Seeking Solar and Soul at Outdoor Retailer
By Mike Medberry
The Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City was an adrenaline-powered gathering of more than 28,000 people from around the world who came here to make deals on equipment and to test out the newest thingmos to sell them to you, their ever-so eager customers. In the convention center, called the Salt Palace, manufacturers met with retailers and gave their best rap on their newest goods. Face to face meetings went on in back offices and front offices. Wholesalers and retailers met with media representatives and gave their best spin. Retailers met with suppliers from other countries. Media people met with other media types and tuned their takes. It is all very exhausting, amusing, and productive.
You think there is hype here? Of course. But I was here on another sort of search because I operated a business that sold and installed solar panels in Idaho—after five years it folded. I knew a lot about solar energy but not much about business. Maybe I could learn about business, but more realistically, I was simply interested in why businesses in general rise and fall. In addition, I was curious about what the buzz was at the Outdoor Retailer trade show. I found out that these big honking halls full of consumerism and capitalism are a study in the ways of the world! Let me explain.
Walking through the Palace
I walked into this coliseum, this Palace of Endless Business, with only the smallest clue as to what it would be about. I figured that less than half of the businesses will still be here in five years. That is just a cold fact and I saw no sense in pretending otherwise. Who would survive and why, were what I would investigate. I would do some interviews and give my take on what people said. That was my the plan.
But first, I had to get a “badge” to get into this grand conclave. I stood in the shortest line of media representatives and it was simply by chance that I stood beside the man who writes about businesses in Utah for the Salt Lake Tribune. He had a meeting with the major honcho of the conference and would interview him in less than an hour. He was antsy to get into the Palace of Endless Business. The major reporter on the major newspaper covering this meeting in Utah was standing in line with the likes of me, a no-account, dirtbagger hanging out trying to get in? Yes. Well, good luck sir! And yes, we do need a stinkin’ badge. I got in with a little help from my editor, saying that I was reporting on the trade show for the Mountain Gazette.
Second, I did a slumming route of the coliseum to check out what was there. Hundreds of competing businesses deployed literature describing their products, showed pictures of healthy users, and glamorous, lovely, living models right there on the sales floor struttin’ their stuff. Others highlighted the toughness inherent in pursuing their offerings (short films of people riding mountain bikes in improbable places, people climbing sheer rock walls with their groovy new chameleon-footed shoes, people taking kayaks down impossible waterfalls, and on and on) , some relied on their experience, simplicity, or the tried-and-true reliability of their products (think surfboards). Technological innovations, cost savings, cleverness and brilliant colors blared at me in a totally exhausting sort of way. Most of the businesses relied on the newest lines of their product, running under the assumption that the newest is the very bestest. All who had beer and music on their side gained success in the short run. And I was pulled into the swirl simply because… well… I am human, and I like shiny new stuff, and beer.
Third, I had to write an article on this amorphous mass of ideas, things, and people. So I chose some of the things that I had a little experience with: solar energy and paddleboards. There are 375 companies that have listed paddlesports and watersports in their OR Market segment listing. Let’s take half as being an accurate number of paddle sports businesses that rely on SUP (stand up paddle boards) to survive, and make a living. There is no particular listing for solar products, but they are included in “Accessories” which seemed odd to me.
Finding a Focus when the Whole Wide World Is Flat
I went for a second more intentionally more focused walk in the Palace of Magical Things. I had a paper cup of coffee with me which seemed plain wrong. Right out I got caught in a new idea that Sierra Designs was promoting. Mike Newlands is an enthusiastic bloke and he grabbed me to watch what he was selling: “Just this one little thing, eh?” he insisted. He exudes joy with a saleman’s ease and this new product was his perfect companion, a new kind of sleeping bag. I mean hey, it’s just a sleeping bag,right? But this bag would allow a lazy man to pee and a woman to have a cup of coffee without actually getting out of their bags. Ok, I’ll listen and laugh and maybe consider buying that bag. I took a picture. What more could Sierra Designs expect? They got much more—as reporters from Outside magazine rolled in and shot pictures of Sierra Designs’ new sleeping bag idea. That’s business: a good product, well presented at just the right time, with the right person enthusiastically showing it. Ok, I’m learning…
So, where was I? That was not what I intended to learn. Paddleboards and solar energy doo-dads were my schtick. Ok, I’m on it! But before that I got pulled in to the less visited rooms where Taiwanese and Chinese businesses represented themselves. Their power is vastly underappreciated and the influence they have is unparalleled. At least for now…
Mike Gangos at Footland manufactures socks—colorful, useful, and beautiful socks in Taiwan—and he spoke very clearly when I asked him about their competitive advantage. “People from the US think that things that come from other countries are inferior. But they’re not. It’s more cost-effective to use materials in Asia and use of our employees is more efficient. More materials are available at lower cost. Labor costs, taxes, health care, are higher in the US than in other places.” He spoke ardently. “Why does Taiwan import so much from the U.S.? It is because we don’t have the land base.” I wrote that down and thanked him for sharing the thoughts.
