Word of mouth can travel far in the outdoor gear manufacturing world. In fact, it can make or break a brand.
Back in the early days of Kindred Custom Snowboards and Skis, the phone rang. Angie Farquharson, one-half of the couple behind the company, picked up. The voice on the other end had a strong Japanese accent and a tenuous grasp on English.
They had a friendly, though somewhat disjointed chat. But despite the communication barrier, Farquharson discerned that the guy on the line was inquiring about employment. He asked for an address to send his resume. A few weeks later, an impeccably presented CV arrived in the mail. After admiring the resume, Farquharson and partner Evan Fair filed it away and forgot about it. As a small and slowly growing boutique gear designer and builder, Kindred wasn’t in the market to hire.
About a year later, there was a knock on the door. When they opened, the aforementioned young Japanese man, Yohei Otani, was standing there with a smile on his face.
“My first thought was ‘Oh no. Did he think we had offered him a job?’” Farquharson recalls with a laugh.
Luckily, that wasn’t the case. But he had planned his two weeks of vacation to travel to Canada, and visit Kindred, and hopefully learn how to build a snowboard. He wound up couch surfing with the couple and getting personal tours of Mount Washington. In the end, they sent Otani home with a snowboard and have remained great friends. Call it a case of brand obsession, but Farquharson admits they still don’t exactly know what prompted his passion.
When it comes to outdoor gear, discerning consumers tend to gravitate towards brands with a story. Think Patagonia — this iconic American outdoor clothing maker has eschewed conservative branding by taking highly public positions on conservation and political issues; during the last U.S. election, the company cheekily sewed a tag into select Patagonia shorts that said in tiny print “vote the assholes out.” The company encourages repairing old Patagonia clothing over conspicuous consumption. This is just one of their often-counter intuitive campaigns that don’t fall under Marketing 101 but nonetheless add up to branding genius.
Though Patagonia is an extreme example of big corp thinking outside the box, Vancouver Island and the South Coast are home to a surprising variety of outdoor-oriented companies, from snowboard builders and surfboard shapers to bike designers, kayak and paddle makers. These are boutique operations without Patagonia-sized marketing resources, but they are driven by the stories of their founders and their passion for people and place.
The Surfboard Shaper
Patrick Salamon’s hand-shaped cedar surfboards are so beautiful some might hesitate to paddle them out into the surf. Though they’re built to ride, some of his customers are collectors from across the globe, who buy them for the works of art that they are — just to hang them on a wall of an oceanfront villa.
The Campbell River craftsman’s journey to boutique board shaping and life on Vancouver Island was not exactly conventional. For one, he grew up as farm kid in the flatlands of Saskatchewan, about as far from a surf break as you can get in Canada. Post-high school, he scrounged together airfare for a trip to Australia where he got hooked on surfing and learned how to repair dinged boards to make some money.
Returning to Canada, he made a practical employment decision and became a journeyman plumber and gas fitter. But he continued traveling the world to surf, with the goal of relocating to Vancouver Island. In 2016, he and his wife made the move. They loaded a trailer, hooked it up to their Ford Bronco and drove to Campbell River. Neither had set foot in the city before. They met with a realtor the same day they arrived. Two weeks later, they had an accepted offer on a house.
“I started to see a lot of cedar canoes and kayaks and just fell in love with the colour and the history of the wood,” explains the founder of Waterman Surfboards. “I would also see people building cedar fences out of some of the most beautiful wood I’ve ever seen.”
When his wife landed a good job, he dove into the dual duties of stay-at-home dad and surfboard designer and shaper. He also manages to surf 60 days a year, some of those on the finicky winter wind swells of Vancouver Island’s East Coast.
He wanted to shape boards that reflected Vancouver Island, much more than a generic foam-core surfboard does; it took him two years to perfect the subtle technique of building hollow but strong cedar boards to the point where he was comfortable selling them. The closest comparison, he says, is how wooden airplane wings are built.
“I wanted them to be showroom quality,” says Salamon. “Their quality had to be high because they can take up to two months to build.”
His appreciation of cedar as a medium is reflected in his craftsmanship. Besides Instagram posts, word of mouth is his most powerful marketing tool. And as a one-man show, it doesn’t take many orders to fill out his year.
