Readers, I always try to bring forth information about the outdoor industry that most of us just don’t get insight on regularly. Today I have an enormous treat for you. The following is a Q&A session with Paul McWalters, owner of UGQ Outdoor Equipment, maker of lightweight down filled backpacking quilts.
When I asked Paul if he would answer some of my questions centered around the “cottage” industry, his products, and what it’s like to start your own outdoor gear company, he graciously acquiesced. In the following lines you will find out about ultralight backpacking technology, cottage manufacturer insight, and a plethora of topics that I’ve just been dying to pick Paul’s brain on.
If you’ve ever been interested in making your own gear (MYOG), running a small backpacking gear company, or what it’s like on the other side of the “order” button when you purchase gear, this Q&A will certainly prove insightful.
Not every day I get to find out what it’s like to start a gear manufacturing company!
Q: (me) When did you know you wanted to start your own gear company and how did you decide on what products you would offer?
A: (Paul) I didn’t plan on starting UGQ at first, making my own gear was out of necessity due to lack of funds available for purchasing from the already established companies and the limited number of companies offering the gear I needed. My job at the time had seen some pretty major income reductions resulting in no “play fund” so I would DIY what I needed. Ordered some fabric and down, borrowed a sewing machine, which I proceeded to break in five minutes, and got busy.
Next thing you know friends were asking me to make quilts or tarps for them, so they’d buy double the materials on their dime which gave me extra materials to continue making revised gear for myself. Pretty soon I had email inquiries and decided a small website would get the ball rolling, giving me some extra funds to enjoy some backpacking trips and gear purchases…. Boy, I wasn’t ready for what happened next, 25+ orders my first month, apparently there is a demand for this stuff. It hasn’t slowed down any since and we keep growing month after month, year after year.
Products offered again were a result of what I personally needed at the time and my preference for down gear. I could have gone the synthetic route but after 2 decades backpacking with down I knew what to expect from the products in terms of benefits and risk.
Q: What process did you use in determining the pricing of your products and sourcing the suppliers of your materials?
A: Lets talk about sourcing first as that is the biggest hurdle. Finding a reliable and stable supply chain is quite the process and we still run into supplier delays these days. But working with the same suppliers helps build relationships. They get to know your business and can help out with improved material offerings. By having a stable relationship you can secure better prices and service. We work with some of the biggest material suppliers in the world, knowing the BIG BOYS also using them instills a confidence in our materials and our end products. It not just about the lowest price available, it also about the quality and assurance of that quality that is important in finding suppliers. All our major materials are tested to make sure we are receiving the best we can.
To make a competitive product you need to secure wholesale pricing which mean buying materials in large amounts. Back when I started it wasn’t the easiest thing to do as cash flow was not there. I’d buy in bulk for fabrics but in small lots of 25-50 yards or so and I’d buy down 8-10# at a time. While both of those helped with pricing buying in much larger amounts secures much better pricing. We now have a commitment contract with our down supplier for a certain poundage annually. This provides for a locked in price to avoid market fluctuations. We order fabric direct from the mill in the 1000’s of meter per order which again provides for much better pricing.
All of these savings are passed to our customers, we have a material cost for each of our products and a labor cost that is used to determine pricing.
Q: How many iterations of your current Flight Jacket Top Quilt have you created since the very first “draft”?
A: Not as many as one may think, the Flight Jacket is a great top quilt and will always have a place in our product line. The general construction has not changed much and is pretty much industry standard for a top quilt. We have made many little improvements over time that get integrated into the Flight Jacket without much hoopla. We did have one major revision to the entire construction of the quilt roughly 18 months ago and that is the product we currently ship today.
The fun part of our business is new product development, for the past 8 months we have been working on a new radically designed TQ. The RENEGADE will be release Jan 1, 2015 for purchase and is a completely different approach to top quilt design and construction. Featuring a more thermally efficient chamber design and a contoured shape overall the RENEGADE is built to provide maximum performance and comfort. No other quilt on the market that we are aware of combines the construction methods employed on the RENEGADE making it the most advanced quilt soon to be available.
