by Nick Stagge (Reprinted from Utah Business Magazine March 6, 2019)
I’ve worked in the outdoor industry since the turn of the century. And I can vouch: it’s a special community to be a part of. Along the way I’ve made lifelong friends, circumnavigated the globe chasing my passions, helped take three companies public, and grown my career in ways I’m not sure would have been possible in another industry.
That’s not to say it hasn’t come without its fair share of trials. I’ve spent countless nights in hotel rooms away from my family, experienced layoffs that left great people in bad places, suffered through corporate restructurings and been underwhelmed with my compensation package.
But no job or industry has it all, right? Right. So, what makes the outdoor industry special? According to the Commerce Department, the outdoor industry accounted for $374 billion in nominal gross domestic products in 2016. To put that into context, that’s two percent of the overall GDP―larger than the oil and mining industries.
And it’s no wonder. Almost half, or 49 percent, of the US population over the age of six participated in an outdoor activity at least once for a total of 10.9 billion outdoor outings in 2017. With that kind of economic and cultural impact, the outdoor industry is garnering more attention than ever before. The desire to “work where you play,” has never been stronger.
If you’ve got a thing for the outdoors, and you’re contemplating making a move into the industry, here’s how to do it.
FOLLOW YOUR PASSION
Ask anyone who works in the outdoor industry why they chose this path and they all start with the same sentiment: their love of the great outdoors.
Over a hot stack of blueberry pancakes at Millcreek Cafe, I asked Lindsay Malone, who oversees marketing and communications at Gregory Packs, why she chose to work in the outdoor industry. She put her fork down, smiled, and took a breath before beginning, “In what other industry could you get paid to walk around a tradeshow floor swapping backpacking stories, comparing Chaco [tan lines], or trouncing through the mud at a thru-hiker festival… We work in an amazing industry. Yes, we get to wear flannel to work and our ‘work’ events consist of meetings over beers and demo days, but more importantly, we are surrounded by people who love the outdoors in every form.”
Ms. Malone’s love for the outdoors is infectious. Not only does she work in the industry, but it is clear she has centered much of her life around pursuing her passions. It’s that type of devotion that has made the outdoor industry what it is today. But there are those who are concerned that as the industry grows the type of people it will attract may not share that same adoration of the outdoors.
While Ren Barrus, CX team lead at Cotopaxi is excited to see the industry blossom in the coming years, he recognizes that growth often presents challenges. “The folks who built this industry spent the majority of their lives outside, living their passions, using that as the fuel to stoke the fire. The younger generations are piggybacking off that legacy and if they don’t discover their own reasons to sustain it, it could mean trouble. That’s why I’m using my background in the industry to help teach others about the outdoors.”
JOIN THE CLUB
If you’re doing what you love already, then you should have no problem meeting other people doing those things, too. Networking in this industry is important and it’s a big part of getting a job. Hit the trailhead, hang with the crew from And She’s Dope Too, get involved with Utah Outdoors Meetup, talk to a local specialty outdoor retailer like Salty Peaks, attend Outdoor Retailer (sadly now in Denver), and interact with real-life people. That will get you in front of the right players.
“One of the great perks is working with the type of people that are attracted to the outdoor industry,” says Cory Tholl, CEO at Klymit. “In my experience, people that live with passion, compassion, and enthusiasm for life are rampant in the industry.” Shared passion has become a foundation within the culture of the industry and it’s through those real-life connections that new and wonderful opportunities will present themselves.
“In what other industry could you get paid to walk around a tradeshow floor swapping backpacking stories, comparing Chaco [tan lines], or trouncing through the mud at a thru-hiker festival… We work in an amazing industry. Yes, we get to wear flannel to work and our ‘work’ events consist of meetings over beers and demo days, but more importantly, we are surrounded by people who love the outdoors in every form.” – Lindsay Malone | Marketing and Communications | Gregory Packs
I spent months trying to get in the doors at Skullcandy with little to no luck. They weren’t hiring, and I kept coming up short until Tom Campion, founder of Zumiez, heard I was looking to join the up-and-coming headphone brand. Luckily for me, I had worked closely with Mr. Campion for years and he was close to an executive member at Skullcandy. He made a quick phone call and put in a good word for me. I was interviewing with the team two days later.
