- GoWild Cofounder tells all on 5 year anniversary of company’s first app launch
GoWild Cofounder tells all on 5 year anniversary of company’s first app launch
by Brad Luttrell, Cofounder, CEO of GoWild
Reflections on what it took to build a company through a pandemic, recessions, supply chain woes & Silicon Valley’s bias against outdoorsmen
After a year of work, three of us held our breath as Chris Gleim made a few taps on his keyboard to release the first version of GoWild to the world.
On September 8, 2017, the GoWild app went live.
Reflecting on the last five years, the easiest thing to do would be to sit down, and share all of the great things GoWild has accomplished. But for half a decade, we’ve built a brand on transparency and being uncensored, so it would be off-brand to not share it all.
The cold hard startup truth.
And that truth is we’ve been through hell to get here.
In fact, we didn’t even make it a month after launching before our first emergency. I’ll never forget waking up on October 4, 2017 at 6 am. I picked up my phone and, in my new routine, looked at the GoWild Trailmix, only for panic to serve as my morning cup of coffee.
The app didn’t work. My heart rate skyrocketed as my stomach plummeted.
That fix proved to be simple, although it wouldn’t be the last time we requested emergency releases with an app store.
Challenges like a pandemic, supply chain roller coasters, recessions, business model pivots, and Silicon Valley’s bias towards our industry all make a little server crash seem like a pothole. Building an app has been brutal at times, and I’m not surprised that 9,950 in 10,000 apps fail.
This is hard.
It’s been 1,825 days since we launched GoWild. That’s 43,800 hours, or 2,628,000 minutes.
I can’t promise to remember all of those minutes, but I can promise some of my most memorable minutes in my life are among those few million. Being a founder isn’t what most people think. It’s ugly at times, but it’s also freeing and rewarding.
With that said, let’s take a look back at what it’s taken to get here.
“I have an idea”
Summer 2016 - December 2017
I’ve been a bit of a serial entrepreneur for years prior to founding GoWild. I had tried my hands at several companies, and nothing ever quite worked out. By 2016, though, I’d spent years reading about how to found a company, and felt I was ready—I just needed the idea.
One day as I checked my trail cameras in Southeastern Kentucky, the idea hit me—I should build a place where I can share my outdoor content freely, and connect with people in my area to get good local advice for hunting and fishing.
As soon as I got back to Louisville, the research began. It revealed that despite my years of reading startup books, there was much to learn. I had to Google “how to raise money for an idea.” My first business pitches were laughably bad, too.
As I approached each of the cofounders, my pitch was not much more polished. I told them I had an idea and $500, but I needed them on board to execute. They were all excited, despite the vague definition around what we were going to build. By December 2016, the four cofounders were in place:
- Brad Luttrell, sales, marketing and investors
- Donovan Sears, design and branding
- Zack Grimes, data analytics
- Chris Gleim, development
The week of Christmas, we were meeting outside of our employer’s office hours and on the holiday to firm up the scope, vision and direction. GoWild was a pile of clay, waiting to be molded.
GoWild cofounders left to right: Chris Gleim, Brad Luttrell, Donovan Sears and Zack Grimes
For the next nine months, we all agreed to put in at least 20-30 hours a week working on the project, no matter what our full-time employers threw our way. This meant waking up at 5 am, working until about 8:30 am when our day jobs started, then picking back up at 8 pm at night and grinding until 1 am sometimes. Weekends commanded long days. We did weekly status calls on Sunday, and continued to meet on holidays, as they were guaranteed times we all had off together. On a few occasions, we even took days off together.
I was rejected most of the time, and some well known Louisville investors told me to my face this was going to fail miserably.
That first year, I personally shipped thousands of stickers for free to anyone interested in what we were building, and each one came with a handwritten letter. Come September 2017, we had built up some hype around what we were doing, and our iOS launch received some coverage, including a piece from Wide Open Spaces and Petersen’s.
All along the way, I pitched investors. I was rejected most of the time, and some well known Louisville investors told me to my face this was going to fail miserably. Some laughed at me. Still, we closed our first round of funding at the end of the year, with our first angel investor coming in with a big check after just one bourbon and a 47 minute long meeting. This made the next chapter possible. That round was largely fueled by family and friends.
Some of those earliest GoWild members are still with us today. Mike Larsen was one of the first thousand people on the platform, and has become a good friend of mine. We’ve fished and hunted together half a dozen times over the last few years. Derek Towles was another early member, who today is a part-time employee at GoWild. Colleen Donohue was a huge advocate from day one and is still sharing and telling folks about how much she loves GoWild. We even got our first abroad member—the Ferg, a Scottish wild man who is still active.
The list of people I met that first year goes on for a while. I can’t cover each of you, but know it meant the world to me to have that early support. We wouldn’t have made it through what was ahead without you.
