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Interview: Enlightened Equipment

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enlightened-equipment-interview

I recently had the opportunity to interview Tim Marshall, owner of Enlightened Equipment, based out of Winona, Minnesota (population 27,000), which has been a rising company within the ultralight outdoor industry for the last few years. The amount of times I have gone “wow” while conversing with Tim is likely more than any other interview I have ever done.

What I thought was a rather small time operation is actually a fairly large scale company.

Why not just move right into the interview and let Tim share some insights into the industry, his company, product development, and all that good stuff.


Hello Tim and thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions.

Before we get started, anything you would like to just throw out there for readers?

I just want to say thank you. I have been doing this a long time now and I am very thankful for the support that we have received from the outdoor community.  I use and love the products we make and I still find myself surprised sometimes as I think about just how many people seem to love them too.

 

First question is from my readers. I asked them to submit any questions they might like me to ask and I got a bunch of people asking to me ask, “What book(s), if any, are you reading right now?”

I am not a reader, by the time my day is done at the shop I have no mental energy left.  At home I get to play with my kids and spend time with my wife.  When the day comes to a close you will often find me blankly staring at some distant TV screen, no chance I could even tell you what I was watching as I can barely stay awake or keep my mind from running back all the events from the day.

Business Talk:

I would like to start things off with a few business related questions.

So share some of the ways that Enlightened Equipment has introduced products and features over the years that have made them stand-out within the industry. And, maybe even some things that others have copied from you. And, what are your thoughts on the movement within the outdoor industry to patent designs and products?

I have never been interested in patents. I make blankets, albeit very thought out highly specialized blankets. The idea of trying to put a patent on a baffle direction, a type of foot box, or a style of straps is silly to me. One of my competitors literally has a patent on tying 2 strings around a sleeping pad, how silly is that?

I believe I protect my designs much better by always working to improve my products and increase their value without increasing their cost. This has kept me ahead of the other guys. You see them all now 3 years later coming out with their “new, super awesome” vertical baffle systems, I’ve been doing that since late 2013. You see them using  the “efficient new” half tapered shape, I started that back in 2010.

This year a number of companies came out with the “ultimate” footbox design, using a short zipper instead of snaps, I started doing that back in 2007 or 2008. This year I even got a full on Chinese Clone of my Revelation Quilt using my exact baffles patterns and almost all of my design features, so what?

People know who makes the best quilts, they know who offers the best service, they know who stands behind their products.  The word is out and people know that they can’t go wrong with us so I just don’t get too worried about trying to patent or protect all my designs, people know what is original and what is just a knock off.

Would like to talk a bit about company growth. I know you have relocated to a larger facility. How many people in the great state of Minnesota does Enlightened Equipment currently employee? (FT&PT)

We have experienced insane growth since or official business launch in Oct 2011, before that I was making products for friends as a hobby {If the IRS is wondering}.

We have seen nearly 100% growth every year which has been amazing, but also challenging.

In 2014 we moved the operation out of my basement and brought all the sewers under one roof instead of working out of their own homes.  That 5,000 square foot building was really the beginning of what Enlightened Equipment is today. I think that maybe there was 6-8 of us when we first moved into that shop.

March of this year we moved into a new facility and are currently occupying about 20,000 square feet with some additional warehouse space.  I believe we had about 55 employees at the time of the move.

We are now filling all of the finished space in the building and looking at reworking the warehouse space to get additional clean production area.

By the end of this year the plan is to have about 100 employees knowing that number will only be increasing as we enter 2017, and over 85% are FTE’s.

wow, just wow! I would never have thought that you would have that many employees.

So on a good day about how many products are coming off the assembly tables?

We are currently making about 70 products each day.  We are increasing our staff to allow us to produce more, especially down quilts, as we are still having a hard time keeping up with demand and are anticipating a strong increase in demand first quarter 2017.

So about what percentage of your quilts are direct customer orders and what percentage of your quilts are going into your online store as ‘in stock’ quilts?

We are rarely able to make any “On the Shelf” products. As we grow we are hoping to be able to maintain a stock of on the shelf products as we feel we aren’t able to supply a lot of people as a result of our long lead times.  I can confidently say that not even 5% of our sales are coming from pre-made goods.

