Emily Hargraves last year was certain she was going to close Backcountry Babes, her 22-year-old business. Backcountry.com was suing her in federal court because she had secured a trademark for her company, which offers tours, clinics and avalanche training for women.
When news broke last November that the e-commerce giant had for several years been suing small businesses, like Hargrave’s, for registering and trademarking the word “backcountry,” the Utah-based company weathered blistering criticism. Eventually, Backcountry.com dropped its lawsuits, fired its trademark attorneys and launched a nationwide effort to make reparations.
Then-chief executive Jonathan Nielsen reached out to Hargraves in November last year and asked what she needed — as he did for many of the dozens of brands that were sued.
Hargraves said there were too few women qualified to teach and guide in avalanche terrain. Nielsen proposed a deal. Hargraves got to keep the name of her company and Backcountry.com would fund multi-year scholarships to Backcountry Babes guides to pursue instructor qualification with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and guide certification with the American Mountain Guides Association.
Hargraves said 10 women are now going through the intensive, multi-year programs thanks to several thousand dollars in support from the e-tail behemoth, which is owned by private equity firm TSG Partners.
“It ended up being a big financial commitment for Backcountry.com, and despite their CEO changing and COVID, we still pulled it off,” Hargraves said. “They wanted to make things right and they are sticking with it. It’s worked out really well.”
The new year brought follow through by a new CEO
Nielsen is gone now. Melanie Cox, a retail veteran who served on the company’s board, stepped into the CEO role in June. She’s hired a new chief counsel and chief marketing officer. And Cox has followed through, mostly, on promises made by her predecessor as the company struggled to make amends for its tenacious pursuit of legal trademarks held by small companies.
Cox declined an interview but sent a statement saying the company would continue to honor commitments made to companies “impacted by the 2019 trademark action.”
“We strive to be a dedicated, passionate and contributing member of the greater outdoor community, and this responsibility will continue to guide us into the future,” the statement reads, also noting the company is “bound by confidentiality agreements with these companies” that prohibit detailed comments on specific brands and deals.
The cease-and-desist letter and explicit threats of a federal lawsuit last year from Backcountry.com’s aggressive trademark attorneys at ILPA Legal Advisors nearly broke Jenny Verocchi’s Backcountry Nitro coffee brand. A successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018 had launched her canned coffee company and business was booming when the e-tailer’s trademark law firm demanded she abandon the name or face a trial in federal court, even though she had secured a trademark for Backcountry Nitro. So she rebranded as Wild Barn Coffee and started over.
Last November, Neislen flew out and visited with Verocchi and her business partner Alyssa Evans in Boulder.
“He promised us a lot of stuff,” Verocchi said.
Like buying a bunch of special-roasted beans for sale on the e-tailer’s website. And serving Wild Barn coffee at the company’s nationwide Stoke Series events, which features athletes and speakers with registration dollars supporting charitable groups. And helping to advertise the new coffee brand.
The Stoke Series events were canceled due to the pandemic. And the company has not placed another order for the Wild Barn coffee beans, which Verocchi and Evans made special for the company.
“We would love to continue our relationship with Backcountry, but they are a very large corporation and we are little guys and we didn’t really expect them to wait on us hand and foot,” Verocchi said. “I think the whole company was really stressing out this time last year and maybe we got lost in the shuffle a bit. They didn’t follow through with everything they said they’d do, but they are doing the best they can and we are doing the best we can right now.”
Leo Tsuo, the owner of Weston Backcountry in Minturn, could not believe the company that had celebrated the boutique maker of backcountry snowboards and skis was attacking him when he received a letter from its trademark attorneys last year. The letter and subsequent filings in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were stern, making clear he needed to abandon the name backcountry if he wanted to stay in business. Backcountry .com in 2017 was one of the first companies to sell Weston’s wildly popular splitboards.
“They just constantly supported us when people barely knew who we were. That company has so many people who are just genuinely stoked on their outdoor sports,” Tsuo said.
Nielsen came out and visited Tsuo in Colorado last November and while he declined to discuss the details of the arrangement, citing a legal deal, Tsuo said Nielsen was “genuinely sorry.”
“They unleashed untrained pit bulls in the dog park who went after every dog in the park and they were sincere about trying to making it right,” said Tsuo, describing an encounter with a bunch of Backcountry.com “gearheads” — sales associates who promote brands and work with Backcountry.com customers — earlier this year, before the pandemic where “everyone was telling me ‘Wow that was so messed up’ and ‘I wish that never happened.’”
“It was really nice to see. Those are the people I remember when I think about Backcountry.com, not the attorneys,” Tsuo said. “I think it’s good to have Backcountry.com back.”
