The other day I had the pleasure of interviewing the founders and owners of Big Sky, Jay, and Bob. Big Sky is a gear rental company that helps people get into the outdoors affordably. They rent hunting, camping, backpacking, and fishing gear.
To watch the complete zoom video click here.
Introduction to Big Sky
Bob’s background: Bob grew up in Nebraska. His dad was an avid hunter, so he started hunting pheasant and quail at a young age. Bob remembers walking in the fields with his family, it takes him back to those early days of hunting.
While Bob and Jay were looking for new business opportunities, it became obvious to them that the rental business model just made sense. Bob recounts that he doesn’t even know how much equipment his family has back at the farm. While he is sure that he has enough equipment, he understands that others aren’t so lucky.
The guys want Big Sky to solve the gear problem for a lot of people (by renting at a reasonable price).
Bob resides in Kansas City with his wife and three kids. He looks forward to raising his kids similar to how he was raised: Enjoying the outdoors, hunting, fishing, and camping.
How did you guys meet?
Jay says that they have known each other for about five years. They have worked both closely and distantly, and over time their friendship grew. They thought that “out of our mutual friendship. we decided to start and grow a business.”
How did the business start?
Jay and Bob asked themselves, “How do we do something for ourselves?” Then they were invited to go on a fly fishing trip. Jay grew up camping and pond fishing but noted that “he is not an avid outdoorsman by any means” really didn’t appreciate how expensive this gear costs.”
Having experience working for a truck rental business, “we started thinking of a rental business.” They felt that it was way more expensive than what we expected, so we thought:
“I bet there are a lot of people who have the equipment, and it sits in their basement for 350 days out of the year. Or they want this equipment to go on a trip, but can’t necessarily afford it, especially with top-of-the-line gear.”
That is when Bob and Jay saw an “opportunity to create a business while helping people get outdoors and enjoy activities like camping, backpacking, hunting, and fishing.”
So, just like many entrepreneurs, Jay says they “wrote it on a napkin and let it sit on it for a few months.” After a while, they did some research and founded the company. He also notes that “since January we have gone strong and they haven’t looked back.
I mentioned to Bob and Jay that by growing up in New England, I am very frugal. Being frugal, I purchase my gear, one painful piece at a time. Whenever I backpack, other than the pack, I pretty much need to borrow gear. Or I look like Santa Claus with my sack over my shoulder heading up the mountain.
When asked how they divided the company up, Jay stated that “we are both the ‘everything guys’ at this point. We are learning the tech side, but Bob is more of a digital marketing guy. We have both worn different hats; like the Swiss Army knives of renting gear right now.”
I asked if they are doing this full time? Bob stated that they “begrudgingly work full time” but, they are getting closer to it becoming a full-time position for each of them.
What have you seen for growth and opportunities?
Bob finds that it has been interesting since Covid-19 started. What we first thought when COVID started and what has happened since are two drastically different things.
In some ways, it has had a silver lining for us. For example, people have decided that traditional vacations and spending time with their families are no longer feasible. In ways, it has pushed people outdoors, more specifically to camping, backpacking, hunting, and fishing.
At the beginning of COVID, everybody took a huge pause. Now we see that folks are trying to get out but realize they don’t have the equipment. So, they go to the local Scheels camping store, and it surprises them how expensive it is.
So, as people have looked for alternatives, whether it be borrowing it from someone or getting a loan, they are now asking, maybe I should rent this stuff to the extent that people know that is an option.
He states that is the hurdle for us. “Just getting the word out that renting is an option for gearing up for your next trip.”
Jay notes that “we went into this a year and a half ago super excited, and we very much still are and while we have seen the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world making it look easy, we learned early that nothing happens without hard work and that there is no substitute for time.”
Besides, we found out that not all web developers are created equal. We had to fine-tune our website over and over again. Fortunately, we found a developer who is great and has been a great help.
At the beginning
Jay continues. Shortly after opening, we received rental requests and realized that we need to get dealers so we can accept these orders! Over time, as we worked through each of these hurdles, we have become smarter and stronger as a company.
For example, regarding seasonality. We see winter backpacking as a niche opportunity. Additionally, from a business management standpoint, as the backpacking season falls off, the hunting season starts to kick in. And when hunting slows down, spring fishing starts to pick up.
