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Interview: Matt Segal on His Life as a Pro Climber and Entrepreneur

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The Boulder-based Matt Segal launched his own coffee company after a decade climbing full-time as a professional athlete.Ian Glass

When Matt Segal, 36, entered his first Youth Nationals competition at age 14, he didn’t have much experience competing. He’d only discovered the sport a year earlier at summer camp in North Carolina. He didn’t really know what he was getting into. “I was the best in Florida, but that’s not much,” he says. Despite his lack of experience, Segal placed third. That led to his first regional sponsors and started a competition career that would eventually lead to World Cups and Sport and Bouldering Nationals events.

Around 2005, Segal’s attention was shifting to the outdoors as his interest in competitions waned. “I was starting to realize that in order for me to do really well at the competitions, I just had to climb inside more,” he says. “I was getting more into outdoor climbing and was less interested in spending more time in the gym. I was a little bit disenchanted.”

When Segal graduated college in 2007, he put his attention toward hard trad climbing, and started climbing full time as a sponsored athlete not long after. He’s since completed 5.14 first ascents and repeated notable routes like Squamish’s notorious Cobra Crack (5.14). Over the next decade he travelled the world and ticked difficult lines.

In 2016 Segal’s career went through another significant shift when he launched the instant coffee company Alpine Start. The brand focused on instant coffee packaged in individual servings so that it could be made easily in camp and on expeditions. This year the brand is pivoting, releasing two new instant coffee and tea drinks via a Kickstarted campaign. The Coffee With Benefits and Matcha With Benefits beverages are supplemented with additional ingredients like reishi mushrooms, lion’s mane, and MCT oil from coconuts.

I spoke to Segal about his journey from pro climber to entrepreneur.

Can you describe Alpine Start?

We’re a premium instant coffee company that was founded in 2016. Previously we had three products: Original Blend, which is a medium roast coffee from Columbia, a dirty chai, and a coffee and creamer. We were all about just making really good tasting instant coffee. Moving forward, launching with our Kickstarter, we’re taking a pretty large pivot. I’d say now we’re kind of rebranding ourselves as adventure-ready goods, starting with our newest products. It’s a Coffee With Benefits and a Matcha With Benefits. They’re an immunity-focused blend of beverages that are created to help you get going.

And when did you start climbing full-time?

From 2005 to 2007, I was really getting into trad climbing. I did the first ascent of the Iron Monkey [in 2006], which is probably the hardest trad route in Eldo, it’s 5.14. And it’s only seen a couple of ascents still. From there, I graduated in 2007 and—honestly, I was kind of just like, “Fuck it,” and I put my life on a credit card and went to Yosemite Valley. It wasn’t until after that trip that I got signed by The North Face and became a professional climber where that’s all I did. [Segal is still sponsored by The North Face]

How long did that continue, where that was your only focus?

From 2007 until 2016 that was my only focus.

What did your life look like during those years?

It was a balance between going on these far-flung crazy expeditions with The North Face, all over the world to Nepal, to China, to Kyrgyzstan, to Crimea… these crazy adventure climbing trips, balanced between trips to the UK to climb on the Gritstone with with Alex Honnold and Kevin Jorgeson, to Squamish repeating the Cobra Crack, to putting up first ascents in Liming, China. Those 10 years, it was a really big balance of trying to push the limits of single-pitch trad climbing and going on these crazy, wild adventures.

A pretty influential thing that happened in my climbing career is, I started going to the Bugaboos with Will Stanhope. There was a Reel Rock about it called Boys in the Bugs. I’d put my focus on trying to free a new line on Snowpatch Spire.

It sounds like you were living the storybook version of what people imagine a pro climbing career to be, jet-setting around and climbing all the time. Is that accurate?

Yeah, for sure. No complaints. I’ve definitely been super lucky to have that. I think for me, I look back and a lot of those years were not super focused. I don’t necessarily regret that. I was like kind of jumping at all the opportunities that were in front of me. And I’m really glad that I did because I don’t know what the future’s going to look like. Especially this year and with COVID—this is the longest I haven’t been on an airplane since I was like 13 years old. I’m like, Wow, I really was fortunate back then.

