This family turned their love of the great outdoors into a thriving ecommerce company.
For Annalisa DeMarta and Ken Johnson, family camping trips have transformed into a family business: LoneCone.com, an e-tailer focused on outdoor gear for the whole family.
The company, which sells through Amazon, it’s own website and — beginning in May — a retail showroom in Boise, is now a profitable, growing and well-respected retailer.
But it wasn’t always this way…
The couple’s first foray into ecommerce was not outdoor gear, but rare books, a hobby Ken had picked up from a colleague while leading the debate program at the University of Rochester in upstate New York.
“We’d go to estate sales and book stores and find these rare books and resell them on Ebay,” Ken says, explaining that as the hobby grew, it required more and more of Annalisa’s time to manage.
“Our entire basement was filled with rare books. Literally, it was a crazy old man’s basement of books.”
Annalisa — who despite an MBA and an impressive resume, found herself under-employed in the midst of the Great Recession — eventually made cataloguing, selling and shipping their rare books a full-time job. The couple enjoyed their time of working together and the ability for Annalisa to work flexible hours and make decent money.
“At some point we saw that [selling] rare books is hard as a business model because that’s their nature, they’re rare. That means it requires special knowledge to find them and buy them at the right price,” Ken says. “There was no way to scale it.”
Their solution was to first start selling new books, then occasional random items they would find on close-out. Eventually this expanded into outdoor gear, toys and games.
As their marketing skills and sales improved, the couple decided to launch their own website.
The trouble was, they knew nothing about building websites.
“We knew a guy who knew a guy,” Annalisa remembers. “We paid him like $1,200 and he did nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Eventually their site, The Ottomus (named after Ken’s mispronunciation of Puff the Magic Dragon’s “Autumn Mist” as a child), got built, but they didn’t have much to sell. So Annalisa and Ken set to work cold-calling major outdoor brands trying to convince them to let The Ottomus sell their gear.
“Anna knew sales and I knew debate. We were able to convince companies to partner with us,” Ken says. “We would anticipate their objections and learn from every call. It was a grind, but it worked.”
While the couple sold directly through their website, they also used their knowledge from bookselling on Amazon to expand the new business. “It’s about getting the right keywords, images, descriptions and reviews. There’s an art and a science to it.”
But even more importantly, the couple says, it was “old fashioned values” that allowed the company to grow.
“Brands trust us because we’re old school, straight up honest and transparent,” Ken says. “It can be hard in business when money is involved, but we value the relationships.”
As the business and their family expanded (the couple has three young kids), Annalisa and Ken began thinking more about the long-term. While they were still living in upstate New York, Ken yearned to return to his home state of Idaho where they could enjoy the outdoors without the restrictions of the well- (some might say over-) developed East Coast.
“Everything was manicured and there were rules for everything,” Ken recalls with a laugh. “If you went fishing on a lake there were rules on where you could be on the lake.”
For months, the couple weighed the option of moving out West, away from Annalisa’s family and the security of Ken’s job.
Then Ken began experiencing mysterious health issues. Doctors suspected ALS or Parkinson’s. Nobody knew for sure.
“Here we were with young kids and getting this news. I struggled to process what life we were going to have.”
By the time the diagnosis was made — it was not the worst-case scenarios the doctors had suggested — Ken and Annalisa had a different view.
“As corny as it may sound, it was time to seize the day and not be afraid of life.”
Despite their early success, the couple still had doubts whether their new business would be able to support them both full-time. So they asked a family member who worked in finance to review their company financials.
“She thought we could make a run at it,” Annalisa says. “I just figured if it doesn’t work out we’ll live on love and it’d be all right.”
The couple sold their house, moved to Boise and continued to build their sales into the millions.
“Thank goodness we didn’t have to live on love,” Ken smiles.
Today, the company has rebranded to LoneCone.com, hired a small team, and leased a warehouse in Meridian as well as a small showroom on 6th Street between Myrtle and Front.
“Most want to be the biggest. I want to be the happiest,” Ken says. “The point of the business is to live where we want, spend time with our children and work together.”
In addition to growing its list of well-known and up-and-coming outdoor brands, LoneCone.com has recently begun launching it’s own products from fishing nets to rubber boots. And it all remains fueled by the golden rule.
“It’s the little things,” Annalisa explains.
“People on the internet often talk differently to people than they would talk to them in person. We try hard not to. We always try to say please and thank you and remember they’re people, not just customers.”
While the couple expects big things from LoneCone.com and their life in Boise, they are humbled by their success so far.
“It almost feels like a miracle,” Ken says. “I don’t know how or why we got here. It’s already beyond my wildest dreams.”
Photography by Mike Kerby of c308 Marketing