Outdoor Prolink connects outdoor professionals with the best outdoor brands. Those people are guides, instructors, search and rescue, people who work in retail, work for the outdoor brands, etc.
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What outdoor activities do you guys participate in you and your family?
“I still rock climb with a bunch of buddies, paddle a little bit, not as much as I used to, and mountain bike and ski.”
Gareth’s advice to get into the outdoor industry:
“Do your homework and align yourself with brands, with companies who have the same values as you.”
Gareth’s favorite piece of outdoor gear under a hundred dollars:
Grayl water purifier
Follow up with Gareth:
02:06 – 02:29 Gareth’s Introduction to the Outdoors
04:02 – 04:18 What is Outdoor Prolink?
25:22 – 25:36 Gareth Richard’s Advice to get in the Outdoor Industry
Outdoor Prolink, Where Authentic Outdoor Pros Get Their Gear With Founder Gareth Richards
Welcome to this episode with my long-time outdoor biz buddy Gareth Richards, Founder of Prolink. Gareth began his outdoor career as a guide and educator and then got into the online biz with PlanetOutdoors.com before online was a thing. He spent time as VP of Sales for Lowe Alpine and Mountainsmith. He started Prolink in September of 2004. Welcome to the show, Gareth.
Thanks, Rick. It’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
It’s great talking with you. I haven’t caught up with you in quite some time. We first met when I was in Denver. Were you working at Kelty then?
I was probably with Lowe Alpine or Mountainsmith.
Let’s start off with how you were introduced to the outdoors. How’d you get into the whole outdoor lifestyle?
I am from a different part of the world. I am from Wales in the UK. I played a lot of rugby in school. One of the things that interested me was the outdoors. There are a lot of outdoor activities going on in Wales. There was a sixteen-year-old girl who lived on a farm couple of miles away. She was a kayaker and she was on the Welsh Slalom Kayak Team. My mom asked her dad that if she would take me kayaking on this little river in Wales and I did. I swam a bunch of times. I was hook, line and sinker onboard. I bought a spray skirt, a kayak paddle, a helmet, and the whole nine yards. I was sixteen. It was a lot. I’ve been a paddler for a long time.
Do you remember the name of the river?
The River Teifi in Llandysul, which is the name of the town.
What about the skirt?
The brand of the spray skirt was Whitewater. I bought it because she had a Whitewater spray skirt. I had to be like her.
Have you lost contact with her, all these years later?
I have no idea. I actually tried to dig her up. In college, they have a minor in the UK and a major, which was Environmental Studies that I did. My minor was Outdoor Pursuits. The main professor, I held him on a pedestal. He introduced me to mountaineering, rock climbing, orienteering and more kayaking.
Tell our audience about Outdoor Prolink. What do you guys do and how does it work?
Prolink is a way for brands to connect with people who work in the outdoor industry. Those people are the mountain guides, search and rescue people, and people who work in the outdoor brands. That’s the demographic that we look into. We market to them and so we ask them to come to the site and they apply for membership. We don’t take anybody. We only take people who legitimately work in the outdoor industry.
We collect data on them, who they are, what they do, who they work for, their gender, their size and information. One of the things we asked them to do is send us some documentation that tells us that they’re truly working. It can be a copy of a payslip and they can redact some of the sensitive stuff. For example, if it’s a payslip from April or May of 2021, we’ll approve them. They get twelve months of membership. They get a discount on products.
I remember you started this back in the day. This was your idea.
I was a professor of Outdoor Education at Prescott College in Arizona. I was there for nine years. My wife graduated from medical school in Phoenix and one thing led to another. In ’99, I got invited to go work with David Secunda at Planet Outdoors. It was in early dot-com. He raised a bunch of venture capital money and started this thing, PlanetOutdoors.com. It was too early. I was involved with that at an early stage. It went under in 2020 and we all went our separate ways.
One of the things I did is I work for Lowe Alpine. I was the Director of Sales and Marketing over there. They got acquired by Asolo and I didn’t have a job. I put one thing with another and started Prolink again. I dug in my basement and outsource the technology part to a company here in Boulder and started it in 2004. I was pretty driven. My wife had a medical practice in town, early stage. We had all the chips on the table so to speak.
