Sweden native Per Welinder was a freestyle skate champion in the 80’s, a wildly successful skate and apparel brand builder with Birdhouse in the 90’s and aughts — and is now a thriving venture capitalist. Per breaks down his key success lessons with an assist from fellow skate culture titans, Tony Hawk and Stacy Peralta. Read on.
It’s safe to say that Per Welinder has influenced an entire generation of skaters and brands.
In 1977, skateboarding was introduced to a young Per Welinder, when a group of skateboarders arrived in Per’s hometown of Stockholm, Sweden. Not too much longer after that, he became the #1 freestyle skateboarder in the world.
And while he was still a professional athlete he created powerhouse skate brand, Birdhouse with Tony Hawk, and eventually co-founded some of the most impactful skateboard and lifestyle brands in the industry.
Today he is a successful venture capitalist.
How does a former #1 professional skater make an equally successful turn into business?
How did he become Michael J. Fox’s skateboarding stunt double in one of the most famous scenes in modern movie history?
How did a chance meeting with industry titan Stacy Peralta change his life?
In our Q&A, Per talks about his Zelig-like ability to be in the right place at the right time, and how his insatiable curiosity combined with visualization, community, and dedication all served his uncanny knack of moving from one success, right into another.
This is how he did it.
You’re originally from Stockholm, Sweden and soon became a world champion freestyle skater — what sparked your interest skating? Can you describe the early days, who you skated with and your key influences at the time? How did this all happen for you?
Its 1977, and my neighbor came home with skateboard under his arm and I said, “I gotta have one!” My parents wouldn’t buy me one so I had to borrow his — thankfully he soon lost interest an agreed to rent it to me for a couple of Swedish crowns per day.
Before I started skating I was always into sports — soccer, basketball and badminton of all sports! One of my skater buddies Hazze Lindgren went to practice badminton — we brought our skateboards, and the coach literally said, “Don’t come back if you bring those skateboards again!”
Hazze and I looked at each other at that very moment and said, “let’s quit badminton,” and we started riding our boards every day.
At the beginning we would skate “freestyle” which is where you skate on flat surfaces. We’d do 360 spins, finger flips, footwork, handstands, board flips. We would also skate “slalom”, which is like skiing between cones, we would high-jump and ride ramps. We even built a couple of our own quarter-pipes with borrowed wood from all the constructions sites around.
Per Welinder in 1987.
What really got me to get into freestyle skateboarding was when Tony Alva, the famous pro skateboarder from California was touring in Sweden. At one demo at Gul & Bla shop in downtown Stockholm, he skated freestyle and was joined by two other skateboarders Lance Dowdell and Bigge. They skated fast, did really difficult moves and made it look really good. I was hooked.
I’m assuming like a lot of skaters you were just self-taught, followed your passion, and just kept grinding away until you just got really good and then…?
Yeah. And sort of got noticed.
Soon after the Alva demo I got my very first sponsor, Eurocana, a shop located in downtown Stockholm. Goran Hammargren the co-owner of Eurocana had a genius idea; a Summer Camp for skateboarders.
Skateboarders from all over the world flocked to this small town Rattvik in Sweden to get the chance to skate with stars from the U.S. — pros like Alan “Ollie” Gelfand, who is credited for inventing the most important trick in skateboarding, The Ollie, and super influential skaters like Steve Caballero, and Mike McGill. These summer camps were so much fun, you got to skate everyday and meet other skaters from around the world.
“I’ve known Per Welinder since he was 17 years old and even at that young tender age anyone close to him could tell he was going to make a mark on the world. Per was relentless and driven and loaded with self discipline and the desire to be something even at the age of 17. He was the kind of kid that stopped at nothing, which is why in 1980 I decided to sponsor him as a professional skateboarder for my company Powell Peralta.” — Stacy Peralta
This is where I first met Stacy Peralta , the co-founder of Powell Peralta and head of the legendary team Bones Brigade, who later on forever changed the trajectory of my skating and my life.
But first, you were the top skater in Sweden before coming to the U.S. How did you get so good and achieve such a high level — at such a young age?
I have a pretty funny story, that might explain partly how.
Living in Sweden when winter came along with bad, cold, snowy 15F weather gripped the entire country, my buddies and had to find places to skate — because we wanted to skate every day.
One of the best ones we could find was deep down in the underground at a subway station in Stockholm called Stadion. It was the station with the largest platform and the least frequency of trains coming so we could skate undisturbed for a quite a bit between each train arrival.
There was this old lady who would ALWAYS call the security, temporarily spoiling our sessions – but we always came back.
We would actually start skating with thick mittens on until we warmed up, with steam literally rising from our hands. It’s safe to say we were fanatics and totally obsessed.
I became the top skater in Sweden, and then made my way to the U.S.
Just a few years after you made your way to the U.S., you met Stacy Peralta and became the #1 freestyle skater in the world. What was that trajectory like?
I first came to the U.S. with fellow freestylers Hazze Lindgren, Per Holknekt, and Stefan Spang in the summer of 1980 to enter a skateboard contest at the Oasis Skatepark near San Diego, CA.
I was pretty arrogant and certain that I would win.
