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Outdoor Icons: Skip Yowell, Co-founder of JanSport

July 6, 2011
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Describing what makes Skip Yowell an icon extends far beyond his place in the outdoor industry. The narrative will likely continue to evolve as his inventions, lessons taught, passion for climbing and hiking, and the lives he touched through philanthropic work go on making an impact on the world. When asked directly why Yowell thinks people see him as an icon, he started by saying it has a lot to do with being a pioneer. And, he joked, “I have also had two bobble-head dolls made of me.”

Skip Yowell, co-founder of JanSport. The company Yowell co-founded in 1967 during the “Summer of Love” was JanSport. Yowell describes himself and co-founder Murray Pletz first and foremost as hippies. But they and Jan Lewis, for whom the company is named, were hard at work trying to solve the riddle of the comfortable backpack while others in the hippie movement were “getting their love on” that summer.

As Yowell recounts in his 2007 book “The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains: How JanSport Makes it Happen”: “We were looking for a different path — and, to be sure, a road less traveled.”

JanSport originally grew out of a design contest sponsored by the Alcoa aluminum company. Pletz, a Seattle native and also Yowell’s cousin, won the competition with his design for an aluminum flexible-frame backpack. Pletz and Yowell used the contest winnings to launch JanSport to further manufacture and sell the award-winning product. Their first sales office/factory/corporate headquarters was above the Seattle transmission shop owned by Pletz’s father. Together, they had a unique approach to business, and that was, “We didn’t take ourselves seriously, but we took our business very seriously. It was about having a bit of fun every day.”

Being naïve had its advantages, like, Yowell writes, “having a ‘we can conquer anything’ mindset.” However, they did face one mountain from day one that they had to summit to survive — and that was finding someone who knew how to sew, as neither of them had that skill. Enter Lewis, Pletz’s then girlfriend (to later become his wife), who also joined the startup.

 

The company’s first major milestone — the panel-loading daypack — made its mark throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s. It offered a different approach to traditional top-loading packs and was lightweight, strong and designed to allow the user to adjust its fit to their exact proportions.

In 1970, JanSport backpacks were considered mountaineering packs and were sold in the bookstore at the Univers­ity of Washington, which also stocked outdoor gear in addition to typical university shop items like books and school supplies. However, the students were emptying the store’s shelves of JanSport packs to keep their books and supplies dry as they went from class to class since it rains so frequently in Seattle. The concept of students using JanSport’s mountaineering-quality packs for everyday use took flight throughout the 1980s, when JanSport sold to the majority of colleges in the U.S. And by the 1990s, JanSport’s popularity sifted down to K-12 students as well — eventually making JanSport the No. 1 selling daypack in the world.

But this story doesn’t end there. While JanSport was still a growing brand, Yowell and his colleagues were on a product-testing trip in the Pacific Northwest that transformed into the catalyst for another industry-changing invention when the weather turned miserable. “We were taking shelter in an A-frame tent,” said Yowell, “and it was just terrible. The zipper broke in the front and we couldn’t keep our stove lit. At one point, Jan thought we were going to die.”

The JanSport Right Pack in cilantro green.
What would prevent most from ever camping again only served as inspiration to Yowell and his team when they challenged themselves to improve upon the then-traditional tent design available — the A-frame. They applied the structure of the Eskimo Igloo to their development process and created the first dome tent, a concept Yowell describes as revolutionary and a brand game changer for the company in 1972.

“We sold an initial set to REI, and they blew out the door. As we started selling more and more tents to outdoor stores, I used the popularity of the dome design to also get stores to buy our packs and that’s what really helped our brand’s recognition to expand nationally,” he said.

Yowell at the end of the Milford Trek, called the Finest Walk, in New Zealand, 1997.
Yowell also credits the pioneering spirit of his native western Kansas for laying the foundation that would support his entrepreneurial success and unorthodox journey to the top of an industry. Infused with the spirit of the open frontier, Yowell, who describes himself as gravitating toward a freedom-loving, trailblazing lifestyle, also hopes to leave a mark on those who come after him through his dedication and passion for giving back — through the outdoors.

He serves on the board of the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade organization that creates opportunities to promote the outdoors in a positive way, and Big City Mountain­eers, a nonprofit organization that encourages underprivileged youths to live better lives through the magnificence of nature. Yowell stays in touch with many of the young people who have experienced trips in the outdoors through the programs he has led, and says, “I have seen firsthand what a difference an extended trip in the outdoors can make in turning one’s life around in a positive way.”

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