January 2018 - December 2018
Come January, I was still full-time at an ad agency, but was about to attend my first hunting industry trade show.
The event also marked my first anxiety attack.
On January 13, I woke up at 5 am to an ice storm, and I had a two hour drive ahead to attend my first professional event for GoWild. We had 10K members in our community after 90 days. I was proud of that, and was determined to go sell our first ad deal to help fund the company.
There were other things happening, though. My wife was very pregnant with our second child, I was considering quitting my comfortable job for this risky startup that had basically never made a dollar, and I was about to put my safety at risk, driving over black ice for more than 100 miles to try and sell some display ads.
As I was about to leave the house that morning, all of this hit me at once that I was officially about to put myself out there. Once we had clients paying for ads, this was going to be very real and there was no going back.
It hit me hard—I couldn't breathe, I started sweating and I felt like crying.
It was terrifying.
I thought I was having a heart attack. I managed to pull myself together, and made it to the show. I pitched six companies, and won our first deal—a $10,000 vote of confidence in GoWild. I had one of my lowest lows and highest highs so far, all in the same day. I’d later realize I had experienced a mild panic attack.
My anxiety peaked again when I resigned from the ad agency a few weeks later on Feb 5. I was all in, but picked up a part time job as an interim director of marketing for a local tech company to help cover my salary.
GoWild officially moves into an office space in 2018
Next came cofounder Chris Gleim, who quit his full-time job around Memorial Day. Not to be outdone, he made sure his wife was pregnant when he quit, too. Donovan and Zack joined us later that fall, and as far as we know they didn’t have any children looming. Jenn Callahan soon joined as our first full-time employee. Jenn spent a year with us, and will forever hold a special place in the founders’ hearts for her hard work and dedication to GoWild.
That year picked up steam when GoWild signed a deal with Garmin to develop exclusive apps for the Garmin Connect platform. We also moved into our first office, which we’re still in today, although it looks nothing like what it did four years ago (maybe to our landlord’s regret—love ya, Jerry).
Brad Luttrell at Garmin headquarters in 2018
All the while, we were just trying to add basic social functionality. We didn’t even have direct messaging or the ability to follow people until April 2018. We also introduced our popular podcast log in 2018.
One of my favorite GoWild memories happened at the end of that year. The week before Christmas, Chris and I drove from Kentucky to Garmin’s Kansas headquarters to showcase our Garmin watch app. After the presentation, the Garmin team was so excited, they were pulling random passersby Garmin employees into the conference room to show off the heartbeat haptic we built, which allowed you to feel your heart rate at any given moment in an activity. The creator of the Garmin app store gave it high praise, and as a result, Chris was invited to be a keynote speaker of Garmin’s annual conference.
We drove back from that trip a little taller from the praise, and our bellies a lot more full from the Kansas barbecue. A few days later, our bank account would be a little more full, too, as we closed our second funding round.
January 2019 - January 2020
In January, GoWild and Garmin co-announced our new partnership at the Archery Trade Association show. This was the same show that gave me a panic attack a year prior. Getting to that launch took a Herculean effort. After only sleeping 4-5 hours a night for two months (I am not exaggerating) to get the app and marketing material done, we all rolled into the show sick. We had run ourselves into the ground and everyone had colds. This was pre-pandemic, and we marched on, congestion be damned. With a pocket full of cough drops, we still had a great time showing the app to regular bow shop owners and celebrities alike. My favorite moment of the whole show was doing a demo for Omar “Crispy” Avila, who I respect as one of the great modern heroes of our time.
GoWild cofounders, Chris Gleim and Brad Luttrell, at ATA with Omar “Crispy” Avila
The week after the trade show, we went to St. Louis to pitch for a chance to get into Stadia Ventures’ accelerator, a world renowned business training program. Zack and I pitched more than 300 investors and sports industry professionals on why GoWild deserved a seat at the table. Of hundreds of companies from all over the world, only five would make it. It’s a brutal multi-month application and pitch process, and in fact, Harvard has a higher acceptance rate than Stadia.
I was prepping to leave for the National Wild Turkey Federation show when I got the call from Stadia’s Managing Director, Brandon Janosky.
“You’re in” he said.
For three days, our pitch would be chewed up and spit out, our financial projections would be absolutely torn to shreds, our product ideas were put through a meat grinder, and the founders would be torn down after every pitch, all in the name of rebuilding you back stronger.
I will never forget standing in my daughter’s nursery—as it was the only quiet room I could find in the house—to take the call. I was surprised by what happened next.
I teared up.
This organization was connected to Garmin, NASCAR, Polaris, Redbull, Anheuser Busch, the Dallas Cowboys, Mark Cuban, Justin Timberlake, and hundreds of other global companies. This stamp of approval for us was a turning point for the company.
It also meant a rough road was ahead.
