If you’re into outdoor sports, you’re probably more familiar with Outdoor Tech than you know. If you’re not wearing or using something of theirs, you’re paying too much at Eddie Bauer or, worse, using a knockoff. Their cool merchandising catchphrase ‘Stuff You Probably Want®’ is all over. Represented at REI, Sports Authority, Nordstrom, Quicksilver and West Marine, to name just a few brands, it’s got a really good price point and is designed and built for durability. No small thing these days. While it is a relative newbie to the CES game, people seem to be into it.
New products were premiered at the CES 2015 and their charmer of a CEO, Caro Krissman, happily shared them with me. Most impressive was the Buckshot Pro, a portable rugged speaker that has a passive bass port for bigger sound, plus a 2600mAh power bank for charging devices, and a flashlight with three different settings (flashlight, lamp and strobe). Point the speaker end towards you as you attach the Buckshot Pro to your bike handlebars and add the flashlight accessory to the rear for dawn and late night reveries and rides. You can also use the USB output as a portable power bank. It also features a built-in mic for hands free calls.
Also new is the pocket portable Kodiak Mini 2600 that’s always reliable if you’re in a bind and need juice to charge your device. Its big brother, the sleek, slim Kodiak +10000, which carries an output of 2.4A and a second USB port so you can share your power. Shockproof and waterproof, this new little portable power source is the envy of every bar-goer and outdoorsman when it comes to reliability in unpredictable environments.
Outdoor Tech’s CHIPS® and Wired CHIPS® are already well regarded by consumers for their durability. What’s new is the K-Roo Pouch that attaches onto almost any bike, a headphone Exoskeleton and different kinds of CHIPS® Headwear. Drop either CHIPS® (wired or wireless) into any of the CHIPS® All-In-One Headphone Accessories, and take your calls and tunes wherever you want them. Completed by a built-in microphone and IPX4 sweat and water-resistant rating, these are also tested to work flawlessly down to -20°C/-4°F.
I sat down with Caro Krissman for a little chat on the last day of business at CES on Friday, January 9, 2015. This is what came out of it…
I see you brought a whole live crew here with you from L.A., Caro.
We have seventeen people in our company, so we bring a whole chunk of our company over for the week… Ten people here altogether.
How did you get into this business? Do you have roots in any kind of entrepreneurship?
I always had a passion for creating businesses, and, at the same time, I always had a passion for skiing and I always was sort of a geek, too. I was always in Sharper Image and Abercrombie & Fitch just sort of looking at the goods. And I mean the old Abercrombie & Fitch where it was robots and cars, geekery and gears and shit like that. I was already in a business that was profitable but no fun. And I used that money to make some changes and get into this.
Can I ask what that business was?
It was a sourcing business. It was contracting for factories and I learned how to source capital and how to build brands, which was something I didn’t know about at all at the time.
More often than not, I find entrepreneurialism runs in families…
Well, my stepdad was in the pharmaceutical business and I got encouraged, even early on, after I formed a .com business totalauthorty.com. We were touting for Internet gaming and I was writing articles for a Costa Rican bookmaking operation at the time, so, yeah, I’m kind of a serial entrepreneur.
So, one day you’ve got a memoir you can write…
I don’t know about that. Probably not that intriguing. But we’ll see what happens after this.
You know you don’t seem so entrepreneurial, per sé. I mean no disrespect, but you seem way different to so many that I’ve met. Maybe it’s because I was watching ‘Matchmaker’ on Bravo last night. Maybe it’s because you come from Southern California. You are very, very laid back. Maybe it’s just confidence?
Look, really, it’s a lot of hard work. The setting today is day four of the show. Sixth day in Vegas, eleven o’clock in the morning and I’m waking up with a coffee in my hand, but… I’m a little more intense than this typically. But we work very, very hard and we try to come to these events and put on a good show and we like to play pretty hard, too.
So, tell me about your vision; what I see as a layman is that you’ve got design that’s just killer. It’s so spot-on, it’s like something on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on the Golden Mile. Windows ready! Aesthetically great! I could see you guys next to the Nike Store. You’ve got a whole look down. So where did that come from?
It was a concept. We had no idea what was going to surround the specific brand and, more often than not, the way it looks is not the way we started out envisioning it… The concept was aesthetically pleasing, charming, fashionable pieces that were palatable for your young everyday consumers. It’s something you can understand and that’s a reasonable price point and it’s really, really good looking. And then we started and there were electronic pieces that were aesthetically pleasing. You look at the packaging. You look at the product. It’s something that’s easy to understand, has a reasonable price point and, really, like I said, good looking. It was a Bluetooth ear-bud. It was our first Bluetooth production that was different to the one-eared earphone worn by other people when they walked the streets listening to mono news about buy low/sell high. Not what most young people want…
See, we were looking for that younger demographic and Bluetooth had that youth demographic thing going for it. So we decided to make something they wanted to listen to and was cool… And, you see, it was fashionable even though we weren’t a fashion company, per sé. We were an outdoorsy company. That’s our take. It’s stuff that’s cool. It’s rugged. It’s durable. It’s a reasonable price and we market it to a sort of young, captive audience who, at that time, did not have a product that could speak to them.
