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

If Golite was to have a prayer, its gear needed to say "buy me" to people who have never heard of Ray Jardine and who may not care to. Enter Erickson Outdoors. Among many other things, the company serves as GoLite's elocution school. Housed in an old pump factory near San Francisco Bay in Berkeley, Erickson Outdoors is a design and sourcing outfit with revenues of $9 million a year. The average consumer wouldn't be familiar with Erickson because its fabrications don't bear the name, but it's well known among the manufacturers at OR. That's primarily due to the combined expertise of its owners: Mark Erickson, Janice Fletcher, and Tom Mann, all of whom toiled at The North Face before leaving to form their company in the late eighties. At The North Face, Mark Erickson had codesigned the first geodesic dome tent, which led to the epochal VE-24. These days, Erickson Outdoors makes packs, sleeping bags, outerwear, and tents for clients such as CamelBak, Helly-Hansen, Land's End, L.L. Bean, and now GoLite.

Not that Coup's enterprise has all that much in common with Erickson's other clients. At least not yet. When he popped up at the Erickson booth during the 1998 trade show, Coup didn't exactly look like a contender. "Quite often, people have harebrained or ill-conceived ideas for products, and they're trying to get somebody interested in producing them," Erickson says. "Coup was, we thought, one of those guys. He came up to our booth, started picking our brains, asking us for our perspective on things." His suspicions were only confirmed when Coup, after a period of what Erickson describes as "haunting the booth," asked for impressions of the pack he'd produced at Jardine's behest. "He pulls out this stained, moth-eaten bag of nylon and proceeds to tell us about the virtues of ultralight camping," Erickson recalls. "We were polite. We engaged him, as we do by habit. He said thank you, and we thought that was the last we were going to see of that guy."

But Coup kept coming back, both over the remaining days of the show and afterward, and soon Erickson started to take him seriously. Two months after the August 1998 OR show, Erickson sat down with Coup and Jardine in Berkeley. (It was the first time the wonk and the swami had met in person.) The five-hour session resulted in a plan to start making stuff, thus kicking off a tristate game of Hacky-gear that's still going. Handmade Jardine originals issue forth from La Pine, Coup checks them out, and Erickson tries to render them commercial—mass producible, attractive, salable. But Jardine retains a prototype-killer clause: Should Erickson add weight, get flashy, or otherwise stray from the Ray Way, that version will be deep-sixed. Final approval, says Coup, requires two keys—both he and Jardine have to agree on each item. Getting to a launch has been, betimes, exasperating. Jardine says he spent "a thousand hours showing them how their improvements weren't improvements."

They do make changes, however. Mann, the company's materials expert and manager of overseas sourcing and production, has the greatest hands-on involvement. He also has an amazing facility for translating the nonverbal communications of equipment and clothing, to decipher the messages they're sending to the consumer. He's the Gear Whisperer.

Take the Breeze backpack, a cornerstone of the line. If you buy it, you've bought the Ray Way, because wearing a 15-ounce, frameless, hip-beltless pack with a conventional load—40 to 60 pounds—would be crippling. The $120 Breeze is intended, ideally—in Jardine's vision—to haul just 12 pounds. Since there wasn't much for Mann to work with in the way of amenities—he couldn't add daisy chains, wide shoulder pads, support stays—he concentrated on making the Breeze announce its strength, thereby refuting suspicions that light equals flimsy. The message comes across in the use of a super-strong black ripstop nylon, called Spectra, with a techie grid pattern of white lines. Mark Erickson had to fight for taxicab-yellow reinforcement stitching. He fought for the yellow, not the stitching, which was there all along but nonapparent. Now the rest of the GoLite line has contrasting reinforcement bar tacks, too. Even though Jardine balked at such visual enhancements, the Ray/Tom/Mark Way pack turned out to be tougher than the original and, most important, lighter—because it uses newer, more advanced materials.

Three months before GoLite's debut at the 1999 OR show, samples were being produced at factories in Korea, Taiwan, and China. They were followed by a first production run of, in most cases, 1,500 items for retail delivery. The GoLite starters: Breeze pack; Dome umbrella, $23; Newt rain jacket, $170; Coal insulated parka, $195; Bark shell jacket, $95; Trunk shell pants, $85; Nut fleece cap, $15; Pouch stuff sacks, up to $33; Cave two-person shelter (it's a tarp, not a tent), $185; and Nest bugproof inner shelter, $75. Total weight: seven pounds, 4.5 ounces. As of this writing, the Fur sleeping bag-oids (two pounds, $175) are still in the offing. We'll keep you posted.

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