Interview: Six Moon Designs
Ron started Six Moon Designs back in 2002 with TarpTent and Nunatak being two of the few start-ups that are still around and older than Six Moon Designs. And while not the first to introduce shelters made of cuben fiber (as it was called at the time) Six Moon Designs was producing DCF shelters back in the 2008 era. Eight years later, now in 2016, many are wondering if they have finally thrown in the towel on this fabric, but more on that below.
Six Moon Designs has been a company that maintains a very narrow focus on a few products, with little energy spent on trying to come up with the next big thing, and instead focusing their efforts on constantly trying to refine their current products. In an age when most cottage companies fly with the times and are constantly putting efforts into new products that oft do not make it more than one or two generation cycles, Six Moon Designs has constantly stood by the business model of putting years of effort into a new product to make sure it is great and stands the test of time.
One such example of this is the Gatewood Cape, which many consider to have more miles of hiking than any other shelter on the PCT, despite some huge competition the last few years. With almost no core changes to the Gatewood Cape, it serves as a prime example of what well thought-out planning can mean for a cottage company: a product of success that requires very little additional financial investments over the long haul of the products lifetime on the market. The Gatewood Cape is one of the topics I bring up with Ron.
Another great example of this comes from just a few years ago when Six Moon Designs decided to go back to the drawing board and toss out their entire backpack lineup and build an entirely new set of backpacks that have received my “gear of the year” award, my “favorite backpack award” and not just from me, but from guys like Chris Townsend as well.
Ron Moak and I first meet on a hike in October 2011, and in one of those rare moments, for me, that happens within the hiking community we instantly seemed to have built one of those life long trail friendships.
Well let me move onto my interview with Ron.
Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions.
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?
Haven’t done much reading lately. Been doing a lot of updates on the Van. I’ll be out this winter traveling the USA. Got a couple of sets of books read during my down time. The “Game of Thrones” series is first up.
I just want to jump into things here, and going to start with some business related questions.
Most folks know that Six Moon Designs is one of the original cottage companies – not the first, but pretty dang close.
For the most part the vast majority of cottage companies seem to be doing just fine. A bad year here or there, but most seem to be keeping products moving out the doors, keeping their staff paid, and keeping the product refinement happening.
How many employees does Six Moon Designs currently have?
We’re relatively small with a core of 4 full time employees and a couple of contract people.
Six Moon Designs is one of the few companies that many hikers categorize as a ‘cottage company’ (more on that below) that resells their products – and not just locally but globally. How many retailers does Six Moon Designs currently have around the world?
Not quite sure how many retail outlets we’re in. Japan is our biggest overseas market. We’ve got a distributer there. Last I heard, we’re in somewhere between 30 and 40 stores.
And a follow-up question: And in what countries do you have retailers?
England, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Japan, Twain, Australia, New Zealand and probably a few more.
Which of those countries does the most business?
That would be Japan.
Six Moon Designs has a fairly long history of keeping a few specific items and using each production cycle to do refinements. With the exception of the backpack lineup, we rarely see Six Moon Designs releasing new shelters. It is impressive that you have been able to keep the same basic lineup of shelters.
The Skyscape and Lunar have been your main-stay for years. The Gatewood Cap is iconic as it can get. The Deschutes is your newest shelter and it is going on almost three years since it was released. You clearly seem to be of the mind-set that having just a few shelters that are refined as possible, and not flooding your catalog with a bunch of different shelters, is the best course of direction for Six Moon Designs. Is it strictly a matter of success with a few shelters and you feel no need to expand beyond.
Do you just prefer to keep only a few shelters/sku’s in your product catalog? Does Six Moon Designs just prefer to focus on backpacks and shelters are the secondary category of products for you. Could you take a few paragraphs to explain your thoughts on all of this.
We alternate between product lines. Clearly the last few years we’ve concentrated on our pack line up. We’ve done a lot of work with the packs. Culminating with the introduction of the new Traveler pack in the last couple of months.
I may swing back into the tent design mode at some time. We’ll see. Needless to say we’re always listening to our customers responses. As we find issues that are of concern to a larger body of people, we try to address them.
My readers would question my devotion if I did not bring up the topic of cuben fiber (DCF), so a few questions regarding DCF and Six Moon Designs.
Back when you were working with Brian Frankle on the backpack redesign, we all have to wonder what both of you had to say when the topic of using DCF might have came up. As the owner of a first generation Flight and Fusion, and a second generation Flight and Fusion, I have had zero issues with the fabric of these backpacks. I know many feel that DCF is a good fabric for shelters but not for backpacks due to abrasion resistance. Is that the reason the decision to not make a DCF Flight/Fusion, or were there factors beyond abrasion resistance?
