A small spark of wonder ignited into a burning passion to do something meaningful, something that matters for parks and public lands. Thus, Wild Tribute was born. We talk about that inspiration, the people behind Wild Tribute, how they get their cool artwork, and more.
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How Ben Got into the Outdoors
I grew up in the state of Kentucky. It was always in the woods playing and in the creeks behind my home and playing with friends outside. And I think that just naturally spiraled into an affinity for being outside and then have the opportunity to move west and live in Denver for some time. That’s what really, I think, opened my eyes to the mountain life and more or less just all the adventures that can be had.
4% to National Parks and Public Lands
4% of our top-line revenues, go back to organizations that support our national parks and public lands. And that’s really why we do what we do. And so that’s always been at the forefront of all of our decision-making and anything and everything we do, specific to a business strategy.
Printed and Fulfilled in the US
The product is primarily manufactured in central America and then it is finished in the United States.
Predominantly it should be understood that we get the product, we source it, and then we manufacture it. But then everything is more or less printed fulfilled in the right here in the states, whether that’s in Utah, where we’re based or some of our partners are in California as well.
Ben’s thoughts on how we can educate new outdoor participants about the basics of camping and hiking:
We got to do our part. To answer your question, part of it is repetitions. Hopefully, more people go out and it’s not just this one experience.
More often than not, one experience takes you to another. After one, two, three, four times, and these places that are striking you with inspiration and awe, I think it kicks in that, “Okay, I’m going to take care of this place a little better and clean up after myself.”
Advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor biz:
Just like any job, you’ve got to find you got to find a company or a project that you connect to and see where it takes you. Flexibility is obviously important for folks that are in an outdoor industry so they can focus on what they love doing during most of the day, but they also want to recreate. That’s a big reason why I entered the industry in the first place. So flexibility is important, but at the same time, it’s also a perk.
Favorite outdoor gear purchase under $100:
Follow up with Ben:
Email Ben: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wild Tribute Socials:
01:46 – 02:01 How Ben got into the outdoors
07:50 – 08:12 Wild Tribute gives 4% to national parks and public lands
22:43 – 23:16 Advice to get into the outdoor business
Wild Tribute Began As A Small Spark Of Wonder And Ignited Into A Burning Passion To Honor National Parks And Public Lands With Ben Kieffner
Welcome to episode 278 with Ben Kieffner and Wild Tribute. Ben tells us how a small spark of wonder ignited into a burning passion to do something meaningful, something that matters for the parks. Thus, Wild Tribute is born. We talk about Ben’s inspiration, the people behind Wild Tribute and how they got their cool artwork and more. Welcome to the show, Ben.
Thanks, Rick. It’s great to be here. I appreciate the time.
Good to chat with you on the show. How did you get introduced to the outdoors? I always like to find out how people got exposed to the outdoors initially.
I’ve always had a passion for being outside when I was young. I grew up in the state of Kentucky. I was always in the woods, playing in the creeks behind my home and playing with friends outside. I think that naturally spiraled into an affinity for being outside. I had the opportunity to move West and lived in Denver for some time.
That’s what opened my eyes to mountain life and more or less all the adventures that can be had. With a little bit of planning, depending on where you live especially in the likes of Denver or Salt Lake, every weekend can be a little vacation. We’re very fortunate to be where we are. That’s for sure.
A lot of good opportunities in both of those places. I spent some time in the Denver area. What brought you to the West? School? College?
Following my wife for one. It was mainly the job and education opportunities. We started in Denver. We went back to Kentucky for some time. Ended back in Salt Lake after realizing we wanted to certainly be west of Mississippi. The Southwestern desert of Utah is what certainly got us to thinking Salt Lake should be where we want to land. We’re fortunate to make it happen.
With a little bit of planning, depending on where you live, every weekend can be a little vacation.
It’s a beautiful spot. I spent a bunch of time photographing that area. It’s great. I see you played D1 soccer at Winthrop. Did you have any Olympic aspirations?
I did play. It was a great experience. The student-athlete experience is one I’m very fortunate to have. Certainly, loved every minute of my time at Winthrop. I played with a lot of great guys. It’s a little mid-major school in South Carolina with a great soccer program. I always loved the game but never had aspirations to play thereafter.
Although, a lot of my teammates went on to play professionally. Nonetheless, it opened a lot of doors for me. I got to play with guys from six different continents, which was pretty cool. I learned a lot culturally that way. It’s funny to think I was going to be in the Southeast my entire life. After loving the Carolinas, here I am out in the West.
You had a solid career in banking too. Did you have a traditional outdoor job along the way somewhere?
