Apropos of the Algae Skis
This story was published in Mountain Gazette 200 (fall 2023). Here is a short excerpt:
One of the most procrastination-inducing parts of writing longform is the very thought of starting something that isn’t scheduled to be published for a year. But assignments that involve a certain amount of travel and reporting can require such advance work. I tell you this to preface that on December 5, last year, my editor texted me once again to remind me to make a phone call that I was supposed to have made but hadn’t yet made because a year always sounds like a lot longer than it really is.
A brief explanation of the assignment: For the 200th issue of Mountain Gazette, my editor, Mike Rogge, wanted to commission stories that looked in two temporal directions: where we’ve been and where we’re going. I dread both the past and future equally. Nevertheless, Rogge gave me a forward-looking assignment that begins with the story of a ski and snowboard company launched in 2019 called WNDR Alpine (pronounced 'wəndər, mispronounced 'wändər and 'wīndər), which was founded by the man I was supposed to call: Matt Sterbenz.
WNDR is a consumer-facing brand of the Bay Area biotech startup Checkerspot, a certified B Corporation, which has raised over $100 million in venture capital and has been the subject of rave press attention for the microalgae-based bioplastics in its skis. Fast Company deemed one WNDR model the most innovative sports and recreation product of 2020. It was awarded a prize from ISPO, an international sports trade show, which praised WNDR for showing “what is possible in the ski industry of the future.”
My editor had assured me that Sterbenz was excited to hear from me. It was around 4:00 PM, and I figured I should just call him. We’d never spoken before, but by all accounts, he’s a kind, generous guy.
He picked up, and I said, “Hi Matt, this is Ari Schneider from Mountain Gazette. Do you have a minute?”
And to my great confusion, he all but told me to get lost.
“Hi Ari. Unfortunately, I do not.” He then recited some unenthusiastic PR-speak about why he would pass on this opportunity, stressing something about a decision to continue marketing to the audience that already aligns with the company vision and his limited bandwidth for such a project.
This went on for several minutes before I pointed out that the story wouldn’t be published for almost a year and suggested we reconnect in a couple of months.
Then there was a long pause.
“Ari, I think I had you confused with someone else,” Sterbenz said. “Are you the writer Rogge sent?”
Sterbenz sounded thoroughly embarrassed. “There’s a broadcasting company that wants to do a story, and it’s a pay-for-play three-minute placement on a TV network, and they’ve been hounding me, and I could have sworn that that sales rep’s name is Ari.”
“That’s pretty funny. Okay, we’ll start over. Hi, this is Ari Schneider from Mountain Gazette.”
“Oh, hi Ari, how are you doing?” Laughing: “You were like, what are you talking about, Matt?”
“You were giving me some serious corporate-speak.”
“I know, dude, I’ve been courted like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “We went to Wired, Fast Company, ISPO awards, and that stuff starts to open up Pandora’s box … that starts to stimulate interest from those who want your money. I’ve just been taking these phone calls and saying no to everybody, because there aren’t many authentic opportunities at the moment. There are fewer and fewer outlets of creative writing than perhaps there used to be.”
On the topic of authenticity (quite the flattened keyword these days): Sterbenz knew I wasn’t calling for an affiliate-linked product review. I sought insight into the veracity of the hype, whether it’s the result of a greenwashing campaign or if microalgae could be the future of outdoor products and more.
Sterbenz welcomed me past the portiere.
“This is going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “And we’re gonna blow your mind.”
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