Industry Insider: Vipe Desai’s prolific journey through the world of action sports
Vipe surfing a fun left in Nicaragua
We’ve all seen the finished product of countless magazine covers, private photo shoots, gear collaborations and full production TV shows; the list could go on for days. But what you don’t see is the hard work and dedication that goes on behind the scenes to make our favorite products, snowboard videos and magazines shine.
That’s where someone like Vipe Desai fits in. Growing up in Southern California, Vipe had the unique opportunity to get involved with action sports at a young age without the luxury of a guiding hand we see with today’s youth.
We sat down with Vipe for this installment of Industry Insider to get his take on creating an extremely successful career for himself in snowboarding and action sports.
Did you ever think, growing up, you would end up doing what you’ve done with your life or be where you are now?
In all honesty, I think about all the things I’ve been so fortunate to have experienced and been part of and I can’t even believe it myself. There were times just before I graduated from college where I would worry about entering the real world and I just had no clue or idea whatsoever of what I was going to do and where I wanted to be in 5, 10, 20 or 30 years. Looking back, I could not have planned this path but following my gut and heart contributed in some way.
Before you got into action sports, what did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wish I could answer that with something specific or cool but I had no aspirations of any kind. I think I was just living life in the moment hanging with friends, playing a few sports here and there but I was totally clueless. My Dad passed away when I was 14 and it was hard on my family but I did find comfort and solace in surfing. I think it provided me with good memories and an experience that have helped guide my personal life and career.
You founded and operated one of the most influential action sports retail shops in SoCal – H2O Surf & Snowboard Shop – for seven years.
Vipe scoping waves in Nicaragua
You founded and operated one of the most influential action sports retail shops in SoCal – H2O Surf & Snowboard Shop – for seven years. How did that responsibility help you on your path in life and ultimately get you working for some of the biggest names in action sports?
The surf shop was what I would like to refer as the period in which I was obtaining my Masters Degree in the Action Sports Industry. My good friend Tom Cozad called me one day shortly after graduating and he knew I was looking for a job and since I didn’t have a job he convinced me that he and I should buy this local surf shop. Once again, being young a clueless I begged, borrowed and sold whatever I could to scrounge up my portion of the money. Two Months later, Tom and I were the proud owners of a hole-in-the-wall retail business neither of us had any business being involved in. But that probably was a positive thing as I look back. Not knowing what to do meant that we had to figure it out. And fast. And we did.
Working at the shop day in and day out helped me to learn the business of action sports real fast. I learned two things during my time at retail that I’ve carried on to everything that I did afterwards. First, brands matter. People want to be part of brands and they want to be part of their stories, values and beliefs. The second was that I couldn’t look at people any more as demographic. I had to think more in terms of psychographics. If I wanted to connect people with products I had to understand how we were connected through emotions and passions. For example, since I love to snowboard, there are good chances that regardless of age, most people who snowboard will have shared interests. We’re connected through those shared interests.
After your venture in the retail business, you worked with some pretty well known non-profit foundations. What inspired you to be part of the Surfrider Foundation, the Life Rolls On Foundation and the SIMA Humanitarian Fund?
It was great working with these groups but they found value in my knowledge and experience and helped me to understand how I could plug in and be of service to them. So the simple answer is the organizations themselves inspired me into action. If you want to learn how to be a better person, manager, leader, follower, then there is no better way than to get involved with a non-profit. The people that work at non-profits are the people that I look up to and respect more than anyone else. These organizations are run by people that put their passion into action and have given up the corporate path of nice salaries, bonuses and stock options. That’s inspiration right there.
Vipe with Kiss lead guitarist Ace Frehley
Obviously surfing has had a major impact on your life. What was the reason behind project BLUE and how has it helped in giving back to not only the surf community but also the world?
I’ve worked at and supported many non-profit organizations and what I learned early on is that a non-profit’s work is never done, it’s always multiplying. There is always a need for more work and more money. The idea for project BLUE came from what I saw happening with product (RED). I had a few friends at product (RED) and they filled me in on their efforts and I took the idea and tweaked it for the surf industry.
The idea was simple: Instead of creating a non-profit and soliciting money away from organizations, why not bring together competing brands to create a campaign that used popular products where a portion of the proceeds would go directly to these environmental groups? It was a way to bring consumers, retailers and manufacturers together to help support environmental groups. We had boardshorts from Billabong, watches from Nixon, sandals from Reef, t-shirts from O’Neill, backpacks from DaKine and sunglasses from Electric. It was a great collection that raised some decent money during the campaign period.
In 2000 you launched Propaganda, a youth culture brand consultancy and have a legit list of clients. What was the reason for creating an agency around a culture that was so new at the time?
During my retail phase, I saw a growing interest from outside companies looking to tap into the action sports culture. They were going to need guides and translators to help them navigate the culture as a whole. I had a sense it was coming and coming fast. If people like myself, Steve Astephen at WMG (Wasserman Media Group) and others didn’t get in place to help these outside companies it could make things complicated for the industry as a whole. So it was risky but I had a strong feeling that the industry was going to grow and experience new growth opportunities.
