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Outside Business Journal

The Rise of the Outdoor Industry’s Most Powerful Marketing Firm

Twenty-five years after its founding, Backbone Media has ascended to a level of remarkable influence in the outdoor industry. How did it do it?

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The brilliant blue sky turned a glowing white as snow packed around Penn Newhard’s head. Entombed in ice, he could wiggle his toes in his boots and fingers in his gloves, but otherwise was locked in a seated position as snow continued to crush down on top of him. Waves of claustrophobia spiked his heart rate. He knew he had to calm down and control his breathing.

Anyone familiar with avalanche search-and-rescue will be familiar with the scenario. It’s high on the list of horrors for backcountry skiers and mountaineers who regularly contend with the danger of slides. But Newhard hadn’t been caught by accident on that spring day; he’d been buried by choice.

This was 1999, and Newhard’s upstart public relations company, Backbone Media, had landed its first big client: Black Diamond. Newhard and his partner, Nate Simmons, had been tasked with promoting Black Diamond’s newest piece of avalanche survival gear, the Avalung—a snorkel-like device that draws oxygen from snow and allows a person to breathe fully buried for an hour.

“If we were going to be selling this piece of gear, we wanted to show that it worked,” Newhard said. “Several of the Black Diamond team had lost friends in avalanches, so this was a deeply personal project for all of us. We felt like we were unlocking new territory that could save lives.”

So, on a clear day at Utah’s Snowbird Ski Resort, Newhard, Simmons, and their team dug a deep pit in the snow at the base of the mountain, and Newhard lowered himself in. Snow wasn’t just shoveled over him—it was packed tight around his head and body as he breathed through the Avalung. Doctors on site monitored his CO2 levels and vital signs as he got his breathing under control. Through goggles, he could see nothing but white, slashed by the occasional shadow of someone walking on the surface above.

In that moment, Newhard and Simmons made a joint decision: they would only rep products they both trusted, sometimes quite literally, with their lives.

Twenty-five years after its founding in Carbondale, Colorado, Backbone Media is, by far, the largest and most influential marketing company in the outdoor space. The agency doesn’t even call itself a PR firm anymore, because its work has expanded to include media planning and buying, affiliate marketing, SEO strategy, social-media management, and many other services. The company now serves more than 100 outdoor gear and lifestyle brands, from Smartwool to Thule to Eddie Bauer. It’s credited with helping grow brands such as Yeti from niche startups into mainstream smashes.

But it didn’t become this successful by accident. Growing into a powerhouse required years of careful decisions and hard work, starting with those early burials.

The First Big Break

Depending on your point of view, it’s either remarkably unlikely—or no surprise at all—that the most powerful media agency in the outdoor industry was created by a couple of guys who started their careers in business and finance, got sick of it, and struck out on their own (with little experience and no money) to try something new.

The story starts in the 250-square-foot basement of Peppino’s Pizza in Carbondale, with a couple of Walmart telephones and a fax machine.

Newhard had a huge decision to make in 1997 when his former employer, Climbing magazine (later purchased by Outside Inc. in 2021), was sold to a large publisher. Newhard had worked as director of advertising alongside his colleague Lisa Raleigh at Climbing, and neither wanted to stick around after the acquisition.

“Lisa had worked for Shell Oil as a hydrologist, and I had worked on Wall Street, so we knew what the corporate world was like,” Newhard said. “We were both pretty anti-corporate. We had been kicking around this idea of starting a public relations company, but I was pretty nervous.”

Newhard explained to Raleigh that he and his wife had just had a baby, and he needed the security of a steady paycheck and health insurance.

“Lisa looked at me and said, ‘C’mon, noodle boy, get a backbone,’ and I thought that would make a great name,” he said. “Maybe I’m just a sucker for a personal challenge or being insulted, but…the idea gelled and we decided to go for it.”

Two people climbing through a stone canyon
Penn Newhard (rear) and Backbone media strategist Kenzie Genest hiking in Moab (Photo: Backbone Media)

Using the contacts they had made at Climbing, they started reaching out to outdoor gear companies. One of their first clients was Bibler, which made tents for Black Diamond. That connection led to landing Black Diamond itself as a client, and the money from that account was enough to bring on their first employee. That’s when Nate Simmons, the company’s current CEO, came into the picture.

Simmons had just graduated from an MBA program in France, and was looking for a job in the U.S. outdoor space, but was meeting with resistance. “I really wanted a job in the outdoor industry, but ironically, having an MBA was a detriment,” Simmons said. “It was viewed as too corporate. Outdoor companies wanted to know about first ascents and epic adventures, not lame business schools.”

Simmons learned about Backbone through his roommate, who was Newhard’s cousin. Emails were exchanged, and soon Simmons was working out of the Backbone office in the pizza shop basement, being paid a variable salary month-to-month, based on how well the business did.

“After the first month, Penn said he could pay me $1,000. It was more than he [Newhard] was going to take home, but I was in,” Simmons said.

With the Black Diamond account secured and Simmons on board, the company was rolling.

Two Steps Forward…

Backbone’s next big break was a contract with Polartec, which the company first invoiced in late 1999.

“We had done some work for Bibler, which laddered up into work with Black Diamond,” said Simmons. “We were a little bit proven. Still, it was probably a really bold and scary move for the marketing people [at Polartec] who chose to hire us at that time. We were a high risk.”

