Wonk on the Wild Side

Want to experience the suicidal rush of trying to break into the outdoor gear biz? Join us now for the saga of GoLite, a crazy little startup with everything stacked against it—except for one featherweight idea whose time may have come.

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

Demetri Coupounas hustles to get his things together after a morning hike and a quick shower. Peering out the curtains of a room at the Ramada in Salt Lake City, Coup, as he's known, can see that the August sky is getting dark and growly. If he and his wife, Kim, don't leave for the convention center right away, they're going to be schlepping boxes of order forms and catalogs through the rain.

Coup is here to set up and man the booth of his new company, GoLite, at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market trade show. The country's largest gathering of manufacturers of adventure sports equipment, camping gear, and outdoor clothing, the OR show is where retail buyers come to decide what they're going to stock next spring. It's Wednesday, setup day for the show, which opens tomorrow morning at eight. But Coup, who fusses at Kim to get a move on, is already coming into entrepreneurial focus. "There's only one thing in my world right now," the 34-year-old businessman announces in his surround-sound baritone. "GoLite's launch." (Coup sang a cappella as a Princeton undergrad, and when he speaks, you'd think Mammoth Cave was doing a mike check.)

By the time Coup, at the wheel of his metallic tan 1994 Dodge Intrepid, nabs one of the few open parking spots near the Salt Palace Convention Center, the clouds have turned Wagnerian. Coup and Kim shuffle to their back-corner space (200 square feet, $6,000) in a blocklong white vinyl tent called Pavilion 2. As in years past, there's not enough room inside the main hall for every exhibitor, so about 300 of the 860 manufacturers at the OR show display in two temporary, plywood-floored shelters. The floor plan allots real estate by seniority, so all 194 of this year's first-timers are relegated to the hinterlands. Welcome to Darwinian capitalism, outdoor style: Fledgling companies sit farthest from the dense foot traffic and dealmaking they so desperately need to join.

Coup and Kim weave through aisles packed with kaleidoscopic kayaks, fleece wardrobes, putt-putting forklifts, and tabletop product demonstrations that look like school science projects. When they first lay eyes on their booth, which contractors have just assembled, they beam like new homeowners. It's a $40,000 display unit—with light maple trim and eight-foot-tall mirrors under a sign proclaiming the company name—that announces a startup better-funded than most. (So far, Coup has invested $600,000 of personal and family money in GoLite.) This flashy upscale presentation will promote packs, tents, and outerwear of severely minimalist design. GoLite, as the stripped-down name implies, is a line of drastically lightweight trail products—antigear gear, you might say—based on the specifications of a graybeard Oregon hiking swami and author named Ray Jardine. Indeed, Coup has come to sell a philosophy as much as a product. "Ultralight," booms Coup, face jutting upward as it habitually does. "I can't make money unless I've taken the loads off people. I like that."

If only Ma Nature would cooperate. Outside, the squall line coils into ominous life, and people stand and gawp. But the bustling in the tent continues, until suddenly the wind and racket intensify as a dirty helix of debris swings directly toward the temporary structure, and a woman near the door shrieks, "Tornado!" All hell breaks loose as Coup and Kim dive under a section of flooring. The twister, roaring at speeds of up to 157 miles per hour, flings kayaks skyward, pretzels parking meters, skewers delivery trucks with metal beams, and shreds the rectangular big-top like Kleenex. The tornado passes on, taking a long swipe at a residential neighborhood and reducing several brick houses to rubble before running out of juice in the foothills of the Wasatch Range.

The GoLite display is one of the few things relatively unscathed in a world gone Cuisinart. Coup's fine; Kim has a bit of ground-glass rash on her knees. There are scores of walking wounded, a few gravely injured, and one man who later died: Allen Crandy, a 38-year-old contractor from Las Vegas who just put together GoLite's booth. Coup and Kim help pull a beam off Crandy before the paramedics arrive. The tent pavilion has been wiped out.

A couple of hours later, the Coupounases stand fending off the omens in a Radisson Hotel room that belongs to Mark Thibeault, owner of the Bozeman, Montana—based agency that does GoLite's ads, graphics, and public relations. Coup, voice still booming, wonders aloud about replacing his Dodge, which caught a flying traffic signal, but he looks as if he's been pickled in his own adrenaline.

The show must go on. Two days after the tornado hit and minutes before the OR doors officially open (a day late), Coup is set up in a foster booth (#3524) in the glorious, fixed-roofed expanse of the Salt Palace's grand ballroom. He's doubling up with Erickson Outdoors, the contractor that actually makes GoLite's wares. Coup fiddles with a headless mannequin decked out in GoLite clothing and positioned under an open GoLite umbrella, the shock of the tornado now gone from his face. Head-on, he looks like a manic Tom Cruise. But then you notice a nose that slews to the right and, when observed in profile, becomes an avian shocker that shoots the Cruise thing to pieces. There's another likeness here too—Punchinello, from Punch and Judy. Picture Punch with black hair and a whisker shadow and you've got an official Demetri Coupounas hand puppet. One that is ready to spiel: Like most exhibitors, he has pushed catastrophe out of his mind. If he didn't, GoLite would be sunk.

"We lost a day to the tornado," he declares, warming up his sales fervor. "We're not going to lose a week."

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