The bright blue sky turned white as snow piled up around Penn Newhard’s head. Buried in ice, he could wiggle his toes in his boots and his fingers in his gloves, but otherwise the snow kept crushing over him. Because he was locked in a sitting position. A wave of claustrophobia sent his heart rate skyrocketing. He knew he had to keep calm and control his breathing.
Anyone familiar with avalanche search and rescue will be familiar with the scenario. For backcountry skiers and climbers who regularly battle the hazards of slides, this is high on their list of fears. But Newhard wasn’t caught by chance that spring day. He was buried by choice.
This was 1999 and Newhard’s start-up public relations firm, Backbone Media, had its first big client, Black Diamond. Newhard and his partner Nate Simmons were tasked with promoting Black Diamond’s latest avalanche survival gear, the Avalung. Avalung is a snorkel-like device that captures oxygen from the snow and allows a person to breathe while he is fully buried for an hour.
“If we were going to sell this gear, we wanted to show that it works,” Newhard said. “Some of the Black Diamond team had lost friends in an avalanche, so this was a very personal project for all of us. ”
So, on a sunny day at Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah, Newhard, Simmons, and their team dug a deep hole in the snow at the foot of the mountain, and Newhard submerged himself in it. rice field. As he breathed through the avalung, he was squeezed around his head and body. An on-site doctor monitored his CO2 levels and vital signs until he was able to control his breathing. Through the goggles, he could only see white.
From then on, Newhard decided to represent only the products he and Simmons trusted, sometimes literally, at the cost of their lives.
Founded 25 years ago in Carbondale, Colorado, Backbone Media is by far the largest and most influential marketing company in the outdoor space. Agencies no longer call themselves PR firms as their operations have expanded to include media planning and buying, affiliate marketing, SEO strategy, social media management, and many other services. The company currently serves over 100 outdoor gear and lifestyle brands, from Patagonia to Thule to Eddie Bauer. He is known for helping brands such as Yeti grow from niche startups to mainstream smashes.
But this success did not happen by chance. Growing into a powerhouse took years of careful decisions and hard work, starting with an early burial.
first big break
Depending on how you look at it, some of the most powerful media agencies in the outdoor industry started their careers in business and finance, got fed up with it, and decided to try something new (with little experience and no money). I did) I challenged myself.
The story begins in the 250-square-foot basement of Peppino’s Pizza in Carbondale. There are two of his Walmart phones and one of his fax machines.
Newhard made a big decision in 1997. climbing Sold the magazine (later acquired by Outside in 2021) to a major publisher. Newhard worked as an advertising director alongside his colleague Lisa Rowley. climbingand neither wanted to stick around after the acquisition.
“Lisa worked at Shell Oil as a hydrologist. I worked on Wall Street, so I knew what the corporate world was like,” Newhard said. “We were both pretty anti-corporate.
Newhard explained to Raleigh that he and his wife had just had a baby and needed a steady paycheck and guaranteed health insurance.
“Lisa looked at me and said, ‘Hey, Noodle Boy, get the Backbone.’ I thought that would be a great name,” he said. Maybe we’re just tired of the insults and insults, but…the idea stuck and we decided to do it.”
using the contacts they made climbing, they started reaching out to outdoor gear companies. One of their first clients he was Vibler, who made the Black Diamond tent. That connection led to Black Diamond gaining itself as a customer, and the funds from that account were enough to hire its first employees. That’s when the company’s current CEO, Nate Simmons, came along.
Simmons had just graduated from an MBA program in France and was looking for work in the outdoor space in the US, but met resistance. “I really wanted a job in the outdoor industry, but ironically having an MBA was a disadvantage,” he says Simmons. “It was seen as too corporate. Outdoor companies wanted to know about first ascents and epic adventures, not crippled business schools.”
Simmons learned about Backbone from her nephew’s cousin, her roommate. Her e-mails were exchanged, and soon Simmons began working out of Backbone’s office in the basement of a pizza parlor, paid a salary that fluctuated monthly depending on the performance of her business.
“After the first month, Penn said he could pay me $1,000. [Newhard] I was going to take it home, but I was in,” Simmons said.
With Black Diamond’s account secured and Simmons on board, the company got off to a good start.
Two steps forward…
Backbone’s next big break was in late 1999 with the company’s first billing deal with Polartec.
