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Cottage Industry Gear Makers: Is it the Gear or the Relationship that Matters?

Gossamer Gear Cottage - Actually a Ranch
Gossamer Gear Cottage – Actually a Ranch Style House

I’ve been buying backpacking gear from smaller manufacturers for nearly 10 years and except for a handful of lemons (from manufacturers that don’t exist anymore), I’ve been well-satisfied with the products I’ve purchased and the extraordinary customer service I’ve received.

Let me give you a few examples:

While I don’t have a lot of this gear anymore – because I’ve used it to death or sold it, I still feel like I have a special relationship with these manufacturers, their owners and the people who work at them. They’re always quick to answer my questions or return my phone calls and not just because I’m some blogger who they feel like they have to appease. I feel like we share a common passion for hiking and backpacking and can connect through it.

I honestly don’t feel the same way about the larger manufacturers whose gear I prefer using such as Outdoor Research, Helly Hansen, Montbell, Black Diamond or SOTO. They are big and faceless companies that seem quite distant to me. I don’t know their product designers or anyone who works there and my only interface to them is through their PR firms.

Maybe I’m just sentimental, but knowing whom I’m dealing with and having an ongoing relationship with them, like the ones I have with the cottage gear makers, is just as important as the gear that I buy from them. I know I’m not alone in this regard, but I’m curious how you feel about it.

In the long term, is it the gear or the relationship with these Cottage Manufacturers what keeps you doing business with them?

What do you think?

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  1. I think there is a blend there. It has not been my experience that if one of the cottage type makers are out of stock on an item I want, that they will find any pleasure it cranking out a piece of gear I want. The hand full of times I have run into this the reply has been “we expect to have another batch done by ???? So check back” and, if I asked to pay in advance and have one shipped when they are ready, in essence, reserving a first production, the answer has always been “we don’t take advance orders”. So it’s hit or miss and, if its something I really want or need, I’ll turn to another company….cottage or commercial. I hate buying made in [insert country name here] but I will if I have to, so long as I feel I’m getting quality gear. So I don’t see a “bend over backwards for our fellow hikers/campers” attitude…..I see a small cottage business attitude and I prefer them but don’t wait for them.

  2. Well, generally, I much prefer cottage gear manufacturors. It is certainly the relationship that brings me back, but the gear is usually good, too.

    There are basically two types of gear, true cottage made gear and manufactured. Cottage gear is exactly that. It is made by the person selling it to you. It is NOT subcontracted, or “farmed out” to a larger company to be delivered in batches. Small companies are a different matter, they cannot afford to keep large inventories, and, get more orders than they can keep make themselves or in their home. ULA was a prime example of an older cottage shop switching over to a small company. There is les profit involved, but, usually, much higher volume.

    The transition an be painfull. Or it may work out well. Gossamer Gear is another that made that transition from the old GVP Gear to Gossamer Gear 10-15 years ago. Getting caught up in a small company is NOT the same as dealing with a true cottage industry company.

    As far as getting first runs, well, I have done this. GG was kind enough to offer me one of their new designs many years ago. I waited and got it. It worked out well. You can still deal with a small company, but, true customization is only available at a cottage shop.

    Some things may be better if manufactured: LED lights, batteries, rope, stoves, etc. These are generally more complicated to manufacture…few of us have injection moulding facilities in our homes. Or silicon manufacturing facilities for that matter. Other things, like packs, tarps and other “sewn” goods are easy enough to manufacture in the home…as good or better than what is commercially made.

    I believe that we have the wrong idea of what a cottage manufacturer is. He is an at home worker that makes things, often according to your specs. They are ALWAYS interested in expanding, because, typically, a seamster never gets paid that well. For example: Gossamer Gear is no longer a cottage company, nor is ULA. Even Jo at Z-Packs is getting away from cusomization because I do not believe he can handle the volume, himself. But, many of these companies often get “labeled” as cottage industries. That lable has good and bad conotations for all. Good for the consumer, generally. Not good for a retailer that wants 100 of an item next week.

    • I’m not sure I agree with your definition of cottage, but I see what you’re getting at. I’d go a bit broader like a small (Under $5 million) owner-run business that sells directly to their customers. Of course – that could be called a small business too!

      I think the thing that distinguished these companies for me is my loyalty to them and their employees. I don’t feel that for larger companies who come and go on my gear list, unlike the cottage gear makers which have a near permanent place on my gear lists.

