Building a Career with Skateboard Industry Maven and Connector Tommy Barker [EP 220]

June 09, 2020

Today I’m speaking with Tommy Barker. I’ve known Tommy since he was a kid running around Eagle Creek and Clive. Following in his Mom and Dad’s footsteps, Steve and Nona Barker, he has made quite a name for himself as an advocate and connector in the Skateboard Industry.

College Skateboarding Education Foundation

Photo courtesy of Thomas Barker

So this is an outdoor biz podcast. Let's start out with how you got introduced to the outdoors.

I mean, I was really kind of born into the outdoors, I grew up in a town called Elfin Forest, where at that time there was maybe six kids. I was 30 minutes from the nearest Seven-Eleven. I felt like I was out in the outdoors. We had llamas and that kind of segues into how I was introduced to the outdoors. At that time, my parents would take me and my sisters and seven or eight Lamas and go up into this Sierra for a few weeks at a time.
“For those of you that don't know Elfin Forest is East of Carlsbad and completely developed now, back then there was nothing. So you were living in a new development then weren't you?”
Oh yeah. I grew up on a dirt road. I had to go to school in Rancho Santa Fe, so every day I would drive on a dirt road and have to go through a river on the way to school. You know, so really rural living. But at the same time, we're only 30 minutes away from real city living.

How old were you when you picked up a skateboard?

We had a little cement-like basketball court in our front yard. And then, you know actually I've tracked this. This is an interesting story, cause I've kind of figured out the origin. We always had skateboards in our garage and I'm pretty sure that it was Jim Alesi. One of the old shippers at Eagle Creek was a Del Mar Skate Ranch Local. So him and Bill Billing, I think they left a skateboard at the house and that's what I picked up. So my skateboard industry origin story goes all the way back to Del Mar Skate Ranch. It is really interesting now that I'm learning more about the skateboard industry history and how instrumental Del Mar was to keep this torch of skateboarding alive in the dead years.
Yeah. I mean, it's really funny now knowing the history. I went to La Costa Canyon, which, I thought La Costa was the corniest place on the face of the planet when I was going there. But then, you know, fast forward years later, I'm doing Skateboarding Hall of Fame Stuff and I'm talking to all the Logan Earth ski guys and some of the original skateboarders. And they're like, we grew up on the black hills of La Costa. They made it sound like the toughest place on the face of the planet. Cause I mean, in the early seventies it probably was. La Costa was basically built on mob money and these guys just found these crazy Hills and that's what they would bomb down. And we didn't know any of this history in high school or anything.

I was checking out some of your movies and videos online. I saw a lot of crashing. What was that all about?

What do you mean?
One of them, I forget I was watching apartment C or some episode of apartment C, and guys were getting blown up all over the place.
It's I mean, it’s pushing the limits now. It's funny because I think I've always just been an accident-prone child. Like I broke my elbow pitching, you know? I broke my back snowboarding.

How many times you've broken your ankle, 57 times?

No like four good ones, so those last two are from skateboarding. But I've always just been an accident-prone child. Actually, one of my things like when we talk about running the Skateboarding Industry Association, one of my high horses was that we've been painted as extreme. I actually did one of the first studies comparing accident rates to participation rates or hospitalization patient rates. And skateboarding's actually middle of the road. We're about like basketball or soccer, you know, ankle and knee injuries.
Now that I'm older and we're having a resurgence of going out and playing soccer again, way more people get hurt. I mean, what you probably saw was I tried to drop in switch or backward on a vert ramp or something. That was my claim to fame right there. Trying to drop in thinking I was like a Bob Burnquist or one of these big famous Vert skaters and just tumbled backward.
Skateboarder at Skateboard park
Photo Courtesy Thomas Barker

So you were involved in creating the Encinitas Skate Plaza and you do some volunteer work with Rolling and from the Heart. What volunteer projects are you involved with these days?

