BGBS 034 | Steve “Stix” Nilsen
Joining us today is Steve “Stix” Nilsen, the vice president of lifestyle marketing at Liquid Death Mountain Water. He has some bold strategies that have proven effects on branding, brand loyalty, marketing, and generating profits for Fortune 500 companies. When asked how he does it, he said “I do cool shit, with cool people, that makes people buy things.” You won’t want to miss this fun and lively interview with a down to Earth guy that has some serious moxie!
What we’re talking about
- Epiphany on a Beach
- Tenacity and Forging His Own Path
- Trying New Things, But Knowing Your Boundaries
Epiphany on a Beach
Steve grew up just outside Minneapolis, MN, but visited family in Hawaii over the summers. It was his summer fun that sparked his love for surfing. Even though he went to a private prep school and played traditional sports, he was also passionate about skateboarding and music. It was his love of discovering who he was that led him to try jobs in many different industries, from being a golf cart boy to construction to working in a bank. All the way to working for Northwest Airlines to indulge his love of travel! It was during one of his adventurous trips around the world, Stix had an epiphany. He was sitting on Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia when he had a revelation. His career needed to be in action sports!
Tenacity and Forging His Own Path
To obtain a career in action sports, Stix went about it his own way, by grabbing every action sports magazine and studying the brands he liked the most. He cold called companies. He took their existing ads, and redid their marketing with his own comic flair. Sending them back to the companies for review. His boldest move and big break came when he talked to the director of marketing at Airwalk. Her home had just burned to the ground and she had to be on a plane to Europe a few hours later. She was too busy to take his call, so he mailed a smoke detector to her home! It worked and he was hired.
Trying New Things, But Knowing Your Boundaries
Steve had worked hard to get his foot in the door, and he started working in merchandising. It was when he realized that they were doing it all wrong, and his advice fell on deaf ears, that he decided to learn everything up and down the ladder so he could make the decisions to best position the product.
Will you take your passion and make a career out of it?
- 13:00 – 13:39 (39 sec MG) There really is this awesome idea that…be the person that you wanted to be. 100%
- 15:05 – 15:18 (13 sec SN) Let’s not paint this picture that I’m…they all wore the same outfits. Costumes as I like to say.
- 27:40 – 27:58 (18 sec MG) Brands don’t really own the brands…everyone is having their own conversations.
- 28:21 – 28:43 (22 sec) How did you start the process of…this is pre-internet.
- 52:58 – 53:22 (24 sec SN) When the light bulb went off…that is brand equity.
- 57:58 – 58:20 (22 sec SN) That’s pretty tell tale when you have…you’re gonna be the first guy who’s gonna hit me up for swag.
- I believe travel is so important for the growth of kids, if you can possibly do it, to see other cultures. See other things. It helps you figure out who you are. – SN
- To exist as a brand, you can’t just go off your bros. You’ve got to bring in people that know what they’re doing. – SN
- You don’t just do “enough”. Don’t check boxes. – SN
- I’m a great believer in luck. I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. – Unknown
- We’re not a product. We’re a brand. – SN
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 0:02
All I remember is that they were they moved from Carlsbad, California to Pennsylvania. And I was just barraging her with letters and left and I call call cold call. And then I picked up the phone one day. And I said, hey, it’s Steve Nilsen. Oh, it’s cute kid. Because again, because Listen, kid, I don’t have time to talk to you.
My house just burned down. I gotta leave for Europe. And I was like, Alright, I gotta go. So I mailed her a smoke detector in the mail. And she called me like laughing. But two weeks, three weeks later says, Oh my god, you have balls kicked. Yeah, she flew me out and fast forward, I end up getting the job.
Marc Gutman 0:41
Podcasting from Boulder, Colorado. This is the baby got backstory Podcast, where we dive into the story behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs. I like big back stories and I cannot lie. I am your host Marc Gutman. I’m Marc Gutman, and on today’s episode of Baby got backstory, how a kid from Minnesota infatuated with skating and music was able to combine those two loves, and build a marketing career in the action sports industry with some of the world’s biggest brands. Hey, now if you like and enjoy the show, please take a minute or two to rate and review us over at iTunes. iTunes uses these as part of the algorithm that determines ratings on the apple charts. And ratings help us to build an audience, which then helps us to continue to produce this show. I today’s episode we’re talking to Steve Nielsen.
Man, that sounds weird because I know Steve as Styx STI x, and I’m not going to ruin the story of how he got that nickname for you. It’s coming up early in the episode and he’ll tell you all about it himself. Styx has built a career in the action sports Industry helping to build brands and marketing companies like air walk Red Bull paps. Yep, the Blue Ribbon beer. And now he is helping to build the brand of liquid death, which sounds like some weird cannabis brand, or a punk rock band. But it’s canned water. Stix is one of those people who knows everyone and everyone knows him. He’s a savvy marketer. And he found a way to marry the things he loved skate culture, in music, with marketing. stix.
His story is one of vision, persistence and principles. Listen to the discipline he displays when talking about branding. He’s always looking at the long game versus the quick game for the business. I could listen to stix of stories for hours and I loved his honest take on branding and what it takes to build a brand and this is his story.
Alright, I am here with Steve Nilson of liquid death. And Steve, I think this might be the last time I call you Steve, because everybody calls you stix. How did you get that nickname?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 3:12
No, I honestly I was given it was 1998 around there. At the time I was building snowboard boots for airwatch and I was over in Asia and long story short is you know, when you’re over there in these factories is roasting right and I would wear shorts to the factories because obviously it’s super hot in Thailand or Taiwan or or Shanghai, China.
And when I wear boots, you know if you guys have skinny legs, it looks like Jiminy Cricket with the boots on and one day my boss at the time who’s still very close with me got super irritated about something he was not really me personally but what was going on in production. And we all got really loud. How do you balance them sticks because he’s he’s from frickin Boston.
So stix stuck like that and coworkers are laughing by time I got like some in states camp so he felt that way to SPX and Stop, but it literally is because I’ve seen the lights. That’s not very, you know, glamorous story. But literally, I did look like Jiminy Cricket. I just came across some photos I dug up the other day and I’m wearing snowboard boots and 100 degree factory. So
Marc Gutman 4:14
well thanks for that context. Now we’re gonna know why we’re referring to stix going forward. And stix. You probably have the coolest bio of anyone that has ever been on the show so far. And I’m going to read it because it’s very, very short and to the point, I do cool shit with cool people that makes people buy things. What’s that mean? Yeah, what’s that mean to you? Like how’d you how’d you come to that bio?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 4:40
You know, I think it’s because I, you could cut and paste your resume or you could do liquid gas. I’m sorry. resume or you could go to LinkedIn rather, and just cut and paste things and there’s not a whole lot of soul to that, I don’t think and if you really want me to dumb it down, that’s the best way because I’m always run, moving her miles now. And they always say there’s quote unquote elevator speech. That was the best way to explain it to you, as he was about to drop it into skate park. If someone asked me what I did, that’s what I’m telling you.
I mean, it’s quick to the point and then maybe pique their curiosity like it is you and it’s really just, I’d like to think that my career like, I’ve had so much fun. And I think that I did all my life, I can look at it that way. I just, I’m not going to do something. If I’m not reading, my heart’s not into it. Let’s just put it that way. And so you sniff out in your life, brands, people situations, you want to be a part of and make it so you know, and that’s really, again, it’s probably being a little cryptic, but I hope that answers your question.
Marc Gutman 5:36
Yeah, it’s a great, it’s a great, it’s a great answer, stix. And you know, one thing that I know about you and you’ve touched on it, you dropped a bunch of clues right there talking about dropping into the skate park doing cool things, the cool brands, you know, why don’t you tell me a little bit about what your young stix was like? I mean, where did you grow up? What were your interests? And how did that set the foundation for where you are today?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 5:58
Make a very long story short I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Specifically, it’s called the Dinah, Minnesota, which we are known as cake eaters. It’s a hockey reference to long strip, anyone can look it up enough cake eaters if you can Google it. Anyway, I have relatives in Hawaii, and I became absolutely infatuated with surf skate culture. I just thought it was the coolest cook back then. There was no packs on. There’s no zoomies. There was no, you couldn’t find the really cool clothes. Except if you go to the skate shops or shopper. Well, we obviously have a lot of that in Minnesota.
So when I visited my relatives, I come back with Quicksilver and the different surf brands, billabong, Town and Country. And people are like, where’d you get the word you get the clothes? Where’d you get that? And it’s it had made to mainland United States. Yeah, to me, I guess on the coast, but not on Minnesota. And I fast forward. You know, I really got into skateboarding.
