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Introducing Cotopaxi: A Q&A with Founder Davis Smith

Oct 9, 2020

Cotopaxi is one of our favourite new brands here at Urban Industry, as you might have noticed if you follow us on Instagram.

We say ‘new’, but the brand is actually seven years into business now, and has grown to the point that it has around 90 staff based at its head office in Salt Lake City, Utah.

We’ve always got time for vibrant outdoor gear, but Cotopaxi is about more than that. The motto is simple – ‘Do Good’ – and every employee lives by it. 

The CEO and founder, Davis Smith, lived in Latin America for most of his childhood, and this is where he fell in love with the outdoors. He named the brand after Cotopaxi National Park in Ecuador, where he spent a great deal of his spare time growing up.

It was during his adventurous upbringing that Davis realised what he wanted to spend his life doing: helping people. The poverty he witnessed in Latin America made a profound impression on him, even as a boy.

It’s clear that Cotopaxi is an outdoor brand with a genuine mission to make the world a better place. The company allocates 1% of its annual profits to the Cotopaxi Foundation – an organisation that actively assists in humanitarian crises, liaising directly with organisations such as The UN Foundation, Mercy Corps, the International Rescue Committee, Utah Refugee Services and more.

We had a good long chat with Davis over Zoom one afternoon (first thing in the morning for him over in Utah!). Enjoy.

Cotopaxi at Urban Industry

For our customers who are new to Cotopaxi, how would you describe the brand philosophy in a nutshell?

So Cotopaxi is an outdoor brand, but, more than that, it represents values.

Values of using business to make the world a better place; ethically manufacturing product; using our voice and our influence to make a difference in the world and to alleviate global poverty.

A lot of businesses like to talk about doing good, but many are better at talking the talk than they are at walking the walk. Cotopaxi obviously walks the walk – is that challenging?

You know, I would say yes and no. 

Yes in the sense that it takes thinking that’s outside the box. You have to make decisions differently than everyone else sometimes. 

But in some ways I’d say no: it’s not difficult once you’ve made that decision of what you stand for. For us, we decided to build a benefit corporation – a business that’s dedicated to doing good, and not just focused on profits – before we even knew what we would sell.

I had this vision for building something that could inspire people – and move people – to do good, where I could have a meaningful influence and a meaningful impact. I grew up in the developing world, I moved there when I was four years old and spent all of my childhood and a lot of my adult life there.

And so in a lot of ways it’s been easy and fun. To use this business to do good has not been difficult – even during Covid. At the start, when things were really challenging, there was no question about whether we would continue to have a social impact, continue to donate, even when we were facing challenging times, because it’s a decision we’d made long ago.

That makes sense. It would be pretty ironic if a crisis caused you to immediately stop doing what you set out to do in the first place. 

So, when you decided to create an outdoor brand and you founded Cotopaxi, what was the very first product you guys developed?

We made five backpacks when we launched, and one of those five was a bag called the Luzon.

Cotopaxi Luzon backpack 18L

We designed the Luzon specifically for an event that we were having, called the Questival, it was this 24-hour race. 

We wanted everybody to be able to have a Cotopaxi product, so it needed to be something that was relatively inexpensive to make, because everybody who did the race got one of these. But at the same time we wanted it to be high-quality and designed well. So our pack designer, who’s an award-winning designer, came up with this idea of creating this very simple drawstring-top bag.

And it is a killer bag. I love travelling with it because it rolls up – I just stick it in my main bag and use it as a daypack. It’s great for when I go backpacking or hiking, if I do a day-hike or even a multi-day hike. It’s just really versatile. We’ve probably sold more units of that than anything else.

Is that the product you’re most proud of so far, then?

It’s a special one, for sure. I love the Del Día story – that whole line of bags is really unique. When you’re wearing one of those Del Día bags, people will stop you in the street and they’ll be like, “Woah, what, wait, tell me the story!” Because you see the bag and you know there’s a story behind it; they’re so funky and colourful.

Yeah, let’s talk about the Del Día stuff!

Just to break it down for our readers who aren’t familiar, the Del Día collection uses other companies’ leftover fabrics to create these kaleidoscopic bags in one-of-a-kind colourways. 

It’s a great idea. How did it come about?

With Del Día, the whole idea was about giving the sewers the ability to design the bags they make – giving them creative choice, which they’d never had before. So the first bag we tested the Del Día idea with was the Luzon. Now we’ve expanded it to all these other bags – a duffle bag, a fanny pack and all these other products.

Another one of my favourite products, that maybe doesn’t have the same richness of backstory but still, the Allpa travel bag.

It’s this backpack that unzips down the middle and opens up like a suitcase. What I love about it is it’s replaced a roller bag for me. When I travel now, that’s what I’m using. And it’s really versatile, y’know. So if you’re travelling on an airplane or walking through the streets of Southeast Asia or Europe, it’s the perfect bag to have instead of pulling along a roller bag. Or if you’re just doing a roadtrip or something. Like, during Covid, a lot of people are exploring their local areas more. You probably wouldn’t stick a roller bag in your car for a fairly local trip like that, but this bag is so versatile yet soft that it’s ideal.

