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Shimrit Swartzon, Founder & Owner of Listen Skateboards

May 1, 2006

Interview with Shimrit Swartzon, Founder & Owner of Listen Skateboards.

Meet Shimrit Swartzon!  (She's one of the people pictured, right).  Shimrit’s journey to her current position started more than 9 years ago.  First as a Receptionist with 411vm, then as 411vm’s VP of Operations, and today as the Founder & Owner of Listen Skateboards. 

How did you get involved in the industry?
This is a really-really good story.  Let me start by saying I was a true hippie or at least looked like one. (Dreaded hair, hairy everything for that matter) Once I graduated high school I realized no one was hiring me for a job because of the way I looked. (NEVER JUDGE I TELL YA) locks, and I mean nobody.  Not small companies, big companies, not fast food restaurants – nobody.  I looked everywhere.  One day I was having lunch and Johnny Schillereff and a crew from Giant / New Deal was there as well.  Johnny and I became friends and one day he told me about a Receptionist opening at 411.  He said they could care less about me having dreadlocks and I should get the job.  With Johnny’s help I landed the job.  (And I was about to cut them) pheww

Over the course of 5 years with 411 I progressed from Receptionist to VP of Operations. 

Receptionist to VP of Operations in 5 years time is a significant achievement. 
I could still be a Receptionist, but it’s not my nature.

What enabled you to progress so quickly? 
I didn’t know business at all; this was pretty much my first job.  I was not a business person.  411 was a small operation when I was hired, 4 of us in total.  We were on Issue #12. When I left it was issue 50 and 25 employees. 

When I came in I was like, “we could do this, this, this, and this…”  As the company grew a lot of people wouldn’t speak up because they were kissing ass but I would speak up because I didn’t give a shit.  Steve Douglass gave me the freedom to take control because nobody else wanted to do it, and I did.  I would take initiative to do new things, and always finish what I started. I kept my promise no matter what it took.

I don’t so much like the title VP of Operations, I was like the mom.  I did everything and anything you could think of from, answering phones to Duplication, to you name it.  I did it and I died for it.  I helped create and establish more formal departments.  Started as Receptionist, perfected the job and structure of what the job should be at 411 and moved on to work in sales, advertising, distribution, created a subscriptions department, then accounting, then music rights, and I got two gold records from musicians because the work we did helped them blow up.

Douglass let me fail.  He’d say “oh, you made a mistake”.  It was an opportunity I was able to create because 411 was a young company and Steve Douglass was a great boss who let me run with opportunity.  

Do you think the same progress would have been possible at a different company?
Most likely not.  I don’t think so.  I think people / managers are afraid of competition and to do that much would probably mean stepping on a lot of toes.

Do you have any formal training in Operations? 
No.  But while at 411 I realized that nobody really understood how to read financial statements.  So I went to night school and got an accounting degree.  I learned I was the only white girl with dreads in accounting.

What did VP of Operations consist of in that organization, at that time?
Everything that needed to be done to keep the company moving forward.   There were times where it would be 10pm on Friday night and I would drive the company van to San Diego to grab 10,000 video tapes from our duplicator.  Anything that needed to get done would be done and that’s the glue that holds it together.  I’m sure that if I was VP of Operations for a major company it would consist of some of the same things however I really doubt that the VP would dare answer the phone or take out the trash.

Was it easy to progress in your career overall once you were hired by 411?
It just gets harder.  It was easier being a Receptionist.  The more I progress the more my heart gets into it, the more it all means creating more to deal with emotionally.  I didn’t have a life when I was at 411 - 411 was my life, and I was ok with it.  Luckily 411 taught me that if you work hard you can do what you set out to do.  You can’t fail if you give it 100%.

Do you feel either men or women have it easier in this industry, why or why not? How so?
Skateboarding is a man’s world, hands down and I’m ok with that and I don’t need or want to change it.  But I think I was looked at like Shimry not a girl or women for that matter. Luckily in the beginning I had dreads and didn’t shave which kept people from being attracted to me! (LoL)  I shave now, no more dreads but I still keep it real.  It’s not easier for one or the other because this industry is hard for all of us. However because skateboarding is a mans world I have to stay that is a big part of why I don’t tell people I own listen is because I’m a woman.

To be a woman in this industry you have to act a certain way.  You can’t date inside it or you become the….; you can’t do certain things so I made sure to watch what I did because I knew I was going to know these people for a long time.

Is there an element of, “you can’t do that because you are a woman?”
Fuck that, I don’t care.  If there is I’ve proven it wrong because I’ve done all of it.  I’ll pick up the heaviest box; drive the fork lift, whatever.  When it comes to riding a skateboard it might be different, but not when it comes to work. 

Why did you decide to start up a skate hardgoods company?
This is kind of intense.  The Giant family is a really amazing family.  Steve Douglass taught me everything I know and to this day I thank him.  Something happened and it all fell apart.  People changed, and a lot of amazing people who died for these companies got lost and got let go.  It was really sad, broke my heart.  We were taught as employees to breath, live, sweat, die for what we do.  When someone throws that away it hurts.

