Coming Out Swinging | The Vimana Snowboards Interview

The pandemic nearly ended Vimana Snowboards just as it was taking off. Here’s how a true team effort got it back on track.

In its nearly two-year existence, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us about ourselves. We’ve seen the best in people, as well as the worst – and everything in between. The biggest takeaway, though, has been a stark reminder that no matter how often one might claim to have a ‘plan’, (usually accompanied by cack-handed attempts to distil complex issues into three-word slogans), we have precious little control over our own fate – and sometimes, life just isn’t fair.

“There’s no sign of the all-too-common tendency to mercilessly cut loose the ‘oldies’ on the pro team in favour of young blood”

Take the story of Vimana, the small yet endearing snowboard brand out of deepest Norway. In its relatively short life, reviews for its gear have consistently featured more positives than a testing centre after a super-spreader event; the Scandi aesthetic (courtesy of artist Peter-John de Villiers, aka The Shallowtree) is impossible to dislike; and there’s no sign of the all-too-common tendency to mercilessly cut loose the ‘oldies’ on the pro team in favour of young blood.

However, none of that could prevent a trip to the edge of the abyss, as resorts closed and the industry went into panic mode. With little in the way of a safety net, for all its strengths Vimana had started to look like becoming just another casualty of the pandemic.

Of course, had that been how things played out, this would be a pretty short article. With feelgood stories in short supply these days, read on to find out what it really means to Build Back Better.

“Years working in retail had left this self-confessed snowboard nerd disillusioned with what was on offer”

Vimana was started in 2014 as a “premium 100% rider-driven Scandinavian snowboard brand,” according to its founder, Trond-Eirik ‘Tronna’ Husvæg. Years working in retail had left this self-confessed snowboard nerd disillusioned with what was on offer. “I would see the new collection dropping in the stores, and I was so bummed,” he remembers. “All the brands had the biggest logos, and as many colours as they could get in there, and it just looked really bad. And they had all these package deals, and were degrading products just to reach a price point.”

El Capitan Tronna in Folgefonna | PC: Arne Halvorsen

The approach his company would take, and eventually be defined by, was the exact opposite; a simpler, more artistic approach to graphics, and a commitment to quality that meant the boards on the shop floor would be exactly what the pro riders were using every day.

“I knew pretty quickly that we were in deep, deep trouble”

Despite this niche approach, soon Vimana was fairly clipping along like one of the mythical flying palaces from which it takes its name. The formula had clicked with snowboarders in Scandinavia, closely followed by the rest of Europe. Business was booming – so much so that Tronna was able to sell his wares primarily through the ‘core’ snowboard shops he most admired, and turn down offers from larger sporting goods chains.

Sadly for everyone involved, it was that which would almost lead to the brand’s downfall. “Core snowboard shops are fucking awesome and I love them, but they don’t really pay on time, a lot of them….,” Tronna explains. “We kind of accept that, but once COVID hit, we were stuck at the bottom of everyone’s invoice pile. Almost 50 per cent of our retail sales were unpaid. I started to call around, and then I knew pretty quickly that we were in deep, deep trouble.”

Vimana Ripper Enni Rukajärvi | PC: Markku Koski

Like a lot of small businesses, the sharp end of the pandemic brought Vimana, in Tronna’s words, “close to losing everything overnight.” Business as usual wasn’t an option, and with no big-money backers to cushion the blow, desperate times called for desperate measures. “Basically, we had to cut a big loss, make deals with production, reconstruct our financing, everything,” he explains. “But we managed to do it! And now we’re doing better than ever.”

“Snowboarding matters, but the business side doesn’t”

After seeing years of hard work nearly go down the swanny, Tronna would be forgiven for feeling a little hard done by, all things considered. He has no hard feelings, though, partially due to his own time spent in the trenches of snowboard retail, but also informed by a healthy sense of perspective. “I totally understand how it is to run a snowboard shop. And when people are dying from COVID, snowboarding doesn’t really…. Well, snowboarding matters, but the business side doesn’t.”

Besides, it’s easier to put the past behind you when the future looks rosy. After embracing a new distribution model – by no means abandoning all core stores, but certainly no longer relying on them for survival – direct web sales went “through the roof”, and into more countries than had been reached in previous years. Clearly, this little brand from Stavanger wasn’t going down without a fight. “It was a rough patch, but after coming out on the other side we could only see the positives of the situation. It made us even more determined to make the best snowboard gear in the world.”

Markku, Tronna and Werni reppin’ | PC: Sasha Zeller

To do that, Vimana would continue to rely on its team riders. Tronna stresses that no board carrying the brand’s name had ever been made to appeal to a certain demographic; what comes out of the factory is purely based on what the team wants to ride. “Everybody’s directly involved,” he explains. “We’re a small organisation; you can call me anytime and we’ll make it happen. If we build a new board for Werni [Stock – the Austrian linchpin of the Vimana team], we figure out the sidecut, width, everything exactly how he wants, then we make maybe three to five different constructions, with different flexes. He alone decides which one works best – and then we make it!”

