Ready to Start a Company? 10 Outdoor Gear Leaders Offer Advice to Entrepreneurs
CEOs, founders, and executives from among the most innovative outdoor companies share their top tips for launching a brand.
Most of us who are passionate about our outdoor pursuits have, at one time or another, dreamt up a product or product improvement that would make our forays into the wild more enjoyable. These visions—a warmer glove, lighter camp chair, waterproof pack, less complicated tent—typically come and go as fleetingly as the alpenglow in the high peaks of summer.
But for a select few, the idea takes hold, dominating their thoughts and driving them to turn their moment of inspiration into starting a company. But as anyone who’s taken that leap will tell you, the path from notion to product to sales to profit is fraught. So why not benefit from the wisdom of those who have been there?
Here, ten outdoor brand leaders offer their advice for entrepreneurs looking to find a foothold in this exciting but competitive marketplace.
Follow your passion … but think it through
Davis Smith, founder of the pack and outerwear maker Cotopaxi, says many entrepreneurs commit to a product vision too quickly.
"You need to be very disciplined in the ideation phase."
"You need to be very disciplined in the ideation phase. I spent 6 months to a year generating ideas,” says Smith, who also started companies in other sectors. “Come up with 50 ideas, then whittle it down. You will know very quickly in the next phase of research whether your idea will fly."
That said, it’s still key to stay true to your passion, says Tom Ritchey, who founded the bicycle manufacturer Ritchey Design in 1974.
"The only advice I’d give anyone is to stick to the things you want to do, and look for solving problems to improve your experience," Ritchey says. "And if you’re lucky you’ll come into a space where you’re helping other people too, and have customers."
"...the simplicity and the ingredients of that simplicity are really important to think about in terms of nursing a product."
Ritchey—as anyone who’s ridden his bikes knows—is also a big fan of minimalism. "We have a penchant these days to create more and more complicated things," he says. "In my opinion, the simplicity and the ingredients of that simplicity are really important to think about in terms of nursing a product." Ritchey also encourages aspiring company founders to be their own laboratories, "Whatever you make, you better prove it yourself, test it yourself, put your own butt on the line. That will help you make sure your customers aren’t going to have a negative experience."
Leave room to adjust, and never give up
Cam Bresinger, founder of the camping gear maker Nemo Equipment, echoes that dedication to getting it right but cautions against trying to map out the whole journey in advance.
"The best trips I’ve ever taken involved some research and planning but also left room to adjust, to make decisions on the fly," Bresinger says. "So many people get hung up on 'I know I need to do this, then that, but I just don’t know how I’m going to overcome all of that.' The reality is you’ll wait your whole lifetime to try to put those pieces together."
"There’s no question in my mind, reinforced over the past 18 years, that nothing is more important than a stubborn refusal to give up."
The passion is mandatory, Bresinger says, but even more important is grit. "You’re going to have to put in blood and sweat and time. The whole notion of 'I’m going to keep my day job and do this in the wee hours' never pans out. There’s no question in my mind, reinforced over the past 18 years, that nothing is more important than a stubborn refusal to give up. I don’t need to know everything; I just need to face what’s in front of me and work through it."
Cory Tholl, CEO of the camping equipment company Klymit, agrees. "The thing I see most often is people giving up too early," Tholl says. "The passion is there, but they hit a couple hurdles and don’t push through. It could be a lack of time or capital [that causes them to bail], but I tell them there’s always a way around the hurdles."
"The thing I see most often is people giving up too early. The passion is there, but they hit a couple hurdles and don’t push through."
Tholl also warns entrepreneurs not to underestimate the ultimate challenge: getting people to buy the product. "You have to be great at pitching," he says.
Surround yourself with talent, and don’t copycat products
But don’t fret if you’re not, advises Casey Sheahan, CEO of the fly fishing company Simms.
"Recruit good managers" to compensate for your weaknesses, Sheahan says. "Most entrepreneurs shoot from the hip and are great with energy and vision but don’t always make the best decisions around management." Also key, he adds, is spending time with your target market. "Get closer to the men and women who use the products and they’ll guide you on what to make for them," Sheahan offers.
"Get closer to the men and women who use the products and they’ll guide you on what to make for them."
That will also protect you from bringing an unneeded product to market. Peter and Patty Duke, founders of the merino wool sock company Point6, say it’s key to avoid duplicating existing gear, even if it’s proven and selling well.
"You really must love the product and believe in it."
"Be innovative," Peter advises, "and develop something totally different that helps improve the sport. If you can come up with that ingredient, you’re going to have a home run." The Dukes, who previously founded and ran Smartwool, emphasize the need to be creative in how you bring an idea to market and how you give back to the community—an increasingly key aspect of brand success. Point6, for example, works with nonprofit organizations to get socks to people in need, and partners with groups that help preserve the outdoors and educates the public about the value of conservation. Beyond that, Patty says, "You really must love the product and believe in it."
Expect a struggle … and be ready for it
"Have a lot more money and a lot more time than you think you’ll ever need."
On a more sobering note, Ted Eynon, who runs Meier Skis in Denver, says to "Have a lot more money and a lot more time than you think you’ll ever need. You can have the best idea in the world, but blowing up right away is the exception, not the rule." This is especially true, Eynon says, for startups that will handle their own manufacturing. "People have this vision, a fairy tale [of success] but that’s not usually the reality. [It] takes a lot of money to get a brand to scale and get people to buy it. We’re still pushing the wagon over the hill, but we’re getting there."
"Plan for the worst, hope for the best."
Dino Dardano, president of the glove maker Hestra’s U.S. division, sums it up this way: "Plan for the worst, hope for the best." For the past 15 years Hestra has enjoyed meteoric growth but that hit a major pothole in 2020. "If you have growth and success, you kind of get complacent. You need to look at everything—your supply chain, market demand, and more," and have contingency plans. "I’m dealing with things this year that I’d never expected in my career."
"Reach out! 2020 has been so tough and people are willing to help."
So there it is: an outline, at least, of how to launch an outdoor brand, laced with advice from perhaps the most challenging year the industry has ever endured. All of which leads to one last morsel of counsel from Mountain Hardware Marketing Director Snow Burns. "Reach out! 2020 has been so tough and people are willing to help." Many, she adds, might be willing to co-promote products or collaborate on marketing campaigns. Further, Burns says, most outdoor industry executives "are very approachable," a quality that would suit us all well, even if we’re just another customer dreaming up ideas we’ll never pursue.