We are both entrepreneurs with a couple of kids. It was very challenging out of the get-go. We launched Prolink with three brands. One of those brands remains on the site, CAMP climbing equipment. They’ve been with us for many years. The other one is Optic Nerve, which is a sunglass company out of Denver, Colorado. There was another one that I can’t remember. They went out of business. It was a specific pack company for skiers. It was a brand-new brand.
You started working with influencers before influencers were a thing.
When I was at Cornell University, I ran the Outdoor Program there for a couple of years. We had a pretty robust pro program there. At Prescott College, I was the guy who’d always call the brand, be it Mountain Hardwear or Lowe Alpine to try to get a deal or a discount on gears. There were seven of us who were part of that program in Prescott. The interest there has been long-standing for me. Whenever I was standing in front of a bunch of students, they’d be checking me out. What shoes are you wearing? What rock shoes? What’s his harness? It’s right there.
I remember taking a guy. I did a little guiding in the summer as well. This guy from LA who was an attorney wanted to climb Denali. He had very little experience. One thing led to another and we got connected through my mother-in-law. I took him to Alaska. We flew in for six days to do some glacial training and crevasse rescue. Before that, he said, “Which pack? Which sleeping bag? What boots? What harness to start me on this?” I told him what I was wearing and what I was using, and he bought the exact same product.
I was a river guide for many years and they were always checking out our shoes. That was right when the Tevas came out. Everybody was like, “Where did you get those Tevas? We need some of those.” They buy everything, Patagonia Baggies, the uniform, all of it.
I remember he said, “What type of sleeping bags should I get?” I said, “Just get a 20-degree down bag.” He said, “Which one?” I said, “Just get The North Face 20-degree bag.” He said, “Which one?” I said, “Get a Cat’s Meow.” He said, “Which one?” “20-degree down bag from The North Face. It’s called the Cat’s Meow. It’ll come with a left zip or right zip. You decide.” The trust that he had in me was inordinate. He bought the exact bag, boots, pack and harness that I suggested.
It’s hugely powerful because you were the pro. You were living it every day. He knew two things. He knew that bag was going to keep him warm because it kept you warm. The second thing is he knew it was going to last because you were doing it every day. He wasn’t going to do it every day. Good on you for coming up with that idea. Your site says you have over 21 team members, 28 if you include the dogs. To what do you attribute all that growth over the years? It’s the nature of the industry growing, but you guys are doing something right.
We listen to our brands. We have about 120 brands on the site. When I pitched the brand, I do a lot of the biz dev. We tell them that we are an extension of their sales and marketing team. We represent them as best as we possibly can. We will make sure that we do things efficiently with them and follow them. Lo and behold, they believe me. I think we’re doing something right because we have some incredible brands on the site like La Sportiva, SCARPA, Osprey and Dynafit, killer brands. We are a team who walk the talk. Most of us in the office are often seen outside climbing, paddling, riding bikes or hiking, you name it. We’re all authentic. We take that authenticity of climbing, boarding or whatever it is into the business. We do what we say we’re going to do.
You’ve expanded across quite a few different activities. You’re not just what we call traditional outdoor hiking, camping and backpacking. You do fishing and all kinds of other stuff.
We do a little bit of fishing. We’re putting our toe in the water there. It’s interesting because when I started this thing, I went to the brands that I trusted. I had a history with La Sportiva rock shoes, SCARPA, Backcountry Ski Boots or CAMP climbing equipment, you name it. Those are the products that I pursued. One thing led to another.
We need first aid kits, so I’d go to Adventure Medical Kits and Chris Gubera. Other brands decided to come to us. We have some bike brands come to us because they saw the opportunity to reach new demographics. Paddleboards, for example, or fishing. It’s a great opportunity for brands to get in front of pros who are truly influential and that’s really what we do.
How many pro members do you have these days?
