Eric Lyon, Co-Founder of Mountain Standard, talks Inspiration, Market Trends, and Digital Innovation
The Flatirons in Boulder, Colorado. Photo Credit: beklaus (iStock)
What happens when true outdoor enthusiasts, Colorado natives, and industry veterans found a new brand? It takes off.
Born out of a love for the Rockies as well as unique insight into the outdoor industry product market, Mountain Standard started small in 2015 with the goal of creating a brand that spoke to a younger generation of consumer. That generation—millenials, for lack of a more precise term—was looking for a brand that was more approachable, they were looking for it on their mobile devices, and they weren’t responding to the that hero image of a lone man standing on top of a snowy peak.
Built into their digitally native approach are the core tenets of the business: remaining close to their consumers wants and needs, building community, and innovating the product cycle. What Warby Parker has done for glasses, Mountain Standard has begun to do with outdoor apparel and products. Their approach has allowed them to continually test design, product, and marketing so that the products that they bring to market are uniquely designed to suit their consumers.
I had the chance to speak with Eric Lyon, co-founder of Mountain Standard, about the brand’s inspiration, how they conceive of innovation, and where they’re headed next.
What was the inspiration behind the founding of the Mountain Standard brand?
“Settling on the Mountain Standard name was a huge tipping point for us in early 2015. We were looking for a name that spoke to our past experiences, that had relevance to who we are, what we wanted to do, and the products we were going to make. Being natives of Colorado and the mountain standard time zone, it’s really shaped us as people, as users, and as professionals. Once we were able to trademark the name, that’s when the brand moved from being an idea, a concept, or even a market opportunity to something that’s really a brand.
We saw this huge trend of digitally native brands that were popping up outside of our industry, including Warby Parker, the different mattress companies, and clearly, there was no brand equivalent in the outdoor space. The outdoor industry is pretty traditional, and it’s pretty rooted in a model that hasn’t changed for a long time, which includes the wholesale model and serving retailers in a particular way. We saw an opportunity to change that model for a new generation.
There hadn’t really been a brand built for that generation. Everything that this younger generation is expecting from their products, how they transact with a brand, and how they interact with a brand is different. It’s happened in other markets—particularly snow sports—where the young people who get into the sport really shape the product landscape. We were excited to approach apparel with a similar philosophy.”
How does your experience at SIDFACTOR inform how you approach building the Mountain Standard brand?
“Jason [Olden] and I founded Mountain Standard, and our previous and on-going work has been rooted in the outdoor industry and in SIDFACTOR, which is our creative agency. The agency is 17 years old, and it was one of the first and really one of the only firms that was set up to do outsourced, contract strategy, design, and development. All of the customers that we have you would know, from billion dollar retailers to the best-in-class brands. Our core expertise has been building products in partnership with brands. In that space, we’re constantly asked and historically have been asked by brands to help articulate strategically. So you’re privy to a lot of information, you have the responsibility of understanding macro and micro trends in our industry. It’s a long way of saying we’re super well-informed with what’s happening with brands and trends, so we’re pretty uniquely qualified in the industry to have a perspective, and we’re paid to look for white space, opportunities, and underserved markets.
Typically, there are a lot of mistakes that you don’t know you’re going to make as a start-up in the apparel industry, including the volumes that are required from the factories, finding good factories, but in each of our businesses in the past, we had responsible, quality makers that we could partner with straight away. We weren’t starting from scratch because of our previous work, which was a real advantage for us.
We also were really modest in how much we made. We didn’t want to make any excess stuff, we didn’t want to have to have product that was obsolete or that we had to close out. We’re not a mass producer, we’re producing at places where we’ve been. We know the factory owners, we have partners all around the world from LA to Vietnam. And really quality relationships that we rely on to make those limited runs of product. So our color stories were really tight in the beginning, our fabric stories were really tight. And we’re not, even though we’ve had a certain level of success, we’re not just getting into any category of apparel or any other categories haphazardly.”
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a start-up in the outdoor space?
“The most practical challenge has been being bringing a product to market in the non-traditional way. Manufacturing models were built by the brands that are currently in the outdoor space and based on wholesale volumes. So, frankly one of the biggest challenges is having a well-built, diverse collection of product but without spending too much and buying too much product. You’re competing against well-established brands who’ve built a lot of the supply chain, and the supply chain isn’t really set up for a start-up brand in this space.
Trying to be closer to market is probably one of the other biggest challenges. That has meant changing the market calendar from the traditional 18-month calendar to something much shorter. Can we doing something in six months that the market does in 18 months?
Also, being close to market means learning what’s important to our customer base. We don’t want to just put stuff in the market hoping that it sells; instead, we really want to understand what’s important in a product, what does it need to do, how does it need to perform. We want to test color palettes, how people intend to wear the product, what are their expectations for versatility etc. It’s really about taking the feedback that we get and building it into the product cycle.”
One of the biggest trends we’re seeing in the industry right now is this idea of “doing good is good business”. How does Mountain Standard contribute to that conversation?
“It’s interesting to look generationally at the outdoors community. Previously, you were indoctrinated into the outdoors by your family, and we have a generation that may not have been introduced by their parents. They’re finding their own way now. By the nature of Mountain Standard’s imagery, we’re getting away from the lone warrior backcountry type of imagery, getting away from the suffering and just showing more people having fun with smiles on their faces. We’ve had decades of [extreme sports] imagery, and it’s being proved that they’re non-compelling types of images. People want something more attainable, more social. It’s about friends and inclusion. There’s something more compelling about that than two guys hanging off a sheer rock wall.
There’s this pathway that one takes to be comfortable in the outdoor space, and I think [Mountain Standard] can be part of that journey. This idea of RIMBY (“Right in My Backyard”) is really important for us. We want to encourage people that wherever you live, there is something. There’s something in your backyard that can be adventurous. You don’t have to go to far flung places and on expensive trips. We’re a little more casual, and I think if we can encourage access and inclusion, then that would mean success to me.”