Outdoor Tech Founder Caro Krissman On Expanding In Different Markets & Product Categories
Outdoor Tech got its start in in 2009, when Founder Caro Krissman decided to address the issue of blending a modern lifestyle in the age of mobile technology with the drive to be outdoors. Growing up as a self-proclaimed gadget nerd, the Los Angeles native and entrepreneur wanted to create a brand that encapsulated his love for the city but with an outdoor focus, and one that placed emphasis on his passion for sleekly designed tech products. At the time, Krissman was running another company, and was still dialing in his product, while trying to create a balance with a start-up—something easier said than done.
“I thought there would be a market for it and we could have a lot of fun building it,” he says of Outdoor Tech’s inception. “It was a grind because I had another company that I was running and draining the cash from that business to put into ODT. It's hard work and quite expensive to build a consumer brand—the hard work I anticipated; the money needed, not so much. I have had to push my chips all in on a number of occasions for the brand, but I don't regret any of it.”
The big break for Outdoor Tech seemed to happen in 2013, when the brand introduced its universal, fully wireless CHIPS for ski and snowboard helmets, teaming up with Bern to push the product’s exposure within the snow industry. The concept for CHIPS has become a part of the brand’s mission to create tech products that allow people to stay connected but not tethered to modern technology. Since then, Krissman sold his other business and is focusing solely on growing Outdoor Tech’s diverse product offering. The brand seems well set up for growth, since it hasn’t pigeonholed itself into one particular category or market.
“We are firmly entrenched in wireless audio and have the most expansive line of it in the world, but our brand is product agnostic and we are expanding in other areas,” says Krissman. “The most recent and logical is portable power. We recently launched a fully waterproof power bank called the Kodiak. Everything draws power and we need power products that fit our lifestyle: the Kodiak will charge a GoPro 7X and not fry out when it gets wet.”
This type of forward-thinking has led to Outdoor Tech being picked up by a range of retailers from Tilly’s and Burton flagship stores, to REI. We caught up with Krissman to learn more about his strategy for growing the company in the near future.
How did you get the idea for it, when, and how long did it take for you to bring that idea to the market?
The idea was something that developed over years. I was doing contract manufacturing for other people and with compressing margins and the advent of Alibaba, I didn't believe that I could continue to thrive in that business. You are also very limited in your creative license with contract work. I diverted a portion of the resources from my other business to get Outdoor Tech off the ground. I thought it would take a year for it to be self-sustaining and to bring ODT to retail in a meaningful way, but it ended up taking closer to three years and bringing in some outside capital to help pour a little gas on the fire.
Who else was on board in helping get OT off the ground?
My wife helped quite a bit for the first 12 months, I hired a young designer straight out of college, and leveraged resources from my old company for things like rent, warehousing and fulfillment, logistics, and of course funds. A friend of mine from Boulder was on board for a stint early on to focus on sales, while I was focused on product roadmap, development and marketing, and still running the other business. The majority of the team we have in place now was assembled from the summer of 2012 to date. I couldn't be more stoked with the group we have: Adam Janecka our VP of Sales, Bobby Ali our VP of International, Marc Ogawa our Operations Manager, Taylor Toussaint our Director of Digital, and Charlie Gugliuzza our COO are the core of the team, and all guys I love to be around, work our asses off together and party with.
What was the first product you started with, and how has the brand evolved since then?
We started with a smorgasbord of accessories. We didn't know what we were doing, we didn't understand the market, and I just wanted to crack into the scene and learn. We had the Boom Beanie® (beanie with built in speakers), we had the foldable paper speakers (we were STOKED when Dick's Sporting Goods picked them up as a GWP for backpacks over $50), and of course The Yowie®, which we still have in our line and has been the best selling face mask in the snow industry for the last several years and while not core to the brand any longer, was a great method of getting our brand in front of tens of thousands of young, dedicated, hard core fans of the brand.
Tell us a little about your background before you started Outdoor Tech. Do you have roots in action sports?
Not really, other than being a lifelong skier and having a love for Ketchum, Idaho, but I never worked in the industry before this. I was in the promotional marketing business doing contract manufacturing for hundreds of companies from State-Farm (container loads of coffee mugs monthly) to tech accessories for HP (mice, USB Hub, retractable cables, stuff like that). I set-up rep offices in China, traveled to about 1000 factories over a decade, and learned the ins and outs of product development, logistics and compliance. I grew that business quickly, we were on the Inc. 500 list in 2008, and I was making really good money but I didn't love what I was doing. I wanted to build Outdoor Tech.
What are the details behind some of the other businesses you’ve started and how it led you to where you are today?
I have been an entrepreneur most of my life, even as a kid when I figured out selling fireworks and switch blades (essentially being an arms dealer) was lucrative and more fun than my other job working at Baskin Robbins. In college I started Total Authority, a sports touting website and had a modicum of success with it until we got a cease and desist from the Sports Authority saying we were defaming their name and decided to hang it up. Ironically, they have been a high target retailer for us and just signed them up for next season for CHIPS! After college I worked for a Chinese firm learning customs brokerage and logistics, and then started Source Abroad which we grew quickly and was absolutely a catalyst to Outdoor Tech. I sold Source Abroad at the end of 2013, but had hired a management team at the beginning of 2012 to run it and had been uninvolved day to day with the business for about 2 years prior to its sale.
