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It’s a sunny Tuesday morning in late May, and John Norton, former CEO of Crested Butte Mountain Resort and current executive director of Gunnison Valley’s Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP), is leading a discussion about marketing strategy in the light-filled foyer of the ICELab, Gunnison’s business resource center. Before him sit the leaders of four outdoor industry startups. All are participants in the Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator, an intensive business mentoring program designed precisely for this demographic. They quietly soak up Norton’s expertise until he tosses out a question: What are the goals of your budding businesses?
John Peretti, founder of lightweight cooking stove start-up Coastal Range Equipment, pipes up first. “Be excellent,” he says.
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“One of mine is deliciousness,” returns Ashley Lance, whose company, Fernweh Food Co., makes plant-based and gluten-free dehydrated meals. “It’s a key value.”
Now three weeks into the eight-week Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator program, Peretti and Lance, along with Scott Jensen and his lightweight backpacking gear company Near Zero and Arwen Turner with plus-size technical apparel brand WNDR Outdoors, banter easily back and forth. They also piggyback ideas for non-negotiables in the hiring process and how to build company culture with purpose. It’s clear even to an outsider dropping in on the morning’s session that the four business owners have developed a strong rapport. That’s exactly the point. “Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator is an opportunity for these entrepreneurs to not only be plugged into an amazing network of resources but also to learn from one another,” says TJ Taylor, who manages ICELab. “They all have some type of career background, and they all bring that to the table.”
Started in 2019, the program aims to help a diverse set of outdoor business founders who are pre-revenue but far enough along in their strategic plan to demonstrate a viable product or service. National outdoor retailer Moosejaw acts as the title sponsor.
In addition to two weeks of virtual work and five weeks of in-person, lecture-style talks from marketing, inclusivity, and other business experts at ICELab, participants spend a third week on the Front Range meeting with Moosejaw representatives—CEO Eoin Comerford among them—to learn about business and retail strategies.
The sessions have inspired WNDR Outdoors to add a second fit to its product line (sizes will now range from 16 to 30), Turner notes. “And our sales projection goals for 2024 are now five times larger than what we had thought was possible prior to this program,” she adds. “The program has been extremely valuable in helping us to think bigger.”
Participants also receive free legal guidance from Denver-based law firm Holland & Hart LLP and get product feedback from the gear gurus at Blister Review, another Gunnison Valley–based organization. This year, Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator covered entry fees for each start-up to have a booth at the Big Gear Show, a dual retailer trade show and consumer festival that wrapped up last month.
Beyond the formal mentorship opportunities, participants agree with Taylor that there’s real value in leaning on—and learning from—each other. “The other companies in this cohort have been so great to go through this with,” Peretti says. “Sharing ideas and different perspectives on what’s worked or not worked, even just having someone who can relate to what you’re going through, it really helps having people to go on this journey together.”
All that, and the cost to participants: nothing. “They’re housing us,” Jensen says. “We’ve got the CEO of Moosejaw individually wanting us to succeed whether you’re in his store or anywhere else. It’s amazing.”
So, what’s the catch? With no fees to participate and no requirement to cede any company equity to the accelerator program, well, technically, there isn’t one. “The goal of the accelerator is to increase innovation in the outdoor industry,” says ICELab Director David Assad. “We don’t want to put any barriers in the way.”
But of course, Moosejaw and ICELab do get something out of it. Moosejaw gets the benefit of introducing fresh ideas and products into the outdoor industry and then gets a first look at these new launches (not exclusively). ICELab, which is funded by TAPP, the same non-profit that does tourism marketing for Gunnison County more broadly, grows the region’s reputation as a hub for innovation in the outdoor industry. It’s a long-term strategy to boost economic growth in the valley, especially if Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator participants decide to move their companies—and bring their job opportunities—to the area.
The strategy has worked for past cohorts. Outdoor apparel brand Gnara (formerly SheFly) relocated to Gunnison from Vermont, while Pact Outdoors, which makes compact poop-in-the-outdoors kits, left Denver in its rear-view mirror and moved to the Gunni Valley. A third, Geyser Systems, “got close,” as Assad says, but landed in Colorado’s Montrose County 85 miles to the west. A couple other brands, including Outdoor Element, either moved to or remained in the Centennial State.
