Outside the Cubicle: Discovery Trekking owner Leslie Hanes creates unique product mix through her personal passions

Leslie Hanes, owner of Discovery Trekking, doesn’t need focus groups or marketing teams to generate product ideas. She looks to her own life experiences beyond the office that naturally lead her to create an eclectic mix of products.
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To further a long-standing goal at SNEWS® to build our community through communication, in Feb. 2010 we launched a column called Outside the Cubicle to highlight the extraordinary, awe-inspiring or just plain wonderful things those in the industry do outside of the work environment (click here to read about its launch). The column gives us a chance to write about all the “oh wow” things we hear people did, do or have accomplished that have utterly nothing to do with work and otherwise go unnoticed. The stories may inspire or entertain, or make you laugh, look at somebody differently or prompt you to wonder how they found the time. From the warehouse and sales floor to executive lounge or road-warrior sales rep, we are looking for great stories and great people to profile. Is it you? Your boss? Your colleague? Tell us who should be next. Email us at OutsidetheCubicle@snewsnet.com or call 530-268-8295. To read other Outside the Cubicle stories, click here.

At some point, most of us have thought of a brilliant, “million dollar” product idea to make our lives easier -- and make us a pile of money. But few people take that extra step and turn the idea into reality.

Leslie Hanes, owner of Discovery Trekking Outfitters, goes that extra step. Taking inspiration from her own travels, her family life and her passions, such as fitness, traveling and horseback riding, she has created an eclectic mix of products sold through her burgeoning business. First there was a travel towel, and eventually a saddle skirt and a jacket for dog trainers.

While many companies gather in conference rooms and hire focus groups to generate product ideas, Hanes’ creations are born outside the walls of Discovery Trekking (www.discoverytrekking.com) and are rooted in her everyday experiences. 

“She loves developing products that are from some kind of need,” said Stephanie Seaton, owner of Unlimited Vision, a graphic design firm in Vancouver, B.C., that creates marketing materials and packaging for Discovery Trekking. “She’ll say, ‘Why isn’t there something like this on the market?’ And then she’ll just say, ‘Darn it, I’m going to do it,’ and she does.”

The first big idea

Hanes said that traveling is one of her great passions (Mexico and Europe are favorite destinations), and her world travels led to the development of the product that put Discovery Trekking on the map.

In 1999, Hanes was traveling in Seoul, South Korea, attending her stepson’s wedding, when she got fed up with the fact that the towels she typically used while globetrotting didn’t dry very quickly, and therefore weren’t especially useful. “I travel extensively, and I could never find a towel that worked well,” Hanes told SNEWS®. While in South Korea, she also noticed that local shops were actually carrying towels made of quick-drying synthetic fabrics, and wondered why she couldn’t find something as effective in the United States.

“I just started fishing around, and started learning about the technologies and fabrics that were available,” said Hanes.

At the time, Hanes was working as an injury insurance adjuster for the British Columbia government, but she decided to work part-time developing a better travel towel, knowing that such a thing would be attractive to a wide variety of travelers. In 2001, Hanes and a partner established Discovery Trekking Outfitters, operating out of Hanes’ home near Vancouver. They worked with fabric mills and experimented with various fabrics, finally creating a towel of moisture-wicking polyester that also contained silver to prevent bacteria growth and keep the towel from getting musty. (Click here to read the SNEWS review of the towel from 2008.)

Dreaming up a great product and then manufacturing it was a feat, but it wasn’t enough to ensure the success of the new business. Hanes had to convince people to buy the towel.

Getting a foothold in the outdoor market is a daunting task for most business owners, and there are many ways to go about it. Cold-calling REI would seem like the least likely avenue of success -- but that’s exactly what Hanes did.

“The customer service fellow told me to send a sample and they’d call me if they were interested,” said Hanes. “I mentioned to him that this policy was much like telling me to pee in the corner of a round room. And then I said that our towels were completely different from all the ones REI carried, and that if I sent him one to try, he would be so impressed that he would walk it over to merchandising himself. He said no one had ever challenged him like that, and he agreed to try it.”

