About this episode

My guest this week is Keith Eshelman, co-founder and CEO of the Parks Project. The Parks Project is a social commerce company in that they have created some of the most comfortable clothing you will ever wear AND they have donated over 50% of their profits to over 50 partners such as Yosemite Conservancy, Sierra Club, the National Park Foundation, and many more.

After a weekend volunteering in the Santa Monica Mountains in 2014, Keith and his co-founder, both TOMS employees at the time, were struck by the challenges facing America’s underfunded and underappreciated National Parks. They set out to harness consumer power to help support the enormous backlog of underfunded projects within the national parks system ​by creating collections of apparel and accessories that would further connect consumers with the parks they love.

Within this episode you will hear quite a bit about the influence that Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, had on Keith’s journey. And that’s the beauty of entrepreneurship…it’s not a solo journey.

It’s also not an overnight journey, and more times than not…it’s decades in the making.

In this episode, you'll hear:

  • How Keith was born in northern California and grew up around career professionals. He had a conventional path pursing education that would lead him to a successful job.

  • He shares as a child he wanted to be a doctor and went to UC San Diego Medical School but left after sophomore year as he couldn’t consume the detailed information required for med school. He graduated with a management science degree, minor in Spanish that allowed him to travel.

  • He shares his love for Brands, but not only for their products but the whole company, and how he wanted to help companies that were making a difference.

  • Before he joined Toms, we worked in London with Puma and OMD, usually in product marketing.

  • When working at TOMS he experiences how a purchases can not only for fill the customer but help people and charities in need. Like Toms theory of purchasing a pair of shoes can give another child a pair for shoes.

  • Keith shares how TOMS allowed him to have his first taste of entrepreneurship by being allowed to run popup shops.

  • Keith explains his passion for recycling plastic in clothing like board shorts and wanted the product to have its own story.

  • He shares how he found his problem and why he pursued founding Parks Project, and what he is doing to fix it.

  • How he started his company from his garage and has been growing his team ever since.

  • How Parks Project is empowering the next generation, and their mission is to leave it, as you found it.

  • Keith shares how his company is here to build and innovate the product with useful recycling.

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Park Project https://www.parksproject.us

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Episode transcript

Keith Eshelman: Hi, I'm Keith Eshelman, cofounder and CEO of Parks Project, and this is MY startup story.

  • Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story. *


James McKinney: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of The Startup Story. Before we jump into this week's episode I have to ask you a question. How valuable would it be to have direct access to some of my past guests to learn exactly how they executed certain strategies to grow their business? I have to believe that would be extremely helpful to your entrepreneurial journey. As someone who has access to these founders I can tell you first hand it's incredibly helpful, and I want to make it available to you. In fact, that is the experience and the knowledge sharing that is being delivered to you each quarter when you become a Grindology member. Grindology is an entrepreneurial subscription box that ships every quarter, full of resources to help fuel your grind and your hustle. Now what's included in your Grindology shipment, you might be asking? First and foremost, every single Grindology shipment will include a copy of the Grindology tactical manual. Every single issue of Grindology will be chock full of real tactics from real business builders, not journalists. Within the pages of the Grindology tactical manual, we will be delivering to you tactics and strategies that you can integrate into your business immediately. How great would it be to receive real Facebook ad strategies from those who are doing it? Wouldn't it be helpful if a successful founder laid out specific user acquisition strategies that they use to grow their business? Well, those are the types of tactics that will be found in each issue of Grindology. Like I said, real tactics from real business builders.

In addition to the Grindology tactical manual, each shipment delivers two bags of uniquely crafted coffee specifically roasted for you, the founder, hustler, entrepreneur, maker and creator. Each shipment also includes an exclusive mug that speaks to the unique nature that is you, the entrepreneur. Everything about Grindology is about helping to fuel your grind. In fact, that is exactly why our friends at Design Pickle have partnered with us for our first box. Yep, our friends at Design Pickle are hooking up one lucky subscriber with a full year of unlimited graphic design services. That is a prize worth close to $12,000. Like I said earlier, everything I do is about helping you and your entrepreneurial journey, so visit grindology.com to learn more. Our Q1 box and the chance to win the Design Pickle package valued at close to $12,000 is an exclusive shipment so make sure to secure your box today at grindology.com. We'll include a link to Grindology.com within the show notes for easy access. Now let's jump in to this week's episode.

My guest this week is Keith Eshelman, cofounder and CEO of The Parks Project. The Parks Project is a social commerce company in that they have created some of the most comfortable clothing you will ever wear and they've donated over 50% of their profits to over 50 partners such as Yosemite Conservancy, Sierra Club, the National Parks Foundation, and many, many more. After a weekend volunteering in the Santa Monica Mountains in 2014 Keith and his cofounder, both Toms employees at the time, were struck by the challenges facing America's underfunded and underappreciated national parks. They set out to harness consumer power to help support the enormous backlog of underfunded projects within the national Parks system by creating collections of apparel and accessories that would further connect consumers with the parks they love. Within this episode, you're going to hear quite a bit about the influence that Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms, had on Keith's journey. And that's the beauty of entrepreneurship. It's not a solo journey. It's also not an overnight journey, and more times than not it's actually decades in the making.


