The following story appears in the January issue of Alaska Sporting Journal.
BY CHRIS COCOLES
Jason Hairston might have carved out a career path as a pro football player until his body gave out on him and injuries derailed training-camp stints with the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos in the mid-1990s.
But the California native with a fondness for bowhunting big game in Alaska eventually became convinced he could trade shoulder pads and helmets for camo and hunting boots.
“I was watching Oprah with my wife, and I can’t remember who the interview was, but it was a very successful businessperson who talked about doing something you’re passionate about,” the 44-year-old Hairston recalls. “And if you are, you can truly maximize your business and professional potential because it’s not work. All that really resonated with me.”
So after dabbling in various business ventures and thinking it was only work and nothing resembling “passion,” he and a friend started an outdoor clothing company he named with an Alaska touch: Sitka. After being forced out of the company that was his concept, another Alaska geographically named competitor was born. KUIU (kuiu.com) is now a multi-million-dollar operation, and Haiston strategically named it for the island just across the Southeast Alaska strait from Sitka’s Baranof Island location. Sitka and KUIU are now rival companies.
So it’s been quite a ride for Hairston, who had one dream shattered, then another, before finally experiencing the thrill of victory as a major player in the hunting industry. He says he’s probably not the smartest guy in the room, but is convinced nobody has persevered through the hard times like he has, as you’ll find out in our chat.
Chris Cocoles Where did your love for hunting come from?
Jason Hairston My dad grew up in Southern California and he really got into hunting on his own. But he watched an Errol Flynn movie – Robin Hood, actually – and that was how he got started with archery. He thought, “I want to do that.” He would start hunting rabbits out in the fields of Orange County [south of Los Angeles] before it became what it is today. And he had always been a traditional archery person. When a compound came out on the market, he bought one because everyone else was; he’d have it for a couple weeks and sell it. He liked shooting the longbow and wood arrows. He did some rifle hunting up until the time I was a young kid. And I remember I was with him up in Big Bear Mountain and we shot a deer and he told me that was the last deer we would shoot with a rifle.
After that it was strictly archery because he loved the challenge of it. I grew up following him around and I loved it from the time I was little. I just loved hunting, even more so than my brother. At a young age I’d take a bow by myself. Some kids spent time playing video games, but I spent time shooting arrows in the backyard and fell in love with the sport. Everything I could get my hands on, I would read just to immerse myself in hunting.
CC Obviously, things have worked out for you with your companies, but was it tough to swallow that you didn’t get to pursue your dream of playing in the NFL after you suffered neck injuries?
JH It was really, really hard and depressing. After going through college [he played linebacker at NCAA Division II school University of California, Davis], people started talking about the chance at the NFL and my focus became the NFL – on training and studying film. My game had become better and better when I got there. Your whole life for years is focused on this sport, and then to have it pulled out from under you unexpectedly is really tough. All of a sudden you’re lost, saying, “What am I going to do next?” Your future career plans have been put on hold.
CC So after you got inspired from Oprah, how did Sitka and then KUIU develop?
JH I’d come up with the concept of Sitka with some friends from college. I went and sold my franchises and decided that’s what I was going to do, develop a tactical apparel line. I went all in on it and funded it, even though I had no idea what I was doing … I took a line of credit against my house to pay for (the first big order). But you roll the dice on the fact that this stuff can do well. And I planned to just run the business out of my garage at that point and set up shelves there. When the products arrived, they asked, “Where’s your loading dock?” “I don’t have a loading dock. Which of all those boxes in that truck are mine?” They said, “They’re all yours.”
So we had to get some storage space, but we got it all set up. Then the catalog drops [Schnee’s was the only one at the time] and I got a call that first morning and I was told, “Congratulations; we just sold your first three units.” I was officially in business, and that was an exciting day.
They called again the next day and asked how much we had. I said, “I’ve got 1,000 units per style; I had to buy that minimum.” They said they would take it all; in less than 24 hours they’d sold almost 300 units of the products and the forecast showed they were going to sell it all in 90 days. And we actually beat that estimate.
