By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – As one of the longest operating locally-owned businesses in town, East Slope Outdoors (originally East Slope Anglers and Mad Wolf Ski & Sports) has been providing locals and visitors with gear and guiding services since 1986. In 2013, East Slope Outdoors relocated to Town Center after 29 years of business on Highway 191 and expanded their space and offerings significantly.
Owner “Super Dave” Alvin began working for the business in 1993 and officially took it over in 2006. Alvin shared his thoughts with EBS on what it takes to make it as a small business owner in Big Sky.
EBS: What has been the key to your success?
Dave Alvin: Ultimately, I try to treat people the way I want to be treated. I try to be an honest, trustworthy person that builds relationships with our clients and customers. In my shop, I try to provide quality service and goods that people want. I also try to make sure we have personal interactions with every customer and that they leave feeling like they’ve had a good time. We consider ourselves “fun-brokers” so if people aren’t having fun, we go broke!
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
D.A.: I’ll say the same thing everyone in town says: being able to retain good staff despite a high cost of living and lack of affordable housing. And surviving off-season.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
D.A.: There are definitely way more people here. It used to be kind of low-key and very seasonal, but we’ve gotten much busier overall and the seasonality has leveled off a lot. That trend is only going to continue.
EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?
D.A.: It sounds cheesy but we all live here because of the joy of being able to live our lives immersed in the outdoors. Even when things get hard, we still get to go enjoy our outdoor pursuits. We are still living the dream that everybody else goes on vacation to get a piece of. Our everyday reality is other people’s seven days a year. Besides, once you’ve lived this life, there’s no going back. Working a 9-to-5 job in the city is just not an option—especially after 30 years here.
EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a resident/business owner in Big Sky?
D.A.: My most memorable moment personally was meeting and marrying my wife, Katie, because without her I wouldn’t be the man I am today—and the business wouldn’t be what it is either. My most memorable business moment was when we finally made the move from the highway to the Town Center. That was our goal all along, but it required taking a huge leap of faith in our community. And it has paid off.
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
D.A.: I’ve never really gotten any business advice. Over many years in Big Sky I started lots of bootstrap businesses from nothing, and I learned as I went along what works and what doesn’t. And I committed to Big Sky and stuck with my dream of living here.
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
D.A.: Be very, very careful and cautious about your great idea. Employee issues plus cost of rent and business seasonality make for big challenges. Be conservative. Don’t go big right out of the gate. It’s really easy to get sucked in by the promise of big bucks in the climate of big growth, but the reality is that managing cash flow year-round is challenging. Most of the successful long-term businesses in Big Sky started very small and have grown over time as the town has grown.
EBS: Where do you see your business in 10 years?
D.A.: We intend to keep providing the same quality customer experiences in the skiing and fishing industry that the store has been providing since 1986. We’re in our “forever” location now so the future will just be about deepening our roots—building our customer base, dialing in our merchandise, expanding our services and continuing to strive to provide the best customer service in town.
EBS: Where do you see Big Sky in 20 years?
D.A.: Big Sky is obviously going to keep growing and growing. There will likely be some economic adjustments in the coming years, but Big Sky has definitely been discovered after this past winter. We still have some serious growing pains and issues to address like employee housing and infrastructure. But that’s not unique to Big Sky. Lots of other resort towns have dealt with the same thing. We just have to move forward as a community and deal with the challenges intelligently.
EBS: Would you do it all over again?
East Slope Outdoors – by the numbers
• Staff: 22
• Years in business: 34
• Longest serving employee: Senior guide Stuart Butterworth, 21 years