Scaling Up | Spark R&D Celebrates 15 Years of Family Business, Binding Innovations, and Powder Turns

We sat down with Will and Becca from Spark R&D to get the scoop on the ups and downs of the world's foremost splitboard binding company

Scan your local trailhead, visit your go-to board shop, or scroll the ‘gram, and one thing is clear: we’re in the midst of an unprecedented backcountry feeding frenzy. Splitboarding has never been further from the fringe, and it’s no surprise why: going cold turkey is a torturous affair. When COVID shuttered resorts, powder addicts resolved to get their fix—even if they had to hike for it.

Backcountry brands like Spark R&D, the Bozeman, Montana-based pioneers of arguably the world’s finest splitboard bindings, are doing their best to keep up with demand. “We’re shipping like maniacs as well as manufacturing 24 hours a day, as many days a week as we can,” says Will Ritter, who founded Spark R&D 15 years ago and remains the brains behind the bindings.

Becca and Will | PC: Spark R&D

“Last winter was definitely crazy. Our stuff was all sold out for the season two, two and a half months earlier than normal,” recalls Will. “[splitboarding] was kind of the only thing you could do for fun, especially in Europe. So many resorts were closed for essentially the whole season—if you were going to snowboard, backcountry was the only way to do it.”

With uncertainty a dogged symptom of the pandemic, all signs pointed to similar backcountry demand for 2022. This past February and March, as it came time for retailers to put in their orders with Spark, the unthinkable occurred. “We had people just throwing huge, huge orders at us, hoping to get two to four times more than they’ve ever ordered,” says Will.

“We’re trying to scale by 20, 25 percent, which is a lot when you’re already at a big scale and running 24 hours a day”

Doubling production is no small ask for any company, let alone one of Spark’s stature. Such expansion often requires outsourcing, a significant injection of capital, cutting corners, or a combination of the above. But Spark proudly manufactures bindings in Bozeman, and binding quality has been a hallmark of the brand since its conception a decade and a half ago. Instead, Spark’s reaction to skyrocketing demand has been two-fold: pare back retailer orders and expand Bozeman operations expediently yet judiciously.

“We had to cut dealer orders back because there was just no feasible way for us to make that amount of product,” says Will. “We’re trying to scale by 20, 25 percent, which is a lot when you’re already at a big scale and running 24 hours a day.”

To answer this COVID-catalyzed demand, Spark sought to add more binding-building machines to the fleet and hire more manpower. Easier said than done. Will jokes, “We identified a few positions we’d like to fill and then we were like, ‘Oh, there’s nowhere for that person to sit.’ We needed more room.”

At first, Spark used shipping containers for extra storage and a job site trailer as a mobile office. New construction was considered and summarily rejected, as COVID spiked prices of building materials, too, to the point that a two-by-four in 2019 cost nearly the same as a toothpick in 2021. Eventually, Will took matters into his own hands. “I reached out directly to owner of the building across the street, who wasn’t thinking about selling,” he says. “We signed papers in October and then we’ve been doing some remodeling projects on that space and just got our warehouse moved over there the week before last.”

“The last couple of years have been a little more reminiscent of the 2010s, just because it’s a big jump and big growth and change”

Now that space is sorted, Spark is simultaneously ordering new machines and schooling new employees on the art of binding building. Pre-COVID, Spark had 65 employees on payroll. The number dipped at the beginning of COVID and has since rebounded into the high 70s. “We’re going to be in the 80s and 90s pretty quick,” forecasts Will.

Building More Than Bindings

“The last couple of years have been a little more reminiscent of the 2010s, just because it’s a big jump and big growth and change,” opines Becca Ritter, Will’s wife and business partner, referencing critical sink-or-swim years for Spark that coincided with the release of Jeremy Jones’ Deeper trilogy. As splitboarding experienced its first major boom and converts clamored for Spark’s earliest bindings—the now retired Ignition I and II, Fuse, and Blaze—Spark wobbled close to the brink. And while Will continued to play the role of engineer, Becca was the conductor who kept the train on track.

In fact, rewind the clock, and Becca was integral in getting Will out in the Bridger backcountry in the first place. She grew up a ski racer and snowboarder, but “was just skinning on the skintrack with my tele skis back then, because AT still wasn’t really popular, and Will was snowshoeing. And that’s where both our relationship and Spark R&D was born,” says Becca.

