Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Ski poles and paddles
Founder Andrew Beckler is using bamboo to make more resilient ski poles and paddles.
In an age where technology adds more gizmos and features to just about everything, Grass Sticks is returning to roots of the ski industry to make enduring products that are bringing home awards.
Modern ski poles are usually made of steel or aluminum -- or, for a few dollars more, carbon fiber. They're lightweight but they have a big problem, resilience: They can bend or, in the case of carbon fiber, even shatter.
Beckler was going through about three pairs of aluminum ski poles every season, he says. "I ski only trees and bumps. I fall down. I crash a lot,"he explains. "I probably beat up my poles more than 95 percent of our customers do. I guess I'm good tester for that." However, he's been using the same pair of Grass Sticks for three years now.
That's thanks to the unique properties of Calcutta bamboo, which include flexibility. "In the end it stands up being a better material," Beckler contends. Where a mass-manufactured ski pole could strike a tree and bend or break, a bamboo pole will flex and rebound to its original shape.
Made in Beckler's garage in Steamboat Springs, Grass Sticks' poles are crafted from a five-foot section of a three- to four-year-old bamboo stalk, which gives the pole the right thickness and strength, and coated with a flexible marine-grade polyurethane.
"It's as strong as carbon fiber and lightweight," says Beckler of bamboo. "Instead of being manufactured or mined, it's just grown. And it looks pretty cool. Which is a big driver of why people like our product."
But bamboo has to be finished by hand, he adds, and can't be pumped out of a factory like modern, mass-manufactured ski poles. "It's not a new technology at all. Bamboo was traditionally used for all ski poles, especially Nordic and cross-country poles."
Grass Sticks have been recognized among Outside's "Most Exciting Ski Gear" for the 2017-18 ski season, as Skiing and Ski magazines also heartily approved. Those accolades have helped catalyze sales growth between 35 percent and 40 percent a year.
The company is chiefly pursuing a direct-to-consumer model. "Our price is $89," Beckler says. "We do have some wholesale shops, but most of our customers order through our website." The direct model allows for customization; customers can select their length, basket, and grip color. Notes Beckler: "You've got a combination of thousands of options."
While it can be difficult for brick-and-mortar stores to offer the full complement of ski poles, Beckler says the company is selling to some shops in Steamboat Springs and elsewhere in the U.S. "We have shops that want us and we do not say no to them," he says.
After the success with ski poles, Beckler expanded into bamboo paddles for stand-up paddleboards (SUPs). "We wanted to get into that," he says. "We have a winter product with the ski poles. And when we started, I had it in the back of my head that when we had the resources to move on to a summer product, the paddleboard would be it."
And there's a reason for that: "It's one of the fastest growing outdoor sports at the moment," Beckler asserts. "We launched that last summer , and it turned out great. I'm excited to get canoe paddles launched for this summer  now."
While there are a few other companies in the U.S. making bamboo ski poles, there aren't any others making bamboo paddles for SUPs, so Grass Sticks will market them a bit differently. For instance, the company will attend the Paddlesports Retailer trade show to help grow the product's presence. "We are going to try to push some retail there," says Beckler. "It's half the price of the Outdoor Retailer show and it's just paddle-centric."
Challenges: "Financing," says Beckler. "Right now, we're not making any big jumps in our company. We're taking the small-growth approach. Managing cash flow is a bit of a challenge. If we're only growing 10 percent, it would be a little easier to stock up for the next year. But I have to be ready to grow 40 percent for next year. It's a lot of investment all at once and we're not making sales until six months from now."
Opportunities: "Working on new products and getting more into the paddleboard industry," Beckler says. "The skiing industry is not a growing one . . . but the paddleboarding industry is."
Needs: More room, says Beckler. "Space will become our biggest need," he says. "I see us lasting another year in my garage, but we'll probably have to upgrade to a bigger more commercial workspace. The nice part is it's pretty seasonal right now."
He'd also like to find a use for Grass Sticks' excess wood. "We do have a of waste," he says. "We buy a lot of bamboo and can't use it all."