Five Insights from Greg Thomsen, Renowned Founder and Mountaineer.
My conversation with legendary designer and creative entrepreneur Greg Thomsen about his track record in building outdoor recreation companies began on-point:
This is how I started: I was a climber.
In 1970 Greg Thomsen came back from an expedition to Mt. Everest and realized he needed a job. Being an avid outdoorsman and mountaineer, he looked for a job that would allow him to head into the Sierras whenever possible. He took a job with The Mountain Store, a small local shop, and enjoyed spending every day talking with customers and hearing their ideas, complaints, and suggestions for products they wish they could find but didn’t yet exist.
#1 Talk to Customers Every, Single Day.
Greg explained it this way: “The most important thing, I must say, when we started out, was, I was talking to customers every day who would complain about what they couldn’t find. ‘Oh, I wish I could get a sleeping that was lighter…’ or ‘I wish I could get a pack that wasn’t so bulky…’ so I was able to take all that information and start designing products that could be used by these people and that we could supply. There was clearly a need in the market.”
At the same time he was working in the Mountain Shop, Greg and his brother, Jim, along with Jim’s wife, Laurie, launched a guide service to take underprivileged youth from downtown Los Angeles into the Sierras. Wilderness Experience Guides scratched the itch they had to share their love of mountaineering with a next generation of climbers. And it paid the bills while the brothers were starting their first company. After spending a year or so listening to customers share wants and needs, Greg and Jim decided to launch an outdoor company.
#2 Learn Your Industry Step by Step.
In 1973 Greg bought two yards of pack material and rented a sewing machine. The first weekend with the sewing machine he took it completely apart so he could “understand how it makes the little knot”. By morning Greg realized he was not going to be able to put the machine back together. Fortunately, the sewing machine shop owner laughed and shook his head at Greg’s curiosity. Greg says the early days of “learning step by step — how to draw designs, how to cut, how to sew — all the operational side of it” would later be the foundation of his success.
The brothers’ next step was to set up a small factory shop. With a few hundred dollars, some sketches and several bolts of pack fabric they began making packs. They didn’t have a name for their fledgling company so they just took a few labels off the jackets the Wilderness Experiences guides wore and sewed them onto the packs they were making. And that’s how Wilderness Experience was born.
Greg describes the journey of building Wilderness Experiences was “a dream come true in many ways”. They designed and built products that were beloved by mountaineers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts alike. In 1974 they worked with conservationist Kris McDivitt, who was at that time was a manager at Patagonia, to design a catalogue that would inspire customers to head for the peaks — while using their gear. Their catalogues were not simply lists of products but instead were colorful stories of customers using their products, bringing to life the functionality, dependability, and elegant design of the gear. The tone and feeling of the company was adventuresome and unique.
#3 Partnerships Matter. Take a Lot of People to the Top.
By 1977 Wilderness Experiences had expanded their production overseas, taking advantage of manufacturing systems and expertise that allowed the small company to scale and add more products and categories. One of the first gear companies to work with Gore-Tex, they launched products that were specially designed for cold-weather, rain, and snow. By 1980 they had 250 employees, three factories, and were making both consumer products and expedition-quality gear like the Everest Expedition Suit. Working in partnership with Du Pont Company and Gore-tex they outfitted the famed American Everest West Expedition to climb Mount Everest from the western approach without oxygen or the support of Sherpas. “We were an avenue for [Gore-Tex, Du Pont] to get their products on top of the biggest mountains in the world. We took a lot of people to the very top” recalled Greg, with a note of satisfaction for playing part of the success of other outdoor companies.
At that time The North Face was their biggest competitor and while the market wasn’t crowded, it was growing. “We had taken a startup business with no money as far as we could and we knew we would need to capitalize it to grow.” In 1981 Greg and Jim began planning for an Initial Public Offering (IPO) to raise the capital they needed. Greg explained, “The problem was, no other outdoor gear company had gone public at that time.” But Nike, the successful sporting goods brand, had gone public the year prior and provided Jim and Greg a roadmap for how to write up the documents for an IPO. In 1982 Wilderness Experience was offered in a successful public offering.
