Meet Alison Dennis, the girl who analyzes every piece of climbing gear in the world!

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What do you do when your favourite hobby is to collect and compare climbing gear from around the world? Well, you start an incredibly successful business, of course.

I am incredibly curious; my motto is “explore and engage.” Not much excites me more than learning and stories.

When you’re willing to do even more groundwork on a product than the company which makes it then you know you’ve got an obsession…

What’s more, when you’re willing to dedicate all your free time to developing your idea into a free service for the world to enjoy, then you know you’ve got the potential to build a freemium business that people will love…

And then…. When you’re willing to do whatever it takes to build a life and a living around your business, your passion for rock and your lust for adventure then you’ve got … Alison Dennis from Weigh My Rack.

In today’s Digital Dirtbag feature you’ll find out how Alison:

  • Develops her ideas and brings them to market;
  • Sets herself (and her trailer) up for long hauls on the road;
  • Prepares her body and her mind to get the most out of each day;
  • Spreads the word and builds her tribe-like following while risking very little;
  • Focuses on clear decision-making to be efficient both in business and on the rock;

And best of all, you’ll learn how Alison makes money giving everything away for free!

No matter who you are or where you come from, or where you’re going there are some definite lessons to be learned in this intertview with Alison from Weigh my Rack.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your Digital Dirtbag journey thus far?

I started WeighMyRack when I still worked for Boeing. At the time I had just started rock climbing amongst other hobbies like mountaineering, paragliding, and road biking. What I quickly realised when setting myself up as a newbie in these kinds of sports was the aboslute lack of quality information about the gear, especially the essentials required to get into those sports.

As a total newbie I would buy some gear (typically something on sale) that I thought would work, and then a few months later I’d discover that I would have been much happier with something else. Not only did I waste money and time but I felt silly in the process.

And that’s when idea of WeighMyRack quickly morphed into an ever growing database that allowed me to see what all the options were and how they compared. I picked climbing gear as the prototype because I thought it would be easy as there weren’t as many products out there.

Turns out that was optimistically untrue, but the response was amazing: I would tell my climbing partners about the concept of having every piece of gear with every tech spec and people would flip out. Many nerdy climbers were already creating their own Excel spreadsheets for gear that just barely scratched the surface. As the site started to come together my excitement for the future of it kept growing and my enthusiasm for my desk job continued to plummet.

My Digital Dirtbag journey really started about 2 years ago after I left my corporate job and bought a travel trailer (a 17’ 1984 Bigfoot, check it out here). I told my then-boyfriend (now fiancè) Andreas that I needed to go on the road because our current lifestyle in Seattle just wasn’t doing it for me. Fortunately, he was able to negotiate contract work for his job and join me on the road. One year later he left that job and officially joined WeighMyRack. We’ve now been working full-time together for just over a year and it’s been surprisingly easy and incredibly rewarding.

Alisons partner out in the field putting the gear to the test!

Alisons partner out in the field putting the gear to the test!

Since going on the road we’ve been across the country multiple times, as north as Nelson, BC, south as Key West, FL, east as Acadia, Maine and West as Vancouver Island, BC (see the map of our travels). We always get pulled back twice a year to Salt Lake City, Utah for the Outdoor Retailer trade show where we get the info on all the new gear coming out, which we use as our main blog content.

Along the way we’ve had the pleasure of touring Black Diamond, Arc’teryx, Omega Pacific, VLine, and more US manufacturers like Misty Mountain, SMC, and Voodoo Bouldering. Being able to call our business contacts our friends really helps us stay stoked and motivated.

Q: I’m curious to know what’s actually involved in keeping your website (and business) up and running from day to day?

Oh man. What isn’t involved? There is definitely no “normal” day and that’s one of the best parts of the job. Here’s some of the things I’ve been up to the past month:

Blog & Social Media

  • Writing blog posts about new gear and updating gear specs on the site.
  • Posting and interacting on social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, G+I’d recommend going for one or two strongly versus all at once, but it’s impossible for me to learn something new and then not implement it.
  • Responding to folks the internet — Quora, climbing forums, gear questions, site questions, missing spec, suggestions for future functionality, thank you’s, and more.
  • Reviewing a video before it’s released — Andreas does all the video stuff: shooting and editing, I just make nit-picky comments about how it can be even better.

The WeighMyRack team in the studio putting together educational videos.

The WeighMyRack team in the studio putting together educational videos.