We are learning the seasonality as we grow. When COVID hit, we had the business sort of ‘stood up’ at that point, then everything shut down. We questioned if this was a good business plan? But once things started opening up, it hit us like, whoa, we got to catch up with this new demand.
It has been steady ever since, and has surpassed our expectations.
What brands does Big Sky carry?
Jay: We align ourselves with strong companies with good notoriety in the industry. For example, we offer Big Agnes tents, Deuter backpacks, and LuminAid retractable lanterns. At this point, we are testing the market. We hope that other brands accept this business model.
Our vision is that other companies see the value in renting and the try-before-you-buy model. For example, say you have a Deuter pack but want to try another brand. You look to Big Sky to rent out other brands and like the new brand. And by renting and trying first, you purchase through Big Sky’s rent-to-own program. A win-win-win for the customer, company, and Big Sky.
Great Rent-To-Own Option
Bob: “When hunting gets as expensive as a car, we hope that customers try before they buy. We want people to come to Big Sky as a novice and rent for their trip. Additionally, we want to appeal to the professional or person who uses the equipment quite a bit. Our rent-to-own model fits this customer base.
He continues. In many ways, hunting scopes can get expensive. Why buy a scope, test it out and not like it? From Big Sky’s perspective, we let our customers rent the item for that big two-week trip and, if they like, can simply buy it. We apply the rental fee to our sales price, and it becomes yours after the trip.”
We are working on this with our manufacturers. Our thinking is that if manufacturers can get a high-quality product into someone’s hands who are already thinking of purchasing, they are more likely to go back to that company, like Big Agnes, when they want to get something else. We see it as an easy way for them to get their product into someone’s hands and encourage the sale.
If people are afraid that one piece of equipment isn’t the right one, then rent-to-own eases that pain.
How Big Sky is dealing with COVID
Because we were concerned when COVID hit, we asked ourselves, Do we shut down? If we stay open, then what is the best process?
We elected to clean each piece of equipment using Clorox, following the CDC guidelines and recommendations. Also, so that we don’t pass germs with our camo and clothing lines, we dry clean each piece and eliminate all doubt.
People have been happy with our dedication to cleanliness, and we have had positive feedback.
Our customers have been ecstatic about the product quality and the easy shipping process. Especially how easy it is for them to ship it back to us. Also, we feel that whether it is the first or third time renting, our commitment is to provide a product that is as good as new each time.
Big Sky shipping policy
Bob: We aim to make shipping as straight forward as possible. By including shipping (to and from the destination) in our rental rate, we remove it from the rental decision. Whether you live in New Hampshire or wherever in the Continental U.S., we ship it. This eliminates concern or discussion, basically removing objections when renting.
Jay: To resound that sentiment, we ship anywhere that will receive a package. For example, we ship anywhere with a PO, residential address, or business address. We use UPS for deliveries and dropoffs anywhere in the Continental U.S. After their trip, all our customers have to do is place the equipment back in the original box, add the return label, and bring it to a UPS dropoff point. It’s that easy.
Affiliate program to help big sky out
Jay: The affiliate program is our new initiative. Our ask is to people of influence, bloggers, and other popular people to spread the good word about Big Sky. They direct web traffic to us, and if someone makes a purchase, our affiliate gets a commission.
To encourage our Affiliates, we link to their website and cross-promote by driving traffic to you. Again, every time someone transacts with us, the affiliate gets a commission; it takes care of our customers and benefits the affiliates too.
Win-win – put out a good product and we want to sell it.
For example, one of the affiliates sees it as a benefit to their customers. This affiliate offers travel and adventure trips. When someone books a trip, they send out a follow-up email. This email includes a packing list for the trip. On the list is equipment needs. “Everybody cringes at the price of the equipment on the packing list because it is super expensive.”
But the company knowing this objection ahead of time, also adds an “oh by the way” statement. It goes something like this. “If you are interested in buying this equipment, we offer an alternative. Why don’t you look at renting? Because if you are only doing this once a year, then it is super expensive. However, renting is a fraction of the price of buying. Here is a link to Big Sky.”
The idea is that this person books his trip, clicks on the link to rent, and the affiliate gets a commission. Win-win-win all around.