Q: What are the greatest design improvements you’ve made to the Flight Jacket Top Quilts since your first draft and how do you believe they benefit the users of your products?
A: Our major redesign 18 months ago was a pretty big change. Up until then we had pretty much the same quilt as everyone else. They all had a few issues with down shifting and movement from chamber to chamber. The construction was known as open baffle meaning the ends of each chamber were open to the ends of the neighboring chamber. Marketed as letting you move down where you need it sure sounded good but I never have moved down from one chamber to another in a quilt or sleeping bag in over 20 years on the trails.
So we first redesigned the construction of the chamber to close them off, isolate them, keeping the right amount of down in each chamber. Then we narrowed the chambers from the industry standard of 5-8” to 4” maximum field chamber size. Both of these changes resulted in a much tighter and consistent down density which in the end keeps the user warmer.
We also switched to a 15d fabric at roughly the same time, a true garment-class fabric intended for down filled gear. After reviewing literally hundreds of samples we went with the 15 denier for its weight to performance ratio. It weighs .92oz per SY (square yard), independently tested to 850+ fill power down and has a DWR, durable water repellant, finish. At the time it was the best fabric available for our quilts. Just recently we have added a 10 denier .66 oz per SY fabric for the inner shells of our quilt. This provides for even more weight saving [versus] the 15 denier. We’ve opted to continue using the 15d for our outer shells for durability and it’s excellent DWR finish [which helps] keep both you and your down dry.
The inclusion of DWR treated downs has also been a major change. We were one of the first US based companies to start offering products filled with DWR treated downs. Our current offering that is standard in all our quilt is called HyperDRY and is about as close to water proof as it gets. Independent lab testing shows it outperforms virtually every synthetic fiber available today in terms of water repellency. This finish is applied at the nano level and designed to last for the life of the product. It also has been verified safe for the consumer and the environment which is of great importance to us and our customers.
Q: What advice would you give to DIY hikers who are looking to create the lightest and most individually tailored gear for their packs?
A: Understanding there are limits and understanding those limits is the key to making a durable and lightweight piece of gear whether it’s a quilt, tarp, or backpack. For example we now have access to 5d fabric. “D” stands for denier, the diameter of the thread used to weave the fabric. A 5d fabric is extremely light, .54oz SY, but can it survive the harsh environment of our packs as well as a 15d fabric? So when making one’s own personal gear the choice of hyper-light will result in the loss of some durability and only you can make that decision.
On a weekender or even a weeklong trip a piece of gear failing may be frustrating but will not trash the trip. On a thru hike it could certainly be a huge problem if you tear a tarp or lose half the down out of a quilt due to a poor fabric selection. So, weigh your choices carefully and choose wisely.
Q: Does UGQ ever plan to create synthetic fill quilts?
A: With the advances in DWR down and the more affordable duck downs on the market we do not see UGQ venturing into the synthetic fiber market in the near future. When, and I say when, there is a man-made fiber that equals all the properties of high fill-power downs we will certainly be the first in line. It will happen but it is hard to beat the quality of down that Mother Nature has provided us with.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge of operating a small business in the outdoor gear retail world?
A: Balancing work and personal life will always be a challenge for me. I take my commitment to [my] customers seriously; they have made a contract with us. They have provided funds and we have agreed to provide them (our customers) with a quality piece of gear made to their specifications. Sometimes I let this driving commitment occupy my life 24/7 and we all need proper balance in our lives. I’m committed to finding better balance as we grow, having staff takes some of the pressure off and I need to RELAX!!!! We are only human and we need family, friends and time off just like everyone else. Being a small business owner, burnout is always just around the corner, so care must be taken to take care of oneself as well as the customers.
