On Starting A Multi-Million Dollar Travel Equipment Business

Published: August 12th, 2020
Chris Clearman
Founder, Matador
from Boulder, Colorado, USA
started January 2014
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I’m Chris Clearman, founder of the brand Matador. We design, manufacture, and distribute high-performance travel equipment, although it didn’t start that way. Our company started in 2014 with a product called the Matador Pocket Blanket which went viral online shortly after launch. This product was a high-tech picnic blanket that fits neatly in your pocket for portability. Over time, the brand has morphed to fit with my passions - travel and the outdoors. We now develop some of the lightest, most capable travel equipment on the market, all of which are designed and tested at our Boulder, CO office.

While we don’t publicly disclose revenue, Matador has bootstrapped into a profitable multi-million dollar brand with distribution in many countries around the world and earned domestic placement in major retailers like REI.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I’ve been attracted to entrepreneurship since I can remember. I don’t know why, but I feel like it was inevitable. I’m always attracted to a big upside, even if it comes with some risk. I think this is one of the driving factors for most entrepreneurs.

Do the hard parts that matter first, and don’t stop. It’ll get really difficult, but just keep taking the next step and you’ll eventually end up making serious progress toward your goal.

I went to college at North Carolina State University for Industrial Design, which is a fancy way of saying Product Design. It was a great program that parlayed me into an internship at the parent company of Milwaukee, Ridgid, and Ryobi Power tools, which ultimately developed into a full-time position. I was a “Concept Designer” at that company, which was an in-house inventor. I spent my days coming up with new power tool concepts, new solutions, then building working prototypes that would ultimately end up as products on the shelf at Home Depot.

After 3 years at the power tools company, I moved out to California to work in a similar role for GoPro. I joined when they had around 100 employees and left 3 years later after the IPO when they had 1500 employees.

I learned so much at both of these companies, but the adrenaline-fueled ride at GoPro was my speed. While working there and hearing Nick Woodman’s story (GoPro founder), I decided to try to launch my product as a side gig. My goal was to sell 10 units a day, just to cover my pricey Bay Area rent. This wasn’t my first attempt at entrepreneurship and my previous ventures had burned out because they were too complex for my experience level. I decided to go forward with the simplest idea in my notebook - the pocket blanket.

With the help of my founding partner, Jaime Caso, we sewed up a few prototypes, contacted some manufactures I found online, got samples, and placed an order. This process took a few months in total and was relatively easy for me since my background was in product development. Around 90 days later, I had traded much of my life savings for pallets of pocket-sized blankets that were delivered to my tiny California house. They were everywhere - under the bed, on the back deck, stacked all along the living room walls. It wasn’t ideal, to say the least, especially considering I had no idea if they would sell!

Nobody believed in the idea when I was initially tossing it around. Some people made fun of it, most just didn’t feel like it would work. Eventually, I decided to go ahead with it regardless because I had a good gut feeling about the product. That’s been my source of validation since - listening to my gut. I find that it’s extremely difficult to do anything innovative if you’re listening to the crowd. If everyone else can think of it, it’s not new.

After launch it was a slow first couple of weeks but, fortunately, the idea took off online and I sold through all my inventory in two days after it went viral. Jaime and I were up until 5 am for several nights in a row shipping those initial orders, then going to our day jobs at 9 am. It was brutal but exciting.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

After launching the blanket, we decided to try to expand on that success with some more innovative products. We launched second and third items, both of which did fairly well. In the early days it was really easy to achieve exponential growth by adding products, so that was the goal. We pumped out as many interesting products as we could for the first year.

After the initial launch, I decided to put some more reasonable business practices into place. I contracted a 3PL for my warehousing/shipping, rebuilt a more robust website, made necessary updates to the product and packaging so it could be sold in stores, and kept pushing as hard and fast as we could.

I kept working my day job at GoPro for almost 2 years after I started the business and Jaime did the same. This enabled us to keep all the profits from Matador in the company, reinvesting in growth. I kept the side gig secret from all my co-workers at GoPro for the entire duration I worked there and I think that was a smart move.

After a couple of years running the side business, I decided it was stable and profitable enough to support the founders and the company’s growth, so I left GoPro and Jaime left her job at Bould Design. We immediately moved to Boulder, Colorado, where we’ve continued to build the company.

Once in Boulder, we rented a proper office building and started building the staff. We built up our operations, marketing, and sales teams to continue growing the business. We attended all the industry tradeshows, and started to develop a presence at retail. We have continued to build the team and implement business practices that allow us to continue growing and launching innovative products.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Matador is still fully bootstrapped, fueled only by its profits, and that initial $11,000 I used to start it. We’re a lean team and we tend to pull a profit well beyond industry expectations.

We currently have our headquarters in Boulder, CO with manufacturing at 9 facilities through China and Vietnam. We have a warehouse in Hong Kong and another in Memphis, Tennessee.

We have distribution through most of Asia, parts of Europe, Canada, the U.S., and several other countries. In the near term, there are several other countries we would like to expand into, and we have plans to expand our U.S. distribution network with more extensive use of outside reps.

Long term, the goal is to become the premium name in lightweight travel equipment. We have a long way to go, but I’m confident we can get there.


Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Throughout this process, I’ve learned more than I could ever recount here. I’ve learned so much about my weaknesses and how one person can’t be great at everything. As the company has grown, I’ve had the honor of adding some very competent individuals who excel at their job. Taking the time to find the best people and paying the salary required is always worthwhile and that’s one of the most important and surprising lessons I’ve learned so far. The business is built on people, so to have the best organization you need the best people.

As we’re getting bigger I’m learning how important it is to implement proper business processes if you want to scale beyond a certain level. One of my employees recently told me “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That stuck with me and pretty much sums up the course of our business growth to date. In the early days, we were a collection of individuals all running at light-speed individually. There were no formal processes and minimal communication. We relied solely on the strength of each individual. This worked for a while and helped us build the company quickly, but to become a larger, scalable organization, the proper processes must be put in place. That’s where we’re at now - refining our business processes and communication so we can get to the next level.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our website is built on Shopify and I love that platform. It’s extremely versatile and powerful for the price. We have that integrated with dozens of apps like Shipstation to automate our business processes.

We still use QuickBooks for accounting as it seems to be capable enough to handle our needs. It also integrates well with Shopify and other software we use, which is very efficient.

We’ve started using FreshSales as our CRM. It’s like a simplistic version of SalesForce but we have an in-house programmer that can build custom integrations with all our other software, making it vastly more powerful than it should be.

Many of our custom integrations are built using Integromat. This is essentially an API that can enable any software to talk to any other software. Over time, we’ve essentially built a fully capable suite of integrated business software using individual apps connected through custom-built integrations. The result is an efficient software package that is tailored to our needs and costs exponentially less than a comprehensive program like Netsuite.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’d recommend Traction by Gino Wickman. It’s about a business management principle called EOS and I’ve found it to be extremely valuable, especially as we implement business processes to take the next big leap.

I also really enjoy the podcast How I Built This on NPR.

Any book by Seth Godin is great for marketing although I like his book “This Is Marketing” for some deep insights into commercial human behavior.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Just start, don’t quit, and focus on the work that matters. So many people have the desire to build their own company but never actually take the first step. When they do, they start by ordering custom branded t-shirts and building the social media account.

These things are the fun parts, but they aren’t the work that matters. Those steps aren’t the first steps. Do the hard parts that matter first, and don’t stop. It’ll get really difficult, but just keep taking the next step and you’ll eventually end up making serious progress toward your goal.

Where can we go to learn more?