“Read this cover to cover,” Thurston remembers his dad saying. The family lived in Denver, and Thurston had started biking, skiing and hiking early; his father, an avid backpacker and outdoorsman, thought Outside was the perfect way to teach his son about the national park before they headed there on a trip just over forty years ago.
Fast-forward to 2021, and Thurston, now 49, is the owner of not just Outside magazine, but an entire company named Outside. In February, the entrepreneur bought the publication from longtime owner Larry Burke, who'd bought it from Jann Wenner; the Rolling Stone founder started the monthly magazine devoted to the outdoors in 1977.
“I remember completely tearing apart the magazine, cutting up all the pictures, putting it up on the wall,” Thurston recalls. “So my connection to Outside, one, is just the history and the legacy and the authenticity of adventure and living bravely and thinking about the amazing things we as humans can do on this planet — and that just started for me at a really young age.”
Thurston's mother also played a role in his eventual ownership of Outside. Three years ago, Thurston was visiting his mother over the Thanksgiving holiday in Santa Fe; there he met Burke, who'd moved the magazine headquarters there in 1995. Thurston, who'd become the CEO of Pocket Outdoor Media, a company focused on outdoors and active lifestyle content, after investing in the organization earlier that year, told Burke to give him a call if he ever wanted to sell the magazine.
About a year later, Pocket Outdoor Media was in the midst of a rebranding exercise, considering three names that Thurston now describes as “terrible,” when Burke reached out at just the right time.
“Larry called me, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we have to buy Outside. It's the best brand,’” Thurston says.
He worked as fast as he could to finance the purchase and to further his goal of making Pocket Outdoor Media into the Netflix or Amazon Prime of the outdoors industry by curating everything anyone could want to know about the outdoors into one convenient service that could be personalized.
Thurston wasn't new to integrating one company into another with a bigger brand for maximum impact, though he'd been on the other side of the sale last time. He had invented MyMapFitness, a service that integrates fitness resources to provide a one-stop portal for users, in 2012; in 2013, he sold it to UnderArmour. As part of the sale, Thurston became chief digital officer with the company, before leaving in 2016 to become CEO of Helix, a startup focused on DNA innovation.
Returning to the world of health and fitness with Pocket Outdoor Media was his last stop before buying Outside. From there, he rebranded the company under the Outside name and moved the Outside headquarters to Boulder, where Thurston lives and where many of his company's employees are based. He kept an office in Santa Fe, though, since the company owns that building and many of his employees were already working remotely.
Over the past year, Thurston has added to that employee roster; today it numbers just under 600, with about half working remotely. Thurston says the pandemic taught him that flexibility is key, and that the company will stick to flexibility for its employees regardless of other circumstances.
Since purchasing Outside the magazine in 2020, Thurston's Outside company has acquired thirteen more properties, including Peloton magazine; Gaia GPS; and Boulder-based ROAM Media, which offers classes taught by outdoor experts, and Inkwell Media, which will provide in-house social media expertise to Outside.Thurston is always looking for more local opportunities, he says. He's already brought on Biju Thomas of Biju's Little Curry Shop as a content provider, and the company producing the Warren Miller films is also under his umbrella.
As more companies join the Outside group, their services are folded into Outside+, the subscription model that the company rolled out in May. For an annual fee of $99, Outside+ provides a subscription to Outside magazine, event passes, training plans and the opportunity to interact with Outside’s expert employees — benefits worth about $700.
While Thurston says that the people who have purchased an Outside+ membership appreciate the value it brings, the company needs to do more to show value to consumers. “The experiential/events piece is another one that I want people to realize is in there,” Thurston says. “There are all these ones that I think are super-cool, like giving you two Warren Miller theater tickets.”
Currently, the company has 1.2 million print subscribers and 600,000 digital subscribers, Thurston says; eventually, he hopes to transfer the consumer base to a digital-first model. That's the path to preserving Outside for the long-term, he explains.
“There's a lot of conversation in the industry going on around what I call membership fatigue or subscription fatigue,” he says. “You probably have Netflix and maybe Disney and some others and Prime. The onus on Outside is to prove to this consumer specifically that we're giving them enough value.”
Making Outside+ the foundational membership for the active person is how Thurston plans to ensure that the magazine won’t be on the chopping block when people assess their budgets. He sees Outside+ reaching a broader audience than Outside magazine, expanding the potential consumer base to “tens of millions” across the world.
Thurston knows those worldwide outdoors enthusiasts won’t be able to continue adventuring if the planet deteriorates, so along with working toward a digital-first model, he's focusing on building out sustainability operations. He's starting with programs in Boulder, including one that makes it easier for companies to recycle excess plastic bags — but the goal is to have a global impact.
“There's a lot of work to be done,” Thurston says. “This isn't something that you're going to see a big win in in a year. It's decades of trying to message and create the right environment for these things to change.”
Thurston can’t imagine a world without exercise and adventure, and his ultimate goal is to help more people get outside and get active.
“I really think that's what Outside is all about,” he says. “It's about getting out there and taking risks and seeing parts of the world where maybe you wouldn't have gone...and ultimately doing something while you're there that's active and hard and challenging.”
Thurston's latest challenge is to build the Amazon Prime for the outdoors. With the Outside brand on board, he believes he's up to it.