And snowboarding hadn’t existed yet. And I love that but we could only do it a certain amount of time during the year and that wasn’t particularly good. But I got Have some kids from this called Southwest High School, which kind of borders along with the suburb that I grew up in. And they were like the kids, I was just, I was fascinated with the fact that they were so into punk rock that they’re the ones to tell me about First Avenue and Seventh Street entry, which is anyone has anyone played those venues as a kid like we’re talking to a black flag, Jeff a circle jerks, like all these bands, you could go see him for like five bucks because they’d have a matinee show in the morning or midday and then they’d have the Id show at night they call them or whatever. 21 Plus, and that was really what I did.
It’s funny because I played traditional sports the whole time. But I just was something about that the music, the way people dress, all that really, like captivated me at a young age. And I think it has to do with the fact which is why I believe travel is so important for like the growth of kids if you possibly can do it, to see other cultures see other things. It helps you figure out who you are and for me by me going to experience what it was like in Honolulu and in Maui, and seeing these guys these cool you know, Massimo was actually a surfer and originally people don’t know that. That brand And things like that I was just infatuated with it. So that so hope that kind of gives you a little snapshot that I kind of did both. It’s like I played the traditional sports, but I love the punk rock skate side. It just was such a curiosity, but I just love how passionate people were.
And you could kind of express yourself, you could just be you didn’t have to follow on and I went to private school. So everyone kind of the same costume and not that we had to wear uniforms. But I was fascinated that, again, the music, the the activities of skateboarding, and then eventually snowboarding. It allowed you to be you like whatever that meant, and no one’s gonna judge you in those circles. Yeah, it’s
Marc Gutman 8:38
so interesting. I mean, you and I have a very similar background in that, you know, I grew up in Midwest as well. I was super fascinated with skateboard culture. So much so that I used to just look at Thrasher magazine and dream about that lifestyle until the second I could go to California. I did move to Venice Beach and quickly realized that it wasn’t quite like it wasn’t the magazine at that time. But But like, you know, Really can relate to that. And so what was like, I mean, what was just so special for you and the one thing that was a little different was like, you know, I always thought like, some of the music that like all the skaters were listening to and I can thrash and all that was a little like, a little hard for me.
You know, I was more of like a Detroit Detroit Rock City like heavy, you know, metal hairband, kind of kid, you know, what was it about that? That combination of skate and in music that really spoke to you and you talked a little bit it allowed you to, to self expression to like, why was that important?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 9:31
I think it is because I went to, you know, a very well renowned private school in Minneapolis. But the cool thing with this school, I will say from freshman year on in high school, they really had them really that the kids they’re really like music, and I’m not saying about playing on a saxophone or a quarter or even though they were known for the choir. But you got to remember I grew up in the thick of the replacements, Cusco do early soul asylum and people would go to the shows and I would have a senior driving freshman to go see the violent felons, let’s say.
And I just started going to any show I could get my hands on, like you get a ride to but here the school I went to would be a preppy I guess is the term you’d use. But it was fun because we didn’t have like any high school you’re gonna have the guys little known fact, one of the founders of ice magazine was a year older than me. And we used to see each other punk shows all the time, you know?
Think suroosh Alvi. And he’s still there. And we would see each other all the time it was funny because then I yes, did I have clothes I guess you can probably but then I would maybe do a twist on it and go buy a pair of camel pants at the army surplus store. And then my mom would would hand them in or make them a little narrower. You don’t need to be so baggy, and just like a fun little twist on stuff but we have very little to choose from back then. Not in a destitute way but in a way that we’re pretty much had a few department stores to choose from. So the fact you could go do that so like I had a friend of my late friend morning almost. I bring him up because my one of my closest friends died in 911 100 fourth for the South Tower. He’s actually the first person on the victims list.
If you look at His last name is Ahmed. And he’s one of my son’s is named after him. But he was funny with Mr. Like, preppy guy, but be the first guy that one might make his own t shirt or want to go to a punk show. And then he wouldn’t alter what he could still wear like, it was like a damn shirt to a punk show because he just no one really messed with the meter. It’s kind of bigger guy, but he and I are totally online on music. You know, we’d love everything from the cure to again, replacements to Cusco do and then digging really really deep. Like I said the gfa is the world which word for it and we’re even pit pihl public engineer limited, which is an offshoot, obviously the Sex Pistols, but we used to take a bus to downtown Minneapolis, the six plus and we would go to northern lights which was the record store and dig through crates for vinyl.
And then there was this was owned by this Asian couple called sons su ns and they’re the ones who have all the concert tees and you go on their wall and you look at these five screens printed in black, but you couldn’t any of the bands you couldn’t see you ever see like the Smiths I go into the Smith’s work by seeing a T shirt. I bought the T shirt I have no idea meat is murder. What the Smith It was different. You walk down the street, you were like, what is meat is murder. You know, that’s the name of the album. But that was kind of how it happened in Minneapolis. Fortunately again, though, it considered a cold destitute place. Otherwise, it had a really good art scene.
My mother works for me, Apple sister of arts for decades, you know, had a really really good thriving theater slash music scene that you wouldn’t find major metros, you know, and you needed to try it. But I’d argued right up there was Chicago, you know, they’ve got venues too, but just a smaller version. No, yeah. And I think
Marc Gutman 12:31
it was really cool, like in those kind of smaller, mid major towns because Minneapolis isn’t like a small town, but it’s not Chicago. But when you get the bands that come into town, you get them to yourselves. And so in a way, it’s almost better than when you’re like trying to fight through a Chicago crowd or an LA crowd or New York crowd for both tickets, just proximity and that type of stuff. You’d be out on the town and you’d run into your favorite band or something like that, which was always so cool.
And, and you touched on something and I don’t want to get too existential here, but like There really is this awesome idea that, you know, when we align with brands and we, we display those brands, it really says a lot about who we are and you were able to really go out and perhaps and I don’t know this to be true.
I mean, was this sort of your first touch in realization of the power of brands and aligning with brands and also, not just that you aligned with one brand when what I really heard from you is that, you know, young stix who wasn’t stix at the time was really this combination of many brands in order to kind of be the person that you wanted to be.
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 13:38
Hundred percent you know, I can honestly this is, again, gonna sound cliche, Fast Times return Hi, I will completely 100% that movie. I went checker dance. But the funny thing is, you can find him in Minnesota. My sister was going to school in Arizona, I get a graduate degree, and they actually she was able to get a pair for me there. And I remember I wore those and they ain’t Another thing is I didn’t want to wear socks or anything but Korean socks.
They were like a science experiment. I mean it was just was so those things were so right. My mom would meet people outside. But those were like a badge of honor walk around those vans because we didn’t have them in Minnesota. Now they’re solely to get their name bands and always been kind of mail order. Back then it wasn’t FedEx, you know, maybe there was but like, I, you weren’t gonna get your shoes overnight, right? You find the backup when you said Thrasher or Transworld or skateboarder and that was around, and you’d fill out it was 1799 for tear shoes, whatever it was back then.
But those to me that and like camel pants and just a white t shirt. It’s pretty cool kit, you know, 1984 you know, whatever it was, you know? I mean it was and so you’re right and but you gotta remember that he we didn’t have Abercrombie and Fitch, we didn’t have, again, Pac son. He didn’t have these places. You just like Okay, I’m gonna go to the department store. And then we think of fun ways to maybe monkey around with the clothes.
I might not mean to designer I can’t so to save my life. But maybe it alters a jacket completely. Obviously you’re cut the sleeves off. If you want to. mean like you’re just wrong. And by no means again, I wasn’t. Let’s not paint this picture and walk around like a guy. That’s cool enough, but I always try as best I could with what little I had to work with, to tweak it a little bit. You know, I didn’t want to be the same shirt, same things, everybody else because they all we all wear the same outfits with costumes, as I like to say, at the time.
Marc Gutman 15:18
Yeah. What do you think that interests like in fashion and pop culture came? Because it certainly shows up later in your career. And we’ll talk about that. But you know, where do you think that really came from? Where was one of your parents kind of into that stuff? Was it more your association with your friends?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 15:32
No friends, so I came from the most conservative household ever, you know, very Christian, amazing upbringing. I don’t have a complaint in the world. It’s just very, very conservative. You know, I mean, now the house is pretty much like I think those rooms I still never been in or have been their house, you know, but and that’s no disrespect. But definitely I was there was one of my family was near punk rock. I don’t know.
I have three siblings. My oldest is my brother. And she did introduced me to a lot of bands that I got into late and like I’m talking about the last five years were way before I ever thought I would like it, you know, Fleetwood Mac, he would play jurnee. He would play Pablo Cruz, he would play. What’s the one like Michael McDonald, Doobie Brothers, all these things, which at the time I didn’t care for, as I’ve gotten older, like, I kind of dig it back.
You know, I mean, it’s some of the stuff which I never would have never. That’s way too slow for me at the time. But now I’ve come to appreciate like journey. Like I just got journey’s Greatest Hits for President. Are you kidding me? Like, if I know I played in my living room.
Marc Gutman 16:33
So we went here that’s exclusively with Mack and journey. All right, everybody. So like stix is a Fleetwood Mac journey efficient.