      • As simplistic as this might sound – I would define a ‘cottage’ industry, as something running out of a cottage – or more likely, the shed out the back of the house.

        If you email them, and the owner/person making the product you are purchasing replies – that is cottage.

        If they have designed a product, but get it made off site, they are a design and marketing company. Small Business, if you like.

        For example (not cottage – but ‘small’ business) – http://thebloke.co.nz/gear-reviews/clothing/wk-trade-supertrousers/ – these guys would have been cottage at the start – but are a now established factory.

        Cottage – http://www.svord.com/ – right on the edge of the definition (Bryan has a couple of workers, and puts out a lot of product) – but it is literally a shed on his property – and if you ring, go down, or email them, he will be the guy you talk to, and he will happily take time out to talk for hours about everything knives.

        I certainly try to support local (NZ) businesses – however, there is a line between trying to support local, and getting a worse/slower/more expense product because of it.
        It’s a blury line – but ultimately – yes, I prefer to support the actual people I get to talk to.

  3. I tend to support the cottage companies simply because that is how and where innovation happens in outdoor gear. Partially I have a “buy America” bias (which is not bad, being a US citizen), but really if you look at the kinds of gear – you find the largest real variety with the cottage manufacturers. (This is in the aggregate – often they may only make one kind of thing such as quilts or shelters). I’m sure without the competition Kelty would still be happily making 3/4 length external frame packs that weighed 10 lbs.

    It can be frustrating – you need to know what you want in enough time to order in advance. On the other hand the quality is generally high (I’ve had one sylon tarp that leaked spray in the rain), the weight and complexity low, and the costs reasonable – often less expensive than mainstream gear.

    I’ve taken to finding the closest approximations in mainstream gear when teaching scout leaders, simply because of the volume of business that could swamp the cottages. I’ll show off and demonstrate the cottage industry gear, but also show what you can find at REI.

  4. Much of the gear I own has come from reading about it in blogs like this. I’m partial to small home based businesses because I’ve had one for decades. I know the struggles, the efforts to improve on an idea, and the intent to please the customer that is generally there. My philosophy is that if I strive my hardest to do work of the highest quality and show personal interest in my customers, the profit will take care of itself (as long as I practice reasonable business habits). I try to deliver more than expected and my experience with the cottage manufacturers has been that most have the same thinking.

    If I have a choice between a cottage manufacturer and a big corporate one, I’ll go with the personalized attention of the smaller guy if I can. For example, Tarptent and RailRiders have sent me free replacements for things that were broken or lost through my own fault. I was willing to pay for them but they wouldn’t let me. As a result, they both have customers for life and I’ve recommended them to others because I know they will do what is in their power to take care of people. I realize my small amount of purchases won’t make or break them, but they’ve shown me what kind of people they are and hopefully plenty of others will feel the same way for the same reasons. Keeping a business at a manageable size and giving personal attention probably isn’t good for empire building but those that want to do that have different priorities anyway.

    So far, I haven’t broken or lost any of my Gossamer Gear stuff, however, the next time I’m in Austin, I plan to drop in on the “cottage”.

  5. All the customer service in the world won’t count for much if the product quality is lacking. They go hand-in-hand. Last year I was disappointed by a cottage gear one-man-band who I won’t name here. Initially all seemed great – fast email turnaround on customization options, personal interaction over twitter. But the ship date slipped from “5-6 weeks” to 18 weeks. To add insult to injury, when the product arrived it used a mix of different cuben batches (different colors and deniers) and came in almost 20% over specified weight. I sold it on quickly.

    I appreciate the individualized attention I’ve received from some cottage manufacturers, and I am pleasantly surprised when I receive similar from larger companies. My examples below include both.

    It’s quite something when you call a phone number and wind up speaking to the owner or founder (Ron at MLD, Petra at Hilleberg and Gary at Western Mountaineering). Or when you send an email enquiry over the weekend and receive a reply the same day (Henry at TarpTent – although seriously, take some time off!). They set the bar high.

    It’s a balance, especially for make-to-order items. Too much customer interaction can delay the manufacturing process; not enough can leave the customer in the dark about where they are in the queue. Managing expectations up front, and then sticking to them – that’s what turns me into a repeat customer.

