by CHRIS ROGERS
Tim Marshall started making camping equipment in his basement 11 years ago. Five years after hiring his first employee in 2011, his company brings in millions of dollars of revenue and employs around 75 people. Sound familiar? Marshall’s business, Enlightened Equipment, is the most recent version of a story line that has been repeated over and over again in Winona’s history: an inventor’s garage hobby grows into a big, successful company. Enlightened Equipment’s rise mirrors the origin stories of Fastenal, Peerless Chain, and Knitcraft. But the manufacturer behind Winona’s latest Cinderella story does not deal in industrial hardware or fashionable sweaters. It makes ultralight camping quilts.
“This is not a sleeping bag,” Enlightened Equipment’s website warns customers. For ultralight believers, that is a good thing. Ultralight camping is a minimalistic approach to camping that aims to shave down every unnecessary ounce that hikers lug around. Marshall’s fully-loaded pack for a three-day trip weighs 13 pounds. The quilts his company makes are essentially sleeping bags without backsides. Because the back or bottom of a normal sleeping bag’s insulation gets squished between the sleeper and the ground, it is essentially wasted weight, Enlightened Equipment staff members explained. Plus, quilts are more comfortable, they added. Some of Enlightened’s customers sleep with a foam or air-filled sleeping pad separating them from the ground and a quilt over the top. Others sleep in hammocks with a quilt draped over and under them.
Marshall started making quilts and other camping gear out of necessity. There were not any products on the market that fit his body or his desire for super-lightweight gear, so Marshall made them himself. He branched out from there. At the time, he was working as a youth pastor. He took many of his students camping, and he started making gear for them, too. As the cost of materials added up, he started selling his old gear to raise money for the next piece of equipment he wanted to make for himself. “It’s really expensive when it’s just a hobby to make stuff every day,” he explained. “So I had to sell gear to finance my new gear. It’s worked out so far.” For several years, Marshall operated as a sort of boutique craftsman, making custom camping gear by himself in his basement. Marshall credits his ultimate success in part on his willingness to commit much of his time to making quilts even before he started making money at it. “I decided to go all in really early,” he said, “long before I had any kind of living wage from my businesses, long before it was clear it was going to be a success.” He prioritized quilt-making over his day job. He took nighttime shifts so that he could stay home with the kids and his quilts while his wife worked days. “I pretended like it was going to work long before it worked,” he said.
Marshall hired his first couple employees in 2011. As the business grew, it added staff and moved into a relatively small shop on Mankato Avenue. Demand for Enlightened quilts kept growing. This year, the company went through a big expansion, moving into the expansive former Wincraft plant on West Fifth Street and hiring scores of new workers. Inside Enlightened’s brightly lit factory, workers cut out colorful fabric, run sewing machines, and stuff fluffy down into the nylon quilts. The company has a weeks-long waiting list for quilts. Marshall said Enlightened hires four new workers every week in an effort to keep up with orders. “We’d hire more if we could train them,” he stated.
Marshall seemed still a little surprised at how much Enlightened Equipment has grown. “We were in the basement just last week, it seems,” he said. At a certain point, Enlightened stopped being a way to finance his hobby and turned into a real business, complete with all the joys and stresses of running a business. He said back in 2011, he had actually closed his little operation and put it up for sale. “I’m not an entrepreneur; I’m a product designer,” Marshall said. Some of Marshall’s friends, who operate the Winona-based Sanborn Canoe Company, offered to help with the business side of Enlightened Equipment and Marshall decided to stick with it. “That’s when we really started going after it,” he stated.
Making connections with individual customers has been a hallmark at Enlightened Equipment. The company sells all of its products directly — it does not work with retailers — and Marshall said he has earned a lot of credit with hiking enthusiasts over the years by offering advice — not making sales pitches — on internet forums where hikers discuss ultralight camping tips. Even though his operation is bigger now, Marshall is intentional about not losing the attention to detail that Enlightened Equipment started with. When a small business has very few employees and customers, it is easy to see how important they are, he said. “You have two of them. They’re really important,” he joked. “We try really hard to treat customers today like we did when we were in the basement,” he added.
Last week, the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce highlighted Enlightened Equipment’s story as part of its annual manufacturing week and invited Marshall to speak alongside Peerless Chain and Knitcraft executives about their respective journeys “from the basement to the boardroom.” Local legislators presented Marshall with a commendation from the governor for “making Minnesota a better place to live and work,” and Knitcraft Vice President Dennis Meyer and former Peerless Chain CEO Tom Wynn talked about what it has taken to keep their U.S. manufacturing companies strong.
“This is a little humbling,” Marshall said. “When I started this in 2005 — making equipment — and even when I started hiring people in 2011, I never thought it was going to be anything. You put your toe in the water and you try something. It’s pretty amazing where it’s gone.”