The Meeting in Aspen is a networking event where industry professionals, entrepreneurs, and movers and shakers come together to discuss the latest in the industry in mountains. This year, we learned that GoPro has some next-level action film technology coming out, the importance of eating local and getting the younger generation interested in farming, how data-collecting can turn into consumer loyalty, and a lot of other renaissances that go into the business that helps keep snowboarding alive. There were speakers from Coca-Cola, Facebook, GoPro, Twitter, and more. Ultimately, The Meeting 13 allowed us to mingle with folks in the industry and spark inspiration for the season ahead.
In my first experience attending The Meeting, I was perhaps most impressed with Stephen Fox’s presentation, who helped start Drink Water. Reminder: Drink Water is the organization that encourages riders (and everyone!) to simply drink water to cure hydration, instead of energy drinks. The company also raises money for water.org, which helps give people who don’t have it access to water through affordable financing.
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Where were you when you had the idea for Drink Water?
I have to give real credit to Bryan [Fox] and Austin [Smith], my partners. The idea was a collab between Bryan and Austin. The three of us came together to delineate my role more clearly. I’m the nerd brother.
I’m a pro boarder, but it’s a keyboard I ride.
I’m sitting at my computer mostly, like so many people in the economy of the United States today. Austin had a gangbusters rookie year and started getting offers. He had to do that consideration process of, “What do I really support? What does it mean to be a brand advocate? Do I think it’s great for customers to do this?” He deserves a lot of credit for that.
Bryan rides for Quiksilver, so he’s frequently out with many people, including my favorite snowboarder, Travis [Rice]. Travis is doing projects that are on a scale…with a chopper…and Red Bull… It’s pretty crazy [for Bryan and Austin] to be like, “Do you want to do this amazing thing, which is a dream for hundreds of thousands people, and it’s the most epic vacation of their life?” and say “No, ‘cause I’m standing for this other thing.” That’s really where Bryan and Austin deserve a lot of credit.
It’s not just them. Other riders have stepped up and said, “I want to join the missional project of Drink Water to spread this message.” They’re doing that out of a passion for standing for what they believe in. I have massive amounts of respect for them.
I’m not encountered with these existential questions, where you gotta be like, “Yo, should I turn down money from these sponsors…?’” For those guys, a lot of them, I get it. It makes total sense why someone would do that in a sense of simple economics and human decision making.
"What does it mean to be a brand advocate?"
"We coordinated with the city of New York to provide free drinking water for those kids that were skating."
Yeah. You can see both sides of the spectrum. In addition to the Rat Race, what other events do you put on?
Last winter, Josh Dirksen, who’s one of our favorite snowboarders, has always done the Dirksen Derby. But he didn’t do it last winter.
Austin lives in Bend, and we’re sort of locals there, and we’re like, “Oh it’d be so sick to kick off the season again with another event.” So we hosted Double Tap. That was a fun project because it was like a banked slalom but two tracks right next to each other.
We made this huge bracket, like tournament style. The opening round was Max Warbington versus Austen Sweetin. We were all laughing because we were like, “Fuck, that could be the finals,” ‘cause they both rip. It was an absolute blast, and we’re always thinking about doing other events.
Back in the day, Nike SB was like, “Hey we’re doing Go Skate Day in New York. We’re going to have thousands of kids skating across the Brooklyn Bridge. It’d be cool if you guys could show up.” So we coordinated with the city of New York to provide free drinking water for those kids that were skating, and then we did bottles and gave them out to the kids that were skating.
How has Drink Water changed since its inception in 2011?
Probably the biggest change is to see the super encouraging groundswell of support from people. When we first started it, it felt a little like, I don’t want to say, “shouting in the wind,” but it was a weird thing to say. It was a different message when it came out.
Since then, it’s just been probably the coolest feeling to have people that we respect and admire learn about it. As silly as it sounds, it’s so encouraging to see people respond positively to the message. The continual positivity shared by people who learn about it, that’s amazing. Because we really believe in it.
Have you ever had the opportunity to visit places water.org helps?
We haven’t done that. We’ve been talking about it. Water.org, to give a quick rundown of what they do, they’ve gone head-on at the global water crisis, and that’s really serious. There are over a billion people on earth that lack access to clean water. Every 20 seconds, a child dies of waterborne illness. Really heavy, heartbreaking realities.