I didn’t. Brian, my co-founding partner and Sean, who also is with us from the beginning, we all had pretty much finance backgrounds. We’re working in different sectors of the economy. Ultimately, we’re willing to give it a shot and wanting to start something in the outdoor industry because we had this passion for the outdoors.
I was in banking and in healthcare. I had a great experience in the mergers and acquisitions world for a big corporate player. Hopefully, at one point, I would love to circle back and bring the outdoor industry and healthcare together. There’s a lot of opportunity for the outdoors to fix healthcare. That would be my ultimate dream at some point.
Is it more that the outdoors heals so many of us? Is that the perspective?
There’s a lot of parallels you can make with the obvious. Benefits of exercise, there’s a lot of clinical studies based on such. Whereas the clinical studies aren’t quite there with the physical and mental benefits of being outside. Certainly, having these moments of awe in the outdoors whether that’s on our public lands or in your backyard.
I was on a trip to Alaska with a guy that worked pretty high up. He was an administrator or something with Sutter Health. They’re starting to look at and prescribe time in the outdoors for people that need to clear their head or to relax and things like that. We’re getting there someday. Tell us about Wild Tribute. Walk us through what you guys do? I looked at some of your shirts. They’re pretty cool. I have to pick up a couple of those.
We started the company years ago. It was a passion project. Brian, he’s a few years older than myself. He was at a different point in his career and was ready to jump on something and do something different and start a project. We both had a similar vision and had this idea of following the trajectories of Tom’s shoes, Life is Good. Those were three of the directional companies that inspired us.
We knew we wanted to give back to the parks in particular. We had spent a lot of time traveling. We had the opportunity to extensively go from park to park and they captured us. We not only were inspired by these companies that were doing great things by harnessing the power of business but we also knew there was something we could do to give back and serve this passion we have.
It wasn’t immediate to us at first that apparel was the route to go. We realized that it was a medium and a vehicle that could get us to where we wanted it to be the fastest. Fashion isn’t something any of us had a ton of expertise in but it was of interest. It wasn’t out of the blue by any stretch. The long and the short, we went for it and a passion project turned into a pretty dynamic business. There has been a lot of ups and downs along the way, a lot of luck involved. Here we are years later, optimistic about the forward-looking future.
Did you guys have any apparel business? Did anybody work in retail or manufacturing?
We had very little experience but the interest was there. We thought, “We have this great mission.” I should say 4% of our top-line revenues go back to organizations that support our national parks and public lands. That’s why we do what we do. That’s always been at the forefront of all of our decision-making, anything and everything we do specifically to a business strategy. We thought, “We have this great mission. We’re going to go gangbusters out of the gate. Sell direct to consumer and people would figure out who we are.” It’s very naïve.
You stay sane by focusing on the positive or the silver lining.
Fortunately, we were able to get our foot in the door and accelerate our business plan by actually selling into the parks sooner than we thought we would be. This vertical is pretty niche. When I say, “Sell into the parks,” I’m talking about the visitor centers, the lodges, the gift shops, you name it that are within the parks and on the periphery of such.
It’s not just national parks. It’s state parks and national forests. BLM has visitor centers scattered throughout its domain. It’s a great little community. We’ve been so lucky to dig ourselves into it. We got lucky with a couple of organizations giving us a shot, like the Grand Teton Association. I have good friends there. We were able to establish our proof of concept by translating our experience in these places and curating the visitor experience that folks have with art and essentially putting that on a product, which is our apparel.
That took us from the very beginning to where we are now, where everything’s privately labeled. We are able to tell our story in the places you shop within the parks. Our brand equity has grown and it’s a pretty cool story. It’s allowed us to expand outside of this vertical of retail into more traditional retail, such as the shops you would expect outside the parks and the gateway communities, all the way to big-box retail, REIs and Shields. We work with even breweries and ski resorts. Our bread and butter are our artwork. At the end of the day, our mission always is first and foremost. We find a lot of people connect with that, which is fulfilling.
Your artwork is cool. I was checking out a couple of those shirts online. They’re all beautiful. What was the accelerator program? How did you get connected to that? Did one of you have a relationship with it?
There is no program. We’re completely bootstrapped. We’re able to methodically grow the business. It was very much allowing that core business of ours in the parks that allowed us to expand to where we are now with a much bigger footprint outside of that niche vertical.
Did you use any crowdfunding or anything? Did you guys did it all on your own with good old blood, sweat and tears?
