By Chris Meehan | Dec 10, 2018
Employees: 2 (and 1 contract sewer)
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Climbing soft goods
"We felt a void in terms of sustainable products within the climbing space even though we know people like ourselves are very passionate about those issues," explains Vines, who started Kush Climbing with his wife, Kim.
Kush is helping its customers get a better grip and find a softer landing, with its sustainably built, custom O.G. Kush Crash Pads and Festi Bags for climbing chalk. Both are handmade in Denver. The company is primarily working as a direct-to-consumer manufacturer, but its products are making its way into some stores, like Earth Treks.
The couple moonlights with the startup they launched on Kickstarter and built off notes in a scrapbook scrawled during a climbing adventure in California. "We wrote down what are we passionate about and what to we want to do," says Vines. "Climbing and sustainability was at the top of the list and we were very into customization. Those three things were the cornerstone of what type of product we wanted to build."
It's still a small operation. "We both work full-time jobs and do this as much time as we can on nights and weekends," Vines says. Kim, who works in operations management, developed the business plan and now manages the company and its marketing.
Kyle is the designer and sewer. "I do engineering design for my day job," he says. "Those wheels don't stop turning when I get home, and the sewing machine is meditative. I'm constantly thinking of new products or things to alter or develop that I know would work for me, and I'm testing it out on buddies that are out there, too."
In the climbing world Kush is distinguishing itself with an emphasis on sustainability as a member of the 1% For The Planet and which starts with a hemp cover sheet for its crash pads. That's unique for a product that usually relies on ballistic nylon for durability. Vines notes that the hemp fabric allows Kush to do custom printing, which they couldn't do on ballistic nylon.
"It's way better for the environment than the regular ballistic nylon," he says. "That's the number one thing. Secondly, it is softer and easier to land on and you don't have to have a scratch pad or something a little softer to wipe your feet on."
Vines adds, "We do use standard material like ballistic nylon, we just try to get away from it and use as much sustainable materials as we can."
That includes the use of three different densities of low-VOC (volatile organic compound) foam in Kush crash pads. "The top layer is lower density and a little softer to land on, so there's still not that extra risk of rolling your ankle," he says. "The way that keychain works out, it not only softens the foam, but whenever you make an impact on it that area fills up with air which makes the open-cell foam more rigid because of the closed cell being on top of it, so it acts like a little airbag," Vines says.
Kush takes a sustainable approach to its other handmade items as well. Its Festi chalk bags are made out of locally sourced hemp, recycled deep sea fishing nets, and Cordura.
The products are proving popular in a climbing world dominated by big brands like Black Diamond and Adidas. Even though Kush is a two-person startup, it's generated a lot of media coverage, earning mentions in such publications as Climbing magazine, Outside Online, Gear Institute, and other publications. "We've been very very lucky to get the attention we have in a short period of time," Vines says.
All of that's led to an enviable problem for the company: Its crash pads are currently sold out and its duffels take weeks to complete and deliver. "We've got a ton of orders and we're slowly chipping away at catching up on those," says VInes. "We don't want to dig ourselves too deep a hole there. Plus everything we do is custom so it does take a little longer."
To help alleviate the backlog, Vines is working with a contract sewer when orders back up. "Our contract sewer is awesome. She has been helping on the small batch stuff. We've been in negotiation to get a regular workflow with her, doing a handful of products per week just to build that back stock so we can fulfill some orders immediately," Vines says. She's not sewing the full crash pads yet, just smaller parts, but Vines credits her with helping refine the designs and sewing processes and making them more efficient.
While Vines thrives on custom orders, he knows it has limits. "I understand that's not the most sustainable business practice unless I'm charging through the roof because it takes so much time, and we also have to understand our audience and market. They're all just a bunch of dirtbag climbers. They do what they can with what they've got."
"We will continue to offer that, but we would like to refine things down," Vines admits. That could include developing basic patterns and color pallets for its products. "We could get something out there that will help us increase and have something more uniform that is available and still get the quality and the ethics behind it so you'll have a little lower of a price point and be able to receive it a lot sooner than something custom."
Challenges: "The challenge is just being a small operation and keeping up with demand," says Vines. "We want to market the heck out of this thing but every time we do we get more orders than we can fulfill. It's a fantastic place to be in and you hate having to throttle back. Being limited to such a small operation with me and another sewer is a huge challenge."
Opportunities: Growth in a dynamic market, and educating new climbers. "This market is robust," says Vines. "Climbing is gaining more popularity and we want to be at the forefront of making sure people who are getting into climbing have the stewardship ingrained into them the same way the folks who showed us how to climb were stewards of the environment."
Needs: "We are fully bootstrapped and money is a huge need," Vines says. "We wouldn't be able to do this without the cash flow from our day jobs."