Sometimes, all it takes is a little spark to ignite a passion.
For 30-year-old Alex Hsu, his love for snowboarding came to him when he tried it for the first time 10 years ago, on a trip to visit a friend in Canada.
“Ever since [then], I did my best – whatever I could – to go back on a trip at least once a year,” he said.
The National University of Singapore (NUS) chemical engineering graduate worked as an engineer for a year, and in 2015, he took his passion to the next level and started The Ride Side.
Beginning Of Their ‘Board’-dom
It was only in 2013, four years after Alex’s first experience, that he “finally managed” to gather a “bunch of random friends” to go snowboarding.
“I was lucky enough to know this guy who was just shouting out on Facebook [like,] ‘Hey, does anyone else want to come?'” he recounted.
The idea of snowboarding with a group of acquaintances was very new to him, but that trip turned out to be one of the best trips he ever had.
When Alex returned and posted photos of his trip, he realised that many were actually interested to find out more about snowboarding overseas.
Then, he had an inkling that there was a business opportunity somewhere, and discussed his hunch with his girlfriend, Daphne Goh (28).
“[We realised that people] want to find other people to do this with but they don’t know where to start,” Daphne explained.
“That’s how The Ride Side started.”
They started developing business plans and finally decided to give it a shot.
“I knew for myself that if I could make snowboarding a career, it will be something that I would really enjoy for the rest of my life,” Alex stated.
Now, he runs Singapore’s only travel agency that specialises in snowboarding and skiing trips with Daphne, who left her digital associate role at Golin, a global PR firm.
No ‘Half-Pipe’ Business
The Ride Side began as a passion project that evolved into the couple’s first business venture.
“We didn’t have a mentor or someone to guide us. So we had to figure out what was the best way forward [ourselves],” Daphne said.
One of the earlier struggles they faced while learning the ropes of entrepreneurship by themselves was understanding the business processes like accounting and auditing.
“If you don’t keep it neat, it gets very messy at the end,” Alex advised.
Daphne added that there’s no textbook method of managing a team of people, and even though they’ve both worked in corporate environments before, it didn’t prepare them for the challenges of having to juggle the different aspects of running a business.
As their job requires them to work with people from different countries, they also had to adapt to different mannerisms and styles.
With Japanese business owners, they’d have to be polite and respectful to the way they do business closely by the book, so they “can’t envision something too crazy with them”, he shared.
He observed that Caucasian business owners are more straightforward so it’s possible to be more experimental with them.
The couple also weren’t snowboard instructors before they started The Ride Side.
But the idea to start up really pushed them to first get their certificates to get more experience in the industry as well as to understand what a snowboarding trip entails, Daphne told us.
Citing an example, she thinks it’s unlike learning how to surf in Bali, where people may be more familiar with.
Beginners can pick up a surfboard and go right into the water with an instructor.
“Snowboarding is a totally different issue altogether,” said Daphne.
Knowing which season to go is one factor and the other one is knowing the local area and environment because not everyone is comfortable or familiar with driving in a snow-filled foreign place.
“Then there’s also the issue of gear and lessons. So, that’s what we were trying to do as well,” she said.
“[We don’t just want to] build this community of people around the sport, but also to provide that access for them.”
Alex shared that when he first started, he worked out of his home and the only capital he had put in was a 20% deposit for the lodge he was going to rent.
The rest of the payment would be made one month before the trip, and that all boiled down to acquiring bookings from people.
“At [that time], I did it alone. Daphne was supporting me but she was still at her job, just because [the business] couldn’t support two people at the time,” Alex said.
He sent out a Google survey form and found about 60 people who were interested in going on a week-long snowboarding trip.
For his first trip, he arranged for six batches of trips, each trip lasting a week, to Niseko in Hokkaido, to test for demand.
“But as we found out, saying ‘yes’ is very easy,” Daphne continued.
“When we requested for deposits, out of the 60 interested people, only two committed.”
Since the deposit has already been paid for the lodge, they decided to push on to make the trip happen, which was due in December that year.
It was an uphill task as Alex was in New Zealand taking his instructor course for three months, from July to September.
“We had a good six months to really push (for sales). We roped in friends… friends of friends… and somehow – somehow, we managed to get 80 people to come with us,” Daphne recounted.
“By November, just before the trip, we secured our last slot.”
They were elated and thankful for all the help they had received from friends who helped to promote the trip.
The next year, the number of people who went on a trip with them doubled to 160, and that’s when they thought about scaling it as a business.
“Instead of just three months in Japan, we started to look at how we can make this a year-round thing,” Daphne shared.
“That’s when we set our eyes on New Zealand for the middle of the year, so that’s another three months in the Southern Hemisphere (for people to choose).”
Alex added that because they were fully subscribed, they were profitable right away, and they had been reinvesting all their profits back into the business for following seasons.
But as the number of customers grew, the amount of deposit they needed to pay upfront increased too.
Daphne explained that in Niseko, winter tourism is all there is to the businesses over there.
“Imagine going in and telling them that we want their entire lodge for a whole three, four months? That’s supposed to sustain the owner for the full year,” she continued.
“Every season, rental [costs] over $100,000 for us, and it’s an amount we have to have in the bank first before we can secure the lodge,” said Alex.
“The first two years were pretty difficult for Daphne and I because we had to keep money in the bank. We didn’t pay ourselves at all for two years.”
It was only in July last year that the couple started drawing salaries.
Daphne revealed that she had depleted her savings from working because they couldn’t afford to pay themselves as most of the money had to go into setting up the next season.
When they introduced New Zealand, which meant having to put in additional capital, they rationalised it as a strategic move.