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 16:40
I mean, I can’t listen all the time. I wouldn’t be able to sit still long enough. But the funny thing is, though, my brother did go to concerts a lot. So I kind of got caught. He told me some hilarious stories when this first arena shows me you know, I must have been five years old, and he’s going to these and tell me when the house lights went off. The first time it’s film that stadiums with North Stars played. He literally thought there was a power outage.
You know, they do that. before they get on stage, and I forget who was going to see I think was, oh, Linda Skinner, something like that. And, you know, they cut the house lights, obviously for anyone and he just said how he almost urinated soiled himself because he thought the power was out, you know, but just explain what it’s like to go to his first show. But he took me to see kiss. He was in college, and I was in middle school, whatever it was, and I got to see kids when they were in their heyday. This is 1979 or 80 or something like that. got like, that’s first time ever smell weeks.
I had no idea what the smoke was everywhere. And it just smelled funny, you know? But again, I taken my brother ticularly first kiss show again. That was the full original lineup. So I got to see that was pretty cool.
Marc Gutman 17:36
Pretty great claim to fame. So here you are, you know, you’re just finding out who you are. You’re dabbling and skate culture and music and figuring things out. You know, like, what was your first real job and what was it in marketing or was it
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 17:51
God? No. I my first look from a neighbor was he literally had a Chris craft boat where those goodies whether they’re called you know the ones for eautiful Have to store that. But in the meet the same time, my brother at this point my brother has was in law school, whatever, but he’d worked for a local golf course.
And I ended up because they liked my brother so much. They literally like, I got a job there. And it was awesome because I was in charge of the golf carts. So I go around, but I got to interact with everybody. You know, I mean, anytime you just wanted a cart, I’m going to bring it up in in the golf carts and really actually a really good golf course. So public course. But that was one where I was just, you got to, you know, really interact. A lot of people see different people for different walks of life, because again, it’s a public course. Right? And that’s where I was introduced to the Beastie Boys, because one of the guys that I worked with him cards, pull out this license, the L tape, and I was like, What is this and I was like, I think I melted the tape.
We listen to it so much. And I just was so fascinated because I didn’t know anything about hip hop or rap or anything like that. But I loved the Beastie Boys style those guys to me, if anyone has moved the needle culturally, with anywhere, this the Beastie Boys, I’m serious. Like I was So in fact, I’m thinking how could these dudes leave their from Brooklyn and you know, the fighter, right, all that stuff, but if you really outside of that hit that they had. So the subs, like amazing like Paul’s boutique, I think is one of most underrated albums.
Like, I put in the top 10 most underrated album, I mean, what those guys did. And it’s ironic now there’s this spike Jones documentary on it, but those guys just look at what they went through. I mean, I remember reading an article they were they bought ups, outfits to wear on on stage, but yet they had a big catalog out of like, retro champion where they were going to do who was doing that at the time, you know, I mean, just retro old school athletic wear, and they were making it cool, you know, and then I saw him play live and I was like, Okay, this is this is a whole nother thing, you know, but that was I roundabout way of saying how I was like, I got exposed to something else.
You know, being at this public golf course. It’s like, wow, Beastie Boys. What the hell is this? You know, I knew all about punk rock, but I didn’t know and then that there became a crossover. Those guys originally. Were coming in, you know, not many people. I don’t think That lookup I think it’s probably walk stools are first of all up and look it up. Yeah. And
Marc Gutman 20:04
so you know musics of throughput through your life where’d you go after the golf course,
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 20:08
golf course my senior year and then I worked construction, which, again, great life lessons there. I learned to this day enough to be dangerous. It’s Brian wall wiring plumbing. But it also made me realize I didn’t want to do manual labor. It was a great experience. I got through with friends we a lot of laughs But I knew it was something that I didn’t want to do.
Second summer, I worked at a bank. And that was another huge learning experience because I’d have to go every morning I put on a tie go down downtown Minneapolis, and I remember calling my parents saying I’m going to be in college for 15 years.
This is what the real world is like, because I can’t it was just like, droids marching every day. The same thing was just a miserable experience on under artificial light in a cube. You were wearing a tie. I was wearing a tie. Yep. And I the funny part is I’d have to drive myself First Avenue to get to the where I worked. And I thought someone’s gonna just pull me out of my jeep and just wild me for wearing a tie so close to sacred spot like that, right? Who would have thunk it years earlier, I’m waiting in line with all the other kids trying to get a ticket. And I drive by and wearing a tie. Right? And then I thought that the most the least painful thing to do would be to be a copywriter because I was originally an English major, and I didn’t know what to do with that. I loved it. I got to work on the Harley Davidson account. I got to work on this thing called Skeeter Boats. I’m not kidding you. But it was like it was a cool environment.
My boss was really cool. I got college credit for it, which is awesome. From there, I went to work for Northwest Airlines. And the reason I’m telling you that is the fact that I studied abroad in Australia for a bit and by that when I got this internship with united with Northwest Airlines, which became Delta, they just opened up the Australian market. So they actually ran everything by me to see if it was going to be authentic or not. And it was just something about travel once again. I’m like wow, this place I live in this earth. I got credit for it. And my payments was they gave me four tickets to go anywhere in the world. I wanted to go back paying cash. And then my last internship for credit was I work for a public relations for Minnesota North Stars, the hockey team. And I obviously did a great job for Dallas the next year.
No, it really I just didn’t realize I didn’t want to work. It’s not what it’s cracked up to be to work for protein. But it’s not okay. When you’re in the bowels of the stadium, not not only the fun part was those I part of my job is to take players to go talk to schools. And that was, I will argue that not just because I play hockey, but professional hockey players are probably the coolest pro athletes will ever meet your life. They’re so humble and self mocking and appreciative and because most of them did come from small towns in Canada or Europe or wherever, or or they went right into juniors and never really got finished high school. So for them, they’re just happy go lucky and it was a great experience. So that’s a long winded way of explaining kind of experiences I had.
Marc Gutman 22:57
Yeah, where’d you go on those four free trips.
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 23:00
Let’s see I blew my knee out. So I went to see a friend in Maui who’s a dive instructor. I’m a certified no Patty diving, whatever. And I would just because I couldn’t move my leg, I think I could every day, which is diving groups. And I just tagged on behind the group. So I got to scuba dive every day for free for 10 days, where my leg was just dragged behind me in the water, and I did that. So I think I went to San Francisco but then I went back to Australia, because after I graduated college I got and that’s where I had my epiphany for my career.
That’s where I was like, that’s when the light bulb went off. I know the exact spot on Bondi Beach rather sitting having a beard like seeing that when there’s a skate they used to have skate ramps, now their actual cement bowls, and I remember I want to be an actual sports. I was watching these guys surf and like I want to be this is this is like I would go into the surf shops and every corner I would always want to surf shops.
There’s this brand SNP that wasn’t really a player for a while it actually sports business and that was bought by Riot snowboards and then it’s just kind of like it’s licensed out now. But that’s a hot brand on Australia. The time is just fascinating. Everything about everything. Every little magazine I get my hands on. I was absolutely infatuated and funny thing is my job down there had nothing to do with music art or action sports. It looked I was writing copy for a nonprofit that I care because it gave me a tax ID to live there for a year and live on a beach. So that’s really where I was like, This is what I do.
Marc Gutman 24:19
Yeah, like, what was the will kind of take a little moment here, but like, what was the scene like that? I mean, was there really like an action sports industry at that time? Or is it more like these sort of like little brands, little skate shops, like what does it look like at that time?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 24:34
It’s, you know, the one thing that was starting to take off at that point was snowboarding. Okay, this is 95 year of 95. And I lived in Australia, and I made my way over to New Zealand to ride it’s called the remarkable mountains over there. I mean, I still have my first snowboard jacket that literally is a glorified flannel with like a Teflon pad on the bottom and it’s funny, it’s like dropped, which frankly is back in style, though. I should pass it on next year.
But never it was just everything about it to me though black flies was like the hot sunglass brand and they made goggles my first goggles were black box okay, but it wasn’t it were the really the final part. The final catalyst for me saying this is what I have to do is I got back to the states turned down some job offers were literally charity from like my buddy’s parents You know, it just it was nothing I would have accelerated or really enjoyed. It doesn’t matter what it was. I
t just was not to me it’s more corporate stuff right. And I went to my first work tour. And at that point was the second year of the tour. I missed the first year living in Australia but I saw it in a magazine and they had a couple bands so I just still to this day love orange nine millimeter quicksand l seven, some wine was a part of the first one. And I drove to Milwaukee Wisconsin with my girlfriend at the time. And that’s where I saw a Warped Tour and I still have some photos of like me in the pit shooting with a 35 millimeter inside, penny wise and then the outside me shooting guy skating the skateboard and remember going this is what I want to be this What I’ve got to do like this is so me just just people having fun was punk rock.
