We were honored to be interviewed alongside Theories of Atlantis and Fivefoot4 Distribution for the latest issue of WorkInSkateboarding.com. Kelly D. Williams discusses what sets Permanent.co apart from other distributors and explains what he looks for in a brand to distribute. Thanks to all of the shops and individuals who help keep Permanent going. Check the full interview by clicking below. Check out our jobs & internships page here.
Interview courtesy of WorkInSkateboarding.com
Work In Skateboarding: What is a distribution company and why are they important?
Kelly D Williams: The way that we classify distribution companies in skateboarding is a bit different than other industries, but basically a distribution company exists to offer support to an assortment of like-minded brands and make it more feasible for shops to carry the product. By support, I mean that we join brands together to share resources like warehousing, sales, marketing, etc. Their importance is only as strong as the brands themselves, combined with the willingness of the customer to support the brands as a collective.
When did you start Permanent Distribution and why?
I started PERMANENT.CO as a brand agency in 2013 before really considering it a distribution company. There were some great brands that were not getting representation in the US, and I wanted to help make the stuff that I was into available here. Actually even before that, the concept for Permanent came from my experiences with my brand Broadcast Wheels. I was facing some challenges with distribution of Broadcast product, so I began speaking with several of the large Distribution companies in the US about partnering. It seemed that the Distribution companies that wanted to bring on Broadcast were ones that I didn’t really feel good about for various reasons, and it usually involved them wanting to dilute the brand by cheapening the product or messing with the team. I viewed that as a certain death to the brand since I founded it on high quality USA made urethane, a diverse team, and didn’t want to see it reduced to something mainstream and generic.
What did you do before Permanent Distribution?
Permanent Distribution is actually quite small, much smaller than it may appear on the surface – so not only did I work on other stuff before this, I also continue to work a pretty demanding job while running Permanent. I’ve got 3 kids to support, so I rely on other income. But before starting Permanent, I worked at a few jobs in skateboarding like eS Footwear/Altamont, I worked for a couple of years at Black Box, and was most recently Creative Director at DVS. Hopefully Permanent will continue to grow like it has so that I can dedicate more and more time to it. I’m in no rush.
Did you study, if so do you have a degree and do you think it helped you with setting up Permanent Distribution?
I originally attended college to study fine art and design, but began to be interested in the business side of things and changed my major. I received my Bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in Business Management & Marketing. I would absolutely say it helped me with setting up this business. A lot of people say college is a waste of money and time or that a degree is nothing more than a piece of paper, but I’m really thankful that I stuck to it and finished school because not only has it helped me in my entrepreneurial endeavors, but having a degree also helped me get many of the jobs in the industry that I’ve had up to this point since having a 4 year university degree is a major point of differentiation when applying to work in skateboarding. A skateboarder with a university education is a unique and powerful thing, so I’m always hyped when I talk to skateboarders who have decided to continue school after high school.
What skills do you need to maintain a successful distribution company?
I don’t know – I wish someone would write a book titled “Skills You Need to Maintain a Successful Distribution Company”… and then make a movie about it so I could watch that since I would probably not read the book. I’m just taking a ‘slow-and-steady wins the race’ type of philosophy. I’m measuring our success by 2 things: some form of growth each year (even if it’s small) and most importantly, selling brands that I believe in and that bring something unique to skateboarding.
What makes Permanent Distribution different from other companies?
I suppose the main thing that makes us different from other Distribution companies is the origins. I’m just a nobody from Nowhere, Idaho. Most Distribution companies are started or maintained by current pro skaters, former pro skaters, or some deep-pocketed tradeshow titans searching for the fountain of bro. But I’m just in this because skateboarding has always been an important part of who I am, so I strive to make this work. Secondly, Permanent might be one of the only distribution companies to use multiple woodshops and be transparent about our factories. I feel like our customers like to know where their boards are made, and I am proud of who we work with. It’s a bit of a logistical nightmare at times [to use several woodshops], but each brand uses its own special recipe, manufactured with that region in mind. I want Permanent to preserve the notion of quality and craftsmanship, so nearly all of our product is made in the USA.
What do you look for in a potential brand to distribute?
