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December 2016 Issue
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The business of being outdoors

Beth Eastell and Joel Hedges testing out their rooftop tent designs on the South Island. Photo: Supplied
From blister protection to rooftop camping and social networking for outdoor enthusiasts, these young entrepreneurs are making their marks in the outdoors industry. 

The first time Beth Eastell and Joel Hedges saw a rooftop tent was on a trip to Australia a couple of years ago.

“There was an entire car park full of rooftop tents,” Eastell says. “I was like, ‘What is this? Why have I never seen this?‘.” Which she followed quickly with, “I have to have one”.

Both 27 years old, Eastell, a lawyer, and Hedges, who has a marketing degree, relied on a heavy wave of passion and hard work to make Feldon a reality.

Prior to starting Feldon, Hedges launched a workwear clothing company called Earnest. Combined with his knowledge of metal work and welding – he races cars – his background in textiles and design provided the perfect backdrop to launch into tent building.

The Auckland-based couple began dreaming up designs for their own rooftop havens.

The tent, which they named the Crow’s Nest, costs $1899 and is made from heavy duty poly cotton canvas with an aluminium skeleton, and comes with a cushy foam mattress with a waterproof base. It folds in half into a waterproof travel cover, which rests on top of a vehicle when not in use. The set up takes less than five minutes; just unzip, unfold, and clamp the skeleton into place.

At 2.4m long and 1.2m wide, it comfortably fits two. It fits on anything from a small hatchback to a Land Rover, just so long as the car has a roof rack.

They spent more than a year testing it in every season, “to really see what New Zealand could throw at us,” says Eastell. Hedges says they tested different tent designs by setting them up and leaving them outside for six months. They chose the model that best stood up to the elements, and began selling the tents in early 2016. Just eight months after launching, they sold out of their entire stock.

“Joel’s really good with his hands, and we know tents really well now,” Eastell says. While the tent bodies are imported from China, the hingework, skeleton, and fitting to car roofs is all done here, including applying the add-ons such as the mattress and ladder for entry.

Eastell and Hedges have done some extensive testing of their Crow’s Nest around New Zealand; they did a month-long trip around the South Island in early 2016, all the way down to the Catlins. They’re surfers, and spend as much time in their tent as possible, which Hedges says is the best part of the business.

“If the surf’s pumping somewhere we can drive there with the truck, camp, and enjoy a weekend away,” Hedges says. “But that whole time we’re testing our own product – we’re always thinking of new ways to improve and new things to do in the next model.”

“It’s the simplest, easiest way to camp,” Eastell says. “You can use it for a spontaneous night mission.” She also says it’s great for people who park their car at a trailhead and want to camp out the night before a tramp.

“We see a lot of parents who were into sport in their youth, then gave it up when they had their kids, but who are now picking up their bucket list again” – Brittany Jordt

Hedges says they’ve been surprised to find that most of their customers are a bit older than they expected; he says several families have expressed interest in larger tents that can accommodate children.

But above all, the most inspired customer was the man from Germany who came to New Zealand after seeing the Feldon Instagram feed. He was so inspired, he moved here, bought a truck and a Feldon Shelter, and started exploring.

They’re now working on new design elements and variations on their original model; Hedges says the next version will offer 360-degree views from the tent’s windows.

Social networkers

The team behind WayWiser, from left Colin, Brittany, Dan and George and Scout the dog. Photo: Supplied

The team behind WayWiser, from left Colin, Brittany, Dan and George and Scout the dog. Photo: Supplied

When Brittany Jordt and her partner Colin Frater moved to New Zealand from the USA a few years ago, they assumed they’d be meeting a country full of non-stop outdoor adventurers.

And what they actually found?

A very beautiful country, but one that wasn’t as easy to explore as they’d hoped. Jordt, who is 31, and Frater, 33, found it difficult to find a community of outdoors people to fall in with, and felt distinctly outside the sphere of local knowledge that they’d hoped would be easier to access.

They weren’t dissuaded, but they were determined to find a niche; one that aimed to unite like-minded people and explore the places that make New Zealand a mecca for outdoor recreation.

They eventually settled in Auckland, but still struggled to find the right community; the occasional Meet-Up group just wasn’t quite the right scene to develop an adventure cohort. So, they did what any eager millennial would do: they decided to start a social networking adventure company called WayWiser.

Jordt was doing social media for Les Mills when she came across Lightning Labs, a business acceleration programme designed to mentor start-ups. She and Frater partnered with friends Dan Lawler and George Stirling, and were accepted for the four-month programme.

What originally started as an idea to develop a community guiding company quickly pivoted into a business that would, rather than provide commercially guided trips, work as a networking platform to connect outdoors users and provide free, informal trips that anyone could join.

“We wanted it to be community-based, and something that anyone could participate in if they wanted to,” Jordt says.

While a commercial guiding company would have given them a more clear revenue model, they were forced to regroup when they realised the prohibiting factors. For one, while they all had many years of experience in outdoor recreation and various sports such as rock climbing and mountain biking, they didn’t have the New Zealand outdoor qualifications, and couldn’t afford to undergo the costly auditing process required by WorkSafe.