Keith Eshelman: I was around career professionals. I was kind of told to pursue the path of education, it'll lead to someone hiring you based on your marks and your performance, and that would lead to growth within an organization, and life would be grand. I think everyone has a different path to follow. And when I look back at my youth, if anything translated to the success we've seen, it's just it was the hard work. I think that's something that you can't replace. The answer I oftentimes give other aspiring entrepreneurs is it's that grit that'll get you through, get you over the hump, over, and over, and over. You're told no, right. You're told you want to sell t-shirts? Good luck with that. You know, so yeah if anything it was probably I think back of picking up just acorns out of the yard. I'd have to fill a bucket to get a quarter. I'd go scramble and fill four buckets, get $1, and that translated to the hard work, giving me $1 to go down to the local store to get a piece of candy or something like that. So it wasn't until much later in life that I was exposed to the idea of you can realize your own business if you have the right value proposition.


James McKinney: Yeah. What did you think you wanted to do in your childhood years? We all have these dreams and aspirations as kids, and sometimes it's usually centered around professional sports for many people, or you know just something to do that's kind of really altruistic in some cases. But when you think back to your childhood what did you think you wanted to do, especially coming towards the end of high school?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah, I wanted to be a doctor. I went to UC San Diego, has a great medical program, pre-med. I made it to sophomore year in discovering organic chemistry would just destroy me, and I wasn't built… I couldn't consume this detailed information and put it back on paper to get good scores. So from then, I did have a passion for numbers and pursuit of management science degree at UC San Diego instead, so changed direction a little bit. And liked the idea of business, and probably got a little side tracked with literature and Spanish, or actually South American literature was a minor. It took me down to studying abroad in Peru and spending time down there. But yeah, it was an interesting combination of majors in college, which went back, worked a little bit, and then got my MBA thereafter.


James McKinney: So when you were getting that dual major at University of San Diego, studying abroad, what did you think your career trajectory looked like, especially given the minor that you talked about?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah, I think I was able to travel a lot, and a lot of where I wanted to go. I wanted to see the world. I wanted to work with the world. At some points in time, I was like what would being an ambassador in another country look like? It was much of the aspirations were worldly in saying how can I do business that connects the world? So yeah, some of that actually did play out in my roles in Toms, so it was pretty cool.


James McKinney: Now but when you look at your LinkedIn profile for example, there is a ton of retail brand experience. Obviously, I'm not saying that you were on the retail side of those brands but you can see a very clear thread throughout your entire journey. So coming out of college, when it looks like again going back to LinkedIn, when it looks like Vans was kind of your first step, what was it about consumer brands that drew you? Or was it just the opportunity and needing a job coming out of college that drew you and you just fell in love with the industry? How did we get there?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah, I fell in love with the industry. I fell in love with the lifestyle. I was just so passionate about board sports that I wouldn't see any other way to make a dollar if it didn't coincide with that industry. So early internships were with skates or media, and then some experience with Vans like you pointed out. But that was kind of the life goal out the gate. I wouldn't sacrifice my satisfaction at a company that I didn't want to represent. I would take half the paycheck and work a lifestyle job for sure.


James McKinney: I love it, because especially I'm assuming were you born and raised in southern California? Because both your undergrad and your graduate are in SoCal schools, and obviously being that you said that board lifestyle, surfing, snowboarding, southern California, are you born and raised?


Keith Eshelman: Actually northern California.


James McKinney: Oh, okay.


Keith Eshelman: Yeah.


James McKinney: A bit colder water.


Keith Eshelman: In Mill Valley. Yeah, colder water. It was a very different onboarding experience to surfing growing up north of the Golden Gate, so quite humbling, very cold, not very user friendly. Escaping to southern California was just a whole different world.


James McKinney: Yeah, I love it. So walk us through your career journey that got you to Toms. We know ultimately we're going to be talking about the Parks Project, and before that is Toms. Walk us through to Toms because Toms really changed the game for a lot of we'll say social retail. Maybe there's a different category name that you can educate us on, but we're going to call it social retail. But your journey up to that point, what were you learning in the process? What things weren't sitting right with you, what things were sitting right with you, and what was the leap to Toms?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah. I'd say I was very passionate about brands that meant something more than just a transaction. I think people will call them a love mark or something that when you see it, you're drawn and have a deeper emotional connection to not the product but the company behind it, and what it represents, and how they make you feel. I do think part of Toms, I got some great experience summer work during my MBA in London. So I went and took some time abroad. I did work with Puma which is a powerful footwear brand in the UK at the time, both culturally and with sport, and got some fun experience there. And also worked OMD, which is a media agency. So I was usually around the product and marketing and sales functions of the businesses, and that's where I loved the interaction with the consumer and seeing that transaction, and why.

So through that experience right after graduating, getting my MBA, I jumped into a product manager role at Quiksilver. Quiksilver is a big part of my story in managing kind of the product development all the way to go to market, but at the same time it was in decline. There was a lot happening in the active sports industry, and it was a brand that had its heyday, and it was just there was a lot of innovation happening in that space and smaller brands coming up, grabbing market share. But I think one thing that I learned quickly at Quiksilver is that it's very hard to sell ideas in a constrained environment. When sales aren't on the up, it just makes it a really challenging environment. When things are in decline, there are constraints everywhere. One of the inspirations for me was watching my wife, she works in fashion and was at True Religion, early, early employee, and she got to ride all the way up, explosive growth. It's almost like no one could make any mistakes. And I'm over here and it's like if you do something wrong, you've got to keep this tight. There's little to work with.

