Against all odds Tracy Emiko Ugai started her own skate brand called Basics of Happy in Long Beach in 2021. Not having investors or a big company to back her up she dived into this adventure. More important to her was that she has a vision with BOH. Some of you might also remember Tracy as one of the original Moxi team skaters, known as Banzai. She worked as a creative director for many years up until the point where she had burned-out, in all areas of her life, including skating and her involvement in the skate community. When she left advertising, she also slowly stopped skating and went on a hiatus for three years; due to not feeling comfortable in the same community she helped build. Two years into healing she put on her skates again. Realizing how dearly she had missed it, Tracy started skating again daily. After rethinking her business ideas, The Basics of Happy came to life. A year ago we did a little story on Tracy in our yearbook but thought it was time to chat with her about her long journey.
When did you create Basics of Happy and what was the motivation behind it?
I created BOH in 2021, I had just come back to skating from a hiatus. The community had grown so much by then. I saw a really big need in the market for high quality skates in the mid-price range. As a lifestyle skater who wanted a skate that could be high quality enough to last more than a year of skating, and wanted to provide the community with a skate and plates that solved a lot of the problem issues we faced as skaters who were on skates 5-7 days out of the week. I live in Long Beach and have lived here since I was 17. This local community and city was what really sparked my passion in skating. I slowly started to reconnect with the existing community and new skaters; and noticed that the same community that had put Long Beach on the map as a “roller skate city” could not to afford skates themselves. As well as many skaters who were given discounts or free skates, that would not be able to keep up this hobby without that support of a sponsor.
I also was a skater who couldn’t fit my foot into any of the stock skates out there, I was constantly in pain, in boots that couldn’t hold my weight, sized wrong, and I plateaued in my skating. There is no technical reliable clear information out there about skates as well; so there is nothing to research for purchase comparison. So I was lost for a while trying to figure out what quality boots even felt like. I wanted to create a skate that could be there for me when I was in the best shape and the worst… a skate that was there for me at anytime in my life, not just when I was at my best.
I always say BOH is about more than JUST roller skates. I have bigger plans. It will be a movement company that will hopefully either foster a community wheeled space or community movement space, think rink but more of a sports/movement center. Always focusing on the aspect of discovery of yourself and connection to others, rather than competition.
Lastly, I started this company because during the pandemic I saw and heard what the shortage did to our core retails stores, owned by skaters. I also started talking to them about their mark ups on the skates and saw how hard it was to sustain a business for them on small mark ups, as well as the skates always being sold out. Creating more brands will only help our community and sector grow, supporting existing structures led by skaters like core retail will grow roller skating as well. Unfortunately, this first run of skates I haven’t been able to support my retailers as much as I had planned. But hoping as things pick up, I can have some activations and selling materials for them as the boots roll out. There are so many broken standard business structures within roller skating, and I’m hoping to bring my retail background and business knowledge in and help streamline somethings for shops as a wholesaler.
You called your company a movement company in the past. What is your philosophy behind it?
The Basics of Happy was created with the intention to create a safe space for all young adults and adults to be able to experience movement in a structure of self-discovery, rather than competition. Growing up, I was in competitive sports, and was never the best at them. I know it definitely carried that feeling into my adulthood, as it has with many people I’ve taught and connected with through skating. I found skating at 30, at a time in my life when I really needed it. I was stuck on the adult treadmill, cut off from my body just operating on auto pilot. As an adult, it hard to make new friends, to connect to your own self, to make it a priority to, start something new from scratch, find new communities as you grow as a person, and genuine community connection. Roller skating brought me the space to reclaim my own body, find community, experience first hand how passions can cross language barriers, and connect with many people all over the world through these eight wheels.
Movement also represents how I want to serve my local community, and what programming we can offer from BOH as a community peer learning space as well for BIPOC LBGTQ+ first. I was heavily involved in the Modern wellness space for two years, and I see a lot of cross over to roller skating as well as other movements styles. I as a WOC experiencing these teaching spaces where my own culture is white washed out and taught back to me; I slowly started to see this space wasn’t held for EVERYONE. It was just another space I had to perform in to fit in, and hold my tongue about my own culture, rather than be able to freely discover and tap into myself.