We have about 120 brands and we are adding brands slowly but surely. We’re pretty methodical about who we add. We’re not trying to get everybody in. In footwear, for example, we have 4, 5, 6 brands. There are probably 300 footwear brands out there in the industry. For our reach and our demographic, it’s key that we have great rock shoes, running shoes, ski boots and the like. The same with packs. In the world pros, we have about 130,000 approved and authenticated pros in our database. It’s a lot.
A business is a lot of work, but you have to be committed.
It’s interesting because people have that reaction and it’s a lot of work because we authenticate every single person. At twelve months, we ask people to renew their membership. We’ll send them an email and we’ll say, “Your membership is expiring soon. Please update with some new documentation that tells us that you are still working in the industry.” If you don’t respond, we’ll send you another one in two weeks. We do it a little bit tongue in cheek. We are like, “Rick, come on now.” It’s that note. If you don’t, we will pump you out of the database and you won’t be able to log in and buy from us.
That’s good. That keeps it legit.
That’s our promise and commitment to the brands. We’re not going to have 400,000 pros in the database and 50%, 60% or 70% of them are not authentic. That’s our commitment.
You launched the Dirtbag Dreams blog. What kind of content lives there?
On that blog, we talk about products. We test and review products. We put a lot of information up there on some of the products that we have on the site. That’s been useful for pros and anybody else. There’s information and stories on there about our pros, what they do, where they are going, and the gear they’re using on their trips and expeditions. A lot of people who are spending time in the outdoors are phenomenal photographers. We have some great history up there.
Pro deals seem to be more widely available than they were back in the day when I was a sales guy. It seemed like some of these brands use it as a proactive sales channel. They aggressively go after that. What are your thoughts on that?
One of the things that we are committed to is authenticity for Outdoor Prolink. One of the things that we’re seeing is the additional sales channel that some pro programs that are resting their laurels on are big numbers. Our commitment is 100% authenticity. I have a list of people that we approved membership for. They worked for an outdoor brand, Eagle Creek, Mammut or Hardwear. They sell outdoor gear so they work at a store. They require technical outdoor gear to do their jobs so they could be a mountain guide or a Grand Canyon raft guide or similar.
They may work as an outdoor educator. They might be working for Colorado Outward Bound or NOLS. They might be an advocate for the outdoor industry. They might work in environmental conservation. That’s our demographic. It’s very clean-cut and specific. We don’t approve of influencers. We don’t approve enthusiasts, experts or hobbyists. We don’t approve of people in outdoor clubs or students of Outward Bound or NOLS. Instructors, absolutely.
You got to be a pro.
As you can imagine, for us to have 130,000 people in our database, and there are people who are always coming in but they need to be verified and approved. At the other end of the database, there are also people who’ve been members for 11, 12 months. Those keep dropping out. We have a three-person membership team that authenticates new pros. They’re trying to renew pros who are still working in the industry. It’s a commitment. It’s a lot of work and we’re standing by that.
What about your plans for the future? Have you got anything going on? Are you expanding on other products?
We’re trying to get into a little bit more fishing because a lot of pros these days are taking up fishing and there’s an opportunity to expand there. The hunt and fish market is significant. There are thousands of pros who are hunting pros and fishing guides ou there. That is a demographic that we are going into. There are a lot of crossovers. That man or woman who’s a fishing guide in Colorado or Montana. He or she likely owns a tent. Why wouldn’t they want to buy a big tent or a bag from Hardwear, for example? That’s a great vertical forest. The bike is another area that we have a little bit of exposure in a good way with the effects of COVID. There’s no inventory. We’re pulling back a little bit there. It’s interesting.
How has COVID directly impacted you? Are you working remotely?
Our last day in the office in 2020, I remember it. Imagine this Friday the 13th of March. That news hit us like a Mack Truck. Joe and I share an office here. He looked around and said, “We got to go work from home here. We’ve got to work remote.” Fortunately, we already had most of the tools in place so that we could work remotely. Almost everybody had a laptop. We sent everybody home and then we’ve been using Zoom calls.