I quickly realized that I wanted to be around growth. It's something that you're kind of told during your graduate studies, but when you see it first hand, it's like align yourself with growth, the world will be better. You might want to pop in with a big established brand to build some credibility and get that experience on your resume, but I quickly realized that wasn't my style. So I did apply for a role early on, and said okay I'm going to go identify growing brands, brands that have a strong connection with the consumer. I hustled hard on getting a job with Toms.


James McKinney: Let's talk about that transition though, because I mean the board life, the skate and surf scene is big for you. I'm going to go even a larger category, let's say action sports. The action sports retail scene was a big part of what drew you, the lifestyle brands. You had said I'd take a pay cut if it meant to stay within the lifestyle brands. But now you get a flavor through osmosis with your wife of what a startup is like, as she was early on with True Religion. And that brand did just go crazy early on. So you get a feel for what that is like, but here you are at Toms, and I don't know where Toms was at in the startup lifecycle when you joined, but it's definitely not in the action sports world anymore. Correct me if I'm wrong but I definitely would not include it in the action sports world. So what was it, what was going on in your life at that time where you said you know what I'm now going to leave this area that has been so important to me, action sports, and pursue this startup, this social retail brand? What was it that became a priority over the industry that you grew up in?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah, I think around that time I was getting more exposure to just cause marketing I would say. I remember hosting a few cause marketing panels as a grad student and bringing in big brands to come speak to our student body. That was checking at the moment. You had to have a bigger purpose. So I'd say a little bit of that. Also combined with you just sort of at a certain point, you graduate from action sports and talking to teens and you want to talk to a little bit more sophisticated customer base. And that's where at the end of the day, action sports is fashion. It's very progressive and those three things kind of blended together at Toms for me, so you have a sense of fashion. They also did play in the action sports market in a different way. And you also had the idea of the business was doing more, and it had a value proposition for the customer to feel good about a purchase.

I would also reflect back, and I should probably dig up some of these proposals that I did way back in the day, but I was trying to start programs at Quiksilver like taking plastics out of the ocean, recycling it, and turning it into board shorts. I was all about product stories. That's what I was very driven by is how does your product have a story that ends up with a customer, and then they're going to do your marketing for you. Look, these board shorts at one point in time were plastics in the ocean. So that's, yeah I guess that's probably 12 or 13 years back, but I'm glad some of that is happening current day. It's awesome.


James McKinney: Yeah, no kidding. You bring up a great point about the cause marketing. Again, if you're not in the industry it's really hard for us to put these time stamps on certain things, but you were in the industry so I'm sure the time stamps are probably part of who you are now. But when did Toms become part of the scene, and that buy one/give one model? In my mind Toms, and maybe I'm wrong correct me please, but Toms was the first one under that buy one/give one model if I'm not mistaken, and when was that from a year perspective?


Keith Eshelman: I think you're talking 2007, 2008, 2009 were the early years, and 1000% a first mover in creating a buy one and give back model. Yeah, I mean I came from a very structured environment where there were layers of approvals. You do a lot of work and you kind of move it sideways. I was getting a little frustrated, I was like I do this work and you move it sideways, I want to move it up. From a lateral or vertical stand point, when you work at a bigger company you're just you're going lateral all the time. There's another deck, cool. It was some quick adjustments coming into a company like Toms where straight, you're going vertical. These are the tools you've got, go build it. And I was a part of the international expansion, and that really was a company within a company. You kind of got to take the success of the USA brand and go build it in other companies where it was starting to take off.


James McKinney: Now had they solved the operational side of international at that time or did they already have the operational side and you were coming in now to help build the marketing side of it?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah, there were a few guys that probably got gray hair earlier than they wanted because they were in and around the operations of international. Yeah, it's a tricky proposition to grow a brand in different countries using either direct market structure or distributors. As you build out a lot of countries, they're doing it a bunch of different ways on different calendars and different schedules, and everyone wants product in a different way. It's hard. That's hard work, yeah.


James McKinney: What learnings did you take? Because I do believe that for those who haven't gone from we'll say Fortune 100, Fortune 500 companies into a startup company, we can kind of respond a few different ways. We can respond with this idea that I just need to cleanse and purge myself of the big gorilla and get rid of it completely, and just come in with new lenses. Or we can take what we learned from those massive global brands into the startup world and kind of help flavor the startup scene. How did you approach going from again I'm assuming Quiksilver was Fortune 500, if not Fortune 1000. Either way they were a huge brand. How did you handle that transition as you came into Toms? Because again, being a startup there's a lot of tremendous talent. I'm sure Toms had tremendous talent at that point because of how funded they were. But how did you handle that transition and what did you take from your time at Quiksilver into Toms?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah it's funny because I think everybody loves the powerful calendars, decks, strategies, tool kits that you get from working at a bigger company. And you go somewhere and you kind of none of this is relevant. This is high strategic thinking for mature companies, and what you've really got to do is hit the ground and go build. That's where you've got to roll up your sleeves, and you're not handing a deck sideways but it's like screw the deck, we don't even need to make a deck. Let's go pitch business, build a brand, connect with more people, and just rev the excitement around the idea of hey a purchase can give a pair of shoes to a child somewhere else in the world. That was very contagious for the staff.

