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

Coup and I are sitting at a walnut table by a window overlooking a pond and a small prairie-dog town at his rented townhouse in Superior, Colorado. I'm trying to get him to answer the question, "Why GoLite?" when he bolts from the table into another room and trots back with a copy of Ray Jardine's The Pacific Crest Trail Hiker's Handbook. The self-published paperback is less a trail guide than a sermon on a belief system that has come to be called "the Ray Way," complete with instructions for fabricating your own gear. GoLite is, essentially, the incorporation of Jardine's exhortation. Coup, already an avid backpacker, delved into the book and discovered his new calling in March 1998. He hands his talismanic copy to me, and I turn pages while Coup relives, via penciled margin notes, how he went from reader, to believer, to mad-dog entrepreneur.

Page 29: "Thou must lighten thy load if thou would reach thy destiny."

Page 45: "This book is excellent—I would be proud to have written it."

Page 89: The reader learns that a hiking sock's most important aspect is that it be thin, thus easy to wash and dry. Coup's got it covered: "My black dress socks would work well."

Page 167: Jardine tells of seven escaped prisoners who walked six and a half days across the Gobi Desert without water, and he uses the fact that only two died to illustrate his belief that humans can survive for quite some time without water. Coup's reaction? "Never give up."

Page 213: Where the book reports that the last grizzly bear spotted in California was in 1924, Coup has drawn a frowny face.

Page 276: Coup has made up his mind to backpack Jardine's hallowed route: "Kim and I should be able to enjoy the PCT in under three months."

Then he takes the book from me and flips back to a note up front made on his second reading. It was here that he shorthanded his destiny: "What about creating a company w/ Jardine to make his lightweight equipment!"

While his conversion sounds rash, Coup certainly had the chops to plunge into this with a straight face. After earning a degree in politics at Princeton and then working in Washington, D.C., on George Bush's inaugural committee, he went to Harvard and earned both an MBA and a master's in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 1992 he married Kim Riether, a native of New Jersey and a fellow Harvard brainiac Republican on the same career track. Coup's obsession back then was deficit-reduction policy, an outgrowth of his mathematical bent. At one point in our conversation he casually tells me that as we have been talking he has been simultaneously computing an infinite additive series called Fibonacci numbers. A Fibonacci is the sum of two previous Fibonaccis: 0+1, 1+1, 2+1, 3+2, 5+3, and so on, equalling 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on. The numbers are omnipresent elements in natural design—in nautilus shells, flowers, seed pods. It's safe to call Coup a numbers guy. Young Demetri, only child of a physician mom and a tax attorney dad in suburban Boston, ran a profitable sports book from the third grade on. He outscored all other ninth-graders in the Northeast in the American High School Mathematics Examination, after which his dad took him on as an investment analyst. His picks, among them Apple Computer, yielded returns in the seven figures, Coup says. Part of the pool is now his and at risk in GoLite.

After wrapping up his double-whammy diploma in 1994, Coup did a brief stint as a management consultant and then moved back to D.C. to be the policy director of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, an organization dedicated to eliminating the federal deficit. But then in 1997 he saw that the government actually would get out of the red (as it did in fiscal year 1998), and decided he needed to move on. Balanced-budget warlord Warren B. Rudman, the former Republican Senator from New Hampshire who cofounded the Concord Coalition, remembers Coup as a wonk on the rise. "I've always thought that someday Coup would get into politics," Rudman says over the telephone from Washington. "I'm not sure what the devil he's doing out there."

What he's doing at this moment is drowning organic toaster waffles in maple syrup (no butter—Coup and Kim are vegans) to tide him over until dinner. Out beyond the prairie-dog metropolis stretches miles of suburbifying rangeland. Look farther, though, and you see the first of the Rockies chewing up the last of the Plains and realize that this might not be a bad place to live. Kim, a cheery Nordic type whose energy level is on par with Coup's, listens in until she has to leave for work. Her temperament is right in sync with the image of her employer: She's chief operating officer of Up With People, an organization of travelling performers that she likes to call "the singing Peace Corps," and which has its world headquarters in nearby Broomfield.

The couple came here in July 1998, but they had known they'd wanted to move out West long before Coup conceived of GoLite. Back in the summer of 1995 they took a road trip and hiked the high points of 37 states. They'd already climbed New Hampshire's Mount Washington and were gunning for all 50. Their state-topping finale was a 1997 ascent of Mount McKinley, which they proclaimed the Zero Deficit Climb.

Still, you get the sense that it was the fresh challenge that drew Coup into GoLite. He says it took him 12 hours with Jardine's book to arrive at his epiphany. Within several weeks, he had drafted a proposal for the author, whom he'd never met. The nut: "I feel compelled to make contact to explore the possibility of producing packs, shelters, and sleeping systems along your specifications for the great mass of hikers and backpackers who would greatly benefit from reduced loads but who will not, for whatever reasons, make their own gear.... I am not just an MBA with a passing interest in turning my outdoor pursuits into profitable work. I am a passionate explorer." On April 14, 1998, he bleemed it to Jardine, in La Pine, Oregon, via e-mail.

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