It’s 2011: Who Are You? Why Are You Here?

Good morning.

It’s 2011. You’re ready, right?

Well, that’s all right. Today is a holiday, tomorrow is Sunday, so you got a couple of days.

Today – on New Year’s Day – there are only two questions you need to answer:

Who am I?

Why am I here?

Wait, wait, wait: There’s no need for an existential crisis, so put down the phone; your spiritual advisor will still be there on Monday.

We’re here today to talk about business. Specifically, business in the outdoor industry – #OIBIZ, for short – but some of what we’re going to talk about will probably have general application, also. And – come to think of it – you may want to book time with your spiritual advisor on Monday. We’re gonna go deep.

Here goes…

::..

Who Am I?

For God’s sake, we hope that you know by now, and – for the love of Pete – we hope that everybody knows you online through social media. By “you” – yeah – it might actually mean “you,” but we’re really talking in a larger, macro sense. Don’t want to share what you did with your kids over the weekend, or what you had for lunch? You don’t have to. But people want to know who they are working and dealing with, and not having a Facebook page, or a LinkedIn profile, or Twitter feed for yourself or at least for your business (or one on Facebook, even), that’s just not going to work.

Pop quiz: One of last year’s watchwords was “engagement”; did you engage through social media last year?

We hope so, because if not you’re at least two years behind. A year ago in this space, we argued the validity of using social media in business. Six months ago, our friends at Verde PR hammered this message home during their Rep University presentation at OR. Of course, there have been other voices from a number of different channels, too. The point is: It’s 2011, and social media is no longer optional. Further, whether it is or it isn’t optional is no longer even arguable. It just IS.

Why? Well – bowing again to our friends at Verde PR – let’s examine one word: Influence.

One of the fundamentals of business – and politics and probably private life, too – is that it’s all about the relationships. Who you know, and who knows you, is important. But this isn’t a popularity contest, and it isn’t about numbers, only. Our friend Sara Lingafelter coined a phrase at a recent #OIBIZ gathering in Seattle: “It’s about having the smallest number of big relationships.”

By way of example to Sara’s point, one of the most influential characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series is Grima Wormtongue, who really only has the ear of two people: King Theoden of Rohan, and the dark wizard Saruman. Not only is Wormtongue unpopular, he’s almost universally despised, yet through his influence with only two powerful people he almost brings down all of Middle-Earth. In this sense influence is about who you listen to, and who listens to you, and what happens as a result of these exchanges. This is something different than how many people you can reach, and whether or not they like you.

Fortunately, most of us are likable. And we stand for good things, like the outdoors, the environment, the health of our country, and the planet. We like to have fun. We bike commute, and compost, and earn our turns. Best of all, we know a lot of people who are just like us, and others who want to be like us. We’re the cool kids, right? We’re the influencers. This shouldn’t be all that hard.

In #OIBIZ, even back in the dark ages before fax machines and cellphones, it’s always been about influence. The difference is that back in the day the primary – that is, only – way to gain influence was to be in the field, on the ground, and meeting people face-to-face. Reps visited stores on behalf of vendors to show product to staff and customers at clinics and events, for instance. This face-to-face interaction is still important, but it’s just one arrow in the quiver, now. And from an arrow of one, it’s become a really big quiver. We’ve added fax, cellphone, e-mail, direct mail, social media, smartphones, smartphone apps, and a whole host of other arrows, too. We can use any one of them – and/or ALL of them – to hit a given target, and we must.

The world has changed. How and where we know one another is no longer limited by physical proximity.

Take our friend Steph Davis. In our opinion, she’s single-handedly redefining what it means to be a professional athlete in the outdoor industry, and – we would argue – might be a great model for how a professional athlete might be in any industry. As far as we can tell, she lives her life day-to-day doing what she’s always done: She grouts the bathroom, washes her hands, takes a hike, jumps off a cliff while wearing a wingsuit, comes home, feeds her dog, makes a vegan souffle for dinner, has a glass of wine, and repeats the same thing the next day. You know, just a typical day for an extreme-sports athlete. What makes her different? She tells people about what she’s doing, at every step. And she’s accessible, and because of this, she’s influential. When she posts a review on Backcountry.com, people buy things. They e-mail and ask her opinion on jackets, and boots, and wingsuits, and even dog-food, we’re guessing. And she answers. That’s what makes her different.

But Steph Davis does more than this. She answers a question for people. And that question is…

::..

Why Are You Here?

We’re an industry that lives and dies by selling product. We’re completely anchored to things. Without widgets, there’s no industry here. There’s no question we have to sell stuff. But for some time now, that’s all we’ve done.

But it wasn’t always this way. It used to be we went to the climbing shop to hang out and tell stories. We went to the fly-shop to tie flies and hear about the latest hatch. Lately, I’ve been known to go to the local bike shop just to bring beer and watch them tune wheels. We can get back to what we were.

What were we? We – this industry – provided the one thing to people that nobody else could.  We provided Context.

In this, we helped them define who they were. We narrated the story of their lives. We showed them what they wanted to be and then helped them to become that same thing. We captured their imaginations and made them see a bigger part of themselves, to embrace a desire that they didn’t know that they had. We asked them to go places in the world – and in themselves – where they had only before just dreamed about going. And then we helped make those dreams possible. We were story-tellers, and we need to be again.

When we told the story of Messner alone on Nanga Parbat, we weren’t telling a story about Messner. In our stories, we were all – each one of us – Messner. We lived and breathed those stories. They became part of us, part of who we are, and part of who we wanted to be. Never mind that 99.9% of us would never even see Nanga Parbat, let along climb it. We were there with Messner, in our souls.

