Tactics Roots with Owners Matt Patton & Bob Chandler
Eugene's local newspaper, The Register Guard, recently published an article about Tactics' growth from a group of guys selling snowboards out of a garage to an industry leading online and brick-and-mortar retailer. Read the article below to learn the story of how Tactics' independent owners Matt Patton and Bob Chandler abandoned carrers as lawyers and built the company through hard work and ingenuity without relying on venture capital investments.
"Eighteen years ago, Matt Patton had a decision to make: stick with a career as a lawyer or become an entrepreneur in the exciting yet unproven world of electronic commerce.
His would-be partner, Bob Chandler, was headed in another career direction, but he also had a choice to make.
Ultimately, Patton, then 30, and Chandler, then 28, embarked on uncertain futures as two of the founders of Snowtraders.com, which survived infancy as an online seller of snowboards to become one of Lane County’s most successful retailers.
Today, the firm is Tactics, a seller of snowboards, skateboards, clothing and accessories through its website and in a retail store at West Fourth Avenue and Lawrence Street, near REI.
Last year, Tactics opened a store in Bend.
“Eighteen years have gone by fast,” Patton said.
Patton and Chandler don’t disclose annual sales figures.
But Tactics.com ships a “couple of hundred thousand orders a year,” Chandler said.
“In 2015, we crossed our 1 millionth customer mark,” he said. “That is for both e-commerce and in store. That was kind of a fun mark to know that we have taken care of a million people. And the number of people who go to the website are in the millions each year.”
Tactics is a noteworthy case study.
Founded with little money by a group of people mostly under 30 years old, the retailer has survived recessions and competition from well-financed competitors, including Amazon.com.
Patton and Chandler worked prodigious hours and had to learn most everything through experience.
“In retrospect, I would not have ever anticipated how much work it would be,” Chandler, 46, said. “Being an entrepreneur is almost always an incredibly challenging, deeply committed endeavor.
“You can’t underestimate the value of having that compatibility among people in any business, no matter how good your business plan is,” he added.
“And having a similar work ethic of your founders is also critical.”
From the law to selling snowboards
Patton, 48, grew up “everywhere,” because his father was in the military. He earned an undergraduate degree from University of California at Berkeley before deciding to become a lawyer. He graduated with a law degree from the University of Oregon in 1995, and worked in a San Francisco law firm before moving back to Eugene in 1997.
He joined Hershner Hunter, a Eugene firm that specializes in business law.
“It was a good spot, enjoying more or less what I was doing,” Patton said. “Working with strong attorneys, I learned a lot kind of getting past the green stage.”
Chandler grew up in the Midwest and graduated from Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He had East Coast jobs for a group that managed nonprofit endowments, and real estate-related work for Arthur Andersen.
He moved to Oregon in 1995, and eventually enrolled in UO’s law school, focusing on environmental law.
After getting his law degree, Chandler in 1998 was studying for a master’s degree in environmental studies. He said he was likely headed to a career in nonprofit management, perhaps for an environmental group.
Patton and Chandler had met earlier, playing on a city league soccer team.
Their teammates included Carnet Williams, a UO law student, and Pat Freeman, a civil engineer. Freeman also was a former snowboarding instructor and sales representative for a snowboard maker. He first mentioned the idea of selling snowboards online.
“I think it’s fair to say Freeman was the original instigator, along with Carnet Williams,” Patton said.
The four men and another soccer friend began talking about starting the online store. The five and Freeman’s wife, Cristina Gabrielidis, contributed $5,000, got a line of credit from the former McKenzie State Bank, and started selling snowboards online in October 1999, working out of a garage.
“It was an exciting endeavor to start all of those things from scratch,” Chandler said. “The early days of e-commerce, 1997-98, all of that seemed very fun and exciting. And we were centered in a sport that was relatively new.”
At first, Patton thought he would continue working as an attorney and have a peripheral role in running Snowtraders.
“We still laugh in hindsight,” he said. “How naive we were to think that you could start a business and run it on the side. But we were all young.”
Sales started slowly, yet Chandler and Patton had caught the entrepreneurial bug, seeing transactions take place through their new type of business.
“Seeing a sale come through (the website) from a person into our system, and then we send an order out,” Patton said. “It wasn’t much that first winter, but it was exciting. Now you have the bug. It would have been hard to leave it.”
Patton began to think about leaving his new career as an attorney. “There was a part of me — there still is — that likes having the unknown in front of me,” he said. “And when you are in a law firm, you can see people 20 to 30 years older than yourself. And you can kind of see your future. And that could be good and not so good. So part of me had this itch to not know (the future).
“The way I looked at it was, ‘What was I going to regret? And I just decided that, at that time in my life, I didn’t have kids, and I had pretty much worked off my law loans. I felt that if (Snowtraders) did not work out, it would be a good learning experience and I would land on my feet.”
Snowboards were generally sold in the fall and the winter. By spring 2000, the sales at Snowtraders.com had largely stopped.
The new dot.com company founders met and “we kind of looked around and said, ‘This has been fun, but now we need to do something,’ ” Chandler recalled. “There was this kind of quiet in the room ... So Matt raised his hand and said, ‘I’m going to quit my job at Hershner Hunter and do this full time.’ He was the first one to say, ‘Let’s make this happen. Let’s get this off the ground.’
