Online startup Highby Outdoors aims to continue building in Sidney where Cabela's left off.
Cabela's – before it was tucked along every major metro corridor – was a unique pilgrimage. A pioneer-style quest across the Great Plains, sans a Conestoga wagon, to Sidney, Neb., made the pages of the iconic catalog company come alive. If you had the slightest interest in the outdoors, boy was the trip worth it.
The miles of hunting and fishing gear, world-class trophies and, of course, the Bargain Basement are somewhat distant memories now. Put simply, Sidney and the original Cabela’s are casualties of big business. As most know, the “World’s Foremost Outfitter” – acquired by Bass Pro Shops in 2017 – is closing down much of its operation in the panhandle of Nebraska.
The store and some corporate offices remain, but in many respects, it is no longer the axis mundi of the outfitting industry. Still, it’s not exactly time to write off the windy bend in Interstate 80 as a premier hub of hunting and fishing – not if the intrepidness of Matt Highby has anything to say about it.
Shooting to beat the odds, Highby Outdoors looks to maintain Sidney as America’s leading outfitting town. While it’s a steep task any way you cut it, company founder Matt Highby believes he has an edge. When it comes to hunting, fishing, shooting, camping and anything else centered on the wilds of America, Sidney is at ground zero.
“It’s in our DNA,” Matt said. “I can’t think of a better place to start something new.”
There aren’t any bronze elk or bears mulling about outside Highby Outdoors. At least not yet. Like all new ventures, the e-commerce company is wading through modest beginnings with 11 employees, a warehouse and a website. Well, that and know-how and dedication.
Those last two points are areas Matt and his wife, Molly Highby, believe they can beat the ample competition and make their mark in the cutthroat world of online sales. As former Cabela’s employees, the couple understands the business advantage of these oftentimes forgotten virtues.
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As far as know-how, Matt cites the common, frustrating trip to a big-box hardware store as an example. Technical expertise is needed, yet gaped mouths and furrowed brows are delivered. Unfortunately, the same experience has become common in outdoors stores, to the detriment of outdoorsmen.
It doesn’t do a turkey hunter a lick of good if his retailer doesn’t know the difference between steel and tungsten shot, and that may cost him when it matters most. Not in dollars and cents, but in missed opportunities in the field and exasperation in the experience.
To this end, Highby Outdoors has taken the novel approach of hiring outdoorsmen and women. Stocking a company with those who know of what they speak sounds like a simple concept. But as most have experienced, it’s a fundamental that’s fallen to the wayside in recent decades.
“How can a company say they are outdoor experts if they work in the office all the time?” he said. “I tell our team, if you have a new rifle or pistol that needs testing, you need to just go do it no matter what day it is. … If the wind is right for your tree stand on a Tuesday, and you have that big buck on camera, you better leave work early and go get him. What I get in return are hardworking experts who really know their stuff and have fun doing it.”
The other issue Matt made paramount, dedication, is a strange one, but has hit a fever pitch in recent years. Sporting goods companies and outfitters have shown litheness of spirit standing up for the markets they serve. Retailers pulling modern sporting rifles from the shelves is perhaps the highest profile example, but there are less known instances involving both hunting and fishing.
Highby Outdoors will show backbone against this whirlwind, Matt promises. And he doesn’t vacillate in his appraisal of companies that have bowed to the mob.
“If a company is in the firearms business one year when sales are hot and then is ashamed of the firearms business after political pressures or a few customer complaints, then why were they in that business anyway?” he chides. “For the retailers who stand up and publicly support the NRA and Second Amendment, I applaud them. These companies are competitors, but I also consider them our friends.”
Matt Highby’s commitment to the outdoors shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s in his pedigree. As the son of a former president and CEO of Cabela’s – Dennis Highby – the entrepreneur cut his teeth early on the outdoors world. Both in the field and behind the desk. In a way, he sees his present venture a continuation of what his father started.
Though Dennis Highby has no connection to Highby Outdoors, Matt doesn’t deny his fingerprints are all over the company. After all, his father is the one who taught him the fundamentals of business. In particular, to remain humble, help others and provide unparalleled customer service.
Off Ground Challenges
No matter what phase a business is in, it faces challenges. Few are as stiff as what Highby Outdoors has encountered since opening its doors in February. The startup has fought for its very existence since going online.
Bass Pro, operating under the Cabela’s name, sued Highby Outdoors and a second newly minted Sidney outdoor retailer, NexGen Outfitters, which was started, in part, by a former Cabela’s merchandising manager. The retailing behemoth’s lawyers allege a number of breaches of the former employees’ severance agreements, including the non-compete clause, use of proprietary information and vendor relationships built while at Cabela's, court documents show. Presently, the lawsuits are at a standstill, according to the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, given some intricacies in Delaware's corporate law and Nebraska law pertaining to what activities such contracts can restrict. Given the civil cases are ongoing, Matt couldn’t comment on them.
Troubling as the legal issue has been, Highby Outdoors faced a litany of challenges long before the lawsuit was filed. Starting a firearms business nowadays isn’t exactly shooting squirrels off your back porch. Aside from the obvious trial of building a functional and appealing website, Matt initially struggled finding third-parties – software, processors, etc. – willing to do business with a company retailing guns.
Despite these hurdles, Matt and Highby Outdoors have high aspirations. With only a few months of business under his belt, the founder foresees big things for the company. Someday it might even branch out into brick-and-mortar operations. However, he’s not calling his shot before it lands. First and foremost, Highby Outdoors aims to hit the bullseye in the online world.
A Lot Riding On Highby
Outdoor retailing means everything to Sidney.
A 2017 Omaha World Herald article pegged the town’s population at 6,800, and points out at one time more than 2,000 of these residents worked for Cabela’s. That’s 30-percent of Sidney – the absolute definition of a company town. One that’s always been proud to be one.
With that in mind, it’s of little surprise Sidney is rallying behind its favorite sons. According to the Star-Herald, the community set aside $500,000 in economic development funds over 5 years for Highby Outdoors. It also helped NexGen Outfitters secure 8 acres of land in a local industrial park. Growing up, working and starting a family in the town, Matt couldn’t be more electrified by the support than if he took a trophy elk on public land (what he’d be doing if not running his company).
As time goes on, he’s certain he can pay Sidney back, not simply monetarily and with economic growth. His ultimate goal is to keep the town what it’s been for nearly 60 years – the center of the outdoors world.