Sarah Laufer, here with her family at Bend’s McKay Park, closed the retail shop for her company Play Outdoors, but she recently expanded her e-commerce operation to keep up with orders.
Laufer is a 37-year-old attorney who grew up in Brooklyn. Her parents were outdoors people, so she got to experience all sorts of adventures that big-city kids usually don’t get to enjoy. She went on to work as a river guide on the Deschutes and settled in Bend with her husband largely because of the beauty of the outdoors here.
She took a break from law after having her first child in 2007, and decided to start a company helping parents to get their kids healthy and active, playing outside. The format she came up with is a magazine-style website with blogs and videos linked to product sales for bike helmets, clothes, life vests and other products to keep kids happy and safe in nature. She describes it as a way to share the great outdoor culture of Bend with parents from other places, who want to give it a try but aren’t sure how.
“Most of our parents are weekend warriors, they’re rookies,” Laufer says. “Our job is to show them how to get started, where to go and what to buy.”
The Play Outdoors shop in the Old Mill District lost money, but the website grew quickly, from 100 products and four brands to 1,000 products and 10 brands. The warehouse space recently expanded from 2,800 to 7,000 square feet, and the business now employs about 15 people, mostly local moms with direct experience with the joys and pitfalls of exploring the outdoors with kids. The operation could expand further if Laufer is able to raise money. “We’re looking for the right investor, whether it’s a VC fund or a super-angel or an angel group,” she says. “We’re looking for a strategic partnership.”
There’s a precedent for that. The young Bend company that’s had the most success raising investor cash is G5 Search Marketing, which has grown to more than 110 jobs since its launch in 2005. The average age among G5 employees is 31, which makes sense when you consider that the industry of search engine optimization has not existed for long.
G5 Search Marketing CEO Dan Hobin (far right) has built the fastest-growing tech company in Bend and expects similar tech success stories to follow. With Hobin are (left to right) Nancy Hall, Greg Meier, Gunnar Hansen, Coby Randquist and Amy Foster Trenz.
Hobin takes a seat in the conference room and starts talking with the same matter-of-fact optimism I recall from previous phone interviews: “In a macro sense people are struggling all over, but it’s different for small startups,” he says. “Internet technology is on fire all over the country. It reminds me of 1998.”
Hobin moved to Bend in 2002 after pursuing a variety of ventures in the Bay Area dot-com boom years. “Some of them did pretty well, others crashed and burned,” he says with a shrug. He launched G5 in 2005 by going after the not-particularly-sexy business of self-storage units, leading the shift from the yellow pages to the Internet and providing companies with sales leads and instant analytic reports. From there he expanded into senior housing and apartment buildings. He bootstrapped the company for five years before landing $15 million from Volition Capital out of Boston last year. Sales grew 60% last year. Last October, the business expanded into a new floor, and they’re already running out of space there.
Hobin says he has no regrets about building G5 in Bend, and he expects plenty of similar growth businesses to follow likewise, especially now that the town has become affordable again. “The real estate crash was the best thing that ever happened to Bend,” he says.