“My customers are collectors,” says Salamon. “I did a board for a guy in California who had a specific length in mind to fit a wall at the end of a hallway in his house.”
The Backcountry Gourmet
Good business ideas often start by spotting a market gap. In Christie Dionne’s case, her discerning palate led the way. As a devotee of the low-carb, high-fat keto diet, the avid Powell River climber, skier and backcountry enthusiast was left unsatisfied by existing options on the shelf for freeze-dried backpacking food. So, like any self-starter would do, she started dehydrating her own food, not thinking of it as a future business opportunity.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2018 when she was camping at the base of a wall of granite in B.C.’s Eldred Valley with filmmaker Robin Munshaw that the spark was lit. Vancouver-based Munshaw was there working on a documentary about the history of climbing and old-growth forest conservation in the valley.
“Robin was talking about how there are no ketogenic options out there for backcountry food,” says Dionne. “I shared one of my meals with him, and he thought it was awesome. It got me thinking.”
Her company, Wild Edge Keto, uses unique proteins to stand out from other purveyors of freeze-dried backpacking food. Meals like Venison Chili, Cuban Picadillo Wild Bison and Sesame Ginger Wild Boar take ketogenic fusion into the backcountry.
Before going commercial, Dionne had to source packaging and meet federal food safety standards, a process made no easier by COVID. So began the long process of jumping over the necessary hurdles for certification by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the federal agency responsible for ensuring commercial food processors meet health, packaging and labelling standards. And it took a year to get certified for a year of shelf life.
“There’s no way to accelerate that process,” says Dionne.
In the fall of 2020, she got a green light from the CFIA, enabling her to sell her products across Canada. Dionne is starting small, working from her commercial-grade home kitchen, and bringing in a part-time employee when orders demand it. She’s distributing through local retailers like Valhalla Pure Outfitters in Courtenay and Powell River’s The Chopping Block, with plans to expand her distribution in the future. However, her focus will be on growing direct-to-consumer online sales, which so far has included customers from across B.C., Alberta, and the Yukon.
The Bike Builder
Back in 2016, Owen Pemberton was ready for a change. He had been living in Vancouver and working as a design engineer for Port Coquitlam-based Norco Bikes, one of Canada’s largest bike brands.
After seven years at Norco — feeling mortgage poor in the big city — the U.K.-born Pemberton wanted out. In 2017, he and his wife pulled up stakes and moved to Cumberland — a mountain biking mini-Mecca where you can ride trails almost 365 days a year.
“I always had the drive to give it a go and build a brand from scratch,” he explains. “We loved the lifestyle in Cumberland and thought it would be a great place to build a company.”
For a year he continued working remotely for Norco while moonlighting. He designed a prototype mountain bike frame that would become the Druid — the all-mountain bike with which he and his Nelson-based business partner Mike Goodall would launch Forbidden Bike Co. in 2018. (The company is named after one of Pemberton’s favorite riding zones, the steep trails that descend from the mothballed Forbidden Plateau ski area.)
Pemberton has seen the company exceed his growth expectations.
“It’s been a bit of a blur,” he says.
In its first year Forbidden sold 370 frames, and this year the company will ship 2,000 frames to customers around North America, the U.K. and to far-flung nations like Australia and Singapore. Pemberton says they’re on target to produce 3,500 frames in 2022. If it weren’t for COVID-related supply chain disruptions, the company would be growing even faster.
“We can’t capitalize on demand the way we’d want to right now,” says Pemberton.
Forbidden now has a staff of 11, all but two of which live in the Comox Valley, and there is also a satellite company in the U.K., the bike builder’s second most important market. With two bike models now in the fleet — the Druid and the burlier Dreadnought — Pemberton says he has six more design projects in the pipeline.
“We’re working to diversify our offerings,” he says.
The Sailcloth Upcycler
Meaghan McDonald is in her happy place when she’s on the water, sharing her passion for ocean ecology with guests of Eagle Wing Tours, the Victoria wildlife viewing company where she works full time. Three years ago, if you had asked this biologist about private entrepreneurship, she might have laughed it off. However, living on her sailboat in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, along with an interest in the circular economy, helped to percolate an idea to upcycle old sails into new products.
“It’s a perfect material; it’s durable and UV resistant,” says McDonald, while on a day off from guiding.