We’re skaters. And then the brands that were part of that, you know, at the time it was billabong, and I think even though there’s a thing called split, it was it was a clothing brand. They were part of it. But they had a little booth there. And, you know, I was a little kid in the candy store free stickers. I mean all that like I get it. You know, that was my first taste. But yeah, this is like marketing 101 or grassroots marketing, just get the brand in people’s hands and let them decide for themselves where to put the stickers what to do what brands, you know what I mean? And that was that was my aha, like, Okay, I’m onto something here. Because there’s no way there’d be a tour like this if this wasn’t what yet.
But you got to remember, this is before magic zoomies existed at that point. But before these was in the stores started, really, really being a little more prominent in cities more and more popping up and skateboards is something it had been in California, obviously in some pockets around the US. But I was sitting there going, Hey, how can I get in this business? And that was literally like that. I mean, I was like laser focus. Like how many The minute I got home, I started my long slog and try to get my foot in the door.
Marc Gutman 27:05
Yeah. And so it’s so interesting to me. I mean, you know, from a very young age when you describe those internships, you were very astute to align your interests with some sort of business need, right? So you know, you love to travel so you went to work for the airline, you loved hockey, so you went to the North Stars realized it wasn’t for you, but that’s okay. And then you go to Australia and you have this like, you know, this this epiphany and what I was imagining when you were talking just about that environment were with grassroots marketing and people handing out stickers.
It was so interesting to me. It’s kind of like where we are now today with social media, right? Where we’re like brands don’t really own the brand. There’s all this conversation and all this interaction going on outside the brand, by the customers by their by by the fan base and very much like that was happening for you, right, like everyone’s handing out stickers and authenticating the brand and having their own conversation. Somebody was just like, really interested. To me, but you come back and you’re like, I want to be in this business. I mean, what’s that plan?
I mean, so, Hey, man, I’ve been struck a few times in my life to where I’m like, I know exactly what I want to do. And I have this amazing fantasy. And then I go like, Oh, crap. Now I got to like, actually make it a reality. And sometimes that doesn’t always add up. Like how did you like, start that process of getting into action sports and actually making a career out of it?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 28:26
Honestly, I grabbed every magazine I could get my hands on. And I just got to the players were and not not in a backdoor I’m in it was like I just I knew brands that I really liked. brands who maybe didn’t resonate with me as much and I had no choice. This is pre internet. Like I’m cold call, right? Well, then I find out there’s this thing called si a show. And I literally was 300 bucks for like three nights and airfare to Treasure Island at Vegas. And I went into the show with resume And the funny part is I’ve never really told him the story. I was thinking to myself because I was surrounded by like, how am I gonna? Help me stand apart?
Like, these guys probably gonna have pluses I didn’t know what the trim bro man that everyone’s just kind of gets backdoor bro jobs. And in Minnesota like I grew up in a walk, right so I’ve flown ski I wakeboarder which is how I destroyed my leg. But I also compare for so I literally was handing out these resumes with us a picture staples of me barefoot, right because I thought that was kind of badass. Like, you know, I didn’t know what I know now about how what like a charity of sorts and he’s actually sports Branson, so I’m sure in high tech Okay, cool. You know, you don’t hindsight 2020 but I thought how can I turn some heads or get some attention with my resume?
So I attached picture of me barefooting you know, cuz I still do those tumble turns and go down. You can spin around and get back on your feet again. I thought you know, someone find that interesting, but they got it in hindsight. I mean, I might as well Wearing a tutu? No, they probably thought, who’s this clown. So I literally when I went started doing was collecting business cards. Everywhere I went and I took some, some people were nice enough to give me like a honcho card. And other people would give me like a customer service persons card, it didn’t matter. And then I thought, Okay, I’m going to take what I learned at the agency, and I took their ads from the different brands and I made them funny.
I just stopped funding them making stuff and get a kick out. So I was mailing back at this again, pre internet, so I was really going to everyone under the sun
Marc Gutman 30:33
Yeah, how are you making ads talk about that. I mean, were you like making collages with paper
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 30:37
I would take their ads out of the magazine Exacto and change their headline, or take a Polaroid or something and kind of superimposed on at the time and it was kind of a cool come to write, but I didn’t, I didn’t I didn’t register,
Marc Gutman 30:50
but you’re not using like a computer or like Photoshop or anything.
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 30:53
I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t have computer for years. And I thought I would mail them back and of course then I will The phone call and you gotta remember man, like, I’m trying to get my career all my buddies are in Wall Street. You know, that was where I grew up. I wrote that set with those guys role. And that’s nothing wrong with that just wasn’t my scene, but you know, and then my parents dining room table, you know no buddies are all partying in New York, right?
But I just knew I couldn’t do it but I kept calling, calling calling some people I got through to some people I didn’t. But I just knew that I knew I was so mobile. I was like, someone want to be moved to California because I was moved to Chula Vista for that brand SMP. I would, I probably never would have left Southern California and I moved to California, and it just didn’t pan out. But again, it just you just lesson learned. You got to try and try and try again because you are gonna have the door slammed in your face, especially that industry being as young as it was at the time.
I mean, it was like the ultimate like old boys network, you know, and, boy, good luck breaking into that. And I just knew I was going to be an asset to a brand but I also still knew I need to learn a lot from pinion that only makes a mistake once and never having a mistake again and I’ll own up to it. You know, so that’s really where I was at the time.
Marc Gutman 32:03
But I’m sorry, I missed that. Did you? Did someone bite on that?
And did you get a job?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 32:08
Yeah, I what had happened is I was getting so down in the dumps. And the one brand that I focused in on because they weren’t every single magazine snow surface skate magazine was arawak. And at the time, they had the who’s who, every sport. They even had a few surfers, and I was taking their ads and doing stuff in cut.
I don’t remember her last meeting, but the director of marketing, same thing was Nina. All I remember is that they were they moved from Carlsbad, California to Pennsylvania, and I was just thrashing around with letters, and I call call call cold call. And then I picked up the phone one day and said, hey, it’s Steve Nilson, you know, and she was Oh, it’s cute kid again, because Listen, kid, I don’t have time to talk to you. My house just burned down. I gotta leave for Europe and fires like, Alright, I gotta go.
So I mailed her a smoke detector in the mail. And she called me like last But two weeks, three weeks later, she’s Oh my god, you have balls kids like, Yeah, she flew me out. And that’s what I end up getting a job. That’s what I needed. That’s why I was always confident, like, one on one with someone, but I just needed a chance. I just needed someone open the door for me, you know, and apparently I did well, my interview, you know, but I just I guess maybe I was so pumped up from trying to get in the industry that I probably overwhelmed with all those feeling. It was just longing for an opportunity to just like, show I know what I was talking about. And I guess the one thing that you know, I was fortunate enough to go to some really good schools Is that you? I was I learned how to kind of cut mentalize and articulate what I not only looked at the industry and just being a sponge, which showed me how when I’m interested in something, I am like that idiot savant.
Like I can just absorb everything. Remember every little detail and I think I would probably overwhelmed with them when I was interviewed at arawak. But again, all I needed was that chance and they gave it to me and the rest of you know what that is. So that was my first stepping stone but I had this Fight and claw to get that, because there was still an old boys network even at erawan at the time, they’re like, why would you hire a guy from Minnesota? No. And my parents were so blessed because they taught me early on things when only manners but being a good listener.
And, you know, by that you can you can learn from people and comment on it versus some people just want to be heard all the time. And so I’ve been blessed the way I was raised, because I think that I was able to do both of them. I was a student of the game, but then some that I was going to go out this kind of a calculating way and not just fly by night for stuff against the wall. Hope it sticks.
Marc Gutman 34:34
You know? Do you remember that first day at arawak?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 34:37
I do. And you know, I’m gonna be honest with you. I feel again, I haven’t really ever told anyone this but I just remember one of the first big meetings I was at. And there was a few people and again, it doesn’t matter who it is whatever else but I just sit there going in my brain. Were positions that I wanted and going, Oh my gosh, I know I could run circles around this person. Like no comparison and I I was amazed. It’s my first taste.
And it happens to this day of people you could put in positions either, you know, right or wrong happens. But I’m thinking, I would absolutely crush that position. And that was the only thing where I was like, Okay, I’m the one getting chided, because I’m from Minnesota, and I’m looking at these people, like, I’m sorry, but there was just I started questioning these people could even put a sentence together, you know what I mean? Like, you’d be cool all day long, like, Hey, man, there’s got to be a business acumen to this too. You know, that’s all it was just again, no disrespect to anyone in particular. It was just more of I sat there going, wait a second. So I’m getting chided by these guys.
And I’m sitting there going, you got to be kidding me. Like, what? You know, um, so that was a big eye opener whether it was an old boys network was just like, selling to someone and that kind of thing. And I don’t know, this is a brand you can’t just off your Bros. Like you gotta have people who bring in people that know what they’re doing, you know, but I think then again, I wasn’t a physician because I had no experience at the time to do that. I know like the stand up. So became my goal. to basically get these What do you want to say? feathers, my capper arrows in my quiver to learn, learn, learn, learn and learn. So every part of the business, the sales part, the marketing part, the production part. And that’s what I set out to do.
