One of the fun things about this industry is how readily people will share their stories with us. Recently we sat down with Grant Sible, the President of Gossamer Gear in Austin, TX. Gossamer makes ultralight backpacking gear such as backpacks, sleeping pads and trekking poles. I sat down with him to find out who is behind those ultralight backpacks you love.
SBM: Everybody I’ve talked to absolutely loves your gear and just loves how passionate you are about ultralight. Give us an idea of how it started.
GG: Good, that’s what we do. We’re backpackers first. We’re hikers. Glen Van Peski, the company founder, has been backpacking his whole life and so have I. I started doing outdoors stuff when I was a kid. I was a climber for awhile. I lived In South America and climbed in the Andes for a few years. Nothing technical. You know, ropes and axes and walk ups, but in Ecuador you can get up to 20,000 feet that way so it’s pretty great. You can do Cotopaxi and those kinds of mountains. I did that for a while and that kind of got me back into backpacking. I returned to backpacking in my forties. But this is my full time gig and it has been for about six or seven years. I’ve lost track.
SBM: What made you decide to start the company?
GG: For us it’s all about passion. I really believe we’re backpackers first and we do it because we love it and then we’re designers second and we love that and that we’re manufacturers third and that’s difficult but a good thing and then selling the gear is almost tangential to that in a way.
SBM: So many people think gear companies are huge, that you have to open up this giant warehouse and have a planning department and have teams and teams of people but I’m finding out, in this industry, almost nobody operates that way. Tell us about your operations.
GG: There are four of us, mainly: Me, Glen, who founded the company, Michael is running our operations now and we have a guy who does our shipping and receiving and customer service, Gage. Gage is the newest guy and he is really good at customer service and hopefully we’re going to hire another person. Then we have contract people to fill our busy times. For a few years I didn’t hike at all. All I did was work twelve hours a day, six days a week and I didn’t hike. I got into this right after an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I was really into it. Then I started doing this and last year I got out four or five times. Now I’m going to be backpacking four times in the next three months, which is great. I’m just making myself do it. I’m doing the TGO Challenge in Scotland in May with one of our brand ambassadors and a British blogger. That’s really fun. That’s been really exciting for me, to get back out.
SBM: Do you have a big UK contingent that follows you?
GG: We have some UK customers. We have a really strong customer base in Japan and also in France, Germany and the UK. They are all good customer bases for us because of the quality.
Glen Van Peski and Grant Sible of Gossamer Gear
SBM: I know your fabrics are specially made for Gossamer. Where are you manufactured to maintain the quality?
GG: Our trekking poles we build in Austin, TX. Parts come from California, Asia and Austin. Some of the parts are machined in Austin. The carbon fiber comes from California and the plastic parts we get in Asia. Our sewing has been done previously all in the United States, but it’s been really difficult because I don’t sew and we don’t have the bandwidth to open our own factory. This has been an ongoing discussion for us for a couple of years now. We’ve been pretty lean for a while. When we started up we were pretty bootstrapped and everything we’ve made has gone back into our product. We have been through four or five factories in the United States in five years. They either close or they decide to make only military gear, or they decline to do the work because we weren’t running enough quantity. US made is great, but the quality started slipping and we started having to really ride them. And this is the really hard part about the whole thing. The samples I’ve gotten from Mexico and Asia are of much better quality than anything we’ve ever had sewn in the US. It’s just consistent and the quality is so good. I don’t want to have to look at every backpack and yank and tug on it and the factory in Mexico that we are starting up with, they have triple inspection, three people touch it and look at it and the last person is the floor manager. Our last factory in Colorado closed on us in November with no notice. We got an email, “We’re closing.” So we are starting up in ten days with a factory in Mexico that’s been there a long time. It’s a really good factory. Their floor manager, Marty Cruz, has been with them twenty-five years. It’s a really nice, clean, place with good retention. It’s a family operation and what’s nice is they’re looking for steady volume; they don’t want these huge orders a couple times a year. They’re going to give us a mini [production] line of our own, they’re going to put four or five sewers making Gossamer Gear all the time so we’ll get a few hundred packs at a time and that’s good. I have started the process with two other US sewing companies and we’ll probably look in Asia as well where there is a lot of outdoor manufacturing in places like Vietnam, Korea and Nepal.
SBM: How do you decide what to add to your product line?
GG: Well, to begin with, we actually use the stuff. That’s what we start from as users and where we get our inspiration is from our customers. I have a sample of a women’s specific ultralight framed daypack that weighs under a pound and a half. It’s engineered for women and its 56 liters but compresses way down and it’s really nice. It’s a first round sample. What we’ve been hearing from our women customers is “we need a pack that’s designed for us, because it’s different.” So we got some help from a couple women designing this and I’m actually going to a trail show in San Jose to show it around and get some feedback. In terms of the business side, we outsource a ton and it’s all about getting the right people to help you. Our business is completely relationship based.
SBM: Do you get out to Seattle often?
GG: I was just out in the Northwest. I try to do that whole area when I get out there. So a couple of months ago I went hiking in the Olympics with one of our brand ambassadors. He took me on an off trail hike in the Bailey range. We love to make industry connections. There are people in the industry that we see at trade shows and meetings that are amazingly helpful to us and that are just doing it out of the goodness of their heart. It’s humbling.