I have worked in the outdoor industry for thirty-five years. “Outdoor industry” refers to those businesses and organizations that revolve around and support mountaineering, hiking, climbing, backcountry skiing, mountain biking, trail running, whitewater paddling and related non-motorized, non-lethal wilderness pursuits. In all these years, we’ve never been able to describe what we do for the uninitiated in less words. A marketing dilemma.
In the sixties, we began as avocationalists: None of us planned nor wanted to be business-people. We wanted to climb and hike and savor the solitude and spiritual healing of the wilderness. Our little secret. I was drawn more to Gary Snyder and Thomas Merton than Thomas Watson.
But we needed to make a living. What resulted was The Ski Hut in Berkeley, Sierra West, Rivendell Mountain Works, Class Five, Trailwise, Powederhorn, and the ones that survived: The North Face, Sierra Designs and Marmot Mountain Works, among many others.
More recently, we have been invaded by “the street” and private equity. Pirates of the Sierra Nevada and Raiders of the Front Range. Smart guys with three-capital-letter degrees wanting to cash in on what these mouth-breathing knuckle-dragger hippies built, without having to actually sleep on the ground or rope up.
We all exist in this new world now, like the local Shanghai Chinese in the 1800’s, occupied by a disrespectful, racist and extractive western population of liars and crooks and thieves. Jardines and Matheson and the Sassoon family pumping opium into China while sipping Chinese tea they rebranded as “English” back home with the elite.
We Shanghaiers huddle in small groups, eyes averted, using a language and shared history foreign to our occupiers. They struggle to understand our words and strange gestures. We shuffle and defer, our secrets safely hidden under layers of fleece and Gore-Tex.
I looked around this morning at the Outdoor Industry Association breakfast and I saw you, and I smiled and felt at home. Despite the fact you are an unruly bunch of lunatics, dreamers, eccentrics, artists, adventurers and renegades, I felt a surge of pride and protectiveness, honored to be one of you, happy to be among you, my tribe.
Years ago, we created the foundation for this industry that has sustained us, helped us give back to our communities and our natural world, and taught us about ourselves, our businesses and our responsibilities. It has been more fun than should ever be possible with your clothes on.
When we began, we were amateurs. But that never stopped us. As we all do in the wilderness, we relied on our wits, our guts, our native intelligence and each other to create an industry, a livelihood and a network of ethical and responsible corporate citizens.
Human-to-human connection is the real “value add”, Carr Hagerman said this morning at the breakfast. When my face and my customers face open to each other is when human energy is exchanged and the world becomes a different, better place. And, Carr suggested, this is also when we stand a better chance of being successful.
We’ve had to bring more science to our work in recent years, but the art and the heart and the adventure are still there, still the soul of our business. Our business has always turned on passion, energy and creativity. We were never “in the box”. The science of business has surely helped us grow, but it has not and never should replace our wild side.
During every industry event, on the show floor, in the hotel lobbies and restaurants, and in those times after midnight when we hope no one has a camera, I see you. I see my tribe. I belong and you belong and we belong together. While we are here to do business, I cannot resist this warmth and swelling in my heart, for you and for our shared history and for the wonderful business we created together.
We’ve been together, in some cases, for over thirty years. We grew up (and out) together, seen each other in those all too rare flashes of brilliance and notoriety, and counseled each other through the occasional moments of pain and indecision. Like a tribe, we have a strong level of trust and familiarity with one another. We’ve seen each other weak and strong, wise and foolish, successful and groveling in failure.
What we have together cannot be captured in a deck of slides or in a business plan. It cannot be quantified, optimized, made more efficient or replaced.
When we meet, we hug and we tell each other our stories. Story-telling is how we stay a tribe, how we remember and how we pass along our wisdom to those who are coming behind us. “Remember that time in Reno when you forgot to close the doors on your U-Haul and your booth fell out onto I-80?”
It isn’t a cliché that people are the real enterprise value within our companies. But this gets over-looked and can be under-valued. Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t let that happen to us.
For some time now, others have wanted a piece of us, have wanted to tap into, capitalize upon or leverage what we have. It’s not that easy. Tribes take patience, an open mind and a warm heart. Others can participate. We love newcomers. They can come in. They can learn and they can belong. But this all takes time and they cannot take this from us, like New World plunder.
As we walk through these intense days of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market I will look for you and remember who you are and why I so love what I do.
You are my tribe.
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