We live in an era of incredible change. What’s new becomes obsolete so quickly it can be near impossible to stay current with the most recent developments in a given product category or industry. The pace of innovation over the past two decades has been mind boggling. But until recently that could not be said about the hunting apparel market. Heavy materials incapable of handling extended exposure coupled with bulky fit styles and patterns less than ideally suited to open and exposed terrain were the standard. Mountain hunters had to buy their apparel from suppliers designing their gear for such fields as climbing, mountaineering and backcountry skiing to get what they needed for truly serious backcountry hunts. That is until 2006.
Webster’s Dictionary defines innovation as 1) a new idea, device, or method or 2) the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods. Jason Hairston and his track record with two true game changing companies in the hunting apparel industry can be defined by no other word. In fact, it would be hard to argue that his approach to everything from research and development, to product design and even the business models he deploys are anything but the truest form of innovation the hunting industry has seen in a long time. True innovation is almost always disruptive and in a market segment where opinions are strong and loyalties run deep, Jason’s innovative approach with Kuiu has attracted both an insanely committed following and some detractors. But there is no arguing the fact that Jason Hairston and Kuiu have raised the bar for the entire hunting apparel industry to the benefit of mountain hunters across the globe. We can assure you, after reading this interview you’ll have an entirely new appreciation for what it takes to both launch and operate a company where innovation isn’t a just marketing phrase thrown around loosely in advertisements but the very core identity of the brand.
Jason, on the Building Kuiu blog you’ve been fairly open about the history leading up to the launch of Sitka and your eventual departure to start Kuiu, but there’s this sort of skimmed over period between your time in the NFL and the Summer of 2005 when you finally decided to just go for it and launch a hunting apparel company. On the Kuiu website you briefly mention your work in sales and business development, but can you give us a little more detail about this time period? Walk us through the details that led to the launch of Sitka and the lessons you draw from that period in your life.
All of it was a learning process. My life in college, and then right after college, was so focused on athletics and sports, and playing football, and then when I broke my neck everything ended abruptly. It was a really hard time trying to figure out “Okay, what’s the next phase in my life?” And as I thought about it, really what I wanted to do was hunt. That was what my passion was and so there eventually was this sense of relief for me getting out of football as that finally freed up my falls. Coming back to that passion was a way of pushing past athletics and allowed me to really get back into my archery hunting and hunting big game. In college, I was limited to hunting later season stuff so kind of got into water fowl and uplands birds but had been missing out on what I really loved. So yeah, trying to figure things out was a challenge but I landed a sales job and quickly realised that I liked sales, liked dealing with a commission type of structure where if you performed well, you made more money. So after a while I decided to get into commercial real estate, frankly because it was the biggest and the most expensive thing you could possibly sell, buildings and land. I hit the timing right and got on a run with that during the ‘dotcom’ growth of the market and made a really good living doing that and then the ‘dotcom’ bubble burst and then 9/11 happened and the real estate market just flattened. So once again, I was kind of stuck.
And was this in the Sacramento Davis area where you are now?
Actually no, I took a job with a Canadian company, Colliers International, and they hired me to work in their Boise office which I thought was great. I lived in Boise for four years, and sold industrial and land real estate for them. But as I said, the market went flat with the whole dotcom bubble and 9/11 so I was stuck with a flat market trying to figure out, “Okay what am I going to do for the next two or three years as this thing works its way out?”
I had a client that owned a couple franchises and my wife and I wanted to get back to California and start a family closer to home. So, I bought two franchises in the Sacramento area as an investment. We sold custom shutters and window coverings for the building and housing industry and we just hit the timing perfectly with the real estate market rebound and housing boom.
So we’d bought those as an investment, started them and sold them 24 months later. But during that time I was trying to figure out, “Okay what’s next?” So I looked at the commercial real estate market here (Sacramento area), considered that but around the same time Jonathan, my ex business partner at Sitka, and I were up on a hunt and we came up with this concept for Sitka and I just kept going back to it and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be neat to be in this business and to be making equipment and gear that doesn’t exist?” that we felt like it was needed in this market. So I sold my businesses and took the investment money we made off those two franchises and started Sitka.
So you did go proverbially “all in” on Sitka then?
