May 15, 2017
To better understand why Sean Khathavong works countless hours to build not only a business – but a niche community – in Ambler, Montgomery County, it’s important to know where the 42-year-old comes from, the limitations of the skateboarding industry and what he’s trying to accomplish.
To hear Ambler Borough Councilman Frank DeRuosi tell it, the Philly Pro Am skateboarding contest is a boon for the community.
“The event itself is an opportunity for people to visit Ambler and see what a terrific town it is,” said DeRuosi, chairman of the borough’s Parks and Recreation Department. “We are a walkable community and the park is an easy walk to many restaurants, bars, shops and, of course, The Ambler Skate Shop, which is responsible for the event happening here.
“Any event that brings people into town to frequent the businesses and spend some money is always a good thing. I'm happy that Ambler can host it.”
Such a high-profile event wouldn’t be coming to town if not for the efforts of a community that – with Khathavong and business partner Mike McGuire at the hub – successfully lobbied to have a skate park built in August 2011.
The backstory goes well beyond a skate park and skate shop, though.
The past several months have seen Khathavong move from a dingy warehouse space to build up the “Ambler Skateboarding Academy.”
It’s an indoor skate park that brings children from the region together for lessons – in the sport and life – and a unique offering in the Delaware Valley. (Full disclosure: I first crossed paths with Khathavong when I enrolled my son in the academy nearly a year ago.)
The driving force for running the academy? That comes life lessons learned as the son of first-generation immigrants from Laos, a Philadelphia childhood in which he wasn’t well-behaved and a love of a sport that, while personally rewarding, is not often financially so.
"The one thing that hit me about Sean is that it's authentic. He's not doing it for any other reason than it's the right thing to do." – Jason Weidner
Khathavong was born and raised in Olney. He’s steeped in the community that currently boasts of a Philadelphia Skateboard Academy in Port Richmond, the Philly Cup at Rizzo Rink and Paine’s Park near the Art Museum.
“Philly made me a part of who I am,” he said.
His father worked two jobs and his mother worked while he and his brother were young. With those kinds of schedules, they weren’t home as much as they’d have liked. There were other ramifications.
"We were left to fend for ourselves and became products of that. I learned a 'do or die' mentality, getting into fights over 'Why are you looking at me for so long?' or 'Why did you step on my white shoes?'" he recalled, noting that detentions and cut classes were plentiful enough to get him sent to an alternative school. "We were rebellious without adults around to monitor the situation since they were working."
From a business-building perspective, his parents' work ethic left a mark that he wouldn't realize until later in life.
“It’s not what they said, it’s what they did,” he noted, adding that he didn’t exactly respect their wishes to do well in school. “I got where I am not because of an education from a classroom, but the education I got in the real world. I appreciate my upbringing. They made me the person I am today.
"Back then, we took (parents working so many hours) as meaning they didn't care. When I got older, it became something I appreciated. I realized they were working so much because they cared."
Today, Khathavong is co-owner of the Ambler Skate Shop in the middle of a downtown commercial corridor of the town, where he moved in 2012.
A skater at heart, he readily admits that these sorts of businesses aren’t cash cows; proprietors need to do something above and beyond selling boards.
While McGuire supplements the coffers with apparel sales, Khathavong branched out to fill a need inspired by parents of his young customers.
“We can’t live off the revenue of skate shop. We do the shop because it’s who we are,” he explained while sitting on a bench outside the store a couple weeks back. “The shop brings everybody together. As long as we can pay our bills, we’re good. Why do the business if we don’t make money? It allows us to do what we love, to be our own bosses and mentor the next generation.”
“You can do so much when you have people who believe in you. That’s what I want to do for the kids.” – Sean Khathavong
That mentoring mission came into clearer focus a few years back when parents asked him where the kids could skate once fall turned into winter. It was around the same time he sold his car to help fund the business. (He still doesn’t have one, for what it’s worth.)
“Parents would come in and ask about lessons for their children,” he said. “So, on a whim, I asked around and found warehouse space available for rent.”
That warehouse space became the first iteration of the Ambler Training Facility. He decided to grow it small, not blow it out, and adhere to a mission of not treating customers as revenue streams but a community through memberships.
It worked out so well, Khathavong included longtime customers as instructors (and, in one case, a skate-shop employee who worked to have his mobile-phone bill covered each month). Parents of students chip in for seasonal memberships and, when asked, help the academy cover the costs of equipment and the like.
