Shaping the Future: An Interview with DPS Founder Stephen Drake
Action Sports: Interviews & Features
The Wasatch Mountains are truly a place to admire. Incredible vertical relief and glacier-carved canyons placed right in the path of incoming Pacific storms make the range a unique place to ski and ride. Stephan Drake, founder of DPS Skis, realizes the vast potential of the area, and his dedication to building quality, hand-crafted skis exists to this day. Catching up with Drake, it is apparent that his love for design is only overshadowed by his love for the mountainous regions of the world.
SLUG: Take us through the early years of DPS.
Stephan Drake: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, my whole life was centered around chasing the perfect turn on the perfect run. It also meant a seriousness related to developing my own skiing technically as an art—training, drills, mountain craft, dialing in and modifying equipment—all to prep for those fleeting special moments when conditions lined up. It was a serious type of ski bumming. As I pushed myself forward as a skier into new places, I began dreaming of equipment that the race-centric manufacturers simply didn’t make. The way we were skiing mountains and wanted to ski mountains demanded a whole new type of ski that didn’t exist at the time. Without even a thought of selling or marketing, I began custom-painting and modifying off-the-shelf skis. One day, I looked down, and thought about the energy I was putting into customizing my own ski and thought it was a good time to share that via the creation of a company.
SLUG: Why did DPS choose Utah for its headquarters?
Drake: During the early years, we had utopian vision of all working remotely from laptops, chasing snow around the globe. It turns out that was a bit of a naïve idea. We needed a headquarters, and at first debated locating in a mountain town like Jackson, Wyoming, [over] Salt Lake City. In the end, it came down to the ultimate convenience that SLC offers to a ski company: the short, triangular distance between factory/powder/airport, the workforce, available resources and the relatively inexpensive costs of running a business versus being in a mountain town.
SLUG: What were the biggest challenges DPS faced early on?
Drake: Production and research and development started out in China because it was the cheapest way to get going in a bootstrapped mode. There were issues with production and delivery. Because of those early days, we are committed to the SLC factory, developing and controlling product under our own roof.
SLUG: How does a ski design go from idea to reality?
Drake: All design projects, whether a radical new idea or an iterative riff on an existing concept, usually involves [me] and Peter Turner (DPS’ Head Engineer) meeting to explore it. We will flush it, draw it, sketch it and define it. Peter then makes it come to life via computer programming, and the tooling/parts are generated. Then we build it and head to the mountains to test it!
SLUG: What drives innovation at the company, and how do you capture and retain creative people and ideas?
Drake: Innovation is driven by a strong passion to evolve our practice and understanding of the art of skiing. The resources available to us to attract and retain talent are constrained due to our size—which can be frustrating. On the other hand, it forces us to be scrappy and creative. So while you would always like to attract more talent, ultimately, our group consists of smart, dynamic people that are attracted to an entrepreneurial environment.
SLUG: How many skis does DPS sell in a given year, and what does that say about the “artisan-made and craft boutique” aspect of your brand?
Drake: We are a medium-sized ski company. Because of that, there is still a lot of room for us to grow while retaining our craft nature, and that’s our intent. I feel like being medium-size and owning your own production is a nice place to be; generally, the smallest garage brands don’t have the necessary machinery or technology to really hone top-tier product, and the big brands don’t necessarily have the focus and drive to truly innovate. Our relative size has been one factor that has allowed us to be progressive.
SLUG: How does DPS differentiate itself within this ever-changing competitive environment?
Drake: We are always exploring technological boundaries in terms of materials and shaping, and I think we have always been known for that. Our brand, I think, is also unique in its identity; visual design across the board is simple and clean—reflective of the simplicity and power of the powder moment and in contrast to much of the industry. It’s a core principle that we stick to.
For the future, the team at DPS will continue to leverage its position in the marketplace and remain nimble. Cultivating a culture of innovation and pride in its creations allows DPS to retain a unique foothold in the industry and create exceptional products targeted at the core skiers out there. For more info, check out dpsskis.com.