It only takes a short chat with Gray Thompson to get a good sense of his character. He is grounded like that. Gray embodies the heart of snowboarding, the love for the glide, and the experience of the outdoors. He doesn’t care about contest standings or triple corks, but rather focuses his energy on the turn. For Gray, style and experience are above all else, and his snowboarding echoes the same sentiment.
When many began to feel dissatisfied with the status quo of snowboarding, Gray didn’t just talk about it – he acted. He is an entrepreneur, a co-founder of Warp Wave and United Shapes, and a dedicated advocate for the environment. Gray has committed himself to preserving the essence snowboarding, and sharing the experience with all.
Gray is a Sierra Surfer.
Photography by Sean Kerrick Sullivan
Do you consider yourself to be an entrepreneur?
Yeah, definitely. I think that is a strength that I am lucky enough to embody.
When do you think you first had that realization? Growing up was there ever a desire to be involved in the industry?
I definitely was into the idea of it from a young age. Especially just starting little projects with friends and trying to take an idea and grow it into a brief reality. I wouldn’t ever say I dreamed of having a brand or being a part of the industry from a business sense, but those doors kind of just started opening and it made a lot of sense. It has definitely become more important over the past five years, especially after starting Warp Wave.
Just to establish a timeline then, was Warp Wave or United Shapes first?
Warp Wave came first. We started Warp Wave in 2012 and then United Shapes in 2014.
Tell me about starting both, were there similarities or differences between the two?
Well for both of the projects, the core comes with the idea of not agreeing with the status quo that is leading the industry. With Warp Wave, the norm for snowboard filmmaking didn’t align with how Eric [Messier] and myself saw snowboarding. Bigger companies weren’t showing snowboarding in a way that we felt we could connect with 100%. With United Shapes it was the same kind of deal. Brands were just getting stale in our eyes and we just thought there was a better way to do things.
Do you feel that you have since taken on a responsibility to snowboarding as a whole?
Totally, I have been thinking a lot about that lately. Part of me thinks, why stress and why put all of this energy into this ambitious thing when I could just take the easy road and snowboard on my own terms. But I have realized with all of these projects, that unfortunately—I hate to say it— snowboarding as an industry is kind of lacking original authenticity. I mean, you see it with every snowboard brand this day and age. They all thrive on trend hopping and where they see business growing and more dollars coming in. Same with the production side of things with videos, people just follow the trends and the equipment people are using, the drones and whatever.
So, I do kind of feel more and more responsible to stay a part of it. I think if snowboarding lost all of its authentic original characters it would kind of just get stale again like we saw throughout the early and mid 2000’s.
We can kind of just play jazz with it and see where it will take us.
Is that sense of responsibility stress inducing?
I don’t feel like snowboarding is on my shoulders, or that I am the one carrying snowboarding in any way. But the stress that I experience comes from the everyday stresses of running a business, or being as safe as you can in the backcountry. There is a lot of stress involved with being this busy all the time, but I don’t think it is stress related to if I don’t work as hard snowboarding would take a fall or anything.
How do you balance being both a business owner and a snowboarder?
Definitely by snowboarding. I am very fortunate to live in an awesome place like Lake Tahoe. In many ways it is a little bubble here of recreational awesomeness. If I were doing all of this in southern California or a city somewhere, I would probably be fully grey-haired at this point and pissed off.
What are some of the limitations and benefits you have found to running a small business?
I would say one of the biggest benefits of being a small business is that you have the ability to kind of do whatever you want. There is no corporate hierarchy or set of little hoops and ladders you need to go through to carry out an idea, so your ideas can come through in a more pure way, start to finish. At a bigger brand, it may start with the same idea, but it just gets watered down, until you have a product or a vision or whatever that is cool, but not quite how you had imagined it to be. On the other hand, you also need to be a lot more resourceful because you don’t have the capital and the support to fully carry out every idea.
What was the learning curve like? Did you have a mentor who played an important role in teaching you these things, or was a lot of it shooting from the hip and figuring it out as you went?
It definitely has been a shot in the dark in a lot of ways. Moving and chipping away slowly so we don’t get out of control and into issues we can’t deal with. But my business partners, Stephen Kimura and Peter Siebert, they have run Owner Operator for quite a few years now, so they definitely brought a lot to the business side of the table. All three of us were definitely new to snowboards but we’re all pretty forward thinkers, we run into roadblocks every day but we just put our minds together and get through them. I also think that being so new to it and taking things so differently has kind of benefited us. The industry is kind of our oyster in a way. Being so new to it you don’t have the deep-rooted thinking of, ‘This is the only way to do it – follow these steps.” We can kind of just play jazz with it and see where it will take us.
To expand on the idea of growth, when United Shapes started, you only had one board and one size, now that you have grown and offer different sizes in multiple shapes, where do you see things going?
Yeah, we started with one board and one size. The 156 Cadet. It was awesome, but also restricting. Who can ride your board? I think it is important to try and cater to as many people as you can, but at the same time, spreading yourself too thin can also be a brand’s downfall. We are trying to strategically map it out and have a product that will work for 99% of people.