I was on the way out of the industry until Elwood / Aesthetics asked me to come help out.  I worked with them, but it was far beyond repair.  While I was there and a little before I had been talking to people about ideas and wanted them to hear what I have to say and that came in the form of a hardgoods skate company.

I have a lot to say because of what’s happened over the 10 years I’ve been here and I want someone to fucking listen to me.  So, that’s why I called it Listen

Why hardgoods? 
Because in the end that’s skateboarding.  So I finally planned it out, wrote a business proposal, and got some people involved.
Do you skate?
No. Never have.  Everyone is like “what the hell?!!”  However, I think I’ve proven to our industry, the world, and everyone else that it’s ok.  I think I’ve proven to everyone I have an undisputable passion for skateboarding.  Even though I might not know what the feeling of a skateboard under my feet I do know the industry.  It’s about the passion and the skaters, filmers, people who die for it.

How did you go about getting people involved?
I have known Danny Montoya since high school and Rob Gonzalez since forever.  It’s kinda weird how Danny and I came up with this.  There was some movement about to happen Danny and I were talking and I was like wait, hold on, and let’s do this.  My team manager & assistant have been with me for a long time.  Every person who is with me now has been with me forever.  Sal decided to go to Zoo York, and that opened up the door to build a team with & around Danny & Rob. 

Is there anyone “behind the scenes” helping out?
Everyone.  My employees, vendors, competitors, customers.  Every single person has helped me make my dream come true.  And I will never, ever forget that.  My employees who are getting paid shit and sticking with it.  The riders who are traveling 11 months a year and not complaining.

People don’t think that, but it’s going on.  From Giant to Dwindle to Deluxe, they’re all my friends and they help me out.  Everyone is behind the scenes.  I literally couldn’t have done it without everyone helping me. 

Officially how long has Listen been in business and how’s it going?
January 2005 was our official launch.  November 2004 we moved in to an office, set up shop, and launched at ASR in January.

It’s going better than we all expected it to go.  I want slow, steady growth; something that I can handle.  I don’t mind waiting 100 years to grow the empire.  If we could keep things in stock it would help out too.  With our industry right now, and how screwed up it is, we’re doing amazingly well.  We’ve got our sights set on a big mile stone this year and it looks like it’ll happen.  It’s turned out so well I feel proud and it doesn’t matter what the sales are.  But sales are good and growing.

What is your vision for Listen Skateboards?
My ultimate vision is to have a Listen empire.  I want to change the world.  I want people to listen to me and I am starting it with Listen skateboards.  And eventually Listen clothing, music, productions.  I want to make a difference in peoples lives.  To have Listen be the company people want to be a part of.  It grows but it doesn’t change.  If I change because of money I want someone to shoot me.  I want to build a home for my employees’ kids.

Plus to be the #1 skateboard company in the world, but that’s everyone’s vision so I kind of hate that one.

Today, 80% of your time goes to….?
Sales.  Focus on sales.  Without that we can’t do shit.  All my focus is how to provide our Sales with better tools, making sure customers are happy, sell through is good.

20% of your time goes to…?
Thinking outside the box.  Bringing other brands that we can distribute.  Helping people create a video and we can sell it for them.  Working with the industry as a whole to make it better.  Taking back control of our industry.  Because if we don’t then Quik and Billabong are going to take it all and we’ll have nothing. (Sorry guys but the truth hurts) So, 20% of my time goes to making this industry better, even though it’s a lot of work.

Your top 5 favorite things to do when working?

  1. I love making my employees happy 
  2. Talking to my customers, getting feedback – good or bad.  
  3. Reading the info emails from our kids
  4. Working with our shops on promotions
  5. This should actually be #1 but I guess you save the best for last.. 

What’s the best part about what you’re doing?
I know the best part is I’m making a difference in skateboarding.  Whether it’s small and can’t be seen or huge and noticeable, I know I’m making a difference.

What’s the daily routine like now?  Is there a routine?
I turn on the lights, turn on the radio, and start cranking.  First one in -- last one out.  It’s the same everyday and I love it.

What is the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge of starting and owning a company is not taking some things personally.  Whenever anyone that has to do with Listen, kid to team rider, is bummed or upset about something I take it to heart.  That’s the biggest thing - and a difference between a man owner and woman owner.  Women have bigger hearts.

On the job side of things its inventory.  Honestly, if we had enough product in all the time it would be so much easier.

What’s most rewarding aspect of what you do?
When I read an email from a supported…, it’s when people believe in what I have to say, what the company stands for, and understand it.  That to me is the biggest reward.  That’s all I can ask for.  I want people to believe in what I have to say.  “Listening to your heart” – that’s what I truly believe.  
What can you tell someone who is building a career in the industry, or looking to start one?
“Listen to your heart”.