Massdrop. For many, the word itself is both a question and a hesitation. A few within the cottage industry have had really good success using Massdrop, while a few have not had so much. You worked with Massdrop to make a custom made Massdrop/EE quilt and it seems to have sold very well. How has the process of working with Massdrop worked out for you? Both with any potential growth, and the business side of things with Massdrop.

I really like Danny from Massdrop.  Most likely if he ever leaves that will be the end of my relationship with them.  Since I offer him a job at least once a month I have a pretty good idea of where he might go if that were to happen, even though he keeps turning me down.  The only reason you have seen our quilts on Massdrop this year is because Danny asks me so nice I just can’t say no, did I mention I really like that guy? Massdrop has been great to us but we already have a hard time making all the products our customers want which makes it hard to want to do many drops.

Yeah, Danny is a great guy. What he has been doing the last year within the industry has been exceptional.

So with nearly 100 employees, is your family involved in the day to day operations of Enlightened Equipment or is it mostly just yourself?

I do have some family involved now and have had some involved in the past. My wife has in the past helped with shipping and customer service but since moving out of the house she has not been able to join us as she spends her time focused on raising our two young children.

My father-in-law is the Head of Quality control and runs a team of inspectors that check nearly every product we ship. He joined our team this spring and the addition of a devoted quality program has really increased the quality and consistency of our products.

I function as the Head of R&D and the primary product designer as well as the President/CEO leading us overall, hopefully toward success.

By the sound of things, you are succeeding!

So last Christmas season, over on my hikelighter facebook page, I started a rather big commotion about cottage industry companies sending out high dollar orders without offering a “signature required” option to their customers. At that time only two (that I know of) cottage companies offered that, and two companies have since started offering it after the discussion took place. I tend to consider a piece of gear that is a couple hundred bucks something that absolutely falls into the realm of having a “signature required” option to the customer.

As a customer I am absolutely willing to pay and extra 5-10 bucks or so, on a $200+ piece of gear, to make sure it does not get delivered on my porch and than some tweaker stealing it before I get home from work.

I looked to see if Enlightened Equipment offers this and was pleasantly surprised to see “Signature Required USPS Priority (2-3 Day Shipping) $12.00“.

So let me say a huge “thank you!” for offering this option. My curiosity just has to have me asking… about what percentage of orders/customers do you think take advantage of this option?

I believe 100% of our domestic orders are signature required at this time.

We no longer offer the option to ship without signatures.

We have moved to this position this year after having a few issues with USPS delivering to incorrect addresses. Signature confirmation is as much to ensure it goes to the right place as to keep it from disappearing off your steps.

That is wonderful. Again, thank you!

Fabric/Insulation Talk:

You carry what seems like an insane amount of different types (colours) of fabric for customers to choose from. Most everybody else in the industry just goes with one colour and calls it good. You have stood firm on continuing to offer different colours, and in some cases, a few different types of fabrics. For your customers that is an amazing service you offer. But logistically, in house, that has to create a bit of a nightmare. Would love to hear any insight you have in regards to this issue.

If we made large amounts of pre-made products they would obviously be in limited colors. However, since over 95% of our orders are customized by the customer and made to order it really isn’t a big deal to allow options above and beyond what is offered by other vendors.

Besides fabrics we also offer more down options than anyone else I know of, and we removed 5 fill options from our offerings back in September due to low interest. We dropped untreated down due to low interest but still have some in the warehouse if someone really want’s it.

We also dropped 800 as the price of down dropped and we could offer 850 at nearly the same price point.

Once you have the initial supply you only need to restock inventory what is being sold, if it is being sold it is being paid for so no big deal to stock a lot of options once you get past the initial investment.

As a follow-up to that: Are you able to source all of your fabric from the same company, or does the rabbit hole go deep and you end up having to have multiple suppliers that you are buying from?

I currently buy all my quilt fabrics from one source. We are able to work with them to get the fabrics created to our exact specs. I am working with a second supplier to create a .5oz down proof nylon that we can offer as an upgrade option. I tested a few quilts with it this season and it is looking very good.

Hey, no sneak peaks yet… that is my last question :-p

So how many of your suppliers are from within the USA, or does 100% of your fabric purchases take place with non-USA companies?

Sadly there are no suppliers of high quality ultralight nylons in the USA that I am aware of.

The 30D 1.1oz ripstop is the only domestic option that could even be considered.

I have used that fabric in the past and at least one competitor is still using it but in comparison to the fabrics we can import the quality is just abysmal.