After several years, in 1986 Greg decided to depart the company, sell his ownership and take time off for climbing and family. He was surprised in 1988 when Phil Knight, Founder and CEO of Nike, tracked him down in a hotel. “I guess Phil had followed our IPO. I knew who he was; I surprised he knew who I was. He asked me if I would be willing to talk about starting Nike’s outdoor division.”
Greg flew to Portland the next day.
#4 Stop Making and Start Marketing.
Greg spent the next few days in conversation with Mr. Knight and the Nike team. “I tried to talk Phil out of starting his own line and instead buy The North Face — it was for sale at that time.” In the end, however, they decided to launch All Conditions Gear — known as ACG. Despite Nike’s dominant position in shoes, “At the time Nike’s apparel line was primarily t-shirts with a logo” leaving Greg to launch the outdoor line entirely from scratch. Greg explained that “Nothing in the Nike product line, at that time, was considered “performance apparel” or “performance gear” and his intuition was to lean toward making technologically advanced apparel for the athletic consumer. After the launch of ACG, Greg started in on the rest of the categories. “We started making more technical running apparel, Fitness wear, and unique tennis apparel.”
The ACG brand still remains strong after 32 years!
Given Nike’s incredible success making and marketing shoes the challenge for Greg was to sell apparel that stood on its own, apart from the shoes. The focus on technical apparel helped, so did ad campaigns that featured Andre Agassi, the famed tennis pro. But the ads were designed with a specific perspective: “At the time they were the only Nike ads where the shoes didn’t show. My job was to put the focus on the apparel.” The ads were an enormous success and, within a year, Nike apparel sales had skyrocketed.
Greg’s time at Nike taught him that his natural approach to developing and marketing products was perhaps flawed. “The way I had done it was, focus on creating a product that’s needed, that really works and is good looking. But then don’t really tell people about it. Let word-of-mouth sell it. Nike’s approach was to focus on selling products, marketing the product, making people want to buy it. And, yes, combine it with a good product. But put more effort into selling the product and making sure people want to buy the product.”
Learning this at Nike ignited Greg’s interest in helping outdoor companies rethink their approach to the entire process of designing, manufacturing, and marketing products. A new vision for a company began to take shape.
#5 Get Started. You Gotta Get Take those First Steps to Get to the View from the Top.
After leaving Nike, Greg started a new venture, American Sports Group, a service firm providing outdoor companies including REI, The North Face, JanSport, Camelback, and many others, a complete service package that helped them design, prototype, and manufacture complementary product lines. “We changed entire companies through making everything — design to finished product — easier. When we started working with JanSport, they were creating and manufacturing everything in Everett, Washington. The company went from being a $20 million annual revenues company to a $150 million company with this expanded design and sourcing processes.”
The Group was so successful it allowed them to start buying other outdoor brands like Mountainsmith and 105 Meridien, and starting new Brands like Detour Bike Gear and Youngstown Gloves. Greg credited this design success with his humble beginnings: “I was always thinking about designs, more from the point of the person sewing it — than as a hard goods designer.” This in-depth knowledge enabled Greg to draw product concepts that a seamstress could put together in less time and with greater precision. His processes were so effective that at one point 7 out of JanSports’ top 10 selling backpacks were his designs.
By 2008 Greg had grown ready to move on and he and his wife (literally) woke up one day and decided to sell all of their belongings and head for the hills. They took their youngest daughter out of school, age 11, and spent a year traveling around the World, climbing and home schooling the 6th grader. After two years of living like a nomad, adidas called. In 2010, his next adventure was to launch Adidas Outdoor, taking the German brand into the enormously competitive US outdoor market, the industry that he had helped build starting 40 years earlier with a simple backpack and a little label, Wilderness Experience.