Betty Rides…Again: An Interview with Founder Janet Freeman

Tarin O’Donnell

Janet Freeman is the founder of Betty Rides, an independent women’s snowboard apparel brand that recently shut its doors after 20 years in the industry. Janet is a pioneer in the industry, she started out making men’s snow apparel in the late 80’s with her brand Ton A’ Wa Wa, before making her transition to women’s specific apparel. Betty Rides became so successful that she turned all of her focus there and closed Ton A’ Wa Wa.  With 20 years of success and a team of riders from around the world, the closing of the company seemed sudden for those on the outside. After about a year and a half, and a step into the corporate world, Janet got a spark of inspiration and found herself ready to re-start Betty Rides. We talk to Janet to get some insight into her story, from how it all started to the decision to walk away, and what it took for her to get the courage to start up again. Read on:

When did you first start snowboarding? Was it love at first carve?
I have been snowboarding for 25 years. This scares me. My first day snowboarding was at Mt. Hood Meadows on the bunny hill. It was back in the late 1980’s. I wish I had the exact date. I found a photo of me the first time that I could actually ride down a hill. Notice the big smile and the Rodeo Queen wave. I am wearing QUIMBOLA MAN pants (check out the cordura knee & butt patches) a neon green Nike running jacket, a multi colored Ton A Wa Wa headband that we made, Sorels, and lavender Grandoe Gloves. Not sure what board or bindings those are.

Snowboarding was not love at first sight for me. My kid’s dad set me up REGULAR, like he his. Well, I fell and fell and hurt myself pretty badly. I finally realized that I am GOOFY. This photo of me riding down the hill goofy with a big smile is probably the first time I wasn’t hurting, ha ha. I must have loved it or else I would have quit trying. I grew up skiing and was a pretty good skier. I participated in the High School Ski Racing team at Anthony Lakes, Oregon. I finally quit after having a really scary downhill crash. My father was pushing me to race (he finally ski raced himself as a Master’s Ski Racer); I think that’s when I became a rebel.  Now that I am a mother of a 13 and 16 year old I need to remember this.

I do remember that the first board I ever bought was a Barfoot board and I loved it. I demo’d Burton and Sims boards, and fell in love with a Barfoot board. I ordered one for myself. Waiting for it was like waiting for Christmas. The shop I got it from was in Rhododendron, Oregon and the couple who had the shop ran it out of their living room in a house on Highway 26, and their little girl was always there playing with dolls when we stopped in to buy stuff. At the time I thought nothing of it; everyone was just so excited about snowboarding. I learned to snowboard on the Palmer Glacier one summer. I caught a toe edge one day and got “tossed” hard. I felt like I had been bucked off a horse. I was pretty mad at that board for a while. I was afraid of it too. I cracked a rib or two. But the feeling of snowboarding was like the feeling of floating or something. And I had to be in the “zone” while riding back then because it was new. I could only focus on riding and not falling. It took my mind off of work and the everyday world. I loved it.

How did you get involved with the snowboard clothing industry? Did you work for a clothing company before starting your own?
I am a graduate of Parson’s School of Design, NYC. I have a BFA in Fashion Design. I know how to make patterns, sew, etc. I worked as a designer in NYC and then accepted a swimwear design position at Jantzen Swimwear in Portland, Oregon. After about four months Jantzen moved me from hot bikini design to designing their boring old lady clothing line. I was not happy. My old boss in NYC offered me her swimwear line to design. It was so tempting. But I didn’t want to move back to NYC. All my family is on the West Coast. After not being able to find other employment in Portland, I stuck with Jantzen and made my first men’s snowboard apparel line, Ton A’ Wa Wa, while working there. Jantzen sample sewers made the first Ton A’ Wa Wa apparel product samples during their break times and lunches. My kid’s dad and I did it together. He was going to Portland State and studying Graphic Design, and working as a waiter too. We were really busy those days.

What made you decide to start making your own gear? Was having your own business something you had always imagined yourself doing?
I went from high school to college and dropped out after two years. I was at Lewis & Clark double majoring in fine arts/painting and business. At age 20 I moved by myself to Taos, New Mexico to pursue my fine arts (painting) career. My mom was kind enough to send me Pendleton Woolen Mill Indian Blanket scrap fabric. I made one of a kind vests, bags, pillows and seat cushions out of it (take that all of your Pendleton Woolen Mill co-branders, I was 35 years ahead of you). I sold my goods through local shop in Taos and Santa Fe. I know that Jackson Brown bought some items. Hey it was the early 80’s. I made a small living. After living there for 2 years my parents suggested that I complete my college education. I applied for the Fashion Design Program at Parsons. I had to take a six week test curriculum in NYC to be evaluated and skip the first year. I was accepted. I am forever grateful to my parents for believing in me and for paying for my education. What a gift. I did work like a dog at Parsons though. We all did. That is not an easy program. I am very proud of my degree and the education I received. We actually had to draw without computers. We drew a LOT. We painted with gouache too.