There are so many brands out there. Some might say too many. So a positive and purposeful relationship with the brand is important. As an artist, the first thing I notice is the overall art direction. Everything from the name of the brand to the graphics to even the way the team is documented (and who is on the team, etc.). Of course most skateboarders tend to notice these things first as well, but it’s really important to me. The other thing I look for is product quality and manufacturing. How or where is the product made? Can the brand share suppliers with our other brands, etc. One of the new brands we are distributing is called Format Systems Mfg (http://formatmfg.com). Really excited about that. Not all brands would fit well or work at Permanent, so I have to be very cautious and particular about which brands we take on to distribute.
How do you attract brands to want to be distributed by you?
I don’t really know what has attracted them to us, to be honest. It’s a small world, so I think that if brands appreciate the mix that Permanent distributes, they can imagine their brand fitting well alongside the brands already on the roster.
What are 3 of the most important things you do for the brands that you distribute?
Sales and communication support, introducing their brand to skateboarders who haven’t encountered it yet, and offer help with US production because most of our product, even from the International brands is made in the US.
What are 3 of the most important things you do for the shops that you supply?
Help promote and support them thru our own marketing efforts. When shops receive a fresh supply of product from Permanent, I always try to help spread the word thru our channels. We provide product to shop riders and donate product for events, as well as offer low minimum orders and other promotions that make carrying Permanent easy for the buyers. We have close relationships with most of the shops that carry our stuff, so I’m really appreciative of their support. Permanent would literally be nowhere without the shops that we supply.
How else do you work with skateboard companies aside from just distributing their product?
There are several really great skateboard brands that surfaced around the same time as ours. We have good relationships with these guys, many of these brands are run by close friends of mine – and even if I don’t end up distributing their product, we exchange ideas, give each other support, product design help, etc. Since we distribute more than just boards, I often work with other skateboard companies on rider-related things. In other words, product collaborations, team stuff, etc.
Is there anything you do as a distributor that people may not expect?
People might not expect that Permanent is probably the smallest distributor in the country, not an entire building of employees. It’s sort of just myself and 1 or 2 part-time (but really dedicated) individuals who help me. Our product is shipped from a pretty awesome warehouse in Boise Idaho. Why? Because shops can get their orders within a few days of shipping, anywhere in the US.
What are some pros and cons of the distribution business?
Pros? It’s sort of a dream I’ve had ever since I first started really getting into skateboarding. In the early nineties I looked at all of the new brands starting up and joining forces, and it was a movement that I wanted to be a part of somehow. Cons? Terribly low margins are available for the distributors, a really competitive landscape, and my FedEx bill. All that boring business crap that nobody wants to hear.
What are the different roles at Permanent Distribution and how many people do you employ?
I employ 1 fulltime employee. Me. But the good thing is that I’m always Employee of the Month. I suppose I can’t hire anyone for at least a year because I had to order 12 plaques with my name & photo on them. However I do have several VERY helpful individuals that fill key roles at Permanent. These friends, people helping with sales, and the team riders are certainly what make this thing work.
What do you look for in sales staff?
People who aren’t flaky. Salespeople that are committed, focused, and willing to take some shared risk are surprisingly hard to find. I find that the types of individuals who have built their own DIY skate spots or started their own brand, zine, or shop have that magic spark. We don’t actively “sell” using the same methods that most companies do. So far it’s mainly been word of mouth and a few friends who have taken the role of part-time salespeople. There isn’t a national force of Sales Reps or an internal Sales Staff or anything like that.
Why is it important for Distribution companies to be owned by skaters?
That is a question that could be answered in a hundred different ways. But most Distribution companies are owned by skaters or former skaters anyway, at least the hardgoods distributors. We’re the only ones crazy enough to do it despite the minimal monetary reward. I didn’t start skateboarding for monetary rewards, it never even crossed my mind. Luckily, there is absolutely nothing appealing about the financial statement of a skateboard distribution company that would attract too many vultures. The vultures seem more interested in poking around at all the stuff besides skateboards: drinks, headphones, sunglasses, video games, or whatever other stuff they can come up with that smells or looks like skateboarding. But as long as the majority of Distributors are kept in the hands of skateboarders, and skateboarders are sharp enough to know the difference, we’ll be alright.
What are some tips for starting a successful distribution company?
That depends largely on what your definition of success is. Like I mentioned earlier, the way I have defined success for Permanent is slow growth and being proud of the brands that I distribute. So in that case, starting a successful distribution company is a result of knowing what you consider success and sticking to it. [end]
Special thanks to the folks at WorkInSkateboarding.com and Samantha Chami for conducting and publishing this interview.