Marc Gutman 36:13
And so what was your role when you started and what was your role when you left
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 36:17
So funny that when I started, I’m not kidding you. My first thing because I wanted to get my foot in the door, was I was a merchandiser. I’m not kidding. So my skin my role was to run around big to stores and make sure our stuff look good. But the funny thing is, it became very, very obvious to me that we were doing it wrong. And I was so low on the totem pole. No one would listen to me but like, the Tony Hawk shoe should not been to Carnival should not have been on the wall at journeys, because that was the lifeblood of the skate shops.
And I started telling him that but the person who reported you didn’t want any part of it was the type of person that just never wanted to rock the boat and just kind of did on the roof. And I was just didn’t sit with me. I’m like, No, no You can’t just do enough. All right, don’t check box. It’s like this isn’t right. We’re headed for disaster here. Because back to skate shops like I felt comfortable in skate shops. And to this day, I could go have a conversation with a kid about skaters or surfers snowboarders. You don’t I mean, it’s a different it’s, it’s almost like a little clubhouse of sorts.
But that was a real eye opener. So what did I do? I just tried to like I went to Nordstrom for Pete’s sake, we had our shoes in Nordstrom. Okay. And I’m sitting there going, Okay, like, there’s no product differentiation here. Like we can’t be having the skate stuff in a Nordstrom. You just can’t do that to these little shops because, you know, they were, you know, less than what you’d get it. You know, I mean, Nordstrom just undercutting and price wise, I guess maybe not torture, but you know, some of the other places the bigger big box stores mean arawak ended up paying for the sins of all the brands that are in malls now. Because it was so it was just antichrist to have your shoes, or any action sports apparel in a mall, you know?
So that was where I started and then at these meetings, I would say this is what I’m seeing out in the field, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And to make a long story short, basically they said, okay, tough guy. If you see an issue with a pricing, one, you want to get development. And that’s when I got into the snowboard boot development, and spent three weeks a month in Asia building summer boots, and it’s actually dabbled in shoes as well in the skate stuff. And again, total eye opener, got to travel the world like, you know, see, Bangkok see Hong Kong numerous times, Taiwan, Thai Chung, you know, and the funny thing is at the time that he was getting all the crap for sweatshops, but they’re getting picked on because of the big one and having success but we all share the law at all. But we all share the same factories.
They were the ones who just the big target, but I thought was so funny that they were getting all this heat, the sweatshop thing and we’re all in it. And frankly, factory jobs like the best job in town, a lot of those places they were getting, you know, people lived on campus. They three square meals a day, their schools for the kids, it was actually like Good deal for the local locals. So I just I learned a ton from that time being a product developer. And then fast for the last role I held was was basically snow marketing measure.
You know, working with Mike arts and Joe Babcock and the abs. It’s funny, it shifted from being a rapper to going into development. And that was the last role I had was was when they moved the company to Colorado, and I was working the snow division.
Marc Gutman 39:32
This episode brought to you by wildstory. Wait, isn’t that your company? It is. And without the generous support of wild story, this show would not be possible. A brand isn’t a logo or a tagline or even your product. A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product service or company.
It’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Wild story Helps progressive founders and savvy marketers build purpose driven brands that connect their business goals with the customers they want to serve. So that both the business and the customer needs are met. This results in crazy, happy, loyal customers that purchase again and again. And this is great for business. If that sounds like something you and your team might want to learn more about, reach out @ www.wildstory.com. And we’d be happy to tell you more. Now back to our show.
Yeah, and so in at that point, you know, you were doing snowboard boot development, you’re in the snow division. Did you start doing some of those unique collabs at AIR walk or was that a little bit later in your career?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 40:48
That was that came later. But I think that why those came to me was because of my understanding of product timelines, raw materials, how that works, how the how they come to production. caliber work. So if you want to work with a brand like, Hey, we want to do a shoe or a jacket rubber for it, let’s do it for, you know, 2021 season Well, this day and age, I don’t care how good the technology, you still can’t get anything done that fast.
And you’re gonna like, probably wouldn’t be able to unless you put a patch on something that’s an existing silhouette, you know, but again, we did, I will be honest with you. I mean, I do have a few pieces that I have made for myself over there that are one off, and it’s just kind of fun to have something that no one else in the world has, you know, because I knew that just custom shoes for friends and family, things like that. It’s not a big deal. All I do is have a little extra different material to make the tongue a little different color or whatever. That was super fun for me.
And again, I can’t draw to save my life. But I think one of the things that I was able to do because my time is merchandiser when we would do a design review and put all the silhouettes on the wall. I’d like to think I picked out probably the one was going to sell the best off the shelf. Like I don’t know what it is. I just Look at it took me two seconds, I look at that one. And I’m not saying it always was the case. But I think that again, I want my learnings of being at retail, and going to numerous countless, because I covered the whole Midwest accounts, everything from shields, in the Dakotas to these little skate shops, like I was like, okay, that’s okay, what the company is doing that they’re not going to do.
Now given. Once I went into the office environment. I was more traveling to like trade shows and events and things like that I wasn’t on the boots on the ground as much. But again, unfortunately, that culminated in so many poor decisions made by the teams, the leadership that by the time, my counterparts and I got a position to do anything that brand was pretty much done, unfortunately. So that was my MBA. I’m not the only one. Were my office, my family and I have a master’s degree and that was my extra degree. And how not to do business was what I learned. arawak Yeah, when I started getting that would arawak argue is one of the top action sports brands of any time. We just made the number boots on word. I thought they were eating burdens lunch wise. And they haven’t done head to toe yet.
But just if you look at the old rosters of the teams, I mean, there was no comparison. You know, it was that hot and to the way that that that poor decisions that were made, in hindsight and again, it was just it bringing the sales guys from the big shoe companies, you know, phila, Reebok wherever, didn’t sell these guys were taking orders, it dumped the shoes on the table and furniture, knees, that’s looking stuffs, the skate stuff that ended up in journeys. And then we just choke out the little guys that they’ve relied on Jeff rally shoe. There were a lot in 2002.
There were a lot of Jason Lee, there are a lot you know, Mike Frazier, and we kill them. We literally like it. Because again, Vance wasn’t a player that they are now. And it was asked us at these events on the wall, the skate shops, and the majority Was there one shoot and it’s just to see that happen and not really have any control and I’m never gonna get in that position again. That was brutal.
Marc Gutman 43:56
Yeah, and you’re I mean, you really did you. I mean, you hit it like it’s heyday like where it was like at its best. And then due to private equity and demands on shareholder returns really kind of just went went downhill and didn’t go the right way. But, you know, like you said, you did get basically an MBA there, you learn so much. I mean, we don’t have to get into it now. But I know that you have so many close friends from those from those days as well and that have gone on to do other things. But from that point, you sort of start like a new chapter of your career, which really is turned into canned beverages in a weird way. And so if I forgot this, right, you went to red balls that right?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 44:38
Marc Gutman 44:39
yeah. And so you got there and oh, my gosh, talk about sort of the poster child for action sports marketing. I mean, really, is there anything you know, at the time better?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 44:53
No, you know, I have to be honest with you like, the stars aligned for me at that point. It was without trying me. It took me a year. To get hired, and that’s how they were so new, no one who had an energy drink was, when I think about it, we was it was so crazy, I guess would be the best way. And I’m not I’m not kidding you. It’s like I won the lottery. Because all sudden, overnight, you know, again, they didn’t have the brand equity yet they were they were gonna build that.
But overnight, I basically had a, you know, on my expense report, I had a line item for a long time, like I could expense I mean, who does that? Right? And it took me a while to really, I was one of the first force marketing managers and I remember I’ve always believed in rolling my sleeves and training my team. I’ve never asked anyone to do something I would do myself. And I was putting on an event somewhere and I’m in Brighton all over the venue, right? And my boss stopped me. He’s still a dear friend. He’s like, Dude, what are you doing? And I’m like, dude, I gotta help you. Because that’s why you have a budget to hire the event crew to worry about. Okay, I need you to make sure everything’s straight.
Like, again, you want to help, that’s fine. You’re going to help us big time by making sure your branding looks right and whenever it’s just chill, like let the worker bees work. Your phone And so it’s not saying I ever got comfortable with that. But but then it got to the point where we literally live by the mantra like, pay the fine. Like we asked for forgiveness, not permission. And it was unbelievable because right then we ended up having to remember the channel crossing. You know, we are Felix Baumgartner goes across the English Channel on a jet when he does that, right. And that became a benchmark where it was like, Alright, what’s our next channel crossing? Because I’ve made international news, you know, and so that was where the heat was turned up on us as sports, right matches, what’s the next athlete project you’re going to do? What’s the next event? What is the next channel crossing, you know? And so it was overwhelming to me. I mean, they treated us so well at Red Bull.
