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Nite Ize employees attend 100-plus trade shows across the country every year. At each stop, browsers of Nite Ize’s booth easily recognize the more than 500 products the company hawks—the retractable dog leashes, the bendable gear ties. They just don’t know where the gadgets come from. “They often think we’re a distributor,” founder Rick Case says. “And we get to say, No, actually, we make all of these.”
Don’t feel too bad for Case. Producing such an array of gear hasn’t resulted in name recognition for the firm he founded 30 years ago, but his penchant for dreaming up small, innovative adventure tools has turned Nite Ize into one of Boulder’s biggest outdoor brands: The company has 250 employees, and according to many unofficial estimates, generates more than $100 million in annual revenue. (Nite Ize declined to disclose definite financial info.)
Case developed Nite Ize’s first product in the late 1980s as a student at the University of Colorado Boulder. During outdoor exploits, including predawn backcountry skiing, he often found himself without a free hand to hold a flashlight. So he used webbing and elastic to rig a Maglite to his head, and a light bulb went off—literally and figuratively. Case and some friends sewed hundreds of the flashlight-compatible accessories and sold them to local retailers. “I realized I had a viable business in 1991,” Case says, “when REI agreed to sell the headband.”
In Nite Ize’s first decade, Case unveiled more than 15 light-based tools designed for use in the outdoors. Around 2000, though, he realized he needed to branch into other areas to continue expanding his business—hence, the S-Biner (a double-sided carabiner), Nite Ize’s Steelie line of magnetic dashboard mounts for smartphones, and myriad more devices.
Turns out, there’s no big secret to Nite Ize’s ability to churn out inventive products. Case credits the experiences of employees and feedback from customers, but Adam Ruggiero, a senior news editor for GearJunkie, says the company’s success stems from its ability to remix existing designs: “They’ve been successful by taking different approaches to markets that already have an established paradigm.” With plans to keep releasing new gear two times a year, that innovation should continue, whether households learn the Nite Ize name or not.
The zipper has provided convenient access to people’s, um, stuff since its debut at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. In fact, the only knock we can assign to that original design (besides the occasional snag) is that it’s not great at blocking water. Earlier this year, though, Boulder’s Nite Ize unveiled an invention that could revolutionize the way people clasp things together. Named Tru Zip, the product features smooth rails made of flexible wires covered by a tough, rubber exterior; a standard, pull-to-close slider seals the rails together. The company claims it’s the first toothless, waterproof zipper, and the fastener makes packs considerably easier to access than roll-top dry bags. You may eventually see Tru Zip on everything from jackets to backpacks, but for now, Nite Ize has incorporated the device into its just-launched RunOff line of waterproof pouches. The durable polyurethane packs come in six sizes ($25 to $55), ranging from wallet pocket to packing cube—a watertight business plan.