Unless you read outdoor industry press releases or saw me last month at the Outdoor Retailer tradeshow in Salt Lake City, you probably missed the news that I’ve partnered with Sierra Designs. This is not a new relationship, as I’ve been consulting for them on-and-off since 2012, but starting this year I will take on a greater public profile with the brand.
This is not a “sponsorship,” whereby Sierra Designs would support me doing what I do best — adventuring. To the contrary, I’ll be compensated for more conventional work, like any other independent contractor who has unique services or experiences to offer an organization. In fact, I’m not sure that Sierra Designs has even asked what I have planned for this year.
My primary duties are split between product development and marketing. With product, I will help shape the initial line architecture, and then have a big role in product testing before an item goes into production. Currently, my biggest projects are a new backpack and a new shelter, both of which I’m hoping will be available this time next year. I have a few clothing projects too, including rain gear and trekking pants. These won’t be “signature series” products, but it’s probable that my involvement will be part of the product story.
With marketing, I think SD’s intention is to inject additional personality and credibility into the brand, and help it engage more deeply with customers. It’s not a faceless organization, but a small team of passionate individuals like Michael Glavin, Jim Trombley, and Casey Sumnicht. Next week is my first public appearance — Glavin and I are hosting a two-part live online event about shelters on Thursday, February 19th at 11 AM and 1:30 PM PST. Please join us!
Why Sierra Designs?
Before addressing that question, let me first explain my motivations for a partnership at all. It’s a common misunderstanding among athletes in niche sports — e.g. backpacking, trail running, skiing, and probably a lot of non-outdoor niche sports too — that “sponsorship” is the golden ticket.
Early in my career, I also thought this was the case. But the truth is that while athletes with huge public profiles like Kilian Jornet, Anton Krupicka, and Cameron Hanes can probably support a normal lifestyle (e.g. home ownership, children, calories of higher quality than ramen and peanut butter) based on sponsorships alone, the rest of us will probably earn more income and have more free time by developing real products and/or services for which there will be a demand. In my case, I stopped chasing sponsorship dollars — which I realized to be limited, unreliable, and below-market once my time was accounted for — and instead wrote a book, started a guiding service, scheduled speaking events, and monetized my website.
My hard work has paid dividends, but going it alone has not been flawless. Specifically, I’ve stressed my home life by traveling extensively for business; I’ve had no help in amplifying my “brand” or anything that I do; and my influence on backpacking product and culture has been limited by the size of my own public channels. Enter Sierra Designs.
But I would not have been willing to settle with just any brand. Many things drew me to SD:
1. They were excited to work with me and knew exactly how they would utilize me.
2. I like working with them. They are friendly, competent, and fun.
3. It’s a 50-year-old brand with worldwide recognition.
4. It feels more like a 3-year-old startup. Everyone on the team is new, and there is no “this is the way we have always done it” attitude. This fresh approach has led to innovative designs like the Backcountry Bed, Tentsegrity shelters, and Cagoule Jacket & Rain Chaps.
5. They are based in Boulder, which will make it easier for me to form relationships and create my position in the brand. Also, business travel on behalf of SD will be minimal.
6. Among the wholesale manufacturers — i.e. those you will find at retailers like REI, Backcountry, and CampSaver — that design backpacking clothing and equipment, Sierra Designs is one of the few that proudly describes itself as a backpacking-focused company. In contrast, many of the “mountain” brands seem to think that backpacking is below them. (And this attitude shows in their product — it’s like they still think it’s 1985!) In this sense, SD shares the same passion for backpacking with cottage companies like ULA Equipment and Mountain Laurel Designs — but it has wider distribution, more influence, and better brand recognition.
Have I sold out?
Absolutely not. Sierra Designs has been adamant that I continue to do what I’m doing and to be who I am. My authenticity and credibility were huge attractions for them, and they are the pillars of my long-term value, for them and for me. If SD simply wished me to be their marketing whore, I never would have agreed to it. If we maximize the potential of our relationship, the only difference you will see will be better, more innovative backpacking clothing equipment at your local retailer — with a Sierra Designs hangtag on it.