Its real name is Poods Park. And actually Ian “Poods” Barry was a friend of mine who passed away and his death was the impetus of starting Rolling From the Heart. I was involved for many years. I've kind of pulled back in last a year or two as I’ve gotten more involved with other skateboard industry projects. But it's afterschool programs for at-risk youth. I mean, working with kids totally changed me. Cause we were always like, the people at skateparks who, you know, are hollering at us “get out of the way”, and we're like, hollering back “go watch your kid” you know? And then when you actually have to deal with kids, it changes your perspective on things. So it just makes you happy that this kid has an outlet through skateboarding, something to do, something that he's passionate about.
Rollin’ From The Heart was a big one. My favorite memory of that was, um, we had a program similar to Monarch school. Monarch is in downtown San Diego, it's a school for children affected by homelessness. Social Services has to recommend you, but it's really how every school should be. So every Friday they serve hot meals. They have parent-teacher conferences every week, they have a boutique onsite because one of their things is you can't learn if you're in two-day-old clothes. So if they see that you're not wearing like clean clothes a few days in a row you can go on and get that. I think there were like 12 different types of counseling. So there's art therapy, music therapy, there's everything. It's like a 360-degree view of what's available in education. So I was like, I wish I had this stuff when I was in high school. I probably would've felt more connected in my high school if we would have had those things. So that's Rolling From The Heart. And then the last three, four years, we're in our third official year right now I'm a chairman of the board and co-founder of the College Skateboarding Education Foundation and we're the first-ever national scholarship for skateboarders.

Tell us about the College Skateboarding Education Foundation.

Our big thing is we give out scholarships. So we've given out I think, 18 scholarships for about $20,000 in our first two years. Really it's just creating connections between education and skateboarding. The three co-founders it's me and then it's Neftalie Williams, he's a professor at USC. And the other co-founder is Keegan Guizzard he went to NC state and actually started the skate club there. One of the first skate clubs in the US.
So, we're kind of like the three bears. I had a very non-traditional education experience. Keegan had the very traditional education experience and that Naphtali has just gone over the top, he's about to be the first doctor of skateboarding.

Where do you guys get the funding? How do you raise money?

Well, we're learning all the time. How to raise money. Some of it comes from brands. A lot of it's just asking friends, family traditional face to face fundraising, and we get donations from our website, . We sell some tee shirts and stuff, but really every year we're learning.
Right before the pandemic hit. We did a big dinner at the Berric skate park, which is in downtown LA. It's a famous private indoor skate park. It was a fancy dinner and most recent fundraiser we did, we had, I think 45 or 50 people there.
In my first fundraiser, I had five people there. So my theme of this year is, admit to everyone that we're still learning. I feel like no one does that anymore. We're learning and adapting every year to learn how to raise money and how to drive energy towards CSEF. I guess this would be my way of pushing back on the “fake it till you make it”. Cause it's admitting that you're learning, you know? So it's more of a journey and there are a few things leading up to that fundraiser where people were kind of freaking out over lack of ticket sales and stuff. And I had to be like, guys, pause, we are learning. This is our first one. If we get one person to show up it's a win. We're probably going to break even, that's all that matters.

Talk to us about Jenkem magazine, what do you do with them?

I'm the director of partnerships and sales. So basically, I'm dealing with a lot of the same people I dealt with at the International Association of Skateboard Companies. But it's basically just working with skateboard industry brands on content and advertising.
So it's, um, you know, it's funny because Jenkem made their name in the New York skate scene, as you can tell, I am not a New Yorker. I've been the person on the West coast and Ian, the founder and I have been friends for a number of years and we're quite the one-two combo.

Of all the things you've done so far, what are you most proud of? You've done so many things for the skate community.

Oh, geez. I mean, when Pood’s Park opened, I really led the charge. I gave speeches in front of everyone. They were going to move the skate park to phase two, which we called phase never. And, skateboarding in Encinitas, I always call it Hollywood of the skateboard industry. We have Tony Hawk. We have Grant Brittain. We have Mike Burnett, who runs Thrasher. We have all these household names inside skateboarding. So the city was kind of looking at us like, Oh, you guys probably have some money or something. It's like, you know how much money you guys have spent on baseball? And you've never created a pro baseball player? There are 20 pro skaters that have come out of this town. We deserve a world-class facility to skateboard.
And that's what ended up being Pood’s park at the time, I was like, oh, I'm never going to top this, you know, and now that CSEF has really taken off I'm really proud of what we've been able to grow into. We were having a really good year pre-COVID. My goal was this year was to give $30,000 scholarships to 30 kids. And we were on track to do that. And then COVID hit and we pulled back on fundraising just because we felt it wasn't the right time. It was hard when, you know, we have 30, 40% unemployment or something to go and ask people for money. So we have sweatshirts available to sell. We're not making hard asks or anything.

Do you still get on a skateboard every now and again?

