So You Want My Job: Outdoor Shop Owner

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 8, 2012 · 42 comments

in So You Want My Job

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

About a year ago Darren Bush left a comment on an AoM blog post which included a link back to his blog, which then took me to the website of his paddling-focused outdoors store in Madison, Wisconsin: Rutabaga. It quickly became clear that Darren was not only a good writer (he’s been published in national magazines like Sierra) and accomplished outdoorsman, but he also knew about a lot of other manly things like blacksmithing. I asked him if he’d consider writing articles for us, and the rest is history.

When Darren isn’t instructing AoM readers on how to make their own canoe paddles, he’s very busy running Rutabaga, which offers canoes and kayaks, as well as classes on how to use them, and as I think that owning your own outdoor shop is a job a lot of guys feel looks pretty rad, I asked him to take part in our SYWMJ series. And, always the gentleman, he agreed. And as always too, Darren has some great thoughts to share not just on the practical side of things, but about life in general.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

I turned 50 a few weeks ago. Funny thing is that I can still do everything I did when I was 25, some things I can do better.  The difference is that it takes me longer to recover from it, and I have become intimately acquainted with ibuprofen, or as we call it in my home, Vitamin I.

I was born and raised in Southern California.  I was very active in the Boy Scouts, which got me out of the city and into the forests and deserts.  I have always been comfortable outside, much more so than in a room.  I left California when I was 19 to serve a mission for my church in Sicily…fantastic experience. Upon my return I met this awesome young woman and fell in love. She was from this place called Wisconsin.  The only thing I knew about Wisconsin was that Green Bay was there and there were cows.

I came here for my wedding reception and wondered why everyone doesn’t live here.  I fell in love with Wisconsin as much as my wife. Since I can’t be a native, I consider myself a deeply-rooted transplant, and both my kids were born here.  I ended up going to school here, went to grad school in New York, intending to be a professor of either statistics and measurement or Italian.  Well…that didn’t go as planned, for which I am eternally grateful

I am currently the owner of Rutabaga Paddlesports, the largest single-door canoe and kayak shop in the country.  My job title is Chief Paddling Evangelist, which is just as descriptive as owner. Actually, it’s probably more descriptive.


2. Why did you want to become an outdoor shop owner? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

Well, I started working at this little canoe and kayak shop in an old grocery store on Fridays and Saturdays.  I sold canoes and kayaks to people who wanted to get outside, so it was easy work and the $5.50 an hour went toward gear.  I went home with more energy than I brought to the shop.  It was invigorating.  Still is.

I worked four 10-hour days at my real job, a statistician for the Department of Labor and later the CDCP, which was intellectually interesting but did not feed my soul, and I was not growing as a person.  I am not a treading-water type of guy, so I quit my real job and moved over to the shop, which had moved into a bigger location.  After a few years as a manager, the former owner made me second-in-command as he started pulling out of the business.

I turned 40 in 2002, and I realized I had a choice to make.  Work for someone else for the rest of my life, or buy out the owner and make my own path.  Through a series of very personal spiritual experiences, it became clear I needed to do this.  The shop was not running well, the former owner was not engaged, and he needed to go.  I bought him out with a friend who had been a sales rep and had recently sold his agency. He said he’d give me 5 years, then he’d let me buy him out, which I did.  We saved the business from dying, kept 25 good people in good jobs, and that was that.

3. How do you go about turning a passion and hobby into a business? What kinds of skills and knowledge does a would-be small business owner need to succeed in this niche?

There are a few words in English we use to describe what we do to feed and clothe ourselves.  Work…labor…job…career…vocation.  But they are all very different things.

Work and labor…honorable and good.  I think of Mike Rowe and Dirty Jobs and how he celebrates the people who actually do stuff.  They may or may not love what they do, but at least they like it and are contributing to keeping the world functioning on a pragmatic level.  Career—I dunno.  Careerism always struck me as somewhat stagnant…you get a career as a whatever and keep doing it until you get the gold watch (or the pink slip).  Again, it works for a lot of people.

