The outdoor industry in Western North Carolina (WNC) is thriving and growing. Not only do we have summer camps and outfitters throughout our mountains, but we have successful outdoor brands that have made WNC their headquarters. To support the growth of this industry, we have the first gear builder association of its kind in the outdoor industry, the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC (OGB), an association of local businesses with national and international clientele who are headquartered here in WNC.
We also are lucky to have the first outdoor accelerator program on the East Coast, the Waypoint Accelerator. This program is for early-stage, outdoor-focused companies who have recently embarked on their business journey or are still at the formative stages and waiting to take the first step. We’ve had the pleasure of being a member and board member of the OGB and mentors for the Waypoint Accelerator program over the past few years, and are excited about the progress we are seeing happen in Western NC for our industry.
Recently we had the opportunity to interview Matt Godfrey, former Board Chair of the OGB, Waypoint Accelerator Facilitator, and Business Resiliency Counselor at the Small Business & Technology Development Center at Western Carolina University, and Andy Williamson, Executive Director of the OGB and Waypoint Accelerator Facilitator, to chat about the great things that are happening with the OGB and Waypoint Accelerator this year.
Thank you both for taking time out of your packed schedules to talk with us for this interview.
Matt, the last time we interviewed you was pre-pandemic for our Coffee Talk series. You shared with us the origins of the Waypoint Accelerator. We’d love to hear some of the success stories in the past year from your first cohort.
Matt – Wow, time flies! The day you post this interview, will mark exactly one year since the last session of our first Waypoint cohort. We were beyond pleased with the first iteration of Waypoint and the positive outcomes we are seeing with the participating brands. Next month, we will have hard data from the one-year post-accelerator survey that will give us real insight on business growth, jobs gained, and capital acquired from the Cohort 1 brands in the year following their participation. Anecdotally, I already know that Waypoint had a positive impact with the first group in relation to business growth and marketplace exposure and positioning.
One of the benefits of cohort-based programs is the closeness you develop as a group that becomes a long-lasting family or network within a network. We all have been in touch, sharing victories, requesting support or collaboration, and rooting for each other along the way. It is rewarding to see that bond form and continue beyond the accelerator. This has been especially poignant given that two weeks after our final session, we were broadsided by a global pandemic.
The spirit of collaboration and mutual support we have in the outdoor industry of Western North Carolina is amazing. ~ Matt Godfrey
Based on the initial surveys and verbal feedback from the first cohort, the greatest value proposition they referenced for the program centered around outdoor network engagement, connections, and mentorship. Mountain Bizworks and the Outdoor Gear Builders (OGB) are the primary partners supporting Waypoint, along with several other partner organizations in the region. The spirit of collaboration and mutual support we have in our regional outdoor industry is amazing. The level of experience shared, hours volunteered, and relationships formed because of the many speakers and mentors who support this program is inspiring. That spirit has carried on into our next cohort. Darby Communications is one of those champions and we are lucky to have you engaged in Waypoint.
This year’s cohort is a little different; you’ve got more of a Mountains to Sea theme with startups based both here in Western NC as well as Eastern NC. Can you share with us why you expanded the program? Can you also share some of the new cohorts you’re especially excited about or that have really interesting stories?
Matt – The “Mountains to Sea” theme for the second cohort was a result of the pandemic pushing the delivery to a virtual platform. This allowed us to expand the offering beyond the western part of NC. It was fantastic to see the interest in Waypoint as shown by the number of applications we received from across the state and beyond. Ultimately, we accepted two companies outside of the initial footprint, Plantd Climbing in Durham and OBX On The Fly out of Manteo in the Outer Banks. Hence, the “Mountains to Sea” cohort was born!
Connecting with companies and networks across the state has really been an exciting part of the delivery this round. Utilizing our close connection with Amy Allison, Director of NC’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, and with support from the Small Business & Technology Center (SBTDC) locations throughout the state, we have been able to share strategic contacts and support where necessary. Our participants have enjoyed the opportunity to build their networks beyond the Western NC boundary.
Our second cohort is definitely a more diverse group of outdoor businesses than the first, and equally strong in their makeup and potential. Cohort 2 leans more heavily toward the outdoor outfitter and experiential model, whereas the majority of the first cohort was product design and manufacturing focused. We expect to continually have a different mix of business models in various stages of development, within the “early stage” spectrum, for any given cohort. This is why we designed the accelerator to have latitude in approach, based on each company’s waypoint and needs, with the ability to adapt the program at the group and individual level.