Oh yeah. I skated Lake Crowley park by myself the other day, it was really fun. I mean my skating fluctuates as you said, I have bad ankles. I tried to play soccer two years ago and I've been dealing with an Achilles strain ever since. So that comes and goes. I can still hike. This is really the most I've been into hiking. Hopefully, I tell my dad this before he listens but I'm planning on hiking Mount Tom. I told you, I checked the geotag on Instagram and it's a woman saying that this was the most grueling hike I've ever done.
But I have some friends here and about a week or two ago we were all talking about it and they're like, let's just do it. Let's wait until the snow melts and let's do this. I think we're gonna camp at Horton Lakes and go from there.

Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the skateboard or outdoor biz?

I used to say don't, it's like a rule. But you know, from the person who's had every skateboarding job, it's kind of disingenuous to say that. Every time I've almost left the skateboard industry another skateboarding job pops up. When I came out of high school, I worked at Blackbox, which was the biggest skateboard company in the world at the time. And they just literally acquired a shoe company, realized what it meant to have a shoe company and hired every skateboarder in North County who had just come out of high school and that's how I really got my foot in the door. At that time it was more just be a passionate skateboarder, but now it's such a competitive marketplace of getting jobs that you should probably if you want to work in marketing, go get a marketing degree or a liberal arts degree or figure out what it is you want to do. Kind of call your shot.
That's even what we preach at CSEF, we really want to have kids who have a plan for their education. Don't go into it and just like, major in surf kind of thing. So if you want to work in the skateboard industry, there's all these different jobs and pathways. And then go find mentors and people who are doing it and ask them, how could I get from A to B? And then you know, skateboarding, the marketplace of it is cyclical. So have a talent or a skill that if skateboarding slows down, you could go and get a job in an outdoor business. You know, they're all kind of similar tactics and skills. So it's really like, if you grow one of those, then you can kind of figure out what industry you want to work in.
I always say skateboarding is about 20 years behind outdoor, but when you hear the stories of the founders of the outdoor industry in the seventies, they're all dirty hippies, wild dudes, you know, they were all partying and like any industry, they're grown up and now they have all the various disciplines and jobs that mainstream corporations have.

If you were able to hang a huge banner at the entrance of Outdoor Retailer, or Surf Expo, what would it say?

Um, please retire.
I mean the modern skateboard industry was born in the 1990s and it was all these guys, all these companies that were founded in the early nineties and then again in the early two thousand and it's the same people in marketing positions then and now. And I think outdoor, it's a little bit more where guys kind of actually transitioned out and become consultant kind of guys. But that really doesn't happen. I think there's definitely been a ceiling for my generation. Even just starting brands or something is tough. In the early nineties could start a brand for not that much capital buy-in and grow it slowly. And now if you really want to start like a legit business, it's a couple of million dollars and there are no banks loaning you money at this point. So, I mean, it's really telling people like there's a whole generation ready to come up behind you. Let them come up and give them opportunities. When I was at Blackbox, one of my mentors, Chad, who was the general manager there, he was younger than I am now, running a $40 million business. And that just blows my mind. He had 120 employees and they seem so mature and everything. And I don't know how I'd handle that now. But again, we didn't exactly have those same opportunities.
The way I met my cofounder Neftalie, he used to have a class on skateboarding, arts culture, and industry at USC. I was for like three years in a row as a guest speaker in his class. One of the trippiest things that ever happened to me is walking into a USC class and having a kid, giving a presentation to introduce me suddenly this kid was going through my LinkedIn telling my history. And I was like, Whoa. But then two football players fell asleep on me while I was presenting. So that brought me down real quick. But I really loved the value of that class because even going back to me, growing up Eagle Creek. It's like, you learn the systems of businesses, how everything's fit together. And I think like, even though like we'll get into me being a little shit at Eagle Creek, I still, would ask everyone what they did and that was so valuable to me. And then when I went to Black Box, I already understood how product merchandise and everything worked together. So I think that class was kind of the same thing. It's like, you're learning each facet in the industry and how they work together.

I don't know if I was there yet or if this is an urban legend, but the Eagle Creek shipping guys boxed you up and threatened to ship you off to the Philippines or something?

