Interview: NEMO Equipment Founder Cam Brensinger

What does it take to build a great outdoor brand? NEMO head honcho Cam Brensinger explains how the company went from graduate design project to award-winning gear maker

25th March 2021 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ

Design graduate Cam Brensinger set up NEMO Equipment back in 2002 with a vision to build better outdoor kit, driven by thoughtful, considered design. Today the independent US brand is known for its class-leading lightweight tents, sleep systems and camping equipment. We caught up with Cam during COVID-enforced lockdown.

Tell us about your outdoors background and the roots of NEMO Equipment…

I’ve loved being outdoors since I was a little kid. I never enjoyed TV much. I always had a desire to shape my own unique identity… and a hardwired antipathy for anything too mainstream. I’m an introvert for sure, so the outdoors was also a way to be with my own thoughts. What really set me on the path for outdoor adventures though, was a summer camp I did in middle school that introduced me to long distance backpacking and river trips. The notion that I could get by comfortably with only the gear on my back or in my boat was exciting and liberating. Knowing I could be self-sufficient if I needed to be gave me a lot of confidence in adolescence and I suppose, especially during COVID, it still does today.

What was the biggest challenge you faced back then, when trying to establish NEMO in the outdoor industry?

When I started NEMO in 2002, the industry was in a different stage in its development. The iconic brands were well-established but they were still mostly independent and founder-led. They made beautiful printed catalogues and did a lot of grassroots marketing—you could meet the founders and business leaders pretty easily at events or even just by showing up at some company headquarters. It was a small and close-knit community and that was both its charm and a significant obstacle for a young design school grad from outside the west coast or Colorado bubble. And there was no crowd sourcing of startup funding in those days, nor could you really build a brand through online communities. There was a way of doing things that was well-established and not easy to break into. It took us a lot of years to build trust and credibility in those circles. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but it was slow going. Today, you can short cut many of those timelines but I don’t know if you can really achieve the same outcome. My goal was always to build a lasting and iconic outdoor brand, so I was happy to take the patient path and earn my stripes.

The company’s first product was an air-beam tent. Today, that’s a huge sector of the camping market, but not a space that NEMO occupies. Do you think you might go back there?

Our concept for inflatable tents came from work I was doing at MIT on spacesuit design and from an epiphany I had while bivvying in rough conditions on a winter overnight while in school. I had no idea of the history of inflatables, though once I did some research, it wasn’t surprising to see inflatables had been used for shelters in many contexts. What hadn’t been done was making them practical for lightweight backpacking. And I believe we went further in that than anyone before or since. But the fundamental problem we found with using inflatable airbeams for high-end backpacking applications is that its benefits are totally counterintuitive. People expect inflatable things to be cheap, lightweight and flimsy. And our airbeams were exactly the opposite. They were expensive to make, shockingly rigid and a little heavier than our lightest aluminum tent poles. Now, if we had a big marketing budget we might have been able to overcome people’s predispositions, but for a small startup it was simply too much to reeducate the market — even with all the positive PR we managed to get. We still make some inflatable items today, but really just for niche markets. The alloy poles we use now have remarkable properties. I suppose it’s possible we would consider airbeams again, but our goal is always to utilize the best solutions, and at least for the majority of our products today, airbeams don’t, on balance, offer the combination of benefits.

NEMO Brand | The Story | Wildbounds
Never losing that vital connection to the natural world and enjoying simple outdoor tasks is a grounding principle in NEMO Equipment’s overall design approach

NEMO is known for meticulous design. What has influenced that ethos?

My goal since founding NEMO as a design student 18 years ago was to bring the highest level of design and engineering to the outdoor industry and build an iconic brand. Brands like Petzl for their ingenuity and Arc’teryx for their mastery of construction were my heroes. I wanted to build a company dedicated both to adventure and to the craft of making great product. I suppose it’s really about recognizing that time and resources are precious and life is short. If we’re going to make something, it should be our very best effort every time and it should be worthy of its place in the world. We have a rule that we will never bring a product to market that’s the same as what’s out there. Every NEMO product should improve the customer experience and be produced as sustainably as possible, which starts with making the highest quality and most functional designs possible so they stay in use and out of landfills. I suppose it’s all about taking pride in what we do.  We don’t get it right every time, but we don’t make excuses either. We’re on a journey to get smarter and better at what we do all the time.

What do you think sets NEMO apart from its competitors?

