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There is certainly some irony to having a successful business that you build because of your passion. Then you have to close because the business is suddenly becoming a roadblock to enjoying those same passions. Such is the case with Outdoor Kidfitter (www.outdoorkidfitters.com), which for just over one year served families in Helena, Mont., by not only educating parents about how to get outdoors with their young children, but also outfitting them.
“Due to many factors, I have recently closed our store. The No. 1 factor being time — or the lack there of I should say. I am a mom of three young children ages 7, 3, and 2. Being in business with no business partner took a toll on myself and my family,” owner Jennifer Harris told SNEWS®.
“The store was very successful – too successful perhaps. Sales were going up and up, but I was wearing all the hats managing the store, running the store, buying for the store, leading trips, planning events — it was long hours with 14+ hour days that wore me down and my family,” Harris told us. “The whole purpose behind launching the business was to help families get out with kids, and all of a sudden, I could no longer get out with mine. With no business partner, and no nearby family support system, I no longer could do it all.”
Harris told us that when she moved to Helena five years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of outdoor gear for children 13 years and younger – the exact time when kids begin forming lifelong habits.
For Harris, her fondest memories growing up were of the summers when her dad, Gilbert Adams, who passed away last year, would take the whole summer off to take his family camping in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
And that started Harris thinking: Many parents think they can only do outdoor adventures when their children get older and she knew that wasn’t true. Her own experience had shown her that. But, without a support network, even parents in outdoor-oriented Helena needed help and guidance to show them the possibilities. Her business plan, formed in January 2007, and the one she still feels is marketable and will work, was to form a co-op with parents working together to build a business that would help families get outfitted and get outdoors. But things didn’t quite pan out according to plan.
“I wanted several parents to come together to own and operate the store, so we could share the work load and the benefits – getting good gear for less cost. When it came down to making the decision, the other parents who were interested had dropped out, but I knew it was such a great idea I went ahead with it all by myself,” said Harris. “I still ultimately believe in the co-op concept, especially if parents with young kids want to run a business like this decided to open their own store and sell the children’s gear locally.”
In August 2007, Outdoor Kidfitter opened with Harris as sole proprietor. “We had 2,100 square feet of retail space and within that we had a contained play center so the kids could run around and play,” Harris told us. “Many parents have more than one small child so by creating this secure play area, that meant when one child was being outfitted, mom or dad would feel comfortable knowing the other was secure and having fun.”
Kidfitters became quite a mom hangout, Harris told us — in large part because the store was so welcoming to families with little ones. Harris brought her own kids with her to work, and she employed moms with kids and encouraged them to bring their children with them so they could work.
“It was great. Parents came in and felt very comfortable since their kids could do what kids do — run around making noise and touching things and testing things out and trying them,” said Harris. “If a kid broke something in our store, I did not want it in the store because that meant it was not kid-proof.”
Kidfitters carried Outside Babies and Mountain Sprouts, of course, but Harris carried many other brands, such as Jackson Kayak and Keen that had kid-specific equipment. She said she’ll always be grateful to these companies for taking a chance with her.
“Ultimately, I started this store so other parents could meet one another and form bonds and relationships and get out there with their kids,” Harris told us. “I wanted to show parents how you can camp, paddle, snowshoe and ski with kids, because it’s a lot different than going out there by yourself.
“Now that I know what not to do, I am hoping to market my concept. It is a damn good idea! I have high hopes to have another much smaller scale Outdoor Kidfitters in the near future in Helena. But for now, I will focus my time and attention on my family, and marketing the concept,” said Harris.
And she’s already hard at work. She plans to continue her mission to get families outdoors with their children with an organization she’s co-founded called Bridges to Nature (www.bridgestonature.org). Bridges to Nature is designed to offer families experiential clinics and programs that show them how easy and wonderful it is to be outdoors together. For Harris, this was the central theme to her store concept. “I envisioned having stores around the country that would be the flagpole where parents would go to gather around, and the Bridges to Nature program would show them how to get outdoors.”
Harris is also planning the second Helena Outdoors Fest — www.helenaoutdoorsfest.org — in conjunction with National Get Outdoors Day on June 13, but this year it is being presented by Bridges to Nature instead of Outdoor Kidfitters.
She told a story about a fond memory from last year’s Great America Campout event, which was part of the Outdoors Fest, but will be held two weeks later this year: “We had 20 families and about 65 folks all camped out,” Harris told us, “with the youngest being nine months old. After the event, one single mom came up to me and said, ‘I now have the confidence to go out and do this with my child…thank you.’
“I will continue working to show families that they can enjoy being out of doors and connecting with nature together,” said Harris. “There are certainly many good reasons, but one that hit home to me as a retailer was that if we don’t get them out there in the outdoors, there will be no reason to sell them the gear.”
And if she had it to do all over again knowing what she knows now? “Well, if I was 20-something again and knew then what I know now, I’d be like world-class paddler Katie Scott! Running the wild rivers around the world, educating people on how they are destroying the earth.”
SNEWS® View: We need to bottle Jennifer’s passion and vision so it’s available to others. Outdoor Foundation folk – get her engaged!!! With a few more like Jennifer in communities around the country, there’s a good chance we could have this attempt to get more youth outdoors nailed. And that’s a good thing for us all. If you want to get in touch with Harris, she invites you to email her at email@example.com.