My relationship with GoLite — and specifically with its founders and owners, Kim and Demetri Coupounas (“Coup”) — goes back nine years, to the summer of 2003 when GoLite welcomed me to Boulder, Colo. as a summer intern. We have both grown a lot since then. During my speaking and book tour earlier this Spring I fielded a few questions to the effect of, “WTF is happening at GoLite?” in regards to its decision to abandon the traditional retail market, drop its prices, and open its own stores. In this interview I give Coup an opportunity to explain this decision and its effects, as well as his broader perspective on the company.
Andrew: GoLite was founded in 1998 – 14 years ago – as arguably the first “lightweight backpacking” manufacturer. It has evolved several times since then. How does GoLite describe itself now?
Coup: We take pride in continuing to make some of the lightest backpacking clothing and equipment in the marketplace, as well as light, simple, functional products for travel. And we have increased our commitment to sustainability in recent years.
Andrew: You have been its president since the beginning. How is Kim, your wife and GoLite’s co-founder, now involved?
Coup: Kim was CEO, as in Chief Executive Officer, for years. For two years she was Chair of the board of the Outdoor Industry Association and that was a second full-time time job. In that role, she helped focus the industry on accelerating its commitment to and performance toward being more sustainable as she’d already been doing at GoLite for years. When her term was up, it was natural to continue the emphasis on that work at GoLite. To save printing costs and save paper, we called her Chief Environmental Officer, still our CEO. Two years ago, George Demetrios Leonidas Coupounas was born which, as every mother knows, was and is a huge, if glorious effort. So, Kim has two full-time jobs again. At GoLite, she continues to spearhead all our sustainability work – more broadly as Chief Sustainability Officer, and of course she has tremendous institutional memory and is an owner.
Andrew: When GoLite began to shift away from purely function-driven and minimalist products (think: the Coal Parka and Lair Tarp/Nest), some accused it of “selling out.” Why did GoLite’s product direction change? Why did you not just remain a more focused – albeit much smaller – cottage company?
Coup: From the very start we wanted to help as many people as we could to lighten up and enjoy the outdoors. We’re not here to just help a few – we’re here to help many. Some don’t seem comfortable with that. Some use terms that, if they were in my shoes, they’d find offensive, rude and unfair. No one here has “sold out.” If we had, we’d have more money :-~)
I look at this issue like the way I look at (listen to) music. I don’t hold it against the Beatles that the White Album contains “Revolution 9” a “song” I don’t care for – I just don’t listen to it. I listen to Let It Be, A Day in the Life, Hey Jude, Eleanor Rigby, and continue to thank John, Paul, George, Ringo and their various producers and managers for the greatest music I’ve ever heard.
Similarly, at GoLite, why it would bother someone that we make certain products that are “light” instead of “ultralight” is beyond me. Everything we make we make for a reason and because the signals we’ve received from all of our customers and potential customers over the years have indicated needs and desires that are broader than what any individual or small group may care for.
Andrew: Over the last 1-2 years GoLite has transformed its business model, from being focused on its wholesale business (the traditional model, whereby a manufacturer sells its products to a retailer which then re-sells these products to consumers) to being focused on direct sales, through its website and stores. Can you explain what the model looks like today?
Coup: In the US and Canada, virtually all sales are now direct to customers through our website, our town stores, and our outlet stores. In all other markets, we sell through distributors that decide what in our line to purchase and resell, as well as how to price and market it.
Andrew: Have you “bet the farm,” so to speak, on this new model?
Coup: When you run a small business in this economic environment, you bet the farm frequently. And this bet is working. We now sell far more through our website and stores than we ever did through traditional outdoor retailers.
These results are due to a combination of being able to: present the complete brand, holistically; tell the lightweight and sustainability stories with integrity; and pass on to our end customers the dramatic cost savings that this model realizes.