Through my own self discovery and rooted learnings, space I have held for others while practicing Qi Gong and Sound Healing; I’ve learned how to truly create a space where everyone feels welcome and comfortable to dive deep into themselves. And yes, my example is through being a woman of color; but ALL of us know that feeling of having to shift who we are, or present to fit into passion spaces. My goal is to build a brand, products, programming and a space that this is not a factor in. EVERYONE deserves the right to their Basics of Happy and discovery of it.
What are the pros and cons of being emotionally connected to a brand and product?
It’s really interesting, for me it will always be a pro to emotionally be connected to your brand and product. There are not very many cons as long as you keep working on yourself and digging into how you are attaching and emotionally bonding as a person in your everyday life. It’s been a blessing and a curse to professionally work in the creative field for my career. It’s taught me really hard lessons in appropriate emotional attachment to what I create; and taught me how to keep digging past my first initial thought and idea. When brands and products lose the emotional connection to their brand and product; that is usually when they start falling short for the community they serve. And now a days the community can tell.
My self-growth and tapping into myself has been the biggest catalyst and source of grounding for me. I still struggle with my own mental health through creating this, sometimes every day for weeks. I never see that as a con; it’s building me into the person who can create and sustain a company that I can believe in and serve the communities in the way I need to.
It’s been a LONG two years and my emotional connection to what I create and to my skates is the only thing keeping me going. It’s sometimes a long lonely road believing in yourself as you cross so many hiccups along the way, problem solving on your own, in unfamiliar territory. But I have had a lot of support through my small but mighty following, my BOH skate team, and from my friends I’ve met through my career. I greatly appreciate everyone’s words of encouragement, support and purchases… My Skate Team has been such and amazing sounding board to be able to help with some validations of my decisions; and has been a big motivator as well to hear how much they love what is being created. My importing agent and accountant are skaters as well, we met playing roller derby. I’m very proud to have a brand built by the skate community and our core retailers.
What are the difficulties and challenges to develop a proper boot and plate? How did you find a manufacturer?
I found my manufacturer through Alibaba, and I messaged every single one. At the beginning stages I had a friend who has been designing products overseas helping me out here and there. From there I had them send sample sheets of their existing lasts. All manufacturing has pre designed boots which are products people call “white label”, which means you are just putting a logo on it and changing the colors and small designs that don’t change the actual structure or parts of the boot. This is how I started to develop the ALL SKATE. We upgraded parts to this boot, the padding, cushions, the metal in the plate. Next V2 of this ALL SKATE will be a tad bit more reinforced on the sides, so it will technically start to be my own design.
The ALL SKATE came about, because I wanted to make sure I could land a line of skates, and I also was still in development for this stiffer boot. When I approached my factory it was to ONLY make a high quality stiff boot. Which brings me to the negative, more stressful side of manufacturing. When I approached my manufacturing I was directly competing with established roller skate companies with large orders already in place. So I was the last to be serviced for my prototypes and design changes. I do not have enough money to own molds and designs so, I have to design everything “open” which means they can show all my design changes and requirements to the other brands the service in our sector; and are gaining knowledge to design their boots better with how I have been instructing them with my changes. I already had planned what the designs were going to be and features I needed, communication was a challenge to at first, but I have worked it out with them over the years and we are at a really great spot with that. My manufacturing is amazing, and I cannot wait to grow with them.
With the “All Skate” you already released an entry level skate but are working on an advanced level boot already. How is it going so far and is there a release date?
I am so excited for this boot, I have been prototyping now for two years. The final prototype R5, will land mid-February, and I will start taking pre orders from skaters and retail shops. It will fully land in the States in May, two years to the date from receiving my first stiff boot prototype in 2021. I had one more last round with some inner foam quality upgrades; as well as a new design for the top of the boot to help with the mobility and flex for maximum control and performance.
At this time too, I will release a 20 degree angled plate, with a lower ride for rink and park. It will be a CNC cut aluminum plate that will also eventually come out in colors, and be a lighter option to the mixed metal plate I have on the ALL SKATE.
