Among creatives, you often hear the phrase about “impressing your teenage self,” so to speak. Basically, a concept about staying faithful to the roots of your original passion. A certain youthful idealism and creative purity born of that time that might still steer your compass toward some enigmatic, artistic true north. Little did a young Kyle Spencer know (Co-founder and Sales Director at Slowtide) that when he was hogging the high school copy machine making ransom-letter flyers for his band’s next punk show in Kihei, Maui, that creative compass was pointing down a path he’d keep traveling 15 years later.
As Kyle says now, “I think it's about finding something you have a passion for, and that you genuinely love, and would be doing whether there's money involved or not.” While Kyle might be in charge of, ironically, making the brand some dough (people got mouths to feed!), the story of how he’s managed to keep and build the brand’s authenticity en route, is one that’d make his 16-year-old self proud.
So Kyle, what’s your role at Slowtide…
Kyle Spencer: Yeah, so essentially, my role is sales and operations director. Which is interesting because it's not really what my background was prior to this. I grew up liking design and I was a creative person, but as we started Slowtide, something that we realized quickly was that we can't all be designers or we can't all be marketers—we've all got to find our sandbox and divide and conquer. But I do think naturally, I did have a passion for the business and the sales side from my high school days of playing in a band which entailed booking gigs and selling merch.
Awesome. And you grew up and went to high school in Hawaii, right?
Yeah. I was born on Oahu—that's where my dad and mom are from—and then we moved to Maui and spent most of my childhood there (in Kihei). It was a small town. I still have the same friends there that are my best friends that I have known since pretty much when I was born. But yeah, growing up in Kihei, I pretty much always had a passion for music, so that was my first kind of creative form. I played in bands and started bands all through junior high and then into high school, we would play concerts and travel to different islands. We'd fly over to Oahu and Kauai and play shows. One of the first things that came up was how to make merch like T-shirts and stickers. We recorded an album and then had to figure out how to design the album cover, so I just took the lead to say, I'll figure out how to use Photoshop or how to make a T-shirt.
I think the first time I actually found somebody to help was literally in the Yellow Pages, I found some designer and I worked out a deal with him to help us design our album cover. I ended up going to his office, sitting next to him and watching him design it. I figured if I'm going to pay someone by the hour, I might as well go sit there and learn how they're doing it.
Right. Sneaky ah, you?
Yeah, so I sat there and watched them and I was like, "Oh, I can probably do that." So, I figured it out, learned how to do it and made some really bad designs. [laughs] But we made T-shirts from it and made the rest of the album cover, the liners and all that stuff and went down to Kinkos and printed and assembled it ourselves. Again, I didn't really know it at the time, but it was sparking all these entrepreneurial flames. Even playing in a band, you book the shows, you try to negotiate getting paid or getting some free pizza or something to play there, and then you had to make some merchandise and you had to pay for it and figure out how much you're going to sell it for. You learn margins and you learn sales and how to market your band.
We also figured out that if we put on our own concerts, that we could actually make more money—as opposed to playing at these places where they're getting most of the money. So, yeah, then we started flying bands over, like some of our favorite punk bands at the time from the Mainland, from California, and we'd pay for them to come over, put on our own concert or two, pay the band, hopefully make some money afterwards and sell some T-shirts and CDs. So, yeah it was definitely my first real, behind the scenes of learning about business.
Amazing. How old were you when you were doing that?
Like 16 to 18 years old.
Yeah, we were putting on concerts and we'd get anywhere from 300 to 400 people coming to those shows.
Yeah, it was pretty crazy. Most of the shows we'd put on would actually be at our church. But it was pretty wild back in those days, I mean, it’d get pretty gnarly. We'd have some fights in the parking lot and we'd have broken bones from the mosh pit. One of my best friends I grew up with, who was our pastor's son, broke his collarbone in one of the mosh pits.
Yeah, it does happen. But I think it was just a great experience, and it was something that I found a passion for. I never really liked school, but playing music and being in the band, that just sparked this interest for me and got me. I'd just be so motivated and I would be up all night, planning these shows; getting write-ups in local magazines and radio, designing the flyers, putting up those flyers up all over town, all that stuff.
So, I really liked the design part of it. I would design flyers and I'd be at our school's copy machine, and I'd be cutting and pasting letters from magazines to make these ransom note looking concert flyers. I loved that. But during my senior year of high school, I wasn’t planning on going to college. Being from a small town in Maui back then, I just had no idea there was even a path to being a designer as a career. But we had a guy come to our school and speak and he was a graphic designer and he said, "Hey, I design flyers and logos and tee shirts and this and that, and this is my job.” I was like, holy crap, this is me. I have to figure this out. This is my calling.
He went to the Art Institute in California. So I'm pretty sure that night I went home and applied to that college and it was the only school I applied to, and luckily I got in and transitioned into the design world.
Rad. And so that was down in Costa Mesa, right?
Yeah. I went to college there and then my first job out of college was at Sole Technology, which is a parent company for Etnies and a handful of other action sports brands. I started off there as an assistant designer. Actually, maybe even going back a little bit more is while I was in college, my first job in California was working in the RVCA warehouse during the graveyard shift.
I'd go to school in the daytime and then I'd get off school around four o'clock or something. Then I'd go over to the RVCA warehouse and just pack orders all night long until two or three in the morning, and did that for a season or so. Then I got a job in the cafe of the Quiksilver office.
