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SlingFin seeks to change design assumptions at Summer Market 2010

Two industry veterans have launched a new company, SlingFin, which, they say, seeks to return design innovation and quality to a level not seen for a long time in the outdoor industry. SNEWS has the exclusive interview with Martin Zemitis and Tim Baka on why they feel their company will be making the best gear in the outdoor industry.

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SlingFin, a Baka and Zemitis production, will debut on Aug. 3 at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, and, with apologies to Billy Bob Thornton, while SlingFin is also very much a story of new beginnings built on past experience, this is no “Sling Blade” movie sequel. SlingFin promises, according to co-founders Tim Baka and Martin Zemitis, who spoke exclusively with SNEWS®, to be a launch of what the founders believe is a revolutionary new way of designing product — in this case, tents. If they happen to murder a few design and product manufacturing assumptions along the way, so be it.

“We have been around the block in the industry and what we have seen over the years are some of the biggest, best and most respected brands focusing less energy and effort on making excellent gear and instead spending more time focusing on button-down plaid shirts,” said Baka, formerly a co-founder of Mountain Hardwear and its CFO from 1993 until 2004. Baka also owned and directed a garment sourcing business based in Hong Kong.

SlingFin’s ( other half Zemitis has over 33 years of design experience with companies such as Mountain Hardwear, The North Face, Sierra Designs and Sierra Mountaineering, and was also a co-founder of Mountain Hardwear. He told SNEWS many companies have shifted from owner-operators to being run by product managers with very strong business backgrounds, but little real-world gear experience. As a result, product design and production began to be driven increasingly by marketing, sales and making budget number projections…not so much by a need to design and make great product, he said. In a struggle to achieve price points many retailers demand — while at the same time holding onto margin — companies are increasingly turning to less-experienced, lower-quality factories and using lower-quality materials, he noted. 

“We have decided to get off that train and head down a new path, which really is the old path that the outdoor industry was founded on: making great gear for backpackers and mountaineers, period,” said Zemitis.

“Tim and I started SlingFin to make quality gear for professional users. This means we are positioning ourselves at the top of the pyramid, making gear for guides, outfitters, expedition users and gear junkies who crave only the very best. We design and build tools that help these users accomplish their adventure objectives,” Zemitis told us.

While both Zemitis and Baka acknowledge that for the long term, the laser-focus strategy on making products only for the top of the pyramid is not an economically viable one, they insist that it is the right place to start. Then as the company grows and expands its product line and distribution, that strategy will remain core to the company’s future product designs — even those that may not be quite as sophisticated or full-featured as the ones the SlingFin team is designing today.

“No matter what we design and bring to market, though, we will always be sourcing and using the best possible products,” Baka told SNEWS. “We will not be making product launch decisions based on a desired buyer price point or a price point that is marketing driven. By relying on the expertise of Martin and his team, we will be bringing to market products that will be the very best and most reliable products on the market, period.”

The company is launching at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010, but only in Tent City, not on the show floor. It is bringing a very select set of products: five tents (BFD, LFD, Last Resort, High & Mighty, and The One), one expedition tarp named Under the Influence, and a very unique design for shipping and carrying expedition tents and equipment called the Transfer Case 119L (i.e., 119 liters in capacity).

It will also be the debut of a tent design that Baka said is revolutionary in concept, and has resulted in a patent-pending registration. Pictured right, the WebTruss technology will be used in three tents at launch — the Last Resort, the High & Mighty, and The One. Essentially, it borrows from Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic design principles that launched one of the original free-standing dome tents (The North Face Oval Intention in 1975), and reportedly improves on it by creating a connected system of hollow web tubes through which the tent poles are fed. Each pole is the same length, and the tubes guide the pole into the right position, so one person can set up the tent, even in very severe weather conditions. Since the WebTruss is freestanding, with or without a fly or tent attached, the possibilities of creating a shelter system are endless, Zemitis told us.

For example, with The One (pictured right), the tent body is sold separately from the WebTruss and fly, resulting in a tent with 76 square feet of useable floor area, 66 inches of headroom and two doors, that weighs 9 pounds, 4 ounces. Add the suspended tent body if desired, and the system increases in weight by 2.95 pounds.

Zemitis sounded even more excited when describing the possibilities of selling the WebTruss system separately, and then allowing consumers the choice of adding fly systems for all seasons, including mesh ones, and/or tent bodies for all seasons. “You can buy one support system and have multiple options to add different tent bodies and fly systems to match the season and conditions you want to adventure in,” he said.

The other patent-pending design — dubbed Exopak technology – focuses on the carrying system for expedition tents, called the Transfer Case 119L (pictured right), which is roughly 7,254 cubic inches. Zemitis noted that expeditions were shipping tents and gear in large duffels, but they often arrived at the destination damaged from rough handling, costing money and time to fix. So, he worked to create a hard case that could easily be broken down once used, then shipped or carried back from the mountain. When set up as a box and secured with a climbing rope, it provides a light and rigid structure. Once it is no longer needed, the rope is removed, the box folded flat and the boxes can then be stowed, many inside one box or stacked together in a flat packet. It can be purchased fully assembled or as a kit. “We’re even looking at how we might use this as a packaging system to send products to retailers and our customers,” said Baka.

Zemitis allowed that the company was investing time and energy into apparel, sleeping bags and packs as well, but for the time being, it will focus on launching the tent line. “Equipment has historically been the foundation of any authentic brand in the outdoor industry, and tents frequently separate the really creative and innovative brands from the others,” he added.

The company co-founders said they are counting on the buzz from the innovation they will unveil at Summer Market.

“We have no formal marketing department — other than a keg of beer and a jockey box full of ice, backed by some very creative minds,” said Zemitis. “We have a headquarters in Richmond, Calif., loaded with industrial sewing machines for sampling, the support of our vendors those on our team have been working with for over 30 years, and a company staffed entirely with people who are passionate about making incredible gear.”

Revolutionary? Perhaps. But clearly, Zemitis and Baka believe they are on to something that will resonate by reconnecting with a heritage of designing and manufacturing products the old way, albeit with far more advanced materials than were available in the 1960s and 1970s and with a far greater depth of design know-how. And it is with that knowledge, the company boldly bases its assertion that it is designing and building the best outdoor gear ever made.

–Michael Hodgson