Jason Hairston, and the Story of Building KUIU
Anyway, we took our bows everywhere we went. And at bedtime my dad didn’t read Cat in the Hat, he read stories about Howard Hill and Art Young and Saxton Pope. It was like living in the movie A River Runs Through It, only with archery equipment and deer, and instead of Montana we lived in Southern California.
Most of our annual trips and vacations were hunting-oriented. Every year at least once a year, we’d go to Colorado or Utah to hunt deer. I killed and field dressed my first animal when I was nine. My dad and I were hunting wild goats on Catalina Island. I snuck up on one and shot it. It was small but still it was an awesome experience.
Throughout High School, I worked in the local archery store in summers. I made arrows, cleaned up stuff, sold stuff, I was basically a shop-kid. I didn't care if it was cool. I loved doing anything that had to do with hunting. It was weird, I'd go to parties on the weekend and have to leave at one or two in the morning because my dad would be ready to leave for a hunt in a couple of hours. I never missed a hunt, not once.
It was the early eighties and my dad was reading Dwight Schuh and Larry Jones. They were both writing about backpack hunting and getting further off the main roads, so pretty soon we were buying backpacks and going backpack hunting.
The process and the challenge of it and the feeling that came from being more remote and removed from civilization than ever before was rewarding. The deeper we went and the harder the trips, the greater the satisfaction. And it paid off too. We started having a lot of success. Soon it just became part of our process. We started looking for new areas to hunt, places with limited access. Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho—we’d do our homework and research the topography, and we’d put these amazing adventures together with lots of animals and no people.
TOO INCONVENIENT TO HUNT IN JUST A DAY
About a year after my football career ended, I drew a tag in eastern California in this area where neither my dad nor I had hunted before. We met up there opening weekend. We hunted together over the weekend and found a group of bucks living far enough away from the truck that it was just too inconvenient to hunt in a day. So I went and got my backpack and my sleeping bag and packed some food and backpacked in by myself for about four days. And I killed a really big buck. And that was it. I was reminded all over again that backpack hunting was right for me. Not long after that I was hunting deer in Nevada and elk in Idaho, and right back at it.
About eight years later, I was on a hunt in Idaho with a friend of mine, Jonathan Hart. Around this time, I was starting to really struggle every Monday morning because my heart just wasn’t into my work anymore. We were about 15 miles in. The terrain was rough and the weather was pretty bad, so we naturally got to talking about a technical layering system designed specifically for hunting. We started talking about what we were wearing, what worked, what didn’t, what was missing, what was unnecessary. We were wearing a pretty random and eclectic mix of outdoor clothing and hunting gear. There was some Patagonia capilene, some Cabela’s micro-tech shirts and pants and Jonathon was wearing a cotton and poly camo baselayer. We talked about technical fabrics and features and different camos like Predator. I liked Predator; I liked the way it looked and the way the lights and darks worked to help you disappear in the timber.
The more we talked, the more we saw a real opportunity, and by the end of four days, we had a fairly well thought out plan for a line of technical clothing based on a complete layering system. We came back enthused, but with no real idea how to get started. So we sat down together a few times and continued to talk about it. Then we’d get on the phone and talk about it some more. One thing led to another and the holidays came and went and we still hadn’t made any real progress. Until when six months later one Monday I thought to myself, okay that’s it-I’m over this. I’m going to sell my business and start a hunting clothing company. It was early summer in 2005.
Then we went to an industry trade show in Salt Lake City called Outdoor Retailer where we met with a guy who worked for Polartec. We told him what we were doing and why we wanted to use Polartec, and we asked if he knew where we could get our clothes made. For some reason he took us seriously enough to give us a lead on a cut-and-sew house in Oakland, California. The sewing house was run by a lady who used to work in-house for The North Face. We met with her, dropped our Polartec contact’s name and convinced her (eventually) to make us a sample line. We had no idea what we were doing. We just went to REI where we bought dozens and dozens of technical garments that we liked and wanted to reference (we left the tags on so we could return them later) and took them with us to meet this lady, who was dubious to say the least, and explained to her one piece at a time what it was that we wanted to make.
That winter we went to Shot Show with our samples that didn’t really fit, weren’t really made from the right fabrics and weren’t really in the right colors. We shared a booth with Mothwing and convinced Schnee’s, the catalog to be in, to put our entire offering in their catalog. They liked what we were about and they trusted us to get it right in production – which we eventually managed to do through a factory in Asia that was willing to reverse engineer our samples.
Later that summer, after getting the gear made right and shipping it, Schnee’s called one day to tell me the catalog was out. An hour later they called to say they had sold our first three pieces. Later that week, they called to say they had sold 286 units and that our closest competitor had sold only three. It basically came down to the fact that there was nothing like Sitka on the market. People loved it—it was the first technical hunting clothing company ever, and there was a demand for it.
