Beach business – Heads, they win
by Ryan McDonald
The word “lifer” is typically used to describe someone forced to spend their rest of his or her life in prison: someone trapped by rules devised by others. But Daniel McCashin and Chris Terins, founders of South Bay-based S1 Helmet Co., use the word to mean opportunity. For them, a lifer is someone who never has to stop pursuing a passion.
The Lifer is the name of S1’s primary and best-selling helmet model, and can be found in surf and skate shops throughout the area, and the country. McCashin and Terins, who both live in the Beach Cities, came up with the name nearly 20 years ago when they were first getting into the helmet business.
“We were wondering what to call it,” McCashin recalled. “We want this thing that is to protect people that are going to push limits: Ride hard, skate hard, play hard. And a ‘Lifer’ is someone dedicated to something for the rest of their life.”
“We make helmets for people who like to live life, who like to live on the edge, but are smart enough to protect the most important hard drive we have,” Terins said.
S1 makes safety-certified helmets for skateboarding, inline skating, cycling and roller derby, and wins plaudits from those putting their heads on the line. Shayna “Pigeon” Meikle is the owner of Beach Cities Roller Derby and Moxi Skate Shop, a roller skate shop with locations in Long Beach and Venice. She carries S1 products in both stores, and has worn them when competing in roller derby. The full-contact world of roller derby provides for plenty of injuries, Meikle said, but participants are gradually wising up.
“I’ve seen so many concussions. They can be career ending, with side effects that linger for years. But it’s way less common now that there’s access to better helmets. There used to be a lot of soft foam ones that weren’t really appropriate. Companies like S1 cater to what we do, which makes it easier to protect ourselves,” Meikle said.
The logo on a helmet can easily get lost amid the blur of action on wheels, but a quick look out at The Strand or local skate park on a busy day will reveal plenty of S1 products. And although its helmets are now distributed all over the world, the founders say they are not interested in getting into big box stores like Target or WalMart, a choice rooted in decades of action sports industry knowledge, and an unusual level of concern for its participants. Moving into those stores, they say, would mean less guidance for potential customers than specialized surf and skate shops are able to provide. And their current size enables them to batch test every production run, well beyond what is required by law, and hard to replicate in big-box quantities.
“You can sprain your wrist or break an ankle, it will heal. You crack your head once, it will change your life forever,” McCashin said.
The “Lifer,” in S1’s vision, is meant to extend someone’s career on wheels in multiple ways: not just preventing injury, but providing peace of mind. Although many of their sales are to parents buying on behalf of children, they also have a sizable segment of adult riders, who no longer feel the need to give up what they love out of a sense of responsibility to those who depend on them.
“You can enjoy skateboarding, and it doesn’t have to be this life-altering activity. I’ve had a dad talk to me, just a ripping skateboarder, and he said, ‘I’ve got a job and two kids, and you guys have totally changed my life. I love skating, and I don’t feel guilty about going skating anymore,’” Terins said.
Sole to crown
Like Facebook and Def Jam Records, S1 began in a dorm room.
McCashin and Terins met in their freshman year at Pepperdine University. McCashin had wandered just a few miles down the road from his home in Ventura, while Terins had come all the way across the country from Manasquan, New Jersey. But although they grew up on opposite coasts, they quickly found out that they had more in common than they realized, and they bonded over a shared love of surfing and skating. (Terins’ aunt lived in Palos Verdes, and bought him his first-ever skateboard at ET Surf in Hermosa.)
The two teamed up on the points and beaches surrounding Pepperdine’s Malibu campus, and when the surf was flat they prowled the streets and hillsides on skateboards. They would often meet local high schoolers while skating; one of them, Jon Moak, would die years later after a fall while skating without a helmet.
Terins began combining his love of skateboarding with his entrepreneurial spirit, and started looking into designing skating shoes. He broached the idea of going into business to McCashin during a surf session at Little Dume. But they soon realized that shoe manufacturing would require too much capital, so they decided to pursue a sub-niche: replacement insoles for skate shoes. They began giving them out to skateboarders, who raved about the extra padding the insoles gave their feet when landing tricks.
“Before you know it, we had 20 of the top street skaters wearing our insoles. They said they needed them to prevent heel bruises. And it was all happening at the little house we rented in Malibu while we were going to school,” McCashin said.
