Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Martin Zemitis, welcome to the Intrepid Entrepreneur Podcast.
Martin Zemitis: Hi, Kristin. Thanks.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: We’re so happy to have you here today. I can’t wait to share everything that you are going through with your new company, SlingFin, with Wefunder, with your trademarks and design, and with–basically, just the interesting go-to-market strategy that you and your team are taking at SlingFin. We have so much to cover here today, so thank you again for joining us. And I feel like this is a very important week because on the 16th of May, which is Monday, and the show airs four days after that, was the day that the Wefunder campaign launched for SlingFin. And I bet you, because the company started in 2010, to get to that point in 2016, I mean, that must’ve been kind of a crazy six years, I would imagine.
Martin Zemitis: Financially, it was painful. When you’re manufacturing things, it takes a lot of money, and you have to have a lot of RND. Everything’s costly. And so to get here, it’s been a long, tough road. And we’ve had opportunities to take money but it was from the wrong people, and we know how that story ends having been on that [bus?] before. As painful as it has been, it definitely is not nearly as bad as it would’ve been if we took some of those short-term solutions.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Well, in that, you just set me up for the perfect first topic out of the [gate?] here, Martin, thank you. So Martin has been one of the industry’s preeminent tent designers. I know you would never say this about yourself but you’re kind of a big deal. Okay. In my world, in terms of, like, outdoor enthusiasts, gear junkies, et cetera, you are an amazing, if not, a genius-level tent designer. And tell us a little bit about the companies that you’ve been involved in in the past 33 years. And then we’ll talk a little bit about how SlingFin came about.
Martin Zemitis: Well, I started in high school with my own brand. It was–my brother and some friends called Zero Mountaineering. And then went to UC Davis. And then started working afterwards at The North Face. In their design department, I started as a sample sewer and pattern maker, and progressed on to a designer. And I learned a lot about manufacturing there. They had their own factory there. And we own our own factory at Zero Mountaineering as well. But here, it was on a much larger scale, and they had automated down filling machinery. They had all sorts of much more advanced machinery. So it was very fascinating. And I could go hang out at the tent factory, making tents with the production sewers. It was an amazing time when the factory was here.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: What were the–
Martin Zemitis: And there–
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: If you wouldn’t mind sharing with my audience, what years were these?
Martin Zemitis: I started December of ’82, through ’85.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Okay. And they actually had a factory on-site where they made their tents at that time.
Martin Zemitis: They had, actually, three facilities at the time. One in Scotland and then one on 5th Street in Berkeley and then one at 999 Harrison Street, I believe was the address. Anyway. So the tent factory was on 5th Street, and the [pack?] and the clothing and the sleeping bags–it was all on Harrison. So I did that until ’85, and then afterwards started working at Sierra Designs designing tents. And I did that for many years. Seven, eight, nine years, I don’t remember. Time in the past doesn’t mean much for me because it’s all about what’s going to be made tomorrow or–
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Right.
Martin Zemitis: –next week or three years from now. And then North Face [inaudible] designs. So I was back to working for North Face again. And the parent company filed for bankruptcy, and things weren’t going well. And we decided to start our own company called Mountain Hardware. And that happened in 1993 is where the company was formed. I started there ’94 early on, and was hired to make tents and design tents. And did that for nearly 15 years. And then the company was sold in 2003, somewhere around there, to Columbia Sportswear. I stayed on for a while, and then in 2009, I left Mountain Hardware and decided to do it all over again, but this time, I wanted to do it my way, and sort of build things to price buckets and just try to build the very best products I could. And I worked it from a different angle then sort of the go-to-market strategy of figuring filling price buckets and whatnot.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: So I love that. Okay. So basically, you’re an artist, you’re a designer, you’ve spent your career creating, but you found that as the companies grew that you were working for, you were having to create product to actually fill specific price points at retail. And I’ve even seen [inaudible] clients in the past–and we’re just kind of having to do this with the old playbook in wholesale. Also, building to spec for, like, backpack or magazine or for outside gear guide. Like, they’re creating products that they think will win awards which will help them get placement in wholesale–and I could see how for somebody like you who’s a design innovator that I would feel very constricting if not awful. So SlingFin emerged in 2010. First of all, tell us about the name. Where did the name “SlingFin” come from?
