultimately, Gilson Snow closed on a “six-figure” funding deal put forth by Alleghenies’ investors. Appalachian Investors Alliance is a 501(c)(3) non-profit working to revitalize the region’s economy by organizing private investors into angel or micro-venture funds that invest in Appalachian-based companies. AIA was established with support from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative. Since receiving sponsorship from the ARC, the Appalachian Investors Alliance has gathered over 150 impact investors into 11 affiliated funds in ten states. AIA’s mission is to provide professional assistance (due diligence, financial modeling, rights management, bookkeeping, business and technical expertise) to its member funds as a shared resource, freeing those funds from otherwise paying too-high overhead costs. The result is that more of investors’ private capital can go to work funding the region’s small businesses and startups. To date, AIA investors have placed $11.7 million of their own money into 42 Appalachian companies.
AIA’s Alleghenies Angel Fund invests mainly in seed- and early-stage opportunities originating in the Southern Alleghenies region, which includes Altoona, Johnstown, Somerset and surrounding areas in Pennsylvania. The fund began operating in 2019 after receiving initial technical support funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission through a regional sponsor, the Southern Allegheny Planning and Development Commission. ARC support allowed AIA to work with Alleghenies Angel Fund members during a two-year planning and fundraising process that put AAF in position to start making locally- targeted impact investments just as Gilson Snow was searching for the right funding partner.
“It’s not that common for accredited investors to get together in a fund like this,” said Justin Mandel who serves as chairperson in the Alleghenies fund. “The ARC funding actually facilitated a business and investment network that never existed before, where there are individual investors. This created a collaborative group like ours that pools everyone’s funds together. The individual investors’ contributions can be quite low, but as a group, we can make an impact on entrepreneurs. I think that’s actually unique.” “A lot of times, investors are looking to mathematically drive the largest return as possible,” Nick has observed. “You don’t end up with the Appalachian Investors Alliance and the Alleghenies Angel Fund that way. It’s more than just a mathematically winning formula for making money. They bring aligned interests and values in developing a region and jobs that matter for young entrepreneurs like me and the people we employ. It’s like the butterfly effect. You make these changes now and you will have ripple effects in the future.” For Gilson Snow, the investment from the Alleghenies Angel Fund stimulated more than a 200-percent growth in business.
“What attracted us to Gilson Snow wasn’t that just the products they’re manufacturing are extremely high quality and have an incredibly loyal customer base,” Justin Mandell explained. “It’s not even that they’re providing a relatively unique [take] on the market. In normal times, they can receive a customer order for custom artwork, and they build and ship a customer’s product in three days, which is novel in the business. What attracted us to Nick is that he had to architect and design his manufacturing process from scratch. He is a problem-solving, scrappy founder. During the negotiation of the term sheet, Nick showed a willingness to listen and to work with us to get something in place. He recognized that with AIA supporting us, it brought him more than just our capital. It brought the whole group to the table with him.”
“The AIA’s approach to investment isn’t just, ‘Is this a good investment for the fund?’” Justin went on. “They’re not trying to negotiate the best deal for our fund and end a discussion there. They approach investment opportunities from the entrepreneurs’ point of view. … A lot of these founders have never done this before. What makes them great founders is that they can problem solve and figure it out, ask for help or bring in outside resources when they can’t figure it out or need advice. The advantage of AIA is that they have done this hundreds of times and support groups all around the Appalachian region. When we are talking to companies, the AIA provides a level of expertise and experience. In our region, there is nothing like it. We are able to do better due diligence at a deeper analytical level and have more productive and educated discussions with founders because of the AIA’s support.” Among Gilson’s goals is that the firm continue to improve internal efficiency and increase the production rate for its unique products, with the company proving its way of sustainability. Currently, sales of the company’s skis are growing even faster than for snowboards. People young and old and from all walks of life are enjoying Gilson’s products.
“The most rewarding part is when we have people in their early 20s or their 50s who say, ‘I’ve been watching what you have been doing at Gilson Snow for the last eight years. I never thought I would have done this or that it was even possible, but my business just turned three. I quit my job two years ago, and I now employ 20 people.’” Now a seasoned entrepreneur, Nick takes pleasure in giving inspiration to others: “That is powerful. Being an example to other people thinking about making the jump, and using it as a resource and sounding board when they do it, that’s where the rubber meets the road.” Gilson Snow and dozens of other local firms would be challenged to access to capital without the initial and continued “up-stream” support of the ARC. By initiatives such as POWER, the Appalachian Regional Commission promotes formation and sustainment of seed and angel impact funds like those in the Appalachian Investors Alliance. AIA funds’ investment allows Appalachian businesses to hire more employees, bolster regional supply chains, form industry clusters, revitalize their hometown economies, and achieve levels of growth that will return value to stakeholders. Moreover, with ARC’s support, the Appalachian Investors Alliance has begun to provide entrepreneurial education and outreach as an extension to the professional service it gives to investors. So now, AIA offers venture industry insiders’ experience, coaching sessions, and constructive feedback to entrepreneurs like Nick Gilson who may be looking to raise outside capital, scale their small businesses, and create positive changes in their communities.
This is the positive “butterfly effect,” stimulated by ARC’s investments into programs aimed at increasing access to capital for entrepreneurs—entrepreneurs with dreams that become real businesses. Dreams that will build economically sustainable companies and thriving communities for years to come. Learn more about Gilson Snow at www.gilsonsnow.com. Learn more about the Appalachian Investors Alliance at www.appalachianinvestors.org and Alleghenies Investment Fund at www.allegheniesangelfund.com.