Within three years, he moved operations to the upstart Ambler Yards location.
To make that move, Khathavong faced labor-intensive, seven-day work weeks to break down large ramps and other skate-park features and build new ones of his own. On many days and nights, his father chipped in to help his son achieve his dream.
“We wanted to wait to grow until there was a need there, not because we wanted money,” he said. “That’s what kills skate parks: The lack of personal connection. You can lose people that want to support you.
“You can do so much when you have people who believe in you. That’s what I want to do for the kids.”
Sure, there are valuable tips about learning how to skateboard imparted each session, but there are also life lessons involved as well. Just last week, Khathavong sat the students down before skating started to tell a story about how he’d gone fishing on his day off.
For hours, he didn’t even get a nibble. Rather than packing up and going home, he waited it out. Before long, he’d reel in five fish. The lesson? If you’re going to start a mission, don’t quit before it's over.
He doesn't have time for kids not paying attention, either, demanding eye contact when he's talking to them and taking away "free skate" time if they remind Khathavong of his own skate-punk days.
Watching that dynamic unfold, it becomes clear that the “cool uncle” vibe he’s shooting for is real. It's not just lip service, because "the kids can see right through that." It comes from the heart.
“Skating can help build self-esteem, can give kids confidence. These lessons are not going to lead every kid to the first time, but there are a lot of life lessons that can be learned here,” he said. “Skating teaches you to be an individual, to be creative, to think outside the box. It takes a leap of faith to take a risk, accept the consequences and learn your limitations. That’s inherently a part of skateboarding.
“I see a lot of myself in the kids. The bad decisions I made when I was younger, I have no problem sharing with them today. I was a different person then. I know what my purpose is at this point in my life. I can talk to them in a way that’s genuine, because I’ve been there, if not worse. The values that were taught to me, I pass on to them. It’s all about hard work, respect and not expecting anybody to give you anything.”
These days, Khathavong is in a place where he no longer needs to work seven days a week.
The shop’s closed on Mondays, and he uses that time to get away from the skating grind. He said it’s good for him, his customers and his members at a time when the shop becomes part of a community of younger families and entrepreneurs getting involved civically.
He also takes a special pride in how there are eight girls in this spring’s skate-academy class.
“I want boys to see that girls can do it too, and girls get to see that they can do it,” he said, noting that a summer camp he’s running could add to those numbers. “It’s cool for boys to wear pink. It’s cool for girls to skate. Of 30 students, eight are girls? That’s rad.”
Jason Weidner's 8-year-old daughter Lily is one of those skaters. He talked to me this week about Khathavong's mission – as both a digital-ad agency guy and as the parent of a daughter at the academy.
About the latter, Weidner said that Lily "has always been a sweet kid" but when she saw her brother Jake excelling at sports, she went looking for her niche.
"She was worried that she wasn't going to have her thing," he said. "With skating, she doesn't see any gender in it. She's supported by everyone there. When she's trying something new ... the other kids will be banging their board into the ground to encourage her. It's rare to see that collegiality with kids that age. I think it's a unique group of kids being fostered by the environment. They feel comfortable and supported there."
As for Khathavong's mission, he said it's a microcosm of major brands finding success only when "there's a purpose tied to them" beyond profits and bottom lines.
"The one thing that hit me about Sean is that it's authentic. He's not doing it for any other reason than it's the right thing to do," he said. "He sees it as something that was his passion and as a way to give back."
As for the upcoming skate contest at Ambler Skate Park, the kids will get a chance to show off what they’ve learned. Khathavong expects some 300 competitors to come to town, along with friends, family and fans. It's returning to Ambler where, prior to a move away last year, it was held three times previously.
While many will compete in the sponsored, advanced and intermediate divisions, there’s also an under-12 competition. That's where the kids can get into the mix.
“The Philly Pro Am is good for skateboarding. There are not too many events where kids are recognized for their good work,” he said. “The contest is a great way to introduce people to skateboarding."
But the event itself is just a small part of the mission for Khathavong. He's more interested in the impact he's having on the kids.
"I hope they’re learning life-long lessons and making life-long friends so they’ll be able to reflect back on this later in life and realize how far kids can go with supportive parents and mentors,” he said.