Martin Zemitis: I was domain mining. . .
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I do that often.
Martin Zemitis: I was looking for a name–the original name, actually, was [inaudible] Technology. But that kind of pigeonholed us and whatnot. And I own this name SlingFin, it was–I wanted something that covered mountains and water, and so I figured the fin of a fish, and the sling of like a climbing sling or [a fin on?] a mountain or–so it was basically just trying to come up with a short word that was available that I could get in a dot com, and that covered sort of mountains and water sports. And that was the idea behind SlingFin.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Wow. So basically, you founded the company, filed for trademark protection–and then tell us what happened. Because you kind of went into a design lockdown, didn’t you?
Martin Zemitis: Yes. So the day after I left Mountain Hardware, I thought, I want to do this again. I just want to it this without the constrains I’ve always had. I mean, at Mountain Hardware, it was great, I was given a lot of freedom. But as companies get larger–Mountain Hardware was a design-driven company–but as the companies get larger, sort of sales takes over. And eventually, operations takes over because the bees get so big. That’s more of a logistical issue. But–I’m getting off track here. So basically, a friend of mine had a [building?] and had the European Sleep Works, and they ended up sort of locking myself into this place for six months. [Got?] sewing machines [up?], a cutting table–I make all my own patterns, do all my own sewing–and over the years, I’ve collected a library of fabrics. And a lot of the fabrics I couldn’t use because they were too expensive. To me, it didn’t matter at the time. I just wanted to solve some design problems.
And for me, I think the larger companies, you’re right, they want that publicity, they want those awards. For me, it was about building products that had meaning for the users in the environment they were using the product in. The best products often have very, very few bells and whistles. They’re clean, they’re elegant, and they solve a problem–they allow the user–there are tool. And so I would like to look at building products as building tools for specific purposes. And so for mountaineering–are you on a ledge? Are you in the base camp? When [inaudible] going to be an issue, or is this thing going to be buried in snow, or all the above? But for my original design, my original purpose was to figure out a different way to pitch a tent. And what I wanted to do, separate the tent poles [inaudible] the body or the fly sheet. And I wanted that goal because it would allow me to have different–or users could use the product differently than the current products on the market. And it turns out I was able to make a product that was a lot stronger, with very little extra weight. So that was the goal early on.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Right. And tell us what you came up with to solve that. With the web truss.
Martin Zemitis: Okay. So the web truss is a continuous [inaudible] that has fabric intersections where the poles are locked into place, and the whole structure could be tensioned from the outside. And what that does is it makes a very, very, very strong structure, but the wind could go right through it. And what happens in high winds is that when you’re trying to set-up a traditional tent, you end up putting a lot of stress on the poles because the fabric’s on there, everything’s flopping around, the poles are getting bent, and whatnot. So here, you could set-up all the poles, have the pole structure in its strongest possible configuration, and then you either [add the fly?] or you could add the body. Whichever sequence you want it to. And it turns out that that’s the system for the way is about as strong as you can get right now with the technology and the [inaudible] fabrics that we have available to us right now.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: And tell my audience this: what is it about web truss and the product that SlingFin offers now that, basically, has put it in a place where you haven’t had the freedom to design like this before? Is it the web truss, is it because it’s very specific end use that wasn’t really dictated by a price point? Like, what is the freedom that you experienced around the design of the SlingFin product?
Martin Zemitis: Well, when you’re working with the retail distribution, there’s a–you’re competing with many different other brands, and the retailers sort of dictate what they want and what they’re willing to sell. So as the small amount of [inaudible] shops has been bought up and gone out of business, and the larger retailers have come about, it’s become more of a price game. And they are catering to these specialty needs so they–so sort of the goals where I’ve always been to just trying to reduce the price, not to figure out how to make a lighter, stronger tent that can withstand higher winds. That wasn’t the goal because the end result there wasn’t to sell more product.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Right.