One of the things I think can be a little bit weird in today’s culture, people can line up behind a cause so easily. There’s a lot of people that overestimate their capabilities. We wanted to be really modest about what we could do, specifically about solving the global water crisis.
We know that we can promote water, because Bryan, Austin, and the people that join us in advocating for it, and what they do every day is promoting stuff really well. That’s what they’re good at. So we want to make sure we’re being useful in the way that we’re useful. Water.org is amazing at actually being effective at doing [water] wells.
A lot of times you’ll see a clever gimmick towards a photo shoot. I can think of literally over a 100 water nonprofits. That’s great…but if you think about it this way, what if 80 of those nonprofits that feel passionate about the cause were like, “Actually we’re going to dedicate our energy and our fundraising to the best people at actually solving this problem.” Would that impact look different? That’s really why we focus on water.org.
I used to work at the United States Agency for International Development. In that capacity, I learned a lot about a lot of nonprofits. They range in effectiveness. You look at, what portion of a donated dollar actually makes it work?
And what goes to a private jet…
Yeah, or what goes to CEO compensation of the “nonprofit”. Water.org is terrific about going head-on at the global water crisis. So we haven’t gone [to the places where water.org helps build wells]. We don’t really do it because we don’t want to go there for some kind of marketing or glory.
We do it because, and it sounds so fucking cheesy to say this, but it actually saves the lives of people who are getting this actual help. The best thing a lot of these people can do, us included, is just donating to the experts who are amazing at solving this problem.
Don’t go there and try to go, “Look what we spent. X thousands on this fucking flight. Then we stayed at this. Then we had to rent this car and we’re out doing this.” You look at the budget of that, and you’re like, “Oh cool, like Bryan, Austin, and Stephen [hypothetically] went to Ghana, and in the course of doing that, we did it shoestring, so it was only like $4,200.”
"There are over a billion people on earth that lack access to clean water."
"...you’re promoting something that’s actually bad for people to consume..."
Have any of the energy drink companies reached out to you and politely asked you to stop?
No. One of the things that’s beautiful about the action sports community, that’s certainly true here at The Meeting, there’s a significant presence of Red Bull and Coca-Cola, who have a significant stake in Monster. We know so many people that work in marketing in these brands. We know so many of the riders. We all share a community focus.
I actually would say that’s where a lot of the energy drinks deserve credit, and I’d argue that’s why they’ve been so effective. There’s a lot of brands who’ve, at times, tried to market to snowboarding.
I can’t remember how many years ago, I came to the X-Games. In the base village, was a whole Taco Bell build out. Taco Bell has never, nor shall they ever, have any brand credence in snowboarding.
Why has Red Bull? Because they’re creating amazing content, they’re hiring the people that know what’s good, they know how to show up, they’re hiring amazing athletes. So, they’re really doing a great job of the marketing.
For me, what’s really heartbreaking is like, damn, I wish you weren’t promoting a really terrible-for-kids product. That’s the awkward thing. Like Red Bull, that situation where the dude jumped out of a spaceship was literally one of the most amazing advertising hacks ever done, because they got the major network channels to live stream this advertisement, while dude is logo-ed up. It’s pretty crazy to think about what happened with that. But at the same time, you’re promoting something that’s actually bad for people to consume.
Bryan and Austin are public figures. And other team riders have a public voice, they are a brand. That’s a significant move on their part. That takes real guts.
I was at the Arctic Challenge in Norway, thanks to Terje Haakonsen inviting us. While I was there, Ingemar Backman was one of the judges. These are people who are heroes of snowboarding as I was growing up. Ingemar specifically took me aside, and was like, “I love what you guys are doing with Drink Water.”
That guy changed the way people look at snowboarding. He did a method air, that literally changed the way that I, and millions of snowboarders, perceived what was possible on a snowboard. So to just hear, “I like what you guys are doing,” that’s an amazing feeling that we are so grateful for really.
How are you expanding your philosophy outside of snowboarding?
Bryan, Austin, and I all skate, all surf. We have been getting into even riding mountain bikes. I’d say these four action communities are real to the ship that we love.
We have a couple of pro skaters that have backed the cause and are amazing. Rick McCrank is one. The other is Sebo Walker. The two of them have been terrific advocates. And again, these are just dudes that are opting into it saying, “We want to spread the message.” That’s such an amazing compliment.