I would say our main goal now is to really focus on new business plans and new ways to get people snowboarding—push the experience of being in the mountains. Our story is powerful, so it’s about the idea, not necessarily about the product. People can connect with snowboarding and being in the mountains and living a good lifestyle, so that’s definitely where we will be taking it.
Being a small brand affords you lot of freedom, but as the brand grows the dynamic obviously shifts. Do you worry about it going too far?
Totally, we talk about this all the time. From the get-go, the plan was to just introduce a new vibe, a new idea, a new little project in snowboarding. It was never to grow into a huge brand, and rake in the dollars. If we wanted to do that, we wouldn’t have made snowboards. I think our goal is to be a very sustainably-sized brand. I think it’s important to not deliver a huge amount of product into the market. That’s not healthy, that kind of spurred the last little hiccup in the industry. Were not a huge competitive company, we just keep mapping out our little niche in the industry and make the product the best we can.
Since United Shapes was started there has been a industry-wide trend moving towards more interesting snowboard shapes. Do you ever feel a sense of competition with larger brands?
I have mixed feelings, but I am getting more and more stoked on it. Big brands, their stories are tough, and stories are what everyone connects with. These big brands can be cranking out popsicle sticks for 20 years, and then introduce some new high-end-shaped board, but it’s just as important that they are trend hopping, and isn’t there core idea or vision. Consumers are smart, you can’t just force feed them cool products. People like to connect with brands that have a story that makes sense to them. So no, I don’t really feel competition with bigger brands. These big brands are going to do anything and everything they want and can do, and we can’t stop them or be pissed at them. All we can do is keep continuing to tell our story, and back up our relationships with people who get it and understand our vibe. People are over the huge brands, they have seen it all. I think they get excited to see a smaller brand really embodying a bigger picture, a new outlook, and a new way to run business.
I could care less what tricks they do, or what their competition ranking is, that just isn’t important.
The only time you have a failure is when someone gives up
I was listening to your Not Snowboarding Podcast the other day, and one thing that really resonated with me is that you said you wanted to be able to call up someone who had purchased one of your snowboards and say, “Hey man, let’s go ride!”
Totally, it’s true man. We have such a specific vibe that if someone connects with it, I know they get it. We are all on the same page. I think that’s really important to unify the industry. Everyone is talking about coming together, or whatever, “support the brands.” And it’s really the brand’s role to do that, to bring everyone together instead of just alienating people by showing them this team of insane snowboarders who spend their year in some far off country in a helicopter. I am more interested in going up to the resort on a pow day, and meeting up with a good crew of people who are passionate. Link up early to get first chair. That’s where the true power and passion of snowboarding is.
I like that you don’t consider it a team on United Shapes, but rather a group of ambassadors.
I think for me, that has kind of been my sector, building relationships with people and other ambassadors. I am really fired up on these characters I meet who just bleed passion for snowboarding and have dedicated their life to it. That is really important for me when I am looking for people to get behind the brand. I could care less what tricks they do, or what their competition ranking is, that just isn’t important to it, or to snowboarding. So that’s a huge part, and then also it’s their style man.
This brand just represents style in snowboarding. I come across a lot of people randomly just riding a line, and I’m watching them snowboard and they have this whole new approach that you have never seen before. It only makes sense to them, but then you see them ride and it just clicks with you. It’s beautiful. That’s kind of the second half of putting together the ambassadors. There are definitely more people I would like to have behind the brand, but it’s tough in this day and age. Everyone wants something. Being a small brand it’s hard to give everyone what he or she wants or expects. I think you see a lot of people’s true colors in that sense. Like everyone on the team, we’ve had that conversation. We took a risk to create this brand, and these guys have also taken a risk in riding for us, and I really respect that and want them to grow with us.
Has there been a moment where you looked back and thought, “Wow, we did it, this is a success?” And the opposite as well, have there been any moments of small failure or challenges that you have been forced to work through?
I’m blown away that we are where we are. I am so happy and thankful for it. But I do also think that the moment you kind of step back and say, “we’ve done it,” that’s the first step into becoming stagnant. It’s a process, and the second you stop your process and just ride out the high you’ve created, it becomes hard to get the wheels turning again. When it comes to failure, man, knock on wood there hasn’t been anything huge. This year we had a little issue and under-produced some boards, and that was a bummer, but you need to look past that and we figured out ways to combat that issue. I think I try to look at every failure not as a failure, but an issue that needs to be resolved and a learning experience. I think failure is a horrible word. The only time you have a failure is when someone gives up, then it becomes a failure. As long as you don’t give up, it’s just an issue. There are always issues, but we have too much optimism and positive energy to let them turn into failures.
What is the current direction you see things going? Is there a new goal for next year, be it board shape, design, etc.?
The big one I am working on currently is getting into the splitboard world. I think splitboarding is possibly the best way to move through the mountains and experience nature. The ability it gives you to be free is just so powerful that it really speaks to our story and ideals. That’s kind of what we’re working towards now, and they will be coming down the pipeline very soon. We will also still be developing boards, but being a small brand, our capability to just constantly crank out wild boards is tough. We have to do it when it makes sense for us and we can actually pull it off.
