My Perfect Adventure
Competition has never scared Jill Layfield, the chief of specialty outdoor retailer Backcountry.com. Just ask her about her first job as a child, scraping gum off the bottom of school desks during the summer before sixth grade. “I ran around like mad,” the 38-year-old said at a TEDx event last year, recalling her first day on the job with three other kids. “I was like, ‘I’m going to get the most gum!’” She says she was paid per hour, not per gum wad, but she didn’t care: “I wanted to be the best, I wanted to set that goal for myself, and I wanted to win.”
That competitive nature has served Layfield well at Backcountry.com, one of the world’s largest outdoor online retailers. After joining the company as a marketing manager in 2004, she worked her way up the ranks and became chief executive last year, watching revenue jump 982 percent in the process. Today Backcountry.com and its sister sites sell nearly 1,000 brands and have about 13 million unique monthly visitors. Layfield lives with her husband and two young daughters in Park City, Utah, where she enjoys skiing, climbing, biking and trail running.
Here, the energetic chief executive tells us how about working out with a bunch of tough guys in Italy, how she climbed the ladder at Backcountry, and why she doesn’t have a life bucket list.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I would wake up with my husband at some quaint spot in Napa or Sonoma. We would head off to climb at Mt. St. Helena with our two dogs and our good friends. It would be a perfect temperature for climbing: calm, clear, and warm, but not hot. We’d climb hard while snacking on delicious bread, cheese and meat in between routes. We’d return to our beautiful spot where my two girls (who are four and one) would magically appear (after a great day with their grandparents), and we’d all go for a nice pool swim and lounge in the sun. Then we’d head out for a delicious dinner at Thomas Keller’s restaurant, ad hoc. It’s a great little casual place that was initially created as a temporary restaurant, but turned permanent because people loved it so much. They serve a different four-course family style meal every day, so we’d go, ready to be surprised. (And I’d spot twenty Backcountry.com Goat stickers on cars as we drove around town.)
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
I’ve been dying to visit Greece. My husband spent a lot of time in Corfu as a child. His parents went there shortly after they were married, and it was a special place for them. I would love to got there now with our two children, to revisit his memories and create our own.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
I loved visiting a village in Perugia, Italy, called Montone. My husband and I were there for vacation a few years ago, in July, at the height of summer. It’s a quaint, medieval, walled village that’s totally off the beaten path. We loved it there.
I’m actually laughing now, because I’m remembering this gym where we went to work out every day. It was in Umbertide, a nearby town, down in a basement. It was a man’s gym—meaning that it was full of men. I was the only woman. I swear, even if the Rocky theme song wasn’t playing on constant loop, you could easily imagine it was. All the guys were very muscly, and they all wore terry cloth headbands and wristbands. Apparently, it wasn’t a uniform requirement, because they still let us in.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
Shannon Galpin. She is the founder of Mountain2Mountain, a non-profit whose mission is to provide education and opportunities to women in conflict regions. She works in Afghanistan promoting women’s education and health.
Her street art activism project, Streets of Afghanistan, is thought-provoking and beautiful. It’s a collaboration of Afghan and other photographers that highlights the land and the people of Afghanistan in life-size images, video, and live music. The beauty of it all challenges stereotypes of Afghanistan, both here and there. It has been and will be in cities around the U.S., and it made an impression in Kabul itself in October this year.
Shannon is brave, strong, and daring, and she isn’t afraid of barriers—gender or political. I’ve never met her but would like to. I learned of her work through the media, Dateline NBC and Outside, specifically. I was pleased to find out that she’s up for National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year this year.
What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
I love my Eagle Creek travel bags. They help me stay organized and I can roll my clothes so they don’t wrinkle—I hate ironing, so wrinkle-free clothing is a must.
When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
I’m usually looking for somewhere to run and the best place in town to have a great meal. My daily schedule doesn’t allow me to run as often as I want. When I travel for work, though, I almost have more time. I can’t be with my girls when I’m not working.
I definitely turn to the local connoisseurs when it comes to recommending the best restaurants. Between friends, coworkers, business associates, and concierges, I can always find someplace great.
What motivates you in your work at Backcountry.com?
Execution. Our customers love when we make the experience better and our employees are proud when we execute. The three primary goals for us at Backcountry.com are 1) to create a flawless shopping experience; 2) to deliver wicked fast shipping; and 3) to foster the richest online community in our industry. Working toward these goals keeps us very busy.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
I wanted to be a teacher when I was little, which I think every little girl wants to be at some point. When we’re little, they’re who we see every day, who we respect, and who we emulate. My plans changed as soon as I learned about all the other career choices. I have zero regrets—there is little doubt that I have a dream job now.
When and how did you first venture into your field of work?
During my last quarter of college I began working for a technology company, 8x8, in their retail marketing group. My career path took me from 8x8 to SISCO to Shutterfly, and then to Backcountry.com. I went from retail marketing to online marketing to online retail.
I started at Backcountry as a marketing director. I credit my growth here to working hard and doing whatever was asked of me—no matter how challenging. Much of doing whatever was asked meant moving around in different jobs and learning every facet of the business. That experience is invaluable to me now as CEO.
What's one piece of advice you would give to a first-time skier?
Relax. If you’re not relaxed, you’ll have a greater likelihood of wrenching your body and hurting yourself.
Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
My parents are my best role models. They have taught me to be positive, to be thankful for what I have, and to work hard. There were five of us kids. My dad worked full-time at Lockheed Martin and went to night school to earn his MBA. My mom managed our home and kept our lives together.
I remember one time, my dad brought me home a doll. It was like a Barbie doll, but it wasn’t the Barbie brand. He said to me, “Look what I made you at work.” I believed him! For the longest time, I believed that he made this doll for me. Little did I know then that he actually made missiles! There was a lot of laughter in our home.
Do you have a life philosophy?
“If you think you can, you can. And if you think you can't, you're right." —Mary Kay Ash
I believe the mind is a very powerful thing. If you will yourself to do something, in most cases, you can.
Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a near accident while skiing, mountain biking or climbing that made you think twice about going out again?
I came very, very, very close to falling in a crevasse while skiing at the French ski resort Flaine, in 2002. It rattled me—not to the point of not wanting to get back on skis, but I did decide never to ski off-piste again at that resort (which is well known for having very large holes/crevasses). We do go there often because our friends have a condo there. I still will not go off-piste at Flaine.
If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I think it would be fun to be an amazing performer of some sort—maybe a great singer. It would be great to have a creative gift that inspired people through performance. The point is, I don’t have that creative gift. I sing to my girls, but only because they still let me. My talent here is limited.
Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
I don’t have a life bucket list. I’m too busy to create a bucket list!