Andrew: What drove GoLite to change? Why did it struggle to succeed as a traditional wholesaler? Was it a failure of GoLite’s product, branding, or management? Was it the strength of GoLite’s competitors? Or was the retail market too difficult to crack?
Coup: We were dissatisfied with how slowly our innovations were accepted in the traditional sales channel, as well as with how diluted the message was by the time it got to the end customer. Previously, there was a merchandiser, buyer, sales rep, store manager, and sales staff between GoLite and the end customer. Now there is nobody between GoLite and the end customer.
Andrew: Is this the “new” GoLite, or is the model still evolving? What changes or additions will take place in the next 12-18 months?
Coup: The basic strategy is visible now – this is what we’re doing. However, there are constant tactical adjustments that need to be made based on our continuing learnings. This is a whole new way of doing business for us. It’s better. We’re much happier with how we are able to present product and the brand, to interact with our customers, and to grow sales. But there continues to be lots to learn.
Andrew: How are customers affected by this change, in terms of prices, customer service, and product availability?
Coup: I hesitate to answer for customers – generally, it’s good to hear them speak in their own voice. But what I have heard and seen is that they are able to now understand the whole brand, what it means and stands for, and how the products should be used, than previously. They also seem to appreciate that our products are not just light on their backs and light on the planet, but also light on their wallet. On the backend, we are able to service our customers better because there is a direct and extensive stream of information (e.g. popular products, sizes, and colors; feedback about product design and store layout; etc.) coming into our systems daily, whereas before this feedback loop was much more diluted and delayed.
Andrew: GoLite’s pricing is sweetly discounted versus industry averages. For example, right now its 20-degree 800-fill mummy bag costs just $200, and long-sleeve merino wool tops costs just $45. If the old adage, “You get what you pay for,” is true, then there must be a catch. What is it here?
Coup: It’s true that you get what you pay for. And if you want to pay for tradeshow fees, tradeshow booths that cost as much as a house, sales rep commissions, sales meetings, obsolete inventory, pre-season discounts, collection fees, bad debt, order cancellations, lots of flights, rental cars, hotel rooms and dinners, as well as all the traditional retailer’s expenses, go pay some other company $400 for that bag and $90 for that shirt. If you just want to pay for quality, sustainable materials and an excellent design, plus a fair rate for labor, shipping, and rent – which we can deliver at a cost of about 1/3 – 1/2 below the industry average – then get them from GoLite.
Andrew: Since GoLite has always sold direct on its website – although at wholesale prices – and since it has been doing semi-annual sales in Boulder and Denver for several years, it might seem like an easy transition to start selling direct exclusively. But I’m guessing it was not so straightforward. I have two sub-questions:
Andrew: 1. How difficult has it been to find store locations, train employees, and keep good inventory levels as you build up your direct business?
Coup: It’s a lot of work, but it’s all work that bears fruit, which makes it satisfying and rewarding. In selecting real estate, for example, we have run lots of experiments – not always intentionally – around square footage, customer access (parking versus walk-by traffic), and various towns and regions. And we apply all that learning to places we select going forward.
As for staff, we have good people here at headquarters choosing good people out there in the field. Like all personnel decisions it takes time, work, and insight. But, again, it’s gratifying and rewarding to know that when we find the right store managers and staff, they will spend their entire workday thinking about, and helping customers understand and appreciate, just one brand – GoLite’s full story and full range of products, with integrity. Our employees are also better able and more than willing to pass along insightful feedback from customers.
Andrew: 2. How have you had to change development and production now that the entire product line is available at GoLite stores, instead of just a few standout items that a retailer might have carried?
