Starting a business in the outdoor industry can be intimidating. There are many well-established companies with decades or more of doing business in the market. For those would-be, first-time entrepreneurs it can be hard to make the necessary connections to succeed.
That’s where Founded Outdoors comes in.
Launched in 2021, Founded Outdoors is a national platform for outdoor entrepreneurs that supports emerging businesses through its programming. The goal of the for-profit organization is to increase access to the outdoor industry as well as outdoor places. The business is leading the charge in guiding outdoor startups.
“We see the potential of building a larger ecosystem around outdoor entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry,” said Enhao Li, director of curriculum for Founded Outdoors. “Whether it’s connecting founders with financing options, connecting them with mentors, or even just connecting them with each other.”
The Daily spoke with Li and Katie Doherty, director of partnerships for Founded Outdoors, about common obstacles for entrepreneurs, avoidable mistakes, and how Founded Outdoors helps solve those problems.
How It Started
About seven years ago, Doherty was running a startup incubator in San Francisco and became aware of the size of the gender equity gap in venture capital. About 98% of the companies in the incubator she was running were led by men.
At the time, Li was building an app designed to match entrepreneurial women and people of color with mentors.
“We got together and started thinking about how we can provide more support for women entrepreneurs,” Doherty said.
Doherty and Li brainstormed how to host events and workshops, which eventually turned into programming where they helped women establish the foundation for their businesses over a three-month period.
That led them to start Founded Outdoors nearly three years ago, which combined their passion for working with entrepreneurs and their love of the outdoors.
Initially the community lived only online, starting with a Facebook group, and Doherty and Li asked the first 100 entrepreneurs about what they needed.
The women entrepreneurs wanted more support, more resources, more connections to industry experts, and overall, more mentorship, Doherty said. So Li and Doherty got to work.
Founded Outdoors Today
While Founded Outdoors still maintains a Slack channel for members to share industry knowledge, the business has evolved beyond the online community to include educational programming with a structured curriculum. For instance, at Outdoor Retailer Summer in June in Salt Lake City, Utah, the company hosted a panel discussion entitled “Navigating Financing as an Emerging Brand.”
The business now works with over 300 emerging outdoor brands.
“Founded Outdoors has been a gamechanger for the outdoor industry,” said Yvonne Leow, CEO and founder of Bewilder, a monthly newsletter with the mission of helping families spend more time outdoors. “Prior to starting Bewilder, I spent over a decade working in digital journalism. I had zero connections in the outdoor industry.”
Leow said she had no idea how to meet other aspiring outdoor entrepreneurs, but that all changed once she joined Founded Outdoors.
“In 2022, Bewilder got into REI’s accelerator for outdoor founders of color. I’m now on the board of Together Outdoors, and I have an incredible community of outdoor founders and industry mentors at my fingertips,” Leow added.
Niki Singlaub, founder of collapsible bottle company Hydaway, said Founded Outdoors has enabled him to connect with like-minded small business founders so they can easily work together on solving common problems.
“And it’s done in a very convenient way that values my limited time – through a Slack group, a regular cadence of peer outreach groups, and webinars on a variety of topics,” Singlaub said. “The Founded Outdoors team has done a great job of getting us all connected. I wish I’d had this when we were starting up years ago.”
Many find the company by word of mouth, the Slack community, or quarterly summits where founders share their experiences and what they’ve learned, Li said.
“Most of our entrepreneurs – some of them are from the industry, a lot of them are not,” Li said. “Most of them have not built a company before.” If they have started a business, it’s often a different type of business. For example, they may have built a service business and now they’re trying to launch a products company.
“They really have the space to learn from each other,” Li said. To help share knowledge, founders are put into peer groups where they’re matched by their product development level and how far along they are with their company.
The age and the maturity of the businesses range from not having made a dollar yet to companies with products on the shelves of national retailers.
Founded Outdoors also has a partnership with REI Co-op Path Ahead Ventures for a three-month outdoor brand startup program called Embark aimed at entrepreneurs of color.
On top of that, Founded Outdoors works with state groups to help them build up their local ecosystems to support outdoor business owners in their regions, including offering programming for entrepreneurs, Doherty said.
Founded Outdoors earns its revenue from those programming partnerships with outdoor companies, organizations, and state-level offices of outdoor recreation.
Common Start-Up Obstacles
A main barrier to success for many entrepreneurs is the feeling of loneliness, “especially in the outdoor industry, where folks are community and team oriented. It can feel isolating to work on a company on your own,” Doherty said.
Another challenge is the financial uncertainty, she added.
“You’re often unsure when your next paycheck is going to come in,” Doherty said. “You have to wear multiple hats. And you have to learn really quickly.”
Aside from that, entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry don’t have many options to secure financing, because “a lot of these companies don’t match the typical hockey-stick growth that venture capitalists are looking for,” Doherty said.
Other pain points include how to develop connections with buyers and retailers, a general lack of knowledge around manufacturing and how to negotiate with factories, and, for the companies that are farther along, how to scale up.
“Those are the questions that pop up regularly in our community conversations,” Li said.
First and foremost, Founded Outdoors uses its community to help its clients through these challenges by offering a place to share feedback and resources, Doherty said. It also brings in experts on the outdoor market, including those who have run businesses for more than 10 years.
One key mistake Li sees entrepreneurs making is focusing too much on small details that “feel like work without actually focusing on the core thing, which is, what problem are they solving?”
For example, a founder will get hung up on whether their logo looks good or if they have the right name for the business.
Li advises them to start with a problem, like being a woman and not seeing a backpack that fits her needs. “Then go design it,” she said. “It’s much more important to have a clear business model and a clear consumer that you’re serving.”
Many of the founders in the community are past that stage now and are looking for supply chain solutions.
To sum up Founded Outdoor’s mission, Doherty said that access to the resources that entrepreneurs need to build successful businesses isn’t available to everyone based on where they live, or their socio-economic status.
“We get super excited about being able to expand the reach of those resources and expand access to those resources,” she added. “We’re really excited about the prospect of thinking about what happens to the outdoor industry when more people are able to meet unmet needs or solve problems in ways that they haven’t been solved previously.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.