Last August, Rob Little and his Bend-based company Cairn, took part in the inaugural class of Bend Outdoor Worx, an incubator for local outdoor industry startups. Little attended the program with an ultimate goal to inspire and equip outdoor-lovers with appropriate gear. Cairn, which officially began in December of 2013, has since sent thousands of boxes full of outdoor-related gear to lucky subscribers.
Each month, Cairn ships a box full of rotating gear from a growing list of brands to subscribers. The $25 monthly subscription rate falls well below its $40 average retail value. The company, which got its start in Little’s garage, has grown into needing a new warehouse space and increased workforce since they shipped their first box in March 2014.
The first six months at Cairn were spent testing the waters as they didn’t try to push their service into the marketplace.
Little took the opportunity to understand customer reaction to the products, refine his data collection and place his emphasis on strategic design of the company. The next six months were highlighted by heavier promotions and customer relations. For their efforts, Cairn shipped 2,000 boxes in the first eight months, but by the end of the first year, they had increased to 10,000 boxes shipped to five countries.
As the company has grown, so has the number of employees. Cairn now has three full-time employees and is currently hiring an operational manager. Three days a month, they add six people to their roster for the packaging of boxes.
Cairn Owner and CEO Little grew up in Medford, Oregon and moved to Bend with his wife in January of last year. They live in NW Bend with their cairn terrier. A self-professed outdoor junkie, Little likes to downhill ski, mountain bike and backpack.
“I’ve never come across an outdoor activity I didn’t like,” says Little.
Prior to starting Cairn, Little volunteered with the Peace Corps, helping to set up infrastructure in Panama and worked in manufacturing and engineering for Lockheed Martin. From 2011 to 2013, Little studied entrepreneurship at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. There he learned about retail world disruption by new consumer models as he thought about different startups in the outdoor industry. After earning his MBA, Little found a clean model he liked and created Cairn.
Cairn’s company model relies on two distinct modes. First, their surface model centers around the delivery of products. They provide relevant contents to subscribers, thus encouraging people to spend more time outdoors.
The second aspect, and perhaps more interesting, is their data collection. Through initial profiles, they collect information such as gender, income, size, activities and time spent outdoors. Then they offer incentives to customers to provide product reviews and surveys. They match the data and send it to participating brands, who in turn use the data to adjust their marketing plans. Little considers the educational component an exciting new business model.
“The industry hasn’t seen a lot of activity in the area of data collection and research,” explains Little.
In growing the company, Cairn has a three-pronged marketing plan. First, they rely on reviews from athletes, bloggers and traditional media. Secondly, they are building a presence in the community through local event sponsorship. And last, Cairn has a strong social media presence.
Earlier this year, Cairn brought brand expert Bill Inman onto the team. Inman, most recently director of design and product development at ExOfficio in Seattle, has worked with the likes of Nike and Merrell. He will use his expertise in helping to build relationships with brands and curate products to keep customers engaged with the outdoors. Little is excited to tap Inman’s industry knowledge and brand perspective.
Cairn currently works with about 60 brands, but will expand to close to 100 by this summer. They maintain a presence at trade shows where they can meet with companies they work with and see new products. In the beginning they reached out to brands directly through emails and phone calls, but now companies are contacting them to partner up.
Since moving to Bend, Little has immersed himself, and the company, into Bend’s entrepreneurial community. In addition to working with Bend Outdoor Worx, and attending the Bend Venture Conference, Little appreciates the communication between local companies.
“There’s good energy in the startup world,” says Little. “It makes for an exciting environment for an entrepreneurial person to start a company here.”
Cairn has partnered with Abilitree, the Bend-based nonprofit that provides jobs, training, community service and independent living opportunities for people with disabilities, to help with the packing of boxes each month. Rob had spoke with April O’Meara, marketing and development director for Abilitree, about what they do and was immediately impressed with the nonprofit.
“I knew we wanted to support them,” says Little. “I am incredibly pleased.”
Cairn is also partnering with the Conservation Alliance to help protect and restore the environment. Little wants to expand Cairn’s reach to tens of thousands of boxes shipped across the world, which would call for more employees.
In the future, Cairn expects to add additional offerings and create custom boxes and higher end products. They hope to implement a BETA testing program for good customers and leverage their data collection to further assist partner organizations.
CEO: Rob Little
Employees: 3 full-time, 6 part-time
Year Est.: 2013
Service: An innovative subscription box service for outdoor enthusiasts.
Hot News: Recently hired brand industry expert Bill Inman to round out their executive staff.
Growth Outlook: Expects to continue their monthly increase in subscribers and further their use of data collection.
(Photos above: by Gregg Morris, product image courtesy of Cairn. )