I did, yeah. I sold my businesses, called Jonathan and said, “Hey, that concept we came up with, I want to do it and I’ll fund it and then when I get it up off the ground, you can come join me.” And that’s basically how we started Sitka with no experience and no idea what we were doing. We went to the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake and met some fabric suppliers and got an introduction to a little cut and sew house in San Leandro, which is in the Bay Area near me. The lady used to be in-house for North Face and she helped us develop our product line that we took out to the SHOT Show in 2006. And right after, we were picked up by Schnees and that launched Sitka and we basically became an overnight success.
Let’s get into that exact time. On the Kuiu web site you mention that pitch to Schnees and how you presented the wrong colours, with the wrong fit, and the wrong fabrics. How exactly did that conversation go given these limitations? It was obviously a pivotal moment!
I was a customer of Schnees for years. I used to buy their pack boots for hunting and knew that they had a little catalogue and knew that their catalogue went out to a lot of the right type of consumers for our brand and what we wanted to do and who we wanted to work with, mountain hunters. And really, the timing just worked out, the stars just kind of aligned. John Edwards had just bought Schnees from the original owner and we went up to SCI Show in Reno and I met one of the sales associates, and told him what we were up to and he said, “You know, you should talk to John at SHOT Show because he’s wanting to expand their offerings and your product sounds like it might be a really good fit.”
Fortunately, I was able to talk John into giving us a chance to put our products in their catalogue. He placed a ten thousand dollar purchase order. So then we had to go figure out how to get our product line made. One thing led to another and we enlisted a company in St Louis to help broker the production overseas and we got product delivered and the rest is kind of history.
I remember when the catalogue dropped, they (Schnees) called us the first day of the drop and said, “Hey, we just sold our first three pieces of Sitka. Congratulations. We’re excited.” And two days later they called us back and said, “How much did you guys order? We’ll take all of it!” They’d sold, I think, 287 units in the first two days. And then they call us and say, “We’re projecting that we’ll sell everything you guys made.” In a few months we completely sold out of everything that we made that year, just through the Schnees catalogue. Then the phone rang and it was Sportsman’s Warehouse, and then Cabela’s, and then Bass Pro people started talking about our product and, so within just a few months, we were in every single major retailer.
Wow. The proverbial “overnight success” rarely is an actual overnight success but that really and truly was, a bootstrapped overnight success.
Yeah, it sure was. We were at the right place at the right time with the right product and this market was starving for a brand. This was something different, performed different, and was a brand people could associate with for the type of hunting that they did. As mountain hunters, you know, we didn’t have the right products. We were wearing a lot of different stuff to try to make a system work in the mountains and very little of it was actually stuff we bought from Cabela’s or the hunting retailers. A lot of it was mountaineering gear. We just bridged that gap as we thought we couldn’t be the only guys struggling with putting together quality gear for the mountain hunter and fortunately we were right.
There’s no question that at that time there were very few apparel options for the more active or mobile hunter. And this brings up another question, this concept of the “athletic” hunter that is heavily marketed today, were you focused on that concept right from the beginning?
We were definitely focused on this concept, at Sitka initially and definitely with Kuiu today and moving forward. At Sitka we wanted our cuts to be very athletic and very trim. We had complaints from guys who wanted to wear the products but couldn’t and that was something Jonathan and I went back and forth on at Sitka, but I know since I’ve left and really towards the end of my run there (Sitka), they were expanding their fits to fit a wider range of customer. But at Kuiu my philosophy is focused entirely on our target customer, guys like you and me. The apparel is not going to fit everybody but it’s going to fit our core customer really, really well. I’m big on fit and spent two years in the development of the Kuiu apparel line and fit was one of my top priorities besides fabrics. Which is why we fit our core customer so well. Also by focusing on fit and eliminating excess fabric you eliminate and you’re able to get a really high performing product.
For many hunters there’s no question that’s a make or break. There are some really nice pieces from some many different manufacturers but if the fit isn’t right for the individual then it’s a non-starter, no matter the brand of fabric quality.
Exactly, it’s key to a great product in my opinion, but it’s hard. It takes going back and forth with the manufacturers, the pattern makers, and really dialling in exactly how you want stuff to fit on a person and how you want it to look. If you just have a “one size fits everyone” approach you’re just going to end up where your core customer isn’t happy.
