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Indigo Boys

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The outdoor-equipment market is hardly untracked territory, but two guys shipping backpacks and ski poles from an El Jebel garage are making a name for themselves with their own brand of gear. The name is Indigo.

Indigo Equipment is soon to be headquartered in Aspen, as company co-founder Steve Kropf and his family will be moving from El Jebel to a house in Aspen’s North 40 subdivision. Indigo’s home office will make the move, too, but the warehouse/distribution center will not be relocated to Kropf’s new garage. That function is headed for Denver.

Kropf’s wife, Ramsey, will be able to park her vehicle indoors again.

“She’s already drawn the line in the new garage,” Kropf explained, grinning. “She will not scrape her windows next winter.”

In fact, Indigo’s expanding inventory of products might not have fit in the Kropf garage next winter anyway.

Kropf and partner Jack Koehler, of Jackson, Wyo., left good jobs with Life-Link, a backcountry-gear maker based in Jackson, to start Indigo in the summer of 2001.

Last fall, the fledgling company’s line was introduced by some 70 retailers in the United States and Canada, including Ute Mountaineer in Aspen and Bristlecone Mountain Sports in Basalt. Indigo is also the U.S. distributor of Finland-based Sinisalo cross-country ski gloves – a good fit for a company looking to broaden its customer base beyond hardcore winter backcountry enthusiasts, Kropf said.

The company has also paired up with Linken Bindings, based in Narvik, Norway, to distribute what Kropf declares are the future of telemark bindings.

But it’s the poles and packs that give Indigo its identity. Kropf and Koehler, both avid backcountry recreationists, recognized that there was room for improvement in the products they used regularly. It was the niche Indigo needed.

“We had really good jobs, but we had a desire to have our own company and design our own products,” Kropf said. “We took the products we had the most amount of experience with and decided there was kind of an ocean of sameness in the products out there. At the end of the day, what we’re doing is solving gear problems – not just taking something green and making it blue. There’s a lot of that out there.” (By the way, none of their current products are indigo in hue or any shade of blue, for that matter.)

Indigo ski poles, for example, comprise two adjustable varieties and one standard pole. All are constructed of carbon fiber and aluminum, and feature the company’s own grip design. The adjustable poles feature what Indigo calls the SlipNot system.

Koehler, design director for Indigo and former product engineer at Life-Link, came up with a design for an adjustable pole that solves the defects both men found in other poles: “Under certain circumstances they’d freeze, and you couldn’t adjust them or you couldn’t lock them – you’re hiking or skiing, and suddenly it collapses.”

The experience is, at the very least, annoying, Kropf said. At worst, having a pole collapse at an inopportune moment could put the user in peril.

“We created a mechanical adjusting system. It’s either locked or unlocked. There’s no middle ground,” said Kropf. “It simply doesn’t slip.”

And with an eye toward holding the line on the budget-busting prices of outdoor gear, Indigo’s top-of-the-line adjustable pole, the Epic, comes in at $99 a pair, compared to $110 to $140 for other comparable brands, according to Kropf. The Epic, which also features a releasable wrist strap for safety, earned kudos from Skiing magazine, he noted.

The pack men

Indigo also introduced four packs last year, including two technical models geared specifically for winter backcountry touring and two general-purpose daypacks.

Pete Hill, a resident of British Columbia who has worked for companies like The North Face and Black Diamond, designed the Indigo pack line. He recently quit his job to become the third man at Indigo.

The company will introduce six more packs at this summer’s Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City, where retailers will order the gear they’ll be putting on their shelves in the spring of 2004. Already in the works for the 2003-04 winter season are four new packs that Indigo showed off at the January trade show, where retailers shopped for the gear they’ll carry next winter.

Before experimenting with their own pack designs, the Indigo threesome looked at what already existed. In general, packs tend to be narrower at the top than at the bottom, which is where a backcountry skier’s elbows can smack into it, Kropf said.

“We tried all of them and kind of concluded it’s almost upside down,” he said.

Indigo’s technical packs are narrower at the hips and contain the “tool box” – protected locations for a shovel blade, shovel handle and avalanche probe, as well as an interior pocket for a water bladder. They’ve even designed an emergency whistle into the buckle on the strap that fits across the chest.

The outer Indy-Wrap ski straps will keep skis from slipping regardless of how they’re positioned on the pack, according to the company’s catalog. In other words, the straps don’t have to wrap around the ski right below the binding to hold it in place, according to Kropf.

Hill has an industrial-strength sewing machine in his office. A computer-designed pack is converted to patterns that allow him to create a prototype.

“He’ll build a prototype pack. We’ll go use it, tear around and tear it apart,” Kropf said. “We’ve been skiing, hiking and playing around with Indigo products since the summer of 2001.”

So have friends, colleagues, mountain guides and ski instructors – objective critics who can offer input on what zipper doesn’t function well, what strap could be improved or how to make the hydration tube easier to access.

“You get myopic with your products – you’ve got to get good, honest feedback from people you trust,” Kropf said.

Once the team settles on a design, the packs and poles are manufactured in Asia and, until now, were shipped to Kropf’s house. Indigo’s founding partners labored in his garage last fall, assembling boxes and fulfilling orders from retailers. At one point 600 pairs of poles, 1,000 pairs of Linken bindings, 500 pairs of gloves and boxes of backpacks were stacked to the garage ceiling.

Now, 80 percent of the poles have been sold. The smaller version of the technical pack is gone, and perhaps 20 of the larger version remain in Kropf’s garage. There’s room for just one narrow vehicle.

“Our products have been interesting enough that they got some initial attention from people,” he said. “We had a lot of retailers all over the country buy a few, and they sold pretty well, and they bought a few more. There’s a shop in Jackson that said the Indigo packs were their best-selling pack line.”

For next winter, the company is pursuing a new concept for a backcountry shovel. Kropf is keeping the details under wraps while the idea is being patented.

Indigo is also working with Linken on the design of its next telemark binding, adding brakes to replace the safety strap on what is already a vast departure from the typical cable binding.

Tele boots and skis have become almost has heavy as alpine equipment, Kropf noted, but the bindings haven’t really kept up. The Linken binding features a metal plate beneath the boot with a step-in binding at the heel. The plate is affixed to the ski only at the toe, so that it lifts off the ski with the boot as a skier flexes his or her foot.

The binding offers a lot more stability than cable mechanisms, reports Kropf. “It really takes telemark skiing up to another level.”

With the introduction of Indigo products this winter, the company has realized what Kropf termed “realistic” first-season goals. Retailers who gave the products a try are now bumping up their orders for next winter, and others are adding Indigo gear to their inventory, he said.

He credits a sound business plan for getting the company off the ground.

“It’s a financial commitment to bring a product line to a marketplace,” he said. “You gotta do a lot of homework before you do that. A lot of good products have died because that analysis wasn’t done on the front end.

“It’s not to be taken lightly, although we’re in my garage,” Kropf said. “You gotta start in your garage, but you’ve got to get out of your garage as quickly as possible.”


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