How I Started An Online Store Selling Backcountry Skis

Published: July 28th, 2019
Michael Hagen
Founder, Hagan Ski
Hagan Ski
from Breckenridge, CO, USA
started October 2010
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hagan makes ski mountaineering gear—exclusively. We focus without distraction on alpine ski touring. We don’t make downhill skis, clothing, hiking boots, or running shoes.

Our focus is entirely on backcountry ski touring/ski mountaineering — especially light and fast backcountry skiing. Hagan skis are intended for the alpine lifestyle — long and adventurous ski touring. To the big companies, ski mountaineering is a curious, insignificant aside. They make a few products and stick them at the back of their catalogs. Ski Mountaineering isn’t insignificant to Hagan. It is all we do — our life blood. We have the world’s widest selection of mountaineering skis.

Our focus on high-performance ski mountaineering gear is recognized and appreciated by devoted backcountry skiers and has 50% annual growth in recent years. Hagan is Pure Ski Mountaineering.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I remember “learning” to ski in the backyard at about the age of 3. My initial love of skiing came from stories my parents told of skiing in Colorado in their 20s. We grew up on a farm in very flat south central Minnesota. It was almost two hours to the nearest ski hill (valley) so I spent a lot of time skiing behind a snowmobile, making jumps in the fields. Being pulled by a rope engrained a back seat skiing style that I am still fighting to this day.

I study and try to emulate the success of brands who have earned a solid reputation with a focus on quality and specialty products instead of following the mass market routine.

When my brothers and I got older, we took a few family trips in our station wagon to Colorado and I was hooked. I couldn’t believe how big the ski areas were. Extremely impressive coming from farm land so flat I could see three towns from our house. For several years I read every single word, including the ads, of Ski and Skiing magazines.

I served in the U.S. Army for 23 years, primarily as strategic intelligence and special operations. While in a Special Forces unit I learned and then taught ski touring and winter warfare techniques. I also began competing in triathlon and had some higher level success.

I was proud to represent the U.S. at the World Military Championships and regular World Championships several times. Towards the end of my Army career, I taught physical education at West Point and then commanded the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program (a program to train Soldiers for participation in the Olympics).

When I retired from the Army I started coaching endurance athletes of all stripes, which I still do today, including quite a few ski mountaineering (Skimo) racers. I race regularly myself.

While I first learned ski touring in the Special Forces (on old style and dangerous Ramer bindings) it wasn’t until I met my wife Eva in Austria that I became hooked on backcountry ski touring. Her entire family ski tours and exposed me to experiences that were simply wonderful, not just for the skiing but also for the lifestyle. Her father skis regularly, usually over 100 days a year and last used a ski lift in 1962 when he was ordered to during his mandatory military service.

Growing up a flatlander in rural Minnesota I dreamed of spending time in the mountains. Now my family (my wife is from the mountains near Salzburg, Austria) and I live in the mountains and follow an alpine lifestyle where almost all of our leisure activities involve skiing, bicycling, running or hiking in the mountains. Starting Hagan Ski Mountaineering (and coaching endurance athletes) enables me to combine business with passion, and helps justify the significant time and energy investment.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product and launching the business.

Our race ski is what helped me establish my initial foothold in the North American market. I brought Hagan to the U.S. just as SkiMo racing was taking off and found a very receptive audience for a quality, lightweight and excellent handling ski at a price much lower than what was available at the time. Our initial X-Race evolved into our current Ultra 65 race ski. We have continually improved performance while reducing weight.

Move fast and don’t try to be perfect. I’d have been better off just doing things imperfectly and then improving, instead of trying to determine the absolute best approach from the start.

The Hagan race team is an integral part of our product testing and development. Subjecting our test products to their tough use shows us how to reduce every last unnecessary gram while not losing focus on durability, safety and performance.

Over the last several years we pushed the weight of our race ski to its lowest practical limit. To offer our athletes the best performance and durability, we don’t participate in the low weight at all costs madness — which sacrifices reliability, durability and downhill performance for the sake of a few grams. We would rather have the best performing skis than a rather empty claim of the absolute lightest skis.

We use our expertise from developing race skis and apply that technology to our wider backcountry skis. Originally we just had skis, but we now have backcountry ski touring bindings and boots. Our new race binding is among the lightest, and certainly best performing, bindings available. It is simply outstanding. We now have 9 different ski touring bindings. While race skis established the foothold here in the U.S. (my family and I participate in many of the races and have many great friends in the small field of participants) the full range of Hagan skis and bindings is gaining recognition and sales. We have three specialty skis including two approach skis that are ideal for mountaineers and ice climbers. Our new Boost Series skis are fantastic — great shape, weight and width for backcountry and powder skiing — popular and helping us make additional headway into the market beyond ultralight and narrow skis.