Let’s fast forward to the launch of Kuiu. I’m really curious to hear your, reasoning or inspiration, behind the blog and the “open source” sort of concept you used in the early days. Did you draw inspiration from anything other than just wanting to offer an open design platform and forum to the customer? Say from other businesses or industries?
Yeah, I did. It was interesting. Upon my departure of Sitka, I met with the company I buy all my outerwear fabrics from now, Toray, because when I was at Sitka, we tried to build a programme with Toray because I felt that if somebody came into the market and was able to use those fabrics and materials that they would have a better product than what we could produce at Sitka. We built out a programme with the same fabrics, or at least similar fabrics to what I’m running here at Kuiu, but the pricing was just ridiculously expensive because Toray fabrics are so expensive. But, their performance is unreal.
I was introduced to Toray through Richard Siberell who is the head designer at Sitka now, and who was with Patagonia for years. He felt Toray was the best and that we should try to run some Toray programs because if someone comes out with a Toray based line, they could compete against us and have a better product so we ran the program but couldn’t make it work financially. The product was going to be even more expensive than what Sitka was now and the retailers were already complaining that our line was too expensive. So, we ended up shelving the program but I just couldn’t get those fabrics out of my mind and when things happened at Sitka and I was able to exit, my goal was to build a business model around taking those fabrics to market in a new product line. I just knew that it would be a really big success. I knew that the mountain hunters would really appreciate what those fabrics can do for them and how they perform and how they felt.
So circling back to your question, around that same time I went to dinner at a restaurant with my wife in Sacramento called The Kitchen, where they have a pretty interesting format. It’s one seating a night, the whole restaurant is set around this kitchen, and the chef does nothing but tell you where all of his ingredients come from, where he buys the meat, where the fish comes from, why he buys the fish from those people, why he buys the vegetables from these people. I thought wow, that’s really cool. You build trust and anticipation of the product because he’s telling us exactly where every one of his ingredients is coming from. And that’s where the inspiration came from. So I thought, I’m building a different business model, working with these amazing suppliers and I want to do the same thing, and I want to build trust with our customers because with this model, I have nothing to hide. I can buy the best fabrics, use the best manufacturers, use the best materials, work with really innovative suppliers because we don’t have price constraints and I want to tell the world about it.
So, that’s what inspired the blog. I had nothing to hide about what we were buying, how we were making stuff and felt like that was something that was frustrating with the retail market. We had limits on what we could spend on fabrics on how we had things made, how we had things designed. Without these limits, I wanted to share with the world and try to educate our customer about what a great fabric is. You know, what are the downsides to buying less expensive fabrics? What are the implications of certain fabric decisions and really just try to build trust and try to educate our earliest adopters and so that they could turn around and be our best salesmen.
So it’s safe to assume the direct to consumer model was planned from the beginning?
It was, yes. I just felt like this market needed as few restrictions on innovation and technology as possible and the only way to do that would be to eliminate the retailer.
From the very beginning Jason you were highly interactive with your customer base and to date, you’ve been able to maintain that to an extent. As Kuiu has grown, how do you stay true to that commitment, that consumer focus, while at the same time, managing what is becoming an ever-broadening product line mixed and then balance that against the realities of family and getting away for the hunting trips that you do?
Yeah, it’s certainly a balancing act and at the beginning, it was sixteen to eighteen hour days. I was doing everything from designing the business model, designing the product to working at the factories overseas to get stuff made; running the blog, building a business plan, hiring people, it was… my hours were ridiculous. And I worked seven days a week from six in the morning until eleven o’clock at night, every day and just ground it out until we were in a position to start hiring staff.
What I learned from Sitka and what I’ve done differently here at Kuiu is really hiring people with experience and hiring great people to help build a platform so that I could do the things that I’m really good at and not get bogged down in day-to-day stuff that keeps me from driving innovation and driving the business and growing the brand and I think we’re at over twenty people now here at Kuiu and I’ve got a staff now that just is absolutely fantastic. I’ve got some people here with industry experience from the apparel market that’s really helped me grow this business and helped make Kuiu feel like it’s a business that’s been around for a long time. And, it’s given me the opportunity to continue to push and grow. The biggest thing I’ve underestimated was just how fast we could grow this business being a consumer-direct model. I didn’t know that it would grow and take off quite like it has. Our biggest challenge over the first couple of years, and even halfway through this year, was inventory. We just couldn’t buy enough product and as soon as we brought it in, it was sold out and we’ve been chasing inventory since day one. I didn’t want to dilute the company and bring investors in to chase that inventory so we’ve had to navigate those growing pains but that’s part of bootstrapping a company and building a brand. We’re now at a point where we’re at the highest inventory levels we’ve ever had. Most of our key items are at ‘click and order’ status and that’s a first for us so we were able to truly see the strength and growth of our model here in 2014.
