Douglas Miles’ drive to succeed as an entrepreneur came from a self-determination so powerful, it was like the will to survive, he says. “In the process, I also felt like I was doing something revolutionary—taking and putting a Native American stamp on something people didn’t necessarily think was Native American: skateboarding.”
Miles launched APACHE Skateboards and APACHE Skate Team nearly 17 years ago, and the brand has only grown steadily overtime—each new product and project funneling revenue to support the next.
As an artist living and working in San Carlos, Arizona, on the Apache Nation, not only is Miles a part of the community and culture, in addition, he’s making the culture.
“I am the culture, therefore, I’m making the culture. With everything I’m doing—whether photography, film, writing, product design, brand management, marketing—all of these things, I’m making them constantly,” he said.
It took quite a bit of resilience to build a sustainable business. Native Business spoke with Miles about his entrepreneurial journey, and why he thinks Native entrepreneurs will lead Indian Country into the future.
1) When you came up with the idea for your business, what were your initial thoughts about how to capitalize it?
My initial thoughts were to fund APACHE Skateboards with the sales of Douglas Miles’ fine art. I was already a fine artist. I knew I was going to keep selling, because there was already demand for my fine art. I shifted some of that income to producing products and projects for APACHE Skateboards.
2) What difficulties did you encounter with raising capital to start your business?
It was difficult to raise the amount of money that I wanted to create the amount of product that I wanted to create, because about 30 percent of the product that I create, I give it away. It’s given away to the skate team, to the community, maybe to friends, or sometimes people write to me for fundraisers.
So, sometimes I have to wait longer to save money in order to produce more product, the garments, the clothing, stickers. When I did save the money, and the money was coming in from the sales of fine art, that’s when I would produce the skateboard products.
Getting back to the initial challenge: It was waiting to make the sales or trying to sell more. Sometimes it worked that way; sometimes it didn’t. A lot of artists, their income fluctuates, and it can fluctuate for different reasons.
3) Were you aware of any federal or Native American programs to help you finance your business, and did you feel that you had access to them? Did you take advantage of those programs?
I was aware that there were programs that would loan to small Native American businesses, but I didn’t want to go through all the red tape. It was faster and easier and quicker for me to save my income from fine arts and create and pretty much self-finance and subsidize my own work and my own projects. I don’t think some of these programs are very practical when it comes to ease of use for small, Native American businesspeople.
4) Were you aware of any programs for Native entrepreneurs available in your community or through your Tribe?
The San Carlos Apache Tribe does have a relending program geared toward funding small businesses on the reservation. I didn’t use it for similar reasons. As a new business, you want someone to guide you through the steps. With the initial application, they want you to foresee your market for the next five years. The products that I make are so unique; it would be different if I were opening a restaurant or hardware store in a rural area. My products are skateboards. They wanted to see a return on investment and for me to identify competitors in the market, but mine was more of a niche business. I also didn’t want to apply to the program, because I didn’t want to go into debt, and have to perform in a unique market. I decided not to apply for a loan. I felt it was more practical for me to self-finance through the sales of fine art.
5) Did you feel like you had the appropriate amount of business and accounting training to provide you with an understanding of how to go about accessing capital?
No, I don’t. I don’t have much of that knowledge when it comes to accounting or business expertise. When my fine art career started to take off, and take off even more with APACHE Skateboards, it wasn’t overwhelming, but I’m not as technically business savvy as I can be. I’m always open to learning more.
6) What avenue(s) did you ultimately use to fund your business, and knowing what you know now, what funding paths would you recommend to other aspiring or emerging entrepreneurs?
Well, I use my own career as an artist to fund my business. I use also the part of my career where I do public art projects. I have a skate company and skate brand. It’s a fully functioning brand. We travel. We do skate demos and skate-themed events. We help create awareness for healthy living. We do community building projects—all with the skate team. These are all revenue streams. Each time we go out, it creates a revenue stream for me to continue to create the product and these events.
As demand continued to grow, it forced us to do everything self-contained in house. We became photographers; we became our own filmmakers. I became focused more and more on motivational speaking, presentations, community art projects. Because there’s such a great need in Indian Country for creative things and youth-based projects—not based on traditional sports like basketball or football, etcetera—that we started to fill in these voids.
By walking through those doors opened by numerous tribes who invited us, that created revenue streams. Not only did it keep us on the road, it kept the company growing. By taking my speaker fee and turning it around and utilizing it to create product for my skate team, it became very circular. I tell people now: “If you support the art of Douglas Miles, you are supporting APACHE Skateboards. If you support APACHE Skateboards, you are supporting a Native community, and if you support a Native community, you’re supporting Indian Country.”
7) How did the process of raising capital to launch your business empower you as an entrepreneur?
To create capital for APACHE Skateboards, it took a few months. Once I had the idea, I didn’t want to let go of the idea. So, I kept making art, selling art, putting money aside, until I thought I could produce the first mass-produced skateboard. Once I saw kids riding them, it gave me a great amount of confidence. It made me feel like I can do anything. It made me feel like I almost dreamed this into existence. For me, at that stage in my career, it was more important to be a creator than a consumer. I wanted to be a creator. When you’re the creator of something that’s unique, you can control the ideas, ethos, quality, message and where it goes. I don’t mean control in a negative way, just in the sense that you become the soul creative voice behind it.
8) How has access to capital changed over the course of operating your business? What additional business strategies have you used to help fund your business?
I think as the business grew and became more and more stable, it allowed us to start to reach out to other businesses and companies to collaborate. We started to create more businesses, events and more products. It kind of all came together, and we tied it together on social media.
If we had new products, we had a skate competition. If we had a skate competition, someone saw us and invited us to their reservation to hold one for them. Having the stability that we had, what it did is it created more awareness for our brand, company and products, which was no longer just product—it became projects. People look to APACHE Skateboards to create events around music, around art, around skateboarding, around community building with young people.
Having access to more projects and capital allowed us to do more and be more.
9) What would your advice be today for entrepreneurs who are just starting to seek funding for their businesses?
I think the only advice I can really give entrepreneurs is that everything starts off small. Don’t try to do too much too fast. If you’re into food, it’s okay to start off with a taco cart and work your way up into a taco truck or van. If you’re in a taco van, it’s okay to go to a strip mall. Sometimes when people try to do too much too quick, it gets discouraging and they quit.
10) What are some of the ways that Indian Country could improve its support for funding emerging entrepreneurs?
I think Indian Country could improve its funding for entrepreneurs… and when we say Indian Country, I want to say Native American Nations, I think they can really look at their own community as a highly creative base where anything really is possible. They should really look at the inventors or the designers or the creators or the businessmen and businesswomen in their communities as really the future of their Tribes. Really, we are the future of the Tribes.
You can’t put all your eggs in a casino basket. Nothing is guaranteed. Tribes really need to look at new types of business, new types of industry—businesses and industries that are relevant. And they need to do it without fear. I think Tribes are still in the fear stage, like they’re nervous. It’s hard to visualize success, too, when you haven’t really had any in Indian Country. This is why Tribes go slow and sometimes they go backward. It’s because they haven’t had success, or they had a little bit, but sometimes Tribal businesses fail. When you haven’t had much success, it’s hard to visualize it. That’s why it’s important for publications like Native Business to show small, creative business owners using numerous methods to reach different kinds of success. What’s successful to me may not be successful to someone else in business, and vice versa.
Tribes need to support small businesses fearlessly. They need to remove fear and the fear of failure. I do think it will be entrepreneurs who lead the Tribe into the future for the next 5, 10, 20, 40 years….