I stumbled into a manufacturer of plastic boats and talked with Andrew Lin, their Executive Manager at the Hong Kong site. Lin said that people come to their firm to receive various brands that are “much the same product.” He added that, “Your market is higher because of better marketing and local knowledge. You have more buying power, the quantity is greater, and the market is inherently higher. Our advantage is on the big brands.”
I asked him if their employees lived well. I had heard rumors of unfair labor practices and a little about the bruised environment. At that point, he invited me to sit down and called two other employees to sit and join us. He was an honest man. Lin said that the life in Hong Kong was simpler. “Western people pay more attention to the quality of life. In Asia, the people work more because they have to survive.” Lin paused for a second and continued, “I used to live in New Zealand, which was very nice, but now I’m in Hong Kong. I also lived in Taiwan. I’m making more money now, gaining knowledge on the business side, and I will live in a nicer place someday.” He was a nice guy and looked straight at my face. “The world is a flat place these days. There are no boundaries with the internet.”
One of Lin’s colleagues spoke: “Twenty years ago labor costs were the most important factor, followed by good management, a good supply chain, and very hard work. Culture is better in big cities but you’ll have to work hard for things in big cities. Our economy has doubled in the past four years and it averages at a 15 percent rate.” One of the three spoke out almost confessionally and certainly with an undertone of passion: “I’ve never seen such bad conditions for the environment over the last year. Not in the 34 years of my life. The pollution has spread all over China; it’s not just in one centralized place.” The person quickly mentioned that s/he was glad that the government is doing something about the problem and s/he was cheering for the government to deal with the pollution, despite the small problems in Tibet and a few other minor places, like Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. “These are small problems when you put all of this in perspective,” another added. I have protected their identities for what reason I don’t know. They risked much.
They also mentioned that China was seeing its grip slip on its competitiveness as the population grew richer and more people became more certain about what they wanted. Moreover, other countries, Indonesia, India, and Pakistan, in particular, were coming on strong but with the disadvantage that they lack China’s manufacturing experience. I thought that when one nationality dominates another and can pay them lower wages for resources, it was not a good circumstance. But no one said that. I found all of this enlightening and shrouded in ambiguity as I shuffled on to visit solar energy businesses.
A Place In the Sun
Goal Zero, a business based in Salt Lake City and Bluffdale, Utah, provides portable power to backpackers, campers, and backup or emergency users. They provided 20 of their power sources to anyone who ran short of electrical power at casually scattered tables upstairs in the Palace of Good Things. One of the unique things about the organization, according to spokesperson Lisa Janssen is that it they are “doing good.” For example, Goal Zero has donated power to the Navajo Reservation to provide power in outlying places that have no powerlines. They’ve also gone to Africa, Japan, Haiti, and India to provide power and light to people there. “Our whole reason is to help people who need power,” Janssen said.
But Goal Zero has to make a living in the US and will have to provide income from the devices they sell closer to home or they’re out of business. Well, unless they receive further grants or a donor bankrolls humanitarian visits. (And the company was, in fact, acquired by a financial backer right after the show.)
The power sources (these batteries are also called generators) cost about one dollar per watt of electricity to purchase. To understand what that means, think about what an efficient and powerful light or appliance uses. For example, the LED light from my bedroom uses 8 watts, and my radio uses 11 watts. My cellphone will take about 3 hours to fully charge with a 20 watt solar panel or battery. This doesn’t mean that my light will cost me $8 to run every time I turn the LED light on or $11 for the radio. The Goal Zero’s Yeti 400 power source will cost $460 and, when charged, will provide 400 watts for an hour at no cost. A 20 watt solar panel will add $200 to the price and would easily keep the battery charged. The life of the Yeti 400 and panels should be roughly 20 years, depending upon how much you use it and how well you care and maintain it. So the cost of running the 8 watt light and 11 watt radio will be much less once you buy the battery and a solar panel. But who will explain that to potential users? Goal Zero will. But therein lies the rub: educating people about what they will pay for the sun will take time.
Goal Zero batteries and solar panels offer a way to provide electricity without the exorbitant expense of providing commercial power through power lines. It is limited, but what they are doing gives major benefits to people who really need portable power in a pinch, whether in India or in the backcountry of the U.S.
Terry Peterson, the owner of HybridLight, is focused on providing light from solar flashlights. He has other products such as headlamps, lanterns, solar panels, and powerbanks but his forte, in my opinion, is in his flashlights. They shine when you expect them to work—they are simple, and at night when you want the light in your tent, just flick it on. There are no batteries that will corrode or fail. Well, there is a battery in the flashlight, but I’ve never seen it corrode nor has it ever failed, even after more than five years of pretty regular use. There is beauty in simplicity and wisdom in the focus.
HybridLight’s flashlight has a small but adequate solar cell on one side and you have to face that side to the sun for a couple of hours and you’re good to go for the whole night. I mean, you can have it turned on for the whole damned night. And on a long winter’s equinox night for that matter. Believe me that is a handy tool when you’re hiking and the sun goes down on your third night out. This is a tool that, like a pocket knife, I’ve found to be absolutely indispensable.
