WNC Outdoor Collective fosters a unique, community-driven space in downtown Black Mountain. Founder Lincoln Walters sat down with us to share their story.
Made by Mountains (MADE X MTNS)
“I share the MADE X MTNS story often,” Lincoln Walters, founder of WNC Outdoor Collective, said. “I have been made by the mountains, you know.” The feeling wasn’t top of his mind always, though. He started his athletic career as a basketball player, then met his wife in the region. She loved the outdoors; he fell in love with the outdoors as he fell in love with her.
“I was the type of guy who was rocking Air Jordans down the hiking trail,” Lincoln laughed. “I was the type of guy that didn’t want to get my shoes dirty, but my wife loved me anyway.” They spent their first years in the region with Lincoln coaching basketball and serving as Family Life Director at Montreat. As for many, it was COVID that made them realize it was time for a change.
Defining, and Broadening, “Outdoorsy”
When Lincoln was first getting into the outdoors – trading his sneakers for proper trail shoes – he had a not-so-great experience with an outdoor retailer. “I walked into a shop one time, and I felt overwhelmed,” he shared. “I was afraid they were going to make me feel like an idiot, and they confirmed that.” He said, though, that the industry has been evolving and he wanted the WNC Outdoor Collective to be a part of that.
There’s not as much judgment if you’re not a technical rider or runner or climber. “You live here because you love it,” he said. “I think it’s a much broader definition of than before. We love anyone who loves and appreciates he outdoors – the technical rider or climber, the casual walker or even beyond that – someone who goes outside to paint. If you love the outdoors, you’re welcome at the WNC Outdoor Collective.”
Reducing Risk, Creating Connections
So, how did the WNC Outdoor Collective get its start? When Lincoln and his wife decided to make a family pivot during COVID, the initial plan was to create an adventure apparel company. However, the investment involved was too much for them at the time. He started thinking about ways to reduce his risk and still test the market. “I realized that there were other people that are in the small business world that have the same desire…what would it look like if we were all doing it together?” he shared. “Some like-minded people loving the wild places and spaces that we live and play in every day that are kind of geared toward the outdoors.”
To create those connections, Lincoln did two things: 1) he reached out to Outdoor Gear Builders (now Outdoor Business Alliance) and 2) he participated in the second Waypoint Accelerator with Mountain BizWorks. When he found out about the Outdoor Business Alliance, he called them up to see what other organizations might be interested in sharing space. And as part of the second Waypoint Accelerator (which will open applications for its 5th cohort on Monday, 8/28), he said, “[Waypoint] was essential to connecting me with local gear builders and makers and helping get the word out.”
Encouraging Growth for Others
When they started designing the space, they wanted to make it a place where people can come and connect. It was a bit ironic, because they started in April 2021 just as COVID vaccines were rolling out. “I think everyone realized we need to be getting together somehow. We need to do it safely, we need to do it properly,” said Lincoln. “But we need to do it, nonetheless. It showed the importance of that.” The question, “How do you do community well?” was the driving question. The answer? Wrapping the gear, equipment, and apparel around the community – and allow others to join them to do the same.
Now, the WNC Outdoor Collective is home to multiple businesses, including gear and apparel makers, Bowl in the Wall restaurant, and even a nonprofit – Waypoint Adventure, that offers people with physical and intellectual disabilities opportunities to adventure.
As for gear, another company in the collective is Susan Isler who has a company named Milk and Honey. She cuts and sews sleeping bags, sleep sacks, and merino wool base layers for kids and toddlers. “I see her products going out of here from New Zealand to California. The Outdoor Collective helps her get her story out there, as she is constantly telling her story about why she started Milk and Honey. It also just awesome to watch people behind the counter cutting and sewing different products.” said Lincoln.
Of course, as companies grow, they’ll likely move out. There have already been those who’ve come and gone, either by proving or disproving their model. But Lincoln is proud to provide a space for people to test the market without taking on so much personal risk.
They continue the community work with events like fly tying workshops and knot tying classes by bringing in experts from other outdoor industry businesses like Pisgah Climbing School and Fox Mountain Guides – as well as hosting group bike rides every Wednesday and Sunday. They also support outdoor industry nonprofits through “Collective Collaborations” events in their spacious WNC Outdoor Collective courtyard. “This allows us to connect with local non-profits and help them promote their cause. Not only do their missions often overlap ours but it also helps us build a stronger community for those who love the outdoors,” said Lincoln.
Challenges + Dreams of the Future
When asked what he loves about being a business owner, the answer is clear: Connecting. “I’m probably not a very good business owner to be honest with you,” Lincoln laughed. “I just like people walking in, going “this is awesome,” and being able to tell the story of MADE X MTNS or a local beer or a local brand or this space.”
He acknowledges the challenges as well, noting the many moving parts and juggling acts business owners often have to perform. His eventual dream is to reproduce the model of other neighborhood stores in other locations, though he knows that will take time and money. “Our story started as wanting to build a brand – an apparel company – and it’s matured into investing in people and a model that allows people to do life together and be inspired in some way while wrapping retail around community. Thus, being a community retailer.”
If WNC Outdoor Collective’s unique model is an indication, though, there are many ways for them to continue to grow. Lincoln said, “I’m a true believer that if you do community well – if you do human connection and welcome people well – the byproduct of that will be success.”