Part of me did sometimes regret it a little bit. Like I would get back from a crazy, wild adventure and come home so weak, you know, and I’m like, Fuck, I should have been training to do this first ascent that I still haven’t done, things like that. I have some lingering projects because I traveled so much and didn’t focus on training. But I don’t know how else to say it, besides that I feel super privileged and fortunate to have had that opportunity to do that.

When did you decide you wanted to start a business? How did that come about?

That’s kind of funny. The true story of that is, I was in the Bugaboos. Will and I would spend like two months just augured in a tent. And just to be totally honest about the previous comments about that privilege and that luxury… it wasn’t all sweet. Will, and I were changing shit barrels in the Bugaboos to afford camping.

I was in the Bugaboos living in the dirt and feeling like there was a large sacrifice happening. At that same time Will was training to become a mountain guide. I was helping him, you know, practicing rescue stuff and all that. And we’d see these mountain guides that were all friends of ours, trudging in with clients. There’s this glamor of being a mountain guide, but I was like, I don’t know if I really want to do that. But also, nobody’s a professional climber forever.

So it was about that time when I was like, I want to have something else to focus on.

Segal working with the ingredients for Alpine Start’s instant coffee products.Ian Glass

And then what was the impetus for Alpine Start?

I was reading a bunch of books on sociology. In college, I studied Buddhism and psychology, and I knew I didn’t want to do anything in that career world because that would require going back to school. I was reading all these books and just realized that I wanted to try to start something new.

To be totally frank, I was reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell called David and Goliath. Basically it’s all about how you can’t have a David without a Goliath and vice versa. Often the underdogs are the ones that can prevail, as well as the concept that it’s the big guys that create the space for the underdogs to be underdogs and grow. And there I was drinking Starbucks and I was like, I could do this. Why doesn’t somebody make something that tastes better or just as good and is marketed in a way that, you know, is a good brand that helps the outdoor industry and helps the environment.

How did you go about educating yourself about running a business?

I’d gone to Naropa University—which is a super hippie school in Boulder—and studied Buddhism and psychology. I didn’t have the skills to start a business. But what I did is, I surrounded myself with people that had those skills. Alex Hanifin, who co-founded the business with me, she had worked in the food industry for a really long time. We came together as, Alex, someone that had the skills of launching brands and launching new products, and me, who over the years had learned the skills of marketing and the outdoor industry from being a professional athlete.

How did you fund the company in those early days?

In the early days we really bootstrapped it. We each put in a bit of our own money. We had some family members that helped us out to do our first production run. It was under $20,000 or something that we pulled together from our own personal funds basically, and close family. Then when we realized we had a product that was viable, we did a friends and family round and raised it a little bit more money.

We got into some big retailers and that was successful, so we did a more formal fundraising round, where we raised a good chunk of capital that allowed us to create more products and grow and get into more retailers.

What did those early days look like? Were you and Alex making, packaging, and shipping the product yourselves?

We were fortunate enough to be in Boulder. It’s a good place to be in the food industry. There’s a lot of co-packers and people that do that sort of production at a small scale, so we were pretty fortunate to have somebody help us with producing the product. And then after we had it in our hands we spent days and nights putting sticks [Alpine Start’s individually packaged coffee servings] in boxes, and boxes in cases. I would take my scooter and deliver them to the the post office and deliver them to retailers. It was super bootstrapped.

We were working out of a living room, and then we got a really tiny office—probably 8′ x 10′. It was still just two of us. And then from there we grew to an office in South Boulder. And we literally just moved offices for the fourth time and are in East Boulder. Now we have a pretty big space that we’re going to build out.

How did you go about developing the product initially, what did that look like?

It was trying a bunch of really shitty instant coffee. Originally my fantasy was to be able to roast and dehydrate everything on our own. And it was just too much to be able to do that. We did try initially. We tried a ton of different things and the price point was going to be so high. We have some competitors out there that do it, but their price point is way, way higher than ours is—almost double. In the end, we decided to find a partner to help us do that, that we could work closely with to create something that we wanted, that was individual to our taste buds. That took months and months and months of figuring out.

How have your outdoor pursuits influenced the business?

I wanted to make an instant coffee for all the expeditions that I went on. Then in 2017 I was in a really bad paragliding accident. I had months and months of recovery. Mike [Crouch, Alpine Start CEO], knows a lot about medicinal mushrooms, he actually grew up on a mushroom farm. So in that time he started giving me some of these mushroom blends to help me with my recovery and help me with my immunity and cognitive function and, and all these things. And basically we were just like, Oh, cool. Let’s start experimenting with all sorts of different ingredients. You know, like I was putting CBD in my coffee. Eventually we were like, Oh, we should make these products. From there—from me trying these products in my own training and accident recovery—we started making them for my friends.

