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Outside the outdoor industry, in cities where people wear dress shoes to work and their blazers are blazers, not technical jackets in disguise, “dirtbag” is a dirty word. It’s an insult not taken kindly.
But here, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, it’s a badge of honor and authenticity. It’s a word you might use to describe the roots of Big Agnes, which has expanded so quickly since its founding in 2001 that it has outgrown building after building, creating a sprawling campus, of sorts, of commercial spaces and houses converted into shops and offices. Late last year, the brand moved to consolidate into a building that will accommodate the majority of its staff members. People who had typically communicated via phone and email, even though they were working just a few minutes away in the same small town, are now mostly all in the same location, which will increase the efficiency of an already well-run machine.
The story of how this once-tiny business grew into the award-winning enterprise it is today has a lot to do with that dirtbaggy authenticity. It only took Big Agnes three years to win its first Backpacker Editors’ Choice Award, for its Insulated Air Core, and now it has 11, among dozens of other awards from endemic and non-endemic media.
That authenticity comes largely out of the brand’s desire to solve problems as they come across them, instead of designing new gear just to have something fresh to put on shelves the next season.
“We go camp, and we come back and say, ‘We really should make a tent that does this, or Wow, we should make it lighter, or make it have more room, but still be really lightweight,'” says Bill Gamber, founder and co-owner of Big Agnes. Even after 17 years in business, Gamber is still heavily involved in the product design process—and humble about his achievements. We never just say, ‘We need something new.’”
The founder of Big Agnes got into product design to create a better sleep system
Gamber started Big Agnes because he wanted to make a better sleep system. He was sick of having his sleeping bag roll off his sleeping pad, so he developed a set that worked together: slide the pad into the bottom of the bag, so you stay put. It’s a fairly simple idea—and one that has since been widely mimicked among competitors—but Gamber was the first to make scalable product. He believed in the brand, and so did a few now long-time staff members who worked for free until the company turned a profit.
The first Outdoor Retailer trade show they went to was in August, 2000, with a 10 x 10 booth, remembers Len Zanni, co-owner. At the time, he was on the PR side of things, working for Backbone Media, which still represents Big Agnes nearly 20 years later. Three years into representing the brand, Gamber and his former business partner split, and Zanni and third co-owner Rich Hager had opportunities to essentially buy themselves jobs, Zanni said. They bit, and invested in the company.
At that first trade show, Big Agnes brought along two sleeping bags and two pads and scored a handful of media appointments. They had no idea where they would manufacture product on a large scale should it blow up, Zanni said.
“I remember my first visit to the Big Agnes booth at that 2000 show. Big Agnes was way in the back of a pavilion, I think, and it was hopping. It was one of the buzz stories of that show,” says SNEWS editor-in-chief, Kristin Hostetter, then BACKPACKER’s gear editor. “The integrated pad sleeve was a pretty far-fetched concept at that time, and the first real shakeup we’d seen in sleep systems in years. But Gamber had a good story, and he was refreshingly authentic. He spoke about his personal camping experiences, and it resonated. We tested the gear and it became pretty clear right away that he was onto something.”
Backbone Media, one of the biggest PR companies in the outdoor industry, took on Big Agnes early. Penn Newhard, founder and managing partner of Backbone, met up with Gamber in a back room at a gas station off of I-70, and they talked for hours until they got kicked out. There are three key questions Newhard asks himself when taking on new clients, he says, which boil down to this: Do we believe in the product? Do we like the person, would they be fun to work with, and would there be mutual respect? And do we feel like we could really help them, and would they push us to be a better agency?
“It was super apparent, in those first three hours, that those boxes were like check, check, check,” Newhard says.
The two companies have stuck together ever since the beginning. You might expect Newhard to be complimentary of his own client, but he gushed about Gamber and Zanni from both personal and professional standpoints. They’re driven, smart, focused, and know their customers—partly because they are their own customers—and know not to take themselves too seriously, Newhard said. Gamber is tenacious, thoughtful, and humble. Zanni is understated and a fast and talented cyclist whose “quiet ability” scored Honey Stinger investments from Lance Armstrong, back when he was the biggest name in cycling.
What Big Agnes does, it does well
Big Agnes Mint Saloon
The Mint Saloon tent is the first Big Agnes tent to feature its own custom aspen print.
Big Agnes Insulated Air Core
The Insulated Air Core was Big Agnes’ first big winner: It won a Backpacker Magazine Editor’s Choice award in 2004.