And surfing, we’ve had some really positive response from Trevor Gordon and Cyrus Sutton. They’re both surfers who’ve stood up and said, “I back Drink Water.” For us, that’s such a value.
We’d love to be more present in all those communities, and frankly, we don’t think to ourselves, “Oh, this isn’t something that anyone can back.” That’s what’s so nice about Drink Water. It’s a great message for people that are snowboarding or skating, because that’s what we’re into, but at the same time, it’s a foundational building block of human health. Hydrate yourself.
There’s a part of it that anyone can relate to, but for us, we don’t have some exclusive thing. We hope to inspire consideration about what people are consuming. Every person really.
What are some plans for the future?
It’s a never-ending effort to spread the message, and the world is vast. We can only be so effective at such a certain scale. We’re always eager to grow the message.
Our mission is to spread the word about drinking water. Our vision is to do so by using three methods. One is branded apparel. Water bottles, products. In a simple brand sense, what we’ve learned, how brands can affect us, is because we’ve come up in action sports.
I grew up drawing Volcom logos and the Stussy “S” inside my notepad. I know a lot of people can relate to that who came up in action sports. We all kind of think in terms of brand promotion, even without realizing it in a way. So that’s part one.
Part two is the events and the collaborations that you mentioned. Not only the Rat Race but other things we can do to spread the message with events.
Lastly, it’s another cheesy marketing term, but just content. Bryan and Austin especially. There are riders in these amazing places. And doing amazing stuff. That’s aspirational marketing.
Kids see that, and are like, “Oh my god that’d be so sick to shred that line.” And that coming from the voice of Drink Water helps us spread our message in a way that says, “This is what we’re into, we hope you’ll join us.”
"We hope to inspire consideration about what people are consuming."
"At that era, you read every word that was in the mags."
How many water emojis do you get a week from people?
I’ve never counted. Emojis are great as a venue for conversation because it’s a lot more brief than words. Sometimes they can be so expressive. Doing so much of our promotions and message spreading on social, it’s cool the way that that sort of platform has allowed us to spread the word.
If you really think about it, back in the day, when I was starting snowboarding, there were certain videos, Standard and Mack Dawg, that we consumed a million times. At that era, you read every word that was in the mags. How you understood the community was through these limited venues. Now, the internet has transformed communication. We’re not only able to spread this message, but the dopest thing is the feedback. It’s so positive.
It’s not just pros saying it’s a good thing, it’s also kids on the internet being like, “This shit is cool!” People doing posts of themselves, wearing our product, being like, “Drink water.” Spreading that message to their own friends and in their own towns. That to us feels like amazing momentum, and we feel lucky to be part of it.
I can’t help but think of Preston Strout’s P Water at High Cascade Snowboard Camp from back in the day. Has that ever come up in conversation?
I will say that I think Preston is one of the most creative and innovative thinkers in the whole snowboard community. And Dawn, too, his wife. Their family-brand, Crab Grab, is one of my favorites. I could not celebrate those guys high enough. They’re absolutely amazing.
Actually, let me be more specific. Here is why I’ll give props to Preston and Dawn. Everything they’re doing as a brand, and everything they’re doing as a company. Everything they do in the snowboard community is always considered. They’re thoughtful people. They’re creative, but they’re also like, “What’s the implication of this?”
I think that’s part of what Drink Water’s about. Be considerate! Be considerate of what you drink. Be considerate about where you ride. Be considerate about the stuff you’re into because that’s part of the power that every consumer has.
Did you ever think Drink Water would be as big as it is now?
We really didn’t think it would be big. We thought it would be more like a statement in a way, where there might be some blowback. Like whoah!
Yeah, protesters. I think the internet has changed things. There was a time where everything was hype. Hype on hype on hype. You know, for so many of those stories that I read when I grew up, I found out it was a crazy sponsored advertorial. Like, they’re not telling some part of the story.
There were elements of the way we were consuming snowboarding. We were also part of the process of being marketed to in a way that now, I think is a little different because now you have more transparency. You have the opportunity to have a two-way conversation with any brand.
Part of the fun of seeing things grow is that, in today’s world, it feels like it’s happening organically and in a way where people do back it. That’s why it’s doing what it’s doing. For us, that’s ultimately our favorite part about it.