When Tim Marshall began to make outdoor gear for the backpacking trips he led as a youth pastor in Winona, Minn., he had no grand plans to make the hobby a business. But some 15 years later, Enlightened Equipment, the company that evolved from Marshall's leisure pursuit, makes some of the most sought-after ultralight camping quilts.
Marshall is credited with influencing many campers to switch from sleeping bags to quilts, in large part because of his frequent interaction with ultralight backpackers on online forums. Such discussion boards helped his company build a loyal following during its early days.
It wasn't a straight road to the top. Marshall shut down the operation in 2011, not because it was failing but because it was beginning to succeed and had outgrown his ability to run it as a one-man operation. He wasn't sure how to take it to the next level — or if he even wanted to. But a move out of his basement and into a proper facility, and the addition of staff to handle tasks such as cutting, sewing and stuffing, gave Enlightened Equipment new life.
Marshall said today the company has about 40 percent of the camping quilt market in the United States.
What follows are excerpts from a recent conversation:
On how he got started
I was interested in going lighter with my backpacking gear, but in the early 2000s there were not a lot of commercial options. The stuff out there was from dudes making it in their basements. I thought, "I'm a dude and I have a basement — I can do that."
I was taking kids hiking and making gear so I could outfit them. I started using kits from Ray Jardine, who was famous for the book "Beyond Backpacking." I immediately hated all the gear, and started changing it. I never had a plan to make much out of it. I started selling gear because I wanted to make more — when you're financing your own [research and development] debt, it gets expensive. To make gear more often, I'd charge a customer for two and make one for me.
On leaving the basement
In 2011, I was a stay-at-home dad, but with a full-time second shift job. The company was starting to gain a little traction in the quilt industry, and it was pushing what one guy could do. I shut it down the whole summer so I could get some rest. It wasn't really even a legal entity then, and I would have sold it for basically nothing. But I had some friends who invited me to move it under their business umbrella, to make it official, to do it the right way.
That's when things changed. Now I wasn't making stuff myself, I was hiring people to do it. I had been a boutique outdoor tailor. Now I was hiring people to do production sewing, which made the product a lot more affordable. We still have a very wide set of options compared to our competitors, but we have a set of stock options that you choose from and we make the quilts in a production sewing environment. We went into 2017 with 120 employees, but are less than half of that now. We are learning how to be efficient and lean in production. I used to pay three people for what one now can accomplish.
On his competition
It seems like every 10 minutes some new quilt company pops up. I started in 2008 and there were two other companies, both of which have since changed hands. I am the last of the original quilt guys, but now, there's tons and tons and tons of new companies out there.
Every new thing that comes out looks like what we've been doing since 2014. But even though there's some companies that use the same materials that we do, and can manufacture with quality, they can't design with the same quality. They copy the features we have but don't know why they were there in the first place, and that makes a difference. We did it first, we do it best, and we do it right, and we do it in the U.S.
On a maturing company
We're still seeing growth. When I first started this thing it was growing 100 percent a year. We were in an explosive growth mode for years and I know how to do that. I know how to be busy, I know how to have a thousand problems and fires, but I don't know how to coast. I don't do that very well.
On getting outdoors
I got into this because I love the outdoors, and now, just as of the last couple of years, I am back to getting out more. I am no longer an integral part of the daily operations of (the business). I am the leader and do the president/CEO type of stuff, but I'm not the guy making things happen every day. So I have a lot of flexibility. This year I got out and did five different wilderness trips, mostly canoe-based camping. I do a lot of short weekend trips to the U.P. (Upper Peninsula of Michigan).
I've done a lot of trips to the Boundary Waters, but those trips have to be longer and I don't like being gone a long period of time. I end up running to the U.P. because I can get there in five hours and it's twice as long to the BWCA.
On these trips I'm testing gear pretty much all the time. We're always working on new stuff and I try it out before we get into the official product testing window. I like to be the first one to test. Once I'm happy with the design, we send the products to testers.
On the next generation
I still go on the Backpacking Light forums, just to look for any posts or threads that need my advice. But that whole online culture has shifted. It's much more about helping entry-level users than it is a collection of advanced users.
That's an amazing thing, the next generation coming up. They're exploring the outdoors in a way my generation didn't. The millennials are much less concerned with gear than about just getting out there. They don't care if they have a new jacket this season. That's awesome, even if doesn't help my bottom line so much. That's the way to be a human.
On selling the company
I'm not even 40 years old, and this is my baby. If ever I think I have built it to what I think it should be, maybe at that point I'd consider selling. But I'm going to be the guy who builds to what it should be — I'm not going to sit back and watch somebody else do that.
Jeff Moravec is a freelancer writer and photographer from Minneapolis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.