Outdoor Provisions: Moving beyond shareholder value

Sometimes ideas and opportunities comes when we're least expecting them. Christian Smith of Outdoor Provisions talked to us about how an idea amongst like minded cyclists led to him stepping out of the blue chip environment to start a brand that's about more than feeding the capitalist machine.
Matt Kendall

MK - How did Outdoor Provisions come about?

CS - I worked in the food industry for over 15 years, with the last five years of those at Kellogg's. The big blue chip environment wasn't really for me, though! Outside of work I was spending a lot of time bikepacking and adventuring and began to think there was a niche within that niche for natural energy bars. Initially this was based around packaging but also company ethos - I wanted to do something not driven by just delivering Shareholder value.

On the first edition of the Second City Divide (a bikepacking challenge where riders ride from Glasgow to Manchester) I was riding with Luke - now my partner in Outdoor Provisions - and we talked the idea through and that's when it came into existence. We also met someone who helped us with the brand identity on that ride too, so it all came out of that ride between Glasgow and Manchester.

MK - One of those crazy ideas that you have in a bike ride that turned into reality?

CS - Yeah, it actually did! So that was September 2018, and then registered the company the following July. We then launched in September 2019. So it was a relatively quick firestorm in starting a business.

MK - So you built the business as the two of you? 

CS - Our team size is basically 2 of us - Luke has a background in creative and brands and I've always been interested in innovation and product development. But between us there's no background of starting and running businesses so we've figured a lot out ourselves. Neither of us knew anything about eCommerce really and that's probably the thing we've learnt quickest on. 

Outdoor Provision Natural Energy Bars

MK - So and how do you how do you manage that now? There's still just the two of you, right? And then you've got people outside?

CS - We tried various things ourselves. And then as we started to grow this year, we brought in a Digital Marketing agency, which is still in its infancy. Then we're bringing someone in to help with B2B sales too and then we can start to really focus on eCommerce.

MK - You've launched as a multi-channel brand, being in physical retail and wholesale, and you've got your DTC channel as well, and also marketplaces such as Amazon. How does that work together?

CS - Amazon was an internal struggle for myself - we're not really in this to feed the Bezos machine you know. But we were interested in the idea that people use Amazon as a search engine and we wanted to show up there. 

Ultimately, we want to be a subscription based company. At the minute, subscriptions and our eCommerce website is about 75% of sales and the rest comes from B2B. There are some really nice, exciting businesses we want to be sold at - Alpkit and Woods Cyclery for example make sense for us as they're a big part of the bikepacking scene we grew out of. We genuinely like these companies, so it makes sense for us to position our brand alongside them. And I think I always want to have a physical presence in the good shops, particularly when expanding the range.

MK - As a small independent brand, how did you approach Black Friday? 

CS - Honestly, it was tough. We've priced our products fairly based on what goes into it, what it's made of, and how we want to sell stuff. So doing huge discounts doesn't really work for us. We do offer a decent discount on signup for new customers, though. The only item we pushed was our raptor pin badge, all of the profits from this product go to the RSPB investigations team.

MK - We can’t ignore the turbulence of 2020! Recent status has shown a 40% growth in UK eCommerce. How have you reacted to this, and what challenges needed to be overcome?

CS - Originally, 2020 was going to see us hitting as many events as we could, getting bars into hands and building the brand that way. In hindsight that probably would have been a disaster so maybe that's a lucky escape! Without being able to do that we needed a big project to help us grow and that turned out to be moving from Mailchimp to Klayvio.

That's been incredible for us, setting up all the automation flows and helping communicate what our offer is. We'll keep going with that next year, adding more flows and A/B testing elements. We've still got a lot to do!

We also got on board with Trustpilot, and user generated content has definitely had an impact for us as well.

MK - And your website is built on Craft Commerce right?

CS - Yeah, we use Craft Commerce for our website as well which is really nice and adaptable. But that means we have that barrier of development overheads a little bit. Whereas Shopify probably already has a lot of integrations we could plug in, so sometimes it's a source of frustration that we have to plan things out a bit more.

