How Hard is Running an Outdoor Brand? 8 Founders and CEOs Discuss Their Biggest Challenges
Outdoors Journalist John Briley connects with eight industry leaders on the biggest challenges they face day to day in their jobs.
From a distance, running an outdoor gear company might look simple: Make a solid product to fill a market niche, hire good salespeople, and find an accountant to tally the profits. Of course even for products that look ingenious in retrospect (down sweaters, anyone?), it’s never that easy. Below, eight industry leaders share the biggest challenges they face day to day in their jobs.
All About People
For some, like Snow Burns, global VP of marketing for Mountain Hardwear, and Davis Smith, founder of Cotopaxi, it all comes down to personal relations.
"I’m a very empathetic leader, very concerned about staff and how they’re doing as people."
“I’m a very empathetic leader, very concerned about staff and how they’re doing as people,” Burns says. “And balancing that across an organization is challenging.” Many of her 10 direct reports, she says, “want to move up and take on expanded roles, whether or not it’s desirable for the company. So helping people manage the org chart in a financially challenging time is a big thing I deal with day to day.”
Smith, who has launched and led numerous businesses, shares that his biggest challenge “is always around finding and retaining the best talent, which I try to do through building an exceptional culture.” Smith concedes that in the past, “I’ve done it wrong a lot, for example, by trying to just let the culture evolve by default,” but that at Cotopaxi he focused on building that culture from Day 1.
"I’ve done it wrong a lot, for example, by trying to just let the culture evolve by default."
“Two or three years into the business we got recognized as the number-one company to work for in Utah, and that was great. But then an employee came to me and said the culture had changed and that she wasn’t as happy as she had been. And I realized she was right. So I had to focus on it again and get back to what we’d built from the beginning. It’s an ongoing thing.”
Simon Perkins, the CEO of the fly fishing gear maker Orvis, has a different type of people issue.
“We’re a family-owned business, which means we all have co-workers who are family,” Perkins says. “So separating work and family can be a real challenge. It takes time, work, energy, and thoughtfulness.”
That same factor, however, can work in Simon’s favor. “There’s a lot of thoughtfulness in those relationships, which helps us commit to and prioritize each other.” he says. “That allows us to be what we are, and have the long-term vision that we do. The family shares such a strong passion around what we do and why we do it, and that gives us a very firm center of gravity. It’s both a big challenge and our greatest asset.”
For some leaders, the shifting retail landscape presents vexing hurdles. “The whole demeanor of retailers has changed,” says Peter Duke, who founded Point6, merino wool sock and baselayer maker in Steamboat, Colorado, with his wife Patty. “They’re no longer specialty shops, and they’re no longer bringing forth new tech. They just want tried and true proven brands that sell themselves off the floor.” That makes it hard for new competitors—no matter how good their products are—to gain traction and market share, Duke says. This has forced Point6 to shift focus to online and guerilla marketing tactics to get the word out on their goods, a strategy that is slowly building brand awareness.
More than one outdoor executive pointed to a challenge that many of us have: time management.
“I’m wearing too many hats,” says Ted Eynon, who owns Meier Skis. “Trying to be really good at everything—leasing space, securing insurance, materials acquisition, hiring people, selling, promoting, marketing … it all just hits you, especially when you don’t have a huge pot of cash to hire people to offload some of that.” Eynon acknowledges that much of that squeeze is self-inflicted: “We’re trying to run this business the old-fashioned way—by trying to make everything ourselves—and that’s not how a lot of companies do it these days.”
"Trying to be really good at everything—leasing space, securing insurance, materials acquisition, hiring people, selling, promoting, marketing..."
Cam Bresinger, founder of Nemo Outdoors, says “Even without a commute there’s still never enough time in the day. I look down and it’s dinnertime.” Part of this new reality sprung from the dramatic shifts that the COVID-19 pandemic forced Bresinger to make in all aspects of his business--and life.
"Even without a commute there’s still never enough time in the day."
“We’re all in the same circumstance, working from home, and we’ve had to make major changes at work while also reinventing our family time, participating in the outdoors, trying to stay balanced.” Bresinger, who’s a big believer in personally field-testing his products, has countered the time crunch by tracking his outdoor recreation, which he does on a piece of plywood that lays atop two sawhorses in his work space. “My goal is to have more nights camped out and mountain bike rides than there are weeks of COVID. So far, I’m ahead.”
Focusing the Company Vision
Cory Tholl, CEO of Klymit, cites a combination of dynamics that make running his business tough. “I’m constantly trying to figure out the right pace and cadence in managing remote work. Also, how do I create vision, inspire people, and celebrate wins in a virtual setting? The pandemic has taken the human element out of a lot of interactions, and that’s hard.”
"How do I create vision, inspire people, and celebrate wins in a virtual setting?"
At the same time, Tholl says, the abrupt shift in how people work over the past year “has exposed some great things. Some of my team members have shined.” He says personnel management “has always been the greatest challenge and reward, and that’s been amplified” by COVID-19. “So going forward, I need to figure out how we all stay on the same page with vision and execution.”
Vision and purpose are often intertwined, and that intersection is what keeps Simms Fishing CEO Casey Sheahan up at night. “My biggest challenge is helping the company find a strong purpose to rally behind,” Sheahan explains.
"My biggest challenge is helping the company find a strong purpose to rally behind."
“Simms is all about fisheries protection; without fish we don’t have a business. So we do a lot of work with Bonefish & Tarpon Trust [an advocacy group in Florida], and our latest effort is to stop Pebble Mine,” a major industrial project planned within critical salmon habitat near Alaska’s Bristol Bay (The Trump Administration denied a key permit for the gold and copper mine in November but that decision is under appeal). “Salmon can’t speak for themselves, but certainly the sportsmen and commercial fishermen can speak up,” Sheahan observed. Having the issue to focus on has helped galvanize Simms staff and leadership through the choppy waters of the pandemic.
These examples offer just a glimpse of the challenges of leading a company and show that you can’t trust the view from a distance. Thankfully, the outdoor industry has its share of nimble and innovative leaders who are finding ways to overcome many--though not all--of these challenges. That’s good news for the gear marketplace, and everyone who lives to play outside.