686 Founder and Creative Director Michael Akira West just released a video series featuring Brand Founders and their unique perspectives on success, overcoming challenges and continually moving forward. His new series In My Eyes aims to provide inspiration for a future generation of creative entrepreneurs. The unedited and raw format was filmed during an entrepreneurial class, taught by Mike, at the University of Southern California Marshall Business School’s Grief Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
SNOW SPORTS INDUSTRIES AMERICA SAT DOWN WITH MIKE TO TALK ABOUT IN MY EYES.
Q: We all know you as the founder of 686 and an entrepreneurial outdoorsman. How did you become a professor at USC, and what spawned the idea to bring in these entrepreneurs as guest speakers for your class?
A: I was a student at USC in the Entrepreneur Program from 1991-93 and I just wanted to be part of the community and part of the university because I wasn’t really the best student or the best alumni. I started my business while I was at school and there were a few teachers at USC who pushed me along and made a world of difference, so the school meant a lot to me. So I’ve always had the mindset of, “How can I actually be a part of this with a new generation here?”
There was a speaker who started a few companies and came to USC when I was a student there to speak and he changed my world too. He was a director at the same program and I kept in touch with him and he asked me to come back as a guest speaker about 13 or 14 years ago… and I was hooked. So about three years ago an opportunity came up to be an adjunct professor at USC, and I jumped at it.
As for the speakers, back when I was in school the experience of having speakers was quite different, but it still had a profound impact on me because you’re not listening to the same teacher all the time. So I wanted to have that as part of my class structure; to have real-world people come in and share their experiences.
Q: What inspired you to film these classes and put them out to the public?
A: Good question. I teach in the graduate program at USC and it’s quite expensive and quite challenging just to get in. And while in no way do the videos serve as a substitute for the class structure – it’s a three-hour class and one hour of that is a speaker – I really wanted to showcase this experience just to get more eyeballs on it and really help with some of the problems in the active space.
I’m a big fan of doing it your way and doing it for the right reasons, and it’s really challenging to do any of that stuff now and maintain a business. So hopefully there’s an opportunity for the next generation to see certain things and say, “Wow, that’s interesting. I want to look into that a bit more.” So that was my main motivation – to get someone else moving and doing their own thing instead of saying they can’t do it.
Q: Why did you decide to put this out to the public for free when so many resources like this are asking for some sort of payment?
A: I’m not in the business of speaking or promoting myself. Because I’m a founder and an owner, I’m put into that spotlight, but I don’t necessarily want to be there. I want the brand to be bigger than me. So we’re not here to monetize this. This is for the people. This is for someone who can find some sort of motivation or the momentum to do something instead of saying they can’t.
When I was talking to some other media companies they would ask, “Hey dude, can we tape this and have it in our gateway?” That defeats the whole purpose. I just wanted to push it out for free.
Q: What do you hope comes from the In My Eyes Videos and who are these really for?
A: It’s more for people who don’t have a great deal of access to things or don’t know where to start. When I started I didn’t have access to a lot of things and I just had to make it happen. That’s why all the speakers I’ve had are founders; because when you can see things from their point of view, that can be a first point of connection. Hopefully people are saying, “Hey, I can relate to that,” or “These people are just like me.” That’s really the connection – that you can do this, that you don’t have to have all these accolades. You can just have an instance of success doing your own thing.
Q: What made you specifically seek out these speakers?
A: Most of them are my friends and my counterparts. In the active outdoor space it’s very tight, because a lot of the founders don’t really operate their companies anymore. I get a whole range of speakers who are über-successful and who have ridden off into the sunset to the ones who are still very much in it – and even some who are maybe not as successful. I wanted to get a range of founders, as well as different genders and ethnicities.
Q: What sparked you to become an entrepreneur yourself?
A: I didn’t know what an entrepreneur meant even though I applied to USC’s entrepreneur program. I couldn’t even spell the word right. Entrepreneurship to me is not about having a portfolio of companies and moving on to the next thing and scaling and then getting out of it. For me it’s about really being motivated to make change in the world that you believe in. Your sense of motivation isn’t determined by monetary or egocentric values. It’s really just trying to be part of something that you can eventually pass on.
Entrepreneurship to me is more about a commitment to life experience, doing the things you love and having it not just be about the work, you know?
Q: What do you have planned for the series in the future? Will there be another round of speakers?
A: This is my second round and my intention from the very beginning has always been to showcase the speakers. I’m planning to do it again, but we have to social distance part of our classroom here at school so that’s going to make it interesting. We’ll see how it goes; there are no expectations except that hopefully people will check it out.
With a lot of the speakers who come here, the conversation is pretty open and honest. They’re not trying to sell anything; they’re just sharing the good and the bad from their experiences, and I think there’s still a lot of value in that.
Q: COVID-19 has spawned a time for creativity and discovery. Can you speak to some of the things you have learned from this time in history? How will they translate into the future outdoor and snowsports market?
A: I started my company during the Los Angeles riots in 1992, and all the things that came from that revolved around my need to be outside and away from the city. It’s been kind of reminiscent of why we started here in LA in terms of trying to bring better experiences and not just sell stuff. If anything, COVID has focused on making sure those experiences are enhanced and have a more positive manner. We’re a purpose-based company, and we’re trying to figure out what that really means, and how it’s going to better your life through activities, indoor or outdoor.
Our point of view has not been, “Oh, we gotta hit that quarterly figure” or “We’ve gotta be bigger.” We don’t have to do any of that crap. I just have to do what feels right. The challenges are bigger for sure – I’ve been the only one coming into the office, everyone else is working remotely – but for the most part, the company has been okay. You want to make sure as an owner that the company’s focus and drive are maintained, and we’re working through it, but all of this gives everyone a chance to keep questioning where your focus is and where it should be. If you don’t, then why are you doing this?
In My Eyes, Season 1
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