The Rise of the Outdoor Industry’s Most Powerful Marketing Firm

The Rise of the Outdoor Industry’s Most Powerful Marketing Firm
The Rise of the Outdoor Industry’s Most Powerful Marketing Firm

The good blue sky turned a glowing white as snow packed round Penn Newhard’s head. Entombed in ice, he might wiggle his toes in his boots and fingers in his gloves, however in any other case was locked in a seated place as snow continued to crush down on high of him. Waves of claustrophobia spiked his coronary heart fee. He knew he needed to settle down and management his respiratory.
Anyone accustomed to avalanche search-and-rescue will likely be accustomed to the situation. It’s excessive on the listing of horrors for backcountry skiers and mountaineers who commonly deal with the hazard of slides. But Newhard hadn’t been caught accidentally on that spring day; he’d been buried by alternative.
This was 1999, and Newhard’s upstart public relations firm, Backbone Media, had landed its first huge consumer: Black Diamond. Newhard and his companion, Nate Simmons, had been tasked with selling Black Diamond’s latest piece of avalanche survival gear, the Avalung—a snorkel-like gadget that pulls oxygen from snow and permits an individual to breathe totally buried for an hour.
“If we had been going to be promoting this piece of gear, we needed to point out that it labored,” Newhard mentioned. “Several of the Black Diamond staff had misplaced buddies in avalanches, so this was a deeply private mission for all of us. We felt like we had been unlocking new territory that would save lives.”
So, on a transparent day at Utah’s Snowbird Ski Resort, Newhard, Simmons, and their staff dug a deep pit in the snow at the base of the mountain, and Newhard lowered himself in. Snow wasn’t simply shoveled over him—it was packed tight round his head and physique as he breathed by way of the Avalung. Doctors on website monitored his CO2 ranges and very important indicators as he bought his respiratory below management. Through goggles, he might see nothing however white, slashed by the occasional shadow of somebody strolling on the floor above.
From then on, Newhard determined, he and Simmons would solely rep merchandise they each trusted, typically fairly actually, with their lives.
Twenty-five years after its founding in Carbondale, Colorado, Backbone Media is, by far, the largest and most influential advertising firm in the out of doors house. The company doesn’t even name itself a PR agency anymore, as a result of its work has expanded to incorporate media planning and shopping for, online marketing, search engine optimisation technique, social-media administration, and plenty of different companies. The firm now serves greater than 100 out of doors gear and life-style manufacturers, from Smartwool to Thule to Eddie Bauer. It’s credited with serving to develop manufacturers similar to Yeti from area of interest startups into mainstream smashes.
But it didn’t turn out to be this profitable accidentally. Growing right into a powerhouse required years of cautious choices and exhausting work, beginning with these early burials.
The First Big Break
Depending in your level of view, it’s both remarkably unlikely—or no shock in any respect—that the strongest media company in the out of doors trade was created by a pair of guys who began their careers in enterprise and finance, bought sick of it, and struck out on their very own (with little expertise and no cash) to attempt one thing new.
The story begins in the 250-square-foot basement of Peppino’s Pizza in Carbondale, with a pair of Walmart telephones and a fax machine.
Newhard had an enormous resolution to make in 1997 when his former employer, Climbing journal (later bought by Outside Inc. in 2021), was bought to a big writer. Newhard had labored as director of promoting alongside his colleague Lisa Raleigh at Climbing, and neither needed to stay round after the acquisition.
“Lisa had labored for Shell Oil as a hydrologist, and I had labored on Wall Street, so we knew what the company world was like,” Newhard mentioned. “We had been each fairly anti-corporate. We had been kicking round this concept of beginning a public relations firm, however I used to be fairly nervous.”
Newhard defined to Raleigh that he and his spouse had simply had a child, and he wanted the safety of a gradual paycheck and medical insurance.