Jay sums it up for us
Jay: We hope that Big Sky helps everyone get outdoors and enjoys it. Whether it is camping, backpacking, fishing, or hunting, the easier we make it, the better it is for our customers. It is like we are lowering the cost of entry or admission fee. Making shipping as easy as possible by shipping anywhere in the continental U.S. or by offering top of the line, high-quality equipment.
Also, if you are an avid outdoorsman or new to the sport, our rent-to-own program lets you try a piece of gear before buying it.
If you are like I (Jay) was when I wanted to go hunting, I didn’t know what I needed for my trip. We are happy to guide you to the right gear for your trip. Hopefully, you’ll play around with it at a much cheaper price than it would cost to buy new. Then when you want to buy, use our rent-to-own program.
Video is worth a thousand words
Check out this promo video from Big Sky!
Backpacking and camping packages
Big Sky has several packages to choose from. Their bundle categories include hunting, fishing, backpacking, and camping. Here is what you receive with each backpacking and camping package:
Camping Bundle For 1
- Tent: The North Face- Homestead Roomy 2
- Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes- Insulated Air Core Ultra
- Sleeping Bag: The North Face- Dolomite 20F
- Headlamp: Black Diamond- Astro 175
- Lantern: Nite Ize Radiant 400 LED Lantern
- Chair: Joey Chair Peak 7
- Stove & Pot: Jet Boil 2 Burner Stove
- Pot Set: GSI Halulite Microdualist II Cookset
Camping Bundle for 2
(1) Tent: The North Face- Homestead Roomy 2
(2) Sleeping Pad: Kelty- Galactic Sleeping Pad
(2) Sleeping Bag: The North Face- Dolomite 20F
(2) Headlamp: Black Diamond- Astro 175
(1) Lantern: Nite Ize Radiant 400 LED Lantern
(2) Chair: Joey Chair Peak 7
(1) Stove & Pot: Jet Boil 2 Burner Stove
(1) Pot Set: GSI Halulite Microdualist II Cookset
Backpacking Bundle for 1
- Backpack: Deuter AirContact 60 +SL 10
- Tent: Big Agnes Tigerwall 2 Person Backpacking Tent
- Sleeping Bag: Big Agnes Lost Dog 15F
- Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Sleeping Pad
- Lantern: LuminAID Collapsible Lantern
- Headlamp: BlackDiamond Astro 325 Lumens
- Trekking Poles: Sissy Stix BackCountry Pro
- Cooking Set: Halulite Cooking Set
- Stove: Jetboil MightyMo Backpacking Stove
Backpacking Bundle for 2
- (2) Backpack: Deuter AirContact 60 +SL 10
- (1) Tent: Big Agnes Tigerwall 2 Person Backpacking Tent
- (2) Sleeping Bag: Big Agnes Lost Dog 15F
- (2) Sleeping Pad: Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Sleeping Pad
- (1) Lantern: LuminAID Collapsible Lantern
- (2) Headlamp: BlackDiamond Astro 325 Lumens
- (2) Trekking Poles: Sissy Stix BackCountry Pro
- (1) Cooking Set: Halulite Cooking Set
- (1) Stove: Jetboil MightyMo Backpacking Stove
Testimonials (Big Sky website)
“I was super impressed by the quality of my gear, and would have even considered buying my own if Big Sky didn’t make the process so easy! Would definitely recommend them.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐- Carla
“This was a great, quality option for travelling group with a mix group hunting levels.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Jeff
“When backpacking with a gal pal and had everything I needed for a great trip! My friend was actually pretty jealous of all that came with the camping package at a low price!” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Karen
“We scheduled a trip to hunt mulies in Western Kansas. I rented the Deer Hunting Package from Big Sky. They helped me with my order and even offered some a-la-carte stuff to add to make sure I was ready for my trip. Thank you Big Sky. I have told some of my friends already about this company and would recommend them to anyone.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Carla
“A group of us were scheduled for a duck hunting trip along the Niobrara River and wanted to try some of Sitka’s newest gear. We were shocked at how expensive it was to purchase. Nice to know Big Sky is around to rent this stuff. It came a day before we left for the trip it included a return label. The trip was great and we returned the gear in the same box it came in with the shipping label Big Sky provided. I would highly recommend renting equipment from this company.” ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ – Chris