Is Eddie Bauer a rival? Do you have any rivals or is there no one else really with your aesthetic? I mean, you do this privately, distributed by other businesses, but I just sort of see it in windows, like Eddie Bauer stuff.
So we’re sold in places like R.E.I., which is a really perfect place to present our brand and they do a really good job. We’ve also done amazingly well with Snow Channel, who have amazing product. It’s for people who ski and snowboard and the truth is they do a really amazing job of representing our brand. Small independent stores who are all around the country, even the world now.
Snow Channel? You don’t mean a specialist cable TV channel?
(Laughs) No! I mean channels of distribution for skiing, sports electronics: Different lifestyles. Stores like Quicksilver. They’ve had amazing success, and, to a large extent, their consumer is our consumer. We consciously piggyback our channels of distribution with them. So we keep coming up with an excellent product and do excellent marketing of an excellent product and the brand sort of speaks for itself.
In the long run, will you go into retail, or will you leave that to other people?
You know, we’ve had a few interesting opportunities we’ve toyed around with and we’ve come close to opening up some pop-up shops in the Little Japan area of downtown L.A. and I very much want to do it eventually, because we have a vision of a retail concept that I think would be something very special, but we don’t have the capital or the expertise to do it today.
Have you got anything new coming out?
One of the strong areas of distribution for us has been on the Bike Channel. We deal with thousands of independent bike stores throughout the country. The Buckshot speaker has been performing very well through the independent bike channel. And so we have a large independent group of bike rider/consumers who are saying, “We love the product and we want safety.“ There’s a huge safety aspect to this and consumers want to listen to their music without ear buds, but they also want ambient sound while on a bike ride.
There’s kind of a clutter problem that starts when you ride a small bike with an extra power speaker and lights and this and that… So we made a more advanced version called the Buckshot Pro. Now there’s a port pak built into the system. It has a strobe. A solid light and lantern feature for the outdoors as well, so that is coming out in April and we’re showing it here for the first time. We’re super-excited about that.
We also have a line of solid, ruggedized, waterproof power products and we’ve got two more products to help promote the line, which is called Kodiak. So we have a lot of paper. There are 25, 50 and 100 mini Kodiaks and the original Kodiak+. It’s waterproof, and portable power means, if you’re, like, water rafting and you’re drinking and spilling beer on it, you don’t have to worry about it. And that’s our stock-in-trade; that you do not have to worry about it.
When you say ‘we’ about design. Are you the kind of guy who sits down with your own pen and paper first?
Yeah, I’m not a product designer by trade but I’ve directed all the product and I’ve had some really talented designers that have worked for us.
Do you kind of search for specialists in design, or do you have a group you rely on?
In this last product we did the chips accessories, which I hadn’t told you about. It’s like an audio system built in a helmet around these chips and now we’re following up with a huge eco-system. I mean, helmet-wise, you’re only going to use the helmet for a few skiing days per year. Most people, even if they’re hard-core enthusiasts, won’t ski more than 20 to 30 days per year. So it became important that it would have applications outside the snow. So… we did this entire chips accessory design and went out and hired an outsider to help us with that process. Right now we’re working very hard on a collaboration on the C.R. process with a very product-designed focus on it.
How do you find such people?
Well, this guy’s name is Mike Mathe and he’d already worked with my V.P. of International sales in the knee-brace business. So he knew the protective sports business already, racing and things like that. He had a pretty great portfolio and has been fantastic for us.
Well, the chips are a best seller and the helmet we’ve got coming out allows it to fit on any product. It’s huge for us and for action sports enthusiasts who want their audio and music. Soon we’ll be able to put our chips in any helmet. If you’re a mountain biker on a BMX or a skater, you can use your existing helmet, drop the chips in it and it just kind of opens a whole new world.
Are you serious about skiers only going out there 20 to 30 days per year?
Really. The average skier does way less than that. The average number of days a skier spends on a mountain—I’m not 100 percent sure—but I thinks it’s six.
Wow! I thought if you were of college age that you’d spend as many days as humanly possible on the mountain.
(Laughs) Well, that was certainly the case with me. I think it used to be 45 days per year and after college it started to diminish… But look, it’s hard to get up there when you have responsibilities in life and there are huge costs in rentals. $110 per day just to rent the equipment, you know? We have a really good relationship with Vail Resorts and VRR and they’ve done tremendously well with their brand and we’re in a lot of their stores throughout the country. They’re the largest, but these days it’s a tough market and we can’t be a business that survives only in the snow.
Last question. Safety in helmets… How does that work?
The helmets are built to allow ambient sound, which is far safer than having ear buds in. You know, you see so many bike riders riding around the city with ear buds in.
I know those guys. I’ve almost killed a couple of them.
There’s no safety. It’s nuts! Our products still let you enjoy your music, but our product still offers the advantage of having ambient sound and sensing the danger that’s going on all around you in a city, wherever it is. There’s always distraction, no matter what you do, but I think our solutions allow for safety concerns.
I think your helmets could save a lot of messengers’ lives.
We’re saving lives, one bag of chips at a time.