So if you could almost bottle up what you had within the company, very different spirit, a very different motivator for succeeding with your work. If you bottle that up and transfer it to your partners around the world or where you're building a direct business model and hiring people, there's early adopters and you kind of grab some of those early adopters that see the potential and have the same excitement. You say, "Here, we're going to build this together." And it's all a build really.


James McKinney: I love it, love it. Absolutely love it. It's funny because along my journey I have four failed startups, I've worked for the Disney Company, you know Fortune 50. And every time you say the word deck, there was not a meeting that took place inside of Disney that did not have a deck attached to it. There is a rewiring, rethinking about just executing. And a startup, it's all about execution. You don't have the luxury of mass amounts of time to move. It is if there is a meeting, it's meeting, decide, execute, move. Everything is so quick.


Keith Eshelman: No recaps. Recap it? Let's go. Call it success. Even if you only got 70% to goal, still we got 70%, keep building.


James McKinney: Absolutely. How long were you at Toms for?


Keith Eshelman: About five years.


James McKinney: So in five years at Toms though, again up to this point we have not seen any leanings towards entrepreneurship. Again, your introduction to the startup space was kind of through just observation of your wife at True Religion. Then you leave to go to Toms. You now get a flavor of the startup scene. What was taking place at your time with Toms that you started thinking I want to do something for myself?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah. I mean when you're working in international business, you slowly start phasing out and letting the local teams handle the market. So your time will be limited if you're building international businesses from the USA. You're either going to end up in one of those markets, hopefully running it, or finding another place within the organization. But it does give you the snapshot, to your point, of operations, of brand, of marketing, and of sales and distribution, and all that good stuff. Over my course at Toms, I did move into kind of creating a job where I saw a void within the company. Honestly, there were these popup shops that were who really owns these things? Is it the sales team, is it the marketing team? There was, it was happening and I sort of jumped in there and said you know what, that's I get kind of the sales, marketing, ops side of the business and I'm going to write a job description. So kind of first entrepreneurial move really to say I'm going to write a job description and pitch it to senior management and see if they'll let me run popup shops. We had actually done it in London, we'd done it in Australia. There's all things combined, it proved to be an opportunity.


James McKinney: I love it, love it. And so inside of that though, that became this idea of we'll call it an intra-preneur, you wanting to run a business inside of a business. But again, that's very different than wanting to take the risk for yourself, because you're still leveraging the resources, especially and even most importantly the financial resources of Toms. It's not on your own. You're an intelligent human being, you had to have assessed the risk to doing things on your own. So what was happening with your time with Toms that really kind of pushed you to the point where like now it's time for me to go and do my own thing?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah. I think back and I didn't really have a GL code, I was without a credit card, and the intra-preneurial spirit was totally inspired by Blake from a leadership stand point. He wanted to let people have that feeling of starting something and building it, and there was a lot of that within the organization. It created a beautiful culture of very young, smart, inspiring people helping build a brand because of the spirit that was in the building. So I think after a few learnings and trying pop ups, and different kind of environments, the different customers, you understand P&L, and I think that's when it finally gave me the confidence in saying okay, you own a P&L here. You think you're making money but then they load in your cogs and all the overhead, and you're like oh shit I'm not making… excuse my French there, but that's when you wake up, and when you finally see some P&L responsibility it's a wakeup call. You can think you're making money but there's a lot more behind the business that you oftentimes don't have access to. At that point, I think it gave me a strong command of business and how it works. In growing into saying okay I could do this. If we get a certain amount of inventory, we go to the right markets, we move the right product to the right people, we keep kind of the staffing light, and that involves me selling too probably, there's a little viable business right here. Whoa, like awakening, I could do that.


James McKinney: How hard is it? I'm thinking back to my various launches. Cash is everything. Let me rephrase that, cash flow is everything. Capitalization is everything. And from a social commerce perspective, that give back, that whatever it is whether it be another pair of shoes, whether it be giving to the parks, that is a line item on a P&L that it doesn't always happen for all businesses. You're embedding it as part of your doing business. And so how hard is it to start a company knowing that you have an extra burden? And again, I'm not going to mince words here, it is an extra burden to growing and building a sustainable business. How challenging was that from day one? And in fact, now that I realize we're jumping into Parks Projects, most of my listeners don't even know what Parks Project is. So before you answer that question, can you unpack for my listeners what Parks Project is?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah. Now we're at current day, so Parks Project is all about empowering the next generation to preserve the parks we love, and to try to… our mission is to leave it better than we found it. So we're about five to six years in, and we found a niche in making fashion forward apparel, home goods, and accessories that represent national parks and speak to conservation. So we do that by educating, advocating, volunteering in the parks, but also with every purchase of a Parks Project good, we use some funds to give back and support a project in the parks. Every park has a different state and different needs, so all of our give backs vary. It from a high level goes across four different types of categories of habitat restoration, youth programs, visitor programs, and things like trail work as well as just broad advocacy and education. It's a give back product all tied into a bigger mission.


