I started in this industry in 1975 with my brother Cedrik Zemitis, Bill Sterling, and Bonnie Jerome. We rented an industrial sewing machine, and I started making patterns and sewing products used by backpackers and cross-country skiers. It was easy to come up with new product designs since we were backpacking and cross-country skiing every chance we got. We made, used, and sold the gear. We started from the ground up and got our hands dirty. I learned to cut, sew, and make sample patterns, production patterns, markers, repair sewing machines, and much more. The learning curve was steep but fun and rewarding. I loved finding solutions to design problems which led me to become a designer, and later, an inventor.
In the early days, most of the backpacking companies focused on the equipment side of the business such as packs, sleeping bags, accessories, and tents. Clothing was in the mix, but was seen as equipment in the early days. Down jackets were not fashion items — they were tools just like down sleeping bags. Both were a necessary part of everyone's gear list. Companies grew and realized there was a much larger market for clothing instead of equipment though, and slowly equipment became an ever decreasing percentage of the business total as compared to clothing. Clothing added a whole new level of complexity to the business, so most companies split responsibilities between equipment and clothing.
Company owners were still working at the companies they founded and there was pride taken in the quality of their products. As the industry continued to grow and mature, the dollars got larger and product managers with pure business backgrounds took over with the mission to grow their businesses. As money rolled in, the game changed and became more serious. The economies of scale and capital resources allowed the larger companies to produce products offshore which helped them grow even faster. The industry went through several phases of consolidation with many of the smaller brands being assimilated into larger organizations. Brands such as Holubar, and others, eventually began to disappear altogether.
The important point here is the shift. Product managers with pure business backgrounds were hired to to manage the design process. Most of these managers knew numbers, marketing, product position, and sales, but few know of the details that go into making great gear. Their focus became to increase sales by selling products to a larger market through expanded distribution. Product managers are looking at the Leisure Trend numbers so they know what to tell their design department to create for the next season. For a forward looking designer, this is not a creative way to approach a piece of gear. Companies began using lower quality fabrics, raw materials, and second rate factories to make products that meet price points compelling to retail store buyers. This "cut-rate" approach leaves serious users confused and disappointed, since products are no longer well made, so more time is spent on the phone dealing with warranty departments. The customer is not happy if the product fails three days into a 17 day Patagonia trekking trip.
To meet these ever-lower price points, companies are using less experienced, lower quality factories and raw materials. For example, high end tent brands would never have considered using a nylon 6 fabric 10 years ago. To meet these price points product managers and retail store buyers want nylon 6, instead of nylon 66. Take it one step further and consider that nylon fabrics are more expensive compared to polyester fabrics. Many manufacturers are now making their tents using polyester because these are less expensive than even nylon 6. Using the very lowest quality fabrics will help the product managers meet their price targets but the products will not stand up to the marketing hype put out by the company. 60 days of UV exposure is about the most you can hope for from the average tent these days.
We have decided to get off that train and head down a new path which really is the old path that the industry was founded on -- making great gear for backpackers and mountaineers.
Making great gear is easy if you have the guts to do it, and you know how. You cut out the product manager who does not know how to make anything, and solve design problems instead of filling product slots for the retail buyers' positioning strategies. We started SlingFin to make quality gear for professional users. This means we are positioning ourselves at the top of the user pyramid. These are professional users, guides, outfitters, expedition users and gear junkies who crave only the best. We design and build tools which help these users accomplish their objectives. This is a tiny segment of the market and not one that will excite the average retailer. It's not even a market which is economically viable in the long term, but it is the right place to start.
