35: Rob Little: Learning the Subscription Business Secret Sauce

“In fact, many people have said that we have a B-to-C-to-B model, because we connect consumers to product. Then, we take their feedback and how they’re sharing the story and product, and pass that information all back to the brands.”

– Rob Little


 Even though subscription services for retail goods have been around for over 80 years, they’re experiencing a renaissance today. Think of the utility services, like “Amazon Subscribe & Save,” where you’ll never run out of laundry detergent. Helpful, yes. But inspiring? Hmm, I guess it depends on who you are!

The real magic is happening with discovery subscription services, like Cairn.com, where outdoor aficionados receive a box of goodies – at regular intervals – specifically curated to satisfy their interests, their sports, and their worldview. When I reached out to Rob for this interview, I thought I’d be sharing an inspiring start-up story and another new and interesting retail opp for consumers to discover new brands (which it is!).

But then, Rob started to talk about the focused data Cairn gathers for brands. He’s got two avatars – B-to-B and B-to-C. Those B-to-B brands that partner with Cairn sit shotgun as their products and brands are presented and framed with different themed boxes and different assortments. It’s incredible the experience you can offer to the consumer while also mining data and procuring content from them socially sharing their experiences with everyone they know.

Cairn is far more than a subscription service. Let’s consider the fact that anyone who signs up to join Cairn as a subscriber feels pumped to provide pages of information outlining their preferences. The consumer knows doing so will give them a better discovery experience. And the Cairn experience gets more personalized and better with every box it sends…

Subscription box business aside, Rob and his co-founding partner Jared, are figuring out a super creative way to do mass personalization with brands that range from start-up to legacy. Listen in to this fascinating episode and get inspired to learn from the successes Cairn’s generating for its brand family and consumer avatars alike.


rob little

Rob Little is co-founder and CEO of Cairn, a pioneering subscription company serving passionate active outdoor lifestyle consumers. Cairn is based in the beautiful high desert, mountain town of Bend, Oregon (as it should be) and celebrates its fourth anniversary this month (March 2018).

Let’s all High Five Cairn for that anniversary, first of all. It’s tough to launch a company and get it to a profitable and sustainable place, let alone a company that ushered in a brand new approach to creating experiences for consumers. Bravo!

Prior to co-founding Cairn, Rob spent two years in remote Panama serving in the Peace Corps as a water resource engineer. He then traveled as much as he possibly could before returning to the U.S. to literally drop right into the corporate world as an engineer with Lockheed Martin.

Thankfully, he then rediscovered his entrepreneurial spirit while getting an MBA, which is where he met Cairn co-founder and his partner Jared Peterson. The two became enamored with the concept of a discovery/adventure subscription business for the outdoor active lifestyle markets and launched Cairn.


subscription models, mass customization, creative retail, discovery vs. utility subscription services, driving brand exposure, data in the outdoor markets, cause marketing, funnel effectiveness


“In the outdoor industry, it was very relevant for us to start a discovery-based curation system that hit on convenience, and hit on customization.”

“This would have been 2012. Brick and mortar was being redefined, in terms of how it worked, and operated. [A marketing professor in my MBA program] hypothesized that you would have a segment of that retail arena head into a commoditized-driven world, where everything was about convenience and economics. Amazon has clearly won that space. The other end of the spectrum, he said, would be dominated by passion-driven businesses and industries.”

“It’s the discovery element! Somebody knows they’re passionate about an industry. Let us introduce products that are relevant for them.”

“In fact, many people have said that we have a B-to-C-to-B model, because we connect consumers to product. Then, we take their feedback and how they’re sharing the story and product, and pass that information all back to the brands.”

“I know few industries where people are so excited to share with you what they think about a product, or a company, as they do in the outdoor industry.”

[On the Gear Up, Give Back cause] “I think it’s only appropriate that we create a full circle, or full cycle, with these customers, where they can find and discover new things through us. They can recycle things they’re no longer using, and all of the proceeds go to protect what they’re most passionate about, and why they’re buying the gear, in the first place.”


Cairn.com: https://www.getcairn.com/

Gear Up, Give Back: Launching soon. Please keep checking in with http://www.getcairn.com

Connect with Rob on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertjlittle/


“Subscription Businesses are Exploding with Growth,” by R. Kestenbaum (Aug. 2017), Forbes.com: http://bit.ly/2G2o004

Birchbox: https://www.birchbox.com/

Harry and David: https://www.harryanddavid.com/

The Startup Way, by Eric Reis

The Conservation Alliance: http://www.conservationalliance.com/


  • Episode 33: Dan Nordstrom: A 25-year Ecomm Veteran on What’s Working Today for Multichannel Businesses
  • Episode 29: REI’s Ben Johns on Leading through the Changes at Retail
  • Episode 20: Sean Ellis: Create a Nimble Company Culture through Growth Hacking
  • Episode 3: Tom Asacker: The Sooner You Forget About Starting With Why, the Better, and Other Keys to Getting Consumer-Centric
  • To peruse and choose among all episodes easily: https://channelmastery.com/dev-site/podcasts/

Check out Hitwise for insightful data on subscription services and more: http://www.hitwise.com/

Have questions or ideas for Kristin and the Channel Mastery podcast? Email: [email protected]

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