There are many great brands out there and lots of great product. But I believe it’s harder today to find truly wonderful product. What you can buy for your dollar today is extraordinary, but it’s become a game of quantity over quality. Most things today, especially anything that will be sold in large quantities through Amazon, has been lean designed and manufactured to the point that it can just barely survive its intended use and won’t last much longer than the typical purchaser’s attention span. In other words, things aren’t made like they used to be, as our dads and granddads would say. A benefit of which has included owning things and enjoying a middle-class lifestyle more accessible (even as wages have gone down for many of these same consumers), but the great cost of which has been stripping the soul out of objects, robbing us of the chance to have a deeper relationship with the objects we invest our hard-earned dollars in and filling our landfills with a whole lot of bent, snapped, peeled, torn and burnt-out stuff. When I think of what my grandparents on my dad’s side owned – he was a car mechanic and she was a bus driver – they didn’t have much, but they had all the essentials. Their TV came in a beautiful wooden cabinet and their fridge was as beautiful as a 1950s Cadillac, and so well-built its steel paneled body deserved to be repainted several times. It might still be in our family today if it hadn’t become fashionable to have something much more cheaply constructed with a bunch of bells and whistles that would break too soon.

Are there any bits of outdoor gear that you really admire, or think ‘Damn, I wish I’d come up with that’?

The mainstream market is so competitive today, you really can’t be successful without creative design. There’s lots of great thinking out there, especially among the smaller brands that have less to lose and need to work hard to get a foothold. Crowdsourcing has opened the door to inventors with great ideas and not a lot of access to conventional startup capital.  So, if you look in the right places, there’s a ton of innovation happening. The challenge for our industry over time will be how to bring these micro startups into the fold, give them access to bigger distribution and help them become the next wave of iconic brands.

NEMO Equipment Stargaze camp chair
Cam sees the launch of the packable, swinging NEMO Stargaze camp chairs – half chair, half hammock – as a big win for the brand

Which NEMO Equipment product are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of our Stargaze chairs because they were trailblazing for us in so many ways. We have a strict rule at NEMO that we will not bring anything to market that’s the same as what’s out there – everything we make has to improve the experience of adventure. And that was a high bar to set at the beginning of a project to design chairs… chairs have existed for millennia and are an almost ritualistic favourite challenge of industrial designers. We weren’t sure at the outset that we could really create a totally new sitting experience. So, the fact that we did, by building a packable, swinging and auto-reclining chair, which had never been done, was a big win. We also had to learn a lot of new skills and build a new supply chain. It was a long road that started in 2013 and didn’t hit the market until 2018, but the runaway success of the chair has given our team a lot of confidence and emboldened us to keep setting the bar higher as we go forward. Our big focus these days is on pushing the envelope for sustainability and how that relates to materials and design. I’m proud of Stargaze and the delight we’ve brought to customers with it, but there’s a lot more work to be done!

How do you think the US and UK outdoors market – or consumers – differ? Or are they broadly the same?

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate over the 18 years of NEMO is just how different and yet the same we all are. Even within the United States, geographic and demographic differences result in a wide range of small and big differences in how we enjoy the outdoors. Every region and culture has its unique preferences. And yet we all want lightweight equipment that protects us from the elements, extends our adventures, is delightful to use and helps us embrace the universal, visceral joy of being outdoors. I think the US and UK markets have plenty in common, but I also think every market deserves the respect of really getting to know it and, when necessary, designing specifically for its needs.

What does the future hold for NEMO Equipment? Do you still have any burning ambitions for the company?

My ambition from the first days has been to build a lasting and iconic brand. I don’t have specific aspirations in terms of sales revenue, but I have very big ambitions for driving forward the efficiency, innovation and sustainability of NEMO. We are hiring aggressively right now as we look to recovery after COVID and wanting to make the business smarter and more productive than ever. We never backed off product development despite cutting many other expenses, so we have more new product in our pipeline than ever in our history. And we’ve set moonshot goals around environmental sustainability… I’m very proud of where that is headed and looking forward to unveil the results of that work in the coming seasons, especially 2022.

NEMO Brand | The Story | Wildbounds
Cam’s outdoor passions include fishing for perch and bass on his lakeside property in Maine, New England

What’s your most-used bit of outdoor gear?

This has been my family’s year for camping and fishing, so my Jazz Luxury Duo, Helio LX Pressure Shower, and Roamer sleeping pads have been heavily used. I’ve also logged some good time in my Stargaze Luxury chair around the campfire or overlooking the lake while the kids swim. Aside from our own product, probably my most used and beloved piece of kit is my Yeti SB5 mountain bike. I’m a big fan of the brand and the bike is a work of industrial art.

What’s your perfect outdoorsy weekend?

My family has some land on a lake in Maine. It’s a beautiful, quiet lake with loons that make their calls throughout the night and abundant perch and bass. The property climbs steeply from the water, with a lot of exposed granite ledge, and is dense with pine and poplar trees. There are no buildings on the property. We have tent platforms for our camping gear, plus a rope swing, tree house, tomahawk and archery targets, and a small fishing boat. It’s like going to camp. The kids can run free and the grown-ups act like kids. We have spent over 30 nights there since the pandemic took hold in March. It’s two hours from our house, but when you’re there you feel a thousand miles from any stresses.

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