With more than 90 and counting, Steamboat Springs is well known as a breeding ground for Olympians. But it’s also just as fertile an environment for outdoor businesses, nurturing them with all the right ingredients to succeed.
Forget its snappy “Ski Town USA” moniker. How about “Outdoor Business Town USA”?
Somehow, a veritable Who’s Who of successful outdoor companies have set roots and prospered in this small mountain community in northwest Colorado.
Leading the pack are such outdoor giants as merino apparel maker Smartwool, tent and sleeping bag manufacturer Big Agnes, energy food company Honey Stinger and Boa Technology, a ratcheting system that recently sold for $454 million.
Other brands include Hala Gear, Moots Cycles, Point6, Talon Grips, Hog Island Boatworks, Creek Company, Spiffy Dog, GrassSticks, Cogma Bikewear and more. All these join such locally rooted brands as whitewater kayak manufacturer Wave Sport, which moved to the East Coast after selling to Confluence Watersports in 1998, and companies that didn’t make it, like energy supplement Power Ice.
“The Front Range is home to a lot of outdoor brands, but outside that corridor I can’t think of any other small mountain town that has as high a concentration of outdoor companies as Steamboat,” said Steamboat Springs Chamber Economic Development Director John Bristol, rattling off 18 as if they were runs on the ski hill above town. “That doesn’t exist anywhere else in Colorado. And I know people starting new ones as we speak.”
The reasons are as plentiful as the snow topping Mount Werner every winter: great access to the outdoors, a supportive community, the necessary infrastructure and a wealth of entrepreneurs — not unlike the early settlers before them — willing to take a chance on new ventures.
“It’s all about having an emotional connection to the community’s backdrop and being in a place where you can use what you manufacture,” said Nathan Fey, director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. “Steamboat’s not necessarily unique, but it has it all — the Yampa River running through town, the ski resort, Emerald Mountain, the Zirkel and Flat Tops wilderness areas, Buff Pass and more. And that’s what drives innovation. Those business owners are there because they want to be in that community.”
While its remoteness might make some aspects of running a business harder and more expensive, for many that’s a small price to pay.
“It might not be as easy for things like connectivity and transportation, but these businesses are willing to overlook that to be in a community they love that’s close to the outdoors,” Fey said. “And Steamboat has most everything they need — the supply chain logistics are manageable, the broadband is good, it’s only three hours from Denver and the outdoor recreation is super accessible. It’s kind of a perfect package.”
The benefits these companies bring to town aren’t lost on Bristol.
“They’re all primary businesses that do their work here and bring money in from outside the community, which is huge,” he said. “Their employees spend their money at our restaurants and stores. As with ranching and tourism, it diversifies our economy; we want to roll out the red carpet for them.”
Moots’ roots of innovation
The trend’s origin can be traced back nearly 40 years to the founding of titanium bike company Moots by Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductee Kent Eriksen in 1981. It blossomed even more with the founding of Smartwool in 1994 by New England ski instructor transplants Peter and Patty Duke, who — realizing the advantages of New Zealand merino wool for ski apparel — began by selling merino ski socks adorned with penguins out of their basement.
Nurturing Smartwool into the giant it is today, in 2003 the Dukes sold their shares to RAF Industries, which sold a year later to Timberland for $82 million. Apparel giant VF Corp. bought Timberland for $2.2 billion in 2011, bringing Smartwool under the same umbrella of brands as Vans and JanSport.
In 2018, VF Corp. announced plans to relocate its headquarters to Denver, a move that included Smartwool. The move was completed this year, but not before Smartwool left an indelible mark on fostering outdoor entrepreneurialism in the Yampa Valley. It also left its mark on town financially.
Smartwool provided high-paying jobs while supporting the broader local economy, Bristol said. A Chamber analysis in 2019 found that Smartwool supported $20 million in Routt County, with the average wage of its 70 employees at $80,000, almost double the county’s average. This payroll helped indirectly employ another 56 people in the county.
The brand provided intangible benefits as well. It attracted talented people to the area, many of whom eventually left to start their own companies in the area. Case in point: Merino wool sleepwear company Chill Angel, founded by former Smartwool and Point6 executive Betsy Seabert in 2016.
