This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
It’s been two weeks since Backcountry.com CEO Jonathan Nielsen apologized for his company’s aggressive trademark actions and promised to make amends to the long list of business owners targeted by his now-fired trademark attorneys. And one by one, Nielsen is meeting with entrepreneurs and making things right, reaching deals that partner the e-tailing giant with small business owners who have suffered under his company’s aggression.
“I’m really happy to see that they do want to turn this around and make a good thing out of what was really bad news,” said Emily Hargraves, the owner of Backcountry Babes who was sued by Backcountry.com in federal court earlier this year because she had registered and secured a trademark for the word “backcountry” for her business that provides avalanche education to women
Nielsen recently visited with Hargraves and offered to fund a multi-year scholarship program for Backcountry Babes guides pursuing instructor qualification through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and guide certification through the American Mountain Guides Association. And she gets to keep using her company name.
“I do feel that I’ve been made whole,” said Hargraves, who settled her federal lawsuit in a confidential deal earlier this year but emerged this month as a symbol of the company’s bullying trademark tactics when news of the lawsuits ignited a social-media backlash.
As first reported last month by The Colorado Sun, Backcountry.com in 2017 unleashed a trademark law firm to send cease-and-desist letters, pose legal challenges in the U.S. Patent and Trade Office and even file federal lawsuits against small business owners who had registered the word “backcountry.” The aggressive legal campaign came as the 23-year-old Utah-based e-tailer began creating its own branded gear and filed for new trademarks on categories beyond its 2008 mark for “online retail store services.”
Other business owners — many in Colorado — are reporting similar agreements as Nielsen continues a national apology tour that also is designed to douse the animosity swirling around his company. (Just in time for retail’s holiday shopping frenzy, it should be noted.) These deals are not just vague promises but firm, specific actions intended to heal wounds caused by the company’s strong-arm trademark actions; all part of what Nielsen described earlier this month as “a completely fresh look at how we do things and changing it in a big way.”
Hargraves is no stranger to danger. She works in avalanche terrain, and she brings along newcomers, teaching them how to reduce exposure to avalanches while traveling and playing in the snowy mountains. She’s a pro at assessing risks. But this threat blindsided her.
“I run a guide service and what we do is dangerous and I’ve always thought, ‘OK, someday something could happen where I might need a lawyer.’ But a trademark issue,” she said, “that’s not something I was expecting.”
The tightknit outdoor community is powerful in many ways
The outdoor community that plays in the mountains — hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers, skiers, snowboarders, climbers, mountaineers, snowmobilers and more — is a tightknit, passionate lot. Hargraves said Nielsen acknowledges that passion and that recognition is fueling his reparations.
“I think this kind of thing, maybe it happens somewhat regularly in the trademark world, but I don’t think it’s typical to see it get undone like this,” she said. “Backcountry.com is going out of its way to make this community better. I don’t think that would happen in any other sector of business, you know. I think it’s the passion around the backcountry and the backcountry community that is making this happen.”
Jenny Verocchi almost lost her Boulder-based canned coffee business when Backcountry.com’s trademark attorneys at California’s IPLA law firm set her in their sights. A Kickstarter campaign last year launched her Backcountry Nitro coffee brand, and business was booming when she got a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that she abandon the name even though she had secured a trademark for her cold-brewed coffee earlier this year.
Faced with threats of a lawsuit, she changed the name of her company to Wild Barn Coffee and nearly lost everything in the rebranding. Her best friend Alyssa Evans, who started the company with her, left when Backcountry.com’s threat of a lawsuit landed in her inbox.
Last week Nielsen visited Boulder and had coffee with Verocchi. He offered a deal to distribute Wild Barn Coffee on the Backcountry.com site as well as to serve the coffee at the company’s Stoke Series events across the country.
“I was surprised when Jonathan said he wanted to fly out and meet me. He took his time and he answered all our questions,” said Verocchi, who got Evans back on board when Backcountry.com promised to abandon the legal action and work with them. “He was sorry, and he explained that he was going to help us grow. He wasn’t rushing us. We were not a box on his checklist. Our main takeaway was that we wanted all the small businesses to have that same opportunity, and he knew he couldn’t just throw a blanket over this situation.”
They shook hands on the deal. Verocchi didn’t ask for her Backcountry Nitro name back. She didn’t want to rebrand again. But she feels good about Nielsen’s promises.
“In the end, he went from being the big bad wolf and now he’s the big business, extending his hand to small businesses and he’s setting an example for other big businesses,” Verocchi said.
Tyson Stellrecht rebranded his 23-employee Backcountry Pursuit shop in Boise, Idaho, after tangling with Backcountry.com’s lawyers in 2017. He had to close one of his two stores — which he founded in 2012 for used gear consignment — as part of his forced rebrand to the Boise Gear Collective. He says he lost a lot of sleep and money in the last year and a half as he switched his company name.
Last week, Nielsen flew to Boise and spent five hours with Stellrecht and his general manager. They are still negotiating the specifics of a deal, but Stellrecht said he feels positive.
“He is fully accepting responsibility and he is not shirking this at all and putting 100% on himself. He said ultimately ‘I’m the CEO and I’m owning this,’” said Stellrecht, who hopes to make an announcement on the agreement with Backcountry.com soon.
When Weston Snowboards launched in 2012, the company would regularly invite Backcountry.com’s “gearheads” — the army of gear experts that work with online shoppers — on snowy trips into the backcountry. They would all load into the Minturn snowboard-and-ski maker’s vintage Tucker Sno-Cat and shred powder. Then those gearheads would help sell Weston’s split-board snowboards on Backcountry.com.
But in 2017, a year after Weston Snowboards changed its name to Weston Backcountry, the company’s lawyers threatened them with destruction if they didn’t surrender the backcountry name.
Last week Neilsen met with Weston owner Leo Tsuo. The two are hammering out an agreement, and Tsuo couldn’t discuss the details. But he said he feels “really good about the overall direction.”
For Tsuo, this is Backcountry.com returning to its roots after a bit of wandering.
“Everyone we have ever known at the company, they are backcountry enthusiasts. They took a chance on us when we were really, really small. Every interaction we had with them before all this went down was amazing,” Tsuo said. “So for them, I think this is about getting back to those values that they were founded on. It’s almost like they understand there is a certain responsibility they have to the community by having ‘backcountry’ as their primary brand.”
Tsuo has held his tongue in the last few weeks as the outdoor community rallied around its small businesses and blasted Backcountry.com for its trademark attacks — largely because he remembered how the company helped him.
“At the end of the day, we want the backcountry community to be stronger and better. It’s not about burning down this company,” Tsuo said. “Hopefully this is a catalyst for growth for all the companies that work in the backcountry space.”