“Lisa checked out me and mentioned, ‘C’mon, noodle boy, get a spine,’ and I believed that may make an incredible identify,” he mentioned. “Maybe I’m only a sucker for a private problem or being insulted, however…the thought gelled and we determined to go for it.”
Penn Newhard (rear) and Backbone media strategist Kenzie Genest climbing in Moab (Photo: Backbone Media)
Using the contacts that they had made at Climbing, they began reaching out to out of doors gear corporations. One of their first purchasers was Bibler, which made tents for Black Diamond. That connection led to touchdown Black Diamond itself as a consumer, and the cash from that account was sufficient to convey on their first worker. That’s when Nate Simmons, the firm’s present CEO, got here into the image.
Simmons had simply graduated from an MBA program in France, and was in search of a job in the U.S. out of doors house, however was assembly with resistance. “I actually needed a job in the out of doors trade, however satirically, having an MBA was a detriment,” Simmons mentioned. “It was seen as too company. Outdoor corporations needed to find out about first ascents and epic adventures, not lame enterprise colleges.”
Simmons discovered about Backbone by way of his roommate, who was Newhard’s cousin. Emails had been exchanged, and shortly Simmons was figuring out of the Backbone workplace in the pizza store basement, being paid a variable wage month-to-month, primarily based on how properly the enterprise did.
“After the first month, Penn mentioned he might pay me $1,000. It was greater than he [Newhard] was going to take residence, however I used to be in,” Simmons mentioned.
With the Black Diamond account secured and Simmons on board, the firm was rolling.
Two Steps Forward…
Backbone’s subsequent huge break was a contract with Polartec, which the firm first invoiced in late 1999.
“We had completed some work for Bibler, which laddered up into work with Black Diamond,” mentioned Simmons. “We had been a bit of bit confirmed. Still, it was in all probability a very daring and scary transfer for the advertising individuals [at Polartec] who selected to rent us at the moment. We had been a excessive threat.”
But the dangers, at the least for these first years, simply saved paying off. The subsequent contract was a small upstart out of Steamboat Springs, Big Agnes, which signed on with Backbone in 2000. The firm would go on to turn out to be one of the powerhouses in the sleeping bag, pad, and tent markets, however at the moment, it was so small that Newhard and Simmons needed to drive out personally to fulfill the model’s founder, Bill Gamber, alongside the freeway between Carbondale and Steamboat so they might see and contact the firm’s merchandise.
All was properly—with income rising quick—till November 2001. That’s when Malden Mills, then the guardian firm of Polartec, declared chapter. Some of the checks it had despatched to Backbone had been returned for inadequate funds. At the time, the account represented about 40 p.c of Backbone’s enterprise.
But moderately than ditch Polartec totally, Backbone caught with them by way of the chapter, which they ultimately pulled out of. Because Polartec is an ingredient model, Backbone’s work for them concerned lots of coordination with different vital manufacturers in the out of doors house—a life raft, it turned out, as the Newhard and Simmons scrambled to make ends meet with practically half of their enterprise gone in a single day.
“The work we did with Polartec…we had been advertising their new merchandise by way of all their companions,” mentioned Newhard. “They had an unbelievable Rolodex of all the finest manufacturers in the trade. We had been displaying new Polartec merchandise from Arc’teryx, Marmot, Mountain Headwear, The North Face, Eddie Bauer, and Cabela’s.”
Nate Simmons, now the firm’s co-CEO, on a float journey (Photo: Backbone Media)
Those relationships helped maintain the firm afloat, however it wasn’t the finish of their difficulties. Raleigh left the firm in 2003. And it wasn’t till 2005, when Backbone employed Greg Williams, one of Newhard’s previous colleagues at Climbing, that the company made its first foray into a brand new supply of income that may show key for the future: media shopping for.
“Greg in a short time began championing the want for us so as to add media planning and shopping for companies,” mentioned Simmons. “We determined to go for it, and it’s now grown into 45 p.c of our enterprise. It was one thing that actually fueled the development of our company.”
