An Interview with Cotopaxi’s Stephan Jacob
I recently had a chance to sit down with Stephan Jacob, the co-founder of the new outdoor gear company Cotopaxi. If you haven’t heard of them, not only do they make awesome packs and water bottles, they are also helping to educate children and provide clean drinking water to people in need all around the globe. I had a great time chatting with Stephan about Cotopaxi’s vision and the positive impacts that their customers are making. Stephan also revealed some of his favorite spots in Utah and the kinds of products that they have in store for us in the upcoming year. Check out the interview below and make sure to visit Cotopaxi’s website and see how your purchases can make a difference.
Also, Cotopaxi is generously giving away a Luzon pack and a 20oz Bangladesh insulated water bottle to one lucky Bearfoot Theory reader. I’ve used both of these products in the field, and they are awesome! There are several ways to enter, so don’t be shy and enter now using the form below!
First I just want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I’ll start by complimenting you on the Luzon pack, which I took with me to a music festival last weekend. It was the perfect size to carry around all my festival essentials, and I also really loved the pocket for the water reservoir and how easy it was to take the reservoir in and out of the bag. What was the idea behind the design?
Stephan: We wanted the Luzon pack to be super minimalist. It’s a comfortable, lightweight pack with ergonomically formed straps. It has the basic features like the water bottle reservoir, the one big main compartment, and the front pocket. That’s really it. It’s simplistic, but the feedback we’ve been getting is phenomenal, so we will soon be adding some new colors to the Luzon line.
That’s awesome! So you are a fairly new company. Tell me about how you got your start with Cotopaxi.
Stephan: We just launched in April, and it’s been an amazing few months. My cofounder Davis Smith and I met in business school and have known each other for about 5 years. In the context of our joint MBA / Masters of International Studies program, we traveled together, including to Chile and the Philippines. We both loved the experience of exploring and stepping a little outside of our individual comfort zones. We just cliqued. Following business school, we were working on separate ventures until we met at a reunion last fall. Davis had been mulling over the idea of Cotopaxi for a long time, so we decided to team up and do it together.
— On Giving Back —
Cotopaxi’s slogan is “Gear for Good.” Where does that come from?
Stephan: Cotopaxi is incorporated as a public benefit corporation. Its a new entity form that basically is a hybrid between an impact driven organization, such as a nonprofit, and a regular corporation. In our articles of incorporation, it states that we exist to have a measurable positive impact on the world. In our case, that means at least 10% of the profits of each transaction goes towards a good cause. For example, when you buy the Nepal backpack, it pays for 3 weeks of housing and education for a child in Nepal. If you buy a water bottle, that gives someone 6 months of clean water in either India, Cambodia, or Bangladesh.
Why I believe so firmly in Cotopaxi is that before working as an entrepreneur I was in the nonprofit space in Indonesia, working for an organization dedicated to eliminating child labor. It was a mission driven organization with a great impact and wonderful people that ran it. The work was tremendously rewarding, but at the same time I was often frustrated because the money was always tight. Sadly a few months after I left, the organization had to shut down simply because they ran out of money. That’s one of the issues with a pure non-profit approach of fighting those worst forms of poverty. If you don’t fundraise constantly, the lights go out. So that’s why at Cotopaxi we believe that there is more sustainable way of giving back. We want to build a profitable brand that is admired by our customer base, which enables us to donate a large portion of our profits towards doing good.
You mentioned some of the causes Cotopaxi support with its profits. How do you choose the causes and the charities that you work with?
Stephan: That’s a great question and one that we spend a lot of time on. Each Cotopaxi product is tied to a specific cause. The Cusco pack raises money for a shelter in Cusco, Peru. The Kilimanjaro pack raises money for an orphanage in Tanzania. For each of the causes we support, we have a very personal relationship with the people who are working on the ground. In Tanzania, for example, the guy who runs the orphanage is a mountaineering guide from Salt Lake City. A couple of years ago, he realized he wanted to do more for the population in the areas where he led his mountaineering tours. Initially he began by donating money or supplies, but he got frustrated because he would come back to those regions and would find his donation to have disappeared. So he decided to do things differently and bought a plot of land in Tanzania. He built up this orphanage that now houses 20 local children. They have a chicken farm and are also raising cattle. So its people like this that we choose to work with. It’s people who are truly impact driven with very minimal overhead, so we know that 100% of Cotopaxi’s donations go towards the beneficiaries.
You talk alot on your website about transparency in your giving process. How to ensure transparency and how can customers learn more about the causes that their purchases support?
Stephan: Transparency is something we take very seriously and we are currently putting in place a strict vetting process to apply to our future partners. It’s an interesting process that we dedicate a lot of resources to internally because it is easy to get it wrong. We want to put the time and effort in to ensure that there is full transparency to the impact we are making on the ground and that we only work with partners that have demonstrated their ability to deliver on the impact we promise to our customers. To inform our customer base, on every product page, there is a section that talks about the impact that each purchase has. We want to be able to break it down to the impact of every single purchase. For instance, if you buy an Inca Pack, which is a day hiking pack, each transaction pays for a week of education at an orphanage in Tupiza, Bolivia. Then when you receive your package, each product also comes with a product card with GPS coordinates that invites you to visit the orphanage and other non-profit partners, if you happen to be in that part of the world traveling. Going forward we will also be investing quite a bit of resources and time into video content to really show the impact on the ground. It’s more effort to provide that per transaction transparency, but we think its more powerful and helps us be more accountable to make sure we are delivering our promise.
— On the Outdoors —
How did you decide on outdoor gear versus another kind of product, and what is your personal connection to the outdoors?
