"Pack light, and live with variety" says Chris Elkins, the head of operations at Thunderbolt Sportswear. Chris and his two business partners, being avid outdoorsmen who have also worked in the industry for many decades, recognized the need for versatile clothes.
Whether you're flying over the hills in a commercial jet or hiking through them in some muddy boots, Thunderbolt pants and shirts stay fitted and fresh under all circumstances.
I had the privilege of meeting with Chris to discuss the brass tacks (and pink zippers) of his quickly growing startup.
We’re trying to grow the brand the right way ... to help uncheapen the market by bringing products with longevity, versatility, and purpose.
Tell me about your city. How has your location affected business developments?
Portland is a unique place: an hour and a half from the mountains, an hour and a half from the beach, three hours from the Oregon high desert. People here aren’t strictly hikers or skiers or fishermen or bikers—they’re all those things.
It’s hard to have a product that fits all those different applications, added to the fact that we live in the vicinity of some of the best farmland, so we also like our beer and restaurants …the whole spectrum.
And frankly, apparel that worked in all of those applications didn’t really exist on the market. That’s the reason the founder of Thunderbolt started with our original pant, and it’s why he went with Schoeller brand as a fabric supplier: they offer the durability, the stretch, the performance, all the stuff that he was looking for to meet every application. And when you go for a beer afterwards, they never look sweaty or dirty.
Have you had any fascinating or funny customer run-ins in the past?
We get a lot of people buying our products for travel. If you’re going to Europe for three weeks and just want to backpack it, you can’t take too much of anything; usually it’s two pairs of pants, and at least one of those are ours.
So, we had a guy who went to Chile for three weeks doing a Patagonia-sponsored trip, and he received a call for an unplanned penguin rescue mission in the Antarctic.
He wrote saying, “I know this probably isn’t covered under warranty… but I had to handle penguins up close, which led to a stain on the bottom of the cuff. Do you have any advice for getting penguin crap-stains out of my pants?”
And we did the best we could, but it wasn’t able to work. Turns out penguin crap might be our kryptonite.
I’m curious what differentiates penguin crap from all the rest.
I don’t know, but as we get bigger and can afford more for product testing we can put to the test all the types of animal crap and see how they wear off.
But, all jokes aside, we do know the limits of our product; we have a brand ambassador who’s thru-hiking the PCT, AT, and CT in our merino shirts, which in his experience do start to break down around 1,400 miles if you have a backpack on them every day. But, that’s a pretty decent threshold. If you’re going to backpack everyday for more than 1,400 miles, you should probably plan on bringing at least two shirts.
Any funny stories during development that you're willing to share?
We have lots of things that we’ve tried that haven’t worked out. All sorts of prototypes that resulted in sheer ugliness because, for instance, we’ll have a product idea but we’re not sure yet what zipper we want, so we’ll say, “just give us whatever you have.” Usually it comes with a fluorescent pink zipper and we have to imagine what it would look like if we had to develop it.
What’s your favorite part of running a business?
The direct connection with customers. Being a small business, it’s a lot more important for us to be directly connected with people who are using our products, people who have both positive and negative experiences with it.
We also like the fact that it’s all hands on deck—everybody’s doing everything. There’s something similar to an adrenaline rush, when it’s your own money, time, and resources at stake. We love doing it and we see the value, and although we have our frustrations, we’re fully committed, and we’re doing it for a reason.
What hobbies, passions, or activities occupy your time outside of work?
I’ve got a couple kids that keep me busy, but they’re getting older now. It’s funny, the three of us [business partners] are all very different. I’m much more of a hiker/camper/get-there-and-enjoy-the-view kind of guy. Kick back and throw down a few beers next to the campfire.
One of my partners is much more of a hardcore skier/rock climber, and he’s more into the solitude and mental challenge endeavors of the outdoors.
And the third is kind of a hybrid: he thinks nothing of getting in the car for a twelve hour drive to meet a buddy for a fishing trip out in the middle of nowhere, or maybe a spontaneous trip to Cuba.
For me, it’s all about enjoying the variety of the outdoors. You can usually find me on Mount Hood or Mount Bachelor, two of my favorite spots near Portland.
Time to get serious: if you could choose anybody to eat dinner with, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
I’m a bit of a history buff, so I think Theodore Roosevelt. He was a guy who went his own way and didn’t give a crap what anybody thought. He had events happen in his life that prompted him to take a couple years off to find himself, and it threw him off, but because he was able to realize and use the value of the outdoors, it helped him regroup and refocus on what was important to him.
He made some great changes, especially with protecting our public lands and making the variety of the outdoors accessible to everybody.
How would you describe Thunderbolt apparel?
Thunderbolt kind of crosses over with outdoor use and everyday streetwear, but it’s really designed to provide the ability for our customers to go from their jobs to something that’s a little bit more enriching and rewarding from a spiritual standpoint—enjoying the outdoors without having to get specific gear and waste time going home to get your other stuff.
We’re trying to grow the brand the right way by working with people and companies like Garage Grown Gear, people who celebrate startup brands, small businesses, and support people like us who have what we believe to be an honorable mission: to help uncheapen the market by bringing products with longevity, versatility, and purpose.