Dispatches, March 1998
When Jeff Basford, Mike Greaves, and Bob Pecoraro talk about the way their pipe dream is becoming reality, it's hard not to wish you were in on it. Friends and veteran outdoorsmen, they all have decent jobs that pay the bills but pale in comparison to spending one's days out in the chaparral- covered hills. So for years they spent cheery evenings around the fire at their favorite campsite — a spot in the rugged, oak-covered landscape of the Pamo Valley, an hour northeast of San Diego — tossing out ideas for businesses that would let them make a living outdoors. They talked of opening a backcountry bed-and-breakfast with a small landing strip (all three are pilots) and leading their guests on horseback tours of the countryside. They pondered the notion of inventing a gadget to help scuba divers find their way back to their boats. Meanwhile, gazing into the flames, they bitched about their tent. Basford wanted visibility. "There's nothing as frustrating as being in your tent, hearing something rustling around, and not being able to see what it is," he explains. Pecoraro was tired of having to stoop "like Quasimodo." Then, one night in 1996, their mental lightbulbs began to flicker. "I don't think we thought about it as a business at first," Pecoraro recalls. "It was more like, 'Why doesn't anyone make this?' Then, we thought, 'Well, what about us?'"
Thus was born a tiny start-up company called Paha Quë Wilderness, which at the end of this month will start shipping its first product — the luxurious, 90-square-foot Pamo Valley tent — to customers nationwide. While it's not the sort of thing likely to be found on the gear lists of expeditioners, Basford et al are betting that the Pamo Valley, at about $600, will appeal to a broad spectrum of outdoor enthusiasts who are, well, just like them: folks with families who want to stand up and stretch in their tents and who tend to reach their campsites in plush SUVs. "I have no desire to sleep on the cold, hard ground anymore," says Basford. And apparently he's not the only one. Indeed, the Paha Quë brain trust is banking on the continuing health of the "family tent" market, which in recent years has been growing at a 33 percent annual clip. And they're convinced that a model made with the high-quality materials and design smarts of the best backpacking tents — elements rarely found in the Kmart specials that dominate the market — will find plenty of buyers.
As the trio erects Prototype Five of the Pamo Valley in a park in the tony coastal suburb of La Jolla, pride of authorship bursts forth. "We made the stuffsack a little larger," enthuses Greaves, shaking the tent out onto the grass. "Every stuffsack I've had ripped when I tried to put the tent back in." As soon as it's up, Basford peels open a zipper. "Gear access ports," he explains, all smiles while sticking a hand inside, "to let you grab a camera to catch that deer running by." Basford, the 36-year-old company president, has spent 14 years in the cardboard-packaging business; sales and marketing director Greaves, also 36, is a former navy officer who's worked mainly in the computer and electronics industries; Pecoraro, 56 and the vice-president of operations, has more than 30 years of experience in product engineering, development, and production. "We recognized each other's strengths and weaknesses," says Basford, "and divided up the work in a way that suits everybody's characteristics." Even in their partnership papers, says Basford, they spell out "that if this thing ever starts to destroy our friendship, or it's just no longer any fun, we should sell it and walk away."
By last spring, they had settled on starting out with an upscale, four-person family tent. "The backpacking kind of tent that you can squish down into a sandwich bag — that market is saturated," explains Greaves. They had also decided to name the new company after a phrase that a Pamo Valley pal, a grizzled former cowboy named Ron "Spike" Foster, told them meant "aloha" in the old local language (though linguists familiar with Kumeyaay, the most likely dialect involved, have never heard of it). Foster, a Gabby Hayes look-alike, agreed to his lend his Wild West visage to the company's promotional materials. Next, however, came the not-so-minor issue of money. Since they didn't want to give up a chunk of their dream to a venture capitalist — and neither local banks nor the Small Business Administration was interested in financing them — the partners had to put up most of the cash themselves. "Everybody was afraid," says Basford. "They kept asking, 'How are you going to market this thing?'"
A valid question, but another was just as urgent: How were they going to create it? For the design they turned to Erickson Outdoors, a Berkeley, California, firm that develops gear for other companies to put their names on — most notably, all of L.L. Bean's goose-down sleeping bags. Erickson has spent the last year doing the practical research and development to turn Paha Quë's long list of ideas into a product that can actually be made. "They wanted to outfit this thing with every conceivable feature," explains Tom Mann, the Erickson vice-president in charge of the project and an industry veteran of 20 years, most of them at The North Face. It hasn't been cheap. Just to develop their idea through five prototypes cost $60,000. And to make the first 500 tents, the manufacturing company demanded a $101,000 commercial letter of credit. "For a few guys sitting around trying to start a business," Basford sighs, "that's a hell of a lot of money."
Still, thus far their venture appears to be going well. In the prototype stage, at least, the Pamo Valley seems well crafted, with plenty of nifty features. Headroom runs from seven and a half feet in the center to six feet in the corners. Two oversize windows and a pair of six-foot-high doors give the tent a screened-porch feel. A tub floor with seams four inches off the ground keeps sleepers dry, while built-in air-mattress covers prevent them from sliding around. Someday, Basford says, in all seriousness, they may add full-fledged closets and perhaps even a toilet.
But first they have to sell tents. Which means breaking out the checkbooks yet again, mainly for advertising. Though Paha Quë's principals have talked of pulling the plug if it founders, they haven't set a financial limit to the dream — at least not a concrete one. They'll quit "when we realize it's not going to work," says Basford. "Our goal is to make this happen, but I'm not about to lose my home over it." — MICHAEL PARRISH
Photograph by Chris Wimpey