Backbone Media turns 20 in Carbondale with outdoor ethic, “place-first, money-later” approach

CARBONDALE — A climber, a paddler, a skier and a hunter gather over beers in a mountain town.
Over time, they craft a business. Anything that will keep them there, playing in the mountains.
It’s a scene frequently played out in towns across the West. Only this time, it worked.

Two decades later, the founder of Backbone Media in Carbondale employs 43 professionals as he captains an internationally renowned agency.

“I think all this truly started as something of a social experiment to see if we could create jobs in this valley for people like us who just want to live here. We wanted to work in the sports we were most enamored with and represent the brands we loved and create a work environment that was dynamic and fun,” says Backbone founder Penn Newhard, who 20 years ago last month launched the evolving firm with Lisa Raleigh. “If you decide early on not to just chase dollars and that the lifestyle is important to you and you end up falling in love with a place, then you try to figure out the work on the backside. It’s a place-first, money-later approach.”

Within the first year, Newhard drafted pal Nate Simmons. They had one big client, climbing gear maker Black Diamond Equipment in Utah. The company was launching its radical Avalung, a snorkel-like, avalanche-safety tool that enables skiers to breathe if buried in an avalanche. In a basement in Carbondale with a bunch of phones from Walmart and a fax machine — this predated the widespread use of email — the Backbone crew called magazines, newspapers and editors across the country, trumpeting the new device. It was the first time Black Diamond had ever deployed outside marketing or public relations.

“We figured it was time to push beyond our core mountaineering media into a broader realm because this was going to have implications for all backcountry skiers. Penn just did an amazing job riffing on our tune and explaining our brand to an audience that didn’t know us,” said Black Diamond founder Peter Metcalf. “Those guys were just always thinking differently and expanding our message and brand to a whole new population of potential customers.”

Today, Black Diamond has grown from an $18 million-a-year climbing brand to a $100 million publicly traded company and Backbone broadcasts the message of more that 60 outdoor lifestyle brands, including Yeti, Smartwool, evo and Big Agnes. Newhard and Simmons have enlisted Greg Williams and Ian Anderson as partners — after interviews that included chopping wood at Newhard’s cabin in Marble — and the company has offices in Denver’s River North District and Jackson Hole, Wyo. Backbone recently spun off two sister companies, rygr in Aspen and digital ad firm FastG8 in Carbondale.

The Backbone menu now includes a suite of services, from shepherding a brand’s public relations and spending millions on ads to directing social media campaigns and developing content for the suddenly red-hot “brand story.” It’s a one-stop shop for gear makers, and Backbone has become the go-to outfit for brands eager to marry a data-driven, multiplatform push to sell gear with a unique story.

And, most recently, the Backbone crew has begun sculpting messages beyond the pursuit of sales. Newhard and his team now work on public lands, climate change and air quality campaigns. Those issues have taken on increasing urgency as outdoor lifestyle values are threatened by federal actions such as the recent review of national monuments. And more brands are shouldering activism as part of their business strategy.

“It really was Penn who saw what we were doing on the advocacy side and … said we need to build this more into the brand. It’s a great to have this approach of walking the talk,” said Metcalf, who was a key player in pushing the Outdoor Retailer trade shows out of Utah over the state’s support for shrinking public lands. “It was time to create a podium and platform for that advocacy and get that message out to more people and make it more potent. Backbone played a very important role in getting our message out there and getting that story out to a much larger audience in a much more powerful way so people understand what we stand for.”

Still, widespread support for those campaigns to protect public lands or fight for clean air starts with the toys that Backbone peddles.

“I think a lot of people come to their sports through gear,” Simmons said. “They found access to the outdoors and they find passion about these special places and ultimately that drives them to advocacy and defending what they believe. There’s a natural path there. Getting you excited about, say, a new mountain bike and excited about trails puts you on that path — and that’s a broader mission of Backbone for sure.”

Jay Harrington’s office window looks across the street to the busy Backbone building, where on any given summer day, there’s probably $75,000 of high-end bikes leaning around the front door. In the winter, the Carbondale town manager watches groups of amply geared athletes head out for lunch laps on the local cross-country ski tracks or a spin up Aspen Highlands Bowl.

He wishes he could say his town’s economic development strategy helped lure Backbone or kept them locked in Carbondale.

“But they aren’t here because of anything we’ve done. They are here because they want to be here,” Harrington said.

It often makes little economic sense for a company to set up a 40-worker shop in places such as Carbondale, Aspen or Vail. Housing prices are sky-high. So is office-space rent. Broadband and travel costs are exponentially higher than urban areas. But towns are building affordable housing, whitewater parks, bike trails and cross-country-skiing areas in hopes of persuading employers to settle, knowing that today’s creative class and knowledge-based workers love that stuff.

“We continue to invest in the recreational amenities their employees enjoy. We see Backbone as helping our economy grow in an indirect sense,” Harrington said. “They fit here.”

The team of trim, goggle-tanned workers at Backbone plays hard. They have a powder-day rule, and company retreats usually involve what flatlanders would call a trip of a lifetime. It’s part of the Backbone ethos. A Backbone pro pitching a brand knows exactly how, say, a Smartwool baselayer can wick sweat while hiking for several hours in winter.

“It’s an authenticity, and the brands get it and so does the target consumer as well,” Anderson said. “We are able to talk credibly about the products and the causes.”

Backbone’s longevity in a manufacturing and retail industry that has changed dramatically in the past decade can be credited to that outdoor ethic, Newhard said.

“The lessons we have learned by living that outdoor life allows us to adapt to our business environment. We are not afraid to embrace risk. We understand calculated risk and we understand about staying open-minded and having a plan and executing against that plan,” he said. “But if the plan isn’t working, you have to improvise, and it’s those lessons we learned through backcountry skiing and mountaineering and elk hunting and running whitewater that we apply here at Backbone.”