Thursday, December 7, 2023

Franco Snowshapes Is A Rarity—A Truly Custom Ski And Snowboard Shop

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Most snowboarders would agree that the lure of the sport—what keeps them coming back season after season—is that it is endlessly individualized.

No one rides like you do. Some people are happy cruising groomers all day; some people don’t get out of bed for anything other than a fresh powder day in the backcountry.

Snowboarders have different needs, and therefore different preferences, for an endless array of equipment specifications: board length, shape, flex profile. And for any given rider, few, if any, off-the-shelf retail snowboards check all those boxes.

That market gap is what drove Mikey Franco to found Franco Snowshapes, a custom snowboard manufactuer that produces boards completely tailored to the rider.

A backcountry guide, snowboarding instructor and trainer for more than 33 years, Franco opened a showroom just outside Teton Village, Wyoming, in a tiny building he rents during the winter months from a family that runs a horseback riding outfit in the summer. His factory, where the magic truly happens, is a short drive away (longer in weather) in Victor, Idaho.

The dream of opening his own showroom started when Franco visited Gentemstick snowboards founder Taro Tamai’s showroom in Japan. “It had such a cool vibe and I was like man, that’s exactly what I want,” Franco said.

Franco started producing snowboards in 2010. In 2020, when Covid hit, the person who owned the shop out of which he worked instituded a social distancing schedule that only had Franco in the space on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“I was like, unfortunately, there’s no way I can do a good job Tuesdays and Thursdays, especially the way I am—ask my wife; I’m a workaholic,” Franco said with a laugh. “I just put my head down and forget to eat. I get so into it, so I couldn’t really see not being able to behave that way.”

One of Franco’s advisors, a developer from Texas, offered to take Franco around the area just outside of Jackson—the second-most-expensive town in the U.S. for housing—to find a workshop in which he could build his boards. When they couldn’t find a suitable building, they decided to partner up to buy land and build one instead. While his advisor has a majority ownership in the building, Franco retained 100 percent ownership of his company.

Franco broke ground on his workshop in Idaho in November 2020 and was able to get all his material and lumber ordered before the supply chain really fell apart. “Right then the wheels kind of started to come off,” Franco said. “I had framed out the inside of the workshop. Everything we did was the opposite of a day late and a dollar short.”

With his boards, Franco’s signature is that he enjoys building with exotic materials—camouflage carbon fibers, dyed kevlar/carbon weaves, polished aluminum sidewalls, patina copper topsheets, epoxy infused with graphene.

Many of Franco’s boards are also recognizable for their wood veneers. He uses an Italian company, Alpi, that creates grains and colors unseen in nature. Using fast-growing, sustainable wood species, they slice, dye, press and cut the veneers to create amazing works of art.

And that’s what Franco would consider any board that comes out of his shop—a piece of art. While most of the buyers who hire him for a custom build plan to ride their boards hard (and the boards certainly stand up to anything a rider could throw at them), Franco says some buyers do commission boards that will go straight to their wall display.

What exactly goes into creating one of these custom boards?

In an ideal world, before he builds anyone a board, Franco will actually get out on snow with them to assess their riding style, preferences and needs. He calls this the “Franco Experience,” and if a prospective customer has come to Franco’s showroom in Wyoming, it can happen at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. That runs $2,000, but Franco can also travel to buyers at their home resorts, subject to additional expenses.

When a new customer comes to Franco, he’ll start by asking them, “What scares the hell out of you? Tell me about the greatest day on snow you’ve ever had. What drives you? What keeps you coming back to the mountains?”

“Each board (or ski) has a personalized flex profile,” Franco told me. “To elaborate on that, I will change the thickness of the wood core in the nose, binding platform, center and tail of the board by micro adjustments, sometimes as little as 0.1 or 0.2 millimeters. This small amount is monumental in ride quality. Combined that information with my experience in wood ‘feel,’ composite effects and material performance, and we create a recipe that helps us build a board that is truly unique to the individual riding it.

“Truthfully, most ‘custom’ ski and snowboard companies don’t even do this,” Franco added. “To save money and time, they usually create stock core profiles to speed up the process and only alter the topsheet art, base color and type and weight of fiberglass or carbon fiber to make changes.”

Franco’s boards are finished with a zero-VOC, UV-cured urethane clear coat. “This allows us to bring out the deepest textures and most incredible definition in the wood, carbon fibers and any other sprayable material,” Franco said. “It is incredibly durable and is superior to plastic topsheets. This also allows us to keep a board on the hill for years. Instead of throwing a board out because it’s scratched, chipped or nicked we simply sand it and respray it. This can give the board years of more life.”

All boards that come out of the shop include a lifetime guarantee.

More and more snowboard companies are starting to experiment with poured urethane, Franco says. The problem is that it’s incredibly labor intensive. You have to mix it by hand and pour it by hand. It takes about a day and a half to cure.

“You know a big snowboard company doesn’t have that kind of time,” Franco said. “They’re trying to be efficient because they’re trying to fit into a dollar sign. I’m the other way around.”

Franco Snowshapes also recently started producing custom skis. The business is still 95% snowboards, but Franco plans to increase the ski offering over the next few years.

Skis and snowboards take roughly the same amount of time to build, he explains—skis require a little more time bending edges and the snowboards require more time when tuning. At the end of the day, they end up costing the same in materials, time to design/build, and shipping.

With no offense intended to Hailey Morton Levinson, the serving mayor of Jackson, Wyoming, you’d be forgiven for thinking the person holding the office is actually Franco.

Ride the lift at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort or grab a bite at the Mangy Moose with him and you won’t get five steps before someone—a neighbor; a former instructee; a business associate; and, on the day we’re out riding, even his wife, Jennifer—stops him to chat.