Costs, in general, must be carefully controlled. Lacking economy of scale, costs, especially transportation and marketing expenses, take a big bite out of income.

Launching the business

I started selling to specialty retailers, friends and racers I got to know at competitions. I didn’t have a website. After a couple of years, I created a website myself, using the old Apple website builder. I can’t even remember the name. It didn’t have an online store. I took “direct sales” via email and phone calls, and tracked sales on a spreadsheet.

The whole process has been self-funded. I took out a small business loan at one point of tight cash flow, but have managed to avoid any other financing.

Two years ago, I updated by website with e-commerce capabilities. (Using the Shopify platform.) That has created much higher, and more efficient, direct sales.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

I contact specialty retailers personally, largely in conjunction with travels to ski mountaineering races. Quality independent retailers who know their products well, and base their business on educating their customers, quality and service over volume are the type of retailers Hagan matches up with well.

Currently, Hagan Ski is my family and me. My next step to increase wholesale distribution is finding motivated, knowledgeable sales reps particularly outside of the Colorado and Utah region.

The future, though, is definitely direct online sales. I am trying to increase online sales without damaging relations with my retailers. It is a difficult balancing act.

I tried Amazon but it failed. Amazon’s orders were piecemeal. The shipping costs, following all the specific and demanding Amazon requirements, etc. made the workload much too high for the measly if any profits. I am considering using Amazon Seller Central, but while it appears to have advantages for my product niche, I’m still not convinced it is a great fit.

I have quite a few Hagan Ambassadors - fans and users of Hagan that help spread good word of mouth. I reward good ambassadors with discounts and free gear.

I am also currently setting up accounts with online services that cater to Pros - Backcountry Guides, Ski Patrollers, Ski Shop personnel, etc. This is another effort at increasing word of mouth referrals.

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

I study and try to emulate the success of brands who have earned a solid reputation with a focus on quality and specialty products instead of following the mass market routine. I have no business or marketing background. I’ve relied on word of mouth and referrals for a lot of growth. That demands outstanding service and quality. It isn’t a fast growth path and it isn’t a plan to create a huge money-making business, but it is an approach and philosophy that I am comfortable with.

With the big corporate downhill brands jumping onto the backcountry skiing bandwagon, it is difficult to make headway. I am relying on a slow, deliberate growth strategy. The one hook I am hoping on is for customers and retailers that appreciate and respect a company with a heritage that specializes in ski mountaineering. Hence the tagline on my signature block and elsewhere - Pure Ski Mountaineering. Hagan is also appropriate for specialty retailers that want to be unique, offering a brand that isn’t available in big box and chain retailers.

There is no doubt that a retailer has to work more for a less known brand. Some are ready to do that, some not. Specialty retailers who want to stand out are open to new and innovative brands, otherwise only big and established brands would be sold. In that way a good shop can steadily sharpen its competence and profile. Also, smaller brands are not so exposed towards price competition. And last but not least, not all consumers enter shops with predetermined opinions. Many rather expect good and sound advice from a shop — and have a bit of an independent streak themselves — and prefer a lesser-known product that better suits their needs.

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

I made a bunch of mistakes along the way. With no business or marketing background, everything was self-research and learn by doing.

The most costly mistake was a $3000 contract with a service that promised to help me create more sales to retailers. It was a complete, and at the time very heavy, loss.

We try to keep costs down by focusing intently on performance and value — and then letting the skis speak for themselves. We don’t do much marketing and admittedly are not great at it. Word of mouth is our most effective advertising.

We aim to provide backcountry skiing's best value and combination of weight, durability and performance and make our fans eager to spread the word.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I use Shopify and write all the product descriptions myself. The Shopify apps I’ve had the most success with are Conversio for reviews, abandoned cart emails, etc. and Make an Offer.

Make an Offer does what it says. It does lead to some sales, as well as some ridiculously low ball offers.

The prime benefit for me is obtaining email addresses. I use MailChimp for email, and am in the process of automating emails, but could much improve this.

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

I listen to a variety of podcasts from time to time. I use the Overcast App and listen to them in double time.

Podcasts include:

I also read a lot, too much, marketing advice online.

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

Move fast and don’t try to be perfect. I spent (and still spend) far too much time researching/studying and delaying implementation. I’d have been better off just doing things imperfectly and then improving, instead of trying to determine the absolute best approach from the start.

I probably tried to do too much myself (which is almost everything.) Not having any business experience, there weren’t a lot of people I could reach out to for assistance.

Don’t use too many apps on your Shopify store. In line with the above, I spent too much time researching and installing apps. Many made little to no difference on sales and slowed down the online store.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

I’m at the point of having enough success that I can’t do everything myself. I am looking into hiring assistance with marketing and social media, and customer service. I am considering virtual assistants.

My products are so specialized and niche though, that the learning curve will be very steep. It will be difficult to find assistants with subject matter expertise.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!