I mean, just it’s, the company is very, very skewed like they, they get it does have that euro vibe. They’re very, very like driven and results driven. But the difference, this is one thing I’ve learned, which is my soft spot, is that I was never ever held to a scalable number. All right stix you do that we better sell X amount of cases. Never, ever once in my tenure, there was I ever held my hand held to the candle saying, if you’re doing this, you better said we better sell more cancel. They just knew it. And I think that that is a key to a really, really successful team is when you all have a common goal, but you trust each other. And no one’s ever packing anyone else. No one’s ever like, well, he did this. She did that or whatever.
No, it was like the part that became the biggest pressure cookers when we’d meet a couple times a year and we’d literally have each, each of us or five of us would get called out to the carpet. Okay, what’s the next big idea? That’s pretty when you got the Austrians over here, and they’re like, what, what’s next? What do we do? What’s the next idea? And that you could never have the exclusive This is the crazy thing. Think about this. Money was never an excuse. Like I mean, I didn’t know that was $960,000. Okay, money was never so that was not new, you could hide behind. But the funny part is, you can have a very, very impactful event with just a case of product in a bottle of vodka.
You know, I mean, it’s just dependent on you don’t I mean? How to do that. Not everything was a home run. Not every single thing resonated. But this is before you know, certainly before any social media, you know, so the only output we had for a lot of this content was it was originally a G shock rush hour I think it was called some like that which became fuel TV. Well fuel TV. It was that like after a while, like okay, rebel, you’re doing amazing stuff. But this is also becoming the rebel channel. We can’t use all your content, which is why Red Bull and they started getting into this when I parted ways in the rebel media house where they become their own production and all that and, you know, it’s funny, ESPN even sniffed out as well.
It is brilliant on rebels. Yeah, they were painted by this crazy airtime and New Years and just put their own branded events on there. And you’ll get basically if you consider what the cost of media buys, it was nothing was a drop in the bucket for Redbull to reach millions and millions, millions of people something super unique. You know, like Robbie Maddison doing the lawn rolls large jump over a football field. Or you know, All righty, Madison stuff. You’ve seen it years. And that’s typical red bull, like we’re going to come in. We’re coming hot. We’re going to do it right now. It’s gonna be people can’t touch us probably, you know, cost wise, you know?
Marc Gutman 49:05
So why’d you leave red bull, if it was so great?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 49:07
You know what? Honestly there’s like any company there was um, shifts and how they were going to do originally the sports marketing crew reported to Santa Monica and had a dotted line to Austria and and that got watered down and there was they decentralized that and you know it’s like anything you get Growing Pains is a big company and you know when I started a sports marketing manager, you handle everything from a soapbox race or a photog which maybe you’ve seen where you know, flying the means when people make their own little crafts or jump off a deck, you know, they’ve done it everywhere all over the country of Portland, Santa Monica New York City.
All sudden they broke it out to right now you’re gonna have an event manager you’re gonna have an athlete manager. It’s just got her water down. I’m not saying from a control freak perspective that I needed my hand and everything. But then they want to they were talking about shifting people move different places, but surely wasn’t really Colorado and Pascual Riven came out of nowhere and different stuff to think about how to hem and haw about us the passing of the money was pretty much a dormant brand. But I could sense there was this brand equity that was building because the athletes I care I could give whatever they wanted whatever bottles surface especially the skates know guys like I want Pepsi. Pepsi ribbon. I had had that in college and that was literally because it was whatever’s on sale. Right.
And it’s just had this cachet to it as an escape guys special they’re just like password and password like what is going on? And it’s funny how that segue happened. Because I went in there going Oh, yeah, I can do some fun with this brand in the back of my head going holy crap. How you gonna pull this off with nobody? You know, I mean, talking I said over and over again talking about going penthouse to the poorhouse. That’s exactly what happened. The budget was big time. Yeah, but then
Marc Gutman 50:47
so and what was that? Like? What was the marketing plan at paps? I mean, like you said you have a lot, you know, not very much budget. So how did you deal with that?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 50:58
Well, the one thing that It became very clear to me was I had something that 99% of events need. And that’s alcohol. And I knew if I could figure out the distribution system, you can’t ship alcohol in certain legal but we had hired FM’s field marketing managers, our market agents we had a calling in different cities. And we thought you know, we’re going to do this as grassroots as in as in person as possible in you know, in marketing to amplify the brand. But we if the stars align the way a couple things got one, we were in a recession, okay, to perhaps in having marketing behind.
So if nothing was being shoved down consumer throats, this is the you know, PB army SAP, none of that, but it was just it just chugged along. And we’re cheap. I mean, the bottom line is with that, and I often like to refer to Goodwill hunting. Remember that that wealthy girl starts dating Matt Damon, and it’s almost like she’s kind of slinging it. He says to her, it’s almost like you know, paps had this like kind of dirty connotation to it. You know, like you’re a little dirty. I have in the past. The big aha moment for me, I think it was 2010, something like that.
We did a, I’m sorry, I was approached friend or friend type thing, which is where a lot of my opportunities came from, like once I was able to pass on some of these doors started opening for me in music, art and action sports because of my relationships and past jobs. And I got hit up by I don’t remember what brand it was. It was Alexander when tech ran, but it was one of the brands was doing an event during fashion week in New York City and they said, We want taps there. And I’m sitting there scratching my head like, Okay, I have zero money to give you. This is something Heineken would pay 10 grand just to be in the door. I don’t get it. So I said I will sponsor this but I need to be able to come check it out. And sure enough, I went there. I didn’t have a black turtleneck like everybody else but whatever. That’s right.
And I walked backstage and it’s passed in these bins and you know, they do that where they put the cloth drape in there and then they put water in the bins. It was us some shishi water and don’t carry on. I’m not kidding you. But when the light bulb went off when I was sitting Around whenever he was milling about after the show was a runway show, and I sat there and watched it and whatever, didn’t get half of what these people were wearing, but whatever I’m supposed to, but I saw these little wavy models carrying pops in their head. And I knew, right, well, they wanted nothing to do with the liquid inside. It had everything to do with it, they had that camera in their hand. And that to me was like that is brand equity. And literally, I always kind of looked at apps that way, I looked at it as it’s not, we’re not a beer company.
We’re a brand. And I think it drove the other beer companies nuts because they just couldn’t figure out how to crack our code. But they weren’t set up to. They couldn’t be nimble. They couldn’t do what we did. And we never asked permission, just like Redbull we just did it and we’d literally get asked for forgiveness. And I can say now knock on wood. I didn’t have one thing but you the button, and there’s a lot of illegal things that happen just because of the restrictions and laws with alcohol that we pulled off afterwards things but I can stand I can really say that The broadcasts that the only time I wrote a check in almost a decade at tops were in front event was to reimburse people in Salt Lake City.
They were doing events like around Sundance or doing some spice, the sneaker shop, things like that. I just did. They can’t by law, they couldn’t go pick up products so I literally reimburse them that was it. But I never wrote checks robots ever once. Just for my it’s not anything so grassroots.
Marc Gutman 54:23
Yeah. And I think you got really creative as well with a lot of the, you know, collabs that you did in the sense that you were able to take and find a brands that you love, but also brands that could elevate pops, but also in turn, perhaps could elevate that brand. And finding really good fits. Can you give us an example of a couple, maybe one or two of like your favorite car labs and how that went down?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 54:48
Well, I one of the first ones I did just kind of funny, makes it come full circle was a shoe. And it was with Ked’s, Ked’s, right. And I remember At the time, there was a skate brand called Supra. And still around somewhere, but at the time, you know, it was really a kind of skate brand. And the reason I went to Cannes is that they’re American made. It’s a long story. I didn’t win. But because I understood, again, timelines, raw material production, no one really paid any mind to it. I just kind of ran with the project, and how to make an X amount of pairs. And then I got him out to the field. And then everyone started losing. What are you talking about? I still have a couple pairs myself, what are these come from, like, whatever. And that that was, again, purposeful, I didn’t make very many pairs, but then keds came back because they posted it. And they’re saying, Oh, my God, Urban Outfitters just said that they would literally put in, like a seven figure order in the shoes.
And I was like, Great, good for them. Nope. And they’re like, what? And the salesmen are just like begging and he’s a good dude, but I was just like, dude, you don’t get it like that’s not like I’m not getting a lot of random poured out again, I refuse, I will quit before I would let you get this in urban outfitters and that’s what they’ve obviously got their own niche, but no way that would, I would absolutely go against ever thing that I can burn up in the past. So that was one of the first ones and then the one that I think really lit the fire, I’d like to think was the finding the snowboard binding I did with union because that one, George over there was still a really good friend of mine and I completely saw I’d I’d heard you because they’d have a very, very clean distribution. They’re very well respected. The product is amazing.
