There are not too many people I know who are in love with canoeing as much as Darren Bush. I don’t know this for a fact, but the word on the street is that when he talks in his sleep it’s naming off canoe parts. One look at his boat rack confirms the obvious.
To feed this passion for canoes (and kayaks) he runs the outdoor retail shop Rutabaga located in Madison, Wisconsin.
If you haven’t heard of Rutabaga before, that’s ok though it’s quite likely you have heard of the other tiny event that his business runs every March called Canoecopia. It’s a paddling trade show that attracts roughly 22,000 people over one weekend.
When not working in the shop or out on canoe trips, Darren spends time hammering steel into useful items in his own blacksmith shop as well as writing for his very interesting blog, canoelover.com.
I recently had the pleasure to sit down with Darren to learn more about what makes working in the outdoor industry so wicked awesome.
1) How long have you been working in the outdoor industry and what got you started?
I grew up in the desert in California, pretty close to the beaches but still...there were two seasons, green (two months) and brown (the rest of the year). I took my first Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Trip as an advisor to my church's young men's group. The BWCA was like a different world for me, and it was all downhill from there. I was smitten. I felt totally at home in a canoe from the first stroke.
2) What’s the best part of your job?
You mean best parts, right? So many things...I love providing jobs for really good and loyal staff. We have very little turnover in the permanent full-time staff so they've become a pretty tightly-knit team. I love seeing people go from beginner to participant and from participant to enthusiast. That's our work: to move people along the continuum.
I love working with really good people. After twenty plus years I have some wonderful friendships that will last a lifetime, too many to count. When I call a vendor, they don't ask for my account number, they ask about my family by name. When I was injured in an accident, Wenonah sent me a paddle with the signatures of all the staff. Those are the kind of people we work with.
A few years ago I taught a private lesson to a woman who wanted to get out on her own. Her spouse wasn't interested in paddling, so she took matters into her own hands and bought a solo canoe. After a few hours she had the basics down and was ready to get out on her own on some local streams and ponds. We loaded her canoe on her truck, and after she strapped it down, she turned and embraced me. She said "Thank you, you just changed my life." Well, it doesn't get any better than that.
3) What’s the most difficult aspect of the job?
A lot of folks say to me "Man, your job is so cool..." They're right, but what they don't realize is that half of what I do has almost nothing to do with paddling. Basic business practices are what they are. Working with banks, making sure our accounting is dialed (we have the best accountant in the universe), managing cash flow, dealing with inevitable personnel conflicts, working with advertising and PR people, IT headaches, etc. It's just basic stuff that has to be done. As great as the vendors are, there is still a lot of communication that has to go on and it takes time; time I'm not on the sales floor working with customers.
4) What are two tips you can give to somebody looking to start and outdoor shop?
Go into it with both eyes open. The idea of an outdoor shop is sometimes better than the actual one. It's not a dream job; it's a lot like work. You better have a business plan that takes into account the stuff that can hit the fan. If you want to do a one-person shop, be prepared to live there. If you want to hire employees, you're still going to be living there. Your shop is represented by your worst person on their worst day. Hire slowly, fire quickly. Hire nice people and teach them what you want them to know, rather than hiring knowledgeable people and trying to teach them to be nice.
For every dollar that comes in the front door, most of it goes out the back door. Get a great accountant. Only work with local banks. They care about your business. If you want to work with a big bank, be prepared for dealing with three tiers of suits and reams of paperwork. Local is the way to go.
As far as competition goes, be friendly with them if they're honorable people. Most of them are. If they're not, stay out of their way, they'll self-destruct on their own and you don't want to be around when the bomb goes off. And while they're imploding, they send you a lot of upset customers into your open arms.
5) What about your job do you think would most surprise people?
How much non-paddling stuff there is to do. How much planning goes into running a successful business. It may look free and easy, but rest assured it's not. They might be surprised at number of entrepreneurial businesses and the number of companies still run by their founders. There's a lot of private equity in this industry which makes a difference in how decisions are made. I have no shareholders but me, so if I want to make a long-term decision that may not pay off this year, I can do it and my shareholders won't squawk about their ROI this quarter.
6) What was the coolest thing you remember finding when you were a kid out exploring?
It's funny you should ask that question...I was always interested in the little things in nature. I'd be on a backpacking trip in the Sierras and while a lot of folks were taking in the view (spectacular), I was often snooping around little streams and bogs and outcroppings. They'd see a mountain, but I'd find a salamander or wildflower or edible wild plant. I remember one trip where people were sick of mac and cheese with spam cubes. I had wild onion soup with mountain sorel. I loved Euell Gibbons.
To this day, while the birders look up at the trees, I'm turning over logs and finding the little beautiful things. I like birds and such, but I'd rather watch a dragonfly emerge than watch any bird do anything.
7) If you could tell something to your 18 year-old self, what would it be?
Normal isn't. Paint your own picture and live in it. Being smart doesn't mean you're wise. Being kind is more important than anything else. If someone makes fun of you for doing something, there's a 100% chance they're jealous of you and don't have the courage to do it. Don't go to graduate school. Become an EMT instead, it will help more people.
Photo Credits: Darren Bush