Approaching Zero: How llamas and an international scavenger hunt are paving the way to $0 customer acquisition cost

“It looks like we’ve uncovered something pretty special here.”

Our investors were pouring over site data related to our new experiential marketing event, Questival, a 24-hour outdoor challenge and scavenger hunt. The numbers looked promising in terms of turning Questival participants into Cotopaxi customers. Customer lifetime value, average order value, and repeat purchase probability were all way up, sometimes as much as 20–30%. The conversion on our Questival site was more than four times higher than a typical e-commerce conversion rate. Put simply, it looked like we had blueprinted a way to get customers to pay us to be acquired.

When we found ourselves launching a new direct-to-consumer outdoor brand in a highly saturated market, we knew we needed to build our brand in a way that had never been done before.

The idea for Questival came from a race I had started with a friend in business school. We were students looking for adventure and a way to experience other cultures in a genuine and unique way. We organized an Amazing Race-style scavenger hunt, from Belize to Panama, where teams of four collected points by completing a variety of objectives. The tasks we chose were all about engaging with the local people and culture: crashing a wedding, helping an entrepreneur, or cleaning up a local park. We crossed the borders of all seven Central American countries by foot, all the while experiencing this piece of the world in a new and rich way. The event was a huge success, leaving an indelible mark on every person who participated.

Shortly after finishing my undergrad, I moved into the e-commerce world and launched This was before there was a playbook on how direct-to-consumer brands should use a combination of offline and online to connect with customers. We were one of the first to experiment with taking an online brand offline by selling our branded product through our own physical retail stores around the US. Today, there are many sophisticated brands — Bonobos, Warby Parker, Casper — that are all nailing this hybrid strategy. What e-commerce brands are now beginning to realize is how difficult it is to maintain healthy growth with a purely online focus. There’s a lot of low hanging fruit online, but over time your customer acquisition cost will actually go up, not down. Alternately however, constructing brand-building flagship stores for an early-stage startup is prohibitively expensive.

This was the problem that lead us to Questival. We needed to develop a way to be on the ground, let people touch and feel our products, and get them sharing their experience — all without building a store. We wanted to showcase our two core brand values: adventure and doing good (every Cotopaxi product raises money for humanitarian causes in the developing world). We also wanted to create an experience that was engaging and original enough for people to be willing to pay to participate.

The result was Questival, an epic adventure race that incorporates outdoor exploration, community building, and everything in between. Similar to the original race from my graduate school days, participants earn points by completing various tasks, whether that’s hiking an off-the-grid trail, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or taking a selfie with Cotopaxi’s endearing mascot, a llama.

Our first Questival ended up exceeding all of our expectations. We had 1,400 registered racers and about 5,000 people at the after party. Every racer was outfitted with a Cotopaxi backpack and documented his or her team’s challenges through social media outlets, which ultimately generated more than 30,000 social media posts during the first 24 hours of our brand’s launch. With a single event, millions were exposed to the Cotopaxi brand overnight.

Our goal is to host between 20 and 30 Questivals across North America over the next year. The winning teams from each Questival will represent their city in the Questival World Championship, which will follow the route that started it all from Belize to Panama.

E-commerce 3.0 will be defined by e-commerce brands that create offline and online brand experiences. As founders of e-commerce brands, we need to go beyond simply creating amazing product. We need to forge experiences that will allow consumers to connect intimately with our values. When you build a brand through products and experiences, it will pay off in loyalty, stories, and, ultimately, evangelists.

See you on the trail.