A vocation is from Latin—vocare—to call.  So a vocation is a calling.  Something that the world tells you is the perfect thing for you to do, for any number of reasons.  My wife has been called to teach math. She can’t not do it.  But when something else calls her, she’ll answer and go do that.


But as far as turning a hobby/passion into a job, the only danger is that you lose the passion and the hobby becomes a drudgery instead of a dream.  It is a danger, but it is manageable with mindfulness.  To be honest, my passion is not paddling as much as it is getting other people into paddling.  Yes, I love my time on the water, but there’s something about taking someone from beginner to novice, from novice to enthusiast.

A few years ago I taught a private lesson to a woman who wanted to get out on her own.  Her spouse wasn’t interested in paddling, so she took matters into her own hands and bought a solo canoe.  After a few hours she had the basics down and was ready to get out on her own on some local streams and ponds.  We loaded her canoe on her truck, and after she strapped it down, she turned and embraced me and just held on.  Close to tears, she said, “Thank you, you just changed my life.”  Well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

You need three skills to run a business.  First, you need to be personable and understand people. Second, you need to be humble enough to admit you don’t know everything.  Third, you need to hire people who are smarter than you to do the things you’re not good at, which you know because of the second thing.  If you have to be involved in every decision, you’re an egomaniac. My former partner talked a lot about sailing, how making small course corrections will lead to success.  Our former owner would periodically run up, grab the tiller, and give it a good yank, usually pissed off because the boat wasn’t going where he thought it would go.  He lacked all three skills.

4. What do you feel are the keys to successfully running an independent retail store and competing against the big box and online stores?

Go into it with both eyes open.  The idea of an outdoor shop is sometimes better than the actual one.  It’s not a dream job; it’s a lot like work. You better have a business plan that takes into account the stuff that can hit the fan. If you want to do a one-person shop, be prepared to live there.  If you want to hire employees, you’re still going to be living there.  Your shop is represented by your worst person on their worst day.  Hire slowly, fire quickly. Hire nice people and teach them what you want them to know, rather than hiring knowledgeable people and trying to teach them to be nice.

For every dollar that comes in the front door, most of it goes out the back door.  Get a great accountant.  Only work with local banks.  They care about your business. If you want to work with a big bank, be prepared for dealing with three tiers of suits and reams of paperwork.  Local is the way to go.

As far as competing with big box stores and online, that’s tough.  Our world has become obsessed with the cost of things rather than the value.  It’s always about the best deal, which has come to mean the cheapest.  The truth of the matter is that we’re on the water, so you can test a canoe or kayak every day, taught by people who know what they’re talking about, so you get the right thing.  Box store employees are generalists if anything, and even the best ones rarely have employees that know anything in depth.

We find that creating a community is key to success as a small specialty retailer.  You have to provide experiences, not just stuff.  The gear is to get you to your experience, otherwise it’s just stuff.  I like to tell people the most expensive piece of gear is the one that hangs in the closet because it doesn’t fit or hangs in the garage because it’s uncomfortable.  Take the $399 you spent on a poorly designed kayak and staple it to a stud in your garage.  It’s the same thing, really, and you can get to it when you need groceries.

As far as competition goes, be friendly with them if they’re honorable people.  Most of them are.  If they’re not, stay out of their way; they’ll self-destruct on their own and you don’t want to be around when the bomb goes off.  And while they’re imploding, they send a lot of upset customers into your open arms.

5. What is the best part of your job?

You mean best parts, right?  So many things…I love providing jobs for really good and loyal staff.  We have very little turnover in the permanent full-time staff so they’ve become a pretty tightly-knit team.


I love working with really good people. After twenty plus years I have some wonderful friendships that will last a lifetime, too many to count.  When I call a vendor, they don’t ask for my account number, they ask about my family by name. When I was injured in an accident, one of our vendors sent me a paddle with the signatures of all the staff.  When my daughter’s appendix ruptured, the president of one of our vendors called me at the hospital to ask if there’s anything he could do.  Those are the kind of people we work with in the outdoor industry.