Martin Zemitis: And so in our case, the focus was completely different.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s got to be such an awesome feeling. So tell me this: there you are in design lockdown for six months, how were you able to kind of access what you wanted to design for, like, a high altitude mountaineering product when you were literally in a building, kind of in lockdown? Like, how was it that you kind of access? Is it stuff that people have asked you for over the years that you’ve made specifically for expeditions that maybe you had a crib sheet on that was just waiting there in the wings for you to be able to go back in and create that product when you were able to?
Martin Zemitis: Well, that’s interesting. The way I look at it is I spent 33 years of my career making a lot of things that didn’t work. And you learn from that. And I’ve been on Mt. Washington before in 150 mph winds pitching tents and studying tents with stress strain gauges and computers and whatnot. And so I’ve been out there in the field myself and I’ve made a lot of product for expeditions for guides. I built the right design and my samples [inaudible]. She made the only tent that was ever used [inaudible] Mt. Everest with [inaudible]. He wanted to spend the night up there. That’s a hilarious story, maybe for another time.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That is awesome. He wanted to spend the night–no, come on, you have to tell us. Just a quick story of it.
Martin Zemitis: He came in to talk to Robert Lake about the hardware. He was probably 5 ft. tall. And Robert comes down in the Design Department and says, “I’ve got this guy. He must’ve spent the night–or he must’ve spent 24 hours on [inaudible] of Everest. And he wants to camp out there.” I’m like–I kind of rolled my eyes, and then Robert said, “No, no, no. You got to listen. This guy, he’s been up there seven times already. He has speed descent.” At the time, it was 16-hours. And if anybody in the world can do it, this guy can do it. So I met with him and he was probably about as big and round in diameter as he was tall. [inaudible] and he had legs the size of tree trunks. Unbelievably strong guy. Really nice human being. And he said that it was his dream to stand on Everest. Then I said, “Well, if you’re willing to make that kind of commitment, I’ll make a tent for you.”
And so I designed it really quickly, and my [inaudible] made the tent, and five days later, he walked out the door. And then several months later, we’re working on–I’m not getting any sleep because I don’t know what’s going on up there on the mountain. It’s kind of nobody’s done this before, I don’t know if I’m making the world’s highest coffin. I just have no idea what’s going on. And then I see a blog where some guy goes, “The world’s gone to hell, I’m coming up on the north site on Everest, my campsite’s taken.” And I thought that was funny. But anyway, he made it, and it was nice seeing him to sort of meet the challenge and to support somebody who had such a bold dream.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: That’s amazing. That’s a great story. I’m very glad that you brought that to my audience. So I have to go here now, Martin. You said earlier that you wanted to do things with SlingFin the way that you’ve never had the opportunity to do them before. And I think that you’ve also hand-selected a team who feels the same way. And looking at the timing now, 2016, and the opportunities to go direct to consumer to really create your story and to get that buy-in from a crowdsourcing and a crowdfunding standpoint. Can you talk with my audience about how things came about with Wefunder and what that has been like for you in terms of being able to have choice with your business and the go-forward of your business and not have it be so dependent on what retailers need or what magazine awards need to happen around your designs.
Martin Zemitis: Those are all great.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: It’s just that things are lining up. It’s, like–
Martin Zemitis: Yes. Yeah.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Right there–
Martin Zemitis: Well, it’s small businesses–and there’s the saying that you can keep spending half your time looking for more money.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Mm-hmm.
Martin Zemitis: And it really is true because the runway is never long enough when you’re in a manufacturing business. It just takes a lot of money to build things. And you sort of want to fill that container. You don’t want to be shipping partial container loads or whatnot. So they’re kind of just [inaudible]. And so when you’re small, it’s hard to reach, to hit those numbers would make everything work so that you’re efficient. So basically, family and friends reaching in my pocketbook and whatnot. And we’ve had a lot of support, we’ve had support from the vendors, we’ve never had a lot of industry support. But at some point, like, which was basically now–actually, I should say a few years ago–we had the chance of taking money from a larger company. But like I was saying, we sort of know how that story ends. We get bled dry, our designs and ideas go away, we’re left with nothing, and the consumer ends up scratching their head going, “Well, that was a good idea. That went nowhere.”