Pre-COVID, Stadia was a commuter accelerator, meaning we were expected to travel every other week to St. Louis, Missouri or Frisco, Texas to meet with dozens of brands, mentors and advisors. For three days, our pitch would be chewed up and spit out, our financial projections would be absolutely torn to shreds, our product ideas were put through a meat grinder, and the founders would be torn down after every pitch, all in the name of rebuilding you back stronger. I will never forget our lead mentor Dan telling me he didn’t believe me after a pitch. The lessons learned that day are ones I try to pass onto founders I now mentor. In short, I learned to cut the fluff and keep it real.
One month into this program and with the help of many mentors, we started to form up one of our most popular products we’ve ever launched—Gearbox, or the ability to tag gear in posts. Members could also click out to buy those products from retailers like Bass Pro Shop or Cabela’s (this would later become the GoWild shop). While a few other apps have tried to copy this, I’m still proud of this product and that we do it better than anyone else. Gearbox is at the core of who we are now and has helped us earn a historic retention rate that is 9X the industry standard for a mere 30 days.
Travel was the theme for 2019. If it wasn’t me and Zack going to Stadia, it was the founders going to meet with Under Armour or Polaris, or Chris and Donovan going to speak at the Garmin conference, or I was going to another trade show. I was gone more weeks than I was home that year.
Chris Gleim speaking at the Garmin conference in 2019
I missed my wife and kids’ birthdays and my daughter’s first steps in 2019, but at the end of the year, and even today, I still feel like the founders made the right sacrifices. We dug in and built something that I think we, and our kids, will look back on and be proud of. I decided that year I never want my kids to think they held me back.
2019 also brought us more full-time hires, with three wonderful team mates who are still with us today—Ben, Jacob and Arica. Together, with them and the founders, we celebrated the launch of Gearbox with a bottle of champagne in early November. It was a brutal undertaking, finding the data for tens of thousands of products, and filtering it all into our app for real-time engagement.
And it was all worth it—within weeks, it was the most popular thing we had ever done. In fact, it was so popular by the end of the year, we knew we had to kill a few components of GoWild so we could focus on what our audience loved—gear. Our in-app activity tracking was sunset within a few months, and eventually, our recipes functionality would be scrapped to focus on the popular Gearbox feature.
“Nothing can stop us now,” I thought as ...I looked around, only to realize I was the only person not wearing a mask.
As we wound down the year, we were happy. Looking ahead to tradeshow season, the pipeline was full and we were confident that we were going to blow through our revenue projections for ad sales. GoWild was growing well. We were fundraising again, as you always seem to be as a founder. Zack and I had a strange feeling in our collective brain that said we should keep raising money while things were good. We decided to raise twice as much capital as we originally projected, just in case a recession happened. We knew a market downturn would make funding difficult.
With the economy humming and the ad sales pipeline full, we were on top of the world.
“Nothing can stop us now,” I thought as I got on a plane in Chicago, headed for Vegas for the industry’s largest show. As I sat down in the back of the plane, I looked around, only to realize I was the only person not wearing a mask.
GoWild team celebrating the new year and new features in January 2020
“Worst quarter ever”
February 2020 - December 2020
Coming out of the famous SHOT Show, Jacob and I were riding high. Many major brands had become aware of us, and we left with enough verbal deals for pilots for advertising to nearly fill our entire pipeline for the year. Funding was hot as well. We were on pace to close a $2M funding round at the end of March 2020.
But with the benefit of hindsight, you know where this is going.
Those passengers on the plane had masks on because of COVID.
I found out about COVID when I got to Vegas, but I never could have dreamed how much my world would change. Even in February as the news mounted, I thought it would pass.
By mid March, our office was closed and the Kentucky team was forced to work remote. The stock market crashed, our new investors were forced to pull back, our advertisers abandoned ship and we were in a tailspin.
We spent much of this time expanding the products you could tag in Gearbox, all the while trying to figure out how to get our ad sales rolling. By May, it was clear—the supply chain was going to be a mess for a while, which meant advertisers were cutting budgets. With no product, nobody needed advertising.
I’ve never shared just how bad it got, but we lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding practically overnight, and we had our worst quarter for revenue since the four founders had been full-time. We now make the same amount of revenue in two or three days as we did in all of Q2 2020—it was that bad.
In August, it was clear—we had to find another way to make money.
There were upsides, though. We actually saw a significant uptick in members as the outdoors was the only thing still open for business. Our audience bonded together during these hard times, and the outdoors boomed with newbies. We added a lot of fun features, including our ever-popular GIF feature. We launched our social media login for desktop that summer, too.
In August, it was clear—we had to find another way to make money. We did manage to close the funding round (after three extensions), but our core business model was not enough. Instead of selling ads to manufacturers, we decided to go all-in on selling the manufacturer’s products and effectively becoming a retailer. We were in a pivot before I even realized it.
