Joel Gratz talks about how he started OpenSnow and grew the business to what it is today
SILVERTHORNE — Joel Gratz, founder of OpenSnow, gave a free talk Friday, diving into the intricacies of his forecasting business, including how it got started and how it’s funded.
The talk at Angry James Brewing Co. originally was meant to be held in conjunction with Startup Weekend Breck, which was canceled last week. The brewery was packed and the energy was high as Gratz started by talking about storm predictions before shifting to his business.
As a startup, the ski-focused forecasting and snow reporting website was funded by the savings accounts of Gratz and his partner, Andrew Murray.
“We did not raise money,” Gratz said. “We did not take loans. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but that’s not what we did.”
OpenSnow started with an email list of 37 people, Gratz said. Ten years later, the website serves almost 3 million people. However, the business model remains similar, as Gratz, Murray and a third partner, Bryan Allegretto, solely own OpenSnow.
Yet, Gratz said he constantly receives accusations of funding from other sources.
“I get an email a month that says how dare you sell out to ‘fill in the blank,’” Gratz said. “Vail Resorts does not own us; we own us. People sometimes get confused. There’s another website called OnTheSnow. Vail Resorts bought that website in 2010.”
The crowd laughed as Gratz playfully dispelled the notion that his business is a “corporate sellout.” Gratz said he also is accused of getting paid by resorts to increase their snow forecasts.
“That would be a really terrible long-term plan,” Gratz said. “Maybe 20 years ago that would’ve worked. But at this point, with social media, there’s no way we’d still be in business or have any trust or credibility if we did that.”
Gratz explained how OpenSnow makes money today, which he said is mainly from advertising, although some revenue comes from customer subscriptions to OpenSnow.
“Our goal is to have equal subscription revenue and advertising revenue, just to balance things out,” Gratz said.
Gratz said he has more than 100 advertisers, which include most of the major ski areas in Colorado as well as many lodging partners.
“I would say the highest concentration is (in Summit) and in Tahoe where a lot of our audience is located,” Gratz said after the talk. “So I kind of find it laughable when people are like, ‘Oh, Vail Resorts pays you.’ It’s like, yeah, they do. So does Alterra, so does Monarch, so does Steamboat. We work with a ton of resort owners, and that’s kind of by design. If we only worked with one resort owner, then yes, things would look really weird. We work with everybody we possibly can.”
Gratz said he never has been asked by a resort to inflate data. And in order to keep things separate and avoid perceived conflicts of interest, he said he doesn’t do any of the advertising.
“There’s an advertising person on our team that does it all,” Gratz said. “I don’t touch the ads. I don’t even know honestly now when the ads are running. … The only thing I can tell people is that I wake up at 4:30 in the morning, look at 200 images of weather data and post a report.”
Toward the end of the talk, Gratz offered some advice for entrepreneurs by explaining a list he made before he started the business.
“I think this is the best accidental thing I ever did,” Gratz said. “When I was at a previous job before this, I wrote down the things that made me super pissed off, and the things that made me super happy. After four years, I had a list of about eight or nine things. That’s a pretty good key to what’s going to bring me happiness.”
The list Gratz shared with the crowd, titled “What do I want out of this?” included the following points:
- Create value and delight through the best, unique products
- Maintain work environment that is empowering, autonomous, challenging and flexible
- Do good for society and give back through education and money
- Run a sustainable business
- If we achieve Nos. 1-5, then add No. 6: Make good money
“We’re profitable, sustainable, we love what we do, we serve people the best we know how, and it’s delightful,” Gratz said.
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