Grand Junction, Colorado
2 full-time, 2 part-time
Grand Junction, Colorado
Employees: 2 full-time, 2 part-time
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Backcountry gear
Consumers who visit the Hill People Gear website won't find outdoor bags and packs in the latest seasonal color palette or adorned with myriad flashy features -- and the brothers are proud of that fact.
Born in Grand Junction and raised in Denver, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Spokane, Santa Fe, Odessa, San Antonio, and Colorado Springs, the Hills have always spent their weekends outdoors. They actually began modifying and designing their own equipment -- including a wool pullover poncho that later became the template for their Mountain Serape -- as pre-teens, and spent their college summers serving as trail crew members, wilderness rangers, and forest firefighters.
Their love of the United States' vast wilderness continues today, as does their passion for solving the gear problems of backcountry enthusiasts with modern materials and functional designs.
"Our designs are driven by actual end users," Scot Hill says. "Evan and I hold our business meetings every morning while we mountain bike, hike, or cross-country ski. We're out on a daily basis using our gear and constantly looking for ways to improve it. As a result, it's a lot simpler and cleaner in design. A lot of other companies' gear is more focused on color palettes and features rather than actually moving weight from point A to point B as comfortably and safely as possible."
Every design the brothers create is built for hard use with minimal failure. "If you're working for the Forest Service and a piece of gear fails you in the middle of a 10- or 20-day hitch, you've got to go another 10 or 20 days with that broken piece of gear," Hill says. "We tend to use heavier materials than are currently in vogue because they are reliable and will give consumers years of use. We also design in redundancy."
He continues, "Zippers, for example, often fail long before the rest of a pack does, so we try to limit our use of them. When we do have a zipper, it is protected by straps to keep the pressure off so it doesn't burst. And if it does burst, it's designed in such a way that the straps will still keep your load intact. With other packs on the market, if a zipper fails you're done."
While their best-selling product is currently the Original Kit Bag in Ranger Green, other top sellers include the Heavy Recon Kit Bag and Tarahumara Pack. All Hill People Gear products are made in the U.S. FirstSpear, in Fenton, Missouri, is their primary manufacturer, and they source their metal stays from Harper Works, a small, family-owned company in San Diego, California.
"The quality of manufacturing that FirstSpear provides is exceptional," says Hill. "Our failure rate is less than 1 percent. Actually, I think it's a fraction of 1 percent on QC issues. They're a great company to work with and we have a great relationship with them."
On average, Hill People Gear sells 25 kit bags a week. The company saw 22 percent growth last year and is on track to achieve similar success in 2016. "When I last ran the numbers, it looked like 19 percent growth based on the beginning of the year," Hill says. "But we always finish stronger the end of the year when people buy more gear for hunting, outdoor activities, and the Christmas holiday."
Challenges: "Things change over time as companies get bigger. What works when you're a small, flexible company doesn't necessarily work when you need bigger numbers and a lot more production time," Hill explains. While the company's primary manufacturer used to be able to turn their orders around in two to three weeks, the production time has increased to four to six months. "We realized we need to do our forecasting six months in advance rather than every month," he continues. "So we sat down with FirstSpear in January and put some processes in order. We're still working on fine tuning them to fit both companies as we grow."
Opportunities: While Hill People Gear is well known for their line of durable, functional kit bags as well as their seasonally-popular Mountain Serape, many of their potential customers are unfamiliar with their growing range of packs. "Our biggest opportunity is really getting our name out there for making the level of packs that we do," says Hill. "We sell packs, but I think we can sell a lot more."
Needs: "There are never enough hours in the day," Hill says with a sigh. "There is always stuff that we could be doing or should be doing." He and his brother recently brought on a new full-time employee to help address this need and enable them to tackle neglected tasks such as following up with potential customers.
"We get approached a lot by various organizations such as search-and-rescue teams, fire crews and law enforcement agencies asking for demo packs," he says. "We send out these demos and sometimes they result in purchases and sometimes they don't. We know we could do a lot better job following up with these potential new customers, but it has taken second place to servicing our existing ones. We've been missing out on opportunities and potential revenue as a result. If we could have more of any one thing, I'd say it's probably time. That would help us cover all our bases better than we currently are."