I want to circle back on what you said about driving innovation. Explain your approach to that whole process because each and every product seems to include some form of innovation whether that’s in the materials used, the weight achieved, the durability, etc. so walk us through your approach.
Sure. Innovation comes in a couple different ways for us or for me. I’m still the one with my hands on the bulk of the product design process from design to testing and then we have three in-house designers that work with me as well. There is a lot of innovation out there and a lot of it is expensive.
Carbon fibre for instance, it’s incredibly expensive developing it, understanding it and working with. The business platform I created was completely designed to innovate and to have no restrictions. Fortunately, the outdoor apparel and gear market is incredibly competitive and there are a lot of companies fighting for market share in that world. We’re able to tap into that competitiveness and look at innovation that’s driven by that market whether it’s the Quixdown we use in our Super Down products, or lighter weight fabrics and materials and take those innovations out of the non-hunting market and put them into market. This allows us to create and continuously innovate because of that competition. And because we’re not constricted by retailers having to make a purchase on our product and make certain margins, I can take a new fabric concept that I’m introduced to and take it to market very quickly.
Super Down is one of my favourite stories as I was introduced to it at the end of January or beginning of February, and we had it to market in November the same year which is incredibly fast on a development cycle. So because we’re not tied to the retailer I can say “let’s move forward as fast as possible and take it to market”, and this allows us to innovate at a really fast rate.
My vision for our product line is “everything a mountain hunter needs to go on his mountain hunt”. So whether it’s apparel, packs, tents, sleeping bags, or footwear I want to offer an innovative solution where possible. We’re going to continue to expand those product categories, so for example we’re introducing our first sock line next month but we’re also now starting to sell gear that we will probably never make like Piranta knives, MSR stoves, Thermarest air mattresses, so that our customers can come to us and if they’re getting ready to go on a sheep hunt, we can take care of them from apparel to everything that is on their gear list. That is part of the vision and goal for Kuiu.
And then of course to continually improve the products we’re making, and continue to add new innovations into our product line. I’m constantly looking at new ideas, new concepts, new technologies. I’m going to our suppliers with new concepts, new ideas, new innovations on how to make products better, make products perform better, weigh less and that’s just my work.
So, on that note, what would you say has been the most difficult or challenging product you’ve worked on to date?
Good question. Probably our pack line. It has been the biggest challenge, carbon fibre in packs is obviously a new innovation and we’ve got patents around our designs, but understanding carbon fibre, understanding how it works to create a single frame to even test, is a bit of a design process and then it’s very expensive. We’ve got to cut moulds, we’ve got to put them in a press, we’ve got to develop the frame and if it’s not perfect you’ve got to go back and start from scratch to a certain extent. You’ve got to go back and re-cut moulds – that process is really expensive. Our newest frame that we just came out with this year (the Ultra frame) we completed fifteen different cuts on the mould, that’s fifteen different versions to get it where it is today. So that process has been the biggest challenge and learning and understanding carbon fibre and its complexities and how to design it, how to mould it has been a challenge but I really feel like we’ve nailed it now and the results of our latest packs have just been outstanding. They’re strong, they’re really stiff but incredibly comfortable and really light.
I can appreciate that, carbon fibre is not an easy material to work with when it comes to anatomy and the curvatures of the body. On top of that it’s one of those materials that essentially has two functional states, working or broken, there is little to no middle ground.
Exactly, exactly. That’s been the biggest learning curve but I believe in the platform. I think it’s the future for packs. There are so many advantages to it and if you look at every other industry whether it’s aerospace, cycling, autoracing you’ll find carbon fibre everywhere weight and performance are important. It hadn’t been introduced into the backpacking world until we started working with it.