Some other things I’m working on too is a plate packaged with both wide and narrow trucks sold all together, this incompatibility is causing people to crack plates as well as compromise performance with nylon plates. So I hope to have a solve for that in the next year, deciding which price point plate I want to create for that. I am always thinking of the subcultures accessibility and what makes most sense for that specific skate community.
And what our readers will probably ask a lot: Can we use these boots in skateparks or shred them a bit harder?
YES! YES! YES! The Free flow boot is a performance boot meant for more intermediate to pro-level. My goal was to also create a quality boot for rink skaters in an affordable price point as well, that will eventually be in more colors then black and white. The edges on this boot are amazing, I cannot wait for people to feel it. The sole is one solid piece sewn and reinforced heel from the inside, creating a really solid connection from the boot to the plate.
You went all in with starting the brand. Was or is there any fear that it won’t work out?
I definitely fight the fear or failure every day, and at the same time am fueled by how much skating changed my life in the pivotal time I needed it. What happened within me as my passion grew for it, is something that someone is always going to relate to, even if they aren’t roller skaters. I worked inside Vans corporate for a year and a half, watching and observing what was working to stay connected to their core audience and what did not work. I also have an extensive background in marketing from 360 branding activations/campaign, retail and experiential spaces. As in action sports, people bought the lifestyle (art, music, fashion) and embraced it as a living breathing capsule outside of the core sport. Roller skating has the umbrella of subcultures, as well as a real connection to their core community; it can eventually be just as successful with the right intention, planning and leaders.
What motivates you to stay on your path and see beyond the initial challenges?
I know it may sound cheesy; but roller skating does. I’ve already been a part of a core group of building this sector of park skating and have learned many lessons about myself, this industry and the people on the business side of it. I know I can help showcase how amazing roller skating is, because I’ve already done it. It was a blessing to walk away years ago and develop myself and my own relationship with skating as an individual. I got to really see what these skates and what this movement truly does for me. I sat and toiled over the meaning of skating, what it means for me, how it connects to others, how it can affect our youth. Teaching beginning skate lessons and kids skating always brings me back to why I do this. Seeing their faces of joy, stress, and accomplishment… Seeing people start to see something in themselves is something that will never get old for me and forever keep me motivated to keep developing the Basics of Happy into what it needs to as our community grows.
Like many skates yours are manufactured in a Chinese factory. I remember a post of you, saying: “I am an American company with American products that are made overseas. Please do not call me an import company.” This challenges believes and prejudices people have. Can you explain why this statement is so important?
Thank you so much for asking this question! First off not all skates made overseas are made in China specifically, there are factories in various countries overseas for roller skates. I asked people to not call me an import company, because a high percentage of everything in America is made overseas. Is Apple an import company? Nike? Vans? No they are American brands. So, why am I not an American brand designing skates manufacturing overseas? Why am I labeled an import company? How other brands phrase their products is up to them, for whatever selling reason they need. But there has been extremely racist dialogue that spiked during COVID about American made skates, and imported “cheap Chinese skates”. Products made in China or overseas are cheap because the business making them are cheap. If highly advanced technology, Luxury Brands and iPhones come out of overseas… so can high quality roller skates.
It’s also how English-speaking people will deal with China as a manufacturer, always wanting cheaper but better quality to improve their own bottom-line. You also can improve product alongside your factory to respond to the needs of the community as well; it’s up to the brand. Again bad business decisions of companies, using “China” as a marketing ploy to absolve themselves, not just in roller skating, in American business in general.
What are your hopes and wishes for BOH in the future?
I have all these big plans, but honestly… I have been tapping in as I go, which is usually not me; I usually need business plans and launch activations planned. Although, over the past two years I’ve been trying to practicing patience and in turn working inflow with what is being organically created as these products develop. My hope for BOH is that it becomes a capsule (in whatever form it takes) where people feel seen, included, represented, safe to discover passions and creativity in. Will it become a collective? Will it become a foundation? Will it become retail capsules with movement studios across the country? I don’t know… but I keep dreaming, feeling and connecting into what we need as the human collective shifts and evolves.
“We are all just walking each other home” – Ram Daas
Interview by Marta Popowska
Photos by Basics of Happy