We guess you could say that Kevin and Owen came by their trade honestly. The brothers come from a family of engineers and grew up with a dad who they describe as being a “Jack-of-all-trades.” They credit their lifetime exposure to engineering principles, time spent in the family woodshop, and the Finnish family ethos of doing things ‘the right way’ as the foundations for their success with Alto Longboards.
The Altos, who got their start making longboards, have just expanded Alto Longboards into Alto Collective to account for all the other products they are adding to their inventory. Most recently, the Altos’ minimal wallets and iPhone cases were featured in the TIFF Tastemaker’s Celebrity gifting lounge.
Kevin Alto took some time out from his busy schedule to tell us a bit more about how he came to make longboards for a living and what Steve Jobs had to say about success.
Elevator Pitch: Describe your business in a nutshell.
We conceive, design and handcraft distinct luxury wood products that excel in both form and function.
Why did you start your business, what was the inspiration?
This obviously goes back to before we started our business…
A few years ago we were looking to buy our first longboards, and after some searching around we realized there really wasn’t anything close to what we wanted! They looked simple enough to make, so we decided to try building our own.
Naturally, we completely underestimated the challenge of not just building a longboard, but building one that we were actually satisfied with. We learnt very quickly how high our standards were and how far away we were from being able to build the type of longboards we wanted.
Even though our first attempts didn’t quite live up to expectations, it was really cool making something with our hands and then being able to go out and test it! The ability to experience what we made in that way definitely kept us coming back and is what motivated us to continue to improve our process and designs.
Seeing the improvements we were consistently making and understanding the potential of what we were creating definitely inspired us to start our own company. Little did we know how hard it was going to be!
What is the best part of what you do on a day-to-day basis? The most challenging part?
The best part is that every day is different… the most challenging part is that every day is different. But seriously, we love the variety and complexity of challenges we get to deal with – definitely something that was lacking in our previous jobs.
Where do you see your business going in five years?
To answer this question about our future requires a bit of our background. Part of what helped us improve our longboard-building skills faster was actually by making non-longboard things. From the very beginning we would practice by creating a variety of wood things using the off-cuts and scrap materials from around our shop. Things like coasters, cutting boards, candle holders, serving trays and much more can be found strewn around our family and friends’ places.
As our longboards improved, so did our ability to make other things… to a point now where we feel we can make just about anything! We’ve recently embraced our capabilities to provide other exceptional products in addition to our longboards and are starting to offer more of what we make. Everything we’ve tried making to date has been about creating things we want in our lives. Creating things with this in mind actually helps to ensure we only make and sell useful things that are well-designed and high quality – we have high standards and want to use everything we make.
Ideally, over the next five years we will continue challenging ourselves to create increasingly more exceptional products that people love and want in their lives!
What does success look like to you?
When we started, success looked like being able to create a product people wanted so much that they would be willing to exchange their hard earned money for it. It definitely took longer than we expected to make those first few sales. We stuck with it though and have now successfully created a variety of products that people desire and want to purchase from us – which is and will continue to be incredibly rewarding!
Success it seems is always going to be a work in progress though; once we get close to accomplishing our incremental ‘success’ goals, we naturally recalibrate and search for the next checkpoint.
What is the most memorable milestone in your career?
When we created the first longboard we were truly satisfied with. There’s always going to be room for improvement, but it was incredibly rewarding when we knew we had finally created a product that we were comfortable letting other people buy and use in their lives. Reaching that point was extremely challenging but also very important; after we got there, we realized we had gained the woodworking skills and problem-solving confidence to know we could build just about anything we put our minds to!
Do you have any advice for other young professionals?
Don’t be afraid to fail – hopefully you’ve heard this before, it’s important. Failing at the very least tells you one way (or lots of ways) something doesn’t work. Use that information to get better!
It’s all about mindset; a lot of what you’re capable of comes down to how you perceive it. Henry Ford summarized this well: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t… you’re right.”
We’re big fans of Steve Jobs and find this quote particularly empowering and hope other young professionals do too:
“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and you’re life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”
Do you support any charities? If so, which one(s) and why is that important to you?
We have donated longboards for auction to help raise money at a number of different events and fundraisers. Most recently, we had a couple longboards auctioned off on October 7th at the Friends for Life Foundation charity gala in Calgary to help raise money in support of Cystic Fibrosis Canada and the Alberta Children’s Hospital. We’re humbled that we have the capability of helping others with what we make. We think it’s an important responsibility we have acquired and will continue to find ways to give back in meaningful ways!
What is Notable to you?
Minimalism – we know just how difficult it can be to effectively achieve. We take notes whenever we come across anything that’s been designed so well that it provides an enjoyable, useful, and overall effortless experience… without any unnecessary distractions!
Blackberry, iPhone, Android, or Other?
We’re both on iPhone, which is why we started creating iPhone cases first. Samsung cases coming soon though!
How do you keep active, energetic, and vibrant?
Right now we do all the designing, building, and marketing of our products. We also do all the photography, website design, and everything in between! It’s a pretty exhausting lifestyle that requires a lot of our time and energy. The hours we work often get in the way of proper physical activity and nutrition… sometimes we don’t even leave time to eat! We’re starting to make a better effort though because eating well and staying fit definitely helps keep us productive. Some of the activities that we love include basketball, golf, squash, p90x, skiing, hiking, and obviously a good longboard cruise!