Q&A with Ethan Whitson, Brandon Hyland and Bailey Kraljic, co-founders of The Guide Network
Ethan Whitson graduated from the University of Denver with a degree in finance in June 2022. His current venture, The Guide Network, has been in the works since 2018. An avid lover of the outdoors, Ethan noticed there was not a comprehensive site that connected fishing guides to their customers. With co-founders Brandon Hyland and Bailey Kraljic he developed a website that consolidates all the tools a guide needs to efficiently run their business.
We sat down with these co-founders to learn more about how The Guide Network got started, how its business model has shifted and what the team has learned along the way.
Where did the idea for The Guide Network come from?
Ethan: The idea came right as I graduated high school. I left to go play baseball in California. When I was there, it seemed impossible to find fishing guides and to meet anyone in the outdoor recreation industry, which I thought was a serious issue. So, I set out on a journey to start this company. That was about five years ago. We tried to do it several different ways. Three or four years ago, Brandon joined my team, and we started developing the website. We worked on it for a really long time. I actually brought the idea to (Daniels College of Business Director of Entrepreneurship) Joshua Ross’s “First Idea to First Dollar Sale” (EVM 3350) class.
We were building the website on WordPress for a while; eventually, we realized we would have to code this whole thing from scratch. So, we set out to find a team of developers. We started coding everything from the ground up. Brandon is actually Bailey’s cousin, he joined us about two years ago and we’ve been with this team ever since.
What does your team dynamic look like? How do your skillsets complement each other?
Ethan: This is our first startup, so we have learned everything as we’ve experienced it. It has been an incredible learning experience. Brandon and Bailey are more on the technical side, and I am on the business side of things. I have a lot of personal experience in this industry. I’ve been in the outdoors my whole life. I grew up fly fishing, skiing and I love to climb. Brandon and Bailey are amazing on the technical side. And through this, they have grown into incredible developers.
Brandon: My background is in both business and computer science. I studied Business at CSU with a concentration in Computer Information Systems. When Ethan and I were starting out in WordPress, I learned some basic coding and custom plugins for that platform. Once we started coding from the ground up, I self-taught things like Python, which is the programming language we use now. Using the business side of my education has been great. I have been able to incorporate that business mentality into the technical work I do.
Bailey: When I joined this team, I had around seven months of school left. I got my degree at CSU in chemical engineering, and I had taken two computer science courses, but both were fairly low-level. Brandon and I both learned how to code through working on this venture, which has been a great experience. I love working on the technical side of things. I am the one who enjoys doing math, dealing with variables, things like that. Any time something gets ugly and “STEM-y”, that’s usually the work I will take on. It works out well for all of us—both Ethan and Brandon are so passionate about the business side, and then Brandon is the glue that connects us. It’s a great mesh, from my perspective.
What obstacles have you faced along the way with this venture, and what lessons have you learned?
Ethan: Failure is a crucial part of entrepreneurship—we’ve moved past even calling it “failure,” because it really is just part of the process. We have made lots of mistakes running this business. I guess the first one was the original business plan. Professor Ross and my time at DU helped me learn how to create a product with your customer. That is probably the best lesson we have learned.
The original business plan was more of a traditional marketplace. We still have a marketplace; however, we quickly learned there was a massive problem within the industry. You cannot just outright sell these trips. They’re a hard sell because the business models are much more complex than a typical business. If you look at another marketplace, like Airbnb, you just need to know when a house is available, or how many rooms are open. But with our marketplace, you have to learn when a large company of 30+ guides and employees are available, what their schedules are, how many different trips they offer. There are a lot of variables.
We also thought reviews would be a great idea. We quickly learned that in the outdoor industry, guides don’t really want reviews because weather plays a big factor. And some days, the fishing is just not great—that can make a good guide look bad in the eyes of the customer. A bad review from an upset customer can really tank future business.
How did you pivot your business model?
Ethan: The outdoor industry as a whole is, from a technical standpoint, very far behind. They are not as excited to implement technology into their businesses. A lot of these businesses still operate off pen and paper, so it has been a massive hurdle just to get them interested in using something like this. But once we worked directly with the guides and developed the product with our target market, we learned they are not interested in selling extra trips. They are much more interested in business management software.
Once we learned that, we shifted focus and went all in on that. That’s just one example of an obstacle we’ve needed to overcome. We spent lots of time on features that didn’t pan out. They have all been great learning experiences, and it has been helpful for shifting how we operate the business.
With recent growth in the Outdoor Recreation industry, are you seeing other websites like yours pop up? What separates The Guide Network from your competitors?
Ethan: One hundred percent, yes. This idea is not a revolutionary one. I think people have been trying for 10+ years to start something like this, but no one has been able to technically execute it. With the marketplace variables I mentioned before, the tech side is very complex. But I think our biggest advantage is our team. We have a great dynamic where I go out and do sales, talk to potential customers and bring them back to meet our team. Brandon gives them a demo of what we have to offer, and then Bailey and Brandon work with them from a technical standpoint to meet the needs of their business. Because we code from scratch, our software’s features are developed specifically for outdoor industry businesses who have unique needs.
Brandon: Like Ethan was saying, it is not a revolutionary idea, but it is extremely difficult to execute when you learn how complicated it is to sell these trips online. There is so much needed behind the scenes, and these guides need a dashboard to power that. A lot of people in the industry are very old school, so when they hear this idea, they kind of see it as you trying to take a dollar from their pocket. But on the flip side, there are a lot of guides that know they have to evolve to stay competitive. They know the technology is coming, and they have to keep up. Many people have told us, “We knew this was coming, but we never knew today was the day,” and things like that.
People are coming around to it, and there are a lot of competitors popping up to get in on this idea. One thing that separates us is, I think, Ethan’s strong background in the outdoors. Bailey and I love the outdoors too—though our passion maybe isn’t as extreme as his—but we want this to be a win-win situation for everyone. We want to create a community in the outdoor industry that makes it easier for guides to run their businesses, to connect with customers, to communicate with each other, and to stay up to date on the industry. We want to promote conservation efforts, and partner with wonderful nonprofits in this space. We don’t just want to be a marketplace or booking software, we want to be part of the community.
Q: Do you have entrepreneurs in your family? Who has helped you learn the skills you need to run this startup?
Bailey: We have gotten a lot of guidance from mentors and professionals. It surprised me how many people have been willing to help us out. We have met all sorts of people across the US, just from trips we’ve taken together. People are out there working these cool jobs and starting their own companies, or others have found success and are retired now. Either way, so many of them are willing to hop on calls and just talk about their experience. It has been an amazing help. I never thought there would be so many people willing to hop on a call and talk business. Whether they’re guides, or investors, or just outdoors enthusiasts who want to see ventures like ours succeed.
Brandon: As far as entrepreneurs in the family, my and Bailey’s grandpa started a software company a long time ago, and my dad started working for him when he was a kid. That has not played a huge role in The Guide Network, but I think it played a role in my interest in tech. When I went to school, I didn’t know if I wanted to study programming exclusively, but I knew I wanted some sort of education in tech. Our family’s experience guided me onto the path that I’m on now with our startup.
What advice would you give to student entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Ethan: To start a business, it seems like there are a ton of barriers to entry. It can feel like this really big mountain you have to climb, and sometimes it can feel impossible. But if you just start working, it can be easier than you thought it would be. Of course, the work can be challenging; but when it’s your passion, it’s also so rewarding. And other people who are passionate, whether they’re mentors or potential customers, will help you out. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It can be an incredible journey, but you have to get started, and you have to be willing to ask for help. So even if you don’t know exactly where to start, just try something.