And I really really had so much fun because it reminded me when I was making boots because it’s snowboarding which is like my favorite activity in the world. And we had the idea of you know, we’re not going to sell these we’re gonna do X amount and I believe I want to say we did I mean it was like, they took their top 20 shops, each shop got five pairs, and they didn’t tell them are coming and all sudden they just showed up and it’s like do you want if you want to sell them that’s fine with some of the shops do that’s cool. It’s gonna help a local shop or give them your Stoke up an employee, do a raffle. And that was one that I’m most proud of because it caused the most commotion. That’s what I knew. We were onto Something.
I mean, people were like, I’ve never been more blown in my life than when those dropped by people like every, and we’re talking like high up at Nike, like a burden. All these places like hitting me up, like saying, How do I get my hands on those, and that’s where I was just the most as humbled and I was just really proud. Proud of the fact to the past, let me do that, you know, it was kind of an S forgiveness, not permission. But just like with Red Bull, there’s a trust there that it was gonna be done. Right. And so that opened the floodgates, all of a sudden, every you know, so many brands were hitting us up to clap, but they were doing it for the wrong reason. You know, there’s some brands that honestly they were they were trying to hitch their wagon to the, to the momentum we had as a brand and I just wasn’t gonna let that happen. I don’t know.
And you just start to figure out when you do this long enough, who is who has, you know, their best interests in mind and who are just in it. I hate to say after like a quick buck, you know, I have sunglass companies that I’d never heard of hit me up, unlike absolutely not, you know, so it’s nice. I guess that’s pretty telltale when you have a lot of rejection. To use when you have other established brands asking you to work with them, you know, you can have haters too.
And I kind of really got a kick out of the haters because, you know, they’d love to bash the beer. And I just water off a duck’s back to me, Ambassador, but yet you’re the first guy, he’s gonna hit me up for swag, you know. And so yeah, it was. It was a great run. Let’s put that way.
Marc Gutman 58:25
Yeah, and you know, and it takes incredible discipline to have that outlook, especially in marketing or marketing and sales, right. And there’s so much pressure and to have this discipline to say look like, we’re going to give these cola products to the people that really represent the brand at the barbacks the lift these the people at the skate shop, like you have this real intuition that by doing that by staying disciplined, it was going to have the maximum reach but like how did you stay disciplined? I mean, it’s it’s not easy to say no, especially when You have colleagues, when you have people at the company saying, look, we can make a lot more money, we can hit our goals, we can do bigger and better things like how do you maintain that discipline for the good of the brand?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 59:10
You know? Because, again, you guys hired me at past and I were the perfect. It’s like the odd couple, because he was very analytical. We actually just spoke the other day, great guy. And he understood the process. I didn’t know anything about the bigger business. But I also think that helped me because I didn’t come in there with your goggles on the pun intended, you know what I mean? Like I came in, you know, and then like any industry, there is no voice. And I learned that real quick in beer, that it’s definitely you know, boys are especially with the distributors. But when there was something that had him reach out to me and said, Hey, I need to talk to you.
And we were connected only because a kid who used to work at rebel was was working at paps and said, Hey, you should talk to this guy is because we’re growing here and we were afforded a board of directors at the time. And I could tell some of them were just you know, arms crossed. Cuz this kid from Red Bull, you know, and maybe some saying we better do what you hear we did Red Bull kind of thing. So yeah, there was maybe maybe there were self and self induced pressures, I don’t know. But my boss though we didn’t know each other that well he managed me like, I guess, successful manager we have and that’s like give me enough rope to hang myself and don’t put them in a position that they’re gonna have to answer. And I never did that to any of my bosses, right did something super dumb and a bunch of money or did something that could have gotten something out of harm’s way. I never did that.
So there was just that level of trust there. And it worked. It’s just, again, the stars align for the past Man, I wish you know, I’m gonna make this very clear. Like we had a really amazing brand team. So I can’t take all that you know, any since I last spoke in the wheel, whatever word analogy we use, but we all trust each other. And as we grew, you know, the cool part is they were taking people out of the field and putting them in positions to run division. So one guy has to be the market manager for Colorado now runs these Still here, all things PBR art. We another guy who came from the east coast, who was East Coast man and director of field marketing, became director of music, he all music initiatives, and I would kind of cross pollinate with those guys an opportunity to have there be a little art show or a little record, release party, whatever, it just work. And again, in the heyday of paths, it was, you know, recession, we were cheap. And again, there was no marketing message out there didn’t shut down anyone’s throat.
The idea was, let everyone decide for themselves what pass needs to them. We’re not going to sit there and shut anything down their throat, we’re not going to roll into a bar with arms full of swag, you know, out of the gate, because it just cheapens your brand. It’s like No, your point, who is really passionate about it, and take care of the little people. It’s not hard. It’s not I mean, people that you know, you just said our backs, no patrol, lift these rumors. You know, we’re talking serious. You know, I mean, anyone that people are cleaning up an event space, take care of them. You know, I always believed in The event production crew you know, I mean I’m one year over took the whole backstage which Coachella had, you know, it’s sponsored huge sponsorship dollars by a prominent beer brand and literally flooded the whole back area for the workers with things they needed functional right meaning sweatbands, visors, trucker hats, bandanas and then of course, it was a nondescript bus we had passed available to the crew, which this fear company lost it, they couldn’t figure out how this is happening.
But all it was doing was was fulfilling a need. And we were tipping our hat to all these hard workers that are laying cable scaffolding, you know, have thankless jobs making everyone else can dress like a gypsy of the field and take selfies there. The reason why and that’s what we did. It’s just again, we went there was no elitist VIP parties. There’s like no, no, we you know, we’re now that the only thing we did Honest to God, I mean, yeah, we were in some house parties in around Coachella, but we literally there’s a Rouse that’s like across the street from the venue and we just help the local sales. People are kept stocking, restocking stocking stocking the Ralph’s and then giving out swag to the concert goers.
So Oh, you need you need, you need a lip balm? Here’s a little, you know, some some of this tchotchke stuff I never would do otherwise. But this is a case where we talked about it. And we said, you know, what can we do around this, this is something that people will need, they’re going to need to have, and boy did that stuff get gobbled up, you know. And so that was it. But that’s how we had to do was we were gonna sit there and write a giant check the K rock, you know, or something like that. So we just had to be scrappy.
And that was fun, because then you’re meeting your consumer space and these people had a name and a face to pass. You know? I mean, let’s put it this way. There wasn’t a golf shirt or pleaded slack anywhere near any of the stuff we were doing in the field.
Marc Gutman 1:03:44
Yeah, and super creative and super authentic. And if working for a small, underground, not underground, just a smaller beer brand that had no budget wasn’t hard enough. You decided to continue on your career trying to brand the old ultimate challenge something that we all get for free water where are you now
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 1:04:05
that’s yeah I’m with liquid death and water and and I was connected to well there’s there’s two founders actually mean founder Meister sorry last year and I don’t remember how long the conversation was but it’s just it’s what most people we all we all run into in our life for wealth so you just click and I think we talked for at least an hour, if not more and he was explaining to me what what his vision was for the brand and I so much of it was in my wheelhouse because of his background like he’s played in punk bands. He loves football, he loves skateboarding, and frankly, he admired what paps have done. And I don’t remember but we we start having a lot of people we knew in common, but only that a lot of the views on how to cultivate a brand. But my my hat goes off to Mike because he is really the visionary of what’s going on.
I am Trying to add what I can with my guess because a lot of it is done just getting using my network and helping amplify the brand getting cancer enhance to the overuse term every day nowadays marketing or, or businesses couldn’t. And, you know, I’m such a people person and I’m used to being at events, having meetings with brands being in different cities, that’s all been grounded now. So, like Pax, what is great is that I’ve been shipping out water left and right to people. And this isn’t just, it’s not a celebrity thing. It’s not whatever, it’s just friends.
You know, I want my buddy’s Mom, you know, wives and mothers to have it I want you know, I can give this product to newborns, I can give it to elderly. But with this pandemic, you know, I’m flattered how many people have been posting about it. And I’m sorry, but there isn’t. You can’t get more authentic content and people just doing it on their own. You know, I’ve been asked anyone to do it, but you’re right.
It is something everyone needs. got too much or too little water and dye, but this whole desk the plastic can and Mike it stated that in an interview is in like the CPG business like it’s been so conservative and I’m gonna use this term now he didn’t say it, but he just puts it when people just kind of like afraid to like ruffle feathers and right you know, and I understand that there’s a game you have to play to get into grocery, there’s a game you have to play to get into convenience that there’s no doubt, that’s not my specialty.
My specialty is, you know, working with cool people doing cool shit, which people in turn want to buy. And that’s where we get back to what you’d asked me earlier and I just I literally won’t know when your assistant asked me to put that in a bio. But that’s essentially it, you know, and, you know, it’s like, it reminds me a lot with passed in the way that, you know, we’re this upstart brand, but we’re going to be in the being the bonnet and and we’re not a water company.
