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

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The blue sky turned to white snow, and Penn Newhard’s head was wrapped in snow. Buried in the ice, he could wiggle his toes in his boots and his fingers in his gloves, but otherwise, he was locked into a seated position as the snow continued to weigh on him. Wave after wave of claustrophobia made his heart race. He knew he had to calm down and control his breathing.

This scenario will be familiar to anyone familiar with avalanche search and rescue. It’s high on the horror list for backcountry skiers and climbers who often struggle with the dangers of landslides. But Newhard was not stumbled upon that spring day. He was chosen to be buried.

It was 1999, and Newhard’s upstart PR firm Backbone Media had its first big client: Black Diamond. Newhard and his partner Nate Simmons were tasked with promoting Black Diamond’s latest avalanche survival kit, the Avalung – a snorkel-like device that draws oxygen from the snow, allowing a person to breathe for an hour in complete burial.

“If we’re going to sell this piece of gear, we want to show that it works,” Newhard said. “Several people on the Black Diamond team lost friends in the avalanche, so this is a very personal project for all of us. We feel like we’re breaking new ground that can save lives.”

So on a clear day at Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah, Newhard, Simmons and their team dug a deep hole in the snow at the base of the mountain, and Newhard lowered himself. The snow wasn’t just shoveling on him – it was wrapping tightly around his head and body as he breathed through Avalung. Doctors at the scene monitored his carbon dioxide levels and vital signs as he controlled his breathing. Through the goggles, he could only see white, occasionally scratched by the shadow of someone walking on it.

Since then, Newhard has decided that he and Simmons will only use their lives to represent products they both trust, sometimes literally.

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, as its work has expanded to include media planning and buying, affiliate marketing, SEO strategies, social media management, and many other services. The company now serves more than 100 outdoor gear and lifestyle brands, from Patagonia to Thule to Eddie Bauer. It has helped grow brands like Yeti from niche startups to mainstream brands.

But its success is not accidental. Growing into a powerhouse took years of careful decision-making and hard work, starting from those early burials.

The first big breakthrough

From your point of view, it’s not very unlikely – or not at all surprising – that the strongest media agency in the outdoor industry was created by a few people who started their careers in business and finance and got tired of it, And try new things yourself (with little experience and no money).

The story begins in the 250-square-foot basement of Peppino’s Pizza in Carbondale, where there are several Walmart phones and a fax machine.

Newhard made a big decision in 1997 when his former employer, the climb The magazine (later acquired by Outside Inc. in 2021) was sold to a major publisher. Newhard was previously advertising director with his colleague Lisa Raleigh the climband did not want to stay after the acquisition.

“Lisa worked as a hydrologist at Shell and I worked on Wall Street, so we know what the corporate world is like,” Newhard said. “We’re all anti-corporate. We’ve been considering the idea of ​​starting a PR agency, but I’m nervous.”

Newhard explained to Rowley that he and his wife had just had a baby and that he needed a steady salary and health insurance.

“Lisa looked at me and said, ‘Come on, noodle boy, come on,’ I think this is going to be a great name,” he said. “Maybe I’m just a fool to be personally challenged or insulted, but … the idea has frozen and we’ve decided to go for it.”

Penn Newhard (back) and Backbone media strategist Kenzie Genest hiking in Moab (Photo: Backbone Media)

use them in the climb, they started contacting outdoor gear companies. One of their first clients was Bibler who made tents for Black Diamond. This connection led Black Diamond to become a customer themselves, and the account was funded enough to attract their first employee. That’s when the company’s current CEO, Nate Simmons, showed up.

Simmons, fresh out of an MBA program in France, was looking for a job in the U.S. outdoor space, but encountered resistance. “I’d really like to get a job in the outdoor industry, but ironically, having an MBA is a disservice,” Simmons said. “It was considered too corporate. Outdoor companies wanted to know about first ascents and epic adventures, not crappy business schools.”

Simmons learned of Backbone through his roommate, Newhard’s cousin. Emails were exchanged, and soon Simmons was working in the backbone office in the basement of the pizza joint, paying a variable monthly salary based on the performance of the business.

“After the first month, Penn said he could pay me $1000. More than him [Newhard] Was going to take it home, but I went in,” Simmons said.

With the security of the Black Diamond account and the addition of Simmons, the company is up and running.

Two steps forward…

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

“We did some work for Bibler and then gradually worked with Black Diamond,” Simmons said. “We got a little proof. Still, it could be a very bold and scary move for marketers [at Polartec] Who chose to hire us at the time. We are a high risk person. “

But those risks have been paying off, at least for the first few years. The next contract was Steamboat Springs upstart Big Agnes, who signed with Backbone in 2000. The company would go on to be one of the powerhouses in the sleeping bag, mat and tent market, but at the time, it was so small that Newhard and Simmons had to drive out in person, on the highway between Carbondale and Steamboat with the brand’s Founder Bill Gamber meets so they can see and touch the company’s products.