An Object in Motion
After that, it was off to the races. By 2007 the firm had landed Sitka and Simms, getting the consideration of different searching and fishing manufacturers. In 2008, the company began media planning and shopping for for the brewing firm New Belgium. By 2010, they had been working with Eddie Bauer on the launch of the attire firm’s First Ascent assortment.
Then got here 2013, when a sure cooler firm primarily based in Texas reached out, asking for assist with the launch of its new drinkware and soft-side collections.
“I want we might take credit score for Yeti’s insane rocket ship journey,” Simmons mentioned, including that, although the model was based in 2006, it nonetheless retained its startup really feel by the time Backbone bought concerned. “We simply went together with the journey and it’s been wonderful.”
Simmons mentioned that whereas “one hundred pc” of Yeti’s meteoric success might be attributed to the instincts of founders Roy and Ryan Seiders, Backbone did introduce them to Corey Maynard, who would turn out to be Yeti’s VP of advertising at a important time.
“I believe Corey performed an enormous position in the genesis of the neighborhood and content material method, so perhaps there have been moments we will take credit score for, however that was simply lightning in a bottle,” Newhard mentioned. “Yeti’s success was actually good for our enterprise. But when individuals ask if we will do for his or her firm what occurred for Yeti, we at all times say, ‘No guarantees.’”
The Pandemic Hits
Like so many others, Backbone took successful to their backside line in March 2020 as COVID shut down the nation and the world. “We had been getting fired day by day in early 2020,” Simmons mentioned. “Every time we picked up the cellphone, it was a punch.”
If Newhard and Simmons had operated in every other trade, there’s no telling what might need occurred, however the pandemic was unusually sort on the out of doors house. It wasn’t lengthy earlier than Backbone’s enterprise got here roaring again, after which some. The firm went into 2020 with about 60 staff; as we speak it has 130 and remains to be hiring.
In 25 years, Backbone’s staff has grown from two individuals in a basement to 130 staff unfold throughout 14 states. Here, the firm gathers in Moab. (Photo: Backbone Media)
Backbone now has two places of work, in Carbondale and Denver, with distant employees in 14 states. It introduced in September that Williams—the early champion of the firm’s media-buying efforts—is being promoted from vice chairman to president, with Simmons and Newhard now sharing the CEO title. It’s a logical subsequent step for the firm, Simmons and Newhard mentioned, as Williams already manages over $75 million every year in promoting purchases for the firm, together with digital, social, influencer, SEM/search engine optimisation, affiliate, and analytics.
“We’re not a PR agency at this level,” Simmons mentioned. “We have diversified our enterprise. PR is lower than half our income. We proceed to develop our media shopping for, social administration, affiliate gross sales, and search engine optimisation and SEM companies. If a consumer wants one thing we’re new to, we will now rent somebody with that talent to do it. We simply attempt to learn the river and determine it out.”
The Next 25 Years
Ultimately, for all of its strategic strikes and luck over the years, Backbone’s founders say the firm’s success is especially as a consequence of their genuine love of the open air. It has earned them no scarcity of respect in the house.
“I’ve identified Penn and Nate earlier than they began Backbone, they usually’re simply nice guys,” mentioned Rick Saez, who began one of the trade’s hottest podcasts, the Outdoor Biz Podcast, in 2017. “They’ve at all times been about telling good, correct tales and sustaining high quality and integrity in the out of doors house. They have a pleasant quiver of manufacturers and have been an actual asset in educating prospects about these manufacturers and the open air typically.”
As for Newhard and Simmons, they’re proud of how far they’ve come, however they’re not pausing too lengthy to have a good time their quarter-century of success in the market.
“We’re not nice at trying again,” mentioned Newhard. “It’s like being in the open air. You draw on previous experiences and challenges to maneuver ahead. But questioning what’s round the nook is what retains us engaged.”

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About the Author: Amanda