Snowledge Founder on a Mission to Connect the Ski Community & Enhance the On-Mountain Experience
Eric Lee O’Brien began his ski career at a young age and it’s going strong to this day, with years spent competing at the highest levels of ski racing and freeride skiing. Eric is a former Junior Olympic ski racer and professional freeride skier competing in the Freeride World Qualifiers, as well as an athlete for 4FRNT Skis. In 2013, Eric founded Snowledge, a real-time, location-based social and tracking app for skiers and snowboarders, and is the company’s CEO. Prior to Snowledge, Eric was an attorney specializing in civil litigation, practicing in California and Nevada. His passion for skiing and close proximity to the mountains kept him plugged in to the ski community and ready to take the leap when the saw opportunity to build an integrated app that would get skiers and snowboarders more connected, with better information, and more reliable tracking.
Q: When and where did you first start skiing?
A: Age 7, at a little ski area outside of Boulder, CO, called Eldora. My school had a Friday ski program and you could either stay in school or go skiing. It was a pretty easy choice. I was way out of my league on my first day and ended up on an intermediate run (called Windmill, I think). I practically had to be carried down the hill by one of my teachers. It was super embarrassing, but something clicked the next day. I figured out how to turn my skis, and I was hooked from that day forward.
Q: Where’s home base?
A: During the summer I’m in Portland, OR, which is where Snowledge Headquarters are located and near Mt Hood—the only place in the US with lift-accessed skiing all summer. In the winter I spend most of my time in Tahoe City, CA, just a few minutes away from Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.
Q: What is your favorite mountain to ski at?
A: I really love Alpine Meadows, but I’ve gotta go with Kirkwood. There’s something special about the vibe out there, the setting is amazing, and the terrain is unreal.
Q: How would you describe your ski style?
A: Good question, I don’t really try to have a certain style of skiing. I just go out there, do what feels good, and have fun.
Q: Who or what has influenced your style?
A: Shane McConkey, JP Auclair, Candide, early Level 1 and MSP movies. I love watching smooth, fast big mountain lines, with freestyle moves. To me, bringing clean tricks into the backcountry is the most impressive thing going on in skiing right now.
Q: Who’s your favorite skier to watch?
A: Candide. No question. I’m also really inspired by the crew I ride around with in Tahoe and at the FWQ (Freeride World Qualifier) competitions. These guys and gals just crush it every single day. They push me to up my game and keep progressing to the next level.
Q: What will we find in your Gear Closet? What are some of the must-have items for your days on the slopes?
A: The 4FRNT Uptrack Col is my everyday, competition, and touring ski of choice. It’s easily the most fun, versatile ski I’ve been on. I’ve also got a pair of Devastator’s which are a pretty fun one-ski-quiver too. I’ll break out the Switchblade’s for those sunny, spring park days. Unsurprisingly, I’m pretty excited to use Snowledge to track my days and stay connected with my friends. Having a powerbank to keep your phone warm and charged throughout the day (no matter where you are) has been a pretty key discovery as well. They are really handy for road trips as well. Pocket snacks are essential (I really like ProBar’s) and maybe a couple of PBR’s in the backpack for those spring touring days. And an extra set of goggle lenses for sure.
Q: Do you have a dog? If so, does your dog travel as much as you do?
A: I do. Charlie dog a.k.a Chuck. He’s getting a little long in the tooth (which is ironic because he’s missing a bunch of teeth), so he’s not traveling as much these days. He absolutely loves the snow and gets out touring with me on some of the easier missions.
Q: Care to share about your most epic fail, most memorable ski experience, or both?
A: My most memorable ski experience was definitely the Twisted Sisters Natural Slopestyle comp in the Cirque at Kirkwood. The guys at 4FRNT Skis thought up this awesome event and built a bunch of natural kickers in the Cirque. It was a rail jam style format where each rider had several runs to come up with a top score. It was mid-April, snowed like two feet, and everyone was throwing down. I got to compete on the second day with guys like Parker White, Chris Logan, Thayne Rich, and Sean Field. It was so inspiring and easily the best skiing experience to date.
Q: Which artists are we likely to see on your music playlist while you ski?
A: Ah that’s a tough one. I like so many different bands, and the playlist is constantly changing. Right now: Joywave, Atmosphere, Portugal the Man, Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies. There’s always some punk rock in there.
Q: What are some of your other passions besides skiing?
A: I really love being active and outside, whether that’s skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or exploring new places. I’ve really enjoyed the process of building Snowledge as a business, and I’m looking forward to being able to share the knowledge I’ve gained with other people who are working hard to build their own dream.
Q: In a nutshell, what is the life of a startup founder like?
A: This is a tough question to be honest. A lot of people think it’s this glamorous existence, but it’s really not. At least not in my experience. Mark Suster (a well known entrepreneur and investor) summed it up pretty well in a recent blog post: “Startups are messy and development is seldom linear and up-and-to-the right. They are filled with growth spurts and setbacks. They are filled with optimism and exhaustion. Startups are filled with great decisions that lead you to new heights and false positives that lead you down rat holes.” Despite this rollercoaster ride, the experiences—even the struggles— are so gratifying. Working with such an amazing team and group of ambassadors keeps me inspired and motivated to build out this big vision we have for the ski community.
