Ethan Martin didn’t take a traditional path to his position as director of user strategy for local digital creative agency Bukwild. In his younger years, he thought he’d map and maneuver challenging ski runs around a mountain town for a living. Instead, as an adult, he finds himself navigating design challenges for a digital creative agency in Old Sacramento.
Because, like so many people during young adulthood, he found himself at a crossroads: Should he follow his lifelong dream or be open to finding a new one?
Martin grew up in a small town in Vermont, learned to ski at a young age and began skiing competitively in junior high and high school, during which time he also dabbled in designing ski apparel for himself and others. The 1990s — when he was just getting into competitive freestyle skiing — hadn’t been a good decade for skiing apparel, he says.
“I was good enough to be competitive and was good enough for the prospect of it to be a career. I was definitely at a crossroads where I could do this thing and it’s going to take this much work to get there, and I’m not sure if I really do want that.” Ethan Martin
“It was very race-oriented, so it was a lot of spandex and fluorescent clothing and shiny stuff,” he says. “We didn’t have a ton of money when I was growing up … I’m in high school and nobody’s making stuff that I would wear. So I just took my mom’s sewing machine and was like, ‘I’m sure I can figure out how to make a pair of ski pants.’ So that’s what I did.”
Martin moved to Tahoe after high school in 2001 to pursue professional competitive skiing, but he also began questioning his devotion to the sport. “I was good enough to be competitive and was good enough for the prospect of it to be a career,” he says, yet he knew he wasn’t the best competitive freestyle skier around. “I was definitely at a crossroads where I could do this thing and it’s going to take this much work to get there, and I’m not sure if I really do want that.”
He recalls watching some of the biggest names in the ski industry land themselves on the cover of magazines, and then drive taxis and work construction to make ends meet, while others performed well at the Olympics only to remain unfulfilled in their personal and professional lives. After a poor end-of-season performance in early 2003, Martin finally acknowledged that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a competitive skier anymore, deciding to take a break and make the not-uncommon transition from athlete to coach.
He began coaching during the 2003-04 ski season, but in April 2004, disaster struck. Martin was in an accident while skiing for an industry promotional video his friends were producing. Having caught his downhill edge going into a turn, he hit a tree and shattered three ribs and broke two vertebrae. He was in recovery for about nine months. While he coached for another season after the accident, the injuries officially sealed his fate with regards to skiing.
However, he did have that informal experience designing apparel in high school and a new career path opened up. Eventually his connections in the ski industry landed him a job at a clothing company in Tahoe in 2005 where he worked in creative direction, brand management, design, advertising and promotion. By 2006, as the economy started to decline, Martin heard murmurs the company might sell. So he looked to graphic and web design as his next possible move, landing a design job at a resort and, eventually, picking up freelance clients.
While some might think they need to enroll in school to change careers, Martin took a different route between 2007 and 2010. “I ended up taking a few classes at the local college but the Academy of Art had their curriculum posted online and I thought, ‘I’m just going to get these books teach myself how to do this,’” he says. “There were a couple of years where I was basically working and educating myself at the same time.”
Now, Martin works as Bukwild’s director of user strategy in Sacramento, where he’s worked since undergoing the company’s summer internship program in 2010. In his current role, he works with clients and the rest of Bukwild’s web and digital teams on high-level strategy behind the work the company produces. He also organizes the design work and assets clients bring with them to a project.
“It’s seeing this mess … and being able to kind of organize that and make sense of it and find patterns,” he says, noting that freestyle skiing can be approached in the same way. “I guess that was always the type of skier that I was. I was pretty organized skier. That has been a constant theme throughout all of it.”
Bukwild works with both large brands — such as Coachella and Amazon — and smaller ones. The Crocker Art Museum worked with Martin to rebuild the museum website.
“One of the major design challenges we presented to Ethan was how we might organize the 600-plus programs the Crocker offers each year into an elegant, easy-to-navigate hierarchy,” says Brian Suhr, designer and web specialist for the museum. “His solution: to bundle everything into a single calendar, with filters for programs and classes for children and adults, films, music performances, tours and talks. This seems like the obvious solution now, but it required someone, like Ethan, who could simultaneously see the ‘big picture’ along with the details to uncover that solution.”
Suhr says Martin’s drive has made the projects they’ve worked on together succeed. “When I learned that Ethan was a professional athlete, it explained a lot about his approach to projects and his work ethic,” Suhr says. “I think people who work at mastering something they value tend to naturally work at mastering other things in life.”