Marketing & Communications

  • Coordinating with manufacturers to get specs — We actually end up catching a lot of mistakes on the manufacturer websites and marketing materials: incorrect specs, pictures not matching with specs, or the fact that the specs we collect sometimes don’t even exist online so I have to persuade the manufacturer to provide the spec(s) to us.
  • Interacting with contract employees — I get a lot of energy from these co-workers, and it increases my want to do more.
  • Going to the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show and interviewing the manufactures and brands so we can report on all the newest gear
  • Reaching out to other climbers, climbing sites, and gyms — introductions, interviews, collaborations, etc
  • Working with our merchant partners — Backcountry, REI, EMS, GearX, etc
  • Representing WeighMyRack at climbing festivals — like Red Rock Rendezvous
  • Sending out free stickersone of the few marketing things we spend money on

Left: Our rogue marketing at Red Rocks Rendezvous in 2013. Right: In 2014, the same area was sectioned off for paid sponsors.

Left: Our rogue marketing at Red Rocks Rendezvous in 2013. Right: In 2014, the same area was sectioned off for paid sponsors.

Product Research

  • Researching the next gear type to add — there is always something in the works
  • Creating the websites back-end to add the next gear type
  • Sketching / prototyping the next feature of the site — one of my favorite parts, and also a big rabbit hole
  • Coding new features / fixing bugs
  • Gear testing — it’s kinda like getting paid!

Inspecting each stage of the prototyping process during a tour of the SMC headquarters

Inspecting each stage of the prototyping process during a tour of the SMC headquarters.

Fortunately, I have one other full-time employee, Adnan, who spends 100% of his time collecting gear info. When he’s not adding new gear specifically he’s researching more about the gear we already have, like finding media reviews and videos or other resources to make our gear profiles even more robust. He is amazing (I say this pretty much every single day and I think Andreas is getting jealous).

Q. Could you share a little bit about how you built your site and your business into the incredible resource it is today?

In the very beginning, before the site really had an online presence, I had my little brother as a paid intern to research gear while I still worked my corporate job and had a nice software engineering salary. Still at the salaried job, I used a contracting site to hire out the initial construction of my site. It looked horrible. I don’t have a design background and neither did the people I hired. We were all engineers and that’s exactly what it looked like. Retrospect: I highly recommend having a designer help in the initial stages. It is possible to have a clean and intuitive UI that still looks like crap.

Since then I’ve been able to pay a designer friend to help me out with some icons and other aspects of the site, but overall I’m excited to continue improving the aesthetics.

I actually have no idea who my first customer was because the affiliate system is anonymous. But I do remember early on, I was bouldering alone in the gym, and I was feeling like I should tell people about WeighMyRack to get the word out–but I was very shy. So I started talking to this guy who had a carabiner I didn’t recognize and mentioned the site. Turns out he was a super active Reddit user and the next day he posted about WeighMyRack and we got a big boost in traffic from that one post.

Reddit is still one of our biggest traffic drivers, along with other climbing forums like MountainProject and SuperTopo. I feel especially proud when other users link to our blog posts in reference to gear questions on those forums.”

My biggest challenge is actually in marketing WeighMyRack. I find it hard to talk about myself and WeighMyRack. I often joke that I’m a bad business owner because of this. It’s a weakness I’m actively working on overcoming!

To make money, we use an affiliate model for our business (subsidized with video contract work). The affiliate model means that we have links on our site showing all the places you can buy gear at online retailers, sorted by best price. When users click those links and check out online, we get a commission of all the gear they buy (climbing gear or not). Currently we get a 5–12% commission depending on the retailer.

We work with Avantlink for all our affiliate marketing because they have the biggest coverage of outdoor retailers and they’re super friendly to work with. They also make signing contracts a breeze. The affiliate model works for us in terms of scalability. The more climbers that come to the site, the better we do. That’s why marketing is so important for us.

Get yourself some Weigh My Rack stickers!

Get yourself some Weigh My Rack stickers!

We started out doing grassroots marketing at climbing festivals. We went to festivals assuming that’s where the climbers go so we could get more exposure. Challenge: most the climbing areas didn’t have cell service so it was hard to see an instant impact. Free stickers have been a big hit and we’ve actually seen WeighMyRack stickers on cars at climbing crags across the country. That always gives us a psychological boost!

Because much of our content strategy is video based, we’ve put more effort into creating valuable Vimeo and YouTube channels. Early on we were Vimeo elitists and totally neglected YouTube, scoffing at all it’s ads and ugly UI. Then we noticed that our subscribers and conversions from our YouTube channel were much higher than Vimeo. That’s when we started to put a lot more energy and attention into YouTube, focusing on Cards and call to actions and other optimizations. Now we always share YouTube socially and only use Vimeo for embeds on our site.

