Big Agnes on the scene
CARBONDALE ” Sometimes ingenuity comes from the simplest of ideas. Such was the case for the breakthrough product of a Colorado backcountry gear company with Carbondale ties.
A firm called Big Agnes managed in 2001 to squeeze into the camping gear industry by coming up with a revolutionary design for its sleeping bags.
The product developers for the company, based in Steamboat Springs, were experienced backcountry travelers. They knew full well the frustration of thrashing around at night in a tent, slipping off a sleeping pad and paying the price by getting chilled to the bone.
So they stripped the insulation from the bottom of their bags and replaced it with a sleeve that a sleeping pad slides into. That solves a couple of problems: first, sleepers don’t roll off their pads because it is integrated with their bags; second, there’s more guaranteed protection from the cold ground. The insulation on the bottom of a sleeping bag loses its warmth when a body compresses it. Their design replaces that insulation with a cushy pad. A person can go big with a 2 1/2inch pad when they are car camping or settle for a 1-inch when weight is an issue for backpacking. Pads made by other companies work with Big Agnes’ bags.
Some of the insulation removed from the bottom of the sleeping bag was shifted elsewhere. But, overall, less insulation is used in Agnes bags so that means shedding weight without surrendering warmth.
The design got the upstart company noticed in the crowded backcountry gear world. “That set us up for explosive growth,” said Len Zanni of Carbondale, a partner in Big Agnes who handles the marketing efforts.
Big Agnes is the quintessential 21st firm. Its Steamboat headquarters include administrative offices, product development and a warehouse where shipping is handled, Technology allows Zanni to remain in Carbondale but still stay connected to the main office and undertake the marketing. Manufacturing is handled in China.
Zanni, a former ski patrolman at Vail and avid climber, has called the Roaring Fork Valley home for nine years. He previously worked for Backbone Media, a marketing and public relations company in Carbondale. Big Agnes was one of his clients. Zanni liked Big Agnes and its founder Bill Gamber so well that he jumped at the opportunity to buy into the firm in 2004. He is one of three partners, along with Gamber and Rich Hager.
As head of marketing, Zanni coordinates photo shoots all over the globe featuring the firm’s products. He oversees creation of the catalogs, website content and other materials.
He cannot take credit for the unique name. The company is named after a peak in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness outside of Steamboat. “It’s such a unique name. It’s hard to forget.”
Nearly all products the company makes are named after geographic features from Colorado’s northern mountains. They haven’t come close to exhausting backcountry place names around Steamboat, so it is unlikely they will mine the Roaring Fork River basin for names anytime soon.
Big Agnes’ growth was steady between 2001 and 2006, when it started a surge that continues. It has expanded its lines of products, its accounts are bigger and there are more of them. Gross sales in 2006 were 60 percent greater than in 2005, Zanni said.
After the success of its sleeping bags and pads, it expanded into tents in 2004. At about the same time, its fortunes soared thanks a budding relationship with REI, the outdoor gear retailing giant.
Big Agnes was initially carried by very few retailers, so gaining acceptance was vital. REI was willing to try out a few products in the middle of the decade. Success bred success ” as Big Agnes products moved out the door, REI started carrying more lines and ordered products in more of its stores.
“The customers are eating it up,” said Tom Kimmet, product manager for REI.
Kimmet said Big Agnes was able to gain placement in a crowded marketplace dominated by established companies of up to 50 years old because of “really great products. They’ve been great with innovation,” Kimmet said.
In addition to the integrated bag-and-pad design, Big Agnes made its mark with weight saving maneuvers with its tents. Last year was important in Big Agnes’ progression because its tents were carried in all REI stores.
Kimmet said the Big Agnes owners also have been great partners. A small company is usually solely focused on increasing its sales. Big Agnes’ owners have gotten involved in industry initiative called the Fair Labor Working Group to make sure the manufacturers it contracts with treat their employees fairly.
Big Agnes also has focused on environmentally-sensitive approaches. “We’re careful not to say we’re the greenest company out there,” Zanni said. But it is jumping on opportunities.
The 2008 model of the company’s Skinny Fish Eco sleeping bag, for instance, will be made entirely of recycled materials, with the exception of the zipper.
While REI is now Agnes’ largest account, it has also gained support among smaller specialty retail shops throughout the West. Ute Mountaineer in Aspen carries some Agnes products; Summit Canyon Mountaineering in Glenwood Springs is its biggest outlet in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Sam Elias, a buyer for Summit Canyon, said Big Agnes is building a solid reputation.
“When people come in they don’t necessarily recognize the name,” he said. But once customers learn about the innovative design of the company’s products, it often leads to a sale, he said.
The key to sales of Big Agnes products is making sure the staff is familiar with the innovations, he said. Customers might otherwise pass by if they are browsing on their own, not knowing what Agnes has to offer.
Big Agnes continues to concentrate on sleeping bags, pads and tents. It makes a few other accessories, but won’t dive into the footwear or apparel side of the business, Zanni said. Big Agnes products are priced in the middle and upper end of the market.
Aspenite Susan Olson bought a Big Agnes sleeping bag and pad when she lived in Steamboat in 2002. “I love it because I can’t fall off the pad in the tent,” she said.
Olson said she rolls around a lot while sleeping and she often woke up with no pad. Big Agnes solved her problem.
The pad she bought is probably too big to take backpacking, but she sleeps in luxury while car camping. “I just feel like I’m sleeping in bed,” she said.
That’s the type of customer testimonial the folks at Big Agnes no doubt like to here, given that the company motto is “The Mother of Comfort.”
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