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Profile: Penn Newhard Builds Brands In A Mountain Town

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Some say the dream of ‘bumming’ in the mountains is no longer possible. Not true. But it takes hard work, some ski-bum ingenuity, and creating your own path.

penn newhard backbone media
Newhard ski-touring in the Elk Range of Colorado

Meet the man who went from surfing couches to working with every outdoor brand you love. Penn Newhard, a founder of Backbone Media, spent his childhood fishing and playing sports in St. Louis.

He double-majored at Brown University (Business and Political Science) and at graduation told his dad he wanted to travel the world. The response: “How ya gonna pay for that?”

So, Penn got a job on Wall Street and split a 600-square-foot apartment with friends. They had bunk beds.

After three years, he had enough saved to quit the “real world job” and take a six-month trip to climb peaks in South America, Nepal, and Alaska. That trip changed the course of his life.

Newhard And The Growth Of Backbone Media

penn newhard backbone media
1992: Rock climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park

Most people beyond the industry have not heard of Backbone Media. As an agency based near Aspen (with offices in Carbondale and Denver) Backbone represents many of the biggest brands in the space.

Next month, Backbone turns 20 years old. Newhard remains at the helm of now more than 50 employees who help influence media coverage across many genres.

Since 1997, Newhard and business partner Nate Simmons have put their energy into communicating the messages of outdoors brands. They found a niche, combining a passion for gear and outdoors sports with a profession at the time not commonly found in mountain towns.

“We know what we are talking about. We know how to ski, bike, fish, and how to trail run,” Newhard said.

The brand was nurtured by a burgeoning outdoors industry.

“There’s this huge group of professional people who want to live in the mountains. They are prioritizing lifestyle over a bank account. The group of people we have here is why we succeed.”

Backbone Media, The Early Days

In the summer of 1989, Newhard ended up couch surfing in Aspen, Colo., after the “I’m gonna hang with the cute girl who’s house-sitting in the Roaring Fork Valley” romance ran its inevitable three-week course.

Newhard began to live the ski-bum life, working as a snowmaker, and ski and river guide. In 1992, he joined Climbing Magazine as the advertising director.

Then, in 1997, Newhard noticed the outdoor industry was missing something. With a desire to improve the gear manufacturer-media relationship, Newhard carved out his very own niche by focusing on public relations and creating Backbone Media.

penn newhard backbone media
Backbone Media: Nate Simmons, Greg Williams, Penn Newhard, Ian Anderson

Today, the PR and marketing firm represents more than 70 of the outdoor industry’s top brands, including Black Diamond, YETI, SmartWool, Eddie Bauer, and Chaco, to name a few.

At 53, Newhard talks about his business like his former ambitious ski bum-couch surfer self.

“We didn’t start Backbone with an exit strategy,” he said. “Starting a business is comparable to doing an adventure on the edge of your ability level. It’s going to be really scary but you’re going to be all the better for doing it.”

Interview: Penn Newhard

How did you get into the outdoor industry?

My first outdoor-related job was as a climbing, mountaineering, and backcountry ski guide. That first winter, I worked at Ajax as a snowmaker and then for the Race Department doing everything from NASTAR and the Town Race series to the Bud Pro Mogul Tour and Men’s World Cup Downhill.

How do you explain your job to strangers?

I tell them I work in the PR and marketing business in the outdoor and snowsports industry. I think the bigger question is do you talk to strangers or not?

What is your schedule like?

It really varies. Everyone at Backbone rolls up their sleeves and plays in the dirt. It’s collaborative. So, I sit in on client calls, work on marketing plans, launches, stomp out fires when they arise, talk trends with CEOs and marketing VPs. It is rarely the same day to day.

I like my days. They’re pretty fun: Wake up. Exercise early with a run, crossfit, or a dawn patrol ski if it’s winter. Then I get the kids off to school. Then work. I try to exercise at lunch if things aren’t super hectic or I missed the morning session—bouldering, bike ride, or skate ski.

I get home for dinner, hang with my four kids and do the dishes. Once the kids are settled and the house is quiet, I clean up my inbox and work.

penn newhard backbone media
Skiing Russia’s Mount Elbrus, 2017

What does your job “do?”

Hopefully, it makes life easier. We have two sets of clients, the brands we represent and the media.

Modern media is a dynamic and fast-paced world, so we help our 70-plus brands as we are iterating, testing, learning, and evaluating what works constantly. If we are doing our job, we are sharing compelling stories with the media and helping our brands.

Can I work for Backbone?

Opportunity is about smarts, hard work, timing, and building the right team. In our case I’m super fortunate to have excellent partners — Ian Anderson, Nate Simmons, and Greg Williams — who bring complementary skill sets to the table.

We still joke that Backbone is a social experiment set up to provide jobs in the Roaring Fork Valley and Denver for people who want to integrate their life into their workplace.

Most people come to Backbone because they love active pursuits: skiing, climbing, biking, hunting, fishing, and running. Or they love PR, writing and/or marketing AND the outdoor lifestyle. Over the years, we’ve added destination tourism, beer, and tequila to the mix for those who like to travel and enjoy a good beverage.

What are the best parts of your gig?

We get to work with smart, funny, and talented people on the brand side, media, and within Backbone. We get an insider’s view to innovation and to run media trips and adventures to far-flung places.

And the cons?

PR and marketing is generally known for being fire-drill intensive. For sure, some days you get blindsided and need to quickly and thoughtfully react to tricky scenarios. But it’s all good; dealing with tricky situations keeps you on your toes and solving problems quickly and calmly is rewarding.

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