In the fall of 2012, Brint Markle wanted to build the first piece of avalanche hardware built on prevention: If avalanche safety is good, avoidance is better. With two fellow MIT students, Markle, MBA ’14, co-founded Avatech, a company that sold handheld probes for assessing snowpack and slide risk.
After graduating from MIT Sloan, Markle continued to build Avatech from its new headquarters in Park City, Utah. “It was a really innovative product, and we attracted a lot of attention,” he said. At the same time, a growing contingent of consumers was enthusiastic about the information-sharing software that supported Avatech. With this sentiment in mind, and with a sudden change in funding, Markle decided to pivot.
“Driven by the end consumer, we rebranded to Mountain Hub,” Markle said. He was no longer CEO of a hardware company, but an information-sharing app that maps routes and conditions for almost any outdoor activity. “It was a really strategic decision to focus 100 percent behind the platform and sell the hardware business.”
Started in the spring of 2016, the shift was completed by September, with Markle now in the process of selling Avatech. He offered four key lessons from this transition.
Focus early and resolutely
Markle struggled with the decision to sell Avatech, and so he pushed it down the road. For a long time, this meant that he was building two companies at once, pushing sales of Avatech while laying the foundation for Mountain Hub.
“Before we fully rebranded, it was like training for a marathon and a 20-mile swim at the same time: We were stretched really thin and average performers in both races,” Markle said. “If you want to be successful and have impact as an entrepreneur, you have to focus.”
The block was mental. For starters, Avatech was his own creation, born from personal experience with an avalanche and countless hours of work; the company carried a lot of “emotional baggage.” This pushed Markle to convince himself that the hardware and software businesses were highly complementary. “But the reality was that the needs of these two customers was very different,” he said. There were employees on both sides of the company, and deciding to sell Avatech meant laying off staff members, many of whom were friends from the company’s earliest days.
In the end, though, Markle realized that he had to consider the situation from “the highest perspective possible: How do we make this company successfully fulfill its mission?” That clarified the answer. With the chance to do it all over again, Markle said he would focus exclusively on Mountain Hub earlier.
Operate with transparency
The decision to pivot from Avatech to Mountain Hub was concurrent with an unexpected and dramatic loss of funding that forced Markle to cut half of the company’s workforce at once. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through as an entrepreneur,” he said.Throughout the ordeal, though, and while the company shifted focus, he and his cofounders remained transparent about why they were doing what they were. “We explained everything that was going on, and even though we had to let people go, I believe they respected us — they said as much,” he explained. “We were really holding to our core values and being transparent with the team.”
This transparency, importantly, extended to core customers as well. As Mountain Hub became the core product, Markle and his colleagues received both concerns and complaints from their existing customers. They met this with a proactive explanation of what they were doing.
“We drafted a personal letter from the founders to explain very thoughtfully the rationale,” Markle said. “We were also clear about how meaningful those early customers are to the future of Mountain Hub, and that we remain very proud to have started in the avalanche space.” Such transparency, Markle said, is rooted in staying honest with those who helped get you where you are.
Remain true to culture
Transitioning from a company that sells a physical product to one that shares information required an overhaul of not just the business model, but also the team. Markle began hiring software engineers and graphic designers. In the process, he “learned that culture trumps everything else.”
His initial instinct was to hire the most promising developers, even if they didn’t fully fit with Mountain Hub’s culture of team-oriented work where individuals don’t gun for personal credit. In the initial months, he had some hires that were not a perfect culture fit. Though he eventually let people go, he realizes now that culture must be placed before anything else. “I’ve learned to put the values of the company well ahead of technical talent alone,” he said.
Seek complementary partnerships
In July of this year, Mountain Hub announced a partnership with outdoor gear company Black Diamond. “That was really critical for us,” Markle said. Black Diamond is an elite and highly respected brand that sponsors athletes across a range of adventure sports, all of which helps fortify and expand Mountain Hub’s reputation.
But Mountain Hub also offers a unique data set to Black Diamond. “We can identify aggregate trends in the types of activities people are doing, and when and where,” Markle said. “This is the kind of information that can help brands like Black Diamond reach their audiences in a very thoughtful way.”
Partnerships have expanded beyond the private sector, too. Mountain Hub works with nonprofits to provide usage data critical to land preservation; they work with the Forest Service in California to better map permitting needs; and they work with NASA in a community science project centered on measuring snowpack across the country.
“In the end, we want to be a source of good through information sharing,” Markle said.