When was the moment that you realized Outdoor Tech was gaining momentum and had caught on with the target market you were hoping it would?
Not sure if there was any singular moment. It still happens now … I see a car with our sticker on it, I see someone wearing our headphones in the airport, etc. I recently had knee reconstruction from a ski injury earlier this year and my Physical Therapist told me he was a fan of my brand and sees us in Outside Magazine all the time, so I knew he wasn't full of shit. Stuff like that is really cool. We were on The Today Show earlier this year which was cool, we recently launched with REI and are selling through really well, we are in the Burton flagship stores which while isn't in the top 25 from a sales perspective I feel pretty damn good about … those are a few.
What does your retail base look like as far as regions/countries, and number/type of doors? Is this where you’d like it to be, or do you have plans to further grow distribution?
We are still in a hyper growth stage right now. We tripled sales last year, we are going to at least double again this year, and we forecast that steep growth curve to continue into 2015 and 2016. So to answer your last question first, we absolutely have strong growth plans both in new channels, new countries and new product categories. Today our retail base is diverse amongst approximately 1,500 US and Canadian doors. Some of the marquee retailers in the US are REI, DSG, TSA, West Marine, all the SSV owned doors, Sport Chalet, Tilly's, Quiksilver, Urban, Burton Flagships. In Canada we have Indigo, London Drugs, MEC, and FGL. From a channel perspective, we are killing it in independent Bike and Snow doors, making strong headway in Surf and Skate doors, and will be doing our first Surf Expo this year.
The pure outdoor channel—Backwoods, REI and the like— is growing quickly and the lifestyle doors are coming on board now as well. The core e-commerce players do really well with us and we keep MAP pricing very clean for them: Backcountry, Evo and Moosejaw are all doing great. We have plans to expand into 3-4 new channels in the next 12 months, none of which include mass [retail]. Internationally we are in most major markets, and since bringing on Bobby Ali to head international sales we have more than doubled that business in 8 months. We are signed with big time players in many markets including UK, France, Germany, Gulf Coast Countries, Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Australia, New Zealand, S. Africa, Korea, Japan and more coming on board monthly.
Where are you headquartered? What’s the office like as far as day-to-day operations, atmosphere, etc. Do you make any of your product in house or is it through a production facility?
We are headquartered in Mid-City Los Angeles on Pico Blvd just east of Fairfax. The neighborhood is rad, and changing quickly with a ton of cool food options walking distance. It has a great vibe. We have a good time at the office, but everyone is really focused and we are so busy most of the company culture team building stuff happens after work. We like to hang out together after hours. We also have a small satellite location in Irvine where Bobby, Taylor, and Charlie work. We do design work in house, but production is not done in house.
If you had to describe Outdoor Tech’s mission statement in a sentence, what would it be? Why do you think this mission statement is the path to the brand’s success?
Be stylized, seasoned, clever, honest, and make Stuff You Probably Want™. We don't take ourselves super seriously; we like to have fun with our marketing and copy. We think if you follow those tenants and really focus on making stuff people probably want, the brand will grow.
It seems like Outdoor Tech has seen some growth over the last year. What has been the driving factor behind this growth and brand awareness?
We [myself and my investment partner] put some capital into the business, which we needed from a working capital perspective. We needed more inventory (we were always out of stock), we needed another customer service person to make sure we gave the best customer experience, we needed to grow our design team … all of these things required cash and that gave us a little relief. I also think things take time to seed with consumers. They need to see the brand enough times and then decide they are going to adopt. You just need to stick that out, almost like paying your dues. You can't just jump on the scene one day and bam, you're a rock star. You build a rock star team, surround it with sick product and marketing that resonates with our demo, keep grinding, get a little lucky, and it happens.
I noticed you have a solid team of surfers, skaters, and snowboarders. How long have you been building these teams and how do you hope to continue to grow this program?
From day one, it started in snow and evolved from there. We are getting higher caliber of athletes on the team and that's further validation that they want to associate with the brand. Our paid team is tiny, a couple guys, but the flow program is in full effect and we do our best to support the team in non-monetary ways and will continue to grow that. We also just brought on our first NBA guy and have a woman's pro-volleyball team coming on board —they loved the Big Turtle Shell.
What other ways is Outdoor Tech looking to give back to the core of the industry?
We support High Fives foundation, we have supported Reno Bike Project and Boise Bike Project, we have been involved with Quiksilver's golf event as a sponsor. I believe in philanthropy and find various causes I believe in to give to personally and have always brought that mantra to business as well. We gave back from $1 when everything was a loss, so we are committed to staying involved to the extent that's healthy for us to do so.
Where do you see the overall state of the market headed? What’s the future look like for brands and retailers?
The power of a brand is a real thing, that will never change. What brands look like might. What retailers look like will change because the experience has to continue to improve: e-commerce has forced B&M to up their game. Some have responded well and thrived, and some have gone the way of the pay phone. We ALL have to do more than move units. The interaction between the brands' marketing teams and the retailers need to be tighter and tighter. We want to help provide the coolest experience possible for the customers walking into these doors, regardless of it being ZJ's or Sport Chalet.