“I guess it helps that we really love the sport,” Daphne quipped with a chuckle.
“For us to last till now, it’s pure passion. [Now], slowly, we’re seeing the fruits of our labour and we’re really happy to be in the position that we’re in now,” Alex added.
More Runs On Their Piste
The couple spends up to seven months a year overseas, snowboarding almost every day.
Thus, Vulcan Post was fortunate enough to meet him and Daphne at their new, two-storey multi-concept space in Ubi.
“So, we did a small season in New Zealand, I think that was [in] 2017 – our years are measured in seasons now, it’s hard to keep track already,” Daphne laughed.
“We [had another season at] Niseko again and we [decided] that we want to grow big.”
So they went about gathering market sentiments, asking people if they’d be keen to give snowboarding a try, but they were faced with the same answer: “I don’t know whether I’ll be good at it.”
“That’s the thing we want to break [down]. I started out with no background in board sports as well and now I’m an instructor,” Daphne affirmed.
“Anybody can do this. So we thought, how do we start getting people to realise that you don’t have to be an extreme sports [person] or adrenaline junkie to enjoy this thing?”
They had an opportunity to do a campaign with the Niseko Promotion Board to bring nine local influencers there for one week to try snowboarding with them.
The premise was that you can be a fashion photographer, a blogger, or a foodie and you can snowboard.
Daphne thinks they got lucky because Niseko Promotion Board also brought in many different partners who helped them greatly with marketing The Ride Side.
That was their sole marketing effort, and within one month of launching their next season, they were 80% booked.
She revealed that their returning customer rate is at 70%, but when the regulars wanted to book their slots for that season after the campaign, they were already filled.
That season, they saw 80% new customers who learnt about The Ride Side through the influencers they follow.
Daphne shared that what The Ride Side does is bringing people from all walks of life together.
“Staying together in a lodge for a week, there’s a lot of interaction as people learn something together, they get better at it together,” she continued.
“I think people really enjoy that, because it kind of takes them back to [their school days] where they get to meet new people and they’re building all these connections.”
She added that it’s encouraging for them to see that their unique travel concept has been experienced by more than 2,000 people since starting up in 2015.
For Snowboarders, By Singaporeans
The Ride Side also makes it a point to hire Singaporeans because their mission is to introduce the sport to Singaporeans.
Daphne said, “The expat crowd in Singapore exists and they are already exposed to the sport more than Singaporeans.”
“We have guests who tell me that they thought [The Ride Side] is an angmoh thing, like when they see The Ride Side based in Singapore, they think it’s maybe started by an expat.”
“But no. It’s started by Singaporeans.”
Their seasonal roster of facilitators consists of 10 Singaporeans who either run their own businesses or are enthusiasts of snowboarding or skiing.
The couple met their first team member, Terry, at a networking event and he has been helping them out for the last three years as their web developer.
“Actually, half of [the team] were actually our guests who liked the experience and saw [the chemistry between] Terry and Alex and told us they wanted to try,” Daphne shared.
“The other half is made up of friends who love the sport.”
Three-quarters of the team of about 10 are instructors themselves, Alex said, as they took the course together with them.
“The only way to get certified is to go overseas to do a course. So we tried to facilitate that as well, for those who are interested,” he added.
Daphne and Alex are heartened that more people are taking interest in the sport they hope that they can make this a profession for them.
Getting Some Big Air
Their hub in Ubi features a co-working space on one floor, and a warehouse for events and workshops, a cosy fitting area that doubles as retail space for snow gear, and a skate ramp, on the other floor.
They were inspired by a place in New Zealand that was mainly a retail store that also had a co-working space, a café, and a training area for snowboarders in one place.
“He held classes there as well. When we saw the place we were really impressed that we thought it will be amazing to have something similar here too,” Alex said.
So when the opportunity to rent this space came about, they took it.
They spent about one month to renovate their snowboarding community headquarters where their guests can work in the day, then hold events and activities at night.
“If businesses need a place to host a launch or have a talk, they don’t have to go for the expensive event places. We have a space, downstairs, that they can use,” Daphne said.
The couple also wants to change the misconception that snowboarding is expensive.
“A lot of what we are doing is showing our customers that snowboarding can be affordable.”
Daphne explained that trips with The Ride Side, including flight tickets that guests have to purchase separately, can be as low as $2,500, while self-planned trips can go up to $5,000.
They also hold free events for their community every year, including a second-hand gear sales because they noticed that people buy the wrong gear and there’s no store that lets them try.
Customers can also take the opportunity to ask the couple what’s a good fit for boots and get tips on what gear to purchase.
They can also brand new snow gear at The Ride Side, who is the first retailer in Singapore to bring in merchandise from brands like Burton, Vans, Volcom, Gentem Stick, and Karakoram.
Alex revealed that they will be launching a new brand for the co-working space called, The Drop.
They are also planning to come up with their own line of snowboarding accessories such as glove liners, face mask, and protection equipment.
In March this year, they were invited to go to Switzerland by the Swiss Tourism Board alongside representatives from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Seeing how big the communities are in those markets was an eye-opener for them, Daphne shared, and they are now in talks to work together with the other three markets.
“We are also starting to see how we can look beyond Singapore for such contacts or brands, or partners, or resorts, but also solidifying what we’re doing here in the travel space that we may then take it to Malaysia, Indonesia, or Thailand,” Daphne said.
“We want to use Singapore as our base first, to really make sure we got it,” Alex added.
The Ride Side’s latest season is now open, and you can check it out at their website here.
Featured Image Credit: The Ride Side