I'd be making coffees and smoothies, and it was cool, because I just got to meet everybody there at Quiksilver, from sales people to the executive team, to designers and I'd get to go sit down and watch the designers work on my lunch break.
[laughs] So after a few years at Sole Technology I got a job at Hurley as a designer for two years and helped develop their boardshort program and the Phantom boardshort. That was a pretty special time at Hurley. Then I went and worked at DC Shoes and became the design director there. But…after 3 years, I got laid off because they moved the design team to France and the first thing I thought was this is the perfect chance to move back to Hawaii and start something there. So I started a design agency with my old boss from DC Shoes, who was always getting laid off and moving back home to Hawaii.
Awesome. And then how'd you link up with Wylie and Dario to start Slowtide?
I've known Wylie since high school. Him and I grew up on Maui together. We were roommates when we were in college, and we had parallel paths of leaving Maui to go to art school, both as designers, and then we both got jobs in the surf industry. I guess when we first had the idea for Slowtide—this was years before the company actually was ever launched or anything—my wife Alana and I had this idea of making towels, something that was bringing art and design and a brand element into this category that we felt like no one was really doing.
So we just told Wylie about it and he's like, "Oh, it's amazing. It'd be so rad," and he got psyched up on it, we started working on it together…and then it just fizzled. We didn't really have the money to invest to make a big production run and it was a lot of work. We kinda tabled it.
Oh, whoa, I didn’t even know that.
Yeah, so I guess about two years later, I met Dario. He worked at Quiksilver when I was at DC and we worked in the same building. He knew we had this idea to have this towel company and he'd always be like, "Dude, that's amazing. You guys have to do this," and was the one who just kept pushing us along, and finally he was like, "Hey guys, if I can be involved, let's do this. Let's make this happen." That was really what sparked the beginning of Slowtide as it is today, back in 2015. The timing was perfect where we all had been recently laid off or were doing some part-time freelance gigs, everybody was in this little bit of a transition in life. It really became the perfect time to invest our time and start something new.
So on a day to day, what does your job look like?
I would say a big part of my role is the sales side. So, dealing with our top retail accounts like Nordstrom, REI, Bloomingdale's, Free People, Madewell, Urban Outfitters and working on cultivating those relationships and building them, as well as a lot of great independent shops from Hi-Tech on Maui to Surfside in Costa Mesa, all our great independent retailers. So, I work closely with them and work alongside growing sales, providing services for them, seeing what they need.
Then I would say the other thing is really on the business operations side. So, aligning all functions from sales, just making sure everything's running and firing on all cylinders, and our warehouse is shipping on time, and our production—our factories—are getting things made and the quality is right. Basically just about everything that doesn’t fall into design, marketing and finance.
What would you say for an aspiring kid, potentially going down your path and starting a brand with some friends like you did and potentially taking on your role in the pie? What would be some advice to that guy or girl?
I think it's finding something you have a passion for, and that you genuinely love and will be doing whether there's money involved or not. Then I think once you find that, it's going to be easy to work hard at it, when you find the right thing. For me, school wasn't the thing that I loved. It was really tough to get me motivated to succeed in school, but when I found music and design and business, it'd be hard to get me not to be putting all my time into that.
The other advice would be stay true to yourself. Sounds so cliché but it’s 100% on point and all of the brands I love have an authentic founder behind them. I think our brand has always been authentic. The reason that we all got into the surf industry was because we're surfers and we grew up surfing and wanting to be pro surfers, but weren't good enough. There's a lot of money outside of this industry, but we love this space. We love what we do, and we love the people that we're able to work with, and I think we've made some of our closest friends through working in this industry, so it's something we really value.
I think everything Slowtide puts out is authentic because it comes from the three of us and it's things that we're into. The collaborations we do are friends of ours or artists that we've always loved, or it's bands that we love like Grateful Dead. Dario, Wylie and I all worked for surf shops growing up, too. Now, we work with those surf shops and they all carry Slowtide, it’s an authentic relationship.
Right. No truer words as far as finding something that you're passionate about and that you'd do—even if you weren't getting paid anyways.
Yup. I think the other thing is not expecting results instantly. I think there needs to be a head-down kind of mentality, at least for a certain portion of the entrepreneurial journey- the results will come in time. Don't be looking for instant results.
Awesome. Do you happen to have a favorite towel or a few favorite products that you find yourself using at home a lot? Your go-tos…
Yeah. I think I would probably say some of the collaborations with friends that I've known for a long time and getting to now work with them and support what they're doing—they're probably some of my proudest, most favorite moments. I guess key ones to highlight would be ones like Clark Little, who I've known for a long time pre-Slowtide. Others, like Ty Williams, has been a friend for a while, and then Laserwolf, the photographer. Stussy was one, where I've loved their brand, and Shaun, since I was a kid. I was drawing their “S” in my notebook when I was in fourth grade and we got to collaborate with them a few years ago. That was one of those “wow” moments.
Oh, and actually, back to my first job in California during college (the night shift at the RVCA warehouse, packing boxes). I met Pat Tenore, who's the founder of RVCA, back then and was super inspired by his vision. This is back in 2003, early RVCA days. Fast forward 17 years later, and we have this RVCA collaboration collection that we just launched with them.
Starting and building Slowtide has been a crazy and amazing journey with lots of ups and downs, but sometimes you have to take a minute to step back to appreciate and celebrate the wins…and then get back work!!
Big thanks to Beau Flemister for the interview.