“And that was enough for me and another one of our business partners to quit what we were doing and jump in and follow Matt’s lead.”
The online business moved from a garage to a warehouse-style building at 245 Blair Blvd., in the Whiteaker area.
Later in 2000, the partners opened a retail store in the building. The firm also received a boost by attracting a key financial backer: Michael Coughlin, former chief executive of Percon Inc., a Eugene-based maker of bar code scanners.
The founders didn’t have a lot of money, but “we created an identity and carved out a space in the Internet world before a lot of bigger competitors that were essentially brick-and-mortar stores,” Patton said.
“A lot of brick-and-mortar retailers had the mindset of we’ll get into it when we get into it. We were fortunate to have a period of time which we were able to get going without a ton of resources and a ton of competition.”
Within a year or so after the company’s start, four of the original founders, including Freeman, left Snowtraders to pursue other interests.
Shawn Gilliam, a talented website developer who was studying computer science at the UO, joined the firm shortly after it started. He eventually became an owner.
Snowtraders became Tactics in 2001, reflecting its diversification with skateboards, apparel, shoes and other products.
Patton said the company has focused on a speciality niche in ecommerce and brick-and-mortar retailing while emphasizing customer service and community involvement.
“I’d say that a key reason we’ve been able to survive the massive retail shakeout so far is that we’ve had some success in retaining important advantages of a specialty brick-and-mortar boardshop while evolving to compete in a digital world,” he said. “Our lucky break was recognizing pretty early on how e-commerce would change everything.
“When we started, it was still possible to essentially bootstrap an e-commerce retail business, and we were able to cut our teeth in a less competitive environment. Today, unless you have an exclusive product to sell, it would take a very significant capitalization to even get in the game.”
On its website’s “About Us” page, Tactics alludes to its large online competitors.
“We don’t try to be everything to everyone and you won’t find toaster ovens or shower gels here. But we think staying focused helps serve our customers better. Where much of our competition is running their online operation out of the stock room or, at the other end of the spectrum, they are storing their skate shoes next to the cowboy boots in a giant roboville building the size of Cleveland, Tactics sits comfortably in the middle. We don’t try to be everything to everyone.”
Patton said Tactics strives to keep its “culture and that identity, but try and match the Amazons of the world in the online side, which is always moving and it’s constantly evolving. We try to be the specialty local shop that you can trust online. If you order something online from us, you are going to get it. When we say you are going to get it, you are going to get charged the right amount. In the logistics and how we interact with customers, we strive to be as top level as we can. When we answer the phone, we know what we sell. A lot of what we sell, can you find it on Amazon? Yes. The question is, can you call Amazon and ask them about it?”
In 2005, Patton and Chandler were among the investors who, for $510,000, purchased the historic McCracken Brothers Motor Freight Building at Fourth Avenue and Lawrence Street, where Tactics is now located. Tactics occupies about two-thirds of the building, including its first-floor store and offices on the second floor.
The partners accepted relatively modest amounts of money from Coughlin and other investors so they could get the company off the ground. However, they kept outside investments to a minimum, Chandler said.
“We’re probably one of the few companies that is the size that we are and in the space we are in that doesn’t have some venture capital or private equity investment,” he said. “We’re still independently owned. That is a fairly unique situation. In some ways, that is good. In other ways, it’s bad because the resources that we have are more constrained, and we have to be more measured. We have several competitors with more resources to spend on marketing to try and get market share. We have to do the best we can to continue to develop the Tactics tribe, that group of customers.”
The firm bought out the founders who left the company and the early investors. Today, Tactics is owned by Patton, Chandler, Gilliam and Dana Smith, Patton’s former wife.
Tactics’ sales are split about evenly between hard goods — snowboards and skateboards and related components — and soft goods, apparel, shoes and other products.
The firm employs about 50 people, including six in Bend.
Tactics has been profitable every year since 2001, Chandler said.
He said the company strives to treat its employees well and believes in giving back to the community. Between 2008 and 2012, the company contributed 1 percent of sales to environmental causes.
Tactics also participates in fundraisers to support services for youth. It was an enthusiastic backer of the construction of the large skatepark in Washington Jefferson Park, which opened in 2014.
The company now sells apparel to raise money for the nonprofit environmental group, Protect Our Winters.
Patton said 2016 was a major “reinvestment year” for the company.
“We had outgrown our warehouse space and had a hard time finding another space for it, so last year we moved into a 30,000-square-foot facility north of Eugene,” he said. “We also opened our first retail store outside of Eugene, in downtown Bend, on Northwest Wall Street. It took 15-plus years where we got to the point that we could bite that off.”
Chandler said the entrepreneurial origin of the company keeps the founders from getting complacent.
“Because we started small and barely raised money to get us out the door, the arc of where we have been hasn’t been easy. And that has served us well,” he said. “We are still not comfortable now. We keep looking over our shoulder, and looking ahead, too. Even though we are at a point where it feels comfortable, it never really is. You always have to make sure you are reaching and pushing yourself.”"