Over the last few years you have offered, mostly, 10d and 20d fabrics. How many of your customers, would you guess, that purchase the 20d fabric are doing so specifically for the more durable fabric and not the uhh, unique, colour offerings of the 20d fabric?

Since we offer very similar colored fabrics in 10D and 20D I guess I have assumed that all 20D purchases are made because they want the slight increase in durability and water resistance, but then you can only get Pink and Camo in 20D so maybe I’m wrong.

As a sort of follow-up to all these fabric business questions: I know from talking with a few other quilt makers that over the last two years the amount of fabric rolls they have been getting that have had to basically go into the trash, or get used for scraps, due to not meeting quality control standards, has been sadly, unfortunately, on the high side of the norm. With all the different colours and different weight of fabrics that you use, are you too facing issues with rolls of fabric coming in that end up having the majority, or all of it, mostly unusable for making quilts with?

It’s a bummer to hear the problems others are having with their suppliers. Our supplier has very strict quality protocols in place. We periodically have our fabric independently tested to confirm quality and the results have been great and from lot to lot do not change very much at all.

A few years ago you started offering the ‘Weather Resistant Stripes’, about how many of the quilts that are made include this feature?

A quick look at some numbers tells me that maybe 20-30% of the orders have stripes.

So I remember when you made the switch to the non vertical, non-horizontal, baffles. It was right before I bought a new quilt, so I have not personally been able to try one of the Enlightened Equipment quilts with your shaped baffles.

Overall, I am guessing it has worked out rather well, as you have kept using them. What kind of feedback are you getting from long time animal down quilt users when it comes to the issue of down shifting with your baffle system?

The response since introducing these baffles in the fall of 2013 has been very positive. This baffles system has eliminated the down shifting issues we had with our KARO baffles (when used in top quilts) and that our customers have been forced to deal with for years in traditional horizontal baffled sleeping bags and quilts.

Earlier this year the next generation of synthetic down hit the market and by all accounts it it is looking to be rather impressive. Do you see Enlightened Equipment bringing to market any products with synthetic down in the near future? If not, why not?

You and I have talked about this some and while I am very interested in watching where these new products take the market I am not yet ready to jump in with both feet. I will be evaluating the possibility of using these products but it will take a lot of testing before I’d be ready to make such a drastic change.

So share what you really think about treated (water-resistant) animal down?

I think it rocks!

Down is the lightest and most compressible insulation option, it has been forever and will be for the foreseeable future. It’s only drawback has always been its lack of water resistance.

I work with Downtek who make a fantastic product. They have all the certifications for safety and quality you could ask for.

I find that though treated down adds protect against an unplanned spill or a leaky tarp it certainly isn’t waterproof in the sense that water will never have a negative effect on it. It just resists loft reduction from moisture much longer than untreated down and dies faster which to me, and it seems 99% of my customers, make it our #1 choice.

On a quilt that I have, the company offered a poncho head slot so it could be used as a top thermal. Enlightened Equipment does not offer this feature as a stock feature nor as an extra custom feature anywhere that I can find. Do you plan on offering this at any point in the future?

When I started making quilts I was one of three to four companies who were doing it.(I was a dude who made quilts in his basement, not a company really at that time) I have always had a lot of respect for the designs of other companies and have tried hard to not cross any unwritten lines by copying key features of other gear makers.

It seems though that now the market is being flooded by new quilt companies every month that there doesn’t seem to be much of the same respect left about just making the same gear that others are making. I still have a real hard time with design theft which is why I’m not planning to add a poncho hole any time soon.

Youth Products:

You are one of the few cottage companies (the only?) that sells quilts for youth. That is just great. I get asked about kids quilts and backpacks all the time and am able to tell folks about your quilts for the younger generations. I know other companies use to make them but stopped due to lack of sells. Care to share about how many youth quilts you sell?

Sadly not many. I think having the right gear for our kids is even more important than having the right gear for ourselves. We already love the wilderness, they are just learning to love it. We need to set our kids up to have great experiences in the wild places we take them. I know how a bad night’s sleep can have a negative impact of my experience, how much more is that true of kids? Heavy, bulky, cold sleeping bags are no fun and most of us have left them behind years ago, but that’s what we give to our kids to use, really?

Yeah, I remember that from when I was in boy scouts. The sleep bag back than were bigger than my entire backpack is now.