Where did this go? It went to new zippers, and lighter fabrics, and the season’s hot color. It disappeared in me-to items and me-to brands, washed away in a Sea of Sameness. I’m going to say this clearly: To most people, there really is no distinguishing difference between any one item – a sleeping bag, for instance – and another one just like it from another competing brand. We can argue all we want about the type of insulation and shell material we use versus the other guys, but that’s just noise. In fact, it’s white noise, and it’s drowning out the essential stories that we must be telling:

“It’s fun to go outside.”

“You should take the kids.”

“It’s really easy to do, and the outdoors is really just outside your door, nearby.”

“We can help.”

Our message has been lost to the din, not just our own, but from competing industries. It’s easier to go to the movies. Everybody owns a computer, and you can download games, and music, and all kinds of media right from your couch. You can read books – good ones – from your smartphone. There’s a game on TV.

We have an advantage: We have a better message. The thing is, we need to make it stick.

Shops in our territory here in the Midwest are doing smashing jobs of this. This territory is geographically deprived – there are no big mountains here, true untouched wilderness is far away  – so we’ve had to be creative. Last year, Midwest Mountaineering and Rutabaga each won Retailer Of The Year awards for their outreach programs. Midwest Mountaineering does an excellent job of getting people into their store for their events. Rutabaga also has events, but more than this they have classes, and summer camps, and they get youth involved. I’d like to highlight also The Alpine Shop, who has developed a bang-up social media presence and linked it with events in their stores. They’re getting people in for spin classes, for yoga, and getting people out on hikes and paddling events.

Each of these stores are providing something that nobody else can: Context. They’re telling stories that people will weave into their own lives.

As an industry, by and large we’ve forgotten how to do this, but this is where we started.

Stop selling the thing. Sell instead the idea of how the thing is used. Weave the idea into the context of people’s daily lives, and make this idea – the idea is an activity, outdoors – essential to their health and happiness. You need to anchor the story around the person, and the thing is only the tool to make the story happen. This is how we change lives, change the planet, and – hey – grow our industry in the process.

Who Are You?

Why Are You Here?

People want to know, and people want to answer these questions for themselves, also. We can help them find these answers.

It’s 2011. Get on it.

5 responses to “It’s 2011: Who Are You? Why Are You Here?

  1. Our mission statement: Rutabaga exists to create and foster communities that love, celebrate and protect the outdoors.

    Notice we don’t mention the stuff, or mention the activities, because they’re secondary to the community. The stuff and the activities exist to enhance the cohesiveness of the communities we create and foster.

    You’re right, Brad. We’re here for the people. And it’s why I love Sara and Steph and all those who are about relationships.

  2. Brad, A nice, thoughtful piece, thanks. No surprise, but
    your article got me thinking; does a young company, like ours,
    Innate, sell the thing or the idea? I resisted the urge to call
    someone, anyone with this question, but opted to ponder this while
    taking advantage of a bluebird spell of weather to skin up one of
    the hills behind our fair city of Vancouver Canada. There were
    hundreds of people out; some hiking on the well packed trail,
    others were snowshoeing or ski touring in search of the remaining
    untracked powder. I didn’t see an unhappy face in the whole crowd
    who ranged in equipment from tennis sneakers with plastic grocery
    bag vbl liners to the latest and greatest. I reached the summit,
    shared some tea from one of our products with a group of Koreans i
    introduced myself to, watched the sun continue its low winter arc
    and started to ski my favorite tree run. My mind continued to
    wander as the familiar vistas slid by and it became a little
    clearer; we are about ideas, we support and encourage others in
    their pursuit of healthy, active lives while offering things to
    help make the realization of their ideas more enjoyable. I’m not
    sure if we’re on it, but we sure as heck are enjoying the journey
    toward it. regards Greg

  3. Hi Pembaserves,

    I just wanted to say I enjoyed this post! I am not in the #OIBIZ but I have friends who are and I am interested in how it all works. I found that this article could also apply those those of us who just play outside as weekend warriors. I often ask myself, “Why am I here?” and “Why do I do this?” And it comes down to the stories and experiences that we love to share.

    Anyway, just wanted to say I enjoyed it and Happy New Year! Can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with this year! Keep the good stuff coming!

    Tiffany

  4. Thanks Darren, Greg, and Tiffany!

    I love the Rutabaga mission statement in particular.

    Greg, your answer: “We are about ideas, we support and encourage others in their pursuit of healthy, active lives…”

    And Tiffany, it does indeed come down to the stories and experiences. Ideally, we collect those more than we collect stuff. The stuff just makes the other stuff possible, after all.

    Thanks again, for commenting.

    B

  5. In shop, the most genuine sales tool is the ability to convey the experience… whatever the thing. The relationship between retailer and consumer can often be overly scrutinized in terms of numbers and dollars. Many gear blogs and review sites currently are devoid of any real content, and do little to hide their sponsored links. Darren’s post is spot on, and Rutabaga stands as a high-water mark for this Industry. Product can only deliver results in terms of “lightest” or “fastest”. There’s no objective way to quantify “most fun”, as the experience is different for each person. Enthusiasm is contagious, and it’s easiest thing to sell.

    For me, the most valuable return on those sales are in the form of photos, postcards, emails & enthusiastically re-told accounts of adventure. It’s deeply satisfying to see how one can enhance the outdoor experience for another.

    This, of course, coming from an avowed gear junkie.