“That’s what you want to facilitate,” Bristol said. “You have people who work at these bigger companies who are also tinkering at home on their own ideas and eventually launching out on their own. That’s what these outdoor businesses create; it helps avoid having all your eggs in one basket.”
Smartwool also sponsored local events, donated to nonprofits and more. After moving to Denver, it gave the community a final parting gift: a new chairlift for the town’s beloved, city-owned Howelsen Hill ski area — the oldest continually operating ski area in the nation. It came this fall as a $1.5 million charitable gift to the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club from The VF Foundation, a grantmaking organization funded by VF Corp.
“The Steamboat community helped drive the Smartwool brand to where it is today,” said Smartwool president Jen McLaren, whose two sons grew up skiing at Howelsen. “Smartwool was founded in Steamboat for good reason – it’s at the heart of our brand ethos and fostered our love for the outdoors. Life there drove the products we created, inspired our brand values and purpose, and instilled a sense of gratitude for small town, mountain living. Its mountain town spirit will forever live in our brand.”
The gratitude goes both ways.
“Outdoor businesses are a huge component of our economy,” the chamber’s Bristol said. “And they align well with the community’s western heritage whose pioneers moved here to make a go of it. They were business owners, too, from ranchers to coal miners, with the same sense of entrepreneurialism to figure things out and make it work. Those same kind of values have stuck.”
One venerable example: outdoor clothier F.M. Light & Sons, founded in 1905 and now entering its fifth generation of local family ownership. (Maybe you’ve seen their yellow signs dotting the region’s highways.)
Another one of Steamboat’s strengths, Bristol said, stems from an ethos of supporting neighbors — which is exactly how F.M. Light got started, visiting farms and selling ranchwear out of the back of a wagon.
“That’s how the Dukes started Smartwool — buying somebody’s gear out of the back of their truck,” he said. “The community is committed to supporting one another.”
If a company contacts him looking to move to town from Salt Lake City, but has shipping concerns, Bristol will put them in touch with someone like Big Agnes to share strategies.
Perhaps an even bigger selling point: product testing grounds available all four seasons, right during lunch break.
“You can do all your R&D here easily,” Bristol said. “Once you have your product, you have a local market willing to buy it and test it and provide insight. Then you can make the jump over the pass to other markets.”
That’s exactly what Gary Hammerslag did with Boa Technology, which he founded in 2001. Tinkering with an alternative to shoelaces after watching snowboarders and hockey players struggle in Steamboat, he tested his ratcheting wire solution locally before persuading K2 and Vans to try the lacing system for their snowboard boots. Twenty years later, after moving “over the pass” to Denver and with 230 employees, 160 patents and $100 million in annual revenues from more than 400 clients, Hammerslag’s creation sold to Connecticut-based Compass Diversified Holdings for $454 million, marking one of the largest deals ever for a Colorado outdoors brand.
“There are some obvious reasons why Steamboat is a good place for an outdoor business,” Hammerslag said. “Close proximity to the outdoors is the most obvious one, as well as being close to Denver for its concentration of outdoor companies and trade shows. It’s becoming easier to start and run almost any kind of business almost anywhere. Location is less important as more stuff goes online, as long as you don’t mind getting on airplanes. But you have to do that no matter where you’re located.”
Sparking the entrepreneurial spirit
Two of Steamboat’s other marquee success stories, Big Agnes and Honey Stinger, have similar tales and have remained in town after moving their product lines “over the pass.” Both were co-founded by entrepreneur, former triathlete and all-around outdoorsman Bill Gamber — Big Agnes in 2000 and Honey Stinger two years later.
Recently moving into the city’s former police headquarters downtown, Big Agnes is a tent, sleeping bag and sleeping pad manufacturer that has won countless Editor’s Choice awards from national magazines and is now sold by more than 600 North American retailers. Big Agnes employs nearly 50 people locally and is in 10 international markets throughout Asia and Europe.
“You couldn’t ask for a better place to test our gear,” said Gamber, who names many Big Agnes products after nearby mountains where they test their prototypes. “And it’s more affordable to live here than it is in some other mountain towns; I don’t think we could make this work in a place like Aspen.”
Like many local entrepreneurs, Gamber had plenty of side gigs when he first started out launching fleece apparel maker BAP!, which he still heads as well.