I asked Peterson what advantage he’d seen over competitors. “We designed the product for our own use and I thought that if we got it the way we wanted it, it might serve other people as well. We wanted to make it as durable as we could, as efficient as possible, it would have to be high quality and affordable, and every time you touch it it has to work. It has to be something that the owners will have for years.”
That didn’t really get to my question about how to make his business competitive, but his next comments did. He said, “Going to China is a tough thing.” Peterson realized that he would have to go to China to make sure that his product would be produced to strict tolerances and not the mumbly-talk that some wholesalers and retailers hear. “You have to switch night and day, you take a long time to get there, and when you get there the language is foreign. When you talk to people in China they may tell you they understand what you said when they don’t. They just agree and have a hard time telling you when they don’t. You’ve got to be efficient when you’re there or it’s time wasted and money wasted to get to the place where you need to be on the flashlights. It’s not just a one-time visit. It’s more complicated than that. I had to go there a second time to straighten things out. It’s also good to meet people so they know who I am and I get to know who they are.” He added: “I’d love for the flashlights to be American-made but the prices there were lower than anywhere else.” And as anyone who looks around at the OR trade show could see, competition matters and it’s a fine line between survival and death.
Kayaks and Paddle Boards
I walked around the Palace of Endless Building looking for someone to interview about their kayaks and paddleboards and was struck by the smiling faces of Brenda and Mark Schwartz who own Expedition Toys. I learned that they were siblings and they kindly agreed to talk with me about their business.
“How will your company survive with so much competition?” I asked, and spread my arms to show the many surrounding companies.
Mark responded, “branding helps. We bought the number one boats in France and everyone in Europe know about them. They’re incredible boats and it’s easy to get behind their product. Their construction is far superior to other boats and they’re not a brand new company.” He stopped and looked at his sister, she was nodding, and he continued. “But, at the end of the day it really comes down to marketing and having a great product.”
I like these people. I trust them. Those were my first and last opinions on their boats. I believe that the French boats would perform superbly. I’d buy a fleet if I’d had the money! Mark continued, “We’re pretty easygoing and pretty approachable and the fact of the matter is that we have a lot of fun and don’t take ourselves too seriously. We tell people if we think that the boat will fit well with their needs and when they won’t and I think people appreciate that honestly.”
I thanked them for their time, shook hands, and left them with their retailer customers, but I was thinking it would’ve been nice to get a drink with them, sit awhile, and chat. Alas, I couldn’t.
I moved on and stopped to talk with two hip-seeming guys with the Lakeshore Paddle Board Company. Neither really wanted to talk with me—it was getting late–but they agreed that Sean should talk. Sean is the President of the business and he sat cross-legged and casual. I realized that it had been a long day and it was hard to talk with him. He stood up and had his story about how the lake paddleboards worked. It seemed a little forced, although all of his points were right on target. But maybe I didn’t need a paddleboard after all. I’m sure that other people would fit into his customer base but I was tired and moved on pretty quickly. I didn’t feel very genuine somehow although he did seem to be at ease talking with me. There is that something of magic that either works or doesn’t and it would be different for different people. “Good luck!” I told him.
I promised that I would rate the businesses. But I really can’t. I’m sorry about that. They are all such good and talented people that I couldn’t wish one of them a single, bad thought. I’ve known what it meant to lose your business and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone else. But I also know that it will happen and then perhaps the losers in the pack will take the same route that I have done and listen well. And become writers… Regardless, I didn’t have time to look at every business nor judge any without prejudice.
Go with Your Soul
I wanted to talk with a Patagonia representative because I’ve heard about their company’s innovation for more than 20 years and thought that their wisdom would give me some thoughts on my recommendations. I talked with Corey Simpson about what qualities makes Patagonia a beacon in the recreational clothing and equipment industry and a star in the environmental world.
“It all starts with our 40 year old-vision,” he said, “and it’s pretty simple: we build the best product that we can, do no unnecessary harm, and we use our business to inspire people and find solutions to environmental crises. We’ve got to build products and get money to give away to environmental groups and create change.” Patagonia gives 1% of its income to environmental issues around the world and particularly in the U.S. So far, they have given a total of $100 million since 2002. “The company has made the choice about the best way to do something for the environment and what’s the best thing socially. And when we got there it turns out to be the best thing for business.”
One of the clearest commitments that Patagonia has made to protect the environment is that the family owned business is also a B-Corporation. What the Benefit Corporation status does is to allow the business to create a “general public benefit” which includes making a positive impact on society and the environment. This benefit is judged by the company’s board, it’s stockholders, and employees. All of the employees at Patagonia are 100 percent committed to maintain an intact world. They have zeal to protect the earth but they don’t project that feeling on other firms. Mr. Simpson added, “It’s more important for businesses to find their own stories that separate their own business from the rest of the pack. If you’re able to tell those unique stories, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling. It’s going to work.”
All of this left me with a little too much information, from China to Patagonia and Bluffdale, to form a clean decision, but what I can say certainly about the OR trade show next year is that I will look with my pocketbook handy, but I will only buy those things that fill my soul with goodness.
Mike Medberry writes and gets sun in Boise, Idaho.