It’s been tough. Sales dropped off completely. It plummeted in March and April 2020. Fortunately, people realized that one thing they could do was go outside. There were a lot of people still working in the outdoor industry. They started buying some products in May, June and July 2020. There were a lot of warehouses that closed. We saw a lot of challenges. We’re about to bring everybody back to the office. We had a couple of new people start. We had a little shindig. Most people are vaccinated. We went out for a happy hour at the local brewery. We’re coming back slowly but surely.
You’re still getting outside. What outdoor activities do you guys participate in your family? You got all the tools.
I still rock climb with a bunch of buddies here in town and I paddle a little bit, but not as much as I used to. I mountain bike and ski. My son is super excited. He’s going to a NOLS school in Alaska on a 30-days NOLS Alaska Mountaineering course. He’s fired up. I’ve been getting outside with him. My daughter who’s 21 did a bunch of rock climbing about five years ago. She’s a better rock climber than me. She’s saying, “Dad, I’m not going to do this anymore.” It crushed me. My youngest child, she and I are voracious skiers. She’s a phenomenal skier. My wife and I, we all camp, run and bike. We love it.
You are living the Colorado life. Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor adventure biz?
Pick the companies that you want to associate with. Pick them carefully and figure out why. Not all companies are the same. It’s important to dig a little bit and figure out what their values are. People ask us, “What’s our values and mission?” Our mission is to get people into the outdoors wearing product that’s high quality and can protect them when they’re doing these activities.
I’m going off script here a little bit. This is a true story. My wife and were getting books off the shelves. We are having these shelves painted. I was doing some work and she pulled out this Prescott College catalog of Resident Degree Programs from 1999. This is the comment on Gareth Richards’ Faculty of Adventure Education. This is what I said in 1999.
“I believe that Prescott College offers students a unique opportunity to develop the whole person, an outdoor ethic, respect for the wilderness, and exposure to the wildness within each of us.” If you look at our mission on Outdoor Prolink on the website, it’s very similar to that. I could say, “I believe that Outdoor Prolink offers pros a unique opportunity to develop the whole person, an outdoor ethic, respect to the wilderness, and exposure to the wildness within each of us.”
Did you write that remembering what you wrote at Prescott or did you forget about it?
I completely forgot about it and she pulled it off the bookshelves.
That’s truly ingrained in your being.
My advice to anybody who’s entering the outdoor adventure business, do your homework. Align yourself with brands and with companies who have the same values as you.
Of all that gear that you have, that you get to play with and review, what is your favorite piece of outdoor gear under $100?
My newest, latest and greatest favorite is the GRAYL. It’s a water purifier. Pro deal is $55 or something. It’s probably $85 in retail. We went to Costa Rica over Christmas as a family. I brought this with me and we sell it on Prolink. We did a bunch of hiking and I would dip this thing into any stream in Costa Rica and push down on the water filtration and drink it right there and then. I didn’t ever once get any sickness.
Is there anything else you want to say or ask of our audience?
If you’re working in the outdoor industry, come to OutdoorProlink.com and register. If you’re not working in the outdoor industry, roll it to your local and your favorite outdoor store and spend your money with those guys because they’re a unique breed. I would support those stores.
If there’s an opportunity to expand, grab that chance.
Where can people find you if they want to follow up with you?
The website is OutdoorProlink.com. My email is Gareth@OutdoorProlink.com. Take a look at the blog, DirtbagDreams.com. Shoot us an email. Give us a call. Let’s chat anytime.
It’s been great catching up. I look forward to seeing you.
We’ll talk soon.
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About Gareth Richards
An adventurer at heart, I began my career in the outdoor industry as a guide and outdoor educator. I moved into sales at a variety of outdoor brands and had an idea to help outdoor industry professionals get discounts on the outdoor gear they use every day. Over 15 years ago, I built Outdoor Prolink around this idea: Connecting outdoor industry professionals with top gear brands so that the stewards of the great outdoors can have high quality, affordable gear to protect and promote the wild places we love. Today, Outdoor Prolink may have more pros, but we are motivated by the same mission.