“I worked two other jobs, construction and guiding,” he said. “I was eating ramen and didn’t have kids, so it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to be successful.”
Success came quickly, however, for both Big Agnes and Honey Stinger. Gamber credits his team’s dedication not to just the products that allowed them to explore and adventure, but the Steamboat environment and lifestyle that fostered the tents, bags and energy packets. That Gamber ethos — perseverance and commitment to Steamboat Springs — has rubbed off on others.
“Once you have a foundation of similar companies, it seems to fuel others,” he said. “If there are a few, then someone else will jump in and start something. There’s a pretty big entrepreneurial spirit here.”
Peter Hall, founder of standup paddleboard company Hala Gear, agrees.
“Having a few big, early companies helped the town serve as a sort of entrepreneurial incubator,” Hall said, describing how one of his former employees recently launched the energy bar company Bar U Eats, its name play on a ski area chairlift name. “Once you have some of the bigger players it makes it more achievable for others; like they can also get into the game and make something.”
None of this is to say that there aren’t difficulties in running a business in Steamboat. Another chamber-funded analysis of Steamboat’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) cites challenges like remoteness, transportation and cost of living alongside business lures such as quality of life and community support services. .
While Steamboat might be more affordable than Aspen or Vail, real estate prices are still high for the salaries most outdoor companies offer.
“Housing is an issue for sure,” said Gamber, whose company this year rolls out its new Sidewinder series of sleeping bags (yes, letting you sleep on your side) as well as a cleaner, more water-efficient process for making its tents. “Selling your house in Kentucky and then trying to buy here is hard.”
Finding employees with specialized skills in supply chain management and engineering also is difficult, he added.
“The bigger you get, the harder it is to get specialized employees, which is a big deal,” said Gamber, who has hired several employees from Smartwool after its move to Denver. “There’s a great job pool here for non-specialized employees, but not specialized.”
“And,” he added, “some people underestimate the winter.”
Honey Stinger, whose majority interest was recently sold to an investment group out of Pennsylvania, hired 10 additional employees in the past year, many of whom also came from Smartwool — including new Chief Financial Officer Sarah Mallicote and Senior Director of Operations Kim Kourkoules.
Amidst rolling out new mini versions of its waffles, another with added protein, and gummy performance chews with caffeine, the company also moved its headquarters into the former Smartwool offices at the converted Steamboat Springs airport — which was integral to the company staying in the Yampa Valley.
“This was probably the only possibility here,” said Richard Thompson, a managing partner at Pennsylvania’s Factory, LLC.
While the city gave Smartwool some concessions with its lease and renovation of the former airport, it doesn’t make a habit of it, said Bristol. Unlike Denver’s courtship of VF Corp. — including $27 million in tax incentives, which VF Corp. says it will pay back through donations — Steamboat doesn’t offer much for outdoor businesses to relocate. Except, perhaps, for the one thing that matters most.
“We lead with our community and its amenities — our access to the outdoors, strong school system, collaborative environment and more,” Bristol said. “People say Steamboat feels like a real town.”
That’s exactly how Boa ended up being based in Steamboat.
“The main reason Steamboat is a good place to run a business is that it’s a great place to live,” Hammerslag said. “I chose Steamboat as where I wanted to live and raise my family and then decided how to make a living here. And great places attract like-minded people who are deliberate about designing their lives as opposed to just letting their lives unfold by happenstance. These are the types of people that you want to employ, especially young businesses that are built by these early employees.”
Chuck Sullivan, whose nonprofit Something Independent doles out its annual Wright Awards to Rocky Mountain outdoor businesses, calls it “pride in place.”
“There’s a lot of that in Steamboat,” he said. “People can SUP, fly fish, kayak, ski, hunt, mountain bike and more right from their office door, which presents a common ground and fosters camaraderie, whether you’re recreating or looking to build a business.”
Even the town’s ranching background fosters a respect for this way of life.
“Steamboat just seems to draw a lot of people who are the type to carve their own path, whether it’s John Fetcher, a rancher who helped start the Steamboat Ski Area, or Peter Duke starting Smartwool,” Sullivan said. “It’s a pretty rich fabric and is reflected in the town’s mentality. People there seem inclined to say, ‘Let’s build something for the community.’ And they all help each other out and create a spirit of collaboration.”
