When Zeek Dudley pedals his mountain bike onto the Emerald Mountain trail network near his home in Steamboat Springs, he wears a pair of unmarked cycling shoes. These shoes are prototype models that use a drawstring closure system designed by Denver-based Boa Technology. It’s Dudley’s job to put Boa’s laces through an intense few weeks of riding to see how they hold up.
“My mission is to basically see if they break,” says Dudley, who works as a carpenter during the summer months. “I ride them really hard.”
After wearing the shoes for several weeks or months, Dudley provides written feedback to product designers at Boa. They reference his notes as they tweak the shoes’ design, color, and even price. Before the apparel reaches store shelves, it’s been worn and tested by perhaps 10 or so everyday athletes like Dudley. Boa employs this design strategy for many of its product lines, which include snowboard boots, running shoes, and even golf spikes.
“All our testers are volunteers,” says Matt Anderson, Boa’s field-testing supervisor. “We go for people who can articulate why something did or didn’t work.”
Colorado is home to thousands of enthusiast-level athletes who test products for the outdoor industry. Boa has approximately 800 amateur field testers in its database. The Steamboat Springs-based SmartWool operates a pool of between 3,500 to 5,000 testers nationwide, with the lion’s share living in Colorado.
Jeff Snow, global community manager at SmartWool, says the feedback commonly leads to design changes across the company’s various lines. Most recently, amateur testers persuaded designers to alter the company’s newest long-sleeved running top.
“The first line didn’t have thumb holes, but we heard from [testers] that they wanted them,” Snow says. “When your product team has that type of feedback, you have the mechanism to get it right.”
Traditionally, outdoor gear companies have relied on sponsored professional athletes for development feedback and product testing. In recent years, however, more brands have replaced pros with the average Joes who are buying their products.
There are both financial and practical reasons for this switch. Professional athletes often ask for hefty sponsorship sums in return for their marketing and product testing, while amateurs require little more than free gear. Pro athletes, on the other hand, are accustomed to getting gear for free, while amateurs still purchase gear on a regular basis.
“Our grassroots athletes are still making consumer-based purchase decisions,” Anderson says. “I don’t how many pro athletes actually buy gear in a retail environment.”
Pros tend to apply more stress to bikes, skis, boots, and shoes, and require a higher level of performance from these products, compared to your average weekend warrior, who can also fly under the radar when wearing prototype gear. Professionals often attract unwanted attention. And perhaps most importantly, unpaid testers are less inclined to simply tell designers what they want to hear.
“Not being financially tied to your test reports is important—you don’t want your testers drinking the company Kool Aid,” says Denver-based ski veteran Kim Miller, North American CEO for the Italian ski boot manufacturer Scarpa. “Pro athletes are a commodity that can be bought and sold.” Scarpa works with Georgetown-based telemark skier Eben Mond, who is also a ski instructor at Loveland Ski Area.
While the job may seem cushy, the life of an amateur field tester doesn’t stop once the free gear arrives in the mail. The companies are looking for each tester’s thoughtful and unbiased opinion on the products, which requires several hours of work each week.
Boulder-based running coach Ryan Krol has tested running and hiking footwear for Boa since 2012. Krol completes anywhere from 40 to 60 miles of running each week along the dirt trails in Boulder County. Several times a month, he communicates his thoughts back to Anderson, either through lengthy emails or face-to-face conversations at the company’s Denver headquarters.
Even though he does the work without pay, Krol says that he enjoys participating in the product cycle. He has an unending supply of new running shoes, which is a bonus. And he gets to influence a product that is a regular part of his life in Colorado.
“I can bring candor and honesty to what I really think of a shoe,” he says. “Even if it’s [a shoe] I think is going to fail.”