Categorized | Shoestring Startup

Fitpacking – I walk for a living

Steve Silberberg

My name is Steve Silberberg and I am founder and owner of Fitpacking, a service that takes people on backpacking adventure vacations to get in shape and lose weight. While a shoestring budget isn’t necessarily the best approach for this sort of venture, it can work because unlike a store or other conventional business, you don’t have to show up every day. I am very fortunate that I was able to start Fitpacking while holding a regular job.

Beginnings

I worked at an investment firm as a software contractor for many years. As backpacking is my passion, I noticed that whenever I returned to work after a backpacking vacation, I weighed less, my clothes fit better, and on top of it, I was stress free.

Toward the end of 2002, I started thinking that others might want to get in shape by hiking as well. I mean, who wouldn’t want to lose weight and experience beautiful wilderness areas such as Yosemite, Mt. Rainier, and Redwood National Parks? (Answer: a lot of people it turns out).

While still in the concept stage, I kept working and started saving. In March 2005, I led the inaugural Fitpacking trip to Arizona. Careful measurements were taken during this trip and I was finally able to verify the anecdotal evidence that backpacking alters body composition. I was ready to begin.

Stumbling Around

I’ve always felt that quixotic confidence is a necessary attribute for an entrepreneur. That’s why most of us are shocked when customers don’t flock to our “amazing” visions. Fitpacking struggled mightily. Part of the reason for this – actually the main reason – was poor marketing. For those who aren’t natural marketers, there’s a fine line between informationally exposing people to your business and talking about yourself and your business all the time like a shameless jackass.

As an admittedly poor marketer, even I realize that there is more to marketing than just sales. Everything a potential client is exposed to affects their perception, for example, the website. Despite having a highly informative, programmatically complete site, the aesthetics of the Fitpacking site were hideously ugly, so it drove potential customers away … for years.

Furthermore, backpacking is a bad business to push on people. If I sell you ugly shoes, well the worst that can happen is that you either don’t wear them or your friends talk about you behind your back (they do this anyway). However, if I convince you to go backpacking and you’re not appropriate for the program, you may find yourself collapsed on the side of a mountain, physically and mentally exhausted as night approaches. That’s a different dynamic than selling someone a crate of bananas that go bad prematurely.

Experimentation

Fitpacking experimented with various programs, such as running a 400-mile, 6-week walk from Orlando to Key West, FL. It was a logistical nightmare. A single plan change during the first week changed the logistics 4 weeks and 300 miles away.

Other ideas were more successful, such as a day hiking, stay-in-a-lodge trip which we have incorporated into our offerings. While popular, the downside to this trip is that body composition change isn’t as marked as it is when participants carry everything on their backs all week. But for those who are unable to complete our more rigorous trips, this is a fine option.

Other experiments are in the works such as various reality shows. We have developed concepts such as Fat vs. Thin and Fatpackers Brides which are both competitive and transformational.

Advertising

I’m not sure what the most effective strategies for increasing the awareness of other businesses might be, but I’ve found that our best results have come at great expense from Google AdWords. I think this is because Fitpacking appeals to people without regard to geographical boundaries the way a dry cleaner would.

One other strategy that has worked well for Fitpacking is the Frequent Hiker Program. Participants are given cumulative discounts for every trip they take so that the more excursions they book, the greater the discount.

The Recession

With my continued efforts at running Fitpacking (into the ground), business improved until the recession hit. Surprisingly enough, when people lose the bulk of their life savings, they stop buying guided hiking trips. In order to weather the downturn, I have picked up various short term software contracts to supplement my income.

Unfortunately, the effects of the economic slowdown are still being felt, but when they turn around, Fitpacking will be established and at least somewhat experienced in avoiding novice mistakes made in the first few years of operation.

The Present

In 2010, Fitpacking started selling trips out. Trips had sold out before on occasion, but not on a consistent basis. In order to keep up with the workload, I now have two part-time assistants in addition to about a dozen wilderness guides.

I expect 2011 to be a banner year, but I’ve expected that every single year so far with mixed results. Maybe this will be the year it finally turns the corner. Perhaps business planning is not my longest suit. But planning and guiding backpacking adventure vacations is and you would do well to sign up now in order to jump start your fitness and lose some weight. http://www.fitpacking.com

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