Hala founder Hall did exactly that, tinkering with a better way to make stand-up paddleboards for the river — light bulb: inflatable! — back when the sport was just emerging.
“The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in a lot of mountain towns, but it seems especially so in Steamboat,” said Hall, who employs 14 locals, including several from Colorado Kayak Supply, an online retailer he purchased and moved to Steamboat from Buena Vista. “There are things happening in Steamboat that aren’t happening in other places. A lot of people are living their outdoor sports here. One reason might be it’s not as extreme, so people tend to dabble in more things. Or they see a need for a product and then try to develop it. They’re meeting a need, coming up with new ways of doing things because they’re always using it. The Dukes did that with Smartwool, and Bill did that with Big Agnes.”
Case in point: Steamboat’s newest outdoor company, Slope Mountain Gear, whose founder Ryan Bales invented a front-loading backpack that eliminates the hassle and hazard of wearing backpacks on chairlifts. His new Slope PRO-180X will ship in 2021. “The idea came after skiing and getting tired of removing my pack to ride the lift,” he said. “”We engineered it to offer better, more efficient front storage so you can optimize your time outdoors without having to stop and take your pack off.”
And in Steamboat, light bulbs like this seem to happen in all four seasons, whether it’s socks and bamboo poles for skiing, tents for summer camping or SUPS and craft for running rivers. “People really enjoy living here and then they try to find a way to stay here,” Hall said. “They want to find a way to make a living that pays better than most local jobs, or at least create a job for themselves doing what they love.”
Nurturing Olympians, businesses
The town has plenty of other outdoor business attributes aside from being a great place to live and recreate, Bristol said. It also offers such other business-friendly amenities as a robust product development program at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat campus, which helped launch such brands as Harvest Skis and bamboo ski pole maker GrassSticks. “It’s also a great pipeline for talent to move into your business,” he said.
Routt County, Colorado Mountain College and the city also invest in the Yampa Valley Entrepreneurship Center, which recently benefited from Honey Stinger donating office space at its airport headquarters. Businesses can get affordable rent and office amenities, Bristol said, as well as financial and technical assistance. He also pointed out the Northwest Colorado Revolving Loan Fund many companies have taken advantage of for gap financing. The chamber is also working on creating a local trade association of outdoor business — a mini Outdoor Industry Association — to enhance networking opportunities and address problem areas.
None of this, of course, makes Steamboat a rare business incubator. Most other mountain towns also have their own outdoor business success stories, including Strafe and Obermeyer in Aspen; Mountain Flow eco-wax in Carbondale; Liberty Skis and Weston Snowboards in Vail; Melanzana in Leadville; Voormi in Pagosa Springs; Rocky Mounts and Loki in Grand Junction; SOL paddleboards in Telluride; Osprey in Cortez; Alpacka Rafts in Mancos; not to mention the proliferation of such companies along the Front Range and in places like Jackson, Wyoming, Ogden, Utah, and Bend, Oregon. But Steamboat seems to have a higher number per capita.
“A lot of these companies — like Smartwool, Point6, Big Agnes and Honey Stinger — were born here in Steamboat,” said Point6’s Peter Duke. “While it could have been any town, it’s the energy for the outdoors that areas such as Steamboat bring to the table — people who aspire to bring better products to the market, that spirit of person, tend to live in places like this.”
Steamboat does seem to have most everything an outdoor business needs — including testing grounds that Point6 is using to roll out this spring’s new line of men’s underwear and next fall’s new SKUs of merino sweat tops and bottoms for men and women.
“When you look at everything a small outdoor business needs to thrive, Steamboat checks off a lot of the boxes,” Bristol said. “It’s similar to our nurturing of Olympians. This community is proud of growing Olympians, but also proud to see outdoor gear companies start and grow here. We’ll embrace every new one that comes along.”
Perhaps no one can attest to this better than Olympian-turned-entrepreneur Johnny Spillane, a three-time silver medalist who now runs Steamboat Flyfisher downtown. “There’s just so much opportunity here for both outdoor businesses and recreation,” he said. “There are very few outdoor sports you can’t do here throughout the different seasons. Throw a super supportive community on top of that and you have it all.”