That was one. But then what they also did was in the middle of August, they shrink-wrapped me to a cart and put me out in the parking lot for a few hours. I was a kid from Elfin Forest who had no people around. I’d get to Eagle Creek and I just was like, people talk to me. I feel most at home now or most comfortable at a business in a warehouse. Because TC, Vince, all the guys, like those are the guys who were like my older brothers or something. And so when I was at Black Box or in a few jobs I would try to keep one task in the warehouse just so I could go hang out with the boys.
And then once I started really working at Clive, I think I started when I was 12. I remember cause it was before I could even get a work permit. And I started just filing all for Rudy Vasquez, all of his dealer forms. He was doing sales and I just would file all this paperwork. And then that grew and the first big task they gave me was I had three months over summer to put together 1200 POP packs. And I had to create my own assembly line. That was a big one. Then later, probably around that same time, but looking back I think this was more of a punishment, but they forgot to put the international distributor information in the catalog. So I had to sticker all of them. It was like weeks of just stickering catalogs and stickering catalogs. And now looking back, they probably were like, Oh, at least will keep him occupied and quiet for a while. They put me way in the corner.

That's where the name paint chip comes from.

The reason I nicknamed you paint chip was that you were a chip off the old block. You were similar to your dad, you guys kind of look alike, you walk alike, and you were just always hanging around. You're very curious and I remember you jumping in and doing stuff without even being asked. I didn't know eventually though, that you would follow him in all his advocacy and all those things too. You've done an admirable job.
I always thought it was “paint chip” cause you thought I hated paint chips or something.
We're all glad to see you learned along the way. And you're an admirable paint chip off the old block. Your Mom and Dad raised you well.

Do you have any daily routines you use to keep your sanity?

Yeah, Rose, and I go for a walk every day. That's my wife. That definitely keeps us from killing each other. Keep us grounded. Yeah. Yeah. And then, I listen to podcasts and play FIFA, that's kinda, my other thing. So I'm a big soccer nut and then listen to a podcast or two, that's my way of like winding down like six to seven every night before dinner. So like, those are the main ones.

Do you have any favorite books? Favorite podcasts?

Hmm, I'm obviously big, Fresh Air Terry Gross fan. On The Media actually. Cause now I'm working for a media company, but I've been super interested in media for the last five years and how it's changing and how it's growing. So On The Media, it's one of like the NPR type. They're one of the most fascinating because they really cover how everyone's talking about stuff and language, especially what we're going through right now. I'm excited to hear what they have to say on Friday.
I've been trying to have books that have been not too deep or anything since so much been going on, I need an outlet. So I've been going back to the Gladwell books, which is kinda corny, but at the same time, it's interesting because, from a marketer's point of view, it's all about how to use data to understand people's actions. So I've been going back through and reading those.

How about a favorite outdoor gear purchase or purchase for skateboarding or hiking under a hundred dollars?

I bought my first pair of hiking boots years ago and they were a hundred dollars, It was the first time I'd gone to REI and not had the like freak experience. I had no idea that you needed a membership, you know, cause I mean I rebelled pretty hard against outdoors. I grew up in the outdoors and I was always trying to get to the city. So it's only been in the last like five or 10 years that I've really like made a conscious decision to try to go and hike and camp and do all these things that my dad tried to instill in me from a very young age.

Is anything else you want to ask of our listeners or say to our listeners?

Oh geez, I don't know. I've been so honored to be raised by the outdoor industry. As you said, I remind you of my dad, but I think I remind everyone of my mom I'm kind of in equal parts of both. I have her lack of a filter of what I say. So, I wouldn't be who I am without growing up and hearing the stories and the culture. The culture of needing quality products in the outdoor industry isn't in the skateboard industry. Skateboarding products have basically been the same for 20 or 30 years. There's not like a Caribiner that can save your life kind of thing. The necessity isn't there in the skateboard industry, but even a lifetime warranty or stuff like that, being raised around a company that had a lifetime warranty really changed how I thought about the world. And I didn't realize how different I was for that thinking until recently, you see the fast fashion and everything and you're like, can we just build stuff? Why do you have to have a new t-shirt every year? People that was a good t-shirt last year. Why don't we just have the exact same tee-shirt next year? I mean, look at vans, you know, there's the famous story of Geoff Rowley, who they signed to be their big skateboarder and they asked: “what do you think we should do?” And he said, “go back to all those classics” and that truly changed the direction of vans. Now they're one of the biggest shoe brands in the world and killing it.

How can people reach out and follow up with you?

Instagram @tommy_barker_

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