Though it’s not a new concept, nobody was doing it in Victoria, a city of many sailors. These combined elements put wind in the sails of her nascent business idea, around the same time that she heard about Project Zero, an incubator program targeted at start-ups and new businesses in the circular economy. It was a perfect match; McDonald applied and was accepted into the six-month program, which she completed last September. Salt Legacy was born.
“Going through that program put the gas pedal down to get it going,” says McDonald.
She teamed up with Catherine Church, a Victoria sailor and skilled sailcloth sewer to produce three prototypes: an adventure backpack/laptop case, a simple backpack and a fanny pack — with plans to produce a surfboard-carrying bag.
Each one is handsewn and true to the upcycling ethic, the raw material is used sailcloth and is free.
“I have about 25 sails right now, and they’ve been donated by all kinds of people,” she says.
As a clever marketing twist, McDonald is incorporating the sail into Salt Legacy’s branding. For example, she’ll name a particular collection after the boat, which the sail came from.
“The person who buys the product gets the whole story of the sails,” says McDonald. “Sailors love to tell stories. I want to capture the emotion and the connection they have with their boats and the ocean.”
Sam Whittingham once pedaled a carbon-fibre recumbent bike to a world-record speed. Now, he designs and builds award-winning mountain, gravel, road and cross bikes from his Quadra Island workshop that backs onto his local trail network.
Based in Nanaimo, this sea kayak design/build specialist has been in the game since 2003. Founded by Vancouver Island University business and biology grad Robin Thacker, this company manufactures a range of models from 18.5-foot expedition-ready boats to sportier day trippers and tandem kayaks.
This Courtenay-based outdoor brand specializes in waterproof backpacks, dry bags, bivy sacks and other all-weather products that are designed and tested on Vancouver Island. Founded by entrepreneur Curt Coomber but now owned by Michael Didham, the company has been selling direct to consumers around the world since 1994. In 2019, AquaQuest opened a retail outlet in downtown Courtenay and started a practice it calls “halfitalism,” donating half of the store’s annual net profits to local environmental and social non-profits.
This custom Victoria shop has been designing and shaping foam-core, fibreglass surfboards for two decades. Owned by die-hard, cold-water surfer William Hazen, the company makes roughly 150 boards per year with a quiver of eight that includes the high-performance Waterman Shortboard and the beginner-friendly Baby Egg.
The Snowboard and Ski Makers
Ten years ago, the entrepreneurial couple behind Kindred Custom Snowboards and Skis were working at Mount Washington — Angie Farquharson in special events and marketing and Fair with the park crew. They were living in an oceanfront rental on Kin Beach in Comox, and were ready for a work change. It was either move to a different ski hill or do a 180 degree turn and try something new.
Around that same transitory time, Fair, an avid snowboarder, wondered out loud what it would be like to build his own snowboard. In hindsight, what seemed like his debut as an entrepreneur now doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Fair was comfortable around tools, having worked in the off season in construction. Farquharson is a talented graphic artist and, with her experience in ski resort marketing, also had a natural flair for promotion.
“I’d always wanted to know how to build a snowboard,” Fair explains.
Following up on that whim, they perused Craigslist, and there happened to be a snowboard press for sale. Two days later, they were driving to Vancouver to buy it.
“We just went for it,” says Fair, who was 22 at the time. “It was a bit of a leap.”
Both were driven by a passion to work for themselves doing something they love.
“It took about that long until we realized that it could actually be sustainable,” says Fair, after spending the first five years focusing on making great boards.
Today they produce roughly 250 boards annually (approximately half ski and splitboards, and half snowboards). They work out of a shop behind their home on the North Island Highway in Merville, where they relocated to after outgrowing their Kin Beach rental (hence, the name Kindred).
Fair does the heavy lifting, building yellow cedar cores out of wood sourced from local sawmills. Farquharson designs the top sheets with marquetry, a technique using wood veneers to create striking stylized patterns.
Farquharson credits social media and great support from ambassadors in the guiding and snow sports world for helping to build their brand.
“We don’t do traditional advertising,” she says.
So far, Kindred employs only one other person full time and brings in additional help during peak production times in the fall, but Fair and Farquharson will need more help if they reach their five-year growth plan of selling between 700 and 800 skis and snowboards annually.
“It’s been a bit of a blur,” he says.
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