Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey! My name is Curt Nichols and I am the founder of Glade Optics. We build premium goggles and helmets for recreational skiers and snowboarders.
Our primary revenue driver is our line of ski goggles: the Challenger Goggle, Adapt Goggle, and Magflight Goggle. Each of these goggles has a unique feature set that is tailored to a specific type of skier and the set of weather conditions they typically ski in. To complement this product line, we also offer ski helmets and a variety of other ski-related accessories to enhance our customer’s experience on the slopes.
Our goggles, helmets, and accessories stand out from the competition because of their favorable price point and easily understood feature set. Where our competitors have overcomplicated their messaging and over-engineered their products, we have taken the approach of simplifying the buying process and speaking to our customers as if they were our friends out on the chairlift.
I started with $5,000 in savings in the winter of 2016/17, building a website and buying inventory for a single goggle product, and from there have grown the brand to close to $1M in annual sales as the sole employee, picking up a team of strategic advisors and investors that are entrenched in the ski and outdoor categories along the way.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started Glade as a side project while I was working at a market research company in Boston. It was my first job out of college, and during my time there I was exposed to a lot of high-level decision making within consumer businesses that were attempting to navigate the shift from physical to digital retail. I saw what startups like Warby Parker and Outdoor Voices were doing, and I felt that this model could be applied to an industry I knew well: skiing.
As a recreational skier, there were two key insights I had on the category that gave me the confidence to build something like Glade:
- The category was extraordinarily top-heavy. One brand owns over 50% of the market! As a result, incumbent brands had very few meaningful challengers.
- All products in this category were marketed in the same way, emphasizing the extreme and adventurous side of the sport of skiing.
These insights told me that there was space for a challenger brand that spoke to average skiers in a way that they could relate to, and offered them products they could understand.
At the time, I was only 24 years old. I had zero experience in brand building, a meager amount of savings to my name, and only 2 years of experience working in the corporate world. I was taking a risk, but in my mind, my age and lack of dependents and outside responsibilities was an advantage. With a capped downside, I figured it was a risk worth taking.
I started with $5,000 - my entire savings account at the time - and used that money to build a website, order 250 pairs of goggles, and buy small amounts of paid traffic. My thinking was that if I could sell 250 pairs in winter with limited knowledge and experience, I could probably work my way up from there. Lo and behold, I was able to sell that initial production run in under a month. I knew I had stumbled into some semblance of product-market fit, and it was now my job to optimize and scale the brand.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I started by trying to get a handle on what the universe of ‘goggle manufacturing’ looks like. I spent a few weeks scouring Google and Alibaba and going to local ski shops to pop open the boxes and see what information I could find. It became clear that 15-20 different factories were making goggles, without any manufacturer dominating the space. All of them were based in the same region of China.
The next step was to figure out which of these factories was willing to work with me. I sent cold emails to every factory I could find, many of which never got back to me. This alone whittled the prospective group down to about 10. After the initial contact, I explained to each of them what I was looking for in terms of product specs, materials, aesthetics, and quality.
I did this over the phone, over email, and using Skype video calls. From these discussions, it was clear that ~5 of them were not able to communicate effectively - they either did not understand what I was asking, were unwilling to make the changes I asked for, or were otherwise difficult to negotiate with. This left me with 4 or 5 qualified leads to help me build the product I had envisioned. I had each of them send me a series of samples, and I spent a month skiing with these samples.
After this testing phase, it was clear that one manufacturer was a cut above the rest, so I signed a contract with them for the initial run of 250 goggles.
I was able to take an open mold of an existing goggle and make some tweaks and adjustments to better suit my target customer. Because of this relatively lightweight R&D process, the first run was cheap. I didn’t have to buy a new mold or engage in any deep development processes. This has changed since inception, but it was an appropriately lean way to get a product to market.
My thinking was that if I could sell 250 pairs in winter with limited knowledge and experience, I could probably work my way up from there. I was able to sell that initial production run in under a month.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Frankly, looking back on it, I did not have a very sophisticated launch strategy. My plan was simply to build a website, drive traffic to the website through paid advertising, and ship the products out of my apartment as the orders came in. I didn’t plan for any PR, I didn’t do anything to build a list, and I didn’t have any special launch day promotions.
My biggest mistake was spending too much time reading, analyzing, and absorbing information - rather than just building. It took a long time for me to realize >50% of my time was spent ‘learning’ rather than doing.
The plan was really to get the site live and iterate and make changes to the copy, imagery, and offer as I got feedback from website visitors and customers. I was fortunate that I was early into Instagram and performance advertising, so it was cheap to build a social audience and purchase ads against that audience. This strategy would almost certainly fail today.
My biggest takeaway from the launch was that having a strong product-market fit and solving real problems for your customers can cover up other shortcomings. In the early years, Glade was able to grow via word of mouth and social shares, simply because it was something that skiers and snowboarders wanted.
While an effective launch strategy is important, if your business isn’t solving a real problem for your customers, it will be really hard to overcome that friction - even with the most sophisticated marketing and distribution plans.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Building Glade’s email list has been the single most impactful growth tactic since inception. I have used on-site pop-ups and co-branded giveaways with other brands in the ski category to grow the list in the most targeted manner possible.
