Second Calling: Lars Chickering-Ayers
[Editor's note: This is part five of an interview series called "Second Calling" about freeskiers turned entrepreneurs. It is written by pro skier Griffin Post. Stay tuned next Wednesday for the final installment, a story about a pro skier who's been sewing her own hoodies.]
"I'm going to make my own ski bindings," pro skier Lars Chickering-Ayers told me sometime in 2009.
I nodded and silently laughed to myself. As far as do-it-yourself ski gear goes, bindings fell toward the bottom of my list, somewhere between merino-wool sweaters and avalanche transceivers.
Now, four years later, standing in his shop in Driggs, Idaho, the headquarters of Cast Touring Systems, I can see the fruition of what I originally thought of as an offhanded remark. I should have realized, though, that Lars, someone never accused of being a man of many words, doesn't really make offhanded comments.
A clutter of binding and boot pieces, books on business and giant cardboard checks from Lars' Freeride World Tour wins, the Cast shop looks like a laboratory out of a ski bum's dream.
Lars himself has a bit of a ski-bum-meets-mad-scientist thing going on as well: a crooked, sweat-stained hat tops a rugged physique complete with a missing front tooth.
Here's the thing, though: Lars is set to change the way descent-driven skiers travel in the backcountry. His interchangeable binding-plate system allows skiers to use a tech toe-piece on ascents, then swap the tech piece for a traditional alpine piece on descents, thus achieving the confidence of an alpine binding in a touring system. The binding is called the Si&I, named after Lars' younger brother and fellow Freeride World Tour competitor, Silas.
"An idea is super easy to come up with and it's easy to make a prototype -- I did that four years ago -- but trying to make it perfect for every binding and getting someone else to make it to our standard is really difficult," explains Lars. "There are 20 different parts that come from 20 different people. Plus, dealing with the industry has been frustrating in terms of the boot and binding manufacturers, with the ridiculous number of combinations out there versus what we've created."
Lars has largely been able to get his company off the ground thanks to a Kickstarter campaign he ran this spring. Raising more than $50,000, he has invested every penny of the campaign, plus income from a limited number of sales last year, back into the company. (He laughed when I asked him if he paid himself any sort of salary.) Financing everything from machine tooling to molds, Lars seems more committed than ever to get Cast into the hands of every skier out there who wants the product.
More than a fundraiser and publicity effort, the Kickstarter campaign seems to have shifted Cast from a hobby amongst a small group of friends to a legitimate business. "I'm feeling a lot of pressure to deliver this year," Lars says. "The last couple of years it has been easy to keep perfecting it, but now I actually have orders and people want to ski it this year."
And the orders are coming in. Lars says they received one or two orders every day all summer; however, sales seem to revolve largely around word of mouth and the relationships that Lars has cultivated through his ski career.
"One of the reasons I decided to do it myself was the 'in' I had in the industry," Lars says. "People would trust me and not just think I was some whack job with some silly idea."
Cast plans to have a production run of around 100 units this year, largely pre-sold to friends and contributors to the Kickstarter campaign. After four years of research and development, Lars cautiously beams about the satisfaction of finally having a product to deliver to market while still acknowledging hurdles that lie ahead.
"It's been cool to see four years of work come back and have this product," he says, "but still my life goal right now is to be able to take some finished product off of the shelves and ship it to someone."