Spencer Holton never planned on being an entrepreneur. Enrolled as a freshman political science major at the University of Oregon, Holton’s first exposure to the Lundquist College of Business was BA 101, which he added to his course schedule because “everyone in my dorm was taking it.”
A year later he was sitting in instructor and entrepreneurship undergraduate program manager Kate Harmon’s office describing his idea: an online logistics service for long-distance hikers to plan their entire trip, from route to permits to reliable resupply. A few months later, Harmon convinced him to enter his pitch for his first business plan competition—QuackHatch 2016.
About six months after that he earned a spot in the Oregon Regional Acceleration and Innovation Network (RAIN) Eugene accelerator, and a few months after that, some seed funding.
Suddenly, Holton was 20 years old with a few thousand dollars in grant money. He knew he had a good idea, he just wasn’t sure how to make a business out of it.
It all started when Holton saw firsthand a need for reliable service to help with hiker’s resupply shipments. As a hiker and clerk at REI (where he still works), he heard frequent requests for a system to help solve the complexities of resupplying on a long-distance hike, such as the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail.
With just a year of schooling under his belt, initially Holton wasn’t sure he had the skills to run a successful business. As the venture moved forward, he pushed ahead anyway, surrounding himself with mentors, experts, and other students who had ideas and insights about how to make Trail Supply Co. a success.
“We are trying to do something no one has ever done before and we have a lot to prove and learn,” Holton said.
Where Holton had doubts, others saw a niche business with near limitless applications to other industries.
With Harmon’s encouragement, Holton entered and won QuackHatch 2016 before he was even admitted to the business college.
Next up was the UO-Oregon State University business pitch competition known as Civil War Shark Tank. Holton competed but didn’t place.
Initially discouraged, Holton said several individuals motivated him to continue building out the concept: chief startup officer and executive director of RAIN Eugene Accelerator Joe Maruschak, Eugene entrepreneur and RAIN Eugene’s mentor-in-residence Shane Johnson, and Lundquist’s assistant dean for Portland programs and center development John Hull.
“They helped me see the potential of my ideas,” Holton said.
Before long, Holton earned entry into the competitive RAIN Eugene Accelerator, an intense, 16-week program of training and mentoring for early growth-stage companies in the region. Although there were other Ducks in his cohort, Holton was the only current student.
“I didn’t expect to be accepted to the program as an undergraduate,” he said.
Trail Supply Co. also earned a $5,000 RAINMaker student entrepreneur seed grant.
Joined by his developer partners Cosmos and Eden Corbin, Holton officially launched TrailSupplyCo.com in October 2016. The team rolled out its customer resupply planning application March 1, 2017.
“We believe this application is the best way for any long-distance hiker to plan out a resupply strategy,” Holton said.
The date was a little later than planned, and Holton knew many long-distance hikers would have already made their spring plans. But the timing turned out to be ideal for a soft launch.
“Our goal is not to serve a large number of customers this year, but to serve a few exceptionally well,” he said.
By serving a smaller group of hikers, Holton is learning what works and what doesn’t in the business, while providing his current hikers a high level of personalized service.
The Trail Supply Co. site allows users to select from more than 400 items for each curated box. Tasty meal options include Thai-style chicken with noodles, southwest corn chowder, and vegetable lasagna. First aid supplies, socks, sunscreen, and lip balm are among the gear offerings.
Holton said the highly functional website serves as an entry point for potential customers. Trail guides, tips, and a blog add to the core services, which includes a comprehensive database of resupply points for the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and John Muir Trails, as well as critical information, such as calories per box, weight, and miles between resupply points.
“Our goal is to bring value to every thru-hikers experience,” Holton said.
Longer term, investors believe Trail Supply Co.’s model of personalized logistics could be applicable to other markets. For now, the team is focusing on thru-hikers.
Trail Supply Co.’s first boxes ship this week.