Just a few short years ago, 34-year-old Isaiah Price had no idea he would end up making his living in the outdoor industry, much less owning his own business. As recently as 2015, Price was working as a full-time pilot with no experience selling outdoor gear. He was also, he said, living a life he didn't feel passionate about.
"The pilot lifestyle was tough. I was gone all the time, and I wasn't even making enough money to pay my bills," he told SNEWS. "I started asked myself, "What do I love to do? If could choose my dream job, what would it be?"
The conclusion he came to, after a little soul searching, was gear.
"I'm happy when I'm in the mountains and I love emergency preparedness and survival equipment," he said. "I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew I wanted to open a store. That was the beginning. That set me on the path to opening Sophos Survival."
Setting up shop
As soon as he realized outdoor retail was in his future, Price left his job as pilot, picked up a couple of part-time gigs to pay the bills, and focused his energies on building an ecommerce website for survival gear. He chose the name "Sophos," which means "wisdom" in Greek. At that time, he had no idea what he was doing, he said. He followed his instincts and focused on products he could vouch for personally.
"I got on YouTube and started learning how to build a website. Most of the products on the site are things I've used before. For instance, I've always loved Big Agnes. I went on their website, requested to be a dealer, and they called me to set it up directly. I started setting up wholesale accounts with brands, making small orders, seeing what sold, and reevaluating as I went."
After a few years of slow selling online, Price realized he had hit a wall. With his two side jobs, he didn't have enough time to grow the shop beyond a hobby project. If he wanted to make Sophos his full-time career, he needed to take a big leap.
"I talked to my wife, Laurie, and told her that if I want to make this happen, I needed to dive in. She agreed to support me. I quit my other jobs on January 1 of this year and started working out of my garage," he said.
The timing couldn't have been better. As the pandemic sent the nation into lockdown in early March, demand for survival products went through the roof. Price quickly outgrew his garage. Sensing an opportunity, he moved his plans to open a storefront—originally scheduled for early 2021—to May 1.
Opening during quarantine
"At this point, people were quarantining and trying to stay home, but I had outgrown the garage and needed a place to keep my inventory," Price said. "At that time, everyone was looking for emergency prep stuff—freeze-dried food, water storage tanks, first aid, a lot of outdoor gear. Even though people weren't coming in, I was still taking orders online and over the phone, either shipping items or dropping them off with contactless delivery."
The lease Price got on his 2,000-square-foot storefront wasn't pandemic-cheap, he said, but the ongoing orders were enough to justify the move, even as many other businesses struggled.
Those online sales kept the business afloat until state restrictions lifted this summer. As soon as it was legal, Price opened his shop to the public with safety measures in place like regular sanitizing and social distancing.
A hybrid model
Sophos couldn't have come into the world at a better time, but Price says the move wasn't strategic or opportunistic. The hybrid model of the shop—half outdoor gear, half survival equipment—is an authentic reflection of Price's passions.
"I grew up in Utah hunting, backpacking, fly fishing, camping—all of it. Put me up in the mountains, I'm a happy man. That's the outdoor part," he said. "I coupled that with my training as a pilot, where you practice emergencies constantly. You go through procedures, memorize checklists, and create muscle memory to deal with situations as they arise. I enjoy taking that methodology and applying it to everyday life."
With respect to customers, Price said the hybrid models helps introduce people to gear they didn't know they needed. Someone coming in to buy a new sleeping bag might wander through the emergency prep section and realize it wouldn't hurt to have a water tank or some freeze-dried food on hand. And vice versa. The model leads to a lot of in-the-moment purchasing. Customers usually leave with more than they came in for, which has led to several months of steady growth.
"It's been hard to keep up with the demand," Price said. "I just hired my first part-time employee and my wife helps me in the shop as well. It's growing fast."
Price was hesitant to attribute all that success to pandemic-influenced buying habits, but he did admit it plays a role.
"We've got a really good emergency- and outdoor-minded community here in Utah. At the same time, of course, the coronavirus has definitely acted as a springboard."
Other offerings at Sophos include tents, camp chairs, backpacks, sleeping bags and pads, camp stoves, and water filters. Price is also working with product developers and manufacturers to develop his own line of survival products: knives, multitools, fire starters, and more.
Funding and bestsellers
One of Price's goals in starting the business was not to operate on credit. He funded the entire project with about $50,000 he got from savings and the sale of a rental property he owned with his wife.
"Operating solely on cash has been great. It forced me to exercise a lot of control from the beginning and it takes a lot of stress out of it," he said.
Price's wife, Laurie, an account manager at an investment firm, has helped establish an emergency fun for the store, just in case things go south.
That doesn't seem likely, though, given the strength of some of the store's categories. Some of the items that move quickest, according to Price, also have unusually high margins for a gear shop. So far, freeze drying machines—which cost between $2,500 and $3,500—have sold best. Water tanks have also drawn a lot of interest, along with freeze-dried backpacking meals and first aid equipment.
Plans for expansion
Sophos doesn't currently offer apparel, but that's next on Price's to-do list. He said that in the coming years, he plans to bring in clothing and footwear that fits the hybrid model of the shop. Tactical apparel would likely sell well alongside more lifestyle-oriented lines.
Still, Price is happy with the operation right now—what he's been able to achieve in just a few months.
"I've wanted to do this forever. It's where my heart is," he said. "Some nights I can't sleep because I'm so excited to head in the next day and get things done. The store has created an environment that makes me happy and fulfilled every day."
"In the end," he added, "that's what really matters."