I love designing product. A few of my staff are hard-core users and can present a design to a vendor partner and they’ll make them.  I’ve designed three canoe paddles for one of our paddle manufacturers.  One is their number one seller—nice to see that.

I like serving my industry to solve big-issue problems like participation rates dropping (no wonder our kids are fat), keeping the supply chain and materials green (why pollute the world in which we want to play?), and working on conservation issues with the BLM and Department of Interior.  I’m a Director on the board of the Outdoor Industry Association, and it’s something I can do because I have great staff who can work without me around.  I don’t boss them around; I respect them too much to do that. My GM directs their work, after which they govern themselves.

6. What is the worst part of your job?

A lot of folks say to me, “Man, your job is so cool…”  They’re right, but what they don’t realize is that half of what I do has almost nothing to do with paddling.  Basic business practices are what they are.  Working with banks, making sure our accounting is dialed (we have the best accountant in the universe), managing cash flow, dealing with inevitable personnel conflicts, working with advertising and PR people, IT headaches, etc. It’s just basic stuff that has to be done.  As great as the vendors are, there is still a lot of communication that has to go on and it takes time; time I’m not on the sales floor working with customers. That, and my boss is a jerk.  He gives me much less vacation than my previous one.  Seriously, it’s hard to disengage and leave sometimes, but you do it or you go crazy.

7. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?

I like the quote from James Michener about work, how a successful person doesn’t differentiate between his work and his play…to him, they’re the same thing.  My family has been involved in our business, and it is our business.  My wife is used to me taking calls after hours, as my cell phone is on my business card.  If a customer calls me at home to ask a question, they are often surprised that I answer.  They apologize, but truthfully, I like it.  It’s a friendly thing to do, both to call and to answer.  If I don’t want to answer, I don’t.

My wife is very understanding: I married way above my pay grade. She loves and supports me, and has no problem pulling me back when I get too involved.  She is a full partner and my coach and mentor on so many things.  When I wanted to leave the security of a government job for a big unknown, she was 100% supportive.  She knew it would work out.  When we mortgaged the house, dropped nearly all of our savings into the business, she said “This is what God wants you to do.  He has your back.”  And so does she.

Short answer: I sometimes really suck at it.

8. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

As I said, they think all I do is paddle.  They have no idea what it’s like to be responsible for a five-figure payroll every other week.  The stress of being responsible, not only for my family, but for the rest of my staff is considerable.

9. Any other advice, tips, commentary, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

Take your pick.

  • Being normal isn’t.  The best gift you can give to your family and to the world is your authentic self, not what you think society expects you to be.
  • You have to have the courage to paint your own picture and live in it.  If your parents want you to go to medical school and you don’t, don’t do it.  They may be disappointed but in the end, they’ll be proud of you, maybe even jealous a little.
  • Being smart doesn’t mean you’re wise.  I know geniuses who made horrible life decisions and are miserable. They hang their hat on being brilliant.  Some of the wisest people I know are in the trades.  Our plumber is an artist.
  • Being kind to everyone is more important than anything else…and I mean everyone.  My father was a commercial real estate broker who worked in huge office buildings in Los Angeles.  When I went to work with him, he always stopped to talk to the security guards. He addressed them by name. They were people to him, not a fixture at a desk.
  • If someone makes fun of you for doing something, there’s a 100% chance they’re jealous of you and don’t have the courage to do it.  People who do this are cowards. There are always critics and armchair quarterbacks. Ignore them, they’re impotent.
  • If you do it for the money, you’re screwed.  Hell, if you do anything for the money, you’re screwed.
  • Learn to do things with your hands.  It’s great to be a business guy, but if you have to hire an electrician to change a switch plate, you are too separated from reality.
  • Never stop learning, ever.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brad June 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Good read!

“The best gift you can give to your family and to the world is your authentic self, not what you think society expects you to be”.

