Industry Tips with Kenji: How do I get a job in the outdoor industry?

industry tips with kenji2

Dear Kenji

I’m a 21 year old student at the University of Big Dreams and I graduate next year. I love to hike and camp and although I’m definitely not a standout candidate for sponsorship from a top outdoor brand, for what I lack in athletic prowess, I make up for in good grades.

My dream is to get a job in the outdoor industry – problem is – I don’t know where to start. Got any tips?

– Juana Getin


Dear Juana

I often get asked this question from friends working less romantic but usually more lucrative jobs like real estate brokering or insurance accounting. Being the outdoorvangelist that I am, I feel that working in the outdoor industry is a most worthy pursuit.

Where to start? There are a few possibilities that vary based on your geography, but the most common starting place for a great career in the outdoor industry is the retail store.

Understanding the way the industry works is the first order of business, and they don’t teach it at Wharton or Kellogg. Experience in other industries even closely related (like Surf, Skate or Team Sports) doesn’t help form the key relationships you’ll need to develop a career arc in the ‘OIBIZ’ (Outdoors Industry Business). There is the usual design side, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, and servicing of products made to use and abuse in the Great Outdoors, but retailing is the community center around which it all orbits.

Retail is literally where the consumer touches the industry; and understanding the nuances of customers in a market is the key to success. I have a friend who is a legend in the climbing world. He’s climbed bold new routes on different continents, founded a climbing gear distribution company, started an advocacy group for injured athletes, has traveled other continents learning to chef like a boss, and guess what he just did? Took a job in outdoor specialty retail at $10 an hour (or so). Why? Because he wanted to get back to the ground where intrepid new adventures are born and bred. Maybe he yearns for the  ‘Beginner’s Mind’ as described in Buddhist teachings. Or, he’s a glutton for punishment. Or both?

You can also try to start as a tech rep (an assistant sales rep) where training and retail store support is your main focus. If you are lucky to live in an area rich with active outdoor brands (say, Boulder CO or Seattle WA or Burlington VT or Bozeman MT or Bend OR) you can get on board with a brand that designs and builds products. You can train to be an outfitter, working for a skills instruction group (say Outward Bound or NOLS) or guiding outfit (Mt. Hood or Eastern Sierra or Exum Mountain Guides), which is awesome experience but incredibly poorly compensated. Then again, you won’t spend much living in encampments for months at a time… it’s an austere lifestyle, but a noble one IMHO.

But in most of these cases, the network won’t really be available to you necessarily. You’ll have to build your skillset, then go find it. As a retailer, if you are good, you’ll rise quickly and become known by the reps and brand leaders first in your area, then outside of it too. It’s the fastest way into the greatest industry on earth. If you consider the contribution to a sustainable Experience Economy and a Recreation-based economy that active outdoor pursuits make, you can stare bleary-eyed into your side-view mirror in the morning and smile. And that’s worth something.

By the way, do you have a sister named Mary?

– Kenji

Kenji Haroutunian is a Multicultural Outdoorvangelist and Musician. When he’s not climbing, hiking, or enjoying the outdoors with his family, you can find him leading a team of professionals to produce world class trade shows like Outdoor Retailer.

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