The customer service person gave the towel to an REI buyer, and Hanes talked the buyer into taking the towel home to test it. “I said if he wasn't really impressed, he would never have to listen to me again,” said Hanes. “He contacted me about a week later and said that REI wanted the towels.”

Hanes’ approach to REI really exemplifies her whole way of doing business -- it is unusual and it is bold.

“She does things absolutely fearlessly,” said Jeremy Guard, the founder of Arc’Teryx who also lives in Vancouver, and has served as a sort of mentor to Hanes. “I see it in the way she directly approaches buyers. The way she does it is absolutely fearless. I was in the business, and I know how to approach buyers, and she does it with a courage and straightforwardness that’s just as bold as brass.”

For Hanes, that boldness was not something she learned through formal business education, nor did she work for years with a manufacturer to hone her skills. It simply comes from a lifetime of hard work, a willingness to take the initiative, and the desire to create new things.

Hard work

Hanes grew up in Prince Rupert, a port town in remote northern British Columbia where people sweat to make a buck.

“She comes from a very hardy area of B.C.,” said Guard. “People there are loggers or fishermen. It’s all hard work. Everyone there has had to bust their ass for a living, and she comes from that work ethic, where everyone rolls their sleeves up.”

At the age of 16, Hanes held three jobs, working at a library, a clothing store and a fish processing plant. In high school, she taught herself how to sew, despite having an alcoholic sewing teacher who was usually sleeping or stumbling around the classroom. “She taught me to sew in a straight line, and that’s about it,” said Hanes.

At the age of 17, Hanes left home and struck out on her own. “I thought I knew everything,” she said. And by the next year she was married. She eventually got a job as an injury insurance adjuster for the B.C. government, and held the position for 18 years. She would also give birth to three daughters who each wore shaped diapers that Hanes constructed herself.

It was really Hanes’ daughters who first benefited from her talent for stitching together fresh ideas.

Not just horsing around

“As long as I can remember she’s always sewn and made us clothes,” said Hanes’ daughter Laurie Jancowski. “She even made prom dresses for me and my sister. The one she made for me was gorgeous, and she even built in a corset so I could wear it strapless.”

The girls also grew up riding horses, and they participated in horse shows where Hanes discovered that there were very few clothing items tailored for that crowd. In 1985, she launched an outerwear business, sewing lifestyle clothes emblazoned with horses, and also making custom pants for riding. That business ended after about 10 years, but horseback riding still plays a major role in her life, and has been a source for new Discovery Trekking products.

Last year, Jancowski asked her mother to design a saddle skirt -- sort of like a kayak skirt -- to keep her dry and warm while riding in the rain.

“I ride whether it’s raining or not, and I have an expensive saddle that I didn’t want to get wet,” said Jancowski, adding that her canvas saddle cover didn’t protect her legs and allowed water to pool in her saddle. She wanted something that would keep her warm and dry, and also allow her to get on and off the horse easily, so she naturally asked her mom to create something.

“I was really busy at the time, and told her to go buy one, but she said it didn’t exist,” said Hanes.

“There is a quarter sheet, but it’s meant more to cover the horse’s bum, and they’re heavy and rustle really loudly and don’t cover the front of your saddle,” Jancowski explained.

“Mom told me to bring my saddle in, and we stuck it on a couple of chairs, and I sat on it, and showed her what I needed,” said Jancowski. “I needed it to tuck under my legs so it wouldn’t blow around and scare my horse. So she got some paper out, and drew it out, and whipped one up, and said, ‘Go try this.’” The saddle skirt, made of a soft shell material, worked very well, and Laurie asked her mom to make one as a birthday present for her friend, Lucy. “Lucy loved it,” said Jancowski.

As more family friends expressed interest in the saddle skirt, Hanes displayed one on the Discovery Trekking website, and just like that, a new product was added to the company’s product lineup.