For the next three years, we continued to make improvements and refine our process. I started going to Asia to meet with legitimate technical fabric houses and manufacturing facilities. We started working with better fabric suppliers. Basically, we went from garage start-up to a serious corporation. With more and more employees and expectations and a more formalized process, there eventually came a push, internally, towards eastern markets and a broader overall appeal. But on a personal level, I continued to find inspiration in the mountains as well as high-end fabrics and materials. About this time, Gore offered to buy the company. They did end up buying Sitka, giving me an opportunity to move on and refocus my energy on ultralight mountain hunting and a new business model.
From my experience at Sitka, I knew this idea wasn’t viable or realistic within the existing retail model—everything I wanted to make would just cost too much. So I thought, why not bypass the retailer? Why not take the middleman out of the process and move everything one step closer to the customer? By selling direct online we could make the best products, keep the prices down and manage, to our standards, every aspect of the customer experience. So I started KUIU.
I started blogging about the process on a blog called Building KUIU. I was already interested in transparency and making real connections with customers so I thought: maybe I’ll write about what it takes to build a company and get it off the ground from the start, all the decisions that have to be made, etc. The first day, I remember, we had 30 views and I was shocked. Someone had posted something on Bowsite about me, about how I had left Sitka and was starting a new company called KUIU, and it just started from there. I can't remember exactly what post it was or what it was about, but we hit 200 views in one day and I realized that wow, this is working.
Eventually I started writing about researching and designing specific pieces in the line. I would share thoughts about each piece, like this is the fabric I’m thinking about using, or this is my target weight for this piece. Guys started commenting; with no solicitation they’d write in and say “hey, have you thought about this”, or “I like pockets here but not here”. I loved the input—it was encouraging, and more than that, it was really helpful. So more and more I started directly asking people for their opinions about specific things like camouflage for example. What did they want? Hoods, yes or no? PrimaLoft vs. down?
So more and more I decided that I was going to share everything with the KUIU customer. I'm going to tell them as much as I know about the products, as much as I know about the fabrics, and as much as I can share about who makes each product and where they come from. I wanted total transparency. I never understood why, unless you have something to hide as a company, you wouldn't tell your customers who you're buying from and how you're making things. I have nothing to hide. I want to invite the customer in and share what’s happening, from the insider perspective.
AND SO PEOPLE KIND OF WENT CRAZY
The momentum thing really hit home when we released our pricing model. We went from 200 subscribers to 2,000 in a matter of days. Consumer Direct Pricing was like the final piece of the KUIU puzzle. It was like, okay, the line looks great, my background gives me the credibility, the fabrics sound amazing, production sounds amazing, and now you’re telling me that I can afford it. And so people kind of went crazy.
I mean, you look at this market, the history of this market, and basically the hunting industry was built around specialty pro shops. Specialty pro shops have always been the bridge between manufacturer and customer. The owner/buyer of the pro shop would go to the buying shows, do the research, have the reps come in and present product to them, and then they (the buyers) would make the decision as to what their customers needed and wanted.
Then Cabela's and a number of other big box retailers came along with their massive selection of product and put all the specialty pro shops out of business. And there went salesmanship, education, knowledge and firsthand experience, all of it, right out the window. This forced customers to do their own research and education. Customers still had to pay 40-50% more than what it should cost because that’s the standard retail mark-up. But for what? The privilege of walking into a store with too much product, not enough speciality, and no knowledgeable staff. Where’s the sense in that?
…the hunting industry was built around specialty pro shops. Specialty pro shops have always been the bridge between manufacturer and customer.
I mean, the kill is the reason for taking a bush plane into Unalakleet, landing on a gravel bar and floating a river for nine days. Without a tag and the hunt you wouldn’t have a reason to be there. But the whole process—the gear selection and packing, the travel, all of the pieces that need to come together, and all of the hard work and effort hiking and setting up camp and dealing with the weather—that’s all a part of the experience.
The roots and tradition of hunting have always been important to me. I want KUIU to continue to contribute to the tradition through storytelling. I want KUIU to be a source of inspiration by living and breathing Mountain Hunting.
I also want our customers to know they can absolutely and unconditionally trust KUIU. I want them to know we live and breath Mountain Hunting, that we do our homework and research, that we’re out there hunting in and testing all of our products— in the hardest and most demanding of environments and conditions. In fact, the standard against which we measure and test KUIU is sheep hunting. Sheep hunting is an expedition. Weather and storms are always an issue, temperatures swing wildly, and it’s often wet and cold. The landscape is harsh and unforgiving—steep rock fields, glaciers, roaring river crossings, often requiring bouldering and sidehilling. Sheep hunting requires huge investments in terms of money and time. It requires massive amounts of physical and mental preparation. It’s the pinnacle of Mountain Hunting, and as such, it’s the most demanding on gear. That’s why we exist, to build gear that meets these demands.