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Jason Hairston didn’t intend to start a multi-million dollar clothing and gear company. At first, he simply wanted some equipment that would hold up to the demands of his chosen hobby. Along the way, however, he found that millions of other people had his needs, too, and he built a thriving business to outfit them.
Hairston, who had a short stint as a professional football player with the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos before retiring due to injury, is an expedition hunter. He’s the type of person who takes long trips into the untamed wilderness in search of big game, flying in a bush plane to a remote airstrip and then rafting down a river in search of big game. For many people, expedition hunting — and hunting in general — is a controversial pastime, a pursuit that is cruel and unnecessary.
But hunting is also very popular, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimating that about 15 million people buy hunting licenses every year. While the majority of them don't participate in the type of intense hunting Hairston does, plenty of recreational hunters would purchase clothing from a brand designed specifically with the needs of the expedition hunting community in mind.
In 2005, Hairston and his business partner, Jonathan Hart, realized there was a gap in the market. They were wearing gear designed for climbing and mountaineering, sports that aren't as demanding as expedition hunting. "When the weather is bad, they stay in their tents," Hairston said during a phone call last month. "[Expedition hunters] go out in it, so we were finding limitations." Sitka, the company they founded, was a response to those failures. It quickly gained traction and after a few years, W. L. Gore & Associates, a massive manufacturing company best known as the inventors of Gore-Tex, came calling. Hart and Hairston sold Sitka, despite Hairston's objections.
Sensing there was more opportunity and wanting to be in control again, Hairston started over in 2011 with Kuiu, named for an Alaskan island just east of the town of Sitka. He bootstrapped the company, hired former Gymboree director of customer services Melissa Woolf to run the operations side of the business, and started developing ultralight hunting clothing and gear. He traveled constantly, sourcing carbon fiber developed for aerospace to make backpacks, individually waterproofed down feathers from Japan for jackets, and patented, elastic-free spiral yarn for pants.
Hairston also adopted a direct-to-consumer business model that cuts out retail stores, allowing him to charge 30 percent less for similar quality. He hoped his success at Sitka, along with lower prices, would attract a small but dedicated following. He was wrong. His Sitka customers not only followed him, they told their friends. "We created the technical apparel hunting gear category with Sitka, which gave me a ton of trust and credibility that nobody else in our market has or could have," he said. "Our customers feel like they are smarter because they buy Kuiu.” The company sold $500,000 worth of merchandise its first day and hasn't looked back. In the original business plan, Hairston wanted his 2014 revenue to be $4 million; instead, he said it was just under $30 million and that they’ll hit $50 million this year. Kuiu expanded to Europe, adding two sales reps, and plans to launch a dedicated website on the continent next year. Australia and New Zealand are top markets as well. "I really thought I would build a little niche," Hairston said. "I didn't think it could get to these numbers without retailers because no one could touch it and feel it."
Early this month, Hairston launched an initiative to build on the success. Giru is a Kickstarter-esque platform that allows the company to determine the level of interest in new product lines outside its traditional expertise, like luggage. Expedition hunting requires a lot of gear, much of it that has sharp edges and comes in strange shapes, and Hairston struggled to find commercially available luggage that was durable enough to handle the beating it took during transit yet also space-efficient when unused. "I was wearing out bags left and right." he said. But he wasn’t sure his customers would agree.
Enter Giru, which solves two problems. It serves as proof of concept for the demand on a new product line. The crowdfunding platform ensured that Hairston and his team wouldn’t waste their time and money designing a dud. "Some of those ideas and concepts that we're questioning, we'll be able to tell if there is demand before going into production," he said. "It's a great way for us to dip our toe in the water." The Taku Gear Bag System served as a perfect test case for Giru. It funded within an hour and a half, and the second purchase order increased by 500 percent due to the sustained demand.
The second Giru goal is to more effectively get input from potential consumers. With Kuiu, Hairston solicited opinions from customers, but collecting those thoughts became unwieldy as the base grew from hundreds and thousands to tens and ultimately hundreds of thousands of people. Giru allows the people who will be buying the new product a chance to weigh in on its final design, everything from the features that are included to color and quality of the materials, all with an eye on the final cost. The Taku Gear Bag project allowed customers to choose if they wanted the YKK Aquaguard #8 or YKK Aquaguard #10 zippers, the former being cheaper and lighter but not quite as durable as the latter. "The purpose is to gather information from our customers about how they like to see products developed, and to let them better understand how those choices affect price," Hairston said. "They are not just getting the product that they want but it creates an emotional attachment. They feel like it's their bag, they want to have it."
Going forward, he plans to continue using Giru to fund new projects — the Summit Refuge Shelter is a second offering — while also opening up the platform to like-minded, non-competing companies. Kestrel Knives ran a campaign for the Mountain Caper knife, asking whether people wanted AEB-L steel or CPM-S90V for an additional $5. Anyone who submitted a design was able to fund the project at up to 50 percent off the eventual full price. For allowing other brands to use the Giru platform, Hairston's company takes a small percentage of the money raised.
In addition to new product lines aimed at hunters, Hairston hopes to expand beyond his traditional base. Kuiu is developing a mountain fitness line, which was originally scheduled for next year but has been pushed until spring 2018. The line features similar materials as other products but it's designed to be lighter and dry faster, targeted to hunters who want to train by trail running and other athletic pursuits, or outdoorsmen seeking durable workout gear. The Guide Jacket is now available in brown and gray in addition to the traditional camouflage, an attempt to target snowboarders. Hairston says he's expanding the number of items offered in solid colors. A version of the Attack Pants (the company's biggest seller) without the hip vents that provide airflow during long hunting treks and cargo pockets are coming. "Guys can wear them to work and on the weekends," Hairston said. "We're filling up the closet."
There is, however, a question about how far Kuiu can penetrate the mainstream. Will a trail runner purchase shorts made by the company, given the stigma associated with hunting?
Hairston understands the controversy behind hunting but argues that hunters are some of the most conservation-minded people on the planet, pointing to the reported $200 million that hunting licenses contribute to wildlife management support programs every year, and other studies note similar financial benefit. There’s some truth to that point. There’s also the fact that the idea of hunting is unacceptable to millions. For Hairston, that’s fine, too. "Obviously, there are those people who won't purchase from a hunting company, but I can't cater to those people," he said. "I can't worry about them." It probably doesn't matter if a certain section of the population, even a large percentage, has no interest in owning Kuiu. Add the 15 million people who applied for a hunting permit last year in the United States to millions who did so across Canada, Europe, the South Pacific, and elsewhere, and Kuiu has plenty of room to expand in the hunting world.
It can also appeal to people after moderately-priced quality equipment that will handle the rigors of outdoors. Kuiu sent me a sample of the Gear Bag System to test out, and while a few of the plastic clips feel a tad flimsy, I can see the appeal. It's a smartly designed bag with plenty of space and well-placed straps for easy hauling. The thick nylon feels indestructible while also being incredibly light. The large and obvious company logo of a Dall sheep is a turnoff for me since I have no desire to be affiliated with Kuiu or hunting, but it’s obvious that to carry this bag, or wear a Kuiu product, is to be part of a club. It's not one that I want to be in, but $50 million and counting says they don't need me anyway. Hairston has his luggage, and a whole lot more.