Selecting the correct pack fabric is no easy task. There’s any number of factors involved, weight, weave, durability, cost, etc. We stayed away from using Cuben in packs simply because our minimum pack production run is too high to justify the cost. We’d be tying up 10’s of thousands of dollars of additional dollars in cost. Plus we’d have the added expense of shipping it overseas for production. Then back to the US again.
I think the fabric is fine for limited quantity production. But it just doesn’t work well in our production model.
The Skyscape X has had a fairly impressive selling power. If I remember correctly the first production run sold out in under 30 hours. The second production run sold out in under 72 hours, and so on. I remember many folks saw the $450 price tag of the Skyscape X when it first hit the market and thought you guys where crazy to be asking that kind of price for the shelter. The price went up on, I think it was your second production run, to a bit over the $500 mark. At the time the most popular DCF shelter was half the price.
Since that time the most popular DCF shelter is now $600. Six Moon Designs has been ‘out of stock’ on every DCF product you make for the better part of 2016. Many folks are starting to wonder if DCF has just gotten to a point where it is beyond the price of reasonability. Is this the reason that Six Moon Designs has let DCF shelters go out of stock? If so, or if not, care to share any further thoughts on this matter.
Few people understand the economics of Cuben Fiber pricing. Most of the shelters made are from small cottage gear people that only sale direct. As a result they don’t have the wholesale pricing hit to resolve. Those of us that do sell via a dealer network have had to significantly discount the price of the fabric to keep the shelters cost competitive.
If we sold our Cuben shelters at normal mark-ups, they would be considerably more expensive. As it is, both us and our dealers take a hit when dealing with Cuben.
We took the year off from Cuben production in order to re-think our Cuben strategy going forward. The recent purchase of Cubic Tech by DSM lead to price increases. Plus we needed to find alternative means of construction. For the most part, we’ve worked out the production issues. The question now is pricing. Plus we need to determine how much of an
investment we want to put out.
We’re still the only cottage manufacture that does production Cuben on an assembly line. However, reasonable production run of a number of shelters and models could easily run over $100,000 (one hundred thousand dollars.)
I do not want to get hung-up on the DCF issue, so one last question. In May of 2015 I wrote about Cubic Tech getting bought out by DSM Dyneema. That article ended up having a surprising affect and sent some shock waves through the hiking community. Even those who are the most odious towards me and towards the DCF fabric took note of the article.
Within the article I had quotes from different cottage owners that produced products from DCF, including yourself.
One of my questions to you was, “With the recent buyout of CTC by DSM Dyneema, a rather huge company in the outdoor fabric manufacturing industry, what changes do you see happening in the next year or two that might help or hurt your ability to continue producing Cuben fiber products?”
To which you responded: “I doubt it’ll have much effect for a very long time, if at all. Cuben Fiber is such a tiny segment of the market that it’s virtually insignificant. Currently there are many obstacles to making it more wide spread. I’ve got no idea about DSM’s thoughts or desires. There are other mills around the world that are experimenting with different Dyneema/film combinations. It’s only a matter of time before it’ll be available from multiple sources.”
Now, 16 months later, do you have any further thoughts or follow-up comments regarding this issue?
In the last 16 months, little has really changed. So my comments are as pertinent today as then. I do know that a number of places have been experimenting with copying Cuben. I don’t know if any are too successful.
The biggest limitation to Cuben long term is be the both the cost of the material and the complexity of fabrication of the end products.
We have the technology to scale up production on an assembly line. However, the assembly cost is still significantly higher than using traditional materials.
Last question about Six Moon Designs shelters: I have often heard it said that the shelter with the most miles on the PCT is the Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape, thanks to Billy Goat. Would you tend to think those who say this are fairly accurate? Does he still use one? Any idea how many he has been through on his bazillion hikes of the PCT?
At one time I’d heard he’s done nearly 10,000 miles with his GWC on the PCT and other trails. I’ve replace it but don’t know how many total miles he’s had since then.
Before we get into the work horses of your backpack lineup, this year Six Moon Designs has introduced one new backpack, the ‘Traveler Pack‘, and right at a year ago you introduced the water lovers ‘Flex Pack‘.
First, congratulations on introducing two new packs over the last two years. Very nice to see you have not been stagnant with your new harness/yoke/suspension system.