I made special blends for Cory Richards when he went and tried a new route on Everest, I made custom blends for Adrian Ballinger on a lot of his 8,000-meter peak expeditions. I made one of the first custom blends for Chris Burkard when he traveled to Iceland to compete in a really long bike ride, the Wow Cyclothon.

What’s the workload like these days?

That’s a tough question, it depends. Launching this Kickstarter, it’s been all hands on deck. But I also take off for a month at a time often, or I used to before COVID. It’s a balance of being home and being available and working all the time, And then being like, OK, I’m out. I’m not going to have cell service for a long stint.

Segal shows off Alpine Starts new Coffee With Benefits and Matcha With Benefits.Ian Glass

Nowadays I’m back to training and everything. So I’ll take a day off during the week to go climbing, so I’m not only climbing on the weekends. I’m going to leave work early today to go train. It’s definitely a balance, but I think the biggest thing is making myself more and more available.

And what was Alpine Start’s trajectory after you launched?

We launched in larger retailers in 2016. And then in 2017 we launched two other products, which is a dirty chai and a coffee with creamer. And that was kind of steady rolling. In that time, Alex left the company, which was fine. It was super amicable. That’s when Mike took over as the acting CEO. 2017 was also a notable time as that’s when I had my accident, which was a major shift in how the business was run. I broke about 12 bones in my body. That was unfortunate for my climbing career, but kind of fortunate for the business because I was able to be around a little more after that because it took its toll. It took like two years for me to climb 5.14 again. So I was just around a little bit more. That’s when we came up with the idea for these new products and really started going all in on real R&D for those.

Has it been steady growth since the beginning? Or were there moment where you thought the whole thing was going to go bust?

Last year COVID was horrifying for us. The business turned off. Then it turned on and we had production issues. We had to turn down over $300,000 of orders, which is a lot know for us. I thought we were going to go out. I thought we were going to be done. And it’s still touchy, that’s why we’re launching a Kickstarter.

What were things like before COVID hit?

We were trying to launch these new products, actually. These products were ready by then. And I was entering what I was hoping would be an era where I was going to be spending less time with Alpine Start and more time as a professional athlete. Right then was the time where I was fully healed from my accident. I have some first ascents locally that I have been putting off for a really long time, and I was training and getting really fit for that.

Then COVID hit. And for me, so much of my training nowadays is about balancing everything with my body and the previous ailments that I’ve had from that 2017 accident. Without the gym, it was really hard and, just like with everything that was going on during the pandemic, I wasn’t traveling, I wasn’t climbing as much.

So what does the company look like today?

Literally, we just moved offices. I’m sitting in an empty room. There’s nothing on the walls yet. We still have probably a bit of construction to do, to build it out.

In terms of employees, it’s me and Mike [Crouch], who’s the CEO. We have Andrea Szekely who is sales operations manager. She’s also a sponsored climber, and I’ve known her for a super long time. We have another woman, Gretchen, who does social media. And then my sister does graphic design. We have four full-time people and two part-time.

How would you compare your pro climbing career to your time running a business?

Both have their ups and downs—scary moments, and not so scary moments, and boring moments. What I’ve learned is, at the end of the day you have to be super fired up on what you’re doing. Whether you’re inspired by the pitch that you want to send or the products that you’re trying to sell. And though I wanted to make instant coffee when I started the company, coffees is one of those things that I drink on trips. I don’t drink it all the time. And launching these new products, it’s become something that I’ve been drinking every day for months. To have that enthusiasm behind something that you’ve created is really important and super valuable. In moving forward, it’s almost like the day the Kickstarter launches the company’s getting reborn in some ways. Mike and I are both are super passionate and super proud of what we’ve created.

Does the business fulfill you in ways that climbing doesn’t?

There’s something about getting text messages from your friends, or emails or photos, or seeing it on social media, when they’re like, Just woke up at 3:00 AM to climb and I had a cup of Alpine Start. It’s like, Fuck yeah, that’s cool. Like I’ve created something that’s helping people go on adventures, or just helping people in general. To me, that’s pretty cool.