A contingent within this year’s cohort says they could see themselves in the valley. “We’re open to the idea of potentially moving part of our business here,” says Fernweh’s Lance. “I definitely didn’t realize how much Colorado has in terms of grants and resources for businesses to grow, and it’s certainly beautiful. It’s not off the table.”
Near Zero’s Jensen echoes her sentiments: “It’s enticing.”
But before these business owners make any decisions about where they establish roots in the long-term, they need to focus on getting their feet under them now. “The CEO is the culture driver, the boss. You set the tone. It’s your company,” TAPP’s Norton says as he finishes Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator’s morning session last month. “[You decide] how you build your companies and how you can make [them] the best [they] can be.”
Indeed, these eager new entrepreneurs do make those decisions, albeit with a little help from their friends and a whole lot of business acumen gleaned from Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator.
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Want to meet this year’s cohort? Allow us to introduce you.
When Arwen Turner moved to Colorado in 2016, she was ready to dive fully into the outdoor lifestyle. There was just one significant hurdle: None of the name-brand hiking apparel fit her size 22 frame. It hurt; then it frustrated; then it inspired. “The problem isn’t our bodies,” she says. “The problem is the store.”
So in 2020, she and fellow Unlikely Hiker Kara Hardman started WNDR Outdoors, a technical apparel brand for plus-size outdoors lovers. After surveying more than 2,000 athletic plus-size women, they determined what products and high-performance features these consumers typically want. Their answer: comfortable, durable hiking pants. So in response, WNDR is introducing the BRECKEN Pant ($125), which comes in sizes 16 through 30 and features a compression, drawstring waistband, double-reinforced areas in the seat and thighs, and four-way stretch throughout.
Choosing a tent; selecting the best-fitting pack; deciding which stove, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad is the best for your needs—getting into backpacking is intimidating, points out Scott Jensen, founder of Near Zero. “The big-box stores, you walk in, and your eyes hit the ceiling, and you’re like, ‘Where do I begin?’” he says. “We’re providing [a kit that’s] ready-to-go in proven products that are amazing quality and relatively affordable.”
Near Zero’s hero product, the Dean ($199.50), is a 50-liter hiking pack that weighs an impressively scant three pounds. But where the hauler really shines, however, is its construction. The Dean features a unique compartment system with mesh partitions sized (and labeled!) specifically for each essential piece of Near Zero backpacking gear like a mummy sleeping bag ($229.50) and three-season tent ($269). Beginners can get almost everything they need for their first night under the stars with the 12.5-pound, 20-item bundle pack ($939.23).
John Peretti, founder of Coastal Range Equipment, believes the camping stove segment of the outdoor industry is focusing too much on extra features to the point that it’s lost sight of what customers are actually looking for. “People want a stove they can rely on, that cooks fast, and that gets as much weight out of their packs as they can,” he says. “Why carry extra weight?”
Formerly the director of research and development at portable cooking system brand JetBoil, Peretti plans to focus first on what he calls the center of the campsite, namely food and fire, and then expand the Coastal Range Equipment product line to the camp kitchen generally and even other hardgoods. Its first product, the Coastal Range Backpacker ($149.95), weighs in at 8.8 ounces, which Peretti says is more than 30 percent lighter than similarly featured backpacking stoves.
“Fernweh” refers to a desire for travel, a longing for places you’ve never seen before, explains Ashley Lance. And it was the perfect moniker for her business, a dehydrated food brand dedicated to nourishing people with, as she says, “damn delicious” meals during their backcountry travels or van life expeditions, long days in the airport, or the back of a tour bus.
Each of Fernweh Food Co.’s meal offerings are plant-based and gluten-free, including their 4.5-ounce packages of Green Tamale Pie ($16.50 for 4.5 ounces), which was mentioned among BACKPACKER’s best backpacking dinners last year. Simply boil water, stir it in Fernweh’s pouch, and nosh. When done, the packaging is backyard compostable. “We call it dehydrated adventure food,” Lance says. “It’s a great, healthy, on-the-go option that tastes really good and doesn’t make you feel bad.”