This is a follow up story for Hagan Ski. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published about 2 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hello, I am Michael Hagen, founder of Hagan Ski USA. I started my business to import Austrian alpine ski touring (backcountry skiing) gear. The sport was big in Europe but very niche here. I loved ski touring personally and recognized the lack of awareness, and quality gear, in the U.S. So I decided to import Hagan gear as it was a small Austrian brand with no U.S. presence. I was slightly prescient in that the sport has exploded in the U.S. since I started.
We started with skis and specialized “climbing skins”. We then added bindings and most recently ski touring boots. Skis remain our hallmark, but we have some very nice, unique bindings. Bindings now outsell our skis.
The business is very seasonal, of course. Initially, I had almost no sales activity in the summer. (Which was good, as I was still racing triathlon semi-professionally and coaching, both of which were busiest in the summer and quieter in the winter.) As the business has grown, that summer respite has shrunk, and now I have sales or inquiries almost every day all summer long.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Backcountry skiing has exploded in the United States. We used to say that the U.S. was 15 years behind Europe in terms of the popularity and growth of alpine ski touring. Ski touring continues to grow in Europe at a very high rate. It is growing even faster in the U.S. I would say we are now 5 to 10 years behind Europe. The sport has grown so fast, here and there, that there have been growing pains - full trailheads and parking lots, ski areas that have banned it, more accidents in the backcountry, etc. It used to be a bit of a cult sport, with most participants being rather “expert” or at least experienced. Now there are a lot of “newbies”, some with very limited skiing skills and avalanche awareness.
Don’t try to be too cheap. It can cost in the long run. If not money, definitely time.
Austria still is the biggest country in terms of participants and product sales. Impressive for a country of just 7 million people. Of course, they are blessed with supportive geography. The U.S. is now second in participants and sales - 10 years ago it wasn’t in the top 10.
I started almost exclusively wholesaling to specialty retailers. I had a few “D2C” sales, but they were almost all to friends I met and made at ski mountaineering races. A few “trunk sales” and others via email and paper checks.
About 6 years ago I switched from an iWeb website to a slightly more professional website, but still with no online sales functionality. I wasn’t in enough retail sales to make enough profit to justify the time and energy I was putting into it. I felt since I wasn’t in many retail shops, and no shops carried our entire line of products, that I needed to create an online sales channel. About 4 years ago I started a Shopify website. That has been the most important improvement in my business and has lead to a drastic, for me, an increase in sales.
Backcountry skiing is no longer a tiny niche sport. The sport, and the market, has grown. This has led to the “invasion” into the sport of large, traditional alpine (downhill) skiing brands. Brands with big marketing budgets. The sport was growing, and they wanted a piece of it. Although the market “pie” has grown substantially, the entry of dozens of large companies means the slices are thinner.
Despite this, my sales have continued to accelerate. Slowly with retailers and remarkably online.
Two seasons ago, sales to retailers were about 65% of my sales. Last season over half of my sales was online D2C. This year I expect D2C to be at least 65% of sales.
So far, I am doing everything myself, from setting up and maintaining the website, writing product descriptions, the occasional marketing email, customer service, and correspondence, and shipping. My wife assists with the latter, packaging some items and making the runs to UPS and USPS.
I’m nearing the breaking point. I also coach endurance athletes. Racing in endurance events, including ski mountaineering races, is what initially led me to start the business. Up until a year ago, I still made most of my income from coaching. It was only two years ago that the ski business became profitable. This spring, as the business grew, I had to stop taking on new athletes, and actively whittle some away, so I could keep up with the ski business.
I’m at the point where I need to hire help. That will most likely be in marketing, an area I have little experience, and perhaps less enthusiasm, in.
Currently, my marketing is limited to a few emails a year, occasional Facebook and Google ads initiated by Shopify’s Kit service, and some Instagram posts. I’m lucky in that the sport still carries some of the attributes of a niche sport. There are a lot of enthusiasts who are very active and knowledgeable and will seek out new gear. Word of mouth, and a few good reviews in magazines and websites, help with limited visibility. I still get a lot of people who say “I never heard of Hagan” until they read something online, heard something from a friend, or just found us in a search. 65% of my search traffic is organic.
