This story is part of a series called The Climb that highlights entrepreneurs and the challenges they face as they launch, grow, and scale their ideas. Each story explores the inspiration, the struggle, and the obstacles they face on the journey upward.
21 students and nowhere to go
Tobin Leopkey had an enormous problem. Twenty-one people stood in front of him, eager to transform themselves into better skiers and leaders through his 3-month Snowsport Leadership Training program. They had each paid $15,000 and trekked to beautiful Vancouver Island to participate in the esteemed program.
Tobin had nowhere for them to go. The mountain had abruptly closed for the season due to a record breaking snowstorm.
He scrambled to adapt to his new reality and transported the group to the nearby Rocky Mountains. The plan was to make the best of their new home base. But they didn’t even have a kitchen from which to cook meals for the large group. They resorted to outdoor barbeques in the -20 degree winter weather.
Despite losing $60,000 in season passes to the closed mountain, Tobin felt they had adapted well.
“It was a totally chaotic winter, but we managed to get through it. I thought to myself, if we can get through that, we can meet any challenge.”
The next challenge was waiting for Tobin the following year. Another record breaking snowstorm had closed the mountain again. Those two years turned out to be two of the worst snow years in the mountain’s history.
Inspiration while stranded on a glacier
Tobin Leopkey has been skiing all his life. His interest in ski instruction began when he moved to Whistler, one of the largest ski resorts in North America. His plan was to become a mountain guide. He needed a job to support himself along the way, so he took up ski instructing, and soon fell in love with teaching.
His dreams of becoming a mountain guide were cast aside as he worked his way up the qualification ladder at Whistler. As he reached the top level of qualifications, he reflected on the training he had received. Tobin didn’t feel the ski instructor training he participated in was creating very well rounded skiers and teachers.
The training programs he saw were focused on improving people’s technique but lacked attention on ensuring people were well rounded with multidimensional skills for the whole mountain. This could also give them more options for careers in the industry beyond becoming an instructor.
“I thought there had to be a better way. I wanted to combine my outdoor education background with my instructor training. That’s where the Snowsport Leadership Training program came about.”
The idea for the Section 8 Snowsport Institute came to Tobin when he was stranded in a tent with two friends on a glacier. They were tired and bored with nothing to do but wait for the helicopter to come pick them up. They just didn’t know when.
“It was some cold, hungry days, and a lot of time for reflection.”
Tobin told himself that if and when the helicopter finally plucked them off mountain, he would propose to his girlfriend, they’d move back home to Vancouver Island, and he would start the ski training school of his dreams.
Section 8 Snowsport Institute was born, with the flagship Snowsport Leadership Training program (or SLT for short). SLT was everything Tobin envisioned a snowsport training program should encompass over a 12 week period.
When the business almost collapsed
Section 8 started with 2 students from the UK. Tobin remembers the day the first one registered for the program.
“I found a message in my inbox one morning. I’m like `Oh my God, I might actually have a client!` I was definitely close to the point of giving up because it had been pretty desperate.”
Those first two clients received the personal touch that would become a signature part of the experiences Section 8 offered. Tobin personally drove them to the mountain each day and made them dinner every night at his house with his family.
With his first two clients successfully underway in the first SLT program, Tobin began to share videos and testimonials of their experience online. He created Facebook ads for the program and soon, word began to spread.
The next year, 21 students registered for SLT. Of course, that was the year the record breaking snowstorm closed the mountain.
When the mountain closed that second year, the financial hit to the business was crippling. Tobin was afraid he might lose it all.
In the early years of the business, Tobin had found a niche with European clients and opened a ski instruction camp in Austria. He noticed many of the students were 20-30 years old and bringing along their parents.
“I thought, ‘This is interesting.’ These are the people who actually have the money. So we started marketing it a bit more along those lines.”
The market was retirement age hobby ski instructors who had instructor certifications and wanted to achieve a higher level of certification. These skiers were more interested in the status symbol than any desire to have a career in the ski industry.
The Austria camp was growing steadily by the time the SLT was derailed by the second mountain closing. Tobin decided to double down on the camp idea to bring the business back into the black.
“The camps were starting to get quite popular. And so we thought, okay, it’s time to really bring the SLT back and everything’s looking great.”
The future was indeed looking great, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced Tobin to cancel everything for the next season.
Time to rethink everything
A few years earlier, Tobin had started an email list to keep his subscribers updated on his camps and SLT. He also provided tips on how to improve one’s skiing technique. The response to his email series was positive, so Tobin expanded the series into a website called Skier Lab.
“It was just something I was doing on the side, in my spare time, which wasn’t a lot.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns of most in person activities, Tobin shifted his attention to the Skier Lab community. He added membership options to the site, created more content, and doubled down on promotion.
When he reflects upon the biggest lessons he’s learned on his journey so far, one in particular stands out.
“Be prepared to adapt and always have a plan B.”