For six years, Jason Hairston adamantly refused to raise any outside capital for his hunting gear company, Kuiu. He wanted to stay in control of the business and the brand. And frankly, he didn’t need anyone’s money.
Kuiu, which sells hunting gear and apparel direct-to-consumer, brought in $2 million in revenue when it launched in 2011, doubling its sales each consecutive year after that. But in 2015, growth began to slow, primarily because the company was unable to keep up with demand. With customers on year-long waiting lists for Kuiu’s products, Hairston quietly met with private equity firms to get the capital he needed to grow operations.
Today, Hairston announced that San Francisco-based Main Post Partners has invested $50 million in exchange for a 23% stake in his company. The cash infusion will be used to increase inventory supply, launch a mobile showroom, and expand the business internationally.
Hairston was careful to make sure that when the ink on the deal dried, he would still be Kuiu’s majority shareholder. Giving up control by taking outside money was a mistake he’d learned the hard way: When Hairston launched his first hunting gear business, Sitka, in 2005, he raised money every year until he lost control of the company and was reportedly pushed out.
“You have to be very careful about who you get involved with,” the NFL-player-turned entrepreneur says.
This time around, he’s doing things differently. By taking outside funding while maintaining ownership of the company, he plans to expand the business into a major player in the hunting gear industry — on his terms. Kuiu, which did $43 million in sales last year, certainly has room to grow: The roughly 37 million hunters and anglers in the U.S. spent a whopping $90 billion on lodging, gear and equipment in 2011, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Established competitors in the hunting apparel market include Under Armour and Hairston’s previous company, Sitka, whose products can be found in big box stores.
Instead of working with big retailers, Hairston wants to launch a chain of brick-and-mortar shops so customers can browse Kuiu merchandise, work with a tailor for a custom fit, and “experience” the brand. The first location is tentatively slated to open in Denver, Colo., in June of 2018.
To gauge customers’ appetite for purchasing Kuiu products in-person, Hairston is about to embark on a 26-city, cross-country tour, in which one 18-wheel-truck will double as a mobile showroom for the company’s merchandise.
Kuiu already has a roster of high-profile fans, including Metallica frontman James Hetfield, brothers Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., and NFL quarterback Carson Palmer. The Arizona Cardinals’ player, a Kuiu loyalist since 2014, says it’s the quality and fit of the products that appealed to him. Although he doesn’t have much time to hunt during football season, he wears Kuiu jackets when he goes skiing or when he takes his kids to school on really cold mornings.
“Being 6’5 and 240 pounds, I have a difficult frame to fit,” Palmer says, adding that he has now ordered nearly every Kuiu staple from the puff jacket to the pants. “It’s always really hard to find the right fit in the shoulders and the stomach because there aren’t a ton of 300-pound guys hiking up mountains. For me, if it fits right, I’m a customer forever.”
Palmer’s endorsement aside, Hairston knows it will be hard to convince non-hunters that Kuiu products can work for them. “Anti-hunters have this emotional idea of us being egotistical maniacs killing an animal for a picture,” he says. What they don’t realize is that many hunters and anglers care deeply about wildlife. In 2011, for example, this group contributed more than $3 billion toward conservation efforts through purchases of licenses, payment of excise taxes, and donations to wildlife organizations, according to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.
“We do a lot for wildlife,” Hairston says. “We’ve done a very poor job of talking about it.”
Recently, he’s found himself in a position to speak up about the issue. A charming but polarizing figure, Hairston was an ardent Donald Trump supporter throughout the election, connecting Trump’s campaign managers to influential figures in the hunting industry. Now that Trump is in the White House, Hairston has been named Adviser to Secretary of the Interior, and will weigh in on policies relating to hunting, conservation and wildlife.
In his mind, this mission and his company’s mission are one and the same. “[Hunters] are looked at as bad people,” Hairston says. “Kuiu gives me the opportunity to spread the word.”