So I should probably make the Allpa my favourite product now, right?! It’s got both stories in one.

Cotopaxi at Urban Industry

Sounds like it!

Tell us a bit more about this use of remnant fabrics. We love that.

Yeah, so, that’s down to one of the cofounders of Cotopaxi, a guy called CJ Whittaker. When I had the idea for this business, I knew that I needed to bring on somebody who really understood design, and so I brought on two really great designers at the very beginning of the business.

One of them was CJ. He has a real passion for the factory workers, and he’s also very environmentally conscious, so he started exploring ideas of how we could use all of this remnant material in the factories. We started making some products out of it. 

Cotopaxi's remnant fabrics

(Image courtesy of Cotopaxi)

The original Luzon, actually, was made of remnant material. We’d make maybe a thousand of a certain colourway – basically until those colours were all gone, and then we’d do another colour, and so on.

Then CJ had this idea of empowering the sewers. 

After spending, like, 15 years working with this one factory – he was working with them way before Cotopaxi – he had a relationship there already, and he knew all of these sewers. On average, each member of staff stays there for 11-and-a-half years; it’s a great job, it pays well and it’s just a great place to be. But what CJ saw was that these amazing artisans and craftspeople never got to design anything. He thought, “What if we give them the ability to choose what the bags look like? They follow the design but can choose any colour or material from these remnants, working to only one rule: to make no bag alike.”

So that was the inception.

Aerial shot of Cotopaxi's factory in Bataan, Philippines

(Image courtesy of Cotopaxi)

We made 500 of them just to start with, and we thought, “We’ll see what happens.” We were unsure whether anyone would be willing to buy these bags – they were pretty crazy – and then we sold out of them instantly. We thought the return-rate might be really high, because each customer had no way of choosing their exact colour and just got what they were given, but the return-rate turned out to be almost zero! So we knew then that the story connected with people.

A number of our products also use this remnant-material idea, not just the Del Día bags. Stuff like windbreakers, and fleeces, and now facemasks.

We’ve seen those facemasks. Lots of brands are making those at the moment – but tell us what’s special about the way Cotopaxi is doing it.

The facemasks came about when we started hearing about the millions and millions of yards of material that were orphaned at factories because of Covid.

When Covid first happened, brands across the world started cancelling orders, saying, you know, “We don’t know what this year’s gonna look like – we dunno if people are gonna be coming into stores – so we need to cancel our orders.”

So all this material that had been dyed and processed, and was waiting to be cut and sewn, was just sitting there. We felt we needed to figure out a way to use that, so we started making facemasks with it.

There have been some really positive stories that have come out of Covid – environmental stories like cleaner air and cleaner water and other things – but there have been some negative impacts, and certainly one of them is the amount of wasted material. So to be able to use that material in a useful way has been really nice.

And for each facemask that gets bought, you’re donating another facemask to someone in need, right?

Yeah, we work very closely with the refugee community here in our hometown in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have 60,000 refugees who’ve been resettled here in Salt Lake over the last two decades. As a percentage of our population, that’s fairly high, but we have a very welcoming community.

And as we’ve worked with refugees, we’ve seen that there’s been a need for more help – especially outside of the United States. For example, Venezuela is one of the countries that we’ve been actively engaged with. It’s one of the largest humanitarian crises of my life, and very few people are talking about it. It’s a silent crisis: millions and millions of people displaced, and a couple of years ago I found out that the average Venezuelan lost close to 20 pounds of weight because of hunger. It’s just been an awful tragedy; and so, for every mask we’re selling, we’re sending another mask to Mercy Corps, which is down in Venezuela, on the ground. They’re providing masks to people at the borders, as they cross into Colombia or into other countries as they’re looking for a new life. Somewhere around 5 or 6 million Venezuelans have had to flee their country.

But no-one knows about it; no-one’s talking about it. 

It must have been made even worse by Covid dominating the news? 

And to stay on that cheery note, how’s it been living under Covid? For you as a CEO but also for the whole Cotopaxi team. You must be a pretty tight-knit bunch...

It’s been interesting! 

When Covid began, I was actually in Ecuador, where I’d grown up, and I was working with our Impact team to work with some of our non-profit partners that we’re supporting. We ended up cutting our trip short to fly back to the United States because it became very clear that there was gonna be a major problem. 

By the time we flew back, we’d already made the decision that we would be closing our offices – so before I went to Ecuador was the last time that I was together with my team in the office. At first I was worried.

March 13th was the day our office closed. 

That sounds quite early, relatively speaking!

We were maybe a week before a lot of businesses in the US started doing the same thing.

I’m a big believer in building intentional culture, and being together, and I’ve really always felt that to build a really purposeful culture, we needed to be in the same office – to have those interactions and share passion together.

But what I’ve learned is that it is possible to do these things remotely. It takes more effort and more intentionality but, in some ways, it’s actually worked better! Instead of catching up with people as I run into them around the office, I’m doing it a bit more intentionally now, and I’m finding that there’s been some really great results.