We are starting to see more and more parent/children thru-hikers each year. We of course have the triple crown father/daughter team of Balls and Sunshine,  who ended up using a small women’s sleeping bag IIRC, and I have been wondering why we have not seen the cottage industry try to reach out, by expanding their catalog of products, to include more youth sized gear. Backpacks with narrower bags and shoulder straps. Quilts/bags sized to fit them. Hoodies, booties, gloves, and all those things. Do you ever get requests from your existing customers with kids for custom sized gear for their kids? And, do you think we are ever going to see this part of the market grow to a point where companies can start having a broader catalog of youth garments, quilts, and accessories?

We make most of our products in sizes that will work for kids, our smallest booties are a great fit for kids, and our small mitts work for a lot of kids over 10. We would happily add a XS mitt and a kids size Hoodlum if there were demand for them.

As we add new products to our catalog we are always considering if it makes sense to offer a children’s specific version. With every product it is different depending on our expected target user, the viability of child’s specific designs, and the cost of additional tooling to create those sizes.

When we released our Convert we decided not to invest in child specific sizing based on the response to our other children’s products. We want to make gear for kids, but the demand must be there.

A few years ago I purchased the now out of business company “Little Light Gear.” LLG made only child sized backpacks in 3 designs. We would really like to bring back the Hop, Skip and Jump packs for kids that LLG was making.

We want to rework the original design to correspond with some adult sized packs we are also working on. Quilt demand has kept us from having the time or energy to spend getting these packs off the ground but know it is something that will be coming from us as our production schedule allows us to do the design reworking necessary.

I don’t just want to make kid’s gear, but gear for everyone who explores wild places, in every way that we explore them.

Ok my last question:

Any products you have in works in the R&D lab that you would like to take this opportunity to share with the world?

We are working on all the things!

Since the move in March I have been able to add two full time staff for the sole purpose of R&D. We are building prototypes of new styles of quilts, sleeping bags, under quilts, wind jackets, rain shells, bivy sacks, pad covers, we have the packs mentioned above that we are working on along with a new style of hammock system.

So far the new team has re-launched a greatly improved mitten (offered shortly in 2014) and an improved version of our Convert sleeping bag.

We have some updates and new products planned for early 2017, mostly quilt/bag stuff for now, with a number of new products in different stages of development.

Wow, so Enlightened Equipment plans are diffidently in works for expansion beyond sleeping quilts and associated garments. Very much look forward to these developments over the next few years!

Tim, thank you so very much for taking the time to answer all of these questions. It means a lot to me and I am sure my readers will love reading these insights to how things at Enlightened Equipment are, and what you think about things on a personal level.

John, thanks for taking the time to check in with us. It’s always great to get a chance to open up the doors and share what’s going on with the community that has shown us so much support.

You can find more about Enlightened Equipment at their website:

https://www.enlightenedequipment.com/

You can follow Enlightened Equipment on the following social sites:

https://www.facebook.com/EnlightenedEquipment/

https://twitter.com/enlightenedeq

https://www.instagram.com/enlightenedequipment/

 

 

Copyright: John Abela, HikeLighter.Com, All Rights Reserved 2016

This article was originally published at: https://www.patreon.com/posts/interview-tim-7136277

Written by John B. Abela - HikeLighter.Com

November 22, 2016 at 6:08 am

4 Responses

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  1. A really interesting interview. Kudos to EE for pushing for kids to have great gear. We have all seen how miserable a kid can be when given useless gear and how that affects their future love of being out in the wilds. Let us keep encouraging people to look to EE and get good kit for their kids. Thanks John and Tim. Keep the massdrop going too.

    dara ohuiginn

    November 22, 2016 at 6:58 am

  2. I have two EE quilts in synthetic and I LOVE THEM! I am an adult, small person (5′ and maybe a fraction), and did not want to hump around a foot or so of unecessary bag around in my pack.
    If you’re short, this is the go to company!

    Judy

    November 22, 2016 at 7:14 am

  3. Hey that’s really cool, thanks for doing that. So cool to see their videos on IG showing how they do stuff

    DouchePacker

    November 22, 2016 at 4:51 pm

  4. Great interview/article. I had no idea that Tim was in a such a large building and employing so many people. Good for him.

    Warren

    November 24, 2016 at 6:09 pm


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