But the risks, at least for those first years, just kept paying off. The next contract was a small upstart out of Steamboat Springs, Big Agnes, which signed on with Backbone in 2000. The company would go on to become one of the powerhouses in the sleeping bag, pad, and tent markets, but at that time, it was so small that Newhard and Simmons had to drive out personally to meet the brand’s founder, Bill Gamber, along the highway between Carbondale and Steamboat so they could see and touch the company’s products.

All was well—with revenue growing fast—until November 2001. That’s when Malden Mills, then the parent company of Polartec, declared bankruptcy. Some of the checks it had sent to Backbone were returned for insufficient funds. At the time, the account represented about 40 percent of Backbone’s business.

But rather than ditch Polartec entirely, Backbone stuck with them through the bankruptcy, which they eventually pulled out of. Because Polartec is an ingredient brand, Backbone’s work for them involved a lot of coordination with other important brands in the outdoor space—a life raft, it turned out, as the Newhard and Simmons scrambled to make ends meet with nearly half of their business gone overnight.

“The work we did with Polartec…we were marketing their new products through all their partners,” said Newhard. “They had an unbelievable Rolodex of all the best brands in the industry. We were showing new Polartec products from Arc’teryx, Marmot, Mountain Headwear, The North Face, Eddie Bauer, and Cabela’s.”

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Nate Simmons, now the company’s co-CEO, on a float trip (Photo: Backbone Media)

Those relationships helped keep the company afloat, but it wasn’t the end of their difficulties. Raleigh left the company in 2003. And it wasn’t until 2005, when Backbone hired Greg Williams, one of Newhard’s old colleagues at Climbing, that the agency made its first foray into a new source of revenue that would prove key for the future: media buying.

“Greg very quickly started championing the need for us to add media planning and buying services,” said Simmons. “We decided to go for it, and it’s now grown into 45 percent of our business. It was something that really fueled the growth of our agency.”

An Object in Motion

After that, it was off to the races. By 2007 the company had landed Sitka and Simms, getting the attention of other hunting and fishing brands. In 2008, the agency started media planning and buying for the brewing company New Belgium. By 2010, they were working with Eddie Bauer on the launch of the apparel company’s First Ascent collection.

Then came 2013, when a certain cooler company based in Texas reached out, asking for help with the launch of its new drinkware and soft-side collections.

“I wish we could take credit for Yeti’s insane rocket ship ride,” Simmons said, adding that, though the brand was founded in 2006, it still retained its startup feel by the time Backbone got involved. “We just went along with the ride and it’s been amazing.”

Simmons said that while “100 percent” of Yeti’s meteoric success can be attributed to the instincts of founders Roy and Ryan Seiders, Backbone did introduce them to Corey Maynard, who would become Yeti’s VP of marketing at a critical time.

“I think Corey played a big role in the genesis of the community and content approach, so maybe there were moments we can take credit for, but that was just lightning in a bottle,” Newhard said. “Yeti’s success was certainly good for our business. But when people ask if we can do for their company what happened for Yeti, we always say, ‘No promises.’”

The Pandemic Hits

Like so many others, Backbone took a hit to their bottom line in March 2020 as COVID shut down the nation and the world. “We were getting fired every day in early 2020,” Simmons said. “Every time we picked up the phone, it was a punch.”

If Newhard and Simmons had operated in any other industry, there’s no telling what might have happened, but the pandemic was unusually kind on the outdoor space. It wasn’t long before Backbone’s business came roaring back, and then some. The company went into 2020 with about 60 employees; today it has 130 and is still hiring.

Large group of people posing in Moab
In 25 years, Backbone’s team has grown from two people in a basement to 130 employees spread across 14 states. Here, the company gathers in Moab. (Photo: Backbone Media)

Backbone now has two offices, in Carbondale and Denver, with remote workers in 14 states. It announced in September that Williams—the early champion of the company’s media-buying efforts—is being promoted from vice president to president, with Simmons and Newhard now sharing the CEO title. It’s a logical next step for the company, Simmons and Newhard said, as Williams already manages over $75 million each year in advertising purchases for the company, including digital, social, influencer, SEM/SEO, affiliate, and analytics.

“We’re not a PR firm at this point,” Simmons said. “We have diversified our business. PR is less than half our revenue. We continue to grow our media buying, social management, affiliate sales, and SEO and SEM businesses. If a client needs something we’re new to, we can now hire someone with that skill to do it. We just try to read the river and figure it out.”

The Next 25 Years

Ultimately, for all of its strategic moves and luck over the years, Backbone’s founders say the company’s success is mainly due to their authentic love of the outdoors. It has earned them no shortage of respect in the space.

“I’ve known Penn and Nate before they started Backbone, and they’re just great guys,” said Rick Saez, who started one of the industry’s most popular podcasts, the Outdoor Biz Podcast, in 2017. “They’ve always been about telling good, accurate stories and maintaining quality and integrity in the outdoor space. They have a nice quiver of brands and have been a real asset in educating customers about those brands and the outdoors in general.”

As for Newhard and Simmons, they’re proud of how far they’ve come, but they’re not pausing too long to celebrate their quarter-century of success in the market.

“We’re not great at looking back,” said Newhard. “It’s like being in the outdoors. You draw on past experiences and challenges to move forward. But wondering what’s around the corner is what keeps us engaged.”

Lead Photo: J_art/Getty