Coup: The product selection and production process has been liberated. For example, take the Ion pack, which we had to discontinue because there wasn’t enough demand for a single production run per season at our former sales volume and the amount that had to be charged at retail. At the price we’ll be able to charge in the future, and our increased size, we’ll be able to run several production runs per season. Previously, we had to make bets on what buyers at retail stores would want, not knowing if they would want enough in one season to justify an entire production run. Even if they did want enough for one run, they might not want much more, in which case our distribution center becomes a warehouse, which is unfortunate. We also no longer have to sell buyers on entirely new products, convincing them that there is a demand. Instead, we can simply make a single production run and watch how quickly it sells. If it sells quickly, we’ll order more next season; if not, we’ll order less, or discontinue it. This sort of rapid, detail-rich data feedback was simply not available in the past. And with so many more voices weighing equally in the process, it’s a more democratic way of doing business.
Andrew: Related to development and production, what has GoLite been able to do since it went direct that it was unable to do as a wholesaler? New products, designs, materials?
Coup: Next year we will have the lightest free-standing tents on the market, at a very affordable price. It’s ultra-light for an ultra-low price. Previously, it made no sense to present these products to buyers since they already had a preconceived notion about GoLite’s role in their store and since they may have already had another brand supplying them with similar product. Similarly, we also now sell great merino wool base layers in our stores. This makes total sense for us – our customers understand merino wool’s advantages and they want it. Before, we could never have even considered selling wool base layers to traditional retailers, since those retailers already relied on several other suppliers that had a brand story and product line entirely oriented around wool. This is a product category that will expand next year.
Andrew: I have presented at most of the GoLite stores – Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins, SLC, Santa Fe – and I’d say that few of the customers or the employees are hardcore, or even avid, backpackers. It’s much more mass market. Knowing this, how do you avoid losing your core customer and your identity?
Coup: Our web site sales are equipment rich and ultra-lite skewed; far less so our store sales as you’ve witnessed. Introducing and re-introducing true core products is something that we are very much looking forward to. Our direct website and stores, and our pricing, now enable this, since we have the sales outlets and volume to support more niche items.
Andrew: In my early years I was very focused on a product’s weight, but my view has evolved and I now actually think there’s too much emphasis on it — it’s only one important characteristic of gear, along with functionality, durability, reliability, ease of use, etc. I think GoLite was ahead of me on this, since it was putting hip belt pockets on its packs and #5 zippers on its raingear before my thinking had fully evolved. So it’s funny to hear you use the word “light” so often. Where does GoLite stand on this?
Coup: Weight is very important. It’s the third characteristic of our hierarchy for designing gear. First is function/performance. Second is durability. Beating one’s chest while proclaiming that one has the absolute lightest product available – regardless of function, fit, durability, cost, etc. – doesn’t make sense to me. I still remember going out for an overnight with nothing, head to toe, just to see if that was best. It’s not. But we continue to emphasize weight because when you stop focusing on weight, things will naturally become heavier and heavier until you are right back at traditional, overbuilt gear. At GoLite, the weight of our products is discussed and emphasized from the start of the design process, all the way through quality control and shipping.
It’s good to hear about why GoLite has changed some of it’s directions and also to hear about a local Colorado company not afraid to be different. And some of those prices are quite incredible for the product that you get.
I stumbled upon the GoLite outlet in Silverthorne on our way to the Columbia outlet in the fall. Every trip we make down to Denver now has a GoLite stop. I’ve had a good experience with the staff’s product support and love every product we’ve purchased.
Seems like a propaganda piece, a constructed narrative in the guise of an interview.
Did they pay you for this advertisement?
Cascade – Your comment and insinuation is insulting. If this website was for sale, do you think I’d be writing about the limitations of breathable fabrics, the inevitable failure of “waterproof” shoes in wet conditions, or why backcountry GPS units are overrated? Probably not.
It’s not an Interview he’s asking specifically about business practices. read the actual words in the piece.
Great job Andrew. One question I would have loved to hear about is whether or not GoLite thinks they can handle the challenges of being a direct to customer business. Before, in the traditional model, they dealt with things like shipping large quantities of boxes to just a few distributors. Let’s say two 50 box shipments a week. Now, they might have a day where they have to ship out a shirt to one person and a backpack to another. Then tomorrow it might be ten times that much. What difficulties have they faced?