I couldn’t agree more. Too many people are afraid to be themselves in fear of ostracised. This fear is indeed real. But, to not be oneself is a life half-lived. If people alienate you for voicing different opinions, for not being a yes-yes person, or for making different choices, then you are better off without them.

I would rather be in a room by myself than in a room full of people where my voice does not count.

Each and every one of us has something unique to offer.

2 Chris Butterworth June 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm

What a story – what a guy! Forget the “do you want my job” angle – this sounds like a great guy with great priorities. (more Midwest than SoCal, no?) We could all take some notes on this one..

Darren, dinner’s on me if you ever get to Phoenix..

3 Paul June 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Man oh man, this was inspiring for me, as I’ve recently had it in my mind to start my own small business. The best part was his answers to question 9. Also, “Hire nice people and teach them what you want them to know, rather than hiring knowledgeable people and trying to teach them to be nice.” Wish my current boss knew that one… it’s a pain working with knowledgeable self-righteous people…

4 Jared E June 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm

This is an excellent article! I have worked in a small, family owned outdoor store in Fort Worth, TX for almost 4 years. Many of the things Darren talks about I see and hear from my boss on a daily basis. We to have become a close family, which does cause problems but when push comes to shove we stick together. Thank you Darren, Brett, and Kate for showing that reaching your dreams is possible, you just have to work. It’s all about the hustle!

5 neal June 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm

This is a great series, and this guest post in particular is great.

I started my own business years ago, and while it was great for the flexibility it allowed, I mostly did it because I was good at it and I needed money, and not because I loved it. I’m glad that it was there for me when I needed it, but I’m also glad to have left it behind.

Full props to someone who’s got a good enough bead on his goals and pleasures that he can choose what he loves both for his “vocation” and for his “job.” That’s not an easy thing to do, nor is it easy to be efficient and organized and thoughtful enough to really make it successful.

Also, it always helps to have a partner who supports your dreams, and is willing to sacrifice a little in order to reap rewards later. That’s how my wife is, and I thank God for that.

6 Ethan June 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Darren,

Thanks for taking the time to share your passion. It’s a real inspiration.

7 Zachary Wyatt June 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Hey, it’s my local shop! Nice to know the man in charge is a decent sort. It makes me feel good about giving him all my money.

8 Jamie June 8, 2012 at 6:31 pm

This is truly a great read, very engaging, and more life lessons than SYWMJ! Loads of little tidbits to take away and come back to!

9 Kirk June 8, 2012 at 7:05 pm

Well said Darren! You shared some great leadership advice that is applicable to a lot of people. And it inspired me! Thank you!

10 David June 8, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Really nice to see the reinforcement of down-to-earth values: people, hard work and safeguarding that with a little savvy. It’s all about people – having decent people – being decent to people – and supporting / working with the local community.

More power to your elbow, sir ;)

11 Ari SP June 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm

first time commenting,

what an inspiring piece !!! Talk about adding value.

I am completely in favor of working with your hands, a true path to the sublime.

great post

12 Brad June 8, 2012 at 9:05 pm

About 25 years ago, I dated a woman that owned an outfitter’s shop. She never got rich, but she sure enjoyed what she did. She was a fantastic angler that taught me a lot. I liked the fact that she used to give me gifts of lures, rods, reels, hunting and camping equipment nearly every day. Sadly, some years ago, Bass Pro decided to open up about a quarter of a mile from her and it put her out of business. I miss the mom and pop stores of yesteryear.

13 Jason M June 8, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Wow…it had been several months since I last visited this blog and upon my return I see this article in which I really did not find too much interest when I read the occupation. All of the sudden I started reading a few lines and then keep reading and couldn’t stop. Rignt now I’m at a place in my life where I feel there is a vocation calling me, but am stuck in career. This article couln’t have come at a better time to inspire me to keep moving towards my calling.