The initial experience with insoles provided their entree into the surf industry, and connected them with athletes and brands like Osiris, one of the largest skating shoe companies in the ‘90s. Just as important, it helped them build the relationships with surf and skate shops that would help them get their business off the ground.
They spent three years focusing on insoles before deciding to expand into helmets. Their timing was fortuitous. In March 1998, the Federal Consumer Products Safety Commission promulgated Rule 1203, designed to implement the Children’s Bicycle Helmet Safety Act of 1994. For the first time, all bicycle helmets would have to meet certain safety requirements.
McCashin and Terins began developing their own designs, then discovered that many of the country’s best materials testing facilities happened to be in Southern California. The new rules had rocked the existing marketplace, and many existing manufacturers were unprepared. It left plenty of space for the two young entrepreneurs, but also endowed them with a sense of responsibility.
According to data collected by Love Your Brain, a foundation focused on brain injury prevention and healing, there are 2.5 million traumatic brain injuries sustained in the United States every year. Of these, 173,000 happen to kids 18 and under while playing sports. As McCashin and Terins acknowledge, helmets are not a cure-all, and no helmet is guaranteed to prevent injury. But the evidence for the difference they make is overwhelming. According to Dr. Daya Alexander Grant, a neuroscientist who advises Love Your Brain, wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle reduces the risk of traumatic brain injury by 85 percent.
“When we first started, everyone was just doing it the way they’d always done it,” Terins said. “We were the first to say, ‘This is more than just a business. We have to really take a look at safety and make safer helmets.’ This is the real deal. We’re not selling hats here. These could potentially save people’s lives,” Terins said.
Taking people to school
Head protection in sports is a relatively recent innovation. Football players went without helmets until World War II. In Major League baseball, the American League did not require its players to wear helmets until 1958. Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadiens became the first NHL goalie to wear a face mask, one he crafted himself, in the 1959-60 season.
Historically, some of these objections have come out of concern for how a helmet would affect performance. Plante’s coach, for example, supposedly objected to using the face mask because he thought it would impair his goalie’s sight. (These worries vanished when, after insisting on wearing the mask, Plante led the Canadiens to 13 wins in a row.) But for S1, the most common obstacle to getting people to wear helmets is more insidious: people worry it will make them look uncool.
As much as action sports practitioners like to think of themselves as rebels, hesitancy over helmets may well be a creation of marketing. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the center of the skateboarding world was in public parks, where helmet use was standard; photos from the era of Hermosa native Cindy Whitehead show her covered in pads and headgear. This continued even as action shifted to the backyard ramp era, when no government authority was there to enforce rules.
But by the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when McCashin and Terins were coming of age, skate culture started to mutate. It left the park for the street, and helmets became far less common. It is now rare to see a helmeted skater on the cover of Thrasher Magazine. Some in the industry say that this is because street skaters are closer to the ground than vert or half-pipe skaters and face less risk. But McCashin and Terins suspect that it is because large skating brands insist on it, the better to cultivate a profitable outlaw mythos.
Others in the industry have made similar claims. Mike Vallely is a former pro skater who came up with Powell-Peralta in the late 1980s at the start of the street skating boom (and, as of 2014, is also the singer for Greg Ginn’s Black Flag). In those years he became legendary for his fearlessness, but has since become an advocate for helmet use, and started a foundation devoted to the subject called Get Used to It.
“I suffered many years of having to answer to sponsors. The day that I stopped answering to sponsors, I put a helmet on. That’s sad, that’s sick. I wish it wasn’t the case but I finally felt free. And that freedom led me to protecting my own head, and to stop caring about what other people think,” Vallely said in a 2015 podcast.
McCashin and Terins said that, over the years, they have noticed some softening in the opposition to helmet use, but that it is still prevalent. Almost as problematic are sub-standard, non-certified helmets, such as those made with soft foam, which offer a false sense of security but little protection. Despite the existing regulations, McCashin and Terins said that it is still relatively common to encounter these.
The two still handle their deliveries to local stores personally. Occasionally, they will step into Spyder or South Bay Skates and find a parent considering helmets for their kids. In situations like these, they sometimes find themselves unconsciously stepping out of the salesman role, and becoming something closer to an advocate.
“The South Bay is more educated about this than other parts of the country. We’ve worked to educate the shops so that they can educate customers. At the same time, there still are these non-certified helmets out there. The kid goes in, maybe he saw something online and wants that, and the parents a lot of times don’t know the difference. We are constantly trying to keep people educated,” McCashin said.