Jason Hairston - The Beginning

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Stories of Howard Hill and Art Young and Saxton Pope.

My dad was a hunter, a traditional bow hunter, and all through my childhood hunting was this thing we did together as a family—it was a tradition. I started shooting when I was two or three. Every night after dinner we’d shoot in the backyard. And now, many years later, I’m doing the same thing with my four year-old son, Cash. Anyway, we took our bows everywhere we went. And at bedtime my dad didn’t read Cat in the Hat, he read stories about Howard Hill and Art Young and Saxton Pope. It was like living in the movie A River Runs Through It, only with archery equipment and deer, and instead of Montana we lived in Southern California.

Most of our annual trips and vacations were hunting-oriented. Every year, at least once a year, we’d go to Colorado or Utah to hunt deer. I killed and field dressed my first animal when I was nine. My dad and I were hunting wild goats on Catalina Island. I snuck up on one and shot it. It was small but still it was an awesome experience.

Throughout highschool I worked in the local archery store in summers. I made arrows, cleaned up stuff, sold stuff, I was basically a shop-kid. I didn't care if it was cool, I loved doing anything that had to do with hunting. It was weird, I'd go to parties on the weekend and have to leave at one or two in the morning because my dad would be ready to leave for a hunt in a couple of hours. I never missed a hunt, not once.

The process and the challenge.

My dad was always in good shape and my brother and I were in good shape. We were young and we both played sports. So part of our hunting thing on these longer trips was to try and get ever further in, further away from people. That meant getting up earlier and  getting home later. It was the early eighties and my dad was reading Dwight Schuh and Larry Jones. They were both writing about backpack hunting and getting further off the main roads. So pretty soon we were buying backpacks and going backpack hunting. The process and the challenge of it, and the feeling that came from being more remote and removed from civilization than ever before, was rewarding. The deeper we went and the harder the trips, the greater the satisfaction. And it paid off too, we started having a lot of success. So then it just became part of our process. We started looking for new areas to hunt, places with limited access. Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho—we’d do our homework and research the topography, and we’d put these amazing adventures together with lots of animals and no people.

Football.

My dad played football and my older brother played football, and so I just kind of grew up with it. I had a decent high school career, but I was a late developer and so I had an even better college career. While getting a business econ degree I played for UC Davis, a Division II team. They had a football program and it's a really good — a hard school to get into. I’m sure I could have gone to other schools with bigger football programs but none of them had the education that I wanted. During my freshman year I realized that I was as good as the seniors that were starting, I could outplay them, even the guys that were bigger and stronger than me. And by the time I was a sophomore, I was a starting linebacker, setting single game and single season tackling records. I knew that I was fast, but I didn't realize just how fast until my sophomore year. I could run with receivers and find the football really well and next thing your know, people are talking about the NFL, and I was on track to get drafted. Then in my junior year, in a Division II playoff game I got hit in the head, hard enough to break my C5 and C6 vertebrae, each in seven different places. I played well enough in my senior year but not well enough to get drafted. But I got picked-up by the Niners as an unrestricted free agent at a training camp after the draft. I was the only one out of the eighty-seven of us. That was in ’95. Then in '96 I went to the Broncos where I continued to have all sorts of problems with my neck. So later that year (I was 24 years old) I retired.

Do something you’re passionate about.

I started working at this bar owned by the parents of the girl (my future wife) I was dating. Then I went to work for a company that sold these huge air compressors for manufacturers in Silicon Valley. I did that for a year and a half. I was good at it and I realized that I liked sales. After that I got into commercial real estate. And after that, I bought a couple of franchises for investment purposes, built them up, and eventually sold them. During that process, I realized pretty quickly and urgently that I wanted to do something I felt passionate about, versus just doing something to make money. That was a big turning point for me.

It was a great experience. I learned how to be an entrepreneur, I learned that owning my own business was satisfying, I learned that making money was fine and good. But more importantly I learned that I needed to do something that I felt strongly about, like hunting for example.

Too inconvenient to hunt in just a day.