Given the influence they wield over the direction of the brand, it’s worth taking a closer look at the Vimana team. Particularly for riders of a certain vintage, a lot of the names on the roster will carry serious weight. There’s Markku Koski, the Finnish halfpipe master who spoiled an all-American sweep at the 2006 Olympics by nabbing the bronze; Stavanger native Fredi Austbø, who racked up several memorable parts with Standard Films in the noughties; and of course Michi Albin, a member of the Golden Generation that also included Terje Haakonsen, Bryan Iguchi and Craig Kelly.

While twentysomethings Moritz Thönen and Stian Kleivdal are also on the payroll, they’re very much in the minority – which is pretty strange for such a freestyle-focused brand. For Tronna, though, it’s a no-brainer. “In skateboarding you always pay tribute to the ‘old’ pros that are still ripping, you know? But in snowboarding, you kind of just get pushed out after a while. With Koski, he’s still ripping – in my mind he’s one of the best riders to ever strap in. His board control, everything. He’ll have a pro model for Vimana as long as he wants.”

“I think it’s super cool that we have a snowboard brand that is supported and owned by snowboarders”

There are other reasons to go down this route, of course; Tronna suggests that Vimana’s typical customers would rather watch a smooth, floaty frontside 360 – specifically, Fredi’s helicopter-adjacent masterpiece from Standard’s 2007 movie Paradox – than a triple cork, so it makes sense for the team to reflect that. On top of that, when it comes to experience, Vimana now has an embarrassment of riches at its disposal, which comes in very handy during the R&D process for new products, including the brand’s first splitboard (more of which shortly).

Still, it’s refreshing to see loyalty and respect influence the roster in such a big way. And for those who believe in karma, this approach to choosing ambassadors ultimately was a factor in saving Vimana from the chopping block. Some of the team riders, including Werni, Enni Rukajarvi and Brage Richenberg, bought into the business to aid the recovery. “When I got the offer to become a partner for Vimana I didn’t hesitate,” says Brage, who grew up idolising Markku and Fredi before eventually joining them on the team in 2016. “I feel [Tronna’s] passion for snowboarding and that made me want to help him. I’ve never had a tighter bond with my board sponsor than Vimana, and I think it’s super cool that we have a snowboard brand that is supported and owned by snowboarders.”

Speedy Jib Maestro Brage Richenberg | PC: Markku Koski

Along with Enni and Werni, Brage is helping out the brand in more ways than one. These legends of the freestyle contest circuit all recently shifted their focus towards the backcountry – and as such, were in need of a splitboard that could compliment their talents. Basing Vimana’s first split on the Meta – an all-round powerhouse, selected for this year’s Whitelines 100 – was a team decision, explains Tronna. “It’s kind of coming back to what our riders want – because as I said, we don’t make boards just to fit a target market, or anything like that.” The consensus was that most splitboards currently on offer are too stiff, especially torsionally, when compared to a solid board. “In deep powder, it’s still okay to have a super-stiff board, because you can ride a bathroom door, you know? It doesn’t matter!” laughs Tronna. “But we wanted to build a splitboard that felt exactly like a normal board.”

As for how this was done, naturally he’s keeping his cards close to his chest, offering only that it involves Vimana’s own blend of carbon and Kevlar, arranged in a unique way. The hardware partnership he’s chosen plays a part too: “We work closely with Union, and the metal clips that Union provides are way better than anything else on the market, I feel. They stiffen the board in different angles and not just, like, a lockdown.”

“It’ll take more than a global pandemic to ground Tronna’s flying palace”

For the verdict on how it rides, it’s over to Brage again, who had been involved in the discussions about its design for around six months. There was a lot at stake when he took his maiden voyage on the Meta split at an early season board test – so how was it? “If you have a board that you like under your feet you know immediately,” he explains. “After two or three test runs through the mountain, I stopped at Tronna’s spot and gave him a hug.”

So far so good for Vimana’s first shuffle into splitboard territory, then – but don’t expect too many other models to follow suit. It won’t happen until the team calls for it, and with the Meta splitboard ticking so many boxes, the only short-term plan in place is to add a few more sizes.

The Vimana Meta Split

As for the long term, it’s impossible to know – but a massive sea change is unlikely. The Vimana method has real staying power; evidently, it’ll take more than a global pandemic to ground Tronna’s flying palace. Even when things were at their bleakest, packing it in was never on the cards. “I’m always the optimist,” he smiles. “When I started Vimana, I had a friend who was good with finances look at the numbers. He told me, ‘this is not gonna work…’. But if you start something, you have to jump into it, and ignore everything, and just focus straight ahead.” And what did this sage advisor have to say once Vimana’s monochrome wave had swept across Scandanavia, and beyond? Another smile. “‘He was like, what the fuck!’”

Sometimes, life is fair after all.

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