Thinking Young: Grad's Firm a Leader in Youth Marketing
- By Thomas James Weaver
Issa Sawabini is making his case for the power of skateboard nation. Take me out to the ballgame, yeah, sure, but consider that there are thirteen million skateboarders in the United States. That's two million more skateboarders than baseball players.
Those aiming to sell clothes, shoes, soft drinks, snacks, gear, and whatnot to some of this thirteen million are well-advised to listen to Sawabini, a '99 UVM grad, and his colleagues at Fuse Marketing. And many of them do. The Vermont-based firm, of which Sawabini is one of three owners, has established itself among the nation's go-to agencies for reaching the youth market (ages twelve to thirty-five) with special expertise in the action sports world.
Skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, wakeboarding, motocross, BMX, freeskiing. Sawabini rattles off the pursuits under the action sports tent with a familiarity born from frequently pitching clients, talking with media, and speaking at marketing seminars and conferences. All of the sports are defined by speed, daring, and a certain rebel cachet. Cool is part of the game, and few can match Fuse's knowledge and experience when it comes to defining a product's image while riding that fine line between cool and lame.
Sawabini, a 32-year-old with a large presence, shaved head, and soul patch, exudes credibility, confidence, and, yes, cool that personify his firm's ability to move with equal authority in the worlds of shaggy teenagers or button-down corporate types. He was recently included in Sports Business Journal's annual "40 Under 40 Awards," a list of the most influential young executives in the sporting world.
A recreation management major in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Sawabini imagined his career before he lived it when he wrote a business plan in Dave Kaufman's entrepreneurship class. Unaware that founding partners Bill Carter and Brett Smith were beginning to nurture such a firm right in Burlington, he essentially described Fuse, envisioning "an agency that would help companies connect with snowboarding and mountain biking and do these things correctly -- because I, as a consumer, was seeing them all stumble over themselves and do some really terrible marketing."
Sawabini notes that studying recreation management taught him the concept of "leisure identity," the tendency for some, particularly young people, to define themselves by where they find their fun. Those citizens of skateboard nation are skateboarders first and foremost. The best way to connect with them is through their sport, which is exactly what Fuse helps their clients do. Beyond the classroom, Sawabini was involved in Student Association Concerts and founded UVM's mountain bike club, activities that he credits for introducing him to event planning and rallying a group around sports.
Fuse was a much smaller business, a handful of employees, when Sawabini started an unpaid internship the day after his UVM graduation. He immediately dug into familiar territory from his college days as he helped organize a mountain bike festival. Over the course of the past ten years that unpaid internship has evolved into a paying job and eventually partnership in the firm, which has grown to a staff of 45 in Burlington and a small New York City office.
Though Sawabini grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., he has a strong family connection to UVM and Vermont. Both of his parents, Wadi '73 and Mary G'75, are alumni, and his grandfather was head of UVM's erstwhile dental program. A return to those roots during college made sense for Issa Sawabini III, in part because of the recreational options of Burlington. A poster boy for the work hard/play hard ethos, Sawabini estimates he went snowboarding 100 days a year, yet never missed a class and graduated magna cum laude. "I was able to find a good balance, but I did spend a lot of time driving on Interstate 89," he says.