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Generation Y entrepreneur shows street smarts Add to ...

When it comes to marketing, Alex Bastide doesn't take shortcuts.

To help sell his skateboards, accessories and skatewear to brand-hungry kids, the 33-year-old owner of Underworld Skateboard recently bought a bus and took 22 young skaters on a demo tour all the way from Vancouver to St. John's.

"That's what it takes sometimes. It just makes good business sense to stay close to my customers," says Bastide. He was only 19 when he got his Montreal company off the ground in 1995, selling CDs and rare vinyl records.

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After incorporating skateboarding gear into his shop a year later, the young entrepreneur took advantage of a space in the back of his store to host concerts featuring underground bands such as Blink 182 and Earth Crisis.

"I had a captive audience for my products right there," recalls Bastide, who recognized early on that he had found a potentially lucrative niche.

Fifteen years later, Bastide's keen business sense is certainly paying off. Today, Underworld Skateboard has one store in Montreal and a store in Vancouver, which combined with an online shop, generate more than $4.5-million in sales annually.

"I have a passion for what I do, and I really understand this subculture and the people who buy my products."

Like many independent businesses, Underworld Skateboard faces stiff competition from big box stores that carry similar brands at discount prices. But the company has managed to stand out in the crowd with a fresh and original retail concept.

He attributes much of his success to "never letting up, even during the recession. While many retail stores were tightening their belts or sitting back, I did exactly the opposite and continued to get out there and find more customers. I just got busy doing more concerts, grassroots events and skateboard competitions."

Bastide is also a fan of low-cost guerilla marketing such as doing street give-aways and poster campaigns.

"I'm selling a lifestyle so I have to make sure that I'm always doing something original," says Bastide, who caters to buyers that range from adolescents to "die-hard 35-year-old skaters."

Another important winning strategy for his company is investing in employees. His 45-member staff shares his passion for skateboarding and he remains resolutely focused on employee training and job satisfaction.

"I think some retail stores just throw people into a job and then expect something good from them. But that's not the way I do it," says Bastide, who takes pride in offering a mentoring program for employees, regular evaluations, job perks such as free products from suppliers and flexible scheduling.

"New recruits do shadow training with managers who help them do a better job. In the end, people here are really excited about improving themselves," he says. "My clients can feel that positive vibe in my stores."

Besides receiving BDC financing, Bastide is grateful to have forged a strong partnership with BDC Consulting. He continues to be coached by consulting executive Robert Ducharme, who has provided him guidance on managing growth, human resources and operational issues.

"Alex and his team really fit the profile of Generation Y," Ducharme says. "They're driven by passion and are very loyal, honest and candid. Everything is on the table and they really believe in work and life balance for employees."

Ducharme also recommends business strategies that reflect the innovative nature of the company. For example, he has suggested Underworld conduct focus groups with kids to determine targeted marketing strategies. "This is not a company that would need a conventional board of directors to give them direction."

The next big step for Underworld Skateboard is franchising, says Ducharme. "BDC hopes to be involved in bringing this business to a whole new level, hopefully on an international scale."

Bastide also sees franchising as a natural evolution for the company.

"I don't always want to be tied down with the retail stores, and I love to travel. It's great to know that I have new challenges ahead and a game plan to get there."

Lessons learned

  • Be creative with marketing and target your audience.
  • Invest in sales and marketing even in slower times in order build momentum for better times.
  • Maintain employee loyalty though training and regular evaluations that help them improve their skills.
  • Appeal to Generation Y employees with a focus on job satisfaction.
  • Tap into your clients' knowledge to find direction for your company.
  • Build your company through growth strategies such as franchising.

Content in this section is provided in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada. BDC provides entrepreneurs with financing, venture capital and consulting services. To find out more go to BDC.ca.

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