To your question about Cohort 2 companies that I’m particularly excited about or with interesting stories – I’ll say that as a facilitator and close advisor to the brands in this cohort, I kind of feel like a parent in that I can’t and won’t pick favorites. If they didn’t have potential and interesting stories, they most likely wouldn’t have stood out and been selected from the applicant pool. I see great things happening for all of them!
Andy, you’re the first Executive Director with the Outdoor Gear Builders. Can you share with us a little about what drew you to the position, what you’ve done so far that you’re the proudest of, and what you are most excited about in 2021 for this outdoor industry association?
Andy – The reason why I was drawn to the OGB was one of the same reasons why I was drawn to WNC: the community of people here that I feel so at home with. I had been involved with the OGB in the past, but on the periphery, until I was fortunate enough to facilitate the board through their strategic planning process as a consultant over the winter of 2019-2020, right before the pandemic. It was great to be able to get into the nitty-gritty of the organization and hear the vision of the board and key stakeholders I spoke with in the process. I knew then I wanted to be more involved.
I’m most excited about the future and growth of the OGB network, especially as we work to engage the entire industry, connecting our makers to our retailers, outfitters, nonprofits, and all the amazing partners that make this region and outdoor community so special. ~ Andy Williamson
We wouldn’t be where we are without the groundwork that has been laid by the member companies and volunteers who got us to this point. Over the past nine months, the board and I have been working hard to solidify our foundation so we can better support our rapidly expanding outdoor industry. I’m most excited about the future and growth of the OGB network, especially as we work to engage the entire industry, connecting our makers to our retailers, outfitters, nonprofits, and all the amazing partners that make this region and outdoor community so special.
You both were involved with the OGB last year in some capacity (Matt as Board Chair and Andy as ED for the latter part of the year). The pandemic obviously affected members in different ways (some thriving and others struggling to hang on) – can you tell us some stories of how members worked together to support each other and why an association such as the OGB is so important for businesses in times such as these?
Andy – This past year really demonstrated why the network of the OGB is so great. Our strength is in our companies and the people that run them. There are so many awesome examples of companies pivoting to make PPE and collaborating on sourcing and manufacturing solutions, coming together to fill a vital need for both our community and the rest of the country. That resiliency is just ingrained in who we are; it’s in our culture. We roll up our sleeves, help each other out, and get through things together.
Matt – I absolutely agree with everything Andy said in his response to this question. No doubt that we have something special here in our part of the Appalachian Mountains. It was an incredible experience serving on the OGB Board and supporting our members who see the value in sharing knowledge and resources. We have a great new Board Chair, Luke Bukoski of Cane Creek Cycling Components, and a wonderful new set of board members. They bring an amazing level of combined experience, full of energy and enthusiasm to carry the OGB into the next phase of growth.
We know there are some big things happening in 2021 for the outdoor industry in Western North Carolina. Anything you can share with our readers today to give them a sneak peek?
Andy – The outdoor industry is supported by so many amazing partners and organizations in the Growing Outdoors Partnership, who are all behind the scenes working on how we support the growth of our companies, bring more jobs, create more opportunities, unite the movement, and make sure everyone knows why we are the outdoor industry hub of the East! Expect some exciting announcements in the coming months!
In closing, can you both share with us something you’re excited about in 2021, whether it’s with the Waypoint Accelerator program, OGB, or WNC’s outdoor industry in general?
Andy – We have some amazing businesses in Waypoint that I’m so looking forward to watching their visions become realized and helping them through that process. Our cohorts create a special bond and they are already developing partnerships that we hope will last for years to come.
Matt – I’m looking forward to the ongoing evolution of Waypoint. The accelerator is an impactful tool for our early stage outdoor brands. It is a solid platform from which we can expand and build upon to support our outdoor focused businesses through all stages of growth.
Andy, Matt – anything else you’d like us to include?
Andy & Matt – WNC has such an amazing start-up and outdoor business culture with so many amazing resources and support, whether you are just starting out with a vision on a napkin or ready to move your business into a newer, larger facility. Don’t know where to start? Don’t hesitate to reach out to either of us for help. We love connecting people with others. That’s what we do!