From a production standpoint, moving into the splitboard world, as well as refining the existing boards, has there been a lot of tweaking? What have you learned as far as how the board building process works?
The Cadet has been through about four redesigns now. Which I think is awesome. It keeps getting better and better, and were learning new little techniques and processes. I also definitely think there is a point where there is too much tech crammed into a board, so it’s all about finding that balance about what works and what’s a little bit new and forward thinking.
How has your role in Warp Wave developed and where do you see yourself in the future?
The way I look at Warp Wave, is that Eric and I have put a lot of hard work in these past few years to get it off the ground and to see if it was something that could be a long term thing. And I think now that people are really connecting with it, the question is how do we make it as efficient as possible and keep it alive and growing. I’m trying to build it into something bigger, getting more people involved, more cinematographers, more people to keep the wheels spinning, because it is a day-in day-out hustle to get content and get it out to the world. A big personal goal is to lighten my load in some degree, or not take on so many job titles. To be at a place where I can bring in others that are really good at what they do, and have them be a part of it, and I can just oversee things.
Your films retain a timeless quality, especially with aesthetic of shooting largely on film. Is there any inspiration behind the current look and feel?
I am a snob for a good film; outside of snowboarding too, film is such a huge inspiration in my life. Somehow I am able to see through this bullshit with everything coming out every day. There is no soul; I can’t even understand what it is I just watched. So everything we create, I try to take a step back and just think about what we’re doing, what we’re trying to release to the world. First and foremost that it’s something that embodies the soul that we all have in snowboarding. I think that has just naturally created the aesthetic and vibe of Warp Wave. It’s just soulful. That is the number one word that I have been using lately.
I hate the phrase “selling out,” but a lot of production companies think they need this huge budget to create a snowboard movie. So they sell that soul to these large brands, and then the final product ends up missing that soul that they gave out. Really embodying and embracing the low budget filmmaking has allowed for creativity and our aesthetic to stay true. And it’s super tough to get people to come out and work on something that they won’t see a paycheck for. But you know, I just love the process of this life, going out November through May and being amongst the mountains, gathering these amazing shots and memories, and then getting really creative for six months. Putting it all together, building a story and then sharing it. I love all of that so much that I have kind of dismissed the idea of making a million dollars. I don’t want that to change, but I do see potential for Warp Wave to be somewhere with a higher budget.
I don’t want to know where all of my inspirations come from... If I knew, everything would lose its magic.
If you aren’t passionate, you won't last long.
Are there places in particular you draw inspiration from? Someone you admire that is already out there? Or do you feel like you’re just flying by the seat of your pants and going with what feels natural?
I wouldn’t say that there was a certain movie that inspired me to create what I have created, but I grew up in San Francisco heavily immersed in the art scene. I have just grown up around individuals who are creating things authentically and certain things I come across, films and videos, in and outside of snowboarding, it all definitely adds up into inspiration. I just feel this inner voice though, that I haven’t fully connected with, and It will just take over when we are out there. It goes where it goes, and I just follow it. Sometimes I look back at the movie after staring at a computer for hundreds of hours and becoming immune to it or numb to it, I sit back and am like, “What? We really made this? Where did that come from?” I love the mystery of inspiration, and almost want to keep it a mystery. I don’t want to know where all of my inspirations come from. I almost feel like if I knew, everything that we create would lose its magic in a way.
Do you have a plan or hope for this coming season with Warp Wave now that Aurora Boardealis has been released?
I think next year we are going to be taking a different approach and won’t be making a full-length feature film again. But we will definitely be creating more short films, and I think a main goal is to get more into story telling and narrative – less snow porn. See if we can get our hands dirty with that. We’ve got a couple really cool projects shaping up that I’m super excited about. Some cool characters.
What spurred this new direction?
When things are going good you need to change them up. We made this awesome movie that we are all super proud of, and while we could probably do it again, I think it’s important to step towards a new direction. It’s the best time to do it. Snowboarding seems to love to create something new and then ride it out as long as it can. I think it’s important to make an abrupt change every now and then. Switch gears. Keep progressing in new ways.
If you were to give advice, whether it is to someone interested in building their own snowboard brand or film, what should they know?
Obviously make sure you are passionate about it. Because if you aren’t passionate, you won’t last long. If it’s a cool idea and you can’t go all in, it won’t work. It’s important to have everything on the table. Also I think it’s also very important to make sure you’re bringing a truly new passionate idea into snowboarding, and that it is healthy and organic, don’t just ride the coattails of someone who has come before you. Definitely pay homage to those before you, but make sure you’re bringing something new to the table. There just isn’t enough room to get everyone’s hands involved in the industry by only changing 1% of something that already exists. You need to have big ideas. And you need to have the drive and willingness to really go for it. If you get going and then you back out, it just gives a bad look, for yourself and for snowboarding.