James McKinney: And for those who aren't aware, and I wasn't until I did a little bit of research on Parks Project, when it comes to the national parks in general there's a backlog of projects that need to get done that whoever is in charge of that specific park, they make the determination based on funding for that year on what gets done and what doesn't get done. Is my assumption that you just come along side wherever that park is and just maybe knock off something off of that list from the funding that comes from the sale of your products?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah. I spoke to how every park is in a different situation run by a superintendent. I was very thoughtful in developing this social enterprise model, in seeing A, hopefully it will scale and when it scales what does it look like. At some point are you funding something that may not need any more help. How do you make an agile model that can grow and evolve over time? So the idea of project funding to me was really important in saying hopefully we can, I like what we've seen with some of the projects as if we're funding a nursery and at some point the project in Muir Woods or Joshua Tree is funding a nursery and we raise enough funds to adequately operate a nursery and rehabitate some of the park, we can move over to something else. And that's based off the needs of the park and deriving the supply and demand based off of being able to change lanes when we need to.


James McKinney: I love it. Now back to my initial question, how challenging has it been to launch a business that carries a financial burden that not every startup has?


Keith Eshelman: Right. Like I was saying, I put a lot of design thought into this in the sense that the easy way to do it is just trim a couple percentage points off the top line and give it back to one organization and say, "We're supporting the parks." What we did is said if something is going to represent Yosemite, the money should go back to a project in Yosemite, right? That, we took some layers out of the distribution of the give back to try and make it more effective, and we earmarked the dollars so they're trying to go right into project funding. But it is, at the end of the day it's just the non negotiable. It ties back to the mission of the business and why we're here. We'll continually do our best to share with our customers or potential customers why we're here. You have to have a reason why. You can't just sell product without a backbone. That is part of the backbone is that we invest in funding projects in the parks, and we invest in education and advocacy, and doing more to capture the next generation's attention around environmentalism, around the backlog of funding in the parks and around what are they going to look like for your kids one day.


James McKinney: Yeah. What happened, again you were with Toms when you came up with this idea or toward the latter end of Toms, what happened in your personal story and journey where you even had this idea? Because I don't think I would have ever come to this knowledge of backlogged projects for the parks. What was your personal journey and story to get to that discovery to where you felt the pain and needed to solve it?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah, that's a great point. I think everyone has to have that kind of authentic journey and experience in their life to really believe in something. I started volunteering in the parks, and that, the reason why I started volunteering is because right when I had my daughter Everly we took some time off and went up to Big Sur. So my wife and I are there with a newborn and we go yeah, let's put it in the Baby Bjorn and go hike above the waterfall. It's a trail that we knew and we loved kind of a quick jaunt up for the most epic, scenic view of the central coast. We got there and there was yellow tape around the trail. And I'm going oh wait, it struck me. I've got my next generation on my chest and she's probably not going to be able to hike this trail. It's rutted, it's closed. When something is closed, the overgrowth takes it over, and that's gone for good. And the idea of something being gone for good that was special to me totally struck a chord.

Right then I started getting involved in doing trail work. And I learned through all those experiences that hey the main veins of parks are operated by National Parks Services. It's a lot of these ancillary programs that the nonprofits or volunteers are pretty much keeping afloat. As I dove into volunteering and trail work, starting learning more about habitat projects and you start learning more about youth engagement, and really un-cracked the side of the parks that I'd used them so much in my life that I hadn't really understood. So part of that journey became I want to share this with more people. More people should know about this. And I had some evolution of my life and my relationship with the outdoors that I just wanted to share with more people.


James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love that. When I think about your time with Parks Project and I think about your time with Toms, the amount of knowledge you have within the cause marketing space, within the social startup space or the charitable commerce, whatever the framework we want to call it, within that space you really have developed a bit of domain expertise. I know that for most people like myself when we think of well I want this to contribute to something, it's usually a percentage of proceeds type of engagement. Again, Toms changed the game with the buy one/give one. Other brands have come along with it, but none of them felt as authentic as Toms did. Again, yours with Parks Project feels super authentic the way you're going about it. So for all those watching, for all those listening that are considering how to give back with their startup, with their venture, with their ideas what are some things that you maybe consider, I don't know, guiding principles for those who are considering doing that? As opposed to just jumping in saying 3% of all sales goes to whatever. What are your thoughts around that?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah. I mean firstly it's not necessary for everyone. I know it's become like oh you're doing a business, that's great, it's growing, what are you doing for the greater good? You can just run a healthy business. You can hire an incredible workforce. You can look at the sustainability of your product. But I firstly would say that it's not necessary for everyone to have to jump on a bandwagon to say oh I too am giving back. I think it's more about the mission of the business these days that's going to be a key differentiator than just saying we also give back to XYZ charity. I think brands that really excel in the space do it with simplicity. From my time at Toms, if it takes more than a couple sentences to explain the story, that's going to be a problem. And you're buying a shoe and it's giving a shoe to someone who may not have them. Great, one for one, so good. Parks Project we're in this game to do more to support park lands. When you buy something, we're going to give funds to the park that's on that graphic tee or on that hat, or whatever product you bought from us.