All on our own. I have to give all the credit to my team especially Brian and Sean. I mentioned I bounced around quite a bit. I was doing what I could part-time in the company at the beginning. I have now committed full-time, which is, on a personal level, super fulfilling and whatnot. Just to know that Brian, Sean and the team have been able to grow this thing. They worked tirelessly. We all did, but they were in it from the beginning full-time and lot of long days, long nights. I’m super thankful that I’ve always wanted to be able to have my shot, extending circumstances such as supporting my wife through med school or what led me to not have that shot to give it my full commitment until now. I give them all the credit.
You mentioned how cool the artwork is. Where does the art come from?
We work with a number of designers. We certainly have 1 or 2 that you can say are our principal designers and those are in-house. We have several contractors that do some concepts here and there for us that introduce different ideas, etc. The magic behind it, the secret sauce, is spending time in these places. Being able to connect the dots with what others are seeing and relating to a bad experience that we all have when we’re visiting these places whether it’s Arcadia.
We’re out and about. We’re not talking to talk or walking the walk. It brings everything full circle with our mission, where we’re able to not make money but make a huge commitment to giving back. Four percent of a top-line is often misconstrued with profit, which is okay. We love the recognition one way or the other. It always amazes us.
We’re like, “We could hire several people if we weren’t making this commitment.” It’s important to us that we’re always going to stick to it. It always will be the first and foremost of our mission. Being able to work with our partners who are the boots on the ground that most people don’t even know exists is exciting. From month to month, quarter to quarter, year to year, we get to engage with them on these projects that are contributing to improved access in the parks, infrastructure, conservation and the like. It’s been great.
Good on you guys because it’s such a needed resource. I’ve talked to a few people on the show about what happened to all the recreational areas. We all needed somewhere to go and we overran them. The resources are limited. It’s good that you guys and some other folks out there are helping offset some of that with what you do.
We’ve always loved the quote, “Capitalism’s the most powerful man-made tool in the world,” or something to that effect. It’s so true. I know a lot of companies are conscious-minded and are doing their part. What we always think about is, “If everybody was making this commitment from their top line, not the bottom line, then it would be quite special. It’s not as hard as you think. I’m not trying to be naïve in saying that because it is a commitment. If that’s something that you build around from the start then it’s much easier to manage.
Where is the product produced?
The product is primarily manufactured in Central America and then it is finished in the United States. Predominantly, it should be understood that we get the product, we source it and we manufacture it. Everything is printed, fulfilled and the like here in the States, whether that’s in Utah where we’re based or some of our partners are in California as well.
Just like any job, you got to find a company or a project that you connect to and see where it takes you.
I read that you guys were originally branded as Flow 397. Tell us a little bit about that.
That’s a fun little quirk in our story. One that makes you cringe a little bit. At this juncture, it’s great to look back on it. At the time when we started the company, we were Flow 397. The name of the company was based on two concepts. They’re pretty simple. The flow being the notion of flow, what you feel when you’re in these places that we’re exploring, time stands still, the inflection points, you’re super focused, detached, not thinking about anything else. We loved that concept.
We’re like, “How can we incorporate that?” I said, “It will be part of our name.” The 397 was actually the number of national parks that were in the national system at the time. Our commitment was 3.97%. We had some traction with the name but it became apparent it was in our interest to reevaluate because folks were asking too many questions.
We were tired of answering the same question. We went through a pretty strategic rebranding process. We’re happy with where it turned out with Wild Tribute. Hopefully, it makes sense from the gate. Our Wild Tribute is our 4% for the parks’ donations. That’s more straightforward, hopefully.
I like that story, though. It’s interesting because it might be a quirk in your story but we all start from somewhere. We all have these ideas that can morph out of the gate. Good on you. That’s cool. You sell through the physical locations in the park and retailers. Do you have a physical location yourself or a retail store there in Salt Lake?
We do not have a brick-and-mortar store. That could change. We have evolved from thinking we’re going to be this direct-to-consumer business to being a predominantly wholesale player. With the pandemic, like many others capitalizing back to the direct-to-consumer side of things, that’s taking up a lot of our focus. It’s been fun seeing that side of the business grow. That’s where we’re hoping to make a lot of progress. Our sales mix is a little too heavy-oriented. The wholesale and the direct-to-consumer opportunities are there for us to capitalize on. We have a lot of products. We’re still figuring out what makes more sense than not. We’re hopefully well on our way to controlling our destiny there.
That mix will probably continue to fluctuate as society changes, the world changes, seasons happen and the economy that’ll continue to evolve, I would imagine. Do you have any thoughts as to how we can educate new outdoor participants about the basics of camping and hiking? We love everybody in the outdoors. We want to make sure that they all don’t do their business in the parking lots as we saw in some places here.
