Posted by Thomas J. Ryan | Aug 1, 2022 | FeatureSGB Executive

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Founded in 2013, Outdoor Business Alliance (OBA) cultivates, connects and supports the outdoor community in Western North Carolina, becoming one of the first organized alliances of outdoor gear brands in the United States.

SGB Executive talked with Matt Godfrey, the nonprofit’s new executive Director, about forming the organization, its mission and plans for future growth.

How did OBA get started? In the early 2000s, Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) hosted the whitewater national championship kayaking event in Bryson City, NC. At that time, SylvanSport was interested in hosting a spring demo highlighting its camping trailer, the GO. The idea was to create an event similar to Outdoor Retailer Demo Days that would appeal to a broader media flying into Asheville, NC for the NOC event. To expand the appeal, SylvanSport’s Tom Dempsey and Kyle Mundt spoke with better-known brands in the area, including ENO, Watershed and others.

Mundt told me, “While the demo day we envisioned did not come to fruition, the idea for an organized coalition of outdoor gear manufacturers was born. We began looking at how outdoor gear companies based in Western North Carolina were surprised to learn many were headquartered in NC. There was a collective ‘ah-ha’ moment with the realization that, by coming together, we could harness the collective power of marketing, manufacturing, sourcing, and exchanging knowledge to support each other and the growth of our companies.”

Working with Amy Allison and Natalie DeRatt, both with ENO, the founding OBA members formed an outreach plan to connect with other outdoor brands in the Mountain region of Western North Carolina. The idea gained momentum. 

Because the founders had day jobs, Matt Raker and Noah Wilson, with Advantage West and now with Mountain Bizworks, were brought on to grow the association.

Amy Allison told me, “When we first started the OBA, it was hard to find organized alliances of outdoor gear brands working the way we were in WNC. Over the past several years, more organizations have formed in other U.S. outdoor hubs. Great conversations are happening between these groups. We all recognize the power of collaboration and know that we are stronger as an industry when we share a unified voice.”

In 2020, OBA enlarged its mission recognizing the benefit of collaboration and support for each other and should not be limited to OBAs only, so we shifted the focus on membership to include all business segments within our collective outdoor industry ecosystem. 

Our members now include gear builders, experience providers, skills instructors, outfitters, retail shops, supporting businesses, and nonprofits. Since the update in 2000, we’ve added 30 new member companies bringing the total close to 80 brands across the state. Our goal is to hit 150 member companies by mid-2024, which we think is achievable.

What attracted you to the job? My roots run deep in the area, and I studied business and outdoor recreation management for my undergraduate degree from Appalachian State University. At the same time, I had a deep love for the outdoors and the Appalachian mountains, so combining my passion for business, which intersects with outdoor recreation, was a no-brainer.

I settled in Asheville, NC the later part of 1998 and spent time in the corporate world building a diverse skill set, experiencing the pros and cons of working for a global company where I’m a very small drop in a large bucket. It wasn’t long before I realized I needed to pull out the map and compass to chart a course back to my community and to a career where I could see and feel the impact.

I earned a graduate degree in business from Western Carolina University and made a giant leap to an electric adventure vehicle startup, Outrider USA. It was a bit of a shock transitioning from a company with over 70,000 employees to being the first employee in a small startup; however, it was probably the greatest professional development experience of my life, and it also introduced me to the OBA as they were early members. I soon became a member of OBA’s steering committee.

I then had an opportunity to take on the executive director role at another Western North Carolina-based outdoor company, Alpine Towers International (ATI), and one of my first tasks was enrolling ATI as an OBA member.

At this point, I had a passion for helping outdoor businesses succeed and turned that passion into an opportunity to give back as a business course facilitator and coach for outdoor brands. I began leading business foundations courses at Mountain Bizworks, a regional Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and long-time OBA partner/supporter. During this time, the OBA officially formed as a 501 C (6) nonprofit, and I served on the founding board’s executive committee.

In late 2018, Matt Raker and Noah Wilson approached me to form what became Waypoint Accelerator, the first outdoor business accelerator program in the Eastern U.S.

In 2020, I stepped into the board chair role for the OBA in the last year of my long term on the board. I worked as a business counselor with the NC Small Business & Technology Development Center (SBTDC). They supported me in carving out a specialty role focused on working with outdoor businesses in WNC while leading the Waypoint Accelerator.

Finally, to come full circle, the interim director for the OBA took a job in another market, and members of the board and advisory council approached me to step in as executive director. 