But I got my butt kicked and got fifth place. Coincidentally, that’s where I met Tony Hawk and his parents put us up for quite a few days during the contest.
Our plan was to stay for three weeks, but after the competition on our way back up to Hermosa Beach where we were staying I called my parents and said, “I am not coming home. I’m staying so I can practice, practice, practice.”
Placing fifth served as big motivator to stay in California, and Hazze decided to do the same thing.
So we both got jobs mopping the floors at our friend and top pro freestyle skateboarder at the time, Steve Rocco’s father’s dry cleaning plant in Redondo Beach, CA to make a few bucks — just enough money to get donuts for breakfast, burritos for lunch, and cheap frozen TV-dinners between skate sessions. I was just 18 at the time.
Soon thereafter, Stay Peralta asked me to join the Bones Brigade, one of the most prominent skate teams in the world. It opened lots of doors.
I started going on photo sessions with famous photographers like Jim Cassimus, Glen E. Friedman, and J. Grant Brittain and started getting coverage in a lot of cool magazines. I even made the cover of Thrasher Magazine and TransWorld Skateboarding Magazine.
Getting good coverage was super helpful as I started managing my own skate career and I started to understand how sponsorship works and how to set up skateboard tours. It began my trajectory on the business side of things.
What impact did these early experiences have on your transition to success in business and brand building?
After a few years into this I ventured out a bit and started running a street skating contest series. I called it, “Sk8 Shop Challenge”, where I invited skate shops from California, Arizona and Nevada to compete – which was hugely rewarding.
Even now 35 years later, I can see how the contest series played a part as a breeding ground for skateboard talent that became big name professional skaters in the 90’s-00’s — like Jeremy Klein, Ed Templeton and Guy Mariano.
While this was all happening, my Dad insisted I go back to school, so I enrolled at Cal State Long Beach.
At one point from 1986-87 while I was at Cal State Long Beach, I travelled 65 weekends in a row to do skate demos in some state in the U.S. at malls, fairs, conventions, and shops. It definitely took a toll on me in the sense it took me seven long years to graduate but felt accomplished in the end when I got the degree.
“Per, along with teammate and fellow freestyler Rodney Mullen, essentially took a blank canvas and created modern freestyle skateboarding with an entirely new vocabulary of radical skateboard maneuvers.” —Stacy Peralta
I also started making good money, so I didn’t have to work at the dry cleaners after that!
By managing my career and venturing out and running skateboard contests I learned a lot about business, event planning, retail, marketing and media. More importantly, I met a lot, a lot, a lot of people that over the following years I’ve have been able to be close friends with, work with, get help from, and tap into for talent to help build businesses and in many cases provide help in return.
How do you go from that to starting the company Birdhouse with Tony Hawk, and selling products all over the world?
In 1992 I asked Tony Hawk if he would be interested in starting our own company together.
When we launched Birdhouse we had super good and high-profile skaters on the team in Jeremy Klein, Steve Berra, Willy Santos, and Ocean Howell. That made for a great start and it also served as a magnet and platform to attract creative individuals and the opportunity to start brands like Hook-ups with Jeremy Klein, Flip Skateboards with Jeremy Fox and Ian Deacon, Baker with Andrew Reynolds, Howe Denim with Jade Howe, and JSLV apparel with Josh Priebe and Jayson Valencia.
This was all under the Blitz Distribution umbrella.
We all complemented each other really well. I was already ready to kind of put my skateboard aside and be in the office and run the operations side. And at the beginning, Tony would do the ads and deal with the team and I would order the products and make calls and, and send out faxes.
You know, F-A-X, whoa, now I’m dating myself.
“Per and I skated for the infamous Bones Brigade through the 1980’s, touring the world together and living the hectic life of pro skaters with uncertain futures. Per had the foresight to get a business degree when his income from skating started to wane. I knew immediately that Per and I should combine our resources to create both a skate brand [Birdhouse] and a distribution outlet. Per’s deep understanding of business and his experience as a hardcore skater were the perfect combination.” —Tony Hawk
Over time we were able to fine-tune what we were good at, and eventually we ended up hiring a creative director —Jeremy Klein— who really started propelling the success of Birdhouse through design and graphics.
During this time you received an MBA from UCLA. Are you the only former professional skater with an MBA? What did you take away from that experience?
[Laughs] No. but there’s probably not that many.
I got my MBA at UCLA six years after that in 1998-99. That made the 7 years slogging through to get my undergrad degree all the more worth it.
One, it kind of forces you to future-think and future-plan. And two, it helped me immensely how to properly present and manifest an idea.
You eventually moved on from Birdhouse to become a bona fide venture capitalist. You’ve just launched a new VC fund designed to invest in active lifestyle and consumer technology. What is your approach to investing in companies and what makes your current fund unique?
Shortly after the 2008 financial crash hit, Tony bought the Birdhouse brand outright and I went full time into brand incubation and trendspotting — seeing what’s next.
Fast forward to 2016, and I partnered with Chinese venture capitalist and skate evangelist, Curt Shi to start, Welinder & Shi. We like to say it’s “where venture capital meets active lifestyle.”