  6. RailRiders makes the best outdoor clothing I’ve ever owned. I have no fewer than a dozen pieces of their clothing including Extreme Adventure Pants, Jamin Shorts, Expedition Shirts, and Winter Weather Pants. RR products are fantastic.

  7. The only problem I have with my RailRiders clothing is my 16 year old grandson keeps getting in my closet and “borrowing” them. I’m going to have to get him some of his own… or put a lock on the closet!

  8. It is tough to deal with a factory in China or Viet Nam. Many of the big names today started as cottage industries. REI, GPIW, Powderhorn Mountaineering to name a few. I am pretty well equipped, I started gearing up in the early seventies. Something has to be extremely innovative and high quality to get my business. That is why I patronize MiniBull Designs. . If you order something you may just be able to watch it being made on his (daily) youtube videos. I buy his gear because it is the lightest, highest quality gear, (stoves) on the market.

  9. If I could buy everything from these cottage builders I would……I buy the bulk of all of my climbing / skiing / hiking / fishing gear etc from USA small built shops to not only support that specific industry’s grass roots, but because I am treated with a level of respect and understanding that is missing from most big name companies.

    When I order a specific product it is very helpful to have a one on one conversation about the demands of the product, fabrics, colors, materials etc. In a disposable world these companies provide longevity to the products I purchase.

    In the end it all comes down to the materials and the ability for me to be the best I can be with the products I buy. If that happens….the relationship is already there.

  10. I’m a hammock camper and the cottage vendors who make hammocks, quilts, tarps and hardware specific to hammockers are a necessity to my style of hiking. Created out of necessity (since no one else was doing it) they’ve probably made hiking and camping more accessible to those who have back problems or can’t sleep on ground with any degree of comfort.

    In my mind there are three levels: DIY gear makers who sell to those interested – who have a unique/well designed product and who have found a following because hikers want what they make but they either don’t have the skills to make it themselves or they suffer from IGS (instant gratification syndrom). This group may or may not last as viable businesses. 2) Cottage vendors – who are ex DYIers who have built a word-of-mouth-following and begun a successful business and now have a web site for their business, but who now can’t go hiking because they have too many orders to fill but still can’t afford any staff who are not related to them or owe them favours. 3) Gear Manufactures – cottage vendors whose brand has been picked up by major manufactures, is probably produced off shore and have lost control of the quality of their products. But they’re in recognized stores and supply can now meet demand.

    Through necessity, I’ve gotten to know and utilize many cottage vendors. All of them are willing to talk and have enough flexibility to make changes to their products just for you, and that’s the real benefit. Yes, I could research and source the water resistant fabric for the outside of my custom under quilt to keep it dry in windy and wet weather, and then sew it myself. But if my cottage vendor will make me one, swapping out one fabric for another to my specs, and only charge a modest fee to do it, it’s much better for me.

    You pay your money and you take your changes but with the internet, reviews or complaints are easy to find. My experience is cottage vendors are always willing to listen to a complaint and make it right. They’re reputation is everything.

  11. Think the difference is the innovation and a small niche market. The big manufacturers sell more of one popular item than all of the ultralight market total. It is a rather nerdy, offbeat industry populated by iconoclasts who see things differently.

    I imagine most small innovators don’t want to play with the megacorps. They are mostly outdoor folk at the core and not suit wearin’ Wall Streeters. I’ll bet you can’t find a pair of shiny shoes in the closet of any ultralight gear manufacturing CEO.

    And there is the mom and pop appeal, which goes right along with people who like to get out and wander around the backcountry. They share values and speak the same language.

  12. As a small cottage gear maker I can say without a doubt that customer service has to be tip top. Seems that one disgruntled customer can ruin a years worth of hard work. Keep the customer happy and you will be successful as a small cottage business.

    Bill @ White Box Alcohol Stoves

  13. I agree with Bill. I’m still working out of the basement of my “cottage” and answer all emails myself. It’s a pleasure to know that people are using my gear all over the world. I’d prefer to stay small and personal, and so far that has worked out well.

    Rob @ QiWiz.net

    • It’s also fair to say, that these days, there really isn’t excuse not to have good communication and service – the internet and technology allows much of the ordering/update side of things to be automated – so it amazes me that people aren’t, for example, to take pre-orders… I would love to have a list of 20 people who want a particular item, before I have to start making them!

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