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Living it up Out There

Retailer of high-end adventure gear finds online success

Jan 5, 2015

by Lyndsie Bourgon

The 2015 FG50 List Breaking It Down
Heavy Burden Living it up Out There Ending the Romance

Jamie Clarke, CEO of Live Out There, at The company’s warehouse near the Calgary airport
Photograph Ryan Girard
Number 23 on the 2015 Fast Growth 50 List

Head office: Calgary
CEO: Jamie Clarke
2014 Revenue: <$5 million
Number of employees: 22

It takes a village to scale Mount Everest. The logistics to get even one person to the summit include base camp teams, Sherpa guides and years of training and preparation. For the climber, it takes the fortitude to think you can do it and the knowledge to know when to stop. Most attempts don’t make it.

“We’re not going to have big fat budgets for billboards, but we can show up in certain places at the right time”– Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke, the Calgary-based CEO of Live Out There, has trekked to the base of Everest four times (he’s reached the summit twice). He also conquered the Seven Summits before turning his attention to ground-level pursuits by starting an outdoor gear retailer. The business world often comes calling for adrenalin-junkie adventurer-types looking to settle down, and Clarke uses climber-speak when he talks about work: “It looks very risky, but up close you have all the systems in place – your metaphorical rope, route, team and map,” he says. “What I used to do on the side of a mountain I now do in a warehouse.”

His entrepreneurial journey began in 2002, when Clarke opened the Out There Adventure Centre with George Achilleos, an adventure outfitter on Calgary’s Stephen Avenue pedestrian mall. At the time, he had already fostered a strong speaking career, giving speeches about climbing and overcoming adversity to businesses around the world, and parachuting into companies with different backgrounds to give motivational talks. “What I saw in the U.S. was a high participation in ­e-commerce,” he says.

Soon after, Clarke made his fourth and final trip to Everest and reached the summit for his second time. Achilleos was with him, and says there “was something about the altitude that clarified the vision” of the company. While they had initially considered opening more stores, the partners decided to focus on an e-commerce version of their business instead.

In 2009, Clarke and Achilleos created and started shipping the company’s curated selection of high-end adventure gear around the country. Since then, has seen 100 per cent growth year over year. The online store now does three times the business of the bricks and mortar store.

“We want to become Canada’s leading active-lifestyle e-commerce company.”

Dave Nagy is now Live Out There’s vice-president of marketing. His job of establishing a trusted brand in a country whose outdoor apparel sales are dominated by Mountain Equipment Co-op and FGL Sports (formerly the Forzani Group) is not easy. “Our first target was people predisposed to shopping online, not those looking for a North Face jacket,” says Nagy. “You can tell me you’re interested in snowshoeing and that’s great, I have a product for you, but that doesn’t tell me that you’re going to follow through with an online purchase.” Clarke adds that a large part of their marketing budget heads straight to Google – the company’s search ranking is an incredibly important part of their business model.

Now that has experienced its massive growth, Nagy says they’re able to spend more time on traditional brand marketing and outdoor events. “That probably would have killed the business three or four years ago,” he says. But through their years of gathering web analytics, “I have enough data now to know that Squamish converts more sales than Banff, which has a lot of retail access on their streets. If I’m doing an event, I’ll go to Squamish.”

The online store does three times the business of the bricks and mortar one
Photograph Ryan Girard

For Clarke, these events are slowly becoming a key part of the company’s mission – what he really wants to get out of running his business is encouraging Canadians to get outside. At the moment, Live Out There has used its momentum to foster community by bringing athletes to town for talks about adventure pursuits. They also sponsor a prize for the best mountain-sports film at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. “We’re not going to have big fat budgets for billboards, but we can show up in certain places at the right time,” says Clarke. In recent years, adventure outfitters have struggled to encourage a growing urban population to adopt an (often expensive) outdoor lifestyle, and all the products that come along with it. MEC in particular has swung towards selling more mainstream products for “urban activities.” Live Out There’s products are still of the higher-priced, technologically advanced variety.

“You can look at brands like Lululemon; they do experiential stuff and they drive ­participation,” says Nagy, who is a fly-­fisherman in his spare time. He says the ­company would eventually like to start ­tracking its performance in terms of the ­number of people it encourages to become active. “It’s what we believe in, but it’s not yet how we run our business.”

Live Out There currently faces two challenges: Clarke has been flying across the continent in hopes of raising more capital, seeking out angel investors. “Now’s a good time to throw some fuel on the fire,” he says. “We want to become Canada’s leading active-lifestyle e-commerce company.”

But the partners have also been hindered by hiring challenges in the province, and have ended up contracting work out to employees in B.C. and California, among other places. “It’s hard to attract and get talent that we need when oil and gas attracts many good people for good reasons,” he says. “We all know the story of our economic past … but there’s no reason why we couldn’t be an e-commerce hotspot in the country.”

“Human power is the best way to move,” he says. “Our business is successful because of human power, and our province should be successful because of human power.”

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