So I think when the value proposition around a giveback is intrinsic to the brand and aligns with the mission, that's when things click and accelerate. Though, like you mentioned, it is a big line item on your financials. I think it's super important for it to be so simple it ties right back to the brand and the mission, and doesn't delineate in any way to try to… you're not going to sell something and then have to educate someone about something else or another organization. You need to educate your customers about what you're doing, not about a charity that's maybe a passion to one of the founders. I think that's the second thing behind making sure a give back is intrinsic to your brand and mission, the second thing is don't use your perspective, but think about it through the customer lens. So when they're buying something, and it's relating to national parks, obviously they're passionate about parks and we want to make that giveback go back to individual national parks. We also could be passionate about something adjacent to the outdoor market.

Oftentimes I see a brand that says ice cream and they want to give back to something that doesn't have to do with ice cream. Well then, you've got to educate me about this nonprofit partner too, and it just doesn't make as much sense. It feels forced, you know? I would also just from the nuts and bolts you've got to watch your margins. You talk about this is an expense to a business, so you can't jump right into a category and say you're going to take a percentage of proceeds and parlay that off to a nonprofit partner without being mindful that it's great if you participate for a little bit but if you can't build sustainable business you're going to be gone. The nonprofit is going to say where did that bloodline go.

So the sustainability of the business and in terms of just being operationally efficient is super important, because you start developing partnerships with nonprofits that are counting on you to deliver for us. We deliver quarterly. Checks go out to fund projects and people are counting on these collars that are inbound. That also speaks to just how it's a partnership. You really need to go into these relationships, and think about it as a partnership. We're going to do our business and siphon off a couple bucks, and send it to a nonprofit. We're in this together. This is the project. How do we highlight the project? How do we better align kind of the metrics to success of there are things happening within the project? How do we give project updates to our customers if they bought a Yosemite t-shirt that's funding trail restoration. How do we say, "Here's some images of trail restoration in the park. Hope it means something more to you." Looking at those collaborations with nonprofits as partnerships is critical too because it's in both of your best interests to succeed.


James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. When you think of the space that you operate in, obviously it's ecommerce, it's retail, it's fashion. It's social commerce. Who are the brands that you look to as kind of your beacon if you will, like that's what we're pursuing? They get the story right, they're authentic to the mission, the brand has scaled like you want to scale because obviously parks probably has hundreds of millions of dollars of projects that will never get done if it's solely left up to the federal government. Who are the brands that you look up to with such tremendous respect and kind of again your guiding light on how you want to build Parks Project?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah. I oftentimes think we haven't found our product and I'm thinking about it from a higher level is that we make a lot of products, but one day I think we can find something that sums it all up and delivers a greater brand experience. So I think it evolves over time, and that's the first thing that you should understand. If I go a couple years back it was another brand. If I go a couple years forward it may shift. But I'm always a fan of somebody who owns a category and recently I've just been really inspired, though not very parallel to our business from a fashion and trend stand point, I think Tommy Bahamas is a beautiful brand. A great sized business. Right when you walk into a restaurant or buy a shirt, or have one of their lazy chairs on the beach, you know where you are, you're thinking Jimmy Buffet. It's so identifiable and it's incredibly niche, and you're in the marina or in the Caribbean and that's where you want to be. So there's an aspirational aspect to the brand and the products. It's very clear. That's owning whatever space that is, is very aspirational to us at Parks Project.


James McKinney: I love it. Now when you think of the growth of Parks Projects, one are you bootstrapped? Did you self fund this and it's just revenue that makes you profitable? Do you foresee yourself going venture backing? How do you see the growth of Parks Project playing out?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah, so starting in a garage, self funded, very risky. The reason why I have a lot of gray hair and I'm still a little shell shocked five years into it. You can get that tunnel vision where you're like this is going to succeed. If you're going to grind it out, you're not even paying attention to anything else. You're just paying attention to that next PO or the next product launch. But we've talked with a lot of people and tried to understand where the value alignment is. And growth yes is one of the key priorities of this business is to scale it, because I think it can do more good the more people we can reach, and the more funds we have, and the more products we have.

But I don't see it being aligned with a venture perspective. We ruled that out. It's not something that I came to do, flip, and start another one. It's something that I came to do, build, and innovate within the model instead of selling it and starting another idea. Just so many things on pieces of paper where I see the future of this business going and how we can innovate within the model to do more to support the goods, and the good growth.


James McKinney: I love it. You know one of the things that makes The Startup Story unique is just the idea of knowledge sharing. You've shared so much tremendous value with our listeners. I would like to encourage you to go back and listen to our interview with David Smith, the cofounder of Cotopaxi. Again, what blew my mind about his story was again a social company, a B corp. They want to eliminate poverty across the globe and they're venture backed. And what I didn't realize in the venture space is that there are hundreds of millions of dollars set aside in funds specifically for cause driven startups. And so I would encourage you don't knock venture backing as a potential, because as you grow that really is where venture… again, I'm all about bootstrapping. I've interviewed some amazing founders that… Ben Chestnut of MailChimp, bootstrapped MailChimp to a $7 billion valuation. Christina Stembel of Farmgirl Flowers, bootstrapped it and continues to grow. It is amazing to keep bootstrapped, but to really accelerate, outside of MailChimp that's the anomaly to all of this, venture backing is going to be critical. Connect with David Smith of Cotopaxi and I'll be happy to make the introduction for you as well, because everything he is about is around social. Maybe there's collaboration. He loves brand collaborations as well. He would be a remarkable one to connect with on that.