Ettore Personnettaz on the skin track | PC: Pierre Lucianaz

“I was just digging trenches with my snowshoes,” laughs Will. “And one of her friends was like, ‘Hey, my buddy’s got a used splitboard for sale. Check it out because you’re ruining our skin track.’ So I got match-made with a used Voilé Split Decision at the time.” From that first tour, on functional but heavy gear of that era, Will’s cogs started to turn.

After Becca and Will started dating, Becca moved to Idaho to get a degree in environmental education. “I was living in a yurt, going to school and teaching sixth graders science and I got a phone call one day from Will,” she says. “And he was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to quit my job and start a company making splitboard bindings.’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow, OK.’”

“If diehard splitboarders of today had to tour exclusively on split setups of the past, they’d likely say “fuck it,” retreat to the resort”

Will started Spark while couchsurfing. At first, Spark R&D took on other engineering projects—Will worked on a ski bob (like a bike with skis), a disposable trashcan, a Ziploc-style ice pack for athletes, etc.—but always with the intent of funding his passion project: split-specific bindings. “I was just working on both at the same time. But it was really hard to get excited about someone else’s stuff compared to working on our stuff,” explains Will.

One day, Will randomly typed “” into his web browser, and stumbled upon a forum of line-slaying splitters. From the jump, this core community voiced interest in Will’s bindings. “I started posting my prototypes there as I was cruising along with the development. And that was a huge motivator because I could get feedback from all the users there. From the very beginning, they were just like, ‘When can I buy this stuff?’”

Meticulous attention to detail is Spark’s M.O | PC: Spark R&D

Historically, interest in Will’s designs makes total sense. The modern splitboarder is accustomed to a veritable binding buffet at their local board shop, as several brands make high-quality splitboard bindings these days. However, back then, options were few, far between, and remarkably shitty. So shitty, in fact, that if diehard splitboarders of today had to tour exclusively on split setups of the past, they’d likely say “fuck it,” retreat to the resort, convert to tele-skiing, or heaven forbid, strap on snowshoes.

Fanatic and Nitro brought hardboot systems to market in Europe in the 90s, but they were short-lived. Voilé pioneered the revolutionary DIY Split Kit, which allowed snowboarders to slice solid boards in half, install pucks, and attach regular snowboard bindings via an adaptor plate, but the adaptor sat unreliably high off the board. Burton tried and failed at the turn of the millennium. And that was about it. Long story short, Spark was met with demand from the outset, as any skintrack regular saw potential in Will’s prototypes. Still, it took time to pick up steam.

“For Spark to mature from backyard operation to respectable small business, Becca’s influence was critical”

“The first year, we sold 100 pairs,” remembers Will. “We just knew from the revenue at that point that that wasn’t going to be a whole company. But then after that, it was 200, then the year after that, it was 400. And then once we were getting into 400, 800 pairs, it was like, ‘Okay, this is enough to put a small operation around it.’ It was certainly four or five years in before we were able to drop doing outside consulting and work on bindings full time.”

For Spark to mature from backyard operation to respectable small business, Becca’s influence was critical. At first, says Will, “She’d come by once in a while to see what I was up to and be terrified at how long it took me to put a binding together. And then she helped me out with our trade shows, because I was trying to get sample bindings put together. There was nothing left in me to reach out to prospective dealers and book appointments or, you know, take out the trash.”

Early Spark Ignition Binding | PC: Spark R&D

“I was working up at the university as a research scientist, and I was doing some land management like sustainable grazing, planning type work,” says Becca. “So I would do it as I could. After a while, I was like,’ Oh my gosh, what are you doing? What is going on here? You need some help.’ He was working insane 15-hour days, every day.”

“Yeah,” says Will. “We had a couple of summers where we didn’t go camping once.”

For Becca, helping Spark wasn’t just about helping Will. “I’ve been backcountry skiing longer then Will, and backcountry is really a big passion of mine from the start. And so being involved in that it was really cool for me,” she says. Furthermore, Spark’s then dire finances and slapdash systems spoke to her self-prescribed “type A personality,” she jokes. “Trying to organize the chaos was sort of my specialty.”

“The growth has always been there and the interest and the passion from the backcountry community has always been there”

Becca continued putting more and more time into Spark while working two jobs, but when the Ritters’ daughter Sylvia was born in 2012, it offered a moment of clarity. “That was a big life change for us,” says Becca. “I couldn’t work as much anyway. And I just put all my emphasis into Spark.”