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

But Backbone didn’t give up Polartec entirely, but persevered through bankruptcy, and they eventually pulled out. Since Polartec is an ingredient brand, the work Backbone did for them involved a lot of coordination with other important brands in the outdoor space – the result was a life raft as Newhard and Simmons scrambled to make ends meet, but their business had disappeared by nearly half overnight.

“What we’ve done with Polartec … we’re marketing their new products through all of their partners,” Newhard said. “They have incredible Rolodex from all the best brands in the business. We showcased new Polartec products from Arc’teryx, Patagonia, Marmot, Mountain Headwear, The North Face, Eddie Bauer and Cabela’s.”

man with cooler on river bank
Nate Simmons, now co-CEO of the company, goes on a rafting trip (Photo: Backbone Media)

These relationships help the company stay afloat, but it’s not the end of their troubles. Raleigh left the company in 2003. Until 2005, Backbone hired Greg Williams, one of Newhard’s old colleagues at the company. the climbthe agency’s first foray into a new revenue stream that will prove key to the future: media buying.

“Greg was quick to support our need to increase our media planning and buying services,” Simmons said. “We decided to keep going and now it’s grown to 45% of our business. It really drives our agency forward.”

object in motion

After that, it started the game. By 2007, the company had landed on Sitka and Simms, attracting the attention of other hunting and fishing brands. In 2008, the agency began media planning and buying for New Belgium Brewing Company. By 2010, they were collaborating with Eddie Bauer on the clothing company’s First Ascent collection.

Then in 2013, a Texas-based cooler company reached out for help with a new line of drinkware and soft tops.

“I hope we get credit for Yeti’s crazy rocket ship journey,” Simmons said, adding that even though the brand was founded in 2006, it still maintained an entrepreneurial feel when Backbone was involved. “We just rode together and it was awesome.”

While Yeti’s immediate success “100 percent” can be attributed to the instincts of founders Roy and Ryan Seiders, Backbone did introduce them to Corey Maynard, who would become Yeti’s vice president of marketing at a pivotal moment, Simmons said.

“I think Corey was instrumental in the origins of the community and content approach, so maybe there are moments we can praise, but it’s just lightning in a bottle,” Newhard said. “The success of Yeti is definitely good for our business. But when people ask us if we can do what happened to Yeti for their company, we always say, ‘No promises.’”

Pandemic hit

Like many others, Backbone took a hit in March 2020 as COVID shut down the country and the world. “In early 2020, we were getting fired every day,” Simmons said. “Every time we pick up the phone, it’s a punch.”

Not sure what would have happened if Newhard and Simmons had been in business in any other industry, but this pandemic has been surprisingly friendly to outdoor spaces. It didn’t take long for Backbone’s business to come back, and then some more. The company entered 2020 with about 60 employees; today it has 130 and is still hiring.

Large group of people posing in Moab
Over 25 years, Backbone’s team has grown from two people in the basement to 130 employees spread across 14 states. Here, companies gather 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, an early champion of the company’s media-buying efforts, was being promoted from vice president to president, with Simmons and Newhard now sharing the CEO title. Simmons and Newhard say this is a logical next step for the company, as Williams already manages more than $75 million in annual advertising buys for the company, including digital, social, influencer, SEM/SEO, affiliates and analytics.

“We’re not a PR firm at the moment,” Simmons said. “Our business has diversified. PR is less than half of our revenue. We continue to grow our media buying, social management, affiliate marketing, and SEO and SEM businesses. If clients want something we are not familiar with, we can hire now Someone with that skill does it. We’re just trying to read the river and find out.”

next 25 years

At the end of the day, despite all the strategic moves and luck over the years, Backbone’s founders say the company’s success is largely due to their genuine love of the outdoors. This has earned them no shortage of respect in the field.

“I knew Penn and Nate before they started Backbone, and they were amazing people,” said Rick Saez, who founded one of the industry’s most popular podcasts, the Outdoor Business Podcast, in 2017. “They’ve always been committed to telling good, accurate stories and maintaining the quality and integrity of the outdoor space. They own a ton of brands and have been a real asset in promoting those brands and the outdoors in general to their clients.”

As for Newhard and Simmons, they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished, but they haven’t stopped to celebrate their 25 years of market success.

“We’re not good at looking back,” Newhard said. “It’s like being outdoors. You use past experiences and challenges to keep going. But wondering what’s coming is what keeps us engaged.”

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