But when you think back to your journey, your six year journey, the gray hair that you developed because of starting your own company, there are challenges and there are cash flow challenges. There are many challenges coming through. Being that this was your first was there ever a point in the six years where you just thought man, maybe this is just a side hustle, maybe this isn't something that I should be doing fulltime? Was there ever a moment that you thought I need to rethink this priority in my life?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah. Six years ago, had two kids, and it was a bit of a side hustle project. You socialize it, you make a couple products, do they resonate, they do. And I think one of the most important things about a startup and pursuing an idea is just setting a goal and allowing yourself to make the yes/no decision. For us, it was going to the outdoor retailer market. You know, we think this has potential, we could definitely do some fun stuff around this, it would be a great side hustle. We could still go out and volunteer and get our friends out there. It's like a real bonding experience. You go get tools with a bunch of people and you go fix things, you know you can bring your kids back through and say, "Your dad just kind of fixed this trail, check that out." But for going, for us it was go into a retail market and talking with buyers, and saying if this checks it's game on. If it doesn't, it's cool, we still made some cool things, we had a cool philosophy, and it can be a nonprofit. And we can get people out and do volunteering events.

So when we took it to market and immediately engaged with REI, Target, and Urban Outfitters, it was game on. So when we, all the buyers were taking pictures of our products, we're going like oh my God are these people going to rip us off? There's a little paranoia because it's at infancy at this point, it doesn't exist. It's a 10x10 booth in a huge convention center. But fortunately that turned into PO's that turned into product in the market, which turned into making a website. We're not web builders but you start making things happen because that's all the early years were was a sequence of figuring something out that we didn't know how to do. And hustling hard and just being a little fighter in the corner. Because the outdoor market, it's pretty big. The national parks as a brand are huge. So it took us a while to get in there, and you've got to act bigger than you are really.


James McKinney: 100% you do. For those listening that might just be starting out, again you're six years in. the truth of it is you're still in your infancy stage. You're walking. If you use the illustration of a kid, you're walking. You're stable, you're walking, but you still you've got to keep aware of the countertops where you hit your head on it. But there are some that are still crawling. So what are some things you've learned in your specific journey that you can kick back to those who are learning to walk, so that they might avoid some of the mistakes that you made?


Keith Eshelman: Yeah, you just can't do it all on your own. Business is people power really, and as soon as you early years we're asking a bunch of people to pitch in pro bono, hiring a coordinator that should be a director, and you're stretching everyone, and everyone is stressed out and overworked. And you're just holding this thing together. But it's when you start bringing in seasoned professionals that can fix a process, can own a work stream, that's I think when you stop crawling and you start walking. And it's handing things off, delegating, letting people own parts of the business. Like coming from Toms where I felt an entrepreneurial spirit and trying to let others have that feeling too, and let them build within the greater build.


James McKinney: I love it, absolutely love it. This was an absolute joy having you on The Startup Story and I want to honor our listeners time by asking three questions they look forward to every single episode, and I know they look forward to it because they tell it to me every time on the social channels. And that first one is about perspective about entrepreneurship. There's this idea out there from media that there's a certain makeup for entrepreneurship, that maybe for some it's like if you're in your thirties it's too late to be an entrepreneur, or whatever the media propagates. But for you, do you think anybody can be an entrepreneur? Because right now there are so many platforms that anyone can start their own business, but do you think anybody should be an entrepreneur?


Keith Eshelman: I think anybody can. I had little exposure and got my first taste of it when I was 37, so maybe too late but it worked out for me. I think 1000% anyone can be an entrepreneur, but can anyone scale an idea? No. that's different. So can you come up with an idea, find a small void in the marketplace and operate a business, and do $1 million in a couple years? Yeah, you totally could, please pursue that passion. You're going to help innovation within the space and challenge the incumbents to have to like stay on their toes. It's great for our economy when people are starting up. But at some point if the idea has to scale, not every idea can scale and I don't think everybody can make it through some of those stages of growth too.


James McKinney: Yeah, I fully agree. And part of making it through those stages though are the people around us. One of the other narratives that the media puts out there is this idea that entrepreneurship is a Lone Ranger journey, it's just you couch surfing with a laptop in front of you and all of the sudden you're the next Airbnb. It's like this idea that it's just you are eating Ramen and sitting on a couch, just plowing on your laptop in an isolated world, in a vacuum. But for those of us who have been through it, we know it's not. We know we are where we are because of the shoulders that we've stood upon. So when you look back across your entire life's journey, who are all the people that you are just so immensely grateful for on their contribution to your journey?


