Gary Bracelin is someone who wears his passion on his sleeves—with wear being the key word. Gary is the founder of Bend Outdoor Worx, an accelerator focused on the outdoor industry, and making Bend, Oregon, a hub for this vertical.
“We started Bend Outdoor Worx because we saw a real need—and opportunity—in our community to help nurture, support and develop emerging businesses in the outdoor industry,” Gary said. “You hear about accelerators and incubators all the time, but the vast majority of these organizations focus on the tech industry. For the most part, the needs for outdoor industry businesses, particularly product-based companies, are very different and specific.”
With such specific needs and requirements, Gary reached out to the already established and vibrant outdoor industry veterans who call Bend home. Their feedback turned into support, and resulted in many of them participating to get Bend Outdoor Worx off the ground.
“All of our founders have worked in the industry for years,” Gary said. “There was a pent up desire to share and mentor.”
With a desire to create a destination for the outdoor industries next innovators to grow their business in a state that is home to some of the biggest names in the outdoor apparel and footwear world, Gary had no doubts Bend was the perfect location
“It’s funny you say ‘Why Bend?’ because I always say ‘Why not Bend?’,” Gary said. “Doesn’t it seem like the perfect place for a unique outdoor-industry specific accelerator? We started in Bend because it is such an iconic location for outdoor industry companies. Over the years, I worked with businesses who love Bend and would come here to shoot their catalogs, but couldn’t locate here because there wasn’t the kind of business support they needed—but that has changed. It just felt genuinely authentic to start here.”
That passion around Bend’s sense of place as a viable home for this industry has led to an emergence of not only regional, but national interest in what Bend Outdoor Worx is doing.
“As for opportunities, we have such enthusiasm for the the future,” he said. “It is our goal to make Bend a hub for companies in the outdoor industry. We’ve graduated our inaugural class and have just launched our second session. We see companies from across state—and even the country—who are now interested in Bend as a viable option for their company.”
There are many factors evolving Bend into not only a drop in outdoor destination, but a place where outdoor companies can not only start, but thrive and accelerate.
“We now have direct flights to Seattle, Denver, SLC, LA, and San Francisco, which has significantly changed the landscape of Bend’s perception as a ‘remote outpost.’ In addition, the influx of people here over the past 10-15 years has brought high-level professionals with the right skill, many of whom have been working remotely for other outdoor companies, or choosing jobs outside of the industry to help support the outdoor lifestyle desire that brought them to Central Oregon.”
That evolving infrastructure created a great location based pitch to launch Bend Outdoor Worx to a broader audience, and Gary turned his focus towards developing a program that was industry—but not accelerator—specific.
“I think our biggest challenge has been in determining how to structure the program. We talked to the stakeholders at FoundersPad very closely when we were forming Bend Outdoor Worx, and looked at other incubator / accelerator programs outside of the area as well.” Gary adds, “We really wanted to tailor our process to outdoor companies. While also drawing from the successful experiences other these organizations have seen.”
Using the insights garnered from his outreach, Gary crafted a unique program.
“Our primary differentiation is that we don’t actually follow the same kinds of curriculum and formats that many other accelerators use — what we really wanted to do is customize our curriculum not only to the outdoor industry, but also to the companies who are going through each session. Consequently, our curriculum could look very different from one session to another, based on needs. There are definitely some key components of how we interact with each class, but every company’s strengths, weaknesses and needs are different. We value and stress flexibility, underscored with stability. We also stay in the game longer (in the capacity of board of directors) to help ensure longer term success.”
The structure and format was put to use on the first three companies to go through the accelerator: Cairn, HomeSchool Technical Apparel, and Free Range Backpacks. The program ended right about the time as the Bend Venture Conference, and all three companies applied.
“When all three Bend Outdoor Worx companies that were enrolled in our inaugural session made the cut to present at last year’s Bend Venture Conference, we were able to quickly demonstrate the viability and potential opportunities the outdoor industry has to offer to important and potential investors throughout the country,” Gary said.
So after launching Bend Outdoor Worx just over a year ago, what has been Gary’s biggest surprise to date?
“We thought it was a smart idea, but the overwhelming interest and support we’ve received since we started has just validated the need for this kind of specific industry program in our country.”
A validation that what they are crafting in Bend is not only a good model, but one that just might make Bend the epicenter for the outdoor industries next wave of companies, while holding true to the region’s sense of collaboration, “We definitely see opportunities for cross pollination as FoundersPad looks at diversity within their program in areas that don’t fall in their expertise — and we see outdoor companies who are incorporating tech elements. There is a respectful, ongoing collaboration between us as we work to achieve the same vision.”