More unique ideas

The assortment of products that Discovery Trekking sells is really unusual, and it might lead a person to wonder, “Now where did they come up with that?” For example, there’s a Polartec Windpro Stretch jacket designed for people who teach agility skills to dogs. Of course, agility training is another activity that interests Hanes, and several loyal customers of Discovery Trekking who are also dog agility enthusiasts asked Hanes to make a jacket for them to wear while working with the dogs. “They said they needed things like great big pockets to carry leashes,” said Hanes.

Then, in 2009, the BC/Yukon dog agility championships came to Campbell River on Vancouver Island, in Hanes’ proverbial backyard, and she created a jacket to be raffled off at the event. 

She said that pretty soon the jacket created plenty of buzz at the dog show, and Hanes has begun marketing the jacket to agility clubs and other dog owners. Today, each jacket is custom-made, but Hanes said she might put them into full production pretty soon.

From travel towels to the agility jacket, the mix of products at Discovery Trekking is unusual, but you could say this diversity is the strength of the company. The ideas bloom from unique experiences, so Hanes does not get lost in the crowd by rolling out me-too products.

“I don’t want to do what other people are doing,” said Hanes. “I want to serve what I see as untapped markets.”

While some business veterans might urge Hanes to narrow her focus and concentrate on fewer consumer groups, she’s not heard that from mentors such as Guard, who, as the founder of Arc’Teryx, knows a thing or two about business. 

“I’ve only given her one piece of advice -- keep doing what you’re doing. Because there’s no way I can fault her act,” Guard said, adding that Discovery Trekking benefits from the fact that Hanes “comes up with new ideas quickly, and she doesn’t dither.”

It also helps that she is an active participant in the markets that she serves. For example, she is, among other things a fitness enthusiast, which led her to create another unlikely product in her company’s mix -- covers for Curves fitness equipment.

Life throws her a curve

Hanes said she became a Curves member in 2001 because her mother had moved to town and she wanted to find a place where her mother would feel comfortable exercising. (Curves serves women only.) Hanes said she really came to appreciate the Curves staff members, who gave her a lot of support when her new husband became ill the year she joined. 

As she continued to work out, she realized that the Curves equipment could benefit from washable covers that would protect the vinyl and also be hygienic. No such covers were available, so in 2001, she decided to produce them herself. “I started contacting other Curves franchises around Canada and the USA. Before long, I was getting orders from hundreds of clubs. Then thousands,” she said, noting that there are about 10,000 franchises around the world. “Now my biggest customer for these is Curves Japan.”

Unfortunately, Hanes’ husband could not overcome his illness, and in 2003 he passed away. “The Curves staff sent me flowers when he died,” Hanes recalled. “Not something most ‘gyms’ bother with.”

She was so impressed with the Curves operation that she actually purchased her own franchise in 2003, and then purchased a second one the next year. It’s likely that somewhere in her mind she thought that other women would appreciate being able to exercise in a place that offered the comfort and camaraderie she had experienced.

Do it yourself

The Curves franchise is a perfect example of how Hanes finds solutions to improve not only her life, but also those around her -- and eventually work those ideas into a business. At the heart of her success is her willingness to examine her world and devise ways to make it better.

“She’s a damned impressive lady, and I think you’re going to hear more about her over the years,” said Guard. “If I’d known about her at Arc’Teryx, I would have had her on the payroll immediately.”

Of course, it takes a great deal of self-confidence and fortitude to turn ideas into action. And Hanes admits that she sometimes wades into things not knowing exactly how to achieve her goals. As she built Discovery Trekking, she endured plenty of on-the-job training and overcame many challenges, even mortgaging her house to finance the business. But she said people shouldn’t let their initial lack of experience or other barriers stop them.

“I was speaking to a group of businesswomen a couple of weeks ago, and told them what my mother told me: By the time they find out you don’t know what you’re doing, you will,” said Hanes. “If you are gung-ho enough to get in there and do the job, through hard work you can get ahead.”

Hanes also advises people that if there is something they want, something they need, they might have to create it themselves.

“A lot of people have great ideas, but they just don’t move forward with them,” she said. “A lot of times there’s just something real simple that would make our life easier or better. And you just wish somebody would do something. Sometimes, it has to be you who does it.”

--Marcus Woolf

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