I try to provide excellent customer service: personal responses to questions (it’s a rather technical sport), prompt shipping, providing advice. I think people appreciate that the founder is responding to them. I get what I consider a rather high number of repeat customers and referrals.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
The best decision I’ve made was to set up eCommerce functionality with Shopify. One of the worst was probably waiting too long to do that, including one year building a new website with no e-commerce ability.
I’ve certainly been lucky that I foresaw the growth of the sport. I also foresaw the entry of the big players into the market, which helped me weather that storm.
I’ve made my share of mistakes. Plenty of them. I got burned once, my first year, by a retailer that was in the process of undergoing bankruptcy when they placed their order. That was costly. It certainly taught me the lesson that not everyone is ethical.
I also invested a lot of money, and time, with a company that claimed they could get more retailers to sign up with me. They had a service where retailers could place orders online for items they were out of stock on or didn’t stock at all. They claimed retailers would sign up with me because of this. Zilch!
I don’t know if it was a mistake or not, but I’ve paid for a few print ads. There was no way to directly track them, but I didn’t notice any trends in sales to indicate they were successful.
I’ve made various attempts at Hagan Ambassador and pro sponsorship programs. I keep trying at this but largely find they attract people who are looking for discounts but don’t provide a lot in return. It sounds kind of exciting and sexy to have a Team Hagan, but without a professionally managed program, I’m not sure of the returns.
Personal updates - I’m getting older but still love to train and compete. I’m 58 now. I was rather pleased to win a ski mountaineering race, overall, in March. I’m not quite as fast as some of the younger racers anymore, but with a little strategy and luck, I was able to snag a win. That doesn’t happen often anymore. My wife is still very competitive, too. A year ago we returned to Austria for a family trip. While there, she won the Austrian Ski Mountaineering National Master’s Championship. She did much better than me.
We are fortunate to have two healthy and athletic kids. Both are focusing on running. Our son races at Colorado School of Mines. They won the D2 XC National Championship last year and he was 15th individually. Our daughter is very excited to be entering 8th grade and tries to do better than our son did when he was her age. So far, she is. She is fortunate to have him as inspiration.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
I hope to continually improve my online offerings and marketing. That will probably require hiring people with much more expertise than me. I would like to see, and think it is realistic, 50% growth for the next several years.
In 3 to 5 years I’d like to either sell the business or pass it off to a managing operator and act as a consultant emeritus.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I wish! I heard somewhere that we don’t buy books, we buy the illusion that we will have time to read them! That said, I have read a couple of coaching - run coaching - books, for that other side of my life.
I do read a lot, way too much, online. I suffer severe FOMO, and can’t resist clicking on almost every “How to improve your… SEO/email/marketing…” link I come across. That is highly related to point 2 below.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
- Don’t try to be too cheap. It can cost in the long run. If not money, definitely time. I tried to go with free or cheap services for too long. I probably saved some money initially, but then when the services could no longer fulfill my needs, I lost considerable time learning and setting up new services. This included hesitation too long before starting with Shopify.
- This is advice I’ve read or heard many times, yet continually get wrong - Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t try to be perfect. I spend far too much time researching services or thinking about approaches. I’d be better just doing things, and improving them with time and experience. It’s a habit I find very hard to break. I’m quite cautious, especially when it comes to spending money, but sometimes the cost of time ends up being much higher.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes. This is probably the biggest step I need to make going forward, and the one I am most apprehensive about. At times I wonder if it would be better to just keep it at the level where I can manage everything myself. But if my sales continue to grow, my hand may be forced on that. I may simply not be able to keep up with everything myself, and least not without letting customer service suffer.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Discover the best strategies of successful business owners
Join our newsletter and receive our handcrafted recap with the best insights shared by founders in Starter Story each week.
Useful, convenient, and free:
Did you know that brands using Klaviyo average a 95x ROI?
Email, SMS, and more — Klaviyo brings your marketing all together, fueling growth without burning through time and resources.
Deliver more relevant email and text messages — powered by your data. Klaviyo helps you turn one-time buyers into repeat customers with all the power of an enterprise solution and none of the complexity.