However, even JHMR guests who have never met Franco want to chop it up with him on the mountain once they lay eyes on his board.

A passion project he worked on for two-plus years, Franco’s personal board features milled aluminum sidewall and a copper topsheet. A directional, expert-level board, the metal snowboard doesn’t vibrate the way one made of carbon fiber would—it “just goes.” It’s Franco’s first five-figure snowboard.

And everyone wants to ask about it.

“I want to make boards with metal sidewalls and crazy weird carbon fiber topsheets and poured urethane sidewalls. I want to do things that I want to do and that means that it takes more work, it means it costs more, and I’m okay with that,” Franco told me as we viewed the boards in his showroom, affectionately nicknamed “The Shack.” He and his team also offer tuning and waxing services with heavy discounts for locals, to keep the cost affordable.

“This is such a funky, weird but cool little snowboarding shop, and all the snowboarders want to come here and get their boards tuned because we do everything by hand,” Franco said. “The bigger shops really don’t like dealing with snowboards, because they’re just so difficult to tune. There’s so much surface area.”

It may sound strange that a snowboard builder who specializes in custom boards that run four and five figures is passionate about accessibility, but it goes back to Franco’s standing in the Jackson community as well as his deeply held values about snowboarding.

“At the end of the day, I would still like the average snowboarder to be able to afford the snowboards that I make,” Franco told me. His current business model doesn’t allow for that, but this season, Franco is expanding his focus.

The average snowboard (board and bindings, not including boots) on the market today retails for about $500, though of course there are options across the entire spectrum, from your cheap beginner board to your pro model.

Given Franco Snowshapes boards’ completely custom nature—no two are the same—and the fact that a single board takes Franco anywhere from six months to a year to complete, there is no business model that allows Franco to sell boards at prices anywhere close to one of the major snowboard brands, such as Burton or Never Summer.

The entry level for a Franco Snowshapes custom build, what Franco calls the Tailored Series, is $4,000 and will be based on a shape (think: twin-tip rocker) Franco already has in his shop. A fully custom board starts at $6,000.

However, starting this month, Franco will offer Limited Series on-demand boards for $2,800, the most affordable his boards can get. These limited-edition boards are pre-made and optimized for powder, freeride, all-mountain and backcountry snowboarding.

Franco has collaborated with artists for topsheet graphics, including artist/pro snowboarder Bryan Iguchi for hand-painted topsheets, designer Lela Rose for real, pressed wildflowers that are laminated onto the skis/snowboards and artist Valerie Black for stunning hand-painted art.

One board in his shop sticks out from all the polished wood and metal—it’s blue and features a graphic of a hamster. “That’s for Sally. She’s eight,” Franco said.

“She did it herself on her phone, sent me the graphic and she was like, ‘Can you do this?’ I was like, ‘Of course I can. I’ll figure it out.’ Out of all the snowboards I make that are in this building, that’s the only one with a printed, nylon, classic snowboard topsheet, because that’s what she wanted.”

Big-brand snowboards on the retail market are produced by robots. Even Franco uses a CNC machine to cut the parts for his boards—but that’s where the similarities end. Franco lays out by hand, hand-shapes the sidewall, hand-sprays the urethane coat.

“When [the big brands] bring a snowboard out of the press, they cut it out and tune it and it can be ready to ride in hours. Mine’s 50 percent done at that point,” Franco said. “Sometimes that’s actually the slower process, is that finish work, because it requires so much time for things to set. But I love it. I love the fact that our hands are touching every board from start to finish. Robots are cool, but sometimes a human touch is critical.”

Last year, Franco Snowshapes produced 100 boards. This year, Franco is cutting that figure in half, because each board requires so much work and he wants each one to be perfect.

Recently, someone asked Franco if he could produce 300 boards for them. “Right now I can’t, even if I wanted to,” he said. “I have to protect my customers who have paid me to put hours and hours of time into these boards. And the big brands I know were too busy. Maybe I can fill that gap and, someday, afford my own board,” he added, laughing.

“But really, to make boards that my friends could afford, it would look entirely different. It would still be crazy shapes and be really durable, but it’s not gonna be hand-shaped, it’s not gonna be hand-poured, it’s not gonna be aluminum sidewalls. It’s not gonna be stuff like that.”

It might sound like Franco is deliberately positioning himself in opposition to the wider snowboarding industry. But it’s all very collaborative, he says, especially among the smaller brands.

Given the size of his operation (he has one full-time employee and one apprentice, and his wife is CFO) Franco orders materials in the smallest quantities possible. Even so, sometimes he’s still required to meet a minimum that exceeds his needs.

For instance, last spring, Franco had to order four rolls of base material. “I didn’t need four rolls of base material,” he said. But he saw another small snowboard manufacturer panicking on Facebook, looking for base material. So Franco reached out and said, “I’ve got a roll for you and I’ll sell it to you for what I paid for it.”

“It’s really fun that way, that we all really support each other,” Franco said. “When we’re this small, we’re not competitors. We see each other as influencers and motivators. That’s another reason why little companies sometimes struggle, because we have a minimum order quantity, and we can’t use it all. I make 100 boards a year; Burton makes probably 300,000 boards a year. And so I’m basically paying retail for everything I buy—epoxy, fiberglass—which factors into the cost of the board.”

Franco Snowshapes doesn’t do many demos. There are some boards on hand at the showroom that someone could ride, if they so desired, but most of his customers have never touched one of his boards when he starts working with them.

Nothing a prospective customer would see in Franco’s showroom would be identical to what he would build for them, anyway.

“It’s like getting a suit made,” Franco said. “When you go to Savile Row in London, you don’t have to try on a suit, you know? That’s that guy’s passion, that’s his job. The suit’s going to fit. That’s how I look at this.”

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