When Mike and Shelby Adams-Calway-Fagen found themselves jobless in the middle of the pandemic, they decided to don their creative thinking caps and come up with a new way to make ends meet.
“We have a history as makers,” explained Mike from their recently adopted home in rural West Virginia. “The lion's share of our gear — packs, tent, stakes, jackets and various apparel, even our dog's backpack, is all MYOG. Making it together as a couple has been really rad.”
Back in early 2020, the couple began banging out their first rendition of ultralight carbon fiber tent stakes in a friend's garage in Nashville, Tennessee. The design was based on some prototypes that Mike had handcrafted the year previous.
“I feel like we didn’t even know we were starting a business,” laughed Shelby, who inadvertently got the ball rolling on @stakes when she shared photos and specs about their newfangled stakes on Reddit’s UL community forums.
People took note of their sub 5 gram, 8 inch tent stakes. Custom orders started coming in from all over the globe, and before long @stakes was born.
Mike and Shelby spent the next few months experimenting with different materials and means of manufacturing their stakes. They began perfecting the components, shaving weight, bolstering strength, and getting their look down pat. Once they felt satisfied with the end product, they took them out for adventurous test runs, and felt happy with the results.
Every single component that goes into @stakes, from the reinforced aluminum tips and tops, to the carbon fiber shaft and inserts, has to be manipulated by hand.
“There’s nothing that we buy besides the cord that goes in the loops that we don’t change,'' Shelby said of their ultralight tent stakes. “We take everything in and we have to cut it down and sand it down.”
“It’s very alchemical,” added Mike. “It’s like, we’ve got this thing, and this thing, and this pile of quarters … let's figure out how to make it happen.”
And make it happen they have. @Stakes has gone from selling solely on Reddit to launching social platforms, building an online store and joining forces with Garage Grown Gear.
They’ve expanded their line to include high stakes, low stakes, glow-in-the-dark states, and their newest member, the stealth stakes aka the Understaker.
They’ve also seen their ultralight tent stakes go all the way from the USA to Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, New Zealand, Canada and even up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa.
Besides getting to work side-by-side, the newlyweds feel like connecting with the global outdoor community has been one of their favorite things about starting @Stakes.
“It’s been so cool talking to people about their experiences and getting photos back from their adventures,” Shelby said, who eagerly jumped into the position as their social media manager with both feet. “Everyone has been really awesome and we’ve really quickly made a lot of connections with other small business people and enthusiasts. We’ve made a lot of new friends.”
But like any new endeavor, challenges ultimately present themselves, and relying on a startup to foot the bills can be hard.
“The business became essential to our lives,” explained Shelby, “which is difficult financially because so much of the money goes back into the business. It’s been a labor of love, and we’re okay with that. Art for us has always been a labor of love.”
Figuring out how to educate consumers about best practices when using carbon fiber tent stakes has also been a learning curve.
“We are in the south, where there is a lot of hardpack and rock and lots of roots, but 90% of the time we are able to push the stakes in with our hands,” explained Mike. “But if there is an instance where you need more force, we suggest that people use the weight of a large rock, with something between the rock and top of the stake, like a piece of bark, and push the stake down.”
“It’s less like how you would hammer a railroad spike,” he continued, “and more like a concentrated force, as opposed to a bunch of smaller oblique strikes.”
Another question Mike and Shelby get a lot is why upgrade to an ultralight tent stake?
“Tent stakes have become a weird niche that on the surface can seem expensive, but relative to other ways that folks drop weight in their kit, it’s actually significantly cheaper,” explained Mike.
In addition to lightning packs, @stakes offers increased performance, Mike said. “For example, our stakes are larger in diameter than most other UL options, so they have better traction in all soil conditions.”
Plus, the option to get glow-in-the-dark coated tips makes you less likely to stumble over your tent stakes when nature calls in the middle of the night, and the color-coordinated loops help make for easier extraction in the morning.
While @Stakes is often mistakenly thought to be named after the Appalachian Trail (AT Stakes), which the couple describes as a ‘happy accident’, they actually credit the name's origin to their dry sense of humor.
“It’s really a play on words,” Mike said. “We had both lost our jobs and were thinking a lot about financial and emotional precarity, and the gamble that is trying to exist. And, despite however much privilege we have, it always feels like there's a lot at stake.”
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.