And so we decided we’re going to tough it up, we’re going to do this on our own, and if that means we have to grow really slowly, then that’s what we’re going to do. So then Kickstarter and crowdfunding came about, but we didn’t really want to–it’s different. It was more like a product by product basis where you’re trying to raise money to actually build something. So when we found out about the JOBS Act Title III, the changes that are coming to the non-accredited investors or unaccredited investors to invest in small businesses up to a million dollars, I mean, a different category is and whatnot. And that’s all separate issue for another day. But Rich, he basically ran SlingFin. He doesn’t have a name and a title. I keep on trying to get him to be the president. One of these days, he will. I don’t know what I’ll have to do to get him do that but I’m hoping that day will be soon.
But anyway, he found out about Wefunder, some crowdfunding for equity [talk?], and we contacted those guys, and they were awesome. They really had their act together, they were one of the outfits that was helping write the laws that allow unaccredited investors to invest. And basically, it’s Kickstarter meets equity, and it’s going to allow small companies like ours to maintain ownership, raise the money, and we need to do what we’re going to do, it’s going to allow consumers to share that vision, and to support small, innovative companies without sort of having the VC interests and the sort of institutional money dictate what you’re going to do. Now, I guess they can be good and they can be bad, because smart money, oftentimes, you get a lot of coaching. So it’s not the answer for everything, but it will allow a lot of people with good ideas to have their ideas [see the day and light?].
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Right. And I think that in our pre-talk, you said it best–the VC’s–there’s this, like, kind of a big void between VCs and the angels. And the due diligence’s process and the whole thing is really built for larger deals, if you will. But the little guys are in no man’s land. And so what this is going to do with this–JOBS Act Title III will do is actually democratize small business to be able to go forward and not have to build their business according to what the brand equity folks want with the five-year-flip.
Martin Zemitis: Yeah. I mean, some of these guys don’t want to sit down at the table with you without knowing what the exit strategy is. And I understand that. They’re professional investors and they want to know their return’s going to be quick and great, and that’s their business, and I understand that. They’re taking the risk. So by spreading the risk out, though, and by having people who sort of understand what you’re doing, and share the vision, people will now be able to support that down to $100. Yes, unbelievable. I mean, there’s a little more to it than that. You’re still limited to maybe 500 people and whatnot. So there are some limitations. But overall, it’s a great [spotcap?] between the eventual–what do you call it–the banks where you can start working with the asset-base lending and whatnot. So there’s this whole difficult area in the beginning. These small companies needing funding for.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: Mm-hmm. Well, it’s such a fantastic time that I’m so happy that you guys got things together in 2010 and that you are positioned to take advantage of this. And we’re so excited to be able to support you through this as it goes forward. So, obviously, your website is slingfin.com. In the show notes page, we’re going to have everything people need to see around everything about this JOBS Act and Wefunder. There’ll be a big button there. But when people hear this, it’ll be just days into the Wefunder launch. So I’m really excited to watch this unfold, Martin. Congratulations to you.
Martin Zemitis: Well, Kristin, thank you very much. And it’s an honor to be here and be able to talk about it. And I’m glad to see you’re on the forefront of this. A lot of people don’t know about this yet. I think it’s going to change the whole outdoor industry and I think it’s going to change the whole way small business in America is funded. And it’s exciting. This should happen long ago. And it’s great. There are some young people that have taken initiative to make it happen then get the laws changed and sort of bring things up to the times, and America needs this. It’s going to put a lot of people back to work, and I’m really excited about it.
Kristin Carpenter-Ogden: I am, too. And it’s just an incredible time. And as you said, May is a big month for the little companies in America, and I’m really proud that you’re one of those representing the outdoor market, Martin. So thank you.
[end of audio]