This whole experience with the pandemic has been a silver lining in many regards. That’s how we’ve stayed sane with focusing on the positive of the silver lining. We’ve seen a lot of increase with folks spending time in our public lands, here in Utah or 95. The national parks had a record year from a visitation perspective. It’s so great to see people experiencing these places for the first time. With that comes your point, neglect and some element of being naïve in how to appropriately recreate and take care of our lands. These are ours. We need to take care of them. We can’t kick rocks everywhere.
We can’t rely on the poor park service and forest service staff because they’ve got things that they have to do too. We got to do our part.
To answer your question, part of it is repetition. Hopefully, more people go out. It’s not this one experience. More often than not, one experience takes you to another. After 1, 2, 3, 4 times in these places that are striking you with inspiration and awe, it kicks in that, “I’m going to take care of this place a little better and clean up after myself. I was probably making some mistakes before.”
Repetition is important. The social media aspect of our public lands has taken away some of the special places, the demise of some. At the same time, it’s also brought some good in the sense of having a platform to teach, “Leave no trace.” Anything our system can do to promote stewardship is good. We’ve got to harness it the right way and try to manage the negative as best we can.
I liked the repetition is part of it because that’s how we all learned. That’s how I learned. Growing up as a kid, you go out with the family or the grandparents. Those repetitions, time after time and it becomes a habit. That’s a good concept. What outdoor activities do you participate in these days?
I ski a lot. In the summer, I transition and do a lot of backpacking. Getting lost in the right direction hopefully, most of the time, trying to seek solitude in the wilderness. I dabble in a lot of stuff but those are my two main activities, hiking and skiing.
You have a lot of beautiful country to do it in. Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor biz?
Don’t be afraid to start low and seek that fast track once you prove yourself.
There’s a lot of ways to get involved. In the outdoor industry, there’s so much opportunity. It’s growing leaps and bounds. My quick thoughts about how it could correlate with health care one day will only continue to happen. There’s this trend of people wanting to be outside more and take pride in their backyard. Our public lands are on the up and up from a popularity perspective.
There is this notion of wanting to see what the outdoor industry is all about. Depending on what company you’re talking to, everybody has a little bit of a different experience and different culture. The culture in the companies in the outdoor industry is very much what attracts people. They’re more laid back, less corporate-esque. It is about fit.
Like any job, you got to find a company or a project that you connect to and see where it takes you. Flexibility is important for folks that are in an outdoor industry so they can focus on what they love doing during most of the day. They also want to recreate because that’s a big reason why they’re in the industry in the first place.
Flexibility is important but it’s not always there, which catches people off guard more often than not. It’s also a perk. I don’t know how to answer that question very well but giving something a shot. If you want to see what the industry is about, you need to approach it from a perspective of learning from the ground up. The good news is comparable to other industries, once you proved yourself, it’s not as difficult to jump those rungs in the ladder as it might elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to start low and seek that fast track once you prove yourself.
A lot of people have said that and you’re right. Follow your passions or whatever you’re passionate about. There’s a chance. There’s a job opportunity or a product opportunity or a missing opportunity that you can fill. Follow those passions. At the end of the day, it is a job. It is work. You got to put in the time to make it happen. It’s a very inspirational industry to be in. I can tell you that from my perspective. What is your favorite outdoor gear purchase under $100? Do you have something that you take with you all the time?
A lot of people have mentioned buff. Buff and a Leatherman are the two top mentioned products.
GPS would be there but that’s a little more expensive. It’s amazing how much that changes the game when your route finding.
Is there anything else you’d like to say or ask of our audience?
I ask everybody to continue to spend time in our public lands and let’s take care of them. It’s not one age group. It’s all. We got to continue to keep people engaged. The votes are there to continue to protect them and make sure they’re there for the generations to come.
Where can people find you if they’d like to follow-up? Is there a generic contact thing on your website? What’s best?
You can find Wild Tribute all over social media on the principal platforms that come to mind. You can check out our website, www.WildTribute.com. Reach out to us there or you can simply shoot me a note at Ben@WildTribute.com.
It’s been great talking to you, Ben. Thanks a lot for coming on. I look forward to checking out you guys in Salt Lake next time. Maybe I’d get a tour of your spot there.
Please, Rick. Anytime. I appreciate the opportunity. All the best to you. Stay well.
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About Benten Kieffner
Getting lost in the right direction in our parks and public lands is what Ben looks forward to most beyond spending time with family and friends. Memories and new adventures are his currency while the fulfillment from doing something that matters – combining purpose and passion – is the fruit of this thing we call LIFE.