14 Armando N. June 8, 2012 at 11:58 pm

This was great, I do admit that man like this make life admirable.
I recently started reading this wesite, so if you haven’t yet, do you think you could ever get a bicycle frame builder or shop owner to do one of this series?

Thank you for having a great website.

15 Armando N. June 8, 2012 at 11:59 pm

This was great, I do admit that man like this make life admirable. I recently started reading this wesite, so if you haven’t yet, do you think you could ever get a bicycle frame builder or shop owner to do one of this series?

Thank you for having a great website.

16 Anthony Kendrick June 9, 2012 at 7:42 am

Darren Bush is awesome, and I wish I lived in Wisconsin too. It isn’t bad here in the woods and mountains of Western Pennsylvania either.
I absolutely love the advice he gives, in particular: “Hire slowly, fire quickly. Hire nice people and teach them what you want them to know, rather than hiring knowledgeable people and trying to teach them to be nice.” The horrible service we generally receive is a by product of not following this advice.
Also,”if you do anything for the money, you’re screwed.” I went to school to be a teacher and couldn’t get a job and have been working in a library for the last 6 years. I’ve been looking for a teaching job because it pays a little better and has a better benefits. I finally found a teaching job, but I love books and working in libraries helping children and adults find the book that is meant for them. Darren’s advice is coming at the right time for me.

17 Rick June 9, 2012 at 8:43 am

What a great article – from one geezer (I’m 53) to another – thanks Darren! I hope the younger guys listen and take your advice about how to live a happy, successful life.

18 Jeff June 9, 2012 at 9:49 am

Words of wisdom…words to live by. Do what you love. Love what you do. Be kind and generous along the way. Love this read!

19 Bill Bolte June 9, 2012 at 9:52 am

Great article! And very timely I might add. Thanks for the great read.

20 Forrest June 9, 2012 at 2:14 pm

GREAT POST!!! i grew up in Wisconsin paddling and i know what he means about why doesn’t everybody live there. Actually, why don’t i live there any more?

21 glenn b June 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm

he owns and runs an outdoors shop, I guess that was his calling and I suppose that for some it is a cherry of a job. Under normal circumstances (even under abnormal ones), it is probably not something I would ever wish to find myself doing. Shopkeeper, I suppose it could be a challenge or an adventure for some folks, just not for me. I think I much rather would have been a professional hunter or guide.

22 John June 10, 2012 at 4:11 am

I am a teacher and I just had our school’s graduation ceremony yesterday. I wish I had read this one day earlier. Your advice for people is the best. Just excellent.

I would love to work in your store.

23 Darren June 10, 2012 at 9:30 am

Whoa. I’m humbled by the responses here…I’m glad I could be of some use.

I don’t want anyone to think that I came up with all this stuff on my own. I learned from countless mentors, friends, coworkers, and a host of others who are probably unaware of it. We all stand on the shoulders of great people who came before us.

24 Julie Arslanian June 10, 2012 at 11:05 am

DARREN!!! Wow ;-) This is possibly THE BEST Article I’ve read in quite awhile! I Love your Openness, Honesty, Reality in what you do and of course you’ve always had a Great Attitude! I’m SO glad you and Stephanie found each other – and I got to be there, at BYU, to witness your courtship! Her & I were Best of Friends by the age of 5. This will be such a helpful read for all who take the time… I’m so proud of you and all you’ve accomplished – especially the beautiful, loving family that you have created! Best Wishes for the Bush’s!

25 Tamara Johnson June 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm

My husband and I have mat Darren, his wife and much of his staff at a little thing he calls “Coanecopia” and Rutabaga sponsored ” Door County Sea Kayak Symposium”. He lives his philosophies and treats the people that he meets like he cares and they matter to him, which they do.

26 Dion June 11, 2012 at 3:45 am

Some great life advice and not just sound business input. I emailed the link to four of my mates and posted this on my Facebook page. Thank you Mr. Bush.

27 John June 11, 2012 at 8:50 am

As someone who works in IT, I’m sorry you consider it a headache. I’m sure you have great employee/vendors and headaches due to malfunctions which happen to the best of us.

