Eighteen months before Jason Hairston started selling his lightweight hunting apparel, he started blogging about what it took to build Kuiu’s coats, backpacks and gear.
By speaking directly to potential customers, he felt he could educate them about the premium products he was developing at Kuiu (pronounced koo-you). With that information, he says, “they could be a smarter customer, and when I did ship my product, they could tell the difference.”
Hairston previously had founded hunting gear brand Sitka, whose products were sold in stores—when he could convince stores to stock his pricey apparel.
“I became really frustrated with the retailers,” Hairston says. “I felt like they really limited what I could and couldn’t make based on the prices they were comfortable selling and that price was more important than quality.”
After selling Sitka to fabric manufacturer Gore Tex in 2008, Hairston started a new company called Kuiu. (Kuiu and Sitka are neighboring islands off Alaska.)
In 2009, he started posting once a week about the process of creating the brand, from sourcing the down and fabric to finding manufacturers and assembling the products.
By showing potential buyers a behind-the-scenes process, Hairston believed he would be better able to justify the high price of his gear. He also interacted with his followers, answering questions and asking for input on features and functions.
For example, one post announcing a carbon fiber-based backpack frame, which could haul a carcass over rugged terrain for days, brought in 64 comments, praising Kuiu for developing the modular system and making sure Hairston considered various uses. Hairston responded to many of these comments, thanking followers and explaining some of the trade-offs he considered.
Two months before introducing Kuiu products in April 2011 and 16 months after he began his blog, he wrote a blog post that laid out the pricing for the first 18 products alongside what he expected similar items would sell for from outdoor retailers, which was usually a 75% markup. The post attracted more than 200 comments.
“The internet has forever changed retail,” Hairston wrote in the post. “Fortunately, we no longer have to rely on a retail salesperson to tell us what rain gear to buy for a once-in-a-lifetime sheep hunt. The internet has given us the power to research products and brands, read unbiased reviews, post reviews, post complaints and become experts in the gear we buy.”
That 18 months of blogging and the direct-to-consumer model paid off for Hairston: His first batch of hunting gear sold out within 45 days, generating nearly $2 million in revenue. That success continued, with at least 100% growth year over year for the first four years, reaching profitability in three years. Six years in and Hairston still expects as much as 40% growth this year, with an estimated $60 million in revenue this year.
Kuiu’s continued growth occurs, in part, because Hairston plans to continue to stay away from selling to other retailers. Not only is he able to keep prices down because he doesn’t have a wholesale and retail mark up, thereby attracting customers from competitors, but he also has ready access to customer data that he wouldn’t have if the products were sold by other retailers.
“It’s a question of can you acquire the customers cost effectively online?” says Eric Roth, managing director and head of the consumer retail group at Lazard Middle Market. “You go with third parties because they have built-in traffic. But because Kuiu has a dedicated, engaged base who knows the product, they don’t need that boost.”
Another key benefit that high-end direct-to-consumer brands like Kuiu have over those selling through third parties is the ability to pick exactly what they want to show customers, according to Roth.
“When you have technical gear, being able to control the channel means you can effectively pair content with the product,” he says. “You don’t get that much control with big retailers.”
If Kuiu were selling on Amazon, all the product info would have to fit on Amazon’s standard product page. However, because the company has a highly technical product and is selling to an audience interested in those details, Kuiu can better serve customers with a more expansive format.
For example, many of Kuiu’s product pages feature high-resolution images of apparel in use on hunting trips, detailed breakdowns of fabric advances and customer-submitted images. The company also controls other items shown on the page and enables customers to shop whole lines of apparel. And that’s been improved in recent years by investments in data collection and analysis, allowing Kuiu to show shoppers related products that they’re most likely to buy.
At the end of 2015, Kuiu invested in e-commerce software from Demandware (now Salesforce Commerce Cloud), which allowed him to track how customers shopped on Kuiu.com, revealing patterns that Hairston hadn’t considered, including how searches led to seemingly disparate sales. Hairston says data he collects online enables his team to accurately predict sales. “Our analysts can tell me what I’m going to sell down to the size and color next month,” he says. “And they can tell me how to sell more.”
In February, private equity firm Main Post Partners invested $50 million in Kuiu, allowing the e-retailer to expand its marketing. That included operating a mobile showroom that traveled around the western U.S. this summer showing off the company’s hunting gear. The semi-trailer pop-up shop stopped in such cities as Denver, Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, allowing fans to interact with the brand in person.
The mobile shop also let those fans share the brand with friends and family, who may be skeptical about the value of the online-only brand, a vital next step for Kuiu’s growth. While informal brand evangelists on hunting forums and industry blogs have helped Kuiu get to where it is today, Hairston says the next step is to move beyond the expedition hunting crowd to continue growth.
Besides expanding Kuiu’s profile with the roving showroom, Kuiu also has some celebrity clientele. Metallica lead singer James Hetfield wrapped one of his guitars in Kuiu’s unique camo pattern, and Donald Trump Jr. has posted pictures of himself and Hairston using Kuiu gear to Facebook. At one point, Hairston was even in the running for a job with the White House.
Hairston is also considering expanding from its single, fixed showroom at the company’s Dixon, California, headquarters, by building company-owned stores in strategic locations around the country. However, that won’t happen until 2019, Hairston says.
In the meantime, Kuiu plans to provide products its customers can wear in more places, including such lifestyle products as caps and solid-color shirts (as opposed to camouflage), which would also expand its lineup to appeal to shoppers who are not hunters. He also plans to introduce fitness apparel and waterproof luggage designed for the outdoors.