Interestingly, when we started making gear videos of unreleased gear from the Outdoor trade shows, nobody else was. Now EpicTV and BMC are both doing it. And recently we were told that our product videos get more traffic than some of the high-end videos the manufacturers are putting out featuring their sponsored climbers. The director of marketing of a large gear company told us that he’s been trying to convince his boss to do videos in our style instead of theirs. It’s rad to see the momentum we’re bringing to the climbing industry.

Q. What are your best tips for staying focused when working, managing stress, keeping healthy and getting stuff done?

For me, the most stress comes when I’m not living in the moment. Like when I’m working and thinking, “Man, I should be out climbing, what kinda lifestyle am I living?!” Or when I’m climbing and thinking, “Ugh, I’m such a terrible business owner, I should really be working.” When I’m in those spaces I accomplish so much less; I can feel the stress building and it leaves both activities totally unfulfilling.

“Actively making the choice to say “today is a workday” or “we’re taking today off to climb because it’s beautiful outside” and being committed to those decisions makes a world of difference.”

It a mindset shift more than anything, but it’s critical for me.

"Life on the road isn’t all puppies and rainbows" — especially life on the dirt road.

"Life on the road isn’t all puppies and rainbows" — especially life on the dirt road.

The best tip I have for a productive work day is to go to bed knowing what you want to accomplish the next day. It’s a surprisingly hard practice to keep up, because at the end of the workday I don’t really want to take the time to plan out the next one. But when I do, I wake up knowing exactly how to start the day, with energy and a clear goal. It eliminates a lot of procrastination opportunities. It also helps to be reasonable about your goals.

“Think: What would I feel really good about accomplishing tomorrow?”

For a healthy lifestyle balance we made a pact to be active outside for 30 minutes each day. This sounds like a terribly small amount of time, and ridiculous for somebody living out of a camper. The trick is that it’s virtually impossible for us to only get 30 minutes of exercise.

We’re usually out for at least 2 hours (even on the non-climbing days). But mentally, it seems so simple to get 30 minutes outside that you literally can’t deny it. That alone lifted a lot of unrecognized stress of us. The constant wondering, “Are we going to get out today?” as we watched the daylight hours tick by in a freezing library or sweltering coffee shop. Just by making a commitment to be outside each day no matter what dramatically improved our spirits because we weren’t dwelling on it.

City of Rocks, ID

City of Rocks, ID

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges you face or have faced in pursuing your digital dirtbag dream?

For us, the biggest challenge of running an internet business on the road is getting internet. It’s actually fairly easy to get internet in cafe’s and library’s, but the challenge is they’re only open during the hours we’d most like to be outdoors. We feel like we’ve won the lottery when we find a local cafe that is open until 10pm.

We’ve tried wireless hot spots, but generally the places we’re camping / wanting to explore don’t even have cell service so it’s impossible to expect internet. So sometimes we have a daily commute to work.

Our other challenge is around internet speed. We often need to upload videos and sometimes that can take hours depending on bandwith. I think Starbucks had our names on a blacklist, because one time it took a 3 minute video over 6 hours to upload. We still talk dream about the cafe we found in LA where we uploaded 3 videos in less than 15 minutes, faster than real-time.

Freak snowstorm in September at City of Rocks. Time to hook up and head out.

Freak snowstorm in September at City of Rocks. Time to hook up and head out.

It is worth noting that a lot of digital dirtbags we’ve talked to mention power problems. We have a massive 260-watt solar panel on our roof that can charge both our laptops, camera batteries, and even run our immersion blender for smoothies. Something like a 90-watt Goal Zero panel won’t even keep one laptop going. We spent just under $1,000 on our solar system (after a solid week of intense research) and it was totally worth it.

Q: What's your best advice for all those aspiring digital dirtbags out there who want to launch an online project, or start a business and hit the road?

We find our happiness and productivity (business and climbing) increases a lot when we stay in an area for over a week. That way we’re able to get a schedule of how to balance screen time and outdoor time. I cringe at the idea of structure but I find it essential to running a business and enjoying life to the fullest.

For example: It usually takes us at least a day to drive somewhere new, a day to set-up and get the feel of the town (finding camping/grocery/internet/climbing spots/guide book), the next day we’ll climb, and then we suddenly realize it’s been 3+ days since we’ve even turned on our computers and we have a business to run! Little things seem to add up fast: On the road, laundry suddenly becomes a half day affair.