Excellent, so in adjunct to that what product would you say you’re the most proud of?
Our pack line!
Funny how those two things usually go hand-in-hand!
Yeah. I feel like it’s our most innovative product. I mean, the fabrics we buy from Toray are amazing and Nuyarn, our new Merino wool products, are absolutely off the charts but those products are really created by our suppliers whereas the carbon fibre pack frame was completely created from the blue sky from my head. I just wanted to solve problems in the pack world that I felt weren’t really being solved.
And on the flipside of that coin, what product, if any, would you say you are least proud of, or most disappointed in?
I don’t really have a product that I’m disappointed in or not proud of. I feel like everything we’ve taken to market has been really, really good for that point in time. With innovation, you’re going to have some pieces or components that maybe don’t work out perfectly that you’ll change and make adjustments to, but fortunately I got to spend two years working, designing and kind of vetting our product line so when it came out to market, I felt it was really good to start with. And so there’s nothing that’s been a major disappointment or hasn’t performed as well as expected.
Alright. What would you say has been the most unexpected or surprising lesson or insight to date through the entire process? Let’s include everything from your time at Sitka to today with Kuiu.
The power of the internet. Totally missed it. We only did a few hundred thousand dollars a year in sales at Sitka online so without retailers where people could buy it from I had absolutely no idea that Kuiu could or would blow up this fast. No idea. Without retailers, without people being able to walk in and touch it and feel it, I did not think it could grow this fast. I thought this would be a nice slow, organic growth company, just a little lifestyle brand and that would have been great. I figured we’d eventually sell maybe a couple millions dollars a year worth of product which would have been more than fine for me. But it’s been just the opposite. This has grown three times faster than Sitka grew and without retailers so it’s been just incredible. It’s been my biggest miss without question. And now the International reach, like you mentioned with the global reach of your site, we’re shipping product throughout the world and to customers all over Europe and Russia and the South Pacific, and New Zealand and Australia, it’s just absolutely amazing.
On that note, given some of the recent frustrations we’ve experienced up here in Canada relative to getting products across the border and the customs fees involved, do you plan on establishing some form of International distribution any time soon?
We are in fact working on it right now, specifically for Canada. There’s some freight consolidation opportunities that we’re looking at and if those don’t pan out, we’ll end up opening a warehouse distribution centre in Canada on our own. We probably will end up doing that regardless but it’s a cleaner operation if we can keep everything in one location and then freight consolidate taking it across the border with duties and taxes paid for you guys so we hope that opportunity works out. Some new legislation passed in May in Canada that changed the process a bit and now customers are getting hit on a more regular basis on duties and taxes coming across the border. Before this legislation change it was only a small percentage of products being affected but now that’s changed so we’ve been working all summer to try and solve that problem for our customers up in Canada.
That’s great to hear and would be big news for the folks up here. I know there are lot of people in Canada losing out on the pricing advantages of your direct to consumer model due to these customs and duty charges and forgoing purchases entirely due to this issue.
Exactly. We recognise it and we’re not happy with it either. So, we’ll get it fixed and hopefully fixed before the end of the year.
So what’s on the horizon for Kuiu? What can customers look forward to over the remainder of 2014 and into 2015? Whether that’s new products or design improvements to existing products or product lines.
Well my focus is always trying to reduce weight without giving up on performance and we’re always working on trying to create lighter equipment that can still perform well and we’ve done that in a couple of categories that will come out later this year. We’ve got some prototype down products that are half the weight of Super Down that we’re testing right now. We’ve got some new rainwear that uses NX laminate and the jacket and pant combined weigh less than our current Chugach jacket. It’s a three layer product that’s really durable, really light and really packable. We’re also working on some tent designs, as well as some new boots with a different Italian boot supplier that we’re evaluating right now that we might release next year.
Fantastic, well we can’t wait to see the new products. Let’s transition into some more personal questions now. What to date has been your most challenging or satisfying, hunt and why?
Going further back, probably when I started getting into backpack mule deer hunting in Nevada and doing a lot of solo hunting. With those trips back then, a lot of it involved using sub-par gear and heavy packs, usually solo. I’d do a ten day backpack deer hunt and basically be learning how to backpack hunt effectively on the fly. I had to quickly figure out what equipment to bring and how to survive on your own in the mountains for ten days. But, the rewards that came from learning and going through that process and then shooting a deer combined to make those trips some of my most memorable and rewarding hunts. More recently, it’s going on a really technical sheep hunt like the Stone Sheep hunt I just got back from. Really, really challenging. Really tough weather conditions. Really steep stuff.
