2012 was an interesting year. Some followers of long-predicted prophecies believed the world was ending due to the Mayan calendar stopping in 2012. Others, like Dustin Hogard and Nick Blackman, had the future firmly focused within their minds with the creation of their company Wazoo Gear.
Sporting two highly opposite personalities and fields of expertise, these two men forged a partnership with a single goal in mind, to produce quality “survival” gear that can aid when the you-know-what hits the fan. From their early roots in Nick’s basement to their move to a warehouse that unfortunately erupted into a fiery blaze to their relocation to a Colorado office that offers a panoramic view of the Rocky Mountains, these guys never deviated from their objective.
Today, these two men look at the walls of their office decorated with their once-distant dreams now transformed into physical, tangible products and use that inspiration to press forward with new and innovative gear. Although the road was bumpy at times, these guys exemplified drive and determination, which continues today, and here is their story…
What was the driving force that prompted you to create the Wazoo Gear instead of joining an already established “Survival” brand company?
In 2010 I was working as a guide in Alaska and had a “disagreement” with the manager. On my 3-day suspension, I went into the mountains to solo camp and had the epiphany, “It’s not the job. It’s not the manager. It’s me! I’m unemployable!”
That planted the seed for me to eventually decide I would either be a hobo or self-employed, so no poor manager would ever have to suffer through trying to manage me again.
However, Wazoo ended up being a partnership between Nicholas Blackman and myself, so let me publicly apologize, “I’m sorry, Nick.”
Ten years on, and still haven’t had to resort to being a hobo. But it’s always a fallback.
Survival gear exploded exponentially on the market about a decade ago, with companies jumping onto the bandwagon and ultimately disappearing not too long afterward. How has your company remained relevant in this ever-changing market?
Yeah, I firmly believe at one time, we were in the most saturated markets in the US. Our first products were “paracord survival bracelets.” They were very popular, but so was making them. With a couple of dollars in materials and a few minutes on YouTube, it seemed suddenly everyone and their uncle were suddenly “business owners” weaving the bracelets and selling them anywhere they could.
And, of course, the saturated market meant that most of these newfound “business owners” were racing to zero dollars, many of them probably operating below cost. Then came the flood of Chinese bracelets and supplies, further devaluing the products.
However, from the beginning, we didn’t do anything like others did. When we released our top-of-the-line Adventure Bracelet at $89, there was no way of knowing if there would be a market for a product in a category where the consumer’s value was initially anchored at $5-20. But we refused to compromise materials and prided ourselves on innovation, and as such, our costs were astronomically more than the standard bracelets and required a higher price point.
We were very fortunate that we were able to communicate the justified price with all the added value. We had a winner pretty much right out the gate, and then we just kept on innovating and bringing more products to the market. Almost none of them are still around today (including the bracelets). Despite great sales, we constantly “killed our babies” if we couldn’t justify the cost/benefit to the business.
Was “being your own boss” instrumental in getting things done exactly how you wanted them based on your own vision?
Yes, for us, questioning how the status quo does things is where all our opportunities have come from.
What were some pitfalls and problems you faced when initially getting Wazoo off the ground?
Referencing the previous question, however, I would like to point out that it is a dichotomy to question/challenge everything. We’ve gone down rabbit holes of sometimes doing too many things differently, and we learned hard lessons about why some things have just evolved and are generally accepted to be done a certain way. That, and choosing our battles wisely, because we’ve learned that if we choose too many hills to die on, it’s just more likely we’ll just end up dead.
One real-world example of this is trying to make everything in the USA. We were dead set on sourcing USA materials, but that gets complicated and damn near impossible quickly because there are just some things that are no longer made in the USA. So, we’re we going to buck the system and try to disrupt dozens of industries by building factories in the US for each individual component that doesn’t have a US supplier? We still source each component we can from the USA and can provide jobs for lots of Americans, but no, we didn’t start a large-scale industrial foundry factory so that we could source USA-made ferrocerium rods. We decided not to die on Ferro Rod Hill, and yes, it surprises a lot of folks to learn that ALL ferrocerium rods are produced overseas.
How would you describe Wazoo Gear in only three words?
Hard work and beer, but our COO Noelle would probably prefer I provide an answer like adaptable, innovative, and authentic.
Nearly everyone wants to be “the boss” of their own company. What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs that want to follow a similar path as you’ve taken?
Adopt the philosophy of “extreme ownership,” popularized by Jocko Willink.
Be vigilant to protect a healthy work/life balance from the beginning. If you’re not careful, the business will become your nagging mistress and compete with much-needed time and attention from family and friends. I’ve had business owner friends commit suicide, and others confide in me how close they’ve come.
Nick and I are examples of what not to do in this area, but we’re getting better. I think the only thing that has offset the sacrifices we make and kept it going is my final recommendation…keep it fun!
How have your responsibilities within the company changed from the early days of Wazoo to now, if at all?
We used to do literally EVERYTHING. Now, I try to follow Jocko’s quote, “If you want to control everything, control nothing,” referring to the decentralized command of empowering your team to make decisions and operate without you.
We still have a long way to go, but we’re constantly pushing ourselves to go from the positions of employees to operators to simply owners.
What benefits have you acquired by creating your own company rather than working for similar operations?
Personally, freedom is the best benefit. Having full and excuse-free responsibility is a burden that seems not everyone is wired for, but for me, it means the freedom to create something like cool products and fun, rewarding jobs. The “pandemic” demonstrated that having our own company meant we had the privilege of providing job security and personal freedoms to our employees during a time when sadly, those things were revealed to be rare for many.
Do you find the current “Survival” gear landscape much more challenging now than when you first had the idea to launch Wazoo Gear?
I do not. With the progress of technology across all facets, from communication to manufacturing, it gets easier every day. It’s an exciting time to be alive and provide value to the world!
If you could do one thing differently concerning either the start-up or the ongoing daily business of Wazoo Gear, what would that be?
Relay the vision. To our family, friends, and fans, we should have, and still should, do a better job of communicating our “why.”
Where do you see yourself (and Wazoo Gear) in the next five years?
In 5 years, I believe we will have cracked the code of creating a company that operates with very little direct oversight of the owners, Nick, and myself, stepping in only to work on the fun parts of the business. I occasionally stir up some chaos to keep it exciting.
Want to learn more about this incredible company?
Visit WazooGear.com for exceptional high-quality outdoor and survival products.