We’re brand, right. And that’s the part that I have experiences, you know, and I’m able to draw off what I learned at Red Bull and I’m able to draw what I learned this past Friday.
Marc Gutman 1:07:00
Yeah, I love that I love that we’re not a water company. We’re a brand and you know, even through the pandemic, you had a great promotion called murder your house? And do you want to tell our listeners a little bit about that? Because I thought that was just so, you know, people are really scrambling and thinking like how do we stay engaged, and it was such an interesting way to promote your own brand, stay super on brand, and have fun during this pandemic.
We’re a lot of people are really sensitive about having fun, people are scared to have fun. People are scared to talk about their brand in a fun way other than the tagline of in these difficult times, you know, this and that. And so I thought that was really ingenious. And you want to tell the listeners a little bit about, you know, just how that came about. And in the results of that?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 1:07:48
Well, you know, I must say we’re very fortunate because we partnered with the Berrics. And for those who don’t know, it’s a it’s a facility, backed by the likes of Eric koston and Steve Berra who ironically, was an airlock skater, and haven’t have involved a lot, not only just for the visibility of it, but the authenticity of it. And yeah, people are what I just said earlier posting content about liquid death, which I’m flattered by but and that was not the point was like what authentic we there’s some parts of the country. I was just talking to a guy today.
He’s like, dude, LA, I can’t put my tap, like your water save us. This is awesome. So understand that. It’s just okay. I have something. And I’d like to think and pandemics people do share. I mean, yeah. Did I want to get the cancer hands? Absolutely. But But I had something that people could use in certain parts of the country, you know, parts of New York, for instance, that don’t have good water. You know, again, Mike has the background and escape, and knowing that people are gonna be bored out of their schools, but you also got to remember people love that forum. There are a lot of people want to be heard that they want that soapbox, you know, and the thought that they could do this, and have fun doing it. And not only that, people love to see content. We know that right? We want powerful visuals.
And so that again it it was so amazing some of the submissions but I actually felt bad for the dude like trying even when I saw Him and who the runners up and there was so much stuff that was popping up and not even like on our feet like just randomly someone would tag us and post something other than they probably should submitted it you know? So it was just fun that it that it just so happened to be that we’re split stay at home orders and then murder your house you know, but I talked to Mike and Mike really work closely with Steve Berra on that. And here we are.
I don’t know if you saw the winner but it’s insane the turn brothers took a half an adult and during those guys in Florida I mean it’s pretty next level like I’d like to see anyone that’s heard senior pros comment on like, I don’t know how I would ever even do that. You know?
Marc Gutman 1:09:43
Yeah, I saw and to clarify for anyone listening, the murder your house promo was show us how you murder your house. And a lot of people submitted like you know, skating and all sorts of things and in their homes in the winter, which I believe you can see on Instagram. I can’t remember I follow you on all my channel. So I think it was Instagram. Yep. Don’t turn up Florida in this brothers. Yeah.
Marc Gutman 1:10:04
Double Decker, from top to bottom through the house. I mean, it’s just crazy. And so
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 1:10:09
yeah, and they just it was next level, we saw some really creative stuff and you know, these guys like, it’s not a finger speech like their house was a skate park. Like I just, I mean, it’s insane, you know, so they deserve all the accolades that come in their way.
Marc Gutman 1:10:22
Yeah. And so, so stix. What are you most excited about with liquid death as you look to the future?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 1:10:28
I think the part that I’m so excited about is that I get to help, you know, I guess, grow this brand, knowing it’s something that every single person on this earth needs. Okay, not everybody needs chocolate, every likes to taste alkane everybody likes beer. Energy drinks, unfortunately, have gotten kind of a bad connotation, but to have something that that and the other part is seeing people hold that key again, and instantly as an icebreaker for people who maybe are a little socially awkward. It’s a conversation starter. You know, we’ve got people who are sober. And there’s that psychology of man, I got a kid in my hand and looks, you know, are exploding water sparkling looks like a gift Miss Can someone say and say that that still looks like a devil can that psychology of you know what I don’t drink and that’s okay.
There’s nothing wrong with that better for you. But like, you know what, this is something that this and we are in a infinitely recyclable container, you know. And I just it excites me that I can take what I’ve learned in the past music, garden action sports when I’m passionate about because, but it’s bigger than that. I mean, we could put our water in daycares. We could put our water in elderly homes, you know, not that that little liquid death everywhere on a nursing home. But you know what I mean? Like I can, it’s bigger than just that.
I’m not, you know, there’s certain things where we, you know, even if Redbull like certain, you know, they’re so picky about what athletes represent them and what we’re going to be and how that’s why they own all their events. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that they’ve kept the clients And they’ve kept their brand. There’s reason why it’s a multi billion dollar brand. But I’m just excited knowing that this is something that, like, the governor’s off, that makes sense. Like I can run with this. And there isn’t really any thing on this earth that I can’t get us involved in, you only mean with, within reason, right? And I can baptize a kid with our product. You know, that’s pretty cool. You know. So that’s the part that excites me the most is that the possibilities
Marc Gutman 1:12:26
super cool. But as a brand, or as you know, sometimes when we have too many possibilities, it creates problems. So it’ll be exciting to see, you know, where you do decide to take the brand in the future. It’s a super exciting story.
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 1:12:38
Yeah, we were definitely keeping it tight to the best. Don’t get me wrong. But you know, it’s at the same token, again, like when I said earlier about past, like most events on this earth need water. And, you know, it’s like, we’re gonna make water you know, you could say make water cool. No, we’re afraid we’re not waterproof, but I’m gonna really make sure because it’s back to the air walk reference. So we don’t we can’t be everything to everyone.
You know, like, you don’t want to try to your point bite off more than we can chew and to do stuff have kind of half baked, you know, we want to make sure that we’re doing it right. But again, it’s you don’t need to explain water. You know, it’s water. You know, that’s it. Some people, of course, ask, is it flavored? Does it alcohol? That’s fine. It’s conversation starter. But it’s it’s funny to be like, wow, it’s a different take on something that’s been around eternity. Water, you know, and, but again, it’s fun what we can do with this brand. So I’m really excited.
Marc Gutman 1:13:31
Absolutely stix as we come down to the end of our time here. If you ran into your 20 year old self, what do you think he’d say, if he saw you today?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 1:13:40
I think he’d be like, how did you get here from Minnesota? Where you are like how? Because this is what the prospects weren’t there back then. But my answer to him would be I worked my tail off to get here. This isn’t handed to me, nothing in my career has been handed to me. And that’s the thing I’m most proud of. But it’s like it like that. To me my Exhibit A when I’m trying to teach my identical twin boys. It’s amazing. What’s the saying?
I’m amazed how much luck I have the harder I work, you know, and that’s I firmly back that Yeah, you can say there’s certain things like I said when the stars align whatever but I am proud that I sit here today and I’m fortunate enough to be on your podcast. Literally hard work and relationships really is but it’s a two way street not just taken from someone but they’re people. You meet a certain group of people that you support each other and you have a common goal.
God it’s amazing what you can accomplish. And I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve had some really amazing coworkers you know evergrande like worked at and many of which are still dear friends of mine.
Marc Gutman 1:14:40
Six where can our listeners find out about more about you and liquid death?
Steve “Stix” Nilsen 1:14:46
Well, I liquiddeath.com or @liquid death is the social handle my social handle being @stixaround but one word stix around. But that was that was what I would do is play around whenever we’re adding content and fun things. All the time on our social and our website. And we’re really excited right now, the big news is we’re in Whole Foods. And that partnership has been amazing. We’ve been doing really well. They’re very easy to deal with.
They’re our grocer right now. And it’s, you know, I know there’s a lot of brands who would love to be in Whole Foods, and I’m starting to get pictures daily. of them, literally, some of the displays, they’re building and whatnot. And it’s starting to catch on and people are obviously asking what the heck is this, but it’s amazing to work with someone who understands how to cater to their customers, and make the shopping experience very positive specially under these conditions nowadays, and to work with to understand merchandising, understand brands, understand the field, their stores, and whatnot, and to work with them.
It’s just been amazing. So every day, we’re gaining momentum. And that’s really exciting.
Marc Gutman 1:15:57
And that is Stix, aka Steve Nilson with liquid death. Is there a better name than exploding water for liquid death seltzer?
I think not.
In his creativity with different brands, regardless of budget goes to show that when you have money, like when he did it Red Bull, you still can’t buy a great idea. And we don’t have money. Like when he was at Paps, you can come up with incredibly effective marketing that doesn’t cost a lot. Thank you again to stix and liquid death. Well, that’s the show.
Until next time, make sure to visit our website www.wildstory.com where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS so you’ll never miss an episode. I like Big backstories and I cannot lie, you other storytellers can’t deny.