Thanks for the great article

28 Joseph June 11, 2012 at 11:21 am

Darren and Brett both, thanks for this article. A friend of mine who knows Darren sent this to me, as I recently opened my own company. I’m not doing outdoor stuff, but business is business, and I really appreciate some of the advice in here.

“Hire nice people and teach them what you want them to know.”

“Work with small, local banks.”

“Hire slowly, fire quickly.”

This is all great. I want to have an operation that will support employees eventually, and the current work environment, and poor treatment of employees by many large corporations is something that weighs heavily on me. I came from a bad environment (where I learned how to RUN a carpet cleaning business), and have no intention of perpetuating that.

Thanks, gentlemen.

29 Zack P June 11, 2012 at 11:56 am

Excellent Article! Very inspiring. You sir, are a rare breed. Your attitude and approach to life/business is spot on.

I’m 27 and leaving my current job to start up a pawn shop… It is tough to leave a sure thing for the unknown.

30 Ian June 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Excellent article with great advice. Darren seems like a really cool guy, I’d love to shake his hand!

31 josh barkey June 11, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Great one – super encouraging to a guy like me, about to take the risk and chase a vocation-dream. Linked the bejeebers out of it on my blog.

32 Tony June 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Awesome encouragement here. I really appreciated this article. I sent it on to my son. Great wisdom.

33 Tom Anderson June 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm

Great article and very life-affirming thoughts. Darren you definitely know what’s up.
For others interested in finding their vocation I recommend The Element by Ken Robinson.

34 Darren June 12, 2012 at 8:20 am

John, I didn’t mean it personally — but IT is a headache. I have a great MIS guy — his title is Minister of Technology, but you have to admit that there is a perfect correlation between the server taking a nose dive and the IT guy being on vacation… :-)

Your responses have been most encouraging. Thank you, it made my week. If any of you are ever in Madison, Wisconsin, you know where to find me.

In Manliness,

Darren

35 Chad June 12, 2012 at 4:39 pm

Just drove through Madison this weekend. Great article and being genuine is uncommon these days! Keep up the hard work Darren!

Dig AoM!

36 JFPisa June 13, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Amen to every single one of your tips and anecdotes.

A really great read with even better advice.

God bless and good luck with your business.

37 DJ June 14, 2012 at 1:52 am

Well said. There’s a lot to take away from this article, and not all of it has to do with running a business. Next time I’m in Madison I’m stopping in for a lesson.

DJ

38 Sean June 16, 2012 at 6:25 pm

One thing to add. When I started my business I kept hearing how 95% of small business fail within the 1st year. Of the remaining 5%, 95% of those fail within 5 years. That scared me a bit and I don’t scare easily. I decided two things. 1. Probably something like 98% of statistics are made up on the spot. 2. Most businesses that “fail” are simply people who walk away when it gets too hard. I thought about having my own business for years. After I lost my job and couldn’t find another one, I started one because I had too. I don’t recommend going that route, but I am glad that I did. It has opened so many doors for me. It has also taught me more about… everything, than a lifetime of working for someone else would have.

39 A6 June 17, 2012 at 3:48 pm

“You have to have the courage to paint your own picture and live in it.” It’s very humbling to finally discover someone who’s able to describe my personal life to a tee.
Well done Darren, well done indeed. This post has also given me the extra push I needed to get through the initial “headaches” of me and my business partner’s logo design company.

40 Nicholas June 26, 2012 at 11:39 am

Great advice here!
Sometimes you should take risks in order to succeed in life!

41 Devin Sharp July 1, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Just saw you served a mission at 19, I assume you are LDS, I am too!

42 Brent July 3, 2012 at 4:24 pm

This is one of the most well written, motivating and inspiring posts I have read on this site so far. He really did follow his path and makes me want to be more present in my life as well. I live in MN so maybe I’ll come buy a kayak sometime soon, just starting to get into it!

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