How I got my start: Leslie Hanes & Discovery Trekking Outfitters

Hi, I’m Leslie Hanes, co-owner of Discovery Trekking Outfitters Ltd.

It wasn’t a natural progression to go from an injury adjuster for Government Auto Insurance, to a manufacturer but I did that anyway. Actually, I always had a sewing business, but it was limited to horse designs, and was home based. At one point when taking my leave from the government job, I met another lady who had a small outerwear business. We joined forces and became partners in Discovery Trekking. Our outerwear designs sold well locally, as did the special needs products she designed. One day, after exercising at Curves, I announced to her that I wanted to make custom protective covers for all their machines that would extend the life of the vinyl…and that I intended to sell them to all 10,000 Curves. She laughed, because there was no way that could be done. I started with just one club and a small mail out.

Fast forward two years. I was approved by Curves to sell to all the clubs in the world, and had 3 employees working full time making them. One product line for one franchise was not enough to retire on, so I also spent long hours marketing a swim diaper we had designed. With no advertising budget, I mainly contacted special needs groups to tell them about the product, and sent a few samples to organizations such as the National Continence Foundation. We had an advantage of actually having a great design, for a need that was not being met, so they published us in their resource guide. Through word of mouth and no paid advertising, I ended up with another successful small product line. Again, not enough by itself …but I had another idea.

In our outerwear business, we made custom jackets, pants, and other products using very technical fabrics. I was quite intrigued with moisture-wicking fabrics and experimented with many types for unconventional uses. One such use was a towel. I discovered it worked quite well, and wondered why no one was using this technology for a towel. I worked with engineers from some well-known mills, and settled upon a type of wicking polyester that contained silver. Silver is a wonderful antimicrobial, so the towel did not get musty smelling …quite a bonus! It also had high sun protection so the next thing I had to do was convince the world that this piece of cloth made a great towel. I applied for a utility patent and set about contacting editors of outdoor and sports magazines, asking if they would do a “gear review”. The first review was in the travel section of the Chicago Tribune luckily for us, it was glowing. The next was in Sailing Magazine followed by Practical Sailor.

Eventually I had gear reviews in over 30 magazines and each one praised the towel as being the best thing since sliced bread. Camping Life magazine actually chose the towel for their 2008 Editors Choice list which was wonderful. I was bombarded by advertisers wanting me to pay for exposure but I did not feel the need to pay when experience has shown that it doesn’t result in orders, particularly when your product is new. There were challenges to say the least. The biggest problem was that I no experience in manufacturing, wholesaling, or retailing. I’m a bad boss, I have difficulty asking employees to actually work. I have often done things the hard way because I didn’t know any better. But, I also did some very non-textbook marketing that worked because I didn’t know it couldn’t be done. I try and always work within my means, and have no debt. This has meant no paycheck, but the inventory I see is all my own.

Having a wonderful product can bring it’s own problems. Demand can exceed supply. Such is a problem I’ve tried to plan for (can you say “military order?”) but it’s hard to get your ducks in a row before you have a purchase order on your desk, and it’s even harder to get the purchase order unless you can guarantee the supply.

My best advice is something I’ve done from the start: If you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to ask someone who does. I’m not afraid to appear ignorant, it’s better than letting everyone find out that you don’t know what you’re talking about later when it really matters. Also, my mom always told me “Don’t worry, by the time they figure out you don’t know what you’re doing, you will!” It was pretty good advice.

I know I’ve missed many parts of the story; it’s actually a whole lot more complicated. But unless you buy me a bottle of wine, I’m not telling you the juicy parts. :)

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7 comments

  1. colleen says:

    The last sentence proves you’re a natural marketer! I appreciate your pragmatic approach to product development and marketing. I wish you continued success.

  2. Mary Lombard says:

    I agree, never be afraid to look stupid! How are you going to learn? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “I don’t know, but I’ll research it and find out!”.

  3. vicki says:

    Great story! Thanks for sharing and you have some very good advice. I like how you thought BIG with Curves and then went for it. Keep us posted on your next phase and how it works out.

  4. Jimmy Hudson says:

    Leslie Hanes; you are inspiration personified and destined to continued success.
    Opportunities abound but it takes an agile mind to exploit them in a timely fashion.
    Thanks for an excellent lesson in product development.

  5. Sonia Levesque says:

    One can “feel” you’re a very spirited person. I find admirable that you’re able to function without debt. Just Wow!

  6. Jann Higdem says:

    I have known Leslie for several years now as an American retailer who sells DTO silver products and other manufacturers’ silver clothing. I am a very small company that is also debt free. Since we first spoke on the phone, Leslie has been a real down-to-earth, caring person. She knew what my desires were and was very accommodating with them. She has on numerous occasions given me advice on how I can better run my company, especially in the marketing end. I can honestly say that this woman is “on fire” with desire! Thanks Leslie! Hi ho silver…..away!

  7. Kathy Jo says:

    Thank you Leslie for sharing your story, exactly what I needed to hear today, very inspiring. I am going to print it and put on my vision board so I can refer to it when I’m having those “I can’t do this” days. I love your mom’s advice, how profound.

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