Interview with Mike Cecot-Scherer Of Tentlab

Mike is the man behind TentLab, whose latest project, the RugRat is currently available on Kickstarter. He’s been a part of the outdoor industry since 1976, and has been designing the products we use since 1985. With at least 245 tents to his credit, along with numerous backpacks and sleeping bags, it’s safe to say he knows his stuff. We were able to catch up with him for a little Q&A with him about TheTentLab, and the RugRat.

IO: Mike, you’ve obviously got an interesting background for someone in the outdoors industry. Did you pursue your degree in physics knowing you’d be designing tents and the like, or did you graduate, and decide to apply your knowledge to something you’re passionate about?

MC-S: It’s odd to me now that I didn’t think of getting a Physics degree so I could design gear ‘” the idea of figuring things out to be able to genuinely improve them is so clear now. At the time is was just parallel passions: Science, mountaincraft and making stuff.

IO: With almost 30 years of design experience, have you seen your philosopy change as you got older? Has becoming a parent changed your priorities when it comes to your idea of “good design”?

MC-S: Oh yeah. Once upon a time I really did think of products as being good or bad or better or worse. I was opinionated and I bet pretty insufferable sometimes. As I matured and, frankly, as I became a better designer I came to appreciate that I was making gear for other people with other needs and systems. And those systems are every bit as efficient, adaptive, nuanced and occasionally quirky as the ones I had been thinking of as “better”. Now as seasoned professional designer, I look to make stuff that’s exactly what my clients and their customers want and need. I expand their horizons, walk them through the tradeoffs and I try to help them be true to themselves. I don’t get to hung up on being too pure and I don’t argue little things as if they’re more than they really are. We’re unlikely to ever cause real harm to a customer because of the decisions we make. We can all take a deep breath and relax a little in the outdoor specialty industry.

Except for the whole fire retardancy chemical fiasco that’s about to come home to roost. But that wasn’t the outdoor industry’s doing.

Since we had our son, I’ve become a little disappointed in my fellow environmentalists because I think they’re doing a systematically terrible job of creating a new generation of outdoor kids. It’s VERY hard to get a trip out the door and the obsession with wilderness has left out the idea of well managed buffer zones with lots of widely dispersed camping for families. We live in Colorado but camping is so tight here we prefer to go out to the BLM lands of Utah to do what’s called “dispersed camping.” What this means for my designs is a little unclear. Certainly the RugRat tents come as much from our backpacking experience with our son as it did from the kind of fast-and-light car-camping and rafting we’ve done.

IO: We understand you started TentLab so you could offer your own designs, rather than something you designed for a client. Was this so you could maintain control of the entire process, or did you feel some products might not be a good fit for them?

MC-S: The TentLab isn’t about control or trying to compensate for perceived lack of client vision, not at all. My intention with The TentLab is to do genuine design exploration with truly exceptional new products that will, in time, also help my clients (and everyone else for that matter). As a rule my clients are tasked to develop a particular type of product that fills specific needs in the framework of a very mature market. They don’t have the luxury of failing and the profitability of tents is very low these days. They’re quite bound by market realities ‘” I know and share their pain. Put most simply, The TentLab is my deliberate attempt to push and change those realities for all of us making tents.

IO: The RugRat is a pretty awesome tent. and we’re hoping it makes it into production. Was it a difficult decision to go with crowd funding, rather than shop it around to different companies, or was that never an option?

MC-S: Thanks! Realistically it was never an option to fund it any other way. The RugRats are the result of genuinely non-standard choices: they’re backpacking tents but they’re quite large, strong and full featured -that’s WAY different than what mainstream backpacking tents are supposed to be these days. One of my backers plans to use the RugRat3 for big supported rides. He knows that having a huge tent sack is a no-no so he’s getting a RugRat because it’s really big but packs so small. As a car-camping tent, it’s not tall enough to stand up in – which is a very mainstream desire – because it’s designed to be much stronger and more packable than regular car-camp tents. It doesn’t embrace the more, more, more attitude that’s become the norm for car-camping. (I often half joke that you can take down and stow a RugRat before the campsite next to you even figures out how to refold their “camp kitchen.”)

A regular business – like all my clients have – simply can’t pony up multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars for inventory that has no demonstrated customer base. Its crowdfund it or forget about it. I’m convinced that this way of pioneering new things IS the future of product design.

IO: What’s next? Any other cool stuff in the works that you’re able to tell us about now?<

MC-S: The next two projects will come out this winter. They’re kind of a pair: a wicked winter mountaineering tent and a new snowstake.

IO: Thanks for taking the time to share with our readers. Is there anything you’d like to add?

MC-S: Tentwise, we all live in exciting times. The products being offered by the brands everyone knows are better in almost every way than the tents made even 10 years ago. A huge amount of this innovation was driven entirely by Jake Lah, the owner of DAC. His work is the enabling technology that we designers build with. Yet we’ve only just started;  there’s so much more to do. The trick now is finding a way to get new things in front of people and how to explain them fairly and well.

Check out the RugRat on Kickstarter, and please share the link with your camping friends.

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