What is the Waypoint Accelerator? The concept for this type of business accelerator program, focusing specifically on outdoor-focused businesses, was born out of the Growing Outdoors Partnership of WNC (soon to be called the MadexMnts Partnership) and a POWER grant award from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Designed for early-stage, outdoor-focused companies, Waypoint combines an intensive startup curriculum with tailored mentorship from more than 50 seasoned advisors, drawing on the region’s outdoor industry network. Waypoint, housed at Mountain Bizworks, also features access-to-capital connections but, unlike other accelerator programs, does not require participants to give up equity or take investment to participate.

To date, we’ve graduated three Waypoint cohorts and close to 30 outdoor brands. The programming includes 12 curriculum-based sessions over five months tailored to each firm’s stage of development. 

What have you learned working with entrepreneurs in the outdoor space? Most business challenges are no different than what entrepreneurs encounter in other business segments; however, the sense of community and collaboration are much stronger than what I’ve experienced working in other business segments. We share a love of the outdoors but work hard and do not take ourselves too seriously. The willingness of our outdoor business community and the support of the entrepreneur ecosystem in WNC is our true competitive advantage.

How does OBA help its members? The OBA’s primary value proposition is providing a platform where we come together to network, share best practices, challenges, resources, ideas, and, most importantly, build relationships. That’s where the true magic happens, and collaborative opportunities are realized. We do this through monthly member “socials” where some business is covered, but mostly an opportunity to spend time together and create opportunities for deeper connections.

Accordingly, several programming opportunities are offered, from monthly lunch & learns, with topics suggested by membership, to casual outdoor activity “meet-ups” coordinated by one of our committees. We partner with several organizations to promote the member brands locally and abroad. Our annual Get In Gear Festival is one of the biggest events we organize, held along the French Broad River in Asheville, usually the first weekend of May. The public is invited to the venue where OBA member companies display their products or services and provide gear demos, sales or outdoor experiences. Every year, we hear people say, “I had no idea this company was based in Western North Carolina.”

What makes Western North Carolina a great place to launch, relocate or grow an outdoor venture? Western North Carolina is within a one-day drive of 50 percent of the United States population—over 178 million people. The outdoor industry in Western North Carolina (WNC) is thriving and growing. Given the number of quality recreational opportunities in our backyard, the high concentration of outdoor retailers, gear manufacturers and experience providers, there is no doubt that WNC is the outdoor industry hub of the East.

Tom Dempsey, founder and chief innovation officer at Sylvan Sport, summed it up, “We’re so fortunate to be so proximate to the outdoors here. There’s almost not a weekday lunchtime or a weekend that a group of folks here aren’t out doing something. We’re not even a half-mile from the entrance to Pisgah National Forest and all the trails there. We’re on the bike path that leads between Pisgah and downtown Brevard, where you can enter the Bracken Mountain Preserve. Enjoying these places right outside our door is part of our company DNA. That proximity is another thing that makes Western North Carolina so special. So unique. We have the industrial base of a place like Ohio and the outdoor recreational base of a place like Colorado. Most places in this country that have a rich outdoor attribute don’t have the proximity to manufacturing. It’s very difficult to manufacture outdoor gear in the heart of the places you want to use it.”

What are your priorities as you take over as Executive Director? To prepare for membership growth, we are updating operational platforms and workflows to handle the administrative needs better and enhance the overall member experience. One thing we do not want to lose sight of is the value we bring to members, staying in touch, listening, and being flexible to their changing needs. We don’t want to grow for growth’s sake but to stay grounded and provide the resources, programming and access to each other in the same spirit the OBA was founded.

We will be going through a rebranding exercise that was thrown off schedule due to the pandemic as we continue to engage with our retailers, experiential, outfitter, nonprofit partners, and prospective members. We’ve added outdoor retailers, outfitters, experiential and nonprofit companies as members since the update, but being able to more clearly articulate that story to engage the others will be key to the continued success of the organization and the support of our members and outdoor business ecosystem.

We are excited about what is ahead. The current board of directors is 12 members strong with diverse outdoor industry backgrounds and experience. They are engaged and passionate about what we bring to each other and the collective membership. Anna Rawlins, marketing director for ENO, is the current OBA Board Chair. Having such a motivated board and extended committees throughout the organization is something any director would dream of. I look forward to working with everyone to leverage our strengths and continue serving our industry members and partners.

Photos courtesy OBA