BE WILLING TO TAKE A PAYCUT
Longtime friend and colleague, Evan Miller, client success director at AtlasRTX, jokes “What’s the difference between a park bench and a ski instructor? The park bench can support a family of four.”
Indeed, the pay can be one of the largest struggles of working in the industry. “My wife and I wanted to explore growing a family here, and you can’t do that unless you are a director or VP at most outdoor companies in Utah,” he says.
The outdoor industry has long been associated with “perks over pay.” Mr. Barrus says, “Our perks are among the best there are to offer. Our compensation is among the worst, but you know this going into it and yet it’s that conscious choice that makes the industry such a special place.”
It seems that the outdoor industry and perks are forever intertwined. For those of us who work in the industry, product hook-ups, after parties, and epic adventures are the norm. And sure, the perks are great, but what about the compensation? Adam Kittell, a buyer at Liberty Mountain, believes getting ‘paid in sunsets’ is not sustainable.
“There seems to be a limit to how long the lure of cheap gear and likeminded coworkers can keep employees happy before they leave for a similar job in a different industry that pays way better.” It’s true. When comparing the same role across different industries on Glassdoor, you can expect to see outdoor companies paying 20 to 30 percent less than their non-outdoor-related counterparts.
“It’s an industry where passion can trump experience which allows people to learn new things and grow professionally in exciting ways in a shorter amount of time. It is a great industry to develop skills, learn your professional passion, and work your way up and into something that you love to do,” – Kory Tholl | CEO | Klymit
When I joined the outdoor industry I took a 50 percent reduction in pay to get my foot in the door. At the time, it meant I had to get a second job and tighten my spending habits, but I was willing to make these sacrifices for the initial perks of working within my passion as well as the potential for rapid professional growth. Looking back, I realize it was an enormous risk, and I’m glad I was naive enough to take that leap of faith then because I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to do so now.
Mr. Tholl sums it up nicely: “The compromise of compensation is often offset with the perks of being part of an industry that motivates and inspires so many people around the world. Improving the competitiveness of the industry compensation will be important to attract and retain top talent.”
GET COMFORTABLE WITH THE CAREER SWERVE
I’ve spent the vast majority of my career quietly feeling under-qualified and overstretched. And it turns out, that’s just part of the game. Once during an interview, I was asked a question I wasn’t sure how to answer. Luckily, the hiring manager had to step out for a quick discussion with an employee. While she was out of the room I texted a friend and did a quick Google search. When she returned I answered the question matter-of-factly. I got the job.’
In an emerging industry with suspect compensation, it is challenging to attract and retain experienced, proven talent. Instead, recruiters have had to rely on intangible qualities and the promise of potential to fill big roles. For young, up-and-comers like myself, this created a treasure trove of opportunities.
“It’s an industry where passion can trump experience which allows people to learn new things and grow professionally in exciting ways in a shorter amount of time. It is a great industry to develop skills, learn your professional passion, and work your way up and into something that you love to do,” says Mr. Tholl.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
The outdoor industry is gaining momentum every year, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down. #OptOutside is more than a tagline, it’s a way of life. And as more and more people have grown to love the great outdoors, so will their desire to work in the industry.
For those interested in working within the outdoor industry, it is important to recognize the ups and downs that are closely connected with the industry. It might not be easy to get your foot in the door, and it might come with a series of challenges, but when you make the conscious decision to align your passions and career, something undeniably special surfaces.
For those of us deeply entrenched in the industry, it is our responsibility to welcome the newly connected into the fold, teach them the ways of the past, and allow them to help us shape the future of our beloved industry. We must build upon our shared passion for the outdoor industry and overcome our compensation challenges if we want to grow our talent pool―from within and through recruitment. After all, these are the things that make our industry so special and make me proud to be part of the outdoor community.