Tyson Stellrecht was forced to close one of his Backcountry Pursuit stores in Boise, Idaho, in 2017 after tangling with Backcountry.com’s trademark lawyers. He founded the company in 2012 to sell used gear on consignment and didn’t even have an online sales presence. He rebranded his 23-employee company as the Boise Gear Collective after a nearly two-year ordeal that he said cost him thousands of dollars and “lots of sleep.”
In November last year Nielsen flew to Boise, alone, and spent five hours visiting with Stellrecht and his manager.
“I feel like he really did want to right the wrongs. He gave a genuine vibe,” Stellrecht said. “I think he might have known what was going on with those lawyers, at least more than he said he knew, but he wanted to fix it.”
They reached a deal that had Backcountry.com giving Stellrecht the company’s returned gear for sale at his shop. So far he’s picked up two loads from the company’s headquarters in Utah and was heading down this week to pick up another couple pallets of packs, skis, clothing and outdoor equipment. Nielsen also promised to arrange visits with Stellrecht and Backcountry.com executives to talk about business policies and strategies for managing his now 26-worker business.
That hasn’t happened yet, largely due to limited access in the pandemic, but Stellrecht hopes that still works out.
“I’m pretty happy with the way everything was handled,” he said. “I know I was in the first wave of that big PR tour and I don’t know if there was a second or third wave. I kind of wondered if they were going to make these deals with everybody.”
Some companies still are waiting for a call
Frank Hintz is still waiting. He settled with Backcountry.com when the company threatened his 27-year-old American Backcountry business in North Carolina with a lawsuit.
Hintz, who started the company in 1993 selling custom T-shirt designs from the back of his car, didn’t want to settle and thought he had a good case to fight the e-tailer, which was founded in 1996 by a pair of beloved ski bums selling avalanche safety equipment online.
“But I could’t hang on to this for a couple years and bleed a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “They had big aspirations for what they were looking to do and it was well beyond the original intent of sales and marketing via a website. They wanted their own gear, their own apparel and their own brick-and-mortar and it became evident that’s what they were trying to protect. I don’t have any aspirations to make expedition equipment or any of that. I’m a T-shirt guy.”
Hintz said he reached an agreement with the company that allowed him to keep making T-shirts, but not much more and he promised he would never disparage the company. He said there are “a lot more people out there” who took the brunt of Backcountry.com’s trademark attacks and “lost a lot more than I did.”
“I saw the ‘kumbaya’ press release and heard them say how sorry they were. They had their moment in the frying pan and they had their ‘come -to-Jesus moment. I don’t know if it was all smoke and mirrors or if there was good faith for a weekend or two,” Hintz said. “I didn’t expect much and they never reached out to me. Maybe they just looked at us differently. But it left a sour taste, I’ll tell ya that.”
David Ollila is the protagonist in Backcountry.com trademark debacle. He was the businessman who declined to settle. He stood up to the bully of the backcountry. The e-commerce giant sued him in California’s U.S. District Court in San Diego — with a sheriff delivering legal papers to his home — in September 2019. The company said Ollilia, a serial entrepreneur who in 2010 started making short skis for climbing snowy hills around his home in Marquette, Michigan, and selling them on his website, marquette-backcountry.com, caused “irreparable harm” to the retailer and demanded damages totally three times all the profit he ever made selling Marquette Backcountry Skis.
Ollila was the head of innovation for a Michigan venture capital firm and created 100k IDeas, a Flint nonprofit that brings together students and entrepreneurs to test innovations and develop new ideas. Ollila’s mission is to help garage tinkerers realize ideas and find financial freedom. And he wasn’t about to let a big company stomp his dream.
“I am obligated to fight. Morally, ethically and professionally,” he told The Colorado Sun last November in a story that first exposed Backcountry.com’s trademark lawsuits.
Making up with Ollila was a high priority in Nielsen’s apology tour. Backcountry.com sells Marquette skis on the company’s website. The company donated money to nonprofits Ollila supports that help innovators bring new ideas to market. And Nielsen enlisted Ollila as a consultant to help the company champion more small businesses in the outdoor industry.
Ollila said the company has been “genuine in their approach.”
“Pragmatically, did I expect them to hit everything out of the park? Of course not,” he said. “I think it would be really tough to satisfy everyone from a business perspective.”
But as the outdoor industry explodes during the pandemic, with record sales of bikes, boats, RVs, motorcycles and backcountry ski equipment, the new approach to championing small business at Backcountry.com is opening doors for start-up and innovators, Ollila said.
And the backlash galvanized a passionate community that is rallying around smaller brands right now, Ollila said. That support has drawn the eye of investors who now see outdoor businesses as worthy investments.
“There is a real opening right now for large companies to start investing in not just the overall outdoor recreation market, but the start-ups and small businesses,” Ollila said. “That is because of the passion of the outdoor community. And that passion was on stage last year during the Backcountry.com fight. I think it was a tough situation that turned positive and that’s a win in my book.”