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

Now comes the hard part, and Coup knows it. "There's an ultimate reasonable chance that we realize almost no sales," he says, savoring the risk like an Altoid. That, of course, means losing an enormous investment in time and money. Of the $600,000 that Coup committed by the eve of the OR show, $400,000 went toward the initial production run. If all of it is sold to retailers, GoLite will bring in more than $750,000—the standard factory-to-wholesale markup is 40 to 50 percent. (The markup from retailer to consumer is typically another 50 percent.) Not much left in the way of profit once you figure in marketing costs, Jardine's royalties, and other overhead.

Coup would love to break even on run number one. Before the bulk of his money returns, though, he'll have to shell out more on new factory orders and expenses. That's how he figures he'll have spent $1 million by the end of this year and why he has even more on tap to survive 2000. "In the plan, we come into the black next year. But then we go into the red again and come into the black again," he explains. "You go into the red in the second year for very good reasons: People have heard about you and they like it. So instead of making 1,500, you're making 3- or 4- or 5,000 products. Instead of making 12 models, you're making 20, 30, 50..." A company could follow a more cautious, slow-growth plan, building on sales receipts rather than capital infusions. But slow, to Coup, looks like suicide, because it gives big competitors a chance to drive GoLite out of the game.

The goal for Coup's startup is $10 million in annual sales, but he has no idea if that's possible. The right-off-the-bat fall 1999 sales are gimmes: Merry Christmas, Jardinites. Then, things get thrilling. "If all the Jardinites there can be," says Coup, "are all the Jardinites there are now, I end up broken and bloody." Jardinites may, by God, be multiplying. We know for sure that marathon hikers are: A record estimated 3,000 people started the Appalachian Trail through-hike this summer, up from 1,800 last year.

Coup knows this tiny hard core won't keep GoLite breathing, but he has great hopes for "disappointed hikers," like himself and Kim, who once bailed out of an AT trip because they were miserable under the weight of their enormous packs. It makes perfect sense as you listen to the baritone logic, but upon further reflection, the strategy of selling something to people who hate it doesn't seem like a surefire recipe for success. "The thrust of marketing is you need more things to talk about," reasons Tom Mann. "They've turned that around and are giving a one-sentence message." The message, he says, is: "Get over it!" The "it" being attachment to all things not completely, literally, molecularly necessary.

But while the pack and the tent may speak too stridently, Mann says, "The apparel has broader appeal." This could be, in part, because clothes have to be, well, wearable. And if they're any good, as GoLite's seem to be, clothes this light—the Newt waterproof-breathable jacket, ten ounces; the Coal insulated coat, 18 ounces—are notable additions to the market. As for looks, the GoLite collection has a perverse sort of stylelessness that seems, for the moment, stylish. "We managed to sweeten it up, but still, the overall look is Plainsville," Mann says. "You might see a guy working at a filling station in it, but it's ultra-high-tech."

Coup hopes GoLite's wares will cross over into other weight-critical sports, such as climbing and cycling. But backpacking is central. The grand plan is to make hiking hew to the Ray Way, now also the Coup Way, thereby creating Coup's own market, which he'll dominate because he got there first with the most and the best. Of course, the outdoor world will be the judge of that.

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