Forrest Shinners has developed one of the more niche additions to the sharing economy, but his start-up Kit Lender could help save winter sports enthusiasts hundred of dollars
With 4,000 customers per winter season, skiing enthusiast and entrepreneur Forrest Shinners is reaching for the highest slopes with his start-up Kit Lender.
As an online ski and snowboard apparel service, Kit Lender hopes to encourage more people to take up a winter sport by reducing costs and taking out some of the hassle of purchasing gear.
The US start-up employs 18 people during the ski season and has distributed 17,000 items of equipment to date.
Its founder Shinners, 39, reveals the idea behind the business and how he’s managed to disrupt the ski-wear industry.
Q&A with Kit Lender founder Forrest Shinners
What does Kit Lender do?
Kit Lender is an online ski apparel rental service that transforms the outdoor gear, apparel and accessories rental industry by shipping the newest and best equipment directly to skiers, wherever and whenever adventure strikes.
We’re passionate about winter sports, and feel that the headache that usually comes with planning outdoor trips puts people off experiencing all the outdoors has to offer.
Kit Lender aims to awaken the adventurer that lives in all of us, by taking care of some of the hassle of planning and paying for these trips.
New skiers are put off by the high cost of ski wear, that they’ll likely rarely use, while frequent skiers can avoid the high costs of flying their ski wear from place to place, as well as storing them.
By renting ski apparel with Kit Lender, skiers avoid the high costs of having to buy ski wear, but still retain access to premium brands.
With free and easy shipping and returns, you save money and time, that would be better spent on a mountain or following a trail.
What were you doing beforehand and where did the idea for the business come from?
I was born and raised in Stowe, Vermont, and as the child of parents who own a ski shop, I was raised with skiing in my blood and always had access to the newest and best gear available.
However, it wasn’t until I moved to New York City back in 2007, working in finance and meeting lots of people who either had never skied before but wanted to, or skied only once every few years, that I realized one of the biggest things holding them back from going more often was the high upfront cost of good ski clothing.
For those that did own ski wear, the majority of the year these clothes were just taking up space and collecting dust.
After thinking about this, it occurred to me that every ski shop or resort rents skis, but no one rents ski clothing.
Naturally, I turned to google and quickly discovered no one offered the ability to rent ski clothes online either. That’s when I had my “ah-ha” moment.
When was Kit Lender founded and how has its journey unfolded since then?
After my light-bulb moment, I gave my dad a call and told him about the business idea.
We bought a small amount of clothing from suppliers we already had relationships with through his ski shop.
We built a website and officially went live in the winter of 2014. The word spread and the responses were incredible – we were selling out almost every weekend.
During the first year I did everything. I would fly to Vermont on weekends to pack and ship orders in a small area in my father’s basement or from my apartment in New York.
My mother would help me clean the kit once it was returned.
I would also take customer emails, calls and chats on my cell phone, all the while still working my finance day job.
I learned how to use Google, Facebook and YouTube ads for digital marketing and did sales and PR calls to get affiliates and the attention of press.
Year two we hired our first fulfillment and customer service employee and moved into a small apartment in Vermont, that we converted into a warehouse.
Back then we were putting all of our money back into the business to grow inventory and improve operations.
We continued to grow every year and now have a general manager and 15 seasonal customer service agents, a digital marketing agency, and a 3,000 square foot warehouse fulfillment center.
What kind of funding have you received and what has it enabled you to do?
All of this was accomplished with an initial investment of $15,000 and a small amount of debt funding while also working a full-time job.
The money was used to originally purchase inventory and build our website. Since then invested profits have been used to grow the business.
Where do you operate and what are your future plans in this regard?
Currently, we are headquartered out of Stowe, Vermont, with the customer service and fulfillment out of a warehouse and office space there.
We are currently exploring moving our operations west to better service our customer base in Colorado, Utah and the Sierra Nevadas.
Explain what your business strategy is and how this may change in the future?
We are currently focused on ski clothing rental and providing high-quality gear to our customer.
In the future, we may expand into other sports or adventure travel.
We currently own all the gear offered on the platform, but we have ambitions to move to a purer share economy model where people can exchange or rent their own equipment out when they aren’t using it.
What’s been your biggest success so far?
I think our greatest success to date is how we have been able to slowly grow the business without external capital.
I am amazed at the market we have been able to create in an area that didn’t exist five years ago.
During the first year of operations I had a customer make a large order for his family.
When I spoke to him on the phone he mentioned that he was using us for his first ski trip with his family of seven and didn’t know if they were going to like skiing as he was the only one in the family who’d ever been before.
He was excited to get the family out on the slopes without having to spend thousands of dollars to buy gear especially since he didn’t know if they would like it.
The following fall he called me back up to tell me that his family had such a great time skiing that they were planning to go again that winter and was looking to invest in ski clothing.
He was so thankful for our service as it allowed his family to try skiing. He hadn’t in the past because of the initial cost of investment in ski gear.
One could look at this as losing a customer. However, for me, if I got every one of my customers to become a frequent skier so often that they bought ski gear I would still consider our business a success.
Helping his family be active and enjoy each other’s company outdoors is exactly what I want people to do.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Lack of capital has been one of the biggest challenges the company has faced.
Because this is self-funded I have had to keep my day job to support myself and haven’t been able to grow as fast as I’d like.
I haven’t been able to build the website and back-end operations I’ve wanted, it’s also taken time to build the team, and have the money for marketing.
I hope to be able to move the fulfillment to Colorado so we are closer to one of our major markets.
Is there anything you would do differently if given the chance?
I would probably take investor money earlier and bring on another partner.
I think the business needed more capital early on, so having another person to work and invest time and money would have been very helpful in our growth.
What is the health of your industry like at the moment and what are the factors impacting it going forward?
The ski industry is doing well but it has changed a lot recently.
You are seeing fewer people taking ski trips every weekend, instead choosing to go on one or two ski trips a year.
I think this has set the necessary conditions for companies like ours to thrive because now customers have less need to own gear that they are using a few times a year.
Other share economy solutions like AirBnB, Uber and others have made people more comfortable and trusting of the quality and hassle-free advantage of renting, meaning they are more comfortable renting online.
What is the one disruption you’re preparing your business for in the future and how are you doing this?
I am preparing for more entrants into the market of both ski and other outdoor sports.
In order to prepare we are trying to perfect the operation and making sure our customer service is the best in the business.
As long as we have the best gear, best prices and the best service there is no reason for people to try any other supplier.
I am also continuing to explore other opportunities to expand the product offering both in winter and options for other outdoor and adventure travel.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Do as much research as possible on the industry and try and find a technology partner early on.
Raise money and raise more than you need. Everything you plan for takes twice as long and costs twice as much.
Stay positive and don’t burn out. Things are tough but keep being positive and trust that the work you are doing is leading the business in the right direction.
If you get down on yourself for bad decisions or the hardship you will burn out. This is a marathon and not a sprint so remember to have fun and enjoy the process. Learn from your mistakes and move on – don’t let them fester.