It was very slow the first few years but it started to pick up and drew interest from guys within the industry that wanted to also reach across to these outside companies. So my agency became a bridge for both sides to navigate and explore opportunities. We worked to ensure that both sides met their objectives and benefitted from the relationships. It was a whole new experience with a little bit of Wild West thrown in at the same time. But once again a valuable learning experience that helped me to further develop and grow personally and professionally.
Vipe (second from left) with Rob Dyrdek and the Rob Dyrdek Foundation board of directors
How influential was Propaganda in landing what some would consider a dream job at Monster Energy?
Getting the position at Monster was more than just my experience with Propaganda. It was a combination of all of my experience but also included my reputation. They were looking for someone to fill this newly created role and their search led them to reaching out to me. At the time I was very happy with direction of the agency and wasn’t looking for a job so it was a kind of awkward to think about leaving Propaganda and going to work for someone else. It would be my first job since my college years.
While at Monster you had your plate full as their director of marketing. You managed over 200 of their athletes including Rob Dyrdek, Ken Block, Danny Kass, Andy Irons and Jeremy McGrath, to name a few. What’s it like working with some of the biggest names in action sports?
Working with the world’s best athletes was only one part of my role but one word sums up working with them. AMAZING. Being able to work with these guys and help them to fulfill their career dreams was something I’ll remember forever. Their passion for sport and life was ferocious and contagious!
What was the biggest challenge you faced while working at Monster?
Velocity. Companies that are publicly traded are complicated and at times it can be similar to a game of tug-of-war. Day in and day out it was like having a fire hose pointed directly at me and I also had to have a fire house pointing back out. There was a lot of information, projects, meetings, deals, emails, calls, et cetera 24/7/365, going both ways.
After you left Monster, you founded your latest venture, HDX Hydration Mix. What spawned this idea and how have you taken your knowledge from Monster and applied it to HDX?
I applied my own personal experiences in creating HDX Hydration Mix. I had recently become diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes and knew that poor diet and exercise played a role in bringing on the disease. I also took what I learned from Surfrider Foundation about the issue of single-use plastic water bottles. Both of these issues have some basis in the beverage industry that I had become very interested in remaining part of it in some way. You have beverages loaded with stuff that might be considered unhealthy and non-functional that came in a single-use container with a carbon footprint from having to be transported, refrigerated and wasteful packaging. Putting those considerations together I felt a powdered drink mix with natural ingredients to provide healthy hydration for everyday people and athletes was a missing option. But I also wanted to encourage people to use a reusable bottle with our product so the idea was formed and we successfully launched it last April.
What does HDX bring to the table that other energy drinks or supplements lack and why do you think a place in the market exits for such a product?
There is a group of people out there that want something different. Something healthy. They don’t want something loaded with caffeine or overloaded with sugars but they want something that provides a true benefit. That’s something the energy drinks, traditional sports drinks, and flavored waters aren’t providing. The supplement companies have products that work but the taste is an issue and hard for people to get past. So why not offer a tasty mix based around healthy hydration?
We’ve worked with top sports nutritionists, trainers and beverage engineers to create a balanced blend of electrolytes, vitamins, amino acids and minerals and made it with low sugar, low calories and low carbs. But it’s also diabetic friendly and gluten free. And the response from endurance athletes and everyday people has been overwhelmingly strong from not only functionality but also taste. I’ve felt all along that hydration plays a big part in performance and now you see many beverage companies touting hydration, but take a look under the hood before you fall for the “caffeine + electrolytes” gimmick.
How has the plastic water bottle problem had an effect on the creation of HDX Hydration and how do you plan to help solve it?
Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to solve it anytime soon. The water bottle companies and celebrities have done a nice job of convincing people that it’s somehow smart to spend money on tap water. It would be nice to one day look back and see that maybe what we’re talking about inspires athletes in the action sports industry to pick up a reusable bottle and use it not only for water but a mix like ours.
As an industry and tribe, we have an opportunity to work together and make the changes that we don’t agree with. I’m encouraged and further inspired when I hear college campuses banning the sale of single-use plastic water bottles and installing hydration stations for students, and our National Parks doing the same. If these institutions and facilities can do it that I think the resorts, retailers, industry leading brands and athletes can just as easily do the same. I think we could export a good message to the rest of the world.
What athletes do you currently have working with HDX?
We have a lot of athletes using our product, some official and some not official but we have 2X US Open of Surfing Champion Brett Simpson, wakeboard legend Shaun Murray and local icon skateboarder Chad Tim Tim. We are also working with athletes in motocross, cycling, mountain biking and triathlons and hopefully before next year we’ll have some winter sport athletes.
We ask everyone we interview for one piece of advice they have for people trying to get involved in the action sports world. But you recently tweeted, “The best advice? Don’t listen to advice! Good advice from Dave @cleanbottle / tinyurl.com/78mfhr6.” Can you explain?
There’s so much advice out there and there’s always someone contradicting what someone else is saying. Don’t take anything I’ve said as advice. It’s just my personal journey. Find your own way to interpret and apply anything I have said to fulfill your dreams. I’m living mine. Just get out there, do what you love. Surround yourself with people that want to see you succeed. The single most important thing I’ll end with: Family first. No ifs, ands or buts.