I love email because it’s an owned channel, so we aren’t reliant on a third-party platform, and because it allows me to speak to my customers in the same way I would speak to a friend on the chairlift. My emails are plaintext and signed by me, and I keep them short and to the point.
SEO does not work for Glade, as our competitors have monopolized the most meaningful keywords in the category, but I have found success with PPC marketing and Facebook Ads as well. We typically try to target a 3-4x ROAS on these channels. Our category changes every year, so we have to stay on top of things like snowfall and resort conditions to use these channels effectively.
As we’ve grown we’ve been featured in a variety of industry publications, which has been great as social proof on our site. These features typically don’t drive sales on their own, but I think they are integral to the on-site experience, as third party reviews are hugely important in the outdoor gear space.
You can see a few of our PR features here: Best Ski Gear Made by Independent Local Brands (Ski Mag), Editor’s Review: Glade Optics Challenger Goggle (FREESKIER), Glade Optics Challenger Goggle (Blister)
I am staunchly against putting Glade products on Amazon and other digital aggregators, as the brand experience is simply not there. Our customers buy from us because of our story and branding, and that gets lost in the shuffle on a platform like Amazon.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Glade is a profitable business, and I am still the only FTE. We’re growing at over 100% YoY, and we have grown large enough to get on the radar of some influential players within the ski industry.
We took on a small angel investment round from a group of founders, consumer-focused angels, and a Colorado-based venture fund to help us grow our helmet line, expand our content offerings, and build out a wholesale strategy. We are still almost exclusively selling through our website, but we are hoping to branch out into a select few specialty ski shops in the coming months.
Day to day I am still handling all the customer service, product development, and marketing on my own. Looking towards the future, I plan to hire help in all three of these areas within 18 months.
Key metrics right now:
- AOV: $134
- Digital Ad ROAS: 3.34
- Email subscribers: 25k
Our primary growth levers in the future are to increase LTV via new product lines, especially off-season products, and expanding into wholesale.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
My biggest mistake was spending too much time reading, analyzing, and absorbing information - rather than just building. It took a long time for me to realize >50% of my time was spent ‘learning’ rather than doing. Once I realized this, I was able to implement a productivity system to keep me focused on making progress on the business.
The most helpful and important decisions I made were in regards to partnering with like-minded brands that had the same target audience as Glade. By combining forces, we were able to dramatically lower our CAC and get in front of far more skiers than each of us would have been able to alone.
Each day I arrive at my desk and plan out the goals for the day, and then review my progress at the end of the day. I do this on a weekly and quarterly basis as well. This helps me focus on the things that matter, like acquiring customers and building products.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I try to keep my arsenal of tools as pared down as possible. I have found that more tools usually means more complexity and more wasted time. My suite of platforms and tools I rely on includes:
Shopify - I won’t reinvent the wheel on this - Shopify is the best option, period.
Klaviyo - Klaviyo allows me to segment my list and create flows that automatically trigger based on certain actions my customers or site visitors take. Pro tip: set up a browse abandonment email flow for easy incremental revenue.
Upwork - My go-to resource for small projects like photo editing, graphic design, or rote tasks that are time-consuming.
Airtable - I use Airtable to organize everything related to Glade. I use it as both a to-do list and a knowledge repository. I break out sections for marketing, product, finances, etc.
Bench - Bench is my outsourced bookkeeping platform.
Tidio - On-site chatbot.
Pocket - I use Pocket to save articles to read later. I found that it’s a much better solution than keeping tabs open, or reading them as they are sent to me. This way, I can set aside a block of time on the weekend to go back into my Pocket account to read everything I saved from the previous week. I find this to be much less distracting.
99Designs - For bigger design projects I use 99Designs. Typically I take my favorite 4-5 designs and then poll my customers. I have found this to be the best most effective way to ensure I am putting out design work that resonates with my target audience.
Flexport - Peace of mind for freight. There are so many moving parts when importing goods, I have found Flexport to be an awesome partner in helping me navigate these challenges.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- This is not a T-Shirt - Bobby Hundreds
- Shoe Dog - Phil Knight
- Antifragile - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Little Black Stretchy Pants - Chip Wilson
I have been focused on consuming less content lately. I think the sheer volume of podcasts, books, and other resources available to new entrepreneurs can be overwhelming and can lead to a dangerous spiral of consuming more and more content instead of taking action. Put the book down and build something!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
My primary piece of advice here is simply to get started. There is so much content out there that you can get lost in the analysis phase and never come out of it. Spoiler alert: you’ll never feel ready. You will learn more in one month of the brand building than you could learn in a year of reading. Sure, having a foundational set of skills and knowledge is important, but at a certain point, each new piece of content provides diminishing returns. Get off Twitter, turn off the podcast, put the book down, and get building.
Another mistake I often see people making is an unwillingness to ask for help, coupled with a fear that someone is going to ‘take your idea’. Everyone has ideas, hardly anyone executes. Asking others for help is one of the most valuable additive actions you can take in the early days.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always looking for independent sales reps. The role is part-time, commission only, and remote. We expect you to be a self-starter who can operate autonomously. We will support you with gear, lookbooks, pricing sheets, order forms, program details, etc. but we expect you to handle the rest. We will always be available to talk about our equipment over the phone or email, and you will have a direct line to our founder. Generous commission structure. Outdoor or snowsports industry experience preferred.
Where can we go to learn more?