4 Things I Learned About Creating a Successful Craft Gear Business

At the recent KORE online Speaker Series, Rockgeist owner Greg Hardy shared his strategy for building his bikepacking gear company.

Greg Hardy, founder and owner of Rockgeist in Asheville, NC, gave a presentation during the most recent KORE Speaker Series on January 21 about the growth of his company, which makes bikepacking gear. He is part of a collective that’s similar to KORE called the Outdoor Gear Builders (OGB) of Western North Carolina, which has more than 45 members ranging from makers and outfitters to retailers and non-profits.

Greg’s background is in material science and he had full-time work in that field but was sewing backpacking bags as a hobby in his spare time. As his customer base grew for the bags, he decided to quit his job three years ago and take his business full time. He says he didn’t want to go into debt at the start so he grew very slowly and it was a full year before he was able to hire another employee. Today he has a team of six working at his 3,000-square-foot factory that harbours cutting tables, bar tackers, heat press, sewing machines, a photography area, and other equipment.

His most recent business step was to merge with Porcelain Rocket from Calgary, a similarly-sized company that’s one of the originals that got into the craft bikepacking gear market. Greg says that by the end of this year he’s hoping to have the full selection of Porcelain gear manufactured at his facility and available for purchase.

Below are the four main talking points Greg shared during his presentation.

#1. It’s All About Connections

When Greg incorporated his company in 2014 he also joined the Outdoor Gear Builders (OGB) of Western North Carolina and says “they played a really important part in my early growth.” This is why:

  1. They offered educational classes and courses that were integral to his learning about business, e-commerce, and more.
  2. The OGB helped him connect with other small businesses and from that he could see where to grow and get to where these other businesses were at. It showed him different styles to starting a business and gave him the confidence to see what he wanted to do with his own company. Eventually it led to the hiring of his first employee, which was a big step and the OGB was integral for steering him through that process.
  3. He also leaned on the OGB to help get used equipment from larger companies in the area.
  4. OGB was also instrumental in helping him find suppliers.

Regarding point 4, Greg says his company was challenged in the early days because ordering high-quality fabric in small volumes can be challenging. “It was a pain to figure out but now our quantities are a little higher and we’re more consistent with our orders so there are more vendors willing to work with us,” he says. By connecting with OGB, he found other companies that have gone through those same growing pains and “after connecting with OGB, I had a list of vendors that I could contact.” He also recommends connecting with other small businesses that may not manufacture outdoor gear but might have the same challenges you have. For example, a soap company or a pottery company may not be the same market as you, but they might have knowledge to share in terms of product photography or WooCommerce.

In short, Greg recommends small business owners in the craft gear realm should become members of any associations or initiatives that resonate (such as KORE) and also reach out to whatever networks, industries and other companies that can help you find creative solutions.

#2. Know Your Market

Bikepacking is a niche market and custom-made gear within that market is even more niche. That’s why Greg knew early on that he’d have to cast a wide net in order to experience growth. Today his business is 90% e-commerce shipped direct from the workshop. The remaining ten percent of sales is via bike shops and lodging companies. They’re also one of the few custom gear companies that ships worldwide: international orders are 40% of their business and with the acquisition of Calgary’s Porcelain Rocket, he expects a large rise in Canadian orders.

“Because our product is light, durable, and cheap to ship, we knew from the start that e-commerce was going to play a big role with our company,” Greg says. “So early on we connected with the UPS rep in town and we integrated their software into our own e-commerce platform so we could ship directly to someone’s door overseas. That way they didn’t have to deal with customs anymore and once we did that, our sales skyrocketed, especially in Europe.”

#3. Know Your Marketing

Greg says he really tries to leverage three channels when it comes to marketing:

  1. YouTube: “I’ll post up short videos, purely for SEO value,” Greg says. “It’s a way for us to jump ahead of the REIs of the world.” He does all the videos himself after learning a few key skills online because “if you want someone else to make a video for you, that’s a couple thousand dollars,” he says.
  2. Instagram and Facebook: “Learning how to take nice photos yourself is really important,” Greg says. “In our factory we have a set space for photography with different backdrops, lighting and umbrellas. Lighting is key because with good lighting you don’t require a full-frame camera. We use two halogen bulbs on either side of the product and then a flash on the camera with a gel covering that’s matched to the temperature of the halogens. We then colour correct for them. This is basic photography stuff that I’ve just Googled and learned along the way and it’s important as an e-commerce company to be able to take good pictures because no one can come in and hold this stuff.” The company’s photography space can be seen in the photo above.
  3. Niche websites: “We want to ensure we have a solid working relationship with the media that cover our cottage industry because, in terms of craft gear, knowing the name of the person who made your item goes a long way with people,” Greg says. “Bikepacking.com loves to cover innovative gear that isn’t mass produced because it gives a quality to the sport that is different. That’s really how we market: when we work on projects, we want the ones that bikepacking.com would be interested in and run a press release on. That’s our litmus test.”

Greg goes on to say he’s never really paid for marketing but “as we grow we might have to figure out a budget to spend on that.”

The camera the team uses at Rockgeist for all product shots.

#4. Spend Time Perfecting Your Website

According to Greg, there are two important things to remember when populating your website: “It all comes down to how well you communicate what a product does and how good it looks in the photos.” As per the note above about, learning to take good photos is key. However, you don’t want to upload large-sized photos to your website because they’re going to slow your site down. “Think about the size of the photos, how to process them on the computer, and make sure they’re the smallest possible files that work well on your site,” Greg says. 

In terms of an e-commerce solution, Greg’s company has only ever used WooCommerce because it “has the most streamlined ability to order complex products.” he says. “When you go to one of our products it might have 6-7 dropdown fields for selections. For domestic shipping he uses a free service in the States called XPS, which is a plug in that can be synched to your website’s backend. It’s similar to ShipStation but it’s free. For international shipping he has a separate plug in from UPS.