Q: What advice would you offer to someone interested in starting their own backpacking gear company?
A: Be sure it is done from the heart in the pursuit of your dreams. Be sure to set reasonable expectations of yourself and be sure your commitment to others are reachable. We hate to say “no” to any request but if we can’t provide the requested service we will shoot straight and get it out front.
Be sure to be adding something of value that is missing in the market. For us it was the high quality and attention to customer service, we saw both lacking from most vendors at the time when UGQ was started. Funny, it seems to have turned around as customers are now expecting the same level of quality and service that we deliver from all vendors.
Q: Have you found help, advice, and acceptance from other cottage manufacturers or has it been more tense and competitive in this rather niche market?
A: We’ve had the chance to meet many of the other vendors and I think for the most part everyone is pretty respectful of others. I’ve had many a conversation with some of them regarding work and life, pitfalls to avoid, things that do work and things that don’t. The Jacks at Jacks Are Better have lent their 12+ years of wisdom in business to us and I am grateful to them for their sharing of this knowledge.
When I started we were the small fish in the pond, folks were pretty welcoming but in the end we are all in business in similar markets and as you grow you start to represent more of a threat. We’ve bumped heads with some other vendors recently on issues. I always try to resolve them with both respect and honesty as I believe that is the best approach. Sometimes there will be no resolution but at least you remained respectful and can sleep at night on a clean conscience.
Q: What piece(s) of gear is on the Christmas list for the man who makes his own gear?
A: Oh Boy!!! I recently have gotten into moto camping and the new bike is in need of some pannier boxes to haul the gear. I have big dreams of cruising the world on my bike at some point in life but I need to work on this whole relaxing thing a bit more. Apart from that I’m pretty content with belongings, in my youth it was must have have have… now with the wisdom of age it comes down to how you use what you have and not what you have. Friends are also more important than any material item, memories are created with friends and family hold them tight cause in the end those memories are all you will have left in life.
Q: Where do you think the biggest growth is in the outdoor gear industry? What growth trends would you expect to see in the next ten years across the industry?
A: I think we will see more sustainable materials and supply chains, you are already seeing it from major companies. TNF and our down supplier launched a Responsible Down Standard that is being adopted by many outdoor manufacturers. It’s a program that tracks the down used in down filled products from hatchling to the end consumer product. There will be a number on the down filled gear and a website where you can track the down. All certified by a third party to the ethical treatment of the animals. That’s pretty cool thinking and I think we will see more of that in the future.
Advancements in down are still coming, there are lots of new products coming to market, thermal downs, biotech downs, blended downs and more. These will only make gear lighter and warmer. We see test reports on our HyperDRY 850+ well above 900FP on a regular basis and this is a direct result of the HyperDRY treatment. Maybe someday we will see a standard fill power in the 1000+ range, it wasn’t long ago that 650+ was considered King of the Hill….
Regardless of what the future brings I’m sure I’ll be carrying that pack for many years to come into the mountains, reconnecting with nature, old friends, and my inner being….
I know Paul personally and own products directly from UGQ. This is not only a company I would recommend without reservation to any reader, its also a company and a product which I often recommend by word of mouth. I make the recommendations (and write this article) without any kind of compensation from Paul or UGQ. I make recommendations because I value the service and product.
Why? Because Paul (and UGQ) are friendly, cooperative, helpful, and insightful. They create top of the line lightweight products with cutting edge technology and Paul is always happy to make a piece of gear exactly to my specifications.
I hope you’ve gained some insight into what it’s like to create a lightweight backpacking gear manufacturing company. I hope that Paul will continue to let me pick his brain about the industry as I am always hungry to learn as I’m sure you readers are as well.
Please, drop us a line in the comments if you have any questions for Paul. If you’ve got burning questions you’d like answered by insightful industry leaders leave us a comment or send me an email and I’ll get that question answered!
Thanks, Paul and UGQ Outdoor Equipment!