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Solo N.C. entrepreneur hangs future on a hammock

Blue Ridge Camping Hammock
Blue Ridge Camping Hammock Lawson Hammock

Whatever Wes Johnson doesn’t outsource, he does himself.

That’s the life of a solo entrepreneur.

Johnson, the sole owner and employee of Raleigh-based Lawson Hammock, has managed to get his patented Blue Ridge Camping Hammock – a hammock that also functions as a tent – into regional and national chains such as Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s and Great Outdoor Provision Co. entirely on his own initiative. Next up: L.L. Bean stores, which will begin stocking the Blue Ridge hammock next spring.

Johnson’s growing business demonstrates how a self-reliant entrepreneur with a can-do attitude and plenty of persistence can overcome obstacles that many would find insurmountable.

Before getting into the business, Johnson had never designed a consumer product, arranged to have it manufactured or persuaded retailers to sell a product. Now he’s done all those things, and many more, out of necessity.

“I’ve always been one to kind of learn on the fly and learn to be resourceful. Obviously, I research and study and read and talk to people and ask for advice, but I like to cut my teeth in the middle of the action,” said Johnson, who has a ready smile and, at 6-3 and 180 pounds, exudes a level of fitness that suits someone who caters to the outdoors market.

In essence, Johnson, has outsourced manufacturing, which is handled by three Chinese companies, warehousing and shipping. His to-do list consists of an array of functions that include: business development and sales; miscellaneous paperwork and data entry; regularly tweaking the product’s design; working with retailers as needed; public relations; and, last but not least, customer service.

“I get emails frequently,” said Johnson, a Raleigh native and N.C. State University graduate who splits his time between working out of his house and an office at startup space HQ Raleigh in downtown Raleigh. “At this stage of the company, I like to personally respond to all of those. I haven’t outsourced the customer service.”

Johnson, 41, actually started out in the camping hammock business a decade ago mostly as a lark – a part-time endeavor where he could have a little fun and make a little money. It wasn’t until two years ago that the business was doing well enough that he could afford to quit his job in business development for a startup company and devote 100 percent of his time to Lawson Hammock.

So far, so good. Revenue, according to Johnson, more than doubled last year – the first year he worked full-time on the business. Last year he sold about 2,000 Blue Ridge hammocks, which typically retail for $169.99, and sales have surpassed that this year with the important holiday season still to come.

“The holidays are big,” said Johnson. “It’s a great gift for women, men, kids.” His target for the year is to sell more than 3,000 units. Today about 75 percent of Blue Ridge hammocks are sold through retailers; the rest are sold directly to consumers on the company’s website, lawsonhammock.com.

It helps that camping hammocks are a popular item these days – and that the Blue Ridge Camping Hammock receives high marks from consumers and the media.

Two-thirds of the 68 consumers who have rated the Blue Ridge hammock on Amazon’s website awarded it five stars. And Backpacker Magazine’s 2008 review of camping hammocks noted: “We tried more than a dozen different hammocks over the past eight months. Verdict: Testers either love or hate these things. Only one model satisfied everyone: the Blue Ridge Camping Hammock.”

Chuck Millsaps, president and co-owner of Great Outdoor Provision, which has carried the Blue Ridge hammock for years, said “hammocking” has become “a phenomenon ... We have found them to be what we would refer to as a driving force in the leisure category for at least the last 10 years.”

The Blue Ridge hammock, he added, has distinguished itself as a product that backpackers and “gear junkies” regard as “a sophisticated, lightweight shelter” – a reference to the fact that it features mesh netting and a detachable rain tarp that provide protection from the elements.

Expansion plans

The Blue Ridge hammock isn’t the only camping hammock on the market that converts into a tent, but it’s the only one sold by Great Outdoor Provision. Millsaps views its $169.99 price tag as “very, very competitive.”

Lewis Sheats, senior lecturer of entrepreneurship at N.C. State and director of the school’s Entrepreneurship Clinic, and his wife each have a Blue Ridge hammock. They’ve used them when hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

“I love it because I don’t have to sleep on the ground when camping,” Sheats said. “I don’t have to carry a bedroll. You can just hang it between the trees. You get that comfort but it’s also lightweight.”

“But I also like the fact that you can use it on the ground if you need to,” said Sheats, noting its ability to morph into a tent.

Through the Entrepreneurship Clinic led by Sheats, N.C. State students have worked on projects for Lawson Hammock, such as a video on how to assemble the Blue Ridge hammock, for free. Johnson, said Sheats, is “building a really cool, niche lifestyle business, but has the potential to really grow this thing into something bigger – if that’s what he wants to do with it.”

Johnson definitely has ambitions. He recently signed on with two distributors that he hopes will help him expand to more U.S. retailers, and he’s exploring teaming up with an international distributor as well to boost sales.

He also plans to branch out into hammock accessories next year, such as a pillow and an under quilt that provides insulation against the cold. Longer-term, he would like to produce a second hammock – one designed to accommodate two people.

Johnson recognizes that he could probably accelerate his company’s growth if he took on an investor, but he is wary of doing so.

“There are horror stories from folks – people I know – who took on investors that didn’t work out too well,” he said. “They were micromanaged.”

He got into the camping hammock business in 2005 after meeting two Raleigh brothers who were traveling to outdoor festivals selling products that were sewn for them by, to hear Johnson tell it, by “little old ladies in Hillsborough.” The brothers’ last name was Lawson.

Johnson, a commercial real estate broker at the time, acquired the Lawsons’ inventory for $30,000 with the help of a loan he obtained from friends. After hiring someone to create a website for him and getting the product into a few stores, he sold out his inventory within a matter of months.

But it was a real slog because the warehousing, packaging and shipping – which Johnson handled himself out of his home and out of a storage unit he rented – was labor-intensive.

“If I got an order for five or 10 (from a small retailer), I was overwhelmed,” Johnson said. “It was a lot to do while having a full-time job.”

A turning point

In order to be able to ramp up sales, Johnson eventually outsourced those functions. He also sketched out a design for a new hammock that included an innovative twist – the ability to be used as a tent – and arranged to have a Chinese company that he encountered at a trade show manufacture it.

“I knew there was a market for it,” Johnson said.

Even so, in 2006 he decided to devote the bulk of his time to a new entrepreneurial endeavor – WRJ Building, a home construction business, with backing from investors.

Johnson had never built a house before, but that didn’t stop him. Indeed, the business did well – the company built 7 or 8 houses – until the recession hit, which led to its demise.

“Luckily, we didn’t have much, if any, inventory left,” he said. “We had sold it all.”

Meanwhile, Johnson nurtured Lawson Hammock while working full-time jobs.

“Almost by default, I started focusing on Lawson Hammock” more and more, he said. “I was trying to set myself up to transition to be able to do it full-time.”

When he succeeded in getting the Blue Ridge hammock into Bass Pro Shops several years ago – his first success with a national retailer – Johnson took stock of the venture.

“It was a turning point,” Johnson said, “from the standpoint of, ‘Hey, I can do this. I can really turn this into something other than a fun little niche, online business. It could be more mainstream.’ 

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii

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