“We’ve done some work for Bibler, which has embarked on work with Black Diamond.” It was a scary move. [at Polartec] who chose to hire us at that time. We were high risk. “
But the risks continued to pay off, at least for the first few years. The next deal was a small start-up in Steamboat Springs for Big He Agnes, who signed with Backbone in 2000. The company has since become one of the powerhouses in the sleeping bag, pad and tent market, but at the time it was so small that Newhard and Simmons decided to sell it along the highway between Carbondale and Steamboat. I had to personally drive out to meet the brand’s founder, Bill Gamber, and see and touch the company’s products.
By November 2001, revenue was growing rapidly and all was well. At that time, Polartec’s parent company, Malden Mills, declared bankruptcy. A portion of the check I sent to BakBone was returned due to lack of funds. At the time, this account accounted for about 40% of his Backbone business.
But rather than ditch Polartec altogether, Backbone stuck with them even through bankruptcy, eventually exiting. Polartec is a food brand, so Backbone’s work involved coordinating a lot with other important brands in the outdoor space. One night.
“The work we did with Polartec was to market the new product through all of our partners,” says Newhard. “They had an incredible Rolodex of some of the best brands in the industry, showing Arc’teryx, Patagonia, Marmot, Mountain Headwear, The North Face, Eddie Bauer and Cabela’s new Polartec products. was there.”
These relationships helped keep the company alive, but that wasn’t the end of their troubles: Raleigh left the company in 2003. It was in 2005 that Backbone recruited Greg Williams, one of his old Newhard colleagues. climbingAgencies have made their first forays into media buying, a key new revenue stream for the future.
“Greg immediately started advocating the need to add media planning and buying services,” says Simmons. “We decided to do it, and now it’s grown to his 45% of the business. It’s really driven the growth of our agency.”
object in motion
Then I went to the races. By 2007, the company had landed Sitka and Sims, attracting the attention of other hunting and fishing brands. In 2008, he started media planning and buying in Belgium for the brewing company New He. By 2010, they were working with Eddie Bauer on the launch of his First Ascent collection for the apparel company.
And in 2013, a cool Texas-based company reached out for help with the launch of their new drinkware and softside collection.
“I wish I could give Yeti credit for its insane rocket ship ride,” said Simmons, noting that although the brand was founded in 2006, it was still a startup startup until Backbone got involved. I added that it kept the atmosphere. “We just got on the ride and it was amazing.”
According to Simmons, “100%” of Yeti’s meteoric success is due to the instincts of founders Roy and Ryan Seiders, but Backbone put them to Corey Maynard, who would become Yeti’s vice president of marketing at a crucial time. introduced.
“I think Corey played a big part in the genesis of our community and content approach, so there may have been moments where we could get credit for it, but it was just lightning fast in a bottle. says Newhard. “Yeti’s success has certainly been good for our business. “
Like many other companies, Backbone saw its earnings hit in March 2020 as COVID shut down the country and the world. “In early 2020, we were getting laid off every day,” Simmons said. “Every time we picked up the phone, it was a punch.”
I don’t know what would have happened if Newhard and Simmons had worked in other industries, but the pandemic has been unusually kind to outdoor spaces.It wasn’t long before Backbone’s business rebounded. . The company entered 2020 with about 60 employees. Now he has 130 and is still hiring.
Backbone currently has two offices in Carbondale and Denver, with remote workers in 14 states. The company announced in September that Williams, an early champion of the company’s media acquisition efforts, had been promoted from vice president to president, with Simmons and Newhard sharing the CEO title. Simmons and Neuhard say this is a logical next step for the company, which manages more than $75 million in ad purchases for the company each year, including social, influencers, SEM/SEO, affiliates and analytics. says.
“We are not a PR firm at this point,” says Simmons. “We have diversified our business. PR is less than half of our income. We continue to grow our media buying, social management, affiliate sales, SEO and SEM business. If you need something you’re not familiar with, you can hire someone with that skill.
next 25 years
After all, the founders of Backbone say that despite all of the strategic moves and fortunes over the years, the company’s success is largely due to their genuine love of the outdoors. It caused them a lack of respect in the universe.
One of the most popular podcasts in the industry, outdoor biz podcast, 2017. They have a great brand of quiver and have been a real asset in educating their customers about those brands and the outdoors in general. “
As for Newhard and Simmons, they’re proud of where they’ve come, but they won’t stop too long to celebrate their quarter-century of market success.
“We’re not very good at looking back,” says Newhard. “It’s like being in the outdoors. We use past experiences and challenges to move forward. They are.”