By Chris Meehan | Jun 27, 2022
Cedar City, Utah
Ultralight apparel and adventure gear
With savvy marketing, a novel subscription service, and continual introduction of new pieces, Outdoor Vitals has experienced an average of 30 percent annual growth.
Whittaker says the focus is squarely on ultralight gear and a direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales model. "We're 100 percent DTC, with the exclusion of Amazon," says Whittaker. "In the very beginning, we did do quite a bit of sales through Amazon, but at this point it's 10 percent or less of what we do. And we don't really put any new products on Amazon."
The company's creative strategy has allowed it to grow without pursuing outside investment. "Kickstarter was great," says Whittaker. "We've had a lot of success with that. More recently we've, we've leaned heavily into our membership."
Outdoor Vitals has used Kickstarter to fuel growth, but it's also developed a membership program that costs $10 a month. "That $10 a month instantly turns into store credit, so people kind of use it as a savings account or a banking account for outdoor gear," says Whittaker. "Then we give them benefits like 10 percent off site wide, access to early release stuff and free priority shipping."
Whittaker has also done extensive videos, podcasts and advertising on YouTube and online platforms. The old model for learning about gear, he explains, was going to an outdoor store and talking with employees to learn about what gear you need. "With the birth of YouTube and these other platforms, people have become extremely well versed and knowledgeable about their own gear and are picking, making their own decisions on what's best for them. We've leaned into that heavily."
Outdoor Vitals began as a side business for Whittaker, selling samples from factories online. "We really kind of got our foothold in the industry and got the company off the ground with down sleeping bags," he says. "As time went on we launched other products, pants, pads, backpacks, et cetera."
The 2018 release of the LoftTek Adventure Jacket on Kickstarter propelled the company to the next level. "It was our first apparel piece and we actually pre-sold $1 million worth of that product before we ever started shipping them," says Whittaker. "And that was kind of a kickoff to Outdoor Vitals 2.0."
The LoftTek was one of the first jackets to use loose-fill synthetic insulation in a design like a down jacket. "That was really when we were able to start doing things differently," says Whittaker. "Now it's kind of a toss-up. Apparel does a lot for us and we've got more and more apparel pieces that continue to do really, really well, but we still have a very strong foothold with sleeping systems, too."
The successful launch of the LoftTek jacket gave the company more options. "After we did the Kickstarter campaign I was able to use that to kind of leverage us into the next position that we were in," Whitaker says. "That's when I went out and hired a full-time designer. And that's also when we started being able to partner with some of the biggest, best names in the industry for fabrics and other things."
Outdoor Vitals also changed more of its manufacturing practices after starting with contract partners in China, he adds. "As we got bigger, we partnered with higher-end manufacturing partners. So almost everything is coming out of Vietnam now."
Outdoor Vitals continues to both introduce new pieces and refine existing ones. "We're probably launching, on average, between seven to 10 products a year at this point," says Whittaker. The 2022 slate includes the Altitude Sun Hoodie, the Tushar Rain Jacket, and the Vario Jacket, and the company is also developing new backpacks.
Whittaker is happy with Outdoor Vitals' growth, noting, "We actually aim to slow down growth a hair to just focus on building the most stable and best brand for long-term growth. I think that's just a massive advantage of a private company."
He adds, "We're in this for the long haul. I don't have any aspirations to stop working here at Outdoor Vitals and go do something else."
Challenges: Whittaker says the big challenges are staying true to Outdoor Vitals roots as a ultralight equipment company while trimming the fat and building reserves of high-volume sales pieces.
"What's still just super top of mind is always the supply chain," he notes. "You learn pretty quickly as a small company that when you've got one source for, say, our backpacks. We love our backpack company to death, don't get me wrong . . . but what happens when that one backpack factory has issues and we don't have secondary factories in place or we're not running the product at two different factories?"
Opportunities: "Our ability and speed to innovate as we continue to develop relationships with factories and fabric mills and hardware companies we can typically go in and see something that might be an innovation in the market and turn that around into a product faster than almost any other company," Whittaker says. "The other thing is we're here in Cedar City, Utah. In 45 minutes, we can be at 11,000 feet to test product, or we can be at 3,000 feet. . . . As part of company culture, we go on a company trip at least one time a month."
Needs: "To continue to procure talent," says Whittaker, citing needs marketing, design, and management. The company owns its warehouse, but he also anticipates needing more space in coming years -- "and to continue to let everyone see and experience some of the gear we're turning out and just get that exposure."