Tell us about your first sheep hunt.
It was a Stone Sheep hunt I’d won through California FNAWS and it was a less than spectacular hunt but it was an amazing experience.
Yeah, exactly. Careful what you win is probably more appropriate!
You’re going to have to explain that!
Well, it was booked as a one-on-one sheep hunt but when I got there, I was paired with another hunter and their guide and the hunter was an older lady and she couldn’t hike and cover ground. It was just a really frustrating experience as my first experience in a sheep country but I absolutely loved the country and how challenging it was and how physical it was. Although I ended up not shooting a ram, it was an amazing experience.
Wow, that would be frustrating! Moving on, what species have you not hunted and remain at the top of your bucket list?
No question, Desert and Rocky Mountain Big Horns.
If you had to choose between hunting with archery gear or a rifle for the remainder of your hunting life, what would it be?
You know it’s interesting because I hadn’t picked up a rifle for twenty plus years until three years ago when I went to Arctic Red (River Outfitters) and shot my first Dall sheep and I just really enjoyed the trip and the hunt. I absolutely love archery hunting, I love the excitement, and love the challenge and will continue to primarily bow hunt, but on some of these trips up North the fact that I’m carrying a rifle doesn’t take away from the experience, I think it adds to it. I really enjoy archery hunting for everything but probably some of these trips up North to hunt sheep. Eventually, I might take a bow on a sheep hunt but for now, it’s been very satisfying and very rewarding carrying a rifle on the sheep hunts and I’ve just enjoyed it. It hasn’t taken away from it at all. So, I’ll continue to primarily bow hunt but for some of these hunts up North, for the foreseeable future I’ll continue to take a gun.
Great, and given that response what is your go-to rifle rig right now?
I’m shooting a custom rifle built by a builder named Steve Boswell, a .300 WSM. It’s just awesome. It’s really light and super accurate.
For someone just getting get started in backpack hunting, say for example the hunter that’s maybe gone on a weekend trip or two but hasn’t extended their backpack hunts into true multi-day expedition style trips, what are some words of advice and wisdom you would want to share?
I’d make a list of gear that’s going to go into your pack and do a bunch of research on what should be on that list and then stick to it. Buy a scale. Weigh everything that goes in your pack and really focus on reducing that weight as much as you can because it will make a massive difference on how you feel, how far you can go, and the whole experience in general.
I meet guys coming and going from some of these hunts up North and I look at what they’ve brought as far as equipment and gear and everybody’s over-packed. Everybody brings too much stuff and it ends up making them really have a tough time when they get into the mountains. People often think, “Oh, an extra pair of pants doesn’t weigh that much, and an extra shirt doesn’t weigh that much and so on” and they end up not needing these extra pieces, not using them and it just weighs them down and ends up crushing them.
When you talk to the guides that are professional sheep guides they’ll often tell you most of their clients are completely done physically and mentally by day four or five. They’ve just been cooked. It’s a lot more work than they expected and their packs are heavy, and their equipment isn’t quite dialled, and they just get worked over. There’s no reason to carry a seventy or eighty pound pack into the mountains anymore when you can shave it down to be less than fifty pounds. If you’re just smart about the quality of gear you buy, and what you put in your pack you can make the entire experience considerably more manageable and enjoyable.
I couldn’t agree more. Okay, last question, if you could hunt with one historically significant figure in hunting or conservation alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Fred Bear. No question. He was just such a pioneer in the archery world and was really into expeditions up north where he would spend a month at a time in the mountains. He was a true innovator and entrepreneur. I think he’d just be an amazing guy to share a hunting camp with and talk shop and spend time with. He’s been a huge inspiration on what I’ve done as far as building a company and innovating and changing an entire market and industry.
From the Editors:
If you haven’t heard of Kuiu yet you’ve either been living completely “off the grid” deep in the mountains or under a rock. The company has combined a revolutionary consumer direct business model with some of the best apparel, gear and accessories money can buy. To learn more about their full product line go www.kuiu.com.