Big fan of both Andrew and Golite. I have found that they have been priced well in the market.
The fact the quality will stay the same innovation will increase and prices drop. I am likely to purchase more gear from Golite. Good for you taking a risk.
Wish Go-lite all the best with the message branding.The transparency Shown in this interview I find refreshing,and would like to see some of the larger companies follow suit,and make themselves available to the people that use the products.
Where are your products made?
Excellent interview! It has made me see this company in a different light. Weight is not the other factor. Durability is crucial. I am hiking a thru next year on the Appalachian Trail. My pack and tent have to last me 6-7 months of abuse!
I think that a “durability” rating needs to always be considered.
Also, an Appalachian Trail pack with logo would be nice.
And last – I can’t be the only hiker on the planet who wants an attractive pack.
I’m migrating from redundant, heavy Boy Scout backpacking to lighter long-distance treks. I just completed the 800-mile Arizona Trail (a short walk for Andrew but a trek for me) and my GoLite umbrella and down coat were two items I felt weird taking but found to be the most useful. The umbrella kept me cool hiking across the 90+ degree desert and the coat kept me warm through 15 degree nights. I’m excited to track GoLite’s new developments this coming year. Looks like I might finally get a down sleeping bag for Christmas. 🙂 Thanks for the glimpse into the evolution of a small company.
I am really glad you put together this interview. It is really exciting to hear about what Coup and GoLite are planning to do. Especially with regard to free standing tents. If they could get down below $200 and near 2 pounds of weight I will almost certainly be buying one. (Compare to Tarptent’s freestanding tents which are over 2 pounds and over $200.)
I have been backpacking for over 10 years and this is the first year I have bought a GoLite item (The Quest backpack). I think having a storefront and selling direct helps the brand out immensely. I probably would have bought a down sleeping bag from GoLite too if they hadn’t sold out of this production run.
In any case, I plan on coming up to your talk at the Boulder store on the 31st and I hope to shake your hand and say hi.
Thanks, Andrew. I’ve been wondering why GoLite has gone in their current direction, and I appreciate the information. My only complaint about GoLite is that their current sale is darned near irresistible! My husband and I took their down quilts out for a spin this weekend (I bought one of the last short-length 1-season quilts they had) and were delighted with the design and quality.
I’ll second your observation about the sales staff: I’ve overheard staff at the Fort Collins store advising customers that they need a frame for any serious backpacking (i.e. the Quest instead of the Jam, etc.). Kind of not to the point for GoLite equipment! Either some additional training or even a good read of your book might improve the quality of the advice.
Thanks for the detailed information on Golite. I recently ordered a Jam but was wondering what in the heck was going on with the business. It’s nice to know what is going on and I am even more excited about their gear now.
Glad to read more on sustainability and fair rate for labor when it comes to products made in China. Of recent I’ve been trying to buy USA/CANADA-Made because finding the right info on who made the product and under what conditions can be hard to do. I don’t want products made by people who desire to jump from a building in order to escape poor working conditions. That would be a hefty cost I’d be asking someone else to pay just so I could go play outdoors. Just can’t be right. Abandoning Made-in-China doesn’t seem like an answer either though. It looks like Golite is really trying to do some good & hit the nail on the head.
A good product for a decent price is hard to beat but I love that GoLite wants a consumer to have durable gear that is NOT trash too! Don’t throw me out… I agree wholeheartedly.
Thanks for the candid & informative interview, it was well timed. My new GoLite 20 degree quilt is about to embark on it’s maiden voyage outdoors. A backpacking adventure of new gear, skills, mindset & perhaps even some Type II Fun.
Excellent and timely interview. Much respect for the folks at GoLite. A small company that provides quality lightweight gear to the masses certainly has its place.
Good luck to you all!
Thanks to Golite’s new business model and great prices, I was able to buy backpacks and shelters for my scout troop for our High Adventure trek. I don’t think you can find a better quality/price/weight in gear anywhere else.
