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What It’s Like Starting a Business In The Ski Industry - Year 2

Editor's Note: For all you entrepreneurs out there, the good folks at NWT3K Outerwear have dropped some lessons learned from their second year in business putting together custom outerwear from their headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Knowledge is power!

A few years back we started with the simple idea of designing a one-of-a-kind ski jacket. A jacket that had exactly what you desired – high-quality waterproofing, technical features, rad colors and an awesome fit. We’ve been operational now for two winter seasons and what a ride it’s been!

Last year we posted on what it’s like starting a business in the ski industry – year 1 and we’re continuing this annual series, reflecting back on what we’ve learned and accomplished in our second year in the ski industry.

Let your customers build your products for you

We offered one product our first year: custom jackets . As we gained traction and our customer base grew, we began receiving numerous requests for pants from customers who wanted a sweet set of custom pants to match their customized jackets. While this seems like a no-brainer, hearing it from your paying customers is a huge validation and something we couldn’t ignore.

Having recognized the demand, we decided to dig a bit deeper and get direct input from our customers and team athletes. We wanted to establish a product that would both meet and exceed their needs. The end result was last year’s launch of our customizable ski/snowboard pants. , a product completely driven by customer input.

Don’t be afraid of product scarcity

We didn’t just add pants though, we also made a number of significant improvements to our jacket as well, meaning we really started this past winter with two new products (jackets & pants). In addition to that, we built our own customized ecommerce platform so we’d have the flexibility to easily add new products and better control the purchase experience by bringing it onto our own site (as opposed to PayPal). We were ready to hit the ground running... or so we thought.

In the first 3-weeks of releasing our new 2013/14 custom gear, we maxed out the production capacity of our Seattle manufacturing facility. Simply put, our product turn-around time doubled from 3 to 6 weeks. So why didn’t we just add more seamstresses to our manufacturing line?

Unfortunately here in Seattle, it isn’t quite that easy. The apparel manufacturing industry is already small and finding highly skilled sewers capable of meeting our product quality standards proved to be extremely difficult. As it turned out, a tough problem that we simply couldn’t solve in the short term; we had to let potential customers know.

After we displayed this message on our product customizer (our purchase funnel), we expected to see a sharp drop in orders, but to our surprise the orders kept coming. Although wait times were roughly 1 1/2 month’s time and you likely weren’t going to receive your custom gear by Christmas, people were still completing purchases. Since people knew that custom gear was hard to get, they were eager to get on the waiting list. Turns out that product scarcity isn’t such a bad thing after all.

We learned a lot about how to effectively communicate with our customers and factory as a result of this process. A major focus of this year’s off-season is to not only improve our products, but also streamline the manufacturing of them by reworking how the products are built, storing the raw materials more efficiently, and pre-processing as much of the various moving parts as we can.

Leave your customers satisfied, but make sure they're informed

As a small company, we recognize that our business will be built one happy customer at a time. We institutionalized this belief last year with our 100% Satisfaction Guarantee. Naturally, this meant we spent an increased amount of time on customer support and also had to take some hits on remaking gear when there were issues, but it also helped us recognize that we need to improve how we expose information to our customers regarding sizing & fit. 

Use data to make key decisions

As a small business, acquiring ‘big data’ is nearly impossible. You literally start with nothing and eventually gain traction, grow and begin to acquire more user/customer data. Looking back at this season and ahead into next year’s, our data is starting to paint some interesting pictures and we’re excited to start integrating all the various forms of data we’ve been collecting to help us steer the ship.

For your reference here are some jacket color trends over the past two seasons:

Looking back on year two we learned so much – we launched new products, exceeded manufacturing capabilities, learned how to better communicate with our customers and clearly identified what we should be focusing on moving into our third winter season.

As we push through the summer months we’ll be finalizing our new custom club, team & company jacket program , picking up our new 20k/20k waterproof fabric and dialing in our 2015 custom gear set. Thanks to all of you - here’s to another wild ride, let’s go!

Any questions, comments or just stoke leave in the comments below and we’ll do our best to get back! 

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