Quitting stable jobs to go all-in on Will’s fledgling business after the birth of a child may sound like a risk, but it didn’t seem like that to Becca. She had faith. “I never thought it was a huge gamble just because I know Will and how hard he works and how passionate he is. So I honestly wasn’t really ever worried about the viability of Spark itself or the splitboard becoming a real thing and Spark being part of that. I was more worried about keeping the business together,” she laughs. “The growth has always been there and the interest and the passion from the backcountry community has always been there. But there’s a lot on the back side of a business and neither of us come from a business background. We are both scientists, which I think in the long run, it’s really helped us a lot because we do a lot of spreadsheet analysis where a lot of people would maybe go with gut feelings.”

Getting it done | PC: Spark R&D

At this, Will interjects: “I did work on my wedding vows in a spreadsheet.”

While no one can deny Will’s knack for product development, his fiscal savvy is a bit more up for debate. “As an engineer and product designer, I was able to get Spark off the ground on a relative shoestring,” says Will. “I was able to cruise along and be financed through Spark’s other work or through Visa, through credit cards. That same period of time, I did have some small equipment loans through our bank. But it all kind of hit at the same time where all the credit cards are maxed out. The interest rates were doubling every month. If you’ve got 40 grand on credit cards and 28 percent interest rates, you’re never going to be able to pay that off. Becca came in right when I did a quick and dirty like application to get a line of credit at the bank and they laughed me out of the room.”

“Both Will and Becca emphasize that they aren’t alone in this endeavor, and attribute much of their success over the years to their employees”

At year four or five, Will says, Spark was the closest it ever came to closing down. “I definitely could have run the place out of business and it would have been just classic cash flow issues. If you can’t make payroll, people don’t stick around, right? Thankfully, that never happened, but it was pretty close.” With Becca taking the lead on accounting, the Ritters righted the ship. The sketchy finances got straightened out. Spark started working with local banks, who helped it grow from a ten-person company to a 30-person company, not to mention supply the droves of backcountry newbies spurred by screenings of Deeper.

Both Will and Becca emphasize that they aren’t alone in this endeavor, and attribute much of their success over the years to their employees. “It’s a close family,” says Becca, acknowledging that it sounds a bit cliché. “And I really enjoy that. We really need them. It’s a really nice collaboration, and I feel the people who are working for us now are keeping the vision for Spark moving forward. It’s that synergy—the sum is more than the parts.”

Griffin Siebert earned his turns | PC: Jack Dawe

“We’ve got one employee over ten years right now and a bunch of them at six, seven, eight. People stick around,” says Will. “So that’s a big badge of pride for us. We must be doing something right. People are staying for long periods of time, buying houses, getting married, having babies.”

Making Time For What Matters Most

Hard work is clearly valued by the Ritters. And prior to the arrival of Sylvia and her brother Luca two years later, it might have been acceptable for Will to put in 80-hour weeks or Becca to juggle two jobs plus her growing duties at Spark. But kids shifted their perspective. There would be no more summers without camping.

“When the kids came along, that was really the focus: work-life balance, and that is pretty non-negotiable for us,” emphasizes Will. “We certainly weren’t going to swap out the kids’ childhoods to keep Spark going. I would gladly let that sink and then go have a day job somewhere. We put a lot of miles on the camper this year. It’s at the RV shop right now, getting the roof resealed.”

“It’s scary to watch, but it’s super rewarding on that front, just seeing how much trust people have in what we make”

At this, Becca turns to Will and laughs. Even if he had to get a day job, she points out, he’d never let the binding project go. “Spark is in your blood,” she says simply.

There’s no hyperbole here. Will clearly loves his days mocking up prototypes on the computer and seeing them come to life in the machine shop. He loves working with his team, from the longtime marketers to the engineering students from his alma mater. He loves watching the world’s best riders push his creations in unforgiving terrain. “Mark Carter came through town last week and was picking up some stuff. And, he’s like, ‘Man, these things, they ride so great.’ and I’m just like, “Mark Carter is geeking out on our stuff and what we do?’ That’s huge and that’s really part of why we do it. You know, watching Ryland [Bell] and these other guys go berserk on our stuff. It’s scary to watch, but it’s super rewarding on that front, just seeing how much trust people have in what we make.”

It’s a family affair | PC: Spark R&D

But for Will, what he loves most are the field days, when he has an excuse to poke out Bridger’s sidecountry gates and put his products to the test in blower pow. “Field testing is why I do this,” he chuckles. You don’t need to be an engineer or an entrepreneur to understand that. All you need to be is a splitboarder.

So thank you Will, Becca, and the Spark R&D family. And congratulations on 15 years in the game. Without your bold contributions, neither this current splitboard boom, nor the last one, would be possible.


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