Keith Eshelman: The first name that comes to mind for me is Blake Mycoskie, the founder of Toms. He encouraged people to be entrepreneurs within the business. Really I got to see it in real time, working in and around, and next to him what that spirit looks like. And how amazing it is. So aside from that direct influence and working interesting he company, I would say also on the other side of it my father, going to law school, working at the same law firm his entire career. That's cool to see too. It's like wow, that's not going to be me. I'm just not going to work at the same firm for 50 years. It's sometimes cool to see the other side of it, the other side of the story, and say okay I'm going to shake and move and give something a try. For his endorsement and advocacy, and some seed money too, that's just it was empowering form his very conservative perspective of having the same career path.

Another inspirational figure is definitely my wife, seeing her jump into a startup and build it with the founder/owner, and really accelerate both her career and her understanding of business, and building out a global brand. It's something not many people get a chance to do, and being right there side by side with her, even traveling with her sometimes to go see how they would build and scale markets, was very inspirational.


James McKinney: I love it. Absolutely love it. I say it all the time. If I had to trim the show to just 20 minutes that question would never be removed, because again I think the most disruptive idea out there is that entrepreneurship is to be done in a vacuum. And it is lonely, and it can be very lonely, but it doesn't need to be as isolating as it has become. And so I want people to constantly hear about the other people that have poured into them, into my successful founders on this show, and so thank you so much for sharing that.

You know and also one of the great things that I love about this platform is as much as I would love to provide these one on one moments with you and all of my listeners, it's just not doable. But this last question, it is as close to that one on one moment as I could possibly provide. And so if you would just picture yourself having coffee with one of my listeners, maybe it's the defeated entrepreneur coming out of 2020 that just doesn't think they can take it anymore, they took an absolute beat down last year and they've lost a little bit of hope that it takes to kind of continue on an entrepreneurial journey. Or maybe it's the wantrepreneur, maybe it's the one that's got a 9 to 5 and a book full of dreams and ideas but because of some of the false narratives out there about what entrepreneurship is, they feel locked and they can't move on that journey. Or maybe it's the absolute defeated entrepreneur who has lost everything and isn't quite sure they want to get back on that horse again. Whatever persona resonates with you, who would you like to have coffee with at this moment and speak directly to them?


Keith Eshelman: I'd love to talk to the wantrepreneur, because I think I just remember that so vividly early on I didn't really know what it was, how you would do it. Do you get a patent, at what point do you get a bank account? Where do you start? What do you do? And when I'm talking to you out there who has an idea, I think the first thing you really have got to establish is, is there a void in the market for it? For us, there was. There weren't… you couldn't really buy national park products outside of national park stores. So we said hey, we can from a distribution standpoint tap into retailers like REI and Urban Outfitters, and sell national park products outside of the parks, and also what's going on with ecommerce in that is space is absolutely void. So you combine those two things with the mission behind the business, and the desire to support the parks in a bigger way, and that gelled, that worked.

So if you don't have your value proposition and a void in the marketplace, you definitely want to rethink it. And I think how you get there is you just have to socialize the idea to everyone, and tweak it as you go. It's not you with a laptop and like you mentioned Ramen right next to you, just building a business plan. That doesn't even matter. What you want to do is socialize the idea, but no one's going to take your idea either. I think that was the fear early on like I don't want to talk about this, this is my little skunk project because if I talk about it to too many people someone is going to grab it and go. But the more feedback you get, the better understanding of a customer raise you're going to have in your mind as you take the idea into reality. So yeah, definitely discovering the why you need to exist, and getting some social validation around it to be able to have confidence and say this idea has legs.


James McKinney: Once you've had a few moments to process all the value that Keith Eshelman brought us in this week's episode, please hit me up on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram and share with me your thoughts on this episode. In fact, I would love for you to visit parksproject.us to learn more about what it is that Keith is doing and how you might be able to support his journey. They're just getting started and we all know how hard it is to gain consumer awareness, so check out parksproject.us and once you understand more about what they're building maybe you'll feel compelled to support a national park close to you through buying one of their collections. Or maybe you'll simply share the site with your social network. Again, awareness is everything. We'll include a link to parksproject.us in the show notes for easy access. If you've been around The Startup Story for any length of time, then you know how much emphasis I put on the idea that entrepreneurs support other entrepreneurs. So let's show up for Keith Eshelman in a huge way by visiting parksproject.us as a show of appreciation for all the value he delivered to us today. And now for my personal ask. The Startup Story community has been so incredible about sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We too are a startup and word of mouth is everything, so please follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory or on Twitter @StartupStory_. If you're on LinkedIn, please search for The Startup Story and follow our company page. LinkedIn is a really powerful way to raise awareness of the show. But the most impactful way you can help us grow our audience is to leave a review on Apple Podcast. Or if you listen to the show via Spotify, then please simply share the podcast directly from your Spotify app or wherever you listen to the show.

These simple actions can make a huge impact in getting these amazing founder stories out to the masses. And please make sure to tag or mention The Startup Story when you do share so that we can connect with you and say thank you directly. I'm so incredibly appreciative of the fact that you listen to the show each and every week, and I look forward to sharing these amazing stories with you every Tuesday with hopes of encouraging and inspiring you to start your story.

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March 16 2021
Keith Eshelman, co-founder of Parks Project

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