Start-Ups 2010: Turning a Passion for the Slopes Into a Business
Co-Founders: Dan Abrams, 33; and Greg Steen, 32
Employees: Six full time; about six part time, plus three owner-operators
Funding: $38,000, borrowed on credit cards
2009 Revenue: $375,000
Start-Up Year: 2004
Breakeven: Winter 2004–05
Insider Insight: Sell to yourself. Abrams was at the heart of the changing ski scene, so he understood the trendsetters to whom he would be selling.
Blind Spot: At first, it was hard to get manufacturers to fill small and out-of-the-ordinary orders. He learned to sell them on his company's future: "I'd say, 'FlyLow is going to be the next North Face.' "
The first few rips didn't bother Dan Abrams. In fact, the flaws in his backcountry skiwear could feel downright rewarding: the sound of a crotch seam tearing while taking that final step atop an 11,000-foot peak; the worn out Cordura knees that proved how hard he was lunging back down the mountain. After all, beat-up gear is a badge of honor for so-called soul skiers like Abrams, athletes who venture into the backcountry to hike up and ski down unpatrolled, ungroomed powder.
"My friends and I were living in Jackson, Wyoming, after college, and we spent so much time in the backcountry that we were literally tearing apart our pants and jackets every few weeks or months," says the 33-year-old. "Fortunately, the manufacturers who made that stuff were good about honoring their warranties, so we could always send our gear in for repair or replacements." But if no one was making stuff that he was totally happy with, Abrams wondered, "why not just make it myself?"
That was in 2001, the same year that Abrams ripped something else: the meniscus cartilage in his knee. The injury turned out to be a blessing. Laid up after surgery, Abrams, then in his mid-20s, made two life-changing decisions. First, he enrolled in business school at the University of Denver. Second, he decided to bolster his education by starting his own line of backcountry ski apparel, with the partnership of soul-skier pal Greg Steen.
Naming the business was easy. "A friend once told us, 'You guys don't ski fast; you fly low.' " Done. Abrams, who had been bartending by night to pay rent at his mother's house while in grad school, sank a few grand from his tip jar into an order of FlyLow T-shirts in the winter of 2003–04. "We sold -- and gave away -- shirts and stickers in ski-area parking lots all over Colorado," says Abrams. "It was an easy way to test our logo and brand and get our name circulating throughout the skiing community."
As luck would have it, that community was entering a long-awaited growth spurt. Thanks to the advent of wide skis and alpine touring gear (bindings and boots that allow you to cross-country ski to the top of a mountain and then ski down), more skiers were hitting the backcountry. Resorts were letting skiers ski out of bounds at their own peril. Suddenly, the ski industry, which had been in decline, was on its way to the $4.5 billion mark.
In the winter of 2004–05, using several credit cards, Abrams spent $38,000 on his first real order, from New Zealand and China: 1,000 jackets and 200 pairs of pants, all stitched and layered (sometimes triple-layered) for durability. He also equipped the pants with side zippers for ventilation, so skiers could stay cool when slogging up slopes for hours at a time. "Backcountry skiers are very particular about gear," says Abrams. "And people appreciated that we were a small company making improvements so they could enjoy the sport even more."
FlyLow sold its entire first production run. Debt settled, Abrams pulled out his credit cards again, applied for a few others, and put in another order. The result was $180,000 in sales. Revenue climbed to $280,000 in 2007–08, $375,000 in 2008–09, and $500,000 in 2009–10. FlyLow now offers a full line of pants, jackets, and gloves that are available in 125 retail stores, and expects to break $1 million in revenue by the end of the 2010–11 season -- not bad for a couple of guys who ski a combined 200 days a year.