From what I understand you were the driving force behind the new Traveler Pack, as you have been travelling around the world for both hiking and business. It seems as if the goal with this backpacks it that you were trying to find some kind of hybrid between a traditional hikers backpack, and traditional carry-on luggage. Does that pretty much encompass the goal of the Traveler Pack, or do I have things all wrong? And please, share what the goals were/are with this pack.
There are any number of so called “Travel Packs” available on the market. While they are often okay for basic travel through airport, etc. They lack the support system needed to carry comfortably if you need to walk for any distance. As a result most people carry a normal backpack. Then they must deal with it’s difficulties when in hotels, going through security at airports or stowing in overhead compartments on planes.
The “Comfort Fit Harness” system we developed for the Fusion. (Note the new name. We’ll start putting it out on more literature in the future.) Is very light and highly adaptable. So it was a good choice for both the Flex and Traveler pack.
With The Traveler, we tweaked it to allow the hip belt to be more easily removed. We also secured the shoulder straps to the pack better so they won’t snag on things when using the pack like luggage.
The Traveler also incorporates an office feature that accommodates laptop computer, tablets and other paraphernalia needed when working from the road.
It is panel loading but from the rear. This is so the pack isn’t resting on an uneven harness while you’re trying to get things organized. It works better in hotels and such than a traditional top loading pack.
As a follow up to the Traveler Pack: you and I have had a lot of conversations over the last few years about front panel loaders. I was truly surprised when I saw the Traveler Pack hit the market and that it was a front panel loader. What eventually lead you to make the decision to chance your stance on FPL’ers and go that route?
As I mentioned in the previous response the Traveler is a Rear Panel Loader or RPL. Over the last few years, I’ve spent lot’s of nights in hotels around the globe. Normally I’d carry your standard small wheeled suitcase. Once that holds my stuff but small enough to stow overhead on the plane. These suitcases always have full open access. Because the Traveler is really carriable luggage. It also needed good easy access to interior compartments. It also need smaller compartments to help keep your gear sorted. I’m still a fan of simple minimal packs, but this is a different beast.
The Traveler Pack is a 43 liter backpack that is listed at 1760 grams (~62 ounces / 3.88 pounds). We packs start getting into the 3+ pound range, they just start falling into that “kind of heavy” range. This puts the Traveler Pack at 10 ounces heavier than the 24 liter larger Fusion 64.
Usually when we see smaller volume backpacks we see lighter weight backpacks. Can you go into the details of why the 43 liter Traveler Pack is significantly heavier than the larger volume Fusion 65?
All of the organizational components of the pack add up. There is significant internal padding to protect you gear along with zippers, pockets, etc. We use heavy waterproof zippers for long service life and keeping gear drier. Plus there is more parts to secure the shoulder straps and make the hip belt easily removable.
When compared to other travel packs, it’s not too bad. Compared to UL packs, well it’s not.
I think my last question regarding the Traveler Pack is:
Do you see the Traveler being used out on the long distance trail, or do you think it will cater mostly to the folks looking for a niche-style globe trotting carry-on with the occasional manicured trail use style of pack?
No, the Traveler isn’t a good fit for someone backpacking 1000’s of miles. However, it’s great for someone walking the Camino. In that case, you’re walking about walking about 15 miles a day and spending every night in an alburgee (hostel). So you’re not backpacking but you do need a comfortable pack. In 2015 over 200K people walked some of the Camino. That’s a lot more than you’ll see on all the National Scenic trails combined.
I was just over in Spain a few weeks ago finishing up my Camino hike. I spent a week hiking plus a week touring Madrid and surrounding area. The pack worked fantastic on planes, trains, busses, taxies and any of the different hotels we stayed in. I was carrying a light load so used the UL hip belt. You can save 5 ounces off the pack weight using the UL belt vs. the standard rigid belt.
Moving onto the Flex Pack, a backpack that I am guessing was primarily designed to target the packrafting market. Is my assumption on that fairly accurate, or was the Flex Pack originally designed for something other than the packrafting market?
It was particularly designed for the Pack rafting market.
What was the design decision, on the Flex Pack, to have fabric on the front (back) of the pack instead of just having the webbing straps go all the way around it? Was it strictly because you wanted to have a mesh pocket on the back, or was it to help distribute the pressure from the straps, or something else?
It does provide both storage and stability. Long thin strips of unsupported webbing tends to shift over time.
Having the front pocket eliminates that problem.