We realized we were onto something with Sitka. The next year we were picked up by every major (outdoor) retailer. And that thing just exploded on us.
CC But then this was going on right before the economy crashed.
JH It was in October of 2008 and literally two weeks after that is when it all hit the fan. And my business partner [and chief financial officer] sat me down in February 2009 and said he had big concerns about how the market wasn’t going to support the forecast that we had and the creditors wouldn’t support the financing that we needed. [He said] we were going to go out of business and they convinced everyone that this was going to happen. I was bullish on the brand and market with how much momentum we had. And they just didn’t believe me. So they sold the company to Gore [Fabrics] behind my back and told them I was going to put the business into bankruptcy and relieved me as CEO. They just wanted me out. So here I am in June of 2009 in the biggest recession of our lifetimes; I had a 22-month-old son and a newborn daughter and I was out of a job. My heart had been ripped out of my chest from a company that I had built and it was sold.
CC How were you able to bounce back from such a disappointment?
JH We had one opportunity to possibly get the company back, but it was going to be a mess. So Rob [Moore, one of Sitka’s investors] and I sat down and he asked if I had any other connections. I had met with this company, Toray, out of Japan,through a designer from Patagonia … The fabrics were just that much better. So I pitched the concept to the board and believed that the product would do well. I sat down in my garage and wrote a business plan. And that’s what started KUIU [in 2010]. And then about two months before we launched, I said, “Hey, you’ve given me so much confidence that there’s a demand for this product, what if I could bypass [the retail process]?” And that was really what was the tipping point for KUIU … We built this brand on just a few million dollars and now we’re self-funding and we can grow without having to build private equity or professional investments. And that was kind of done by plan and we can grow at a much faster rate.
CC You had a lot of ups and downs along the way and you clearly had a good support system – your wife, your dad and some advisors along the way. How did you handle all that?
JH It’s kind of been the story of my life. As a young kid, I was really skinny and I was the kid who people picked on and had to learn how to fight just to stand up for myself. And I wanted to play football and kept being cut from teams [but I never stopped working]. It was just kind of who I am.
CC Tell me a little bit about how you tough it out in the field.
JH I like to archery hunt with a traditional longbow, which is the hardest way you can hunt. And that requires a lot of work, a lot of practice and a lot of commitment. And a lot of grinding, which is the approach I take on everything. I don’t do a lot of different things, but the things I choose to do I become a student of what they are and really immerse myself in them. I had to become an expert at all the little things and make those things come together, whether it was football or hunting or building a company. It was about having tough times but finding a way to get through and learn from it. I had to become better because of it.
CC How often have you hunted Alaska?
JH I’ve been up there probably a half-dozen times on different hunts – I had two black bear hunts and two grizzly bear hunts. I’m going back next year for brown bears. For some reason I’ve not done well with grizzly bear hunts. I’ve taken two float trips [north of Unalakleet] with Lance Kronberger, who’s one of the best grizzly bear hunters in Alaska. The first time we did it, we were looking for something big and finally found the bear. And I worked the bolt on my gun to shoot him and my gun went click and the bullet didn’t get out of the chamber. So I didn’t get a bear that trip.
CC Given your name choices of Sitka and then KUIU, how much does Alaska have a special place in your heart?
JH It’s everybody’s dream, including mine. Growing up you’d dream about hunting in Alaska. It’s a magical place – spectacular, beautiful and it’s adventurous. It’s kind of what everyone eventually wants to do: go hunting in Alaska. And I believe with this company we are selling that dream. And the performance of it allows guys to go and experience Alaska and to perform really well in those places. And that’s really the connection to those places. Kuiu Island was a place I hunted before; it wasn’t a dot.com, nor was it trademarked. It meant something to me and I liked that name for some reason. And everyone told me it was the worst name I could possibly choose because nobody could say it. But my gut told me it was the right name. And it turned out to be really good. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Jason Hairston’s company, KUIU, follow on Twitter @KUIU or like at facebook.com/KUIUultralight.