In my 20’s I wanted to create a fashion brand. While going to Parsons and working in NYC I helped organize and dress many high-end fashion shows. Yes, many of the shows were held at Parson. I always dreamed of doing the same myself. After moving to Portland I got into being outdoors. My father offered to give me a horse that I could use for jumping as an after work activity. Not wanting to be tied down to caring for an animal, I decided to start skiing year round instead. That’s when I fell in love with Mt. Hood and snow sports again. My kids’ dad started snowboarding first. After about six months I joined him. Back then we had no idea how lucky we were to be founders of the sport. We were just having fun. I see clothing now that’s retro and I go holy cow—we did that 25 years ago. Love the knee patches so much.

I come from a family of entrepreneurs on my dad’s side. My dad was self employed for much of his life and had a home office. While working at Jantzen I realized that the money I earned wasn’t earning me much sitting in the bank. I was also unhappy in my design role at the time. So I bought fabric with a part of my income and created things and sold them for a profit. Our first trade show was the Action Sports show in San Diego. I began to realize that we could eventually make more money being self-employed.

I imagine it can be pretty difficult to get a new brand out there, how did you go about doing so in the beginning?
It was easy since the market was brand new. All you had to do was design and make samples, get your costing and delivery dates dialed, and get a booth at a trade show. Ton A Wa Wa got orders at our first Action Sports show from Japanese distributors. And we shared 1/2 of a 10 x 10 foot booth with another brand called “Chappers” which was a snowboard diaper that you put on over your jeans. Ha Ha!

Did you face many challenges being a female running a business in a male dominated industry?
Do not even get me started. How about challenges from my kid’s dad after Betty Rides became an instant success and we closed Ton A WaWa. He wasn’t too stoked about that. I think the biggest issue for me is that when women are tough in business they are usually called a bitch. Honestly ladies, you have to learn to accept that term as a compliment! And oh, the double standard is alive and well. Guys, married guys too, can be players at trade shows and everywhere else and earn mad respect. If a single woman has fun she is looked down on. Even to this day. Honestly! I hear from some of my past employees/team members with positions in corporate that some sexual harassment is alive and well. It may be more subtle than it was in my corporate days, but it’s there. I thought those days were over! Seriously, America?

What are some of the challenges you face in being a brand for women and girls specifically?
In snowboarding there are less actively participating women in the sport so by default there goes at least half of your customers base. Usually offering female only product makes you less meaningful to a retailer. Many retailers like to get everything from one brand and get discounts and better terms, and it’s easier. Think of Burton. A shop can get everything just from them. Men’s women’s kids, boards, boots, bindings, apparel of all sorts, helmets, and more. Look at Volcom. They started with men’s only and successfully added women’s and kid’s products. They have done a great job. And they make year round streetwear and surf goods too. Year round product. Look at Salomon buying Bonfire, and Bonfire eventually buying Nikita to enter the women’s market. They wanted to offer the full meal deal. They sold boards, boots, binding, apparel, accessories. What happened? 

Classic Ads from the Betty Rides archives.

When did you first think about closing the company? Was it more of a sudden thing, or over a period of time?
I started thinking about closing a year before I did. People talked me out of it. They said you have a profitable business and a brand. You haven’t worked for anyone else in years. If you close up now you will never be able to start up again. I had strong voices encouraging me to keep on. I was also dabbling in surf wear and wanted to do that badly. I wanted year round product to balance the risk. But I stared too late. And everyone said, “No other snow brand has successfully branched in to surf. Ever.” That was discouraging.

What were the final reasons that made you decide to close the doors? At that time did you ever think you would start back up again?
I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD START UP AGAIN. NO WAY NO HOW. I wanted a job. I didn’t want to make any decisions. I wanted to be told what to do. I didn’t want to think. I didn’t want to take anymore risk. Reasons:

1. My gut
2. My kids were suffering because of my stress
3. The numbers finally got so bad that the people who kept pushing me finally backed off a bit (believe me I didn’t like being right in this case)
4. Consolidation of industry and not consolidating (I tried)
5. Not having fun
6. Being scared most of the time
7. Late receivables
8. Not making money for a year (I don’t think people realize that betty Rides was small but profitable!)
9. Wanting to take my money off the table and hide from the storm

My inner self simply would not allow me to continue. I couldn’t design anything. My heart wasn’t into it anymore. These past two years have been very dark and I am coming out of it and I have learned tons. I am finally grateful for, and accepting of, all my experiences both good and bad. Believe me it has not been easy to get to this mental place. I am happy to go snowboard now. Even if the snow isn’t very good. It’s still nice to be outside on a mountain with family, friends, and happy people. There’s nothing like it. On Mt. Hood we have lots of beer and cider testing that needs to be done during the snow season too.