Helinox Chair Zero
In addition to its own products, Big Agnes also distributes Helinox’s ultralight camp chairs. The Chair Zero, here, is a backpacking frill that packs an incredible weight-to-comfort ratio. “On Backpacker’s Editor’s Choice trip to Colombia, everyone who didn’t have one of these was jealous,” says SNEWS Assistant Editor Kassondra Cloos, who was on the trip. “When the ground is soggy, sitting on a chair instead of crouching in the mud is worth packing the extra pound.” The chair easily won an EC award.
Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2
Big Agnes’ line of Copper Spur tents nearly tops the market for tent sales. The HV UL2, here, is a backpacking tent for two. The HV UL4, spacious enough for four men to sleep comfy, recently won Backpacker Magazine’s Editor’s Choice award.
Big Agnes Tensleep Station 4
“The Tensleep Station 4 is a family palace,” says Kristin Hostetter, SNEWS editor-in-chief, who tested the tent on family camping and canoeing trips in New England with her husband, two teenage boys, and 60-pound Lab. “I love the headroom and the ventilation. We never felt stifled on warm summer nights.”
A small-town recipe for success
Small towns like Steamboat—which grew nearly 60 percent between 1999 and 2013 to a booming population of 12,000 people—aren’t generally where you’d expect to find the kind of talent that has made Big Agnes so successful. But people want to live that kind of lifestyle, Zanni says, and a lot of experienced and passionate people end up in towns like Steamboat for one reason or another. They don’t seem to have any shortage of job applicants when they’re hiring.
At Big Agnes, employee turnover is fairly low: Many of the earliest employees have stuck with the brand. Staff members enjoy perks like bringing their dogs to work, a powder clause (10 inches of snow + manager approval = paid snow day), employee campouts where staff can leave at noon on a weekday and return by noon the next day, and getting paid to volunteer on projects like trail work. In 2016, Big Agnes earned a coveted spot on Outside Magazine’s list of Best Places to Work.
“A lot of times, some of the best ideas might be hatched on the chairlift, amongst a couple colleagues who just happened to meet up that morning skiing,” Zanni says. “If we didn’t offer that sort of thing, why be based in a place like Steamboat Springs?”
The brand’s success is “a combination of a great crew, hard work, a lot of passion, some luck, and timing,” Zanni says. “Put that all in a blender, mix it up on high, and somehow that’s what’s helped us get to where we are today.”
Award-winning products lead to strong growth for Big Agnes
In 2016, Big Agnes ranked second in sales among brand name tentmakers (behind giant, Coleman) according to data from the NPD Group. It grew sales by 15 percent last year, which was 10 times faster than the total tent category. In the sleeping bag category, Big Agnes ranked fifth, with sales remaining steady as category sales declined elsewhere.
The answer to how and why Big Agnes has grown in such a noticeable way is an easy one, according to Newhard: It comes down to award-winning product. Time and again, Big Agnes stuff works.
“It has almost become—and I say this with a grin—ho hum to go to Outdoor Retailer and find out which Editor’s Choice or Gear of the Year award Big Agnes has won this time,” said Steven “Leon” Lutz, director of branding and merchandising for retailer Backcountry Edge. “It’s a big [deal] for any brand to win an award of that type, but when a brand is winning multiple awards, that’s going to fuel growth. And it’s certainly an exciting thing for us to be able to tell our customers.”
Big Agnes is always one step ahead of its competitors, Newhard says, giving the example of the mtnGLO tent, which has an integrated lighting system. “That dedication and focus—it’s almost sounds contrite to say, but truly understanding your customer and being one of them yourself leads to great product design, and leads to that intuitively. Tenacity has put them into a place where, quietly, they’ve become a dominant brand in tents and sleeping bags.”
Big Agnes first started making tents in 2003, but they’ve quickly toppled some of the biggest names out there that have been around much longer.
According to NPD Group, Big Agnes has increased its tent sales by double-digit growth in each of the past two years; its top sellers are the Copper Spur and Fly Creek models. Big Agnes has edged out big-name competitors like The North Face and Black Diamond.
That kind of success can be a bit jarring, Gamber says. And it’s hard, maybe even harder, to stay at the top once you’ve gotten there.
“We see different trends, and see where we are [ranking among competitors], and that makes it, sometimes, scarier,” Gamber says. “It’s easier when you’re just chipping away and no one’s really paying attention. It’s harder when you’re on top and people want to knock you off.”