Boulder entrepreneur has built an outdoors media empire under the iconic Outside brand

robin thurston outsideBy  | | The Denver Post

Robin Thurston’s dreams of becoming a successful professional cyclist were dashed when he crashed into the back of a team support vehicle, knocking him unconscious and leaving him with more than 100 stitches in his head.

He never lost his love for outdoor adventure, though, even as he steered his innate competitiveness into becoming a successful entrepreneur. Over the past two years, he has built a Boulder-based multimedia company into the dominant player in the outdoors media space, assembling a collection of well-known online and print assets that cover virtually every segment of recreation, adventure and active lifestyles.

Thurston, who grew up in Denver, is chief executive of Outside Interactive, which is home to more than 30 media sites, services and online tools including Outside, Backpacker, SKI, Trail Runner, Triathlete and Climbing as well as Warren Miller Entertainment. Formerly known as Pocket Outdoor Media, the company was renamed Outside Interactive in 2021 after it acquired iconic Outside magazine, OutsideTV, a mapping app for backcountry enthusiasts called Gaia GPS and an event registration site.

The company headquarters is a block from the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Thurston’s goals go beyond building a media empire, and they involve new emphases for Outside, which has told stories of high adventure and exploration since 1977.

“I believe Outside’s brand is the most amazing brand in the category, but I think it has a bigger purpose than it did before, which was telling amazing, aspirational long-form stories around all of these adventures,” said Thurston, who has three children ages 6-11. “The average kid in the U.S. is getting 70 minutes a week outdoors. That seems unimaginable, living in Colorado. For me, growing up in Colorado, I bet I was outside 70 minutes a day — minimum.

“I think about Outside as a platform for (imagining), how do you inspire the next generation? How do we use storytelling? We have a big TV channel, we have our events and mapping tools, but how do we use all of that stuff to trigger people to want to spend, at minimum, 120 hours (outside)? And, hopefully, a lot more.”

Having emerged as the largest source of outdoor recreation media and services in the U.S., Outside Interactive announced a long-term partnership in October with the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association to livestream all of its domestic World Cup events.

“We want to be the home for winter activities, and that means live sports, documentaries, films,” Thurston said. “We want you to watch Warren Miller (ski films). We just signed the Dew Tour (a prominent domestic snowboarding tour). We want to be the home for cycling. We want to do the same thing in running and outdoor adventure.”

Faced with the same economic pressures as other print publications that are increasingly focused on digital business, Outside recently eliminated print publication of Backpacker, Climbing and SKI. Trail Runner, Triathlete and Yoga Journal will cease print publication next summer, leaving Outside as the company’s only print publication. The company also laid off about 12% of its workforce this month, which Thurston blamed on forecasts of declines in advertising revenue across the economy.

Outside CEO Robin Thurston, photographed at offices of Outside Interactive in Boulder. Outside operates with a membership model ($60 per year) with access to all platforms the company owns including magazines, films, livestreaming and online internet tools. (Photo by Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)
Outside CEO Robin Thurston, photographed at offices of Outside Interactive in Boulder. Outside operates with a membership model ($60 per year) with access to all platforms the company owns including magazines, films, live-streaming and online internet tools. (Photo by Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post)

Currently, about 70% of Outside’s content is free, but a metered paywall is coming next year. Through a “membership” called Outside Plus ($60 per year), users get access to everything Outside and its other assets have to offer, including articles, films, livestreams, the mapping app, event registration, even finish-line photos.

“You’re getting film, TV, live sports, the mapping tools, discounts on registration fees,” said Thurston, 50. “We’ve built a master-class platform called Outside Learn that has 600 classes in it. The goal is to get you into those other products to move you along that cycle of being a beginner in something to being more advanced so you can then share it with other people that you know and, hopefully, bring them along in that journey.”

Conor Hall, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, said state officials are in discussions with Outside to partner in major “programs” he’s not ready to divulge.

“Having an innovative mind like Robin, and having a group like Outside housed here in Colorado that really has become a major leader in the outdoor media space, is huge,” Hall said. “They are an aggregator of so much within the industry, they have a gravitational pull that is good for Colorado.”

Out of high school, Thurston was a professional cyclist in Europe for four years before the accident that left him feeling lucky to be alive.

“Unfortunately I went through the back windshield of a team car at about 40 mph,” Thurston said. “No helmet, because there were no helmet rules then.” Helmets weren’t required in competitive cycling until 2003.

Thurston returned to Denver and began college at age 22, earning undergrad and graduate degrees in finance from Metro State University Denver and the University of Colorado-Denver, respectively. He went to work in the investment world, but his first step into entrepreneurship was sparked by a European cycling trip in 2005.

“We were in Switzerland, near an area where I had lived, and I was showing other Americans the roads,” Thurston recalled. “Somebody at dinner goes, ‘It would be cool if I knew these roads you’re taking me on without you being here.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t think that exists.’ There were travel books that showed routes, but there was no way for me to create a map and send it to you as a friend.”

From that spark of an idea. In 2009 Thurston co-founded MapMyFitness, a digital mobile fitness tracking company that offered maps and other features through MapMyRide and MapMyRun, two of the earliest iPhone apps.

In 2013, he and co-founder Kevin Callahan sold the company to Under Armour for a reported $150 million. Thurston ran digital marketing and e-commerce for Under Armour for two and a half years before leaving with a two-year non-compete agreement.

He spent the next three years as CEO of a California personal genetics platform, but returned to the outdoors media space in 2019 as CEO of Pocket Outdoor Media in Boulder, which had five holdings including VeloNews, VeloPress and Women’s Running. In 2020, Pocket Outdoor Media acquired Active Interest Media, another Boulder company whose holdings included SKI, magazine, Backpacker, Climbing, Yoga Journal and Warren Miller Entertainment. The acquisition of Outside followed in February 2021.

The idea behind Outside Interactive is to marry outdoor content, tools and services across a media platform serving a range of outdoor interests.

“If we talk about a trailhead, I want to give you the tools to go to that trailhead,” Thurston said. “Of course I want you to read (about) it; more importantly, I want you to go do it, so how do I give you all the right tools to be able to synchronize that experience?”

By  | | The Denver Post

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