Q: What was your original motivation to create the Snowledge app?
A: Frustration with existing ski apps. I lived in South Lake Tahoe and was skiing Heavenly and Kirkwood. Heavenly had EpicMix (the Vail Resorts app), but this was before Vail moved in at Kirkwood, so I couldn’t use it there. I tried some of the other tracking apps, but I just wanted more local insight about the mountains, and better ways to communicate with the people I was riding with. I also wanted to be able to take all of these awesome experiences and share them with my friends. These frustrations got me thinking, and I realized there was a real gap with existing ski apps. Everyone I talked to felt the same and it became obvious that there was a real opportunity to create something better, that worked at every mountain and in the backcountry.
Q: As an active and competing athlete, what are your favorite features during the season and while you train in the off-season?
A: I’ve always wanted to have all of the information related to my ski day in one place: tracking, staying connected with friends, photos and videos, information about the resort, and weather and snow conditions. That desire to have this information in one easy place is exactly why I started Snowledge and (I think) why we’ve heard so much positive feedback from our community.
Q: Why should other athletes and weekend warriors who love the snow download or switch to your app?
A: First off, Snowledge Is Powder. So, I mean, who doesn’t want that? There are a lot of great features, but real-time resort information (like when lifts are opening), and being able to find your friends and keep in touch with them on the mountain. Those two things are key to a great day whether you’re skiing a few times a year or trying to get to 100 days.
Q: Any upcoming feature rollouts that we can get a sneak peek on, or updates with the company?
A: Sure, we’re rolling out version two in the next few weeks, which includes an Android version. We’ve got several resort partners this year and are rolling out resort integrations. Also updated the LIVE experience on the mountain. Now you can see more info on your day, and connect with your friends more easily.
Q: Having studied and practiced law before founding Snowledge, what made you keen to switch gears so drastically and give up on a cush job like that? Many would stay the course, but you didn’t. What led you down this long journey?
A: I knew that I wanted to find a way to be involved in the ski industry. My first job out of law school was with a firm in South Lake Tahoe. This wasn’t your typical associate attorney experience and I was able to get out skiing during the week for an hour or two most days, which was great. I got back to skiing a lot of days and started competing in freeride competitions. I was having a lot of fun, but I wasn’t totally fulfilled. I had spent all of this time gearing up for a legal career and here I was, back at the crossroads. It was an easy choice really: do something you enjoy, but aren’t passionate about, or do something that is totally aligned with your passion, and allows you to build something amazing, and lets you spend your time doing what you love.
Q: For those considering starting a company, what are three things they need to consider, but may not be?
A: (1) Count on everything taking three times as long and costing three times as much as you expect. And this is after you’ve really thought about how long it’s going to take and how expensive it’s going to be. (2) Simplify your life as much as you can and figure out the bare minimum you need to get by. The longer you can stay in the game, the more you learn and the better your odds are. (3) Balance. Give yourself a break. Take time to do the things that make you happy. Exercise every day, eat well, get plenty of sleep, take care of your mind (hiking, yoga, meditation, or whatever helps you recharge). Fitting these things in can be hard when you don’t have many resources and feel like you should always be working, but it’s so important. They are the foundation for your success and are really the only things wholly within your control. You will be in a much stronger position to weather the inevitable struggles.
Q: What are you most looking forward to next season?
A: More traveling for the freeride comps and skiing with friends. There’s no better experience than being out on some amazing mountain and having the time of your life with your buddies. I’m on a mission to stack up as many of those experiences as I can. One of the particularly awesome adventures from last year was Retallack. I’m really hoping to make the trip back again this year.
Q: What would you say to the current and next generation of passionate freeskiers who want to stay connected to the sport as they transition out of being on the competitive circuit?
A: There are a lot of cool opportunities to stay connected to the scene through judging, coaching, and helping to organize events. And if you want to keep competing, do it. There’s a Masters Division at the Taos freeride comp every year and watching those guys send it is so inspiring.
Q: For those coming up in the sport, what would you say they should keep in mind as they train and get out there more?
A: Have fun. Seriously, if you’re not having fun you’re doing it all wrong. The goal is fun and the secondary goal is whatever other accomplishments you want to achieve (competition results, sponsorship, whatever). Set a goal and make a plan to do something every day that helps you achieve that goal. Those little steps add up to big progress. Be patient with the process and give yourself time to get to where you want to go. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like you’re making headway, then one day something clicks and you’ve made a huge leap.
Q: Any final thoughts for those reading?
A: At the risk of sounding cliché, remember to enjoy the journey. Skiing can take you to some unbelievable places in this world, which is also part of the fun. Plus, it’s pretty hard to beat the views and the great friends you’ll make in along the way!