‘Big Outdoors’ An Upstart Marketplace For Tiny Brands

The ironically named, online-only platform Big Outdoors fills orders from its 15-foot by 20-foot storage locker warehouse with limited-run wares like socks, pants, tops, packs – even artisan chocolate.

big outdoors ninja 1
As Tucas out of Sabiñanigo, Spain, is among Big Outdoors smallest vendors

The company features “cottage industry” vendors that range from small to smaller – all the way down to businesses like As Tucas, a small Spanish maker of hand-stitched quilts, bivy sacks, and wool hoodies, and K’ul Chocolate – the single-store “farm-to-bar” cacao roaster and chocolate maker located just a few miles from Big Outdoors’s two-man headquarters.

“We have a storage unit in St. Paul where we put up a bunch of shelves and right now it’s lined with almost all of our inventory,” said Big Outdoors founder Lloyd Vogel. For its largest brands, like RailRiders and Roscoe Outdoors, Big Outdoors will drop ship orders.

Big Outdoors founder Lloyd Vogel
Big Outdoors founder Lloyd Vogel

Everything else in the warehouse is geared toward interdisciplinary outdoor use – think raincoats, mid- and baselayers, socks, tops, pants, and packs.

“As a gear fanatic I simply got tired of seeing all of the same brands and products, and started becoming curious about alternatives” said Vogel, an accomplished kayak and hiking guide. “There’s nothing wrong with The North Face or Patagonia – they make great gear. But small businesses are personal, engaging, and create amazing products – and frankly [they’re] a whole lot more interesting.”

Big Outdoors Is Born

Only a few weeks into his small-business-only concept, which Vogel hatched after visiting a crafts show for independent brands, his plan is to carry enough inventory for a season, bringing in new options and brands for another limited run. But, he notes, he’s already had to re-order the Superior Wilderness Design backpacks after selling out all 10 he had in stock.

superior wilderness backpacks

“Its a balancing act,” he said. “We stay in close contact with our companies, allowing us to relatively quickly restock items as they sell – so far, so good.”

If he sounds off-the-cuff, that’s because he is. Vogel’s primary job is not retail – nine months out of the year he’s a special-ed teacher for an environmental charter school. This summer will be the first real test for Big Outdoors, which coincides nicely with his vacation.

Vogel and a team of 11 brand ambassadors test the gear and guerrilla market their wares – the company’s footprint has been boosted almost exclusively through social media. A recent partnership with both the YMCA and Wilderness Inquiry for bulk discounts will help increase Big Outdoors’s – and its vendors’ – visibility.

CloudLine, Possum Down, and Gococo socks
CloudLine, Possum Down, and Gococo socks

Between himself and his co-founder Ryan Stephens, who oversees the business’s visual media, Vogel handles an average of five orders per day – all of which the duo pick, pack, and ship. By his best guess, Vogel estimates they could handle up to 20; that’s the sweet spot where he can continue to partner with the small brands he wants to support without needing to bring in what he calls a “brick and mortar-sized staff.”

For now, there’s no real plan for growth. “I’m definitely learning as I go,” Vogel admitted. “The company is completely self-funded – no crowdfunding campaign or donors – so how we develop is up to us.”

Check out the big idea behind Big Outdoors and peruse the independent brands you may have never heard of.

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Adam Ruggiero is an all-sport activity junkie – from biking, running, and (not enough) surfing, to ball sports, camping, and cattle farming. If it’s outside, it’s worth doing. Adam graduated from the University of Minnesota with a BA in journalism. Likes: unique beer, dogs, stories. Like nots: neckties, escalators, manicured lawns.

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