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Nite Ize founder Rick Case talks Covid business, innovation, and more

Case shares how his company performed during the pandemic and why the 37 “everyday carry” items he keeps on his keychain aren't overkill.

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Nite Ize Inc. founder and CEO Rick Case is a self-described “gear nerd”—and he has decades of inventions and innovations to back it up. But it took the marketing team at the Boulder, Colorado-based accessories and gear brand to expose Case’s compulsion for “everyday carry” (EDC) items, an obsession that’s on full display whenever he pulls out his so-called “keychain.”

A recent blog post from Brenda Isaac, the company’s VP of marketing, listed 37 Nite Ize products that Case carries with him on his keychain, including multiple lights, a pen, some carabiners, and a tool for cutting open boxes.

Why so much stuff? We had the same question. But while checking in with Case about why he lugs all those gadgets and gizmos around, we also wanted to check in on the company he founded in 1989, specifically about how business has been over the past year of the pandemic.

One thing we learned: Nite Ize is among those outdoor companies that performed well during Covid. The brand’s lineup of  roughly 600 products was tailor-made for anyone stuck inside during lockdown and looking for: A) things to help them stay organized, and B) things to help them stay occupied. Nite Ize does both with its vast collection of tools and toys.

“We are quite a diverse company,” Case told OBJ. “I’m very grateful for our diversification, the breadth of our product line, and the different categories we serve because that helped us weather the storm. We saw categories come to life in ways we hadn’t seen before. We all spent more time outside, and as people got outside, they started to use our products even more.”

Among the SKUs that have sold well for Nite Ize during the past year: a lighted flying disc for having fun at home; lights for the pets that became our constant companions amid quarantines; bike and boating accessories for the surge in socially distanced escapes to nature; smartphone holders for increased work-from-home screen time. (What’s more, Nite Ize’s gear ties—the company’s all-time best-selling product, Case said—also sold well and were even used by fellow outdoor brand Mystery Ranch for mask production.)

The sales bump of certain products shouldn’t be surprising. Case said Nite Ize can qualify customers with the simplest of questions: “Does it get dark where you live?” “Do you own things with cords?” “Do you have a pet?” In other words, the brand’s market is nearly limitless. “We laugh about it, but we really do have products that appeal to lots of people,” he said. “It’s just a matter of having them discover us.”

Below is our conversation with Case about running such a unique company during an unprecedented time.

How has business been during the pandemic and how well did the company adapt?

We finished the year way better than we could’ve ever imagined. With our team, our innovation, and our products, along with ongoing loyalty and support from consumers and retail partners, I think more people became aware of our products, which was great. That’s continued to carry us into this year. There are a lot more people out there who maybe didn’t realize what we made, or maybe found some other products of ours that they weren’t aware of. I never would’ve imagined that Nite Ize could achieve similar sales [as the year before] despite not going to a single trade show and not having any in-person meetings. 

Did some channels perform better than others since certain businesses had to shut down while others were deemed essential?

We’re an inventor-driven company that’s looking to create innovative, compelling solutions around lighting your way, organizing your gear, protecting your things, and our wide assortment of products is sold in many channels that remained open. Pet stores were open, bike shops were open, hardware stores were open, DIY stores were open. Luckily, our products are in a lot of those channels, many of which did well.

What was most difficult about the last year?

We were, of course, primarily concerned with the health of our team members, our families, and our friends, as well as the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen. We’re also a social bunch, to say the least, and we attend over 100 shows a year. We like to talk to people and we like to show them our products. We love it when people walk out of our booth and say, “I never thought I could get so excited about a drink wrap.” Because we’re passionate about what we do, it’s been hard for our team and me not to have that.

Tell us a little bit about your innovation process. Where do your ideas come from and how did Covid impact that?

As entrepreneurs, we get passionate about the things that we do. The products we make are the things that we like. It’s our lifestyle. We don’t try to invent something, but we find solutions through our own experience, through a problem we had. The ideas just keep pouring in. I was excited that during the entire experience of the pandemic and not having our teams here, we still managed two new product launches, which we do each summer and fall. We were able to keep that cadence. A lot of manufacturers hunkered down and stopped their innovation. I said to the team, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen, but retailers and consumers are going to want good solutions to problems that resonate.’ We kept on the throttle for ‘new’ and I was really happy about that. We maintained an innovate-or-die mentality. 

So, really, 37 items on your keychain?

It’s true! But I should say that I’m an old climber from back in the day. Before setting up for a climb, you’d pull out your rack with all your gear but selectively take off whichever items you needed for that climb. My keychain is the same way. If I’m going into a store, I don’t scare my wife and take the whole thing. I strategically choose which items I’ll need. But yes, I use all of our stuff. And yes, I’m completely a gear nerd. The marketing team, for years, has been trying to get this information from me. I always said, ‘Come on guys, leave me alone, don’t give me any heat.’ They said, ‘People want to see what you have on there.’ I finally surrendered.

Rick Case holding a bundle of keys
Case shows off the 37 “everyday carry” items on his keychain. Photo: Courtesy