As an aspiring digital dirtbag I would also recommend starting to build your community now, even if you don’t know exactly what you want to do. If you know you want to work in the outdoors somehow, start an instagram account and take photos of your outdoor activities. Or start a blog and start talking about your trips and building an audience. Or, start to be active on outdoor forums to start building influence. The goal is to get a strong community of people who will be excited to support you in your future endeavors.

“In our experience, we’ve noticed two main things people tend to gravitate toward online: 1. Helpful information 2. Inspiration. If you can effectively connect with people on either or both of those things, you’ll gain a substantial audience.”

The other element that gets glossed over is interaction. Interaction is key. You never know who will want to tell the world about your business. That’s also why it can feel hard to gain momentum on the road–because you’re partially tied to the digital world to improve upon that momentum. Fortunately, we’ve often made the best and most meaningful connections in-person.

Similarly: When I first started the business I wasn’t active on forums. At the time I thought, “Nobody will pay attention to me if I’m new.” Too scared, I didn’t even sign up for accounts. Now, I think, “If I had just signed up 2 years ago I’d be so much farther along than I am now!”

I’ve realized that when starting something feels like a huge hurdle personally, chances are high that nobody else actually cares and it’s all in my head. The irony is: When you’re small, the anxiety of making a mistake is huge, but in reality this is when you should be trying the most new things and making mistakes because there’s barely anybody around to witness your fumbles and they’ll understand you’re new.

As you grow and your audience gets larger, your fear of looking foolish diminishes (because you’ve already done that, and found out it doesn’t matter in the long run). And always remember:

“The best way to reduce anxiety is through action.”

Q: What are your three favourite climbing destinations and why?

The North Cascades, WA: I love alpine climbing and this places has endless opportunities and feels so remote.

Ten Sleep, WY: Normally I’m not drawn to single-pitch sport cragging, but it’s impossible to not love this place as a Digital Dirtbag. There are so many routes within a 5–30 min approach from the pull-outs. The bolting is incredibly generous. There is no time limit on the nearby shaded free camping.

There is a Seattle-style cafe with amazing baked goodies (even though it’s in a town of 300) that closes at 2pm, forcing the end of the workday and enabling you to climb the rest of the day. We were so stoked we wrote a blog post about it proclaiming everybody should go there because no distance is too far away.

Perhaps I’m being cheesy, but my 3rd favorite destination is the spot I haven’t gone to, yet. I love exploring new areas, especially if there’s some remote feeling multi-pitch trad options.

Other notables include: Red Rocks (great climbing but pretty difficult to dirtbag it), City of Rocks, Joshua Tree, the super climber friendly Lander, WY, and the unsuspecting St. George, UT.

Q: And finally, what does the future hold and what goals or projects do you really want to achieve?

We have tons! But I’ll try to narrow it down to the big ones.

In life, we do want to build our own small house together (we gained more inspiration ever since we renovated our camper). We don’t know where yet, so we have the great excuse that we need to keep exploring until we find that perfect community. And even when we do have a “permanent” residence, we plan on traveling for the majority of the year. But we’re excited to work together on a physical project, be part of a local community, and have a set gear cache that isn’t our parent’s garage.

Climbing-wise I want to be able to lead 5.10 everything. This may sound low for today’s standards, but I was inspired by a quote from Messner when he said there are very few true 5.9 climbers; you see, some people can’t do offwidths, or finger cracks, or whatever subspecialty and the key is to be solid in all areas of climbing. That stuck with me. I want to do it all! (Andreas’ goals are a little loftier, he wants to lead 5.12 sport, 5.11 trad).

Business-wise we’d like to expand beyond climbing gear. We’re having a ton of fun in the climbing arena, but there’s so many other sports that we’d like to offer the WeighMyRack model. The internet has too much unsorted, biased information that’s a pain in ass to sort through. We want to make it fast, fun, and easy to find the right gear the first time.

“Every time I tell an outdoor enthusiast what we do with climbing gear their instant reaction is, “When are you doing this with [my favorite sport]?!?” We want to have an answer for them.”

Well there you have it folks, another epic instalment of the Digital Dirtbag series! I’m honoured to have interviewed such an incedibly smart, hard working and dedicated Digital Dirtbag. It just goes to show that anything is possible, as long as you’re willing to make a start and take action on your dreams.

Please do head on over to Weigh My Rack and check out the site. You can sign up for a free account in minutes and begin your quest for the perfect piece of gear!

Also, you won’t want to miss out on the latest Weight Me Rack news, gear reviews as well as discounted gear on offer over at the Weigh My Rack BLOG.

If you think you would be a great fit for the Digital Dirtbag series or know someone who might be interested in sharing their story then feel free to shoot through a message via my contact page.

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