It is however, an often overlooked and critical part of the market. The users at the top of the pyramid are the ones that can give the feedback needed to produce great gear. They are the ones that help define what the problems are so the designers can work on solving the problems. I have learned something interesting over the years working with professional guides. If they return a piece of gear that is in tatters (what most people would consider a trashed piece of gear which should be recycled or discarded) and they want you to fix it, then you know you have succeeded. If you never hear from them again after giving them a product, then you know they are not interested in it. It's a rather dysfunctional means of communication, but that has been my observation over the last 35 years in the industry. There are guides and outfitters that are willing to work with you if you are willing to listen and learn from them. That is something I have always done since it's the long term users who know what works and what does not.
I have had the privilege to work with many great mountaineers, Ed Viesturs, Eric Simonson, Robert Link, Babu Chiri Sherpa, David Breashears and many more. I feel a great amount of respect for Sherpas since they are many of the best mountaineers in the world. Babu Chiri Sherpa is an example of one of the best and strongest climbers ever. I learned a lot from Babu and his Sherpa friends. They see and use gear from all over the world and they know better than most what works and what does not work in some of the most inhospitable places and conditions on the planet. The way you make quality outdoor gear is the way you make any quality product. You find like minded people who love gear and have a passion for making it. There are factories and raw goods suppliers who are passionate about making quality products as well.
The trick is to know who they are and to set the ground rules when you start working with them. Generally, US manufacturers love to improve the quality of their products as the product cycle matures. Companies build their brand and improve their reputation which allows them to charge a premium for their products. The price goes up as more features, improvements and models are introduced. Asian factories, in order to win the contract, bid very low which means they have a very thin margin. The factories are betting they can increase their margin by lowering their costs over time. They do this by squeezing their suppliers and employees. In Asia, from the day you get a price quote, the factory (and all the suppliers) are trying to figure out how to lower their costs and increase their margins. This means that from day one the quality of the products steadily decreases as factories try to reduce costs. You have to either own a manufacturing facility or know how to work with contract factories to understand how to make quality gear. Paying for quality fabrics alone will not get the results you are trying to achieve when it comes to making quality gear. We work with factories that do not play by the Asian pricing strategies.
What else makes a great company? People! To make quality gear you need to bring people together who are passionate about gear. Phil Scott, for example, has been in the industry since the 60's. He has worked for every name brand outdoor company in California. He is one of the few people I know (other than Marty Kaiser and Mark Erickson) that can design clothing, sleeping bags, tents and packs. While Phil is a designer his real specialties are cutting, making production patterns, markers, grading. His sewing is rather crude but he does know how to sew better than most people. He has been designing and making gear for nearly 50 years. He knows what works and is constantly making improvements to his products. He is an old fashioned craftsman who loves gear! Phil has been "banned for life" from participating in any marketing or product naming sessions. His dislike and contempt for marketing is only rivaled by his dislike of poor design, fabrics or craftsmanship. Phil is working in our skunk works on clothing as is Susan Smith, a former design room manager and product engineer for The North Face and other Bay Area outdoor companies over the last 27 years. Tim Baka is a Harvard MBA and was Mountain Hardwear's numbers guy until the company's sale to Columbia in 2003. He put together the business plan for the Hardwear along with Jack Gilbert. While his first jobs were as an investment banker, Tim and his wife Dora have spent the last 6 years in Hong Kong working in organic cotton garment and fabric manufacturing. Tim has visited and worked with more textile mills and sewing factories than anyone I know. While we are working on clothing, sleeping bags, and packs, our initial products are tents. Equipment has historically been the foundation of any authentic brand in the outdoor industry. Tents often separate the creative brands from the others. The world sees your company logo in some off the craziest places on Earth. Any company in the rag trade can make a garment, but only a handful of companies can make a tent that can withstand 8,000 meter conditions with less than 10 pounds of aluminum and fabric. SlingFin has no formal marketing department, other than a keg of beer and a jockey box full of ice (and some very creative minds). We have 18 industrial sewing machines used for sample making, the support of our vendors that we have been working with for over 30 years, and people who are passionate about making great gear. What we do is build gear like others in our industry used to, but this time with people who have more experience than those who did in the 60's.
– Martin Zemitis