How a Near-Death Mountain Climb Launched One of the Adventure World's Best-Known Brands

How a Near-Death Mountain Climb Launched One of the Adventure World's Best-Known Brands
Image credit: Kahtoola
In 2003, Lhapka Gelu Sherpa wore an earlier version of Kahtoolas while setting the Mount Everest speed record.
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This story appears in the March 2016 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Brothers Danny and Mike Giovale are both experienced mountain climbers and had no problems on the way up an intense climb in the rigorous Italian Dolomites. But on the way down, Danny slipped in a steep, snow-filled gully. “I couldn’t stop,” he says. “As my velocity increased, I thought, I seriously could die.” He didn’t, luckily: He flew off a snow bumper into water that had warmed on the rocks.

He told other adventurers about his fall, and he learned he wasn’t alone. “Almost everyone, without exception, either had a similar experience or knew someone who had,” Danny says. There was a tool out there to help them: crampons, the metal spikes that attach to the bottom of boots. But at the time, the only ones available were heavy and rigid, and wouldn’t attach to hikers’ flexible shoes. His takeaway: “We need a better solution.” 

So Danny set to work in his garage in Salt Lake City, designing prototypes for lightweight, flexible crampons. He named his company Kahtoola, or “directly” in Tibetan, and called his product the Kahtoola Traction System Hiking Crampons. He didn’t have a lot of money for market research, so he booked a postage-stamp-size booth at the winter 2001 Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, the industry’s biggest trade show. “I figured it’d be a great place to get feedback on whether I was right about there being a need for this type of crampon,” Danny says.

It turns out, he was right: Lots of orders came in. But he was wrong about who his customer was. “I was thinking about climbers and hikers and mountain runners,” he says. “Adventure racers didn’t even cross my mind.” But those folks -- who make a sport of hustling up mountains in record-breaking time -- were the most enthusiastic buyers. There weren’t enough racers to sustain a company, but Danny was heartened. Those buyers would give Kahtoola cred, and then he could pursue the larger market of hikers and climbers.

During the company’s first year, Kahtoola sold about 7,000 pairs of hiking crampons, with revenues of $26,340. The next year, Kahtoola sold 20,000 pairs.

As the company grew -- and moved to Flagstaff, Ariz. -- its founders scrambled to keep up. Danny and his brother made every metal piece for each pair by hand for four years before finding a manufacturer that didn’t mind working with small production numbers. But that experience wasn’t lost time. “We were learning during that period,” Danny says. “When we did find a manufacturer to work with, we were experts on our process and knew what mattered most in the end product.” (Even after finding a manufacturer, the company kept assembling all its crampons in-house for years.)

Kahtoola has continued to add products. In 2007, it launched MicroSpikes, which have 12 metal teeth, each about a half-inch long, on the bottom of a rubberized ring that can stretch to accommodate anything from running shoes to bulky Sorel boots. This product finally locked in those hikers and runners; sales of MicroSpikes are now growing at 15 to 20 percent annually. (“It was the MicroSpikes customer that I was always thinking of,” Danny says, “but the form took a long time to get there.”) And in 2014, the company launched NanoSpikes, another stretch-on traction system but with less aggressive studs. 

Today Kahtoola products are found in 471 stores in the United States and 56 in Canada, and it has international distribution in Europe, Japan, South America, Australia and New Zealand. The company isn’t planning any other product launches at the moment. “Basically, our brand is a lot more about doing a few things really well rather than doing more things perhaps not so well,” Danny says. They’re dug in. 

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