You offer the Flex Pack with the option to not include the 50L dry bag. Did somewhere on the way of developing this pack was it discovered that the design was so flexible that pretty much any of the standard dry bags could fit into the Flex Pack, and thus you could save your customers some money by not having to buy another dry bag, or was/is there plans to offer different size dry bags directly from SMD?
I’ve always believed in flexibility. Many of the people in these sports already have a plethora of drybags.
Often they are better and stronger than the one we’re offering. So we allow them a slightly less expensive option of using their own preferred gear.
We may offer different sizes. But that’s to be determined at a later date.
Renee (She-ra) has posted a number of photos on her Instagram page with photos of the Flex Pack and it has appeared to be a pretty dynamic backpack for her. From the first moment I saw the Flex Pack, all I could think about is how sweet it would be to see if it could be used with three or four horizontal tube shaped dry bags.
Have you guys put any thought into working with the current strap system to allow this type of diversity of allowing horizontal tube dry bags?
The name escapes me of the gentleman who did the horizontal pack a few years ago. It didn’t catch one. I can think of a number of reasons. But most likely it was too expensive. There was even an integrated tube pack that set on a normal pack frame back in the 70’s. It didn’t go anywhere either.
I’ve not tried to setup the Flex with that configuration. I suspect that with the right kind of strapping, it would probably work. One could always remove the front pouch and implement a vertical strap system in it’s place.
Alrighty let’s move onto the work-horses of your backpack line.
Over the last couple of years you have started getting a number of big mileage, well known, hikers putting the Fusion 65 to the test.
With the exception of a few changes that were made with the most recent generation of the Fusion 65, I have yet to see any review of the Fusion 65 that had any major negative issues.
How valuable has the feedback from these big mileage hikers been in helping you refine the Fusion 65, or have the few refinements that have been made issues that you just needed a generation or two of the pack in order to work through?
Feedback from knowledgeable users is always beneficial. Some was incorporated into the changes between first two generations of the pack. Some of the changes we knew about by the time the first generation was in production. But it was too late to make any changes.
We’ve got a pretty stable platform here. So it’ll be awhile before we implement any further changes. We need the pack to come of age on their own at this point.
Last year I gave the Fusion 65 my “Backpack of the Year Award” without thought or hesitation. A few times I have made the statement that the Fusion 65 is going to become one of the big name packs on the long distance trails. That has just not happened. Each year I look at a few hundred gear lists of PCT/AT/CDT hikers, and I cannot recall seeing a single SMD Fusion 50 or 65 on any of them. This has bummed me out.
My suspicion is that the weight of these packs is giving hikers a bit of hesitation towards buying them. I suspect a lot of hikers are just not aware of, nor understanding, the level of load weight distribution that the SMD packs are able to offer them. The extra pound of weight in order to have a pack that so properly handles load weight distribution is something that seems to not make sense to a lot of first time thru-hikers.
It is time for these packs to start getting their market share within the long distance community, but it is going to take some work on your part. How is SMD going to go about breaking down these aspects in order to gain market share within the long distance hiking community? Or, do you just not care too be tapping into that market?
Yeah, we’ve definitely dropped the ball on marketing side of things. Sometime you can rely on “Word of mouth” marketing.
Sometimes you can’t. As I noted above, we’re in the process of naming the harness system so we can better promote it on multiple packs. We can also provide general videos that allow you do see how to customize it for your personal needs.
As you noted the extra weight did scare off a number of early adopters. It’s something we are currently exploring. We do want to play a factor in the Long Distance hiker community.
Moving onto the Flight series of packs.
I have owned the Flight 30 and the Flight 40. How has the newest generation of Flight series packs been selling?
Of the Flight series. The 30 is the best seller. It’s great for running and short hikes. The 40 is still a bit too small for many distant hikers. And those who can fit their gear want something lighter. I certainly enjoyed using one on my CDT hike this summer.
I often hear people say, “It would be nice if SMD made a running vest“, to which I am constantly responding, “Uhh, they do!“.
The Flight series of packs, with their pectoral vest style shoulder straps are great trail running packs.
I think what myself and a lot of others would like to see is a smaller version of the Flight series, something down in the 20L-24L range. Filling in that gap between the Ultimate Direction Peter Bakwin Adventure Vest 3.0 (at 16L) and the current 31 liter SMD Flight 30 vest pack, both of which I consider to be the two finest vest packs in their respectable volume categories.
If SMD could get the pack volume down by 600 or so liters, scale back the webbing, pockets and collar of the Fusion 30, it seems like you could easily get a pack into that magical market – and a market that is growing – without too much effort.