“It was almost refreshing, because it brought us all back to the idea of bringing people together in the outdoors, which is what it was always about,” says Jordt. “It was probably a good wake-up call, because we were going down a path that wasn’t necessarily true to what we had originally wanted.”

Their new path, and their current model of operation, is all about helping people find outdoor trips to go on with new friends. They focus on tramping, trail running, rock climbing and mountain biking, and have users in both the North and South Islands. They started growing the business on Facebook, and quickly found that people were not only signing up for trips they organised; users were also planning trips of their own. The company elected a handful of ‘ambassadors’; people who volunteered to be trip leaders and represent the company.

“We brought the ambassadors on to get the ball rolling and show people how it’s done,” Jordt says. Some of the trips offered by ambassadors included trail running in the Waitakeres, mountain biking in Rotorua, and rock climbing at Kawakawa Bay in Taupo. People bring their own gear, coordinate travel together, and with any luck and the right chemistry, might make a few new friends out of it.

Jordt says she’s been surprised at the range of users; many are in the 25-35 age group, but they’ve also seen a number of older members who say they’re looking for new outdoorsy friends to go mountain biking or tramping with.

“It’s people who have graduated from uni, and either moved to a new city for a job, or expats,” she says. After big life changes – new relationships, kids, career changes – Jordt says that’s when people tend to look for new groups of friends.

“We see a lot of parents who were into racing or trail running, or some kind of sport in their youth, then gave it up when they had their kids, but who are now picking up their bucket list again and getting back out there.

“The older we get, the harder it can be to make new friends,” Jordt says.

Not long after their four-month programme with Lightning Labs, WayWiser launched the official website in July, gaining 1400 users in less than three months.

To learn about and sign up for trips, users have to set up a profile on the website. It’s free to use, which Jordt says is intentional in order to gain a larger community.

“We’re spending this year focusing on growth, and making the service great for the people that use it. The more people we have, the better it will be,” she says. At that stage, they’ll evaluate the best way to monetise the service.

While the original thrust of the company is to help introduce like-minded outdoors junkies, Jordt says it will be a useful trip-planning platform for people who are already connected.

“We have features coming soon that will help people organise trips, so instead of texting 10 of your friends, or emailing, or creating a Facebook group; if you’re all members of WayWiser you can create the trip, invite them all, organise carpooling, cost-sharing; it’s going to have all of those features in place.”

Blistering talent

Smith’s third business aims to help trampers ‘walk on’ through blister pain. Photo: Supplied

Smith’s third business aims to help trampers ‘walk on’ through blister pain. Photo: Supplied

Lucas Smith’s first foray into business was with an apparel company, born in his high school dormitory at the age of 15. His second was a food traceability company, which he started when he dropped out of uni.

Now, at the ripe age of 21, he’s hit his stride with Walk On, a blister protection product made from 100 per cent merino wool.

Between his entrepreneurial undertakings, Smith dabbled in two careers – mountain guiding and sheep farming – that ultimately set the stage for his new venture. Guiding, Smith says, opened his eyes to the ugly world of blisters.

“You have to just do it your way, find your feet, and be brave enough to give it a go” – Lucas Smith

“The idea was born of pure frustration as I was loading one of the guests into a helicopter from the top of a pass.” The guest had come to New Zealand to fulfil her dream of walking the Milford Track, but crippling pain from her blisters forced her off the trail. Smith said she’d been using silicone blister pads, and her feet had become infected.

“It all just turned to custard. She was incapable of walking. It got me thinking – there must be a better way.”

After seeing four more clients evacuated off the track that season because of blisters – and picking up silicone blister pads off the trail everyday – Smith hatched his plan to make an environmentally friendly product that could stand up to blisters.

“My main aim was to bring a beautiful product into an industry that’s incredibly entrenched and sad – it’s just so glum. If you think about footcare, there’s no beauty or sexiness or gorgeousness in it, let alone anything biodegradable.”

Smith’s familiarity with merino came from an eight-month stint at a farm on Simon’s Hill in the Mackenzie Country.

Using wool to care for blisters isn’t a new idea, but Smith says his product is different because he doesn’t crossbreed the wool. He uses pure merino with the lanolin removed, which he says is best for wicking moisture and preventing infection. He’s also chosen to package it in breathable cotton bags, because plastic packaging damages the wool over time.

Smith was determined to keep the company as green as possible; the wool is biodegradable, and he recommends that people bury it in the ground after use, where it will decompose over time.

As with all new ventures, Smith says there’s been an incredible amount of learning, and he’s found it additionally challenging being taken seriously as a young entrepreneur. Breaking outside of what he calls the “entrepreneurial stereotype” has been another hurdle.

“There’s this weird stigma around entrepreneurs that you have to drop everything and work 23 hours a day, get venture capital, you have to do this, you have to do that – I felt like I was being a sheep,” he says. “You have to just do it your way, find your feet, and be brave enough to give it a go.”

Launched earlier this year, Walk On is slowly expanding beyond its online presence; it’s now sold in Torpedo7 and a few independent retailers around the country.