Great Tips on Working in the Skateboarding Industry with Donny Barley

Posted by Rob Meronek on Monday, March 24, 2014

We're welcoming Element and Plan B to The Boardr Store today. We're hyped to have two brands in here that we've watched grow over our whole lives skateboarding. Element started in 1992 when skateboarding was a true small world. I used to skate in local contests with the founder, Johnny Schillereff, when we both lived in upstate New York. Plan B's history includes the Questionable video, which changed skateboarding forever when it hit VHS players around the world also in 1992.

Former Element pro, Donny Barley, is working on the business side of things with Element and Plan B now, so I had to start the water cooler chat with him about everything from life advice, to the state of skateboarding today. Thanks Donny for the great advice and interesting insight into having a job and business in the skateboarding industry. Most of us can't be pro, and a job in skating is definitely the second best thing, but you're going to have to have some ducks line up properly to get a good one, of course. Listening to this great advice and experience from Donny will help.

First, can you describe your job now and the position you're in and what brands you're working with?

My job title is Retail Relations. I handle communicating with all domestic accounts for Element, and Plan B.

You have great grammar and written communication skills. No one wants to hear their teacher tell them how important that is. Can you tell us how important it is?

Thanks! That's true, I know I didn't want to hear it. My parents never let us take short cuts. My advice is to prepare for the unknown. How you present yourself is a reflection of who you are. Parental and teacher discipline sucked for me, and I had trouble with concentration and still do to this day.

Knowing what you know now and the experience you've had, what advice would you give a young version of yourself back when you were just starting to realize you could make a career of skateboarding as an am going pro?

  • Know the importance of your diet, and the preservation of your body through stretching or yoga.
  • Explore all the terrain you can.
  • Travel and explore every chance you get.
  • Push your limits and take a slam, you'll be surprised how it can motivate you.
  • Act like a professional around the kids, and show them some love!
  • Always try to respect the pioneers that paved the way before you.
  • Save your money! Invest in land or property for your future.
  • Seek legal assistance to comprehend contractual language. Get it all in writing!
  • Make positive contributions to your local skate scene as often as you can.
  • Hold down your fellow skateboarder always!
  • Wear your seatbelt.
  • Learn seatbelts!
  • No rules exist in skateboarding. Don't forget that EVER!
  • Get the best education you can! You might one day apply that to better skateboarding for all the skaters around the globe!

Starting a business is scary. So you had a shop that went out of business a few years back. Would you do it again if you had time or the opportunity in the future?

I probably would. It was a childhood dream of mine. I learned so much. I have a ton more knowledge these days in respect to retail operations, thanks to my job with Element! It's not easy for anyone.

Did you find it hard to balance the need to hook up homies with the need to pay the bills and keep the doors open? We've found in our experience that it just took a few years of tightening up management to keep the out of control homie hookups from getting too crazy. After we set that precedent, most people seem to get it and understand.

That was a challenge for sure. If it wasn't the select team rider guys, it would be a young newcomer that broke a board. As a whole, I was far to generous at times. I hired a good friend who was absolutely on point with managing that aspect, amongst other things. He moved on to another job eventually, and that's when things became challenging again.

Did you try to sell online? If so, how did it go? If not, were you just not interested or were other things in the way like technical hurdles, costly website, inventory system, etc?

We did sell online. We just sold our house line "Fountain of Youth." It wasn't bad. I believe it would have grown larger if we had more capital to invest. I was always fond of the stuff we made, the locals loved it! We grew the whole operation with a small amount of money. We grew each category slowly, with very focused footwear buys, and hardgoods buys, using the house line as the center piece of the door. Our model was solid! The mall was built, Zumiez came to town. We went down 30+ percent that first quarter, and the economy was starting to slump simultaneously. Overnight the operation was stunted was crazy.

Did you have partners or were you on your own?

I borrowed the money from the bank. I got it started. After a year or so I hired Grandison. He became the backbone of the store, and even invested into it as well. He was my guy. His work helped out tremendously, I was lucky! It was a game changer! It gave me time to skate, and more time to breathe. He ended up moving to NYC a few years later to follow an opportunity. That was the turning point, and two years later I decided to close it down. Walking away from the skate community we cultivated was awfully difficult. But life goes on.

If you have any more of that valuable advice, we'd like to hear it on tips for running a shop.

  • You have to do it for the love!
  • Be ready for highs and lows.
  • Know you'll be competing with growing retail chains, and online big guys.
  • Host events once a month, or as often as you can.
  • Ask the big brands to help support your events.
  • Don't let your generosity put you under.
  • Be a positive mentor to your skate community.
  • Unite all the surrounding skate scenes into one productive scene based around your shop.
  • Build your house brand. The margins can really help during slow months.
  • Hire the right kids to help run the store.
  • Voice your appreciation to your customers, and skate with them after work.
  • Teach them flatground tricks when it's slow. Haha!
I lost a pretty good amount of money once the door closed, but the experience, and good times, outweigh the dollars lost times five! No regrets!

Thanks for the amazing insight! Before you transitioned into a "regular job" in the skateboarding industry, did you have any other jobs outside the industry, or were you able to go from a pro career right into the industry? If you had other jobs, how does it compare to working in skateboarding?

I did, and I hated it. Not because of the work...I just knew I wanted more for my life. At 14 I cleaned rooms at a Days Inn hotel with my sister. Then at 15 I worked at a CVS pharmacy. I'd have to stock all the feminine products, adult diapers, do nightly trash duties, etc. During college I had to work to cover my commuting expenses. It was tough, but I had to honor the partial scholarship I was awarded, and I also wanted to honor the desires of my parents. I laugh about it now! It played such a massive part in helping me find my dreams, and it helped shape my character.

After getting my degree I was able to get a job at Woodward, and that changed my entire existence. Surrounded by inspiration, I made friendships and connections that would eventually spawn into a career in skateboarding.

I've found nothing that compares to working within skateboarding!

With social media growing and seeming to be where all the kids' attention is at, has your company and your personal mindset in promoting your brand changed at all from the traditional days of plain old magazine ads and videos?

It's a whole different world these days, to the point that we have someone managing Element’s social media 24/7.

It's a daily race to stay current with content. It's something that I see to be a little consuming personally. But I understand how and why it works, and I also see and believe in its value.

My approach to participating with my own social media differs depending upon the availability of my time. My generation didn't grow up with it. As a parent I really don't want my phone running my life.

As big as skateboarding is these days, what do you think still makes it special and different?

I see skateboarding to be more resourceful then it's ever been! Seems like the economic conditions have drawn skateboarders together more than ever, and has forced us to become wiser. I think everyone's done a good job of looking after one another. That's a special trait, and it validates the strength of skateboarding's brotherhood!

It's hard not to notice the level of today's skating talents. I have a few young favorite skaters right now, and what they do is mind blowing to me! I feel proud to see that aspect of skating still advancing forward, and thrilled to continue watching it all as it unfolds!

"Skateboarding is the fountain of youth."

Big thanks and best of luck to The Boardr crew!

Donny B

Donny Barley's Underachievers Part

Donny Barley's Welcome to Hell Part

Donny from 1996 - 2003

Photo courtesy of Brian Gaberman.

Photo courtesy of Brian Gaberman.

Photo courtesy of Brian Gaberman.

Photo courtesy of Brian Gaberman.
Profile: Donny Barley