Q&A: Howler Bros.' Rick Wittenbraker
His advice: Look for new markets, but remain authentic to the outdoors.
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From hook-and-bullet users to urban adventurers, there are plenty of opportunities for outdoor brands and retailers to expand their categories and customer bases — and they should, says start-up specialist Rick Wittenbraker, but not at the cost of their authenticity.
The former marketing head at Yeti Coolers, now with Howler Brothers, sees maintaining authenticity has the greatest asset and challenge to outdoor brands.
You’ve been involved with numerous early-stage brands, private equity and start-ups in and out of the outdoor industry. What sort of challenges are young outdoor brands facing these days?
All young companies face challenges like reaching profitability, scaling operations, building an internal culture and staying true to your roots. Outdoor brands are no different, but I think there is an additional dynamic involved. I think young outdoor brands have the constant pressure to reflect authenticity and depict those great outdoor activities we all love. But this can also be an incredible opportunity. If a company can tap into an audience that is passionate about their outdoor activities and identifies with their brand, the sky is the limit. That is part of what makes this industry so great. Of course, we also have to balance building the companies with doing the activities that we love. When the fish are biting or weather is just right, that can be tremendous challenge.
What are your thoughts on crowdfunding?
As a consumer, I am a Kickstarter junkie. I am always on the lookout for cool gadgets, innovative products, and great causes to support. As an operator, I think crowdfunding offers a really cool opportunity to experiment or do project-specific funding for things that may fall outside of the budget. At the end of the day, you still have to go make and ship all those reward items, but it can be a great way to fund a new product or project. The big misconception lies in thinking that success on Kickstarter equals success in business. Even after a successful crowd funding campaign, it is a long road to building a great brand.
You worked at Yeti Coolers — how much crossover are you seeing between the outdoor and hook-and-bullet markets these days?
I think there is a rather interesting convergence going on. Probably more than ever before, we are seeing people get hyper-involved in a variety of sports. People are scaling big mountains one day and then fishing in the Yucatan the next day. Smart retailers are staying true to their roots but also adjusting to their customers’ interests. In many instances, this means crossing over to product categories they weren’t previously selling. I think retailers are also getting smarter about interacting with their customers and finding opportunities to keep their customers engaged. The upsurge in paddlesports over the past several years is a great example of this. The exact same kayak can mean a river adventure vessel to one customer and a fishing vessel to another. More and more, we are now seeing the same customer take both river trips and fishing trips. Camping equipment, fishing gear and headlamps are all areas of great convergence.
Where are the opportunities for outdoor brands to expand into that market or others?
I think one of the biggest opportunities for outdoor brands lies in “urban adventurers.” More and more we are seeing people that live in urban places become interested in outdoor activities like camping, paddling and fishing. This represents a huge customer base and a huge opportunity. I also think there is a groundswell of love and respect for the outdoors. Put those two together, and entrepreneurial brands will find a solid way to connect with those people. I think the best advice I could give brands looking to tap into this market is to stay authentic. Stay true to who you are and why you started the company. Sure, you can adjust to reach new people and deliver new products, but be authentic to yourself. Consumers can sniff out BS faster than anything.
Where else should outdoor brands be looking for inspiration, ideas and technology?
Despite all the fascinating technology coming to the market right now, I think outdoor brands should look to the outdoors. I know it may sound cliché or obvious, but the outdoors hold incredible inspiration. Looking back to the places that inspired us and made us want to work in this industry can help us find that next breakthrough idea as well. Get outside. For me it us usually around fishing or being in the ocean. Being in the water just makes everything better.