Outdoor Provisions Website built on Craft Commerce

MK - Do you enjoy that side of it then, being able to see what impact you've had so quickly?

CS - I like looking at what Tech's new, how we can use it and how quickly can we implement it and deploy it.  Whereas that kind of thinking is a source of annoyance when you're working in a big company!

MK - Technology to allow you to work smarter, not harder yeah?

CS - Sure, Live Chat for example. One day a lady was having a problem with a discount code whilst I was pushing my sleeping child around the park, but I could manage it all from my phone and help her get what she needed. So technology is definitely not a barrier anymore. I think Live Chat is great if you can actually be there and answer directly.

MK - Alongside Outdoor Provisions, you also organise Second City Divide. How does this community inspire what you do as a brand?

CS - It's important for our audience to know that we're not just trying to take from these communities. Bikepacking, travelling, hiking, wild swimming are all things we love, so it's great having our brand so well associated with them. And as great as places like The Alps are there are so many amazing places in the UK that we want to champion - which has inspired us to create products such as Kendal Mint Cake flavoured bars. All of our current products reference the National Parks somehow.

MK - Being an active part of that community directly influences your product then?

CS - When we designed the bars a few people looked at them and thought they looked small. But actually, they're that small as we know from experience how many you need to fit in your pockets on these trips. Our ingrained experiences come through in the design.

Like I know from hard learned lessons that too much refined sugar on a big ride can lead to  stomach problems so we use none of it in our products. Or we're just about to collaborate with Blossom Coffee Roasters as that's what we do when we go on a bike ride - brew up and eat bars. These are the constituent parts that all go together and we've got some nice ideas to work down that line as well.

MK - You’ve committed to 1% for the Planet, which creates a rich tie between your brand and the wider community. How hard was it decided to give away 1% of revenue as an early stage brand?

CS - Well, it's probably gonna be over 1% as well, actually, because of the way we do it. A lot of people advised against doing it as a start up. But I thought that fundamentally, if we plan all that in from the start, whilst it might be tough I wouldn't really be comfortable with what we're doing if we weren't supporting something bigger than ourselves.

Outdoor Provisions Mission Statement

MK - When I met you earlier this year you went to great lengths to explain to me it’s not just the product itself that is made of natural ingredients but also the packaging too. Tell me more about that.

CS -  Our wrappers are made entirely from compostable material. Technically this cannot go in the recycling stream. You should put it in on your home compost heap where it will break down completely or look for a suitable composting facility. Inside is an ultra-thin layer of aluminium that breaks down and has no impact on the soil, it accounts for less than 0.01% of the wrapper and though it slows the composting process down slightly it does not impact it in any other way. The rest of the wrapper is made from renewable wood pulp.

We're also adding a packaging page to our website to tell everyone where it's from and how it should be disposed of. And all our other packaging is recycled paper and paper tape to seal our boxes instead of plastic tape. It all helps. 

MK - Let's finish with some quickfire questions! If we could visit 1 place that inspires Outdoor Provisions, where would it be?

CS - This is super tough! There's a nice bit of Pennine Bridleway a bit out of Hayfield over South Head that feels really remote and the scenery is amazing through all seasons, its fast and fun and in a National Park.

MK - If you could only use 1 marketing channel to build community for Outdoor Provisions from now on, which one would you choose?

CS - I guess we defacto use Instagram but I’m really interested in how others are doing this.

MK - If you could only subscribe to 1 other brand newsletter, which one would you read?

CS - Pannier.cc newsletter waiting for their new journal articles, always about more than the ride with history and nice illustration thrown in.

MK - If you could only listen to 1 podcast, which would it be? 

CS - I have been listening to a podcast called ‘Washed up Emo podcast’ a lot, lockdown has seen me regress to 90s/ 2000s Emo and this supplemented it well!

MK - If we should just  check out 1 brand following this interview, what brand should it be?

CS - Albion, I feel like they are leading the charge in new materials and refined designs in cycle clothing designed for British weather. They are doing some really nice stuff.

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