Interview by Tracy Ross
Before he founded the outdoorsy subscription box service Cairn in 2014, Rob Little, 32, worked as a systems engineer on deep space vehicles for Lockheed Martin and helped the Pentagon predict how stealthy its new F-35 bomber would be prior to flying through radar. Then—while still at Lockheed—he returned to college, this time majoring in business. During a class on retail marketing, he had an idea for a subscription service in the outdoor industry. It’d be a corollary to those you’d see in the clothing and cosmetics industry, but filled with things like three-in-one fork-spoon-tongs and small batch organic nutrition bars. By the end of his first month of curating monthly boxes of outdoor goods, he had a subscription base of 550; a year later it had soared to more than 10,000. We caught Little at his Bend, Oregon, office, where he was finalizing the next Cairn development, “Willy Wonka-style” tickets, redeemable for free gear, trips, and discounts.
TR: So…deep space vehicles?
RL:. They’re basically anything that leaves the atmosphere. I helped turn on a virtual reality lab to aid in the production of rovers, lunar landers, satellites. Then I switched to aerospace, which is anything that stays inside the atmosphere. We worked on the F-35, a fifth-generation stealth fighter.
TR: But you’ve also always been an outdoorsman?
RL: I grew up in southern Oregon, where I grew to love skiing, mountain biking, and hiking. In college, my friends and I traveled any chance we could get: to the Grand Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, Mt. Whitney. Before working in aerospace, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama and traveled the length of the Andes. I had friends and family join me for short stints. The total length was about 6,000 miles. I spent six months just exploring. Then I returned to the U.S., worked in aerospace for five years, and entered the MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of Business.
TR: And that’s where you developed Cairn?
RL: Cairn was born in a marketing class—during a discussion about creative retail strategies. It’s similar to a wine-of-the-month or fruit-of-the-month club, blended with an opportunity for customers to provide feedback to outdoor brands. How many of your gear junkie friends want to be gear testers?
TR: And what exactly is it?
RL: It’s a monthly subscription to new, innovative outdoor products, with the opportunity to give feedback. You fill out a questionnaire about your various interests, and we select the best combination of products to send you each month: gear, apparel, food, skin care, and emergency and medical items. We’ve shipped products from more than 70 brands, including Stanley, Mountainsmith, Honey Stinger, and Green Goo.
TR: What are your customer’s expectations?
RL: To be delighted. That the product is relevant. That it’s new product. And that we provide a community for them to engage with about the outdoors. We partner with brands and development teams to introduce new products to market.
TR: So it’s like Trunk Club (which sends “trunks” of curated clothes to subscribers) for outdoorsy types?
RL: Yes. In fact, the founder of Trunk Club is one of our investors. We’re applying a similar model to a different industry.