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What Did Happen on the Salmon River?

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself ‘fore you can find anything.” — Burt Reynolds, “Deliverance”

“Deliverance” analogies rise to the surface quickly, poetically, and perhaps undeservedly when describing and documenting Altrec.com’s “extreme” off-site — a corporate bonding experience chronicled in Fast Company issue 29 that favored life vests over name tags and portages over org charts. Like the venerable Ed Gentry and Lewis Medlock, Altrec.com’s off-site team did indeed stare down danger, strife, and indecision amid hazardous rapids and searing heat on a brutal river rafting expedition. But unlike the fictional heroes of John Boorman’s 1972 thriller, the Altrec.com group could not roll the final credits after its harrowing survival. In fact, Altrec.com’s passage down the Salmon River was just the beginning of a fierce and fulfilling journey.

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It’s been six months since the management team at Altrec.com — a 360-degree Web site for outdoor enthusiasts — elected to spend four working days descending 75 miles of Idaho’s most unforgiving body of water. In some ways, the off-site came at the best time — six of the 10 participants were new recruits working to form a cohesive team … fast. In other ways, it came at the worst — just three weeks after the expedition, Altrec.com’s management core was expected to re-design and re-launch its then four-month-old Web site in an effort to gain customers, attract a major investment partner, kick start a national branding campaign, and outsmart its competitors. The sense of urgency and panic was high, but so was the understanding that, without this experience, Altrec.com would surely sink.

“In order to build a company that would last, we needed to fuse the senior management group and bring together all of their divergent personalities and differing skill sets,” says Chris Doyle, Altrec.com’s vice president of public relations and an off-site participant. “We needed to advance the learning process a lot quicker than an ordinary organization might because we were in the heat of battle, trying to compete in a fiercely competitive marketplace.”

In the months preceding Altrec.com’s off-site, the upstart company erred on the side of being too meticulous, too prepared. Presented with the option of opening its Web site before the 1998 holiday season, Altrec.com decided to defer its launch until March 15, 1999, when it would have a more polished product and a better hold on the market. “Outdoor enthusiasts, particularly, are very savvy,” Doyle says. “You get one chance to make a good first impression. We couldn’t blow it just to make X number of dollars before the end of the year.”

And so Altrec.com spent a great deal of time forging relationships that would protect its brand, protect its prices, and protect its integrity. By the time its management team converged on the Salmon River last July, Altrec’s foundation was cemented. But a foundation alone wasn’t going to cut it. So Altrec.com got to work.

“We had three weeks to pull off a site redesign following the river trip,” Doyle says. “Everyone jumped on board. There was a universal give-and-take. ‘What can you give up? I’ll give up this and we’ll push on that.’ And we delivered. On August 1 we launched the enhanced Web site.”

Following that momentous achievement, Altrec.com unveiled three new online retail channels: paddling, cycling, and climbing. It then made headlines by partnering with Escape magazine to power the Escape online store and to create an award-winning multimedia story titled “Crown of Africa,” which chronicles in word and image the experience of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro — including recommended gear, tour guide information, and a geological explanation of the mountain. “Crown of Africa” debuted on October 12, just 22 days before Altrec.com announced its groundbreaking implementation of the United Postal Service’s Returns@ease program, which significantly smoothes the process of returning products purchased online. In addition, the management team has secured additional venture capital and has been working tirelessly on a variety of strategic partnerships aimed to make Altrec.com a serious contender. Meanwhile, the site’s traffic, sales, and conversion numbers have been rising steadily.

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According to Doyle, none of these endeavors would have succeeded without the decision-making lessons learned on the Salmon. “One of the things we struggle with, focus on, and continue to hammer away on is decision making,” he says. “Who needs to be involved? Where’s the authority coming from? Who makes the ultimate decision? During the off-site we drafted a general agreement designed to expedite decision making, and it has helped tremendously to have those parameters laid out.”

The decision-making flow chart was just one component of a series of Altrec.com norms and values drafted on the river. Today that document — including guidelines for communication, respect, and leadership — has become part of Altrec.com culture and a piece of required reading for all veteran and rookie employees. Jim Helmich, director of human resources, moved from Starbucks to Altrec.com on August 3 — just a few weeks after the river expedition returned to shore. Since then, Helmich has launched an orientation program that concentrates heavily on Altrec.com’s norms and values.

“We want our new recruits to understand that this is more than an outdoor company in the Internet space,” Helmich says of the 12 to 15 people who have joined Altrec.com since July. “It’s an outdoor company committed to a culture and committed to an agreement to treat each other with respect and dignity. Normally, when you talk about culture, it’s just an amorphous thing that floats. Once you start putting some nomenclature around the elusive concepts, you can tack it up to the wall and make good decisions.”

Now, new hires are handed a first-day packet including the norms, the values, the mission statement, the structure overview, and a press packet. But Helmich believes they receive a great deal more than paper and print. “From Day One they are exposed to the soul and essence of our company,” he says.

And for Doyle, the timing couldn’t be better. He insists that 2000 will be a shake-out year in the outdoor, active travel, and sporting goods industries as a national market leader begins to emerge. He also insists that talent and vision will make all the difference in the world. Doyle says Altrec.com is running ahead of the pack partially because of its extreme off-site, and the learning that it stimulated. It’s difficult, he says, to pinpoint individual results, but the overall progress and projections are encouraging.

“It’s not like, one day, all of a sudden everything’s better or, one day, we have all the solutions for everything. It’s a learning process. It’s an evolutionary process.”

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In an effort to better grasp and dissect the distinct learning processes and results inspired by the Altrec.com off-site, Fast Company visited with members of the river rafting expedition to learn their true impressions of the river rafting trip and to understand the impact of that exercise. Truthful and optimistic, their comments about the off-site’s lasting results and action items offer some insight into the exhilarating, sporadic world of an Internet startup with big, big plans for the future.

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