An innovator for many niche markets
Cinde Ingram -- Casual Living, November 1, 2007
This year, dealers were seeking out its large bungalows and smaller personal pavilions, knowing now those shade products represent the highest-end offerings of E-Z Up, a company known for its portable tents. Although relatively new to the casual industry, the innovative Riverside, Calif.-based manufacturer will celebrate its 25th year in business in 2008.
Founder Mark Carter was only 21 when he came up with the idea of a truss system for pop-up tents.
“The whole inspiration was we had a race boat on the West Coast,” Carter said.
Traveling to races in Southern California, on the Desert and the Colorado rivers, observers needed shade. At the time, only conventional tents with numerous parts to piece together were available. Carter recalled one especially hot day when observers realized one of the corner pieces was missing and they couldn’t erect their tent.
“We baked,” he said. “I had been playing around with this truss system, this little scissors thing in high school, and understood it pretty well. So the idea was pretty quick because the need was there.”
In 1983, he started making prototypes in his parents’ garage while he was in college. He now holds more than 150 patents worldwide, including more than 40 in the United States.
“Looking back over 25 years, I’m amazed,” Carter said. “We’ve done almost 10 million shelters in that time. It’s exceeded my expectations. We have single customers who buy over 100,000 pieces per year; the biggest single customer buys 19 or 20 million per year.”
Starting from the beginning, the company experienced high growth — doubling and tripling in size, and expanding into different markets, Carter said. “When I first thought it was going to be a business, we had different sizes but virtually the same product we sold to different markets: niche racing, the movie studios, rental industry, parks and recreation, police, fire, all of the higher-end corporate events. That niche marketing and that diversification really let us grow.”
Carter said no single market took up more than 10% of his concentration at first. “I didn’t really need any working capital for a long time using that strategy so I could build the whole thing up without relying on a lot of other people,” he said. “Luckily, from the very beginning I figured out this was unique and thought maybe I could get a patent.”
In 1983, Carter began to apply for patents, which have been awarded steadily over the past two decades. Five or six were issued last year and four or five more are in process, Carter said.
The E-Z Up pop-up tent was introduced at retail to replace the pieced-together tent kits. “In the early ’90s, I sold it to Sam’s Club and was very successful,” Carter said. “I started creating and selling other models at different price points at retail. I treated it like a niche market and sold it to Wal-Mart, Costco, Target and Kmart.”
In addition to supplying this large retail segment, Carter continued to create models that were more durable shelters, which could withstand higher wind forces and were offered at higher price points. Graphics on corporate banners, large flags, rail skirts, exhibit tables and in-store displays provided opportunities for various industries to market their brands.
“I would say just about every brand name you can think of buys our products, from banks to just about every golf team to all the NASCAR teams,” Carter said. “If you watch The Today Show and it starts to rain, they set up some white E-Z Ups and put the band out there. We’re very big in arts and crafts fairs and any kind of outdoor event.”
Many companies use E-Z Ups for promotion. “Last year, Suzuki bought about 10,000 of them and put its name on so anytime anyone bought a motorcycle they got an E-Z Up with it,” Carter said. Ford, General Motors and Harley-Davidson are among the other major automotive customers. Earlier this year, the Army bought about $2 million worth of promotional products from E-Z Up. The company continues to develop products for other niches, such as environmental containment units to control contamination in hospitals.
When he decided to enter the higher-end outdoor home furnishings niche, Carter knew he would have to use the best materials available to withstand wind, weather and UV challenges. He chose Sunbrella fabrics, special aircraft aluminum and stainless steel.
“In these other products we make, the materials that we use for events weren’t really designed to stay up in your backyard,” Carter said. “The color fastness and bright colors would fade. So we basically overbuilt a lot of it so it would be durable and last. Really, not a whole lot of it with price point in mind, we just wanted to build the best product we can. From there, does it have value or not? And as it turns out, it does. So we enter the market and start to promote.”
Reception has been strong from specialty retailers. “The people who come in here like the look; it’s like a room with a liner and the fan and the curtains,” Carter said. “A lot of them aren’t even sure it folds up until we point it out. Where our whole identity before was all about instant portability, in this market it’s not necessarily first. The first feature is shade and the look, all the accessories and the windows.”
Debuting at the recent Casual Market in Chicago were the 14’ Bungalow Escape Outdoor Pavilion with adjustable rolling blinds and the 5’ Club Pavilion, accented with a privacy screen porthole and designed with an extended awning and sliding draped sidewall.
Most Bungalow by E-Z Up products are made in Riverside, Calif., where about 200 employees are based, Carter said. Many of E-Z Up’s other products are made in Mexico, China and Holland, where it has had an office for about 12 years.
The company just opened three E-Z Up outlet stores and does sell some of its products directly on the Internet.
“We’re really about building a brand in E-Z Up and protecting it,” Carter said. “We’re making sure our quality meets or exceeds our customers’ expectations. Over time, we’ve turned down a number of things at mass merchant retail where it didn’t fit our criteria or it didn’t fit the quality level of what we wanted. The ability to turn that down is only because we have the balance of these niche markets and these other divisions. Long-term, it’s about building a brand and supporting those people who sell it. We’re careful about how we take it to market and if we can put some policies in place that allow dealers to be profitable. At the end of the day, it’s a balance between competition and profitability.”
Still, running his business doesn’t zap any creativity from Carter’s inventive nature. In his spare time, he’s an equestrian and is training to compete in dressage on the Olympic level. “I wake up every day and just decide whatever product I want to come up with, whatever direction I want to go,” he said.