I had noticed over the last year or so, that GoLite was showing up less and less in local hiking outlets. Now I understand why. Thanks for the excellent interview. It’s fair and comprehensive. You stated right at the beginning how your relationship with the company has evolved, and I think you were very clear, and pointed, in your questions. I’m not sure how anyone could consider it puff, or propaganda. Best wishes to GoLite; I respect a company that considers its bottom line and its customers equally.
Really, really glad to read this. When all the prices dropped to outlet prices last spring I was worried GoLite was clearing out before shutting the doors. I love that the prices are here to stay and that they’re looking to drive innovation. Just as the running community benefited from discovering boating shoes, there’s much cross-pollination to be enjoyed between the backpacking, survivalist, travel, randonree, and extreme packing communities. Here’s to many productive years ahead!
Hi, I read this with great interest. I have always admired Coup for his leadership and business acumen, Ron
Coup’s wearing a Six Month Night parka…
Thanks for answering the questions everyone was wondering about what was going on with Golite. I went full circle with heavy, then ultralight, then light with Golite products. They made the right choice with their business. They helped me by giving me great gear at reasonable prices, and I really like the order of importance in their gear design. I ended up buying several packs, 2 tents, 2 umbrellas and a quilt because of the value was unbeatable. Can’t wait to see the new tents and other products in the future. I believe there is a market for the ion with a front pocket and side pockets among those with ultralite kits that want a more durable pack at a reasonable price.
Andrew, thanks for conducting this interview. As I am not in the retail industry, it is interesting to hear about why and how a company’s decisions are made as they pertain to their bottom line. Sounds like a tough industry but it seems as though they have made intelligent decisions. Also, I heard your talk at the Go Lite store in Colorado Springs and enjoyed it immensely. I have been very impressed with the ultra light concept and have also been impressed with the quality and functionality of Go Lite products. I will continue to spend my dollars at Go Lite.
[…] Andrew Skurka – Interview with GoLite Founder Demetri Coupounas – GoLite, based out of Boulder, CO, has changed their retail model to only sell from their direct stores. The kicker is that their prices are now 50% lower. Demetri talks about this change and the direction GoLite is headed. I visited the local store in Castle Rock last weekend and their new pricing model makes high quality lightweight gear very affordable. […]
Love the transparency in this article. Great interview Andrew. It is wonderful to get an inside look to one of the most admirable clothing and gear companies in the market. I applaud GoLite for their fair prices and quality products. Anyone who is serious about their gear knows that you gotta pay to play. Paying twice a much for similar products is no longer in my vocabulary, but GoLite is. I plan to finish checking off the rest of my gear list with GoLite.
Great interview! I know that since GoLite has made their change and then dropped their prices, people have kept a very close eye on GoLite…it is evident as so many of the items in their online store are sold out…
As much as I don’t need it, I really want to try out one of those Jam 50 packs… and I just got my GoLite Poncho Tarp in the mail the other day (although they were sold out at GoLite, so I found one at another online retail site). It is an awesome piece of gear though! I honestly like it better than I thought I would…
Anyway, I hope the best for Coup and his family, as well as GoLite. (And I hope the prices stay the same… 🙂 )
Its good to read that durability, function and design matter and weight is not the deciding point.
The new business model of selling direct is one that annoys me. Golite is in truth selling to North America while the rest of us pay over the odds.
I am after a Shangri-La 3 at the moment. No longer can you buy this without the inner. So the cost is up. Then it’s selling for $199 on Golite’s sale. Living in the UK I cant buy it.
UK there is limited suppliers now. Cost if I could buy of the website todays exchange rate is £130 Sterling. Plus post and import fees. I reckon no more that £180 sterling.
But to buy in the UK from Golite’s suppliers its £325 sterling. So well done on the idea of selling direct and cutting costs to the buyer. But Golite has annoyed a lot of people with limiting this and making its kit less accessible and more costly to non North American based people.