I’ll forever be grateful to Garmin, Vortex, Rocky and the other brands who believed in us from day one. They gave us a chance to carry their product with little proof we could move it. In November, a year after we launched Gearbox, we launched our new gear shop.
While the milestone was significant, the performance was weak. There were entire weeks where you couldn’t even check out because the product was so broken. But this is why it’s important to remember how fast progress can happen. Today we average about 5X December 2020’s total monthly order volume in a single day. We’re doing 160X more total volume now, and that growth is compounding every month and getting faster. By the time I publish this piece, it’ll have increased again.
“We didn’t get invited to the wedding—we’re not going to the funeral”
January 2021 and beyond
Fast forward to today, and we’ve found our footing. We have real traction, we’re serving thousands of customers every week, and we’ve done it all without a nod from Silicon Valley.
The Valley didn’t like our lifestyle, evident when investors have passed on us because of the fact you use a firearm to hunt.
They didn’t like our shop, as we’ve seen when Silicon Valley darlings like Facebook blocked us for selling weapons. We’ve never sold weapons, and on multiple occasions the product in question from Facebook was Vortex binoculars. Someone should tell the bird watchers they’re packing heat.
Recently, when the news started hitting that the big tech darlings were going through massive layoffs and their stocks were plummeting, I told our board member Jack Danehy, “It’s a little nerve racking to watch and wonder if we’re going to feel any impacts of this tech shakeup.”
Wisdom suits Jack like a custom tailored jacket. He calmly said, “Brad, we didn’t get invited to the Silicon Valley wedding, and we’re not going to the funeral, either.”
He was so right.
I’m proud to look back on everything we’ve overcome—and I can assure you, I know I wrote what feels like a book, but I’d need a few hundred pages to really paint the picture of the madness we’ve been through as a team. I didn’t mention the investors we’ve turned down for moral reasons, the client I fired for treating our team like crap, the real tech bias and censorship, and so on.
Maybe one day I will write that book, but for today, we’re growing like wildfire and I can’t take my foot off the pedal.
2022 marked our first time exhibiting with a booth at a consumer show (Great American Outdoor Show) and our first outdoor festival with the launch of Send It Slam.
We’ve made it this far, and as proud as I am of the hard work that’s gone into it, I know it’s not just sheer willpower that made this a success so far. We’ve had supporters all along the way.
Six years into this thing and five years after launch, I want to thank my sister, who was the first person I told about my idea. She encouraged me to do it, which led to my mom and dad being our first investors. Thank you, parentals.
Thank you to all of the other family members and friends who put their money into this company in those early days with nothing more than faith in us. Without you, we’d never have gotten out of the basement.
Thank you to all of the angels and institutional investors who have supported and continue to support GoWild. I am especially grateful to our board members, Bruce Lunsford and Jack Danehy, for their mentorship over the years.
Thank you to all of the team—Zack, Donovan, Chris, Ben, Jacob, Arica, Dan, Brayden, Derek, Jackie, Andy, Saulo, Linda, Amy and John. No matter how long you’ve been with us, you’ve played a role in it all. I also want to thank Alex, Mike, and Jenn, who all played key roles as teammates in this journey. I’ll forever be grateful to them for their tenure and contributions. Your fingerprints are still on the company today.
GoWild team at the Kentucky Derby in Spring 2018
Most of all—and I mean most of all—thank you to the hundreds of thousands of people who have downloaded our app, shopped with us, and come out to meet our team at our live events.
Thank you to the brands who have supported and believed in us. There are too many to name without playing favorites, but you know who you are. I will give a shoutout to two people. Thank you, Glen Reich, for being one of our fiercest advocates, and for believing in the GoWild rocketship while we were still trying to get the fins to simply stay on. Upwards and onward! Also, thank you to Kevin Orthman for your ongoing mentorship, support and friendship. You’ll never know how much I appreciate the post cards.
Most of all—and I mean most of all—thank you to the hundreds of thousands of people who have downloaded our app, shopped with us, and come out to meet our team at our live events. I promise you, the founders are forever amazed that something that started in my basement with some pizza and beer has turned into what it is. You all are crazy, and I love you. I promise that every single gift that shows up to the office keeps me and the team grounded. The honey, cured wild game jerky, handmade duck lanyards, bows, books, handmade turkey calls, handpicked blueberries, and even the cookie monster costume—all of it reminds us every day that what we’re doing matters.
I don’t know if the next five years can possibly be as wild as the last five, but I know that if we can make it through all of this, I can persevere. I’m not ready to attend any funerals any time soon. In fact, I feel we’re just getting started.
- Brad Luttrell
Brad Luttrell is the Cofounder, CEO of GoWild. He was an award-winning writer, photographer and creative director before taking the dive to found GoWild. His friends mostly just know him for his double smoked venison chili.