The friendship of two Stanford University undergraduates — and future business co-founders — started off with a series of outdoor misadventures.
The first expedition that Alex Friedman of Menlo Park and Sasha Landauer of New York City shared as Stanford sophomores was a "terrible" surfing trip where Landauer said she almost drowned in Pacifica. Novices, they picked a challenging day to try surfing at Linda Mar and got yelled at by other surfers and roughed up by the waves.
Later, they went backpacking together, and one of them forgot a sleeping bag.
It wasn't until a couple of years ago, when they both became frustrated at the limited options for selling and reselling gear, that the seeds were planted for what would become Switchbackr, a new online platform for selling used outdoors gear.
At the time, Friedman said he was looking for somewhere to sell extra camping gear and buy a bike and couldn't find any online platform where he could easily do both. And Landauer, who used to work at the rock climbing gym at Stanford, said that she observed that selling gear among undergrads was a messy process that involved blasting emails to large numbers of students asking if anyone was interested in a size 42 pair of climbing shoes, for example.
From there, Friedman started working on the online platform that would become Switchbackr, receiving guidance from the Palo Alto-based Pear VC accelerator program for student entrepreneurs.
The week the pandemic triggered shelter-in-place orders and Stanford sent students home last March was the week the company got its first investment, and the two took a leave of absence to develop Switchbackr. (Since then, Landauer has graduated from Stanford, so only Friedman can claim the illustrious Silicon Valley title of dropout startup founder, the two joked.)
Fast forward a global pandemic later, and the startup is growing. They're a lean team of five, including two gap-year students who will be Stanford freshmen and a marketing employee.
Their business so far has two elements: an online platform where people can sell high-quality used outdoor gear from anywhere, and the "GEARage Sale" program, which is being piloted locally.
Through the GEARage program, Switchbackr collects high-quality used outdoors gear from nearby garages, sells it on the platform and then ships the items on behalf of the customer. They take a 40% cut of each sale.
Friedman said he wanted to start the pilot in his hometown for several reasons.
Born at Stanford Hospital and a graduate of Laurel, Encinal and Menlo-Atherton High schools, Friedman said he decided to test out the GEARage program in Menlo Park and its nearby communities, including Palo Alto, Atherton and Portola Valley — representative of a relatively dense urban area with a big market of potential sellers, and an area where people are generally outdoorsy but not a supermajority of residents are (unlike other communities that were considered like Park City, Utah, or Big Sky, Montana). The theory is that if the GEARage model works in the Bay Area, it could work in most metro areas of the U.S., they said.
Friedman said lots of Bay Area folks are not just outdoorsy but very busy. Some likely have high-quality gear, some of which they don't use frequently. And they're probably too busy to sell it, but still want to get some money from it, so it ends up sitting in the garage.
Instead of having the hassle of putting the item up for sale on Craigslist, coordinating with people to buy it and haggling over the price, Switchbackr's GEARage program is trying to "completely eliminate that friction," Friedman said.
"Sellers get rid of stuff, and they still make a little money off of it," he said.
As a result, he said, the program is helping people clear out their garages, keeping unwanted items out of landfills, lowering the price of outdoor goods and extending the lifespans of the gear.
So far, the local pilot for the GEARage program mostly has involved Friedman driving around the Midpeninsula in his Subaru picking up used gear from all kinds of households, including a Palo Alto grandmother who wanted to consign sleeping bags she'd gotten for her grandchildren, and the parents of one of his classmates from Menlo-Atherton High School who wanted to offload some windsurfing fabric.
"It's been incredibly validating," he said, adding that they're looking to expand to more places in the Bay Area eventually.
Part of their mission also involves lowering the cost barriers to enjoying outdoor experiences, Friedman and Landauer said.
"What we're trying to do is make the outdoors accessible," Friedman said. Landauer added that the Switchbackr blog and communications are focused on discussing issues of diversity and inclusivity and reaching communities that aren't traditionally represented in the outdoor industry.
They also strive to strike a balance between low-cost goods and high quality items. Sales are currently restricted to items in very good condition that are well-maintained and no more than 8 years old. Items sold through the website also come with what's called an "Iron Lotus" guarantee that covers items if they don't arrive as described or are damaged.
And much of the gear for sale comes from outdoor consignment shops across the U.S. that have an interest in offering good customer service, Friedman said.
Looking ahead, the duo is hoping to build out a platform that promotes recommerce — a term describing the industry of rehabilitating and reselling used items — and builds community, Friedman said. They're looking to become a platform where people can resell or rent gear, but also share trail reviews and outdoors experiences.
"We really want Switchbackr to be the go-to place for the outdoors, period," he said.