Does the Six Moon Designs Skunk Works department have such a pack in the works, or is that a market that you just do not have any desire to move into?
No doubt, there are many directions that we can pursue. The biggest problem that faces any small company, once they’ve figured out how design and manufacture gear, is how do you get it in front of the right people. That’s something we need to work on. Especially when bring out gear that’s not familiar to our typical user.
Last question regarding backpacks:
Can we expect to see a new generation of Fusion and Flight backpacks in 2017? Any refinements that you are willing to share that we can look forward too?
No plans at the moment.
Some Other Questions:
Ok, thought I would move on from there to just ask a few non SMD related questions.
I seem to recall you are getting very close to getting your triple crown finished up. Have you been able to get the last few sections finished or are those still in the works?
For better or worse, it’s still in progress. I was set to finish it this summer. But while out there, my priorities shifted. It looks like it’ll be another year before it’s finished.
At what point do you see us needing to start asking the question “what is a ‘cottage company’?”
Over the last few years we have seen a small number of companies that started off in garages and now are operating out of huge facilities, have a fairly good bank roll, and an ever larger employee roster.
We also have companies that have a very small office, under five employees, and outsource their product manufacturing in order to keep costs down. We also have a few companies that I think some within the hiking community would call ‘cottage’ but have resellers overseas (such as SMD.)
I recently interviewed Tim Marshal from Enlightened Equipment and he stated they expect to have 100+ employees by the end of the year, and are producing over 70 products a day. Zpacks last I talked with them had over 80 in-house employees and likely spend a few million dollars a year just on fabric purchases. That is just to examples of dozens of companies most hikers think of as ‘cottage companies’. To me though, those kind of numbers just boggle my mind. I think of companies such as SMD, TarpTent, MLD, GG, and a few others that have significantly few less full time employees, yet are companies that outsource production – and thereby when an order is placed, ends up resulting in hundreds of people being employed while their production run is taking place. The old ‘half dozen to another’ applies however the products end up getting made.
All of this has just had me wondering the last couple of years, “what exactly ‘is’ cottage these days?”.
Should we continue to use the term ‘cottage companies’ for companies that have 100 in-house FTE’s?
Should we continue to use the term ‘cottage companies’ for companies that resell their products?
Obviously all of this is just a minor terminology thing within the world of the outdoor / hiking industry, and far from something that warrants some massive change within the hiking community, but you and I have a long history of discussing these type of off-the-wall topics, and as one of the original cottage company owners, I am just wondering if you have any thoughts on all of this?
I’ll let others define what is or isn’t cottage industry. I think that mostly it’s a perception issue.
I still think of us as one, but others would surly disagree.
During production runs we’ve got several hundred people working. However, this only takes place for a few weeks at a time. Large production facilities are extremely efficient. They are able to produce a large quantity of goods quickly with a relatively smaller work force.
Many of the smaller manufactures may have a large workforce, but don’t have the internal systems in place to take advantage of it.
I have no interest in setting up a factory. There are many that do a much better job than me. My hat’s off to them.
You, and thereby Six Moon Designs, has been well known for giving back to the community. Each year you give pretty good sized checks to different trail associations. How long have you been doing this and how important is it to you, to keep doing this year after year?
Mostly it’s been in the last few years. Like any company, sometimes things go well. Sometimes not so much.
One of the problems is that when design a product and spend 10’s of thousands producing it. It doesn’t always work out well. There could be design issues or production issues.
Several years ago, I discovered a way to turn a net negative into a net positive. At the time I was sitting on a large inventory of tents that had a cosmetic manufacturing flaw. Obviously we couldn’t sell them as new. But didn’t have a good way to unload them.
A brain fart later and I came up with the “Lemons to Lemonade Sale”. In it we, significantly discounted the tents for a significant end user saving. I split the difference of the sale with just enough money to cover our cost, but the bulk going to the various trail organizations.
The results were phenomenal. We sold several hundred tents over a three week period and raised $15,000 for the trail clubs. In all it was a win, win, win.
We’re doing the same with our first generation Fusion packs as well. In that sale we’ve raised about $30,000 so far.
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’re working on somethings…
Thank you, again, to Ron Moak for taking the time to answer these questions!
You can find more about Six Moon Designs at their website:
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Copyright: John Abela, HikeLighter.Com, All Rights Reserved 2016
This article was originally published at: https://www.patreon.com/posts/interview-six-7182263