About a year after my football career ended, I drew a tag in eastern California in this area where neither my dad nor I had hunted before. So we meet up there opening weekend. We hunted together over the weekend and found a group of bucks living far enough away from the truck that it was just too inconvenient to hunt in a day. So I went and got my backpack and my sleeping bag and packed-up some food and backpacked in by myself for about four days. And I killed a really big buck. And that was it. I was reminded all over again that backpack hunting was right for me. Not long after that I was hunting deer in Nevada and elk in Idaho, and right back at it.

About eight years later, I was on a hunt in Idaho with a friend of mine, Jonathan Hart –  around this time I was starting to really struggle every Monday morning because my heart just wasn’t into my work anymore -- and so anyway, we were about 15 miles in. The terrain was rough and the weather was pretty bad and so naturally we got to talking about a technical layering system designed specifically for hunting. We started talking about what we were wearing, what worked, what didn’t, what was missing, what was unnecessary. We were wearing a pretty random and eclectic mix of outdoor clothing and hunting gear. There was some Patagonia capilene, some Cabella’s micro-tech shirts and pants and Jonathon was wearing a cotton and poly cotton camo baselayer. We talked about technical fabrics and features and different camos like Predator. I liked Predator; I liked the way it looked and the way the lights and darks worked to help you disappear in the timber.

The more we talked, the more we saw a real opportunity, and by the end of four days, we had a fairly well thought-out plan for a line of technical clothing based on a complete layering system. We came back enthused but with no real idea how to get started. So we sat down together a few times and continued to talk about it. Then we’d get on the phone and talk about it some more. One thing led to another and the holidays came and went and we still hadn’t made any real progress. Until when six months later one Monday I thought to myself, okay that’s it. I’m over this. I’m going to sell my business and start a hunting clothing company. It was early summer in 2005.

We decided to call the company Sitka.

First step: we approached Mothwing. We asked them if we could adjust the colors for western hunting, and we asked for a year-long exclusive with these new colors. Mothwing, new and looking for customers, agreed to it. Then we went to an industry trade show in Salt Lake City called Outdoor Retailer where we met with a guy who worked for Polartec. We told him what we were doing and why we wanted to use Polartec. And we asked if he knew where we could get our clothes made. For some reason he took us seriously enough to give us a lead on a cut-and-sew house in Oakland, California. The sewing house was run by a lady who used to work in-house for The North Face. We met with her, dropped our Polartec contact’s name and convinced her (eventually) to make us a sample line. We had no idea what we were doing. We just went to REI where we bought dozens and dozens of technical garments that we liked and wanted to reference (we left the tags on so we could return them later) and took them with us to meet this lady, who was dubious to say the least, and explained to her one piece at a time what it was that we wanted to make.

That winter we went to Shot Show with our samples that didn’t really fit, weren’t really made from the right fabrics and weren’t really in the right colors. We shared a booth with Mothwing and convinced Schnee’s, the catalog to be in, to put our entire offering in their catalog. They liked what we were about and they trusted us to get it right in production – which we eventually managed to do through a factory in Asia that was willing to reverse engineer our samples.

Later that summer, after getting the gear made right and shipping it, Schnee’s called one day to tell me the catalog was out. An hour later they called to say they had sold our first three pieces. Later that week they called to say they had sold 286 units and that our closest competitor had sold only three. It basically came down to the fact that there was nothing like Sitka on the market. People loved it—it was the first technical hunting clothing company ever, and there was a demand for it.

For the next three years we continued to make improvements and refine our process. I started going to Asia to meet with legitimate technical fabric houses and manufacturing facilities. We started working with better fabric suppliers. And basically we went from garage start-up to a serious corporation. With more and more employees and expectations and a more formalized process, there eventually came a push, internally, towards eastern markets and a broader overall appeal. But on a personal level I continued to find inspiration in mountains as well as high-end fabrics and materials. About this time Gore offered to buy the company. They did end up buying Sitka, giving me an opportunity to move on and refocus my energy on ultra light mountain hunting and a new business model. 


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