Denis O’Dwyer wants to bring the power of the Internet to the Great Outdoors.
His startup, Wide Open Spaces, is designed as an online community targeting hunters and fishing enthusiasts, a one-stop shop to buy gear, research new techniques, and discover a new place to while away an afternoon.
“This is participatory,” he says. “You’re not just reading about new gear. Our readers are passionate about getting out and doing it.”
Wide Open Spaces’s homepage borrows tricks from tabloid-style news websites. Content is arranged by category, featuring articles like “10 Things You Need to Know About Texas Duck Hunting,” and discussions about poaching penalties or the ethics of preserve hunting. Clickbait video abounds from instructional—”turtle trapping basics”—to Upworthy-style clips like one showing a woman petting and frolicking through fields with a moose. (Apparently this was at a conservation center in Alaska with a moose she had known since it was a calf. Don’t try this at home, folks.)
In particular, O’Dwyer is targeting women, a population he says most sporting communities have largely ignored. While women only make up 20 percent of the current hunting and shooting market, that number is growing, he says. And he added that “females still control 52 percent of the buying in this space.
A variety of startups are already in segments of the outdoor space. TackleGrab, a Boston-based e-retailer, sells monthly subscription boxes of bait and tackle. CampThat connects campers to sites and allows them to make reservations, while San Francisco-based AllTrails has paired up with National Geographic to provide information on trails.
Wide Open Spaces, which is based in Austin, aims to combine both e-retail and more travelogue content in a fully developed online community for both shooters and anglers. In fact, the current site is actually version 2.0. The startup was originally set up in 2011 as a flash-sales e-retail site, a Gilt for hunters and fishing enthusiasts, if you will. But after about a little more than a year, Dwyer says he realized that investors weren’t so keen on providing the kind of funds to scale up a flash-sales site.
Even Gilt, founded in 2007 and arguably the most successful in the sector, has begun to move beyond solely hosting flash sales to now include full-price men’s clothing.
And so O’Dwyer revamped Wide Open Spaces’s offerings, relaunching last September. “Our content will be unique to each region of the country as a way to engage the crowd,” he says. “Hunting and fishing are inherently local in nature. It’s different in Texas or Montana or upstate New York.”
Retail sales still drive Wide Open Spaces’s profits. The startup gets a cut, usually between four and 12 percent, of sales through affiliate marketing relationships with major sporting goods makers. The site also sells advertising.
For O’Dwyer, a more robust content experience increases the probability of sales because enthusiasts stay on the site longer than to just click on a flash sale. He says he has particularly focused on the startup’s mobile site, which accounts for half of Wide Open Spaces’s traffic. “Consumers in this space have caught up to the tech crowd,” he says. “When out in the field, they all have smartphones. Your wife’s friends could be vegans or members of PETA, but we could provide a platform where you could share your catches or your kills with like-minded individuals.”
Wide Open Spaces is in the middle of raising a $1.1 million round to help fund an expansion of the revamp. It previously raised $1.75 million as a flash-sales site from investors such as Houston-based Mercury Fund, RPM Ventures in Ann Arbor, MI, and Dundee Venture Capital in Omaha, NE. The startup has eight employees.
The site features a comparison-shopping engine allowing users to search 1.5 million sporting products from more than 150 retailers, O’Dwyer says. Since the relaunch last fall, visitors have grown from 70,000 to more than two million last month. He is now looking to hire additional writers.
The biggest challenge for Wide Open Spaces, O’Dwyer says, is customers getting accustomed to buying sporting goods online. “You want to hold and touch gear,” he says. “That’s changing as you see the shift from retailers to e-commerce. My wife is in the 5th inning of buying online; I’m 3rd inning.”
New York native O’Dwyer, who previously served as vice president for local sales for Yelp and director of sales at Yahoo, conceived the idea for Wide Open Spaces in 2005 when as a newbie to Texas he was invited on his first fishing trip here. “I grew up deep-sea fishing off of Long Island and New Jersey, versus in Texas where I went bass fishing,” he says.
O’Dwyer searched online for ideas for the sort of insider intelligence that he felt he needed for his trip but says he didn’t find anything. “Engineers who build tech companies in the Valley or New York don’t have an overwhelming passion for hunting and fishing,” he says. “They’re not building products that serve their outside passions, they’re doing a hotel booking app or home rental website.”
“I hunt and fish,” he added. “I have a co-founder who hunts and fishes.”
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