Stephan: I’m German and grew up very close to the Alps. Both of my parents are very outdoorsy and have been taking my brother and I up to the mountains ever since I was a little kid. I was 3 the first time I was on skis. Also, my godfather was an officer in the German Special Forces for mountain warfare, and he took me out exploring. I later on modeled myself after him, also joining the special forces. I was stationed along the Bavarian-Austrian border up in the mountains and spent my time there skiing and roping out of helicopters. So the outdoors and traveling have been part of my personal DNA for as long as I can remember, and the same holds true for everyone on the Cotopaxi team. We have an adventure wall in the office that is full of pictures of everyone on the team doing crazy stuff somewhere in the outdoors. It’s very much a part of the company culture. We look for people who don’t just pretend or say they are outdoorsy, but people who have lived those values of adventure and people who have focused on doing good for a large portion of their life.
You guys threw a big launch party in April called the Questival. I hear it was pretty incredible?
Stephan: Yeah it was really amazing. We organized an outdoor challenge with over 6,000 participants. We asked people to complete various challenges related to adventure camping and outdoor survival. But there were also quirky challenges, like getting a Utah Jazz player to say Cotopaxi is the bomb-diggity on camera. Many of the challenges were community service related. We had over 6,000 pieces of trash picked up during the Questival, and close to 1,000 hours of community service in senior citizen homes and animal shelters, etc. Teams had to document the completion of each challenge and post it to social media, and the winning teams were rewarded with humanitarian trips to visit our non-profit partners around the globe.
All in all, we had over 30,000 social media posts reaching over 10 million people. It was a great way to kickstart the brand and get the word out, while encouraging people to experience the outdoors. We firmly believe that you don’t have to be a crazy adventurer or crazy athlete to appreciate the outdoors. In the April event, over 50% of the participants were female, including moms with kids. We had families who tried stuff they had never done before, like sleeping under the stars or in a self-made shelter for a night. It was a fun way to tie in new outdoor experiences with the premise of Cotopaxi the brand and our goal to do good in the world. It was absolutely one of the highlights of my entrepreneurial career. Now, we are bringing the event to San Francisco Bay Area on October 24th & 25th, and it is gonna be pretty epic. (More details of the SF event can be found here)
It sounds like the Questival is very much in line with Bearfoot Theory’s mission to help people have new outdoor experiences. In fact, I myself, am turning over a new personal leaf. I’ve always been interested in the outdoors but haven’t always taken the step to go rock climbing or try the things I have been scared of. So the event as a whole sounds very inspiring.
Stephan: Exactly, we wanted to make the outdoors accessible for people who may have thought it’s not for them. It’s such a great revelation when you get to the point where you say “I can do that.” You don’t have to start with an expert climb. You can start with an easy climb or an easy hike and have the same benefits of being outside in nature. That’s very much what we as a brand are inspiring people to do.
— On Utah —
Well Utah seems like the perfect home base for Cotopaxi. How did you pick Utah?
Stephan: Almost all of us moved here for Cotopaxi. Prior to Utah, I was in Philadelphia. Utah is a phenomenal outdoor market. We deliberately wanted to launch locally and knew there was a strong outdoor community here. There is also phenomenal talent in terms of product designers and tech talent, and it is a very active entrepreneurial ecosystem that has developed here over the last 10-15 years. So overall it made perfect sense for us to come to the Salt Lake Region.
How are you liking it so far?
Stephan: Oh its amazing. Having grown up in Munich it almost feels like coming home. We have a rule in the office that every employee is encouraged to spend 10% of paid working time in the wild outdoors or doing community service. We also have our Tuesday trail run where we go up in the canyon and literally within 8 minutes we are in an environment that feels completely alpine. There are also 4 ski resorts within 17 minutes of the office. There’s great trail running, hiking, and anything you could possibly wish for. It’s been fantastic.
Do you have any favorite spots so far? Maybe ones that my readers would be interested in checking out?
Stephan: We recently were field testing new prototypes for tents and sleeping bags which we are launching next year. We went up Big Cottonwood Canyon from Silver Lake to Twin Lakes. It’s a really easy hike and just gorgeous. We were completely alone and even saw a moose drinking from the lake in the morning. We also took the whole team down to Escalante a few weeks ago to test our Nepal Packs. Went to Coyote Gulch and spent a night in the canyon down there, and it was just phenomenal. And that’s just three hours south of here.
I just moved to Las Vegas recently, so I’ve been trying to get out to southern Utah as much as possible. It’s just stunning country. And speaking of Vegas. I must say I’ve been super impressed with my Bangladesh water bottle. A few weeks ago, I took it out on Lake Mead in 110 degree heat. I thought there was no way it was gonna keep my water cold. But sure enough, it stayed ice cold even while sitting out in the blaring sun all day.
Stephan: Yeah its pretty cool right!
— On the Future of Cotopaxi —
So what’s next for Cotopaxi?
Stephan: In the fall we will be expanding both our lifestyle and technical products. We will be coming out with a ski pack, a very technical piece but amazing, as well as a messenger type lifestyle bag. We will also be launching some new apparel. Then in the spring, we will introduce either tents or sleeping bags. The tents will be both for backpacking and for car camping. We just tested the prototypes for the backpacking tent, and it’s the most awesome tent I’ve ever used. Our VP of Product, CJ, was with Gregory and Black Diamond for 10 years and designed some of their award winning gear. He is a true product innovator. We want our products to be simple enough for the average outdoor consumer, but feature rich enough to suit hardcore outdoor use. Really focusing on the essentials. Overall, it’s been a great ride so far, and we are excited to continue building our brand and maximizing the impact that we can have.
A huge thanks again to Stephan and the Cotopaxi team for taking the time to talk about what they are up to!