Hello from Jakarta. Good interview. One favorite gear of mine is still Golite Jam although i have packs from other brands.
Great interview. Now golite just needs to bring back the Breeze.
Congratulations to GoLite on a move that seems to be working for them. It’s not often one gets to listen in on the inner workings of an industry leader like GoLite and Coup. A great interview and article.
I wouldn’t be surprised if once they have the direct model running smoothly, they branch out again to some core stores. Patagonia does it this way.
Their prices can’t be beat and their workmanship on the packs is excellent. Their Jam2 is one of my favorite haulers.
Andrew, thanks for the interesting interview with Coup. I’m a GoLite customer who hasn’t given up on the super-ultralight, Ray-Way style products the company produced in the very beginning. (My go-to multi-day pack is still the Breeze — introduced, I believe, 14 years ago but now long discontinued.) So I’m excited to hear that at least some of those early products, or their later descendants like the Ion pack, might be making a comeback soon. I’d be first in line for a new Ion.
Though I sometimes complain about the (relatively slight) added weight of new products, I understand the direction the company has taken in product design. Getting your pack weight down to 8 or 10 pounds (before food and water) tends to be an expensive proposition — as well as a knowledge-intensive one. Not everybody can afford the lightest sil-nylon or Dyneema gear. Not everybody wants to obsess for weeks and month about the weight of a tarp versus a tent, or the merits of a homemade “catfood” alcohol stove versus a canister one. The current product line is still light — even ultralight in spots — but a lot easier for the casual hiker and camper to use, care for, and understand. At these new price points, GoLite has absolutely killer products (as always) for killer prices (finally). That’s going to be a wildly successful combination going forward.
I expect GoLite’s new business model to be emulated. I expect their more nimble production and marketing to goose the rest of the industry to do the same. So, I wish GoLite the best and will be hanging on their Twitter feed to hear about that new Ion … if and when it finally appears.
(Full disclosure: I was a GoLite product tester for a couple of years, back in the day of the Day and the Breeze super-ultralight packs. As I said, I still prefer that philosophy of gear design. That makes me both a GoLite booster and, at times, a GoLite critic, I guess.)
I love the Go-Lite Shangri-La 2 I bought recently, and am dying to get my hands on Jam pack as soon as they are available again!
After experimenting with used NOLS garage sale brand name tipi style tents I happened across the Hex 3. It became my primary wilderness tent for both my work as a wilderness manager and for personal use. Love the tent because it is so conformable to conditions, fly, fly and floor, fly and nest, or nest alone. On a number of trips I’ve housed two folks and two border collies. At work I would use a poly tarp for a ground sheet; that way the border collie and horse blanket scum would shake out on the ground instead of in the tent while packing up for another day’s journey. Last night I missed a Hex 2 on ebay that went for almost as much as a new ShangriLa3. I sure wish they would make the Hex 2 again. I had a nest cut in half so that I only use one half under the Hex3 fly for less weight during bug season. Can’t say that I have purchased other Golite products, only a number of tents for myself and the wilderness crews. But I check out every Golite email for bargains!
Too bad those “sweetly discounted” prices didn’t last… that $80 pack is now $132.
I have an SL3 and a 1 season quilt…great products. However, the new season stuff has prices that look a lot like the old retail, but without the explanation of middlemen. In addition, Go Lite doesn’t ship outside the US/Canada…oddly enough there actually is quite a bit of the world out there. Retailers helped to distribute it. I’m a semi-happy customer; the products are great but I can no longer buy them because I’m outside the US, and probably couldn’t afford the new pricing model anyway. I’m not convinced that the replies here really explained the company’s position in an up front kind of way. We’ll see.
I’m sure that GoLite is disappointed that it currently is unable to service international customers. However, it had to make a choice: survive by selling direct to consumer, or die by trying to keep being a wholesaler. From their perspective, I hope you understand their decision.
Where are your products made? its made in china is a legit golite products?