Everybody’s done a wonderful job of rallying together around our cause and our mission, and we’ve found ways to stay connected. We’ve had to get creative in how we do it.

Things like Zoom quizzes and other video-call socials?

Yeah, we’ve done some similar things. 

Every week we do a virtual hike: everyone will dial into Zoom, wherever they’re at, maybe they’re going on a trail up in the mountains, or just walking round their neighbourhood, but everyone will dial in and we’ll all enjoy an hour together hiking.

We have some virtual clubs, like the Gardening Club, we have the Pet Society, the Finer Things Club – we’ve found some really fun and creative ways to get together.

And are you all based in Salt Lake?

We are. But I think that’ll change over time now. As we’ve seen now, working virtually, where you live matters a little bit less.

During Covid, a lot of Californians and a lot of New Yorkers have just thought, “We’re done with the city – we’re gonna go live up in the mountains, we’re gonna go find a place that has a better work-life balance, somewhere that allows me to spend more time outdoors and not just stuck in a concrete jungle.”

There’s gonna be a shift. Some of it’ll be temporary and some of it’ll be more permanent.

Work aside, have you been getting out and into the outdoors more this year? You must be spoilt for choice, living in Salt Lake City!

I do a hike every week with my wife; that’s been nice. Here where we live, we’re only a couple minutes away from some great trails, and in five minutes we can be up one of two big canyons. There’s a lot of outdoor access right here, which we love.

But there’s also been a lot more time with family – at home. I’ve really enjoyed that as well. I’ve spent a lot of time during Covid on self-improvement. There’s a quote from Viktor Frankl that we memorise as a family: “Between stimulus and response, there is space.” It’s talking about this idea that, in a situation, you’re presented a stimulus, but you can pause and think about how you want to react to it – rather than just reacting. I’ve been working on this, and I love it. I have the freedom to choose how I feel in a situation.

Cotopaxi at Urban Industry

Have you got much reading done this year? Any books you’d recommend?

There’s a great book that I read recently, and we had our entire team read it, called Radical Candor. We’ve built a culture at Cotopaxi of kindness and empathy and understanding, and we have a no-jerk policy. It’s a fun place to work, where people have a respect for each other.

But I think the tendency in that kind of culture is to feel like, “Oh, I should never tell someone that they’re doing a bad job,” or “I should never give feedback to someone, because that wouldn’t be nice.” 

Radical Candor explains how and why this approach – what the book calls ‘ruinous empathy’ – doesn’t help people. The author, Kim Scott, presents a quadrant to help managers show a high level of care for their employees while also challenging them directly.

We know you’re a keen adventurer and survivalist. A few months ago, you wrote a post on LinkedIn about how those skills are transferable into running a business. Tell our readers a bit about that.

Yeah, so I love survival trips, and one of the reasons I love them is because there’s uncertainty, there’s challenges, you have to respond quickly, there’s adversity. So it’s not easy.

It’s very different from going to a resort, y’know, going to Majorca or Hawaii or somewhere you just lay on the beach. And I like those kinds of vacations too – I mean, who doesn’t like to just relax? – but I like the challenge of these survival trips.

What I found at the start of Covid is that a lot of those survival skills transfer over to leading in business – stuff like responding quickly. You can’t ‘wait and see’ in a survival situation; you have to be proactive and identify the things that matter most, and in a survival situation, that’s water, food, shelter, fire. Those are the only things that really matter. So in day one of the Covid crisis, we were like, “What are the things that really matter? Okay: cash. How do we conserve cash?” Y’know? So we started making decisions based around this idea of ‘surviving another day’. Because once you survive another day, then you have freedom, then you can make decisions after that. If you don’t react quickly, and you have your head in the sand, sometimes it’s too late by the time you figure it out.

So it’s the speed that’s the key?

It’s one of them, but there are others that translate to Covid.

For example, it’s exponentially harder to survive on your own than it is with somebody else, or several other people. I think, as business leaders, we should be engaging and interacting and investing in relationships with others. And learning from them, and sharing what’s working for us. We can react and respond better together than we can on our own.

Do you think more brands have that ‘teamwork’ and ‘togetherness’ philosophy nowadays?

I think there are more and more businesses that are thinking this way.

In building this business, one of our hopes was that we could prove that it’s not always a choice between doing the right thing and making profit. You can do both. 

If you’re doing it authentically and you’re making decisions that better impact the world – helping people and uplifting communities – people will wanna support your brand. And in the end, you’re gonna spend less money trying to attract new customers and trying to retain your customers, because they’re gonna feel loyal to you. Their values are aligned with yours.

That’s what we’re trying to prove with this brand, and I think we’re showing that that’s the case.

Explore Cotopaxi

Now that you know the brand a lot better, take a look at our range of Cotopaxi products. 

We’ll leave you with these two useful links, if you’d like to learn a bit more about Cotopaxi and Davis!

And finally, to show you what Cotopaxi looks like in action, we geared up and went for a wander out in Friston Forest, Sussex – take a look...

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