Founder and CEO Robert Workman sees his consumer goods manufacturer as a means of lifting partners out of poverty around the world.
The latter was tied to philanthropic work Workman and his wife, Ange, were doing in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the former company sold.
With Barebones, Workman has built upon the same ethos. “When we started doing the philanthropic work, we looked at five different elements of how to help people work themselves out of poverty,” he says. “One, of course, was electricity in the modern world. The second thing was shelter, food, water, and education.”
Named for “the bare bones of a shelter” that the company started shipping at the outset, Barebones has evolved into several different product categories.
“We have this saying: ‘If you can’t sell to the richest of rich, then it’s really going to be hard to help the poorest of poor,” says Workman.
He set out to build a company that made products to enhance the outdoor lifestyle for basically everyone. “Barebones is all about the outdoor lifestyle,” says Workman. “We’re not really a camping company or a high adventure company or a barbecue company, we’re an outdoor lifestyle company. The products we make are really beautifully crafted. You’ll see a lot of retro looks, you’ll see a lot of metal — because we want them to last a long time, and a lot of natural products.”
While 10,000 are now deployed worldwide, the shelter didn’t emerge as a core Barebones product. The current catalog began with a line of electric and candle-based lights and lanterns that launched in 2015, followed by garden tools, knives and axes, and cookware.
Lighting and cookware are the two leading categories. “Everybody cooks, everybody does barbecue, and everybody eats,” says Workman. “Then everybody has to see. If you’re going outside, you have to have light.”
Durability is at the heart of the brand. “People worldwide are sick of throwaway stuff,” says Workman. “We’re entering into an era where consumerism — buy it, throw it away, buy it, throw it away, buy it, throw it away — that’s gone. People don’t want that anymore, not even in Africa want the cheap crap. They’re tired of it.”
Sustainability is another big brand focus, and aesthetics are another key, he adds. “There’s an old Amish saying: Don’t make anything you don’t need, but if you’re going to make it, make it beautiful.”
Barebones sells directly to consumers through its website and via Amazon, but about 80 percent of the business goes through other retailers. About half of sales in 2021 were exports.
The company manufactures with numerous businesses in Pakistan, China, and Taiwan. “We’re going to start at the end of this year in Mexico in India,” says Workman.
Workman says he’s been vetting contract manufacturers since his days with Cricut, and he views it as a two-way partnership. “We try to find individuals or small startup companies that we can work with,” he says. “We can’t always do that, but as a whole, that’s what we do. We try to help them become better at every level of manufacturing from employees to best practices, sustainability, and what kind of machinery they use, what kind of power they’re using, how they can take step-by-step ways to clean things up.”
“Right now, we’re working very closely in Pakistan, for example, with a real Damascus steel maker, he says. “Today, they can only make five or 10 blades at a time. How can they get up to a level of 1,000 blades a day? . . . How do you get ready for a Walmart inspection? Our doors are open to everyone. We don’t hide where we manufacture.”
He adds, “Pakistan is no longer this backward country that does not consider women in their workforce. We documented all the reasons why we work with the factories that we work with, and women were a big part of that documentation.”
Workman had taken a step back from Barebones after the 2015 lighting launch, but returned as CEO in 2019. “I found it was really difficult to be a part-time founder,” says Workman. “We doubled from 2018 to 2019, we doubled again in 2020, and we doubled again in 2021. When I took over, we had 15 employees, and we have 40 now.”
Barebones is a certified B Corporation with five pillars to “help people help themselves,” says Workman. The enterprise works with Tifie Humanitarian, founded by Workman and his wife, to support initiatives around the world.
“Tifie is teaching individuals and families independence through enterprise,” says Workman. “When we design a product, make a product, and sell a product, it’s not just the 40 people that are here. It’s hundreds of other people who are downline or upline that are making a living for their families, and they’re doing it through enterprise.”
Challenges: China’s COVID-19 response has impacted the supply chain, says Workman. “It’s forcing everyone in the world to re-source, and that includes us.”
He adds, “2021 was really easy for us, but now we have 2022, and it almost seems like the world shifted on us very quickly — especially because of uncertainty — and it’s all pining up on you: inflation, Fed rates, geopolitical issues, supply chain. Everything is not working like it used to work.”
“Our biggest challenge is to adjust to what the reality is in today’s environment, not what we wished it would be,” he says. “The only thing that’s consistent is change.”
Opportunities: “Next year, you’re going to see some really cool stuff coming out,” says Workman. “We’re developing a really new cast iron line that has never been done before like we’re doing it. It’s rugged enough for the outdoors, but you would also want it in your very expensive kitchen.”
He also describes a line of hand tools that’s slated for release in 2023: “It’s totally retro, with modern technology to make them,” says Workman.
He highlights a broader opportunity: “Nature is such a beautiful healer. We have to show people how our products will get them in a better place.”
“Even if you only get out and cook on an open fire a couple of times a year, there’s something magical and beautiful about that.”
Needs: “We have to tell our story better, because that’s the only way we’re going to win,” says Workman. “We have to be credible. We have to be transparent.”
He adds, “We need to make sure all of us who work here at Barebones are really bought into why we’re here, they why. We have a great business, we have beautiful products, but I don’t want people here that don’t want to be here. The people that are here, I really need them to understand our real purpose of why we’re here. We’re here to provide a living for not just the people at Barebones. Every time we sell a lantern or an axe or a plate, there’s somebody else on the other side that’s making a living.”