You mentioned on your Facebook page that you “tried to join the ‘safety’ of corporate America” during your time away, what was your experience like? Was it difficult to transition into working for somebody else after having your own company for so long?
No one would hire me. People in corporate America keep doing stupid things even if they know there’s a better way. They can’t change because they can’t do anything unless it comes “down from corporate.” I found that most women in powerful positions in corporations aren’t willing to help other women. I almost felt like they were thinking I had claw my way to the top now you have to too. Oh yes, I had forgotten that women are still discriminated against in the workforce. Side note: the North Face has been interested but I can’t move as I co-parent here in Portland.

Was it entering into this other kind of world that inspired you to ultimately start back up again?
Yes. The only company willing to hire me was Nordstrom. I will always love them for that. Working the sales floor at Nordstrom selling active and especially swimwear gave me the opportunity to see what women and girls want and need. I got to see some “holes” in the market. I got inspired.  I would still be working there but I have skate and snow park injuries that don’t allow me to stand/walk/run on concrete without sitting for four hours at a time (going to see the second orthopedic surgeon this Thursday). My kids saw I was in pain. My daughter has encouraged me to start Betty Rides up again. I finally had ideas again. I had to quit my job at Nordstrom, because they wouldn’t allow me to sit in the back for two hours a day and do work there. So at least I had a desk job to return to: Betty Rides.

It seems like you have a whole lot of support out there still, did you come across any negativity when deciding to re-open the doors?
I am so grateful for the support. Honestly ,I came back to my home office from Nordstrom and on Monday morning I was terrified. I was all alone. I was frozen. I was ashamed of shutting the biz down and being a “failure.” I went to our old Facebook page. I typed in what I was feeling. I was like, f*** it. I am going to bare my soul. I have nothing to lose. And people have been so AMAZINGLY kind and supportive. Betty Rides products hold up so well that many customers didn’t even know we were out of business until they were looking for new pants to buy. I am still in shock for the support and offers of help I have received from the online community. When my brand was rocking I had lots of help and never answered the phone or did the social media. When I wasn’t building product with riders it seems like I just got to hear about problems. I was always putting out fires. I didn’t have a strong enough partners. Our crew did do the best they could though.

I do feel some people outside my family and inner circle don’t think I can do it. Some people in my life think that the market is too small or too hard. They wonder why I am even trying they think I should simply retire. One person commented on the name Betty Rides. They said it is old school and needs to be changed. The name has always offended some women. The brand has always been feminine. But look how great our riders were and are, and I am pretty tough myself. In the past I was hurt by the fact that a few people think the name is derogatory to women. I think it’s empowering (I learned to snowboard on Hood with a surfer friend from Palos Verdes who called girls Betty. I always thought it was funny). I wanted to call the brand Betty but the attorney said I had to add another word onto the name and I simply added Rides. No “surveys’ no “focus groups.” I just did it. I am just now starting to truly believe in and appreciate myself. I am a snowboard pioneer and have made a difference in the sport. I am finally cool in my own eyes. I am not sure that the snowboard industry ever took me seriously. I finally truly don’t care what others think of me. It’s very freeing.

I know you are not taking the restart lightly, is it a bit scary to get back out there again? What do you think will be the biggest obstacles for you as you begin again?
I am scared. Scared at the amount of effort that it’s going to take. Scared of failure. Last week I got a called in for a design interview here in Portland. I went in. I am still tempted by the “myth” of corporate security and benefits. But you know what? I don’t want the job. I am fired up about Betty Rides.

Any words of wisdom or thoughts to add?
Balancing motherhood and a career is very difficult. Building and running a company is very time consuming. You never really have a “day off.” You do need to love what you are doing. Develop and own CONFIDENCE.  My mom always taught me not to brag. That’s “bad” old school thinking. I am a damn good mom, a damn good snowboarder, a damn good designer, a damn good business lady and a damn good partner and global citizen.

Betty Rides sponsored the SIMNA event 3 years ago, here is Janet surfing in a Betty Rides rashguard. They are currently working on making more great fitting snow pants that will available next Fall and will have a super special board short for sale on their website 5/1/16. Janet says, “They are laser focused on creating collectable pieces that are multi functional and eco-friendly. We love our air, oceans, selves, and mountain snow.”

Follow the Betty Rides come back on Facebook or at the Betty Rides website.

Posted by Gabby Rainville on 12/02/15

Related Stories