wilderness ranger on the Appalachian Trail and spends his winters dog sledding in Vermont. That’s where he tests hammock prototypes.
But Stolp has always wanted to be a product designer in the outdoor industry, and to run his own company. Besides Alpine, he’s co-founder of Deep South Mountaineering, which manufactures “innovative and eco-conscious [hiking] gear made in the USA,” according to its website.
“I think freedom of schedule is incredibly under appreciated,” he says. “When starting a company I wanted to work on projects I care about, I don’t want to design junk – I want freedom of schedule so I can seize opportunities.”
Demand for hammocks is strong and growing.
The men were clearly on to something with Alpine.
The outdoor recreation industry grew 5 percent annually between 2005 and 2011 (the last year that the Outdoor Industry Association published data) and companies like Eagles Nest Outfitters (ENO) of Asheville raised the profile of a new type of functional hammock for outdoor adventures.
Demand was also strong before the original hammocks were pulled from the market. Stolp received several requests from the military and from three world renowned climbers who wanted to use Alpine Hammocks during a tough climb in Canada. Supporters spoke out in support of the hammocks on sites like hammockforums.net.
The men raised $42,915 in the original Kickstarter campaign in August 2012, surpassing a goal of $40,000. Orders came in from Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wyoming, Switzerland, Portugal, South Africa and beyond.
But all that activity came to a halt when Clark Jungle Hammock sued Alpine after seeing its hammocks at an outdoor retailer show in Utah that year. Clark Jungle had only recently received a patent for its dynamic hammock spreader apparatus, which claims rights to any hammock with a tent-style pole that straddles the hammock edges and supports a rainfly. The only similarity between the two companies designs? A pole. But it was a key one.
After discussing different options with Clark, Alpine decided that heading back to the drawing board was the most productive and cost effective plan of action. They were forced to sign a settlement agreement.
The new Alpine Hammock.
Stolp says the suit put in a kink in things and slowed down development. It has forced the Alpine team to spend more time redesigning a product they were already confident in.
“Because of the breadth of this [Clark Jungle’s] patent, it’s a really drastic redesign,” he says. “It should be really different materials, you have to have arguing points now as to why it’s really different. I feel myself having to design to the language of the patent.”
The new design incorporates a waterproof and air permeable fabric called eVent and a three-way rainfly so it stands up like a tripod when on the ground. There’s a small aluminum and bungee pole system rather than a three-part fiberglass one. And more changes are likely to come as the design process continues. Stolp is busy at work with a sewing machine in his basement.
When the first products are ready, Alpine will fulfill all orders out of Hawk Distributors, Inc. in Sanford, SC. Stolp found the manufacturer through Maker’s Row, an easy access working space for startups and designers. Stolp says the funding for the new prototypes is coming from leftover Kickstarter money, money from selling the old hammocks and from his product design/graphic design freelancing.
Though Stolp is working tirelessly to produce a new product different from Clark Jungle’s, he still fears the company might sue again.
To mitigate that risk, he’s now working with lawyers to evaluate the redesign from a legal standpoint. The new Kickstarter campaign will also help fund those legal fees.
Stolp says the entire process has made him into more a businessman – it’s forced him to seek out resources for entrepreneurs.
But it’s also validated his mission for Alpine Hammock.
“It’s kinda flattering to be sued because that means our products are competitive in the market,” he says.
So how do you avoid a patent infringement lawsuit?
According to a study by Lex Machina, the number of patent related cases has doubled, plus some in the past six years.
Darrell A. Fruth, a patent attorney at Brooks Pierce in Raleigh, says it’s difficult to avoid.
“Have you read every one of those?” he says. “Because I sure haven’t and I don’t think anyone could have.”
His advice to startups: Don’t immediately despair if you’re hit with a patent accusation. He says there might be a way to get through it, but it’s best to consult with a good lawyer who is experienced in the area.
If you’re at the early stages of launching or designing a product, he suggests spending a little bit of money at the beginning to consult with a patent lawyer. This will save you more in the long run.
Ed Timberlake, a trademark lawyer agrees. Timberlake says many young startups fear that they can’t afford to talk with him, but it’s easier and cheaper to do it before a lawsuit hits.
“The ideal amount of startup money to spend on a lawsuit is zero,” he says. “You don’t want to venture into an area where it’s pretty likely to receive a cease and desist letter.”
And though some smaller startups may be quick to call an opposing company a bully or a troll, Timberlake says that’s a common misconception.
“The other side is not necessarily Goliath,” he says. “I don’t think it’s fair to automatically say they’re trying to extort money from these other people. They could also be trying to recoup some of their costs of the patent in the first place.”
The lesson of the story is: be proactive. Talk to a lawyer as soon as possible to help prevent an expensive lawsuit or a years-long redesign, like Alpine’s.