We’re constantly on the look-out for super imaginative individuals that are doers and that have companies looking for growth capital. Branding also has to play a big role in the company’s vision — and if the company has aspirations of making it in China, then we really want to talk to them and learn more.
“Per is someone who has succeeded in everything he’s put his mind to, whether it be as an athlete or businessman or family man. I’ve known Per for a very long time, many decades, and he’s never ceased to amaze me with his forward thinking and forward momentum.” — Stacy Peralta
Also, both surfing and skating is going to debut in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which definitely adds to the international credibility and growth of both the business and culture side of what we’re doing.
Let’s get back to skating for a second. We’ve talked about “visualization” before – and how you’ve used it with great success before big skate events. Meditation is mainstream now, but when you started, it was pretty progressive. Do you apply this to your business career as well?
To prepare for competitions in freestyle skateboarding I would visualize the two-minute routine in my head over and over again. It is like a virtual painting and it is always perfect in your mind.
It can also help you figure out a better sequencing of your moves and better yet, help you imagine and come up with new tricks.
In business, I do use visualization a lot.
Let’s say someone asks what I think of a certain startup. I’m sure I would probably have a quick opinion about its prospects. But if I took a bit more time with it I would visualize what success may look like. Then would reverse engineer this in my head to see what it would take to realize it.
I would then ask what it would take to change the status quo, how to make the company popular, how to make customers use it. Then I would figure out who the absolute best people are, that are available, that you can afford, with a good fit that can work together to make this all happen and become a reality.
How does it make you feel that a once-underground endeavor is now such a big mainstream business and so influential when it comes to global fashion trends and global commerce?
The emotional jolts that skateboarding has brought me over the years are priceless.
Back when I started it felt like I was part of a small, unique tribe with pockets of members in quite a few corners of the world. And a sure way to spot any skateboarder back in the 80’s without a skateboard – look at their shoes. If the person was wearing Vans you knew that they skated, and there was an instant friendship, an instant bond.
Now, the culture of skateboarding is a full-blown worldwide phenomenon and a big influence driving youth and young adults’ commerce. Many companies tap into it and do a terrible job — perhaps all it is good for is a good laugh — but others actually do a really good job. I feel fine about it.
One key lesson learned from building a brand in skateboarding is the importance of adding a jolt to the marketplace — in essence creating products and events that make people excited to the point it is worth talking about it. What i do like is that this method can be applied when you set out to build brands in other products and service categories.
Regardless, the “language” created by skateboarding — a DIY attitude and look, vibrant graphics on skateboards and shirts, progressive music, and “influencers”— has made a huge impact on almost every type of business.
Fun Fact: You were also Michael J. Fox’s stunt double in the famous Marty McFly chase scene in Back to the Future. How did that come about? What was it like working on a movie set for the first time?
Back in 1983-84 my friend Bob Schmelzer and I would go to Venice Beach boardwalk and street perform doing skate shows and put out our hat to make some money. One time a guy left a business card in the hat. It was Bob Gale’s [the writer and producer of Back to The Future] card and it said, “Call me” and we did. And we got hired to do stunts.
My friend Bob did the stunts when Eric Stoltz played Marty McFly, but then one day Eric was replaced by Michael J Fox. We reshot the stunts with me this time dressed up as Marty. It was epic.
Perhaps the most epic is that to this day Universal Studios cuts me a quarterly royalty check. It has been 34 years. If I would have been resourceful enough to work just a few more movies like that I would have been set… hahaha.
You’ve had an amazing career — the perfect blend of luck-meets-master plan, where you’ve been able to leverage one success into another, and another. What are the key lessons you’ve learned?
Essentially my way is learning is by doing. Back when Tony Hawk and I started Birdhouse I picked up a book on how to do business in California….and after page 16 I threw it in the trash.
I’ve realized there’s no substitute for being in it. You’ve got to be in the field, not just reading about it – almost to the point of (healthy) obsession.
“Per has been a partner with Zumiez all through my 25 years with the company and has been one of the few people I have known in our industry who has successfully built multiple brands. He is a serial brand builder.” —Rick Brooks, CEO Zumiez
I would also say it’s thinking, dreaming, meeting people, visualizing, doing, repeat. And when you set your mind to learn a new move or business, the mindset isn’t, “oh I think I will fail.” The mindset is: I’m going to make this move.
I genuinely thrive on finding ways to help people, whether it is their own career “brand” or finding ways to help them build their companies. This is where having a great network of friends and business contacts to tap into, is everything.
Also, the psychological rewards from being part of something exciting in business takes the front seat as a driver to keep doing what I do. And I absolutely love what I do for a living.
Aside from your phone, what do you never leave home without? “I never leave home without ______________”
Definitely my camera and a keen sense of curiosity. My sons Lukas and Ben sometimes make fun of me for taking pictures of some random tiny detail, like the design of a component of a gas pump in France, or the surface finish of a wood chair in an antique store in Fillmore. For me, these seemingly random and pointless details may very well become the building blocks and inspirations for a new product, story, or brand.
Featured Image credit: Brad Fulton
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本次访谈中文版本 a.k.a. you can also Read our Per Welinder Interview in Chinese Here