An Exclusive Interview with Backcountry CEO Jonathan Nielsen
The company's Gearheads talk to millions of customers every year, so they decided to do something with their feedback—make their own gear
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In front of a room of journalists in March, Jonathan Nielsen described himself as really good snowboarder, a frequent mountain biker, and an adequate climber. The audience chuckled and the Backcountry CEO took a pause before spilling his excitement over the company’s biggest namesake product expansion to date. The collections—climb, apparel, and travel launched for spring/summer that week, mountain bike launched a few weeks ago, and ski and snowboard launch later this year—not only build on the company’s first foray into gear making in 2018, but mark a new era for the brand that was founded in 1996 by two ski bums.
After his presentation at the headquarters in Park City, Utah, Outside Business Journal sat down with Nielsen for a one-on-one interview to discuss the company’s growth, first as a service and now as a brand. He told us that Backcountry’s customers have evolved to identify themselves by more than one outdoor activity—they’re climbers, cyclists, runners, yogis, snowboarders, skiers, mountain bikers, and more. And it’s part of Backcountry’s strategy to develop the best gear possible, based on feedback from millions of customers over 20 years.
On pushback from other brands when Backcountry decided to make its own gear:
“There’s been less pushback than I expected. It’s 2019. Everyone gets where we’re going from an industry perspective. Not everyone loves it, but they understand it and it’s a sound decision and the right thing to do for all of our businesses. The best retailers and brands are trying to get closer to having a deep relationship with customers. We’ve got to do what’s right for our customer and what’s healthy for our business. Our customer wants Backcountry product. They’ve said it over and over again. When I get questions about pushback, I flip it on its head and say, for us in an Amazon-driven world, we need to have unique product that enriches our brand and will make our business healthy. The healthier we are as a business, the better we’re going to partner for you. Similar to how brands go direct to consumer and that makes you healthy, building our own product ultimately makes us a healthier business.”
On bringing brands together for the collection:
“Because we’re this hybrid retailer becoming a brand, we can bring people together. If you look at our touring collection last year, it was Flylow, DPS, Black Diamond. This year, it’s Black Diamond and DPS again, Edelweiss, Metolius, So iLL, Gore-Tex, and Burton. There’s not really another paradigm where those all come together—outside of just a traditional retail setting—to create a full kit together. I think we have a unique ability to do that. We have a consumer they all want to reach.”
On giving the ever-evolving customer what they want:
“We’ve really embraced this notion of lifestyle. Twenty years ago, people were like, I’m a skier. We find that our customers do multiple sports and they actually want to wear apparel that represents who they are. We have a lot of great brands that hit that hit that nexus of outdoor. There’s a trend with athleisure. You go to a climbing gym, everyone is climbing in leggings. It’s comfortable and it works and it looks great. We have brands like Alo and Beyond Yoga. They hit that combination, especially for our female customer, of functional, looks great, performs. It’s everyday wear, plus you can climb in it. Everyone’s doing it. One of our bestselling products in 2018 was our female fleece-lined tight. We sold out of it.”
On selling on Amazon:
“One of the levers that Amazon uses to get brands to join is if you’re not on, they don’t police gray market and they let it be the wild west. They say, hey if you come on, we’ll get rid of all this gray market stuff for you. We do participate in the marketplace as a third-party seller, but that’s a direct function of whether our brand partners are on Amazon or not. In a perfect world, we would love specialty to be specialty. But I understand. Roughly 50 percent of all e-commerce growth comes from Amazon, so I get it. Brands need to tap into that channel and if they’re going to do that, what we like to do is help them think through it because we’re actually quite good at e-commerce and quite good at the Amazon ecosystem.”
On the health of brick-and-mortar retail:
“I don’t think retail is going away, it’s just different. Retail used to be just a function of location, right? When there’s no internet, it’s like, I own this location and therefore that is convenience. The internet blew that up. Now, you have to tell a story, you have to offer the customer something different than just a spot down the street. I think for a lot of retailers, it’s hard.”
On the inspiration for the Gearhead program:
“I think everyone thinks technology is here to destroy everything. I don’t have that view. And Gearheads are a great example. We actually think that personalization for us is less algorithmic and more people—it’s the people that enrich the website experience. You used to just walk down the street and say, yeah you’re my person. We take that local shop experience and give you access to it in a 2019 kind of way.”
On what’s next for Backcountry:
“The backcountry brand is here to stay. We had a small launch in 2018 and we’re taking a giant step forward in 2019. I think you’ll see continual large steps forward. Our goal is to become a major outdoor brand on the product side and continue to do what we’ve always done on the retail side and lean in to our Gearhead program.”