Blazing A Trail

Spencer Holton is a 21-year-old University of Oregon student with a particularly challenging extracurricular activity—acting as founder and CEO of his own start-up company.

By Mai Amalie Bak

Just over a year ago, Spencer Holton was hiking the Clouds Rest Trail in Yosemite National Park with two friends. While taking in the stunning panoramic view at the top, they got to talking about other hikes they would potentially want to do, including the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey of over 2000 miles. They discussed the logistics of long-distance hiking, and Holton’s friend concluded that he would never be able to do it, because there was no one he trusted to store and send the boxes of supplies necessary for such a long expedition. This statement ignited an idea in Holton’s mind that led to the most unconventional, tumultuous, and life-changing year he has experienced.

In April, Holton, now a 21-year-old junior at the University of Oregon, will be the founder and CEO of a start-up company officially supporting its first customers. Trail Supply Co. is a resupply company for long-distance hikers, which promises to “purchase, pack, store, and ship your resupply packages to your exact specifications.” The journey from concept to actualization hasn’t been easy. For Holton, packing the first box will mark a milestone, and the effectuation of an idea he never thought could be a reality.

After his conversation at Clouds Rest, Holton researched and discovered that no existing business offered resupply services to long-distance hikers, and he saw potential in an untapped market. However, he knew that a lot stood in his way. He knew he was young, inexperienced, and without a completed degree. He knew that this isn’t something normal college students do.

Still, he approached a professor at UO’s business school, who encouraged him to enter a business pitch competition. To his own disbelief, he won the competition, including a $1500 cash prize. “I thought, ‘This is great, this is beer money for the weekend, I’m not actually going to start this company,” says Holton with a laugh.

Holton entered and won a few more competitions, leading him to a larger one in May 2016. After an easy winning streak, he lost, and his mindset changed. “Failure made me actually want to do it.”

In the audience of that competition was a representative from RAIN, a local organization that connects entrepreneurs with investors and resources. Despite rarely accepting student entrepreneurs into their program, RAIN has since been Holton’s main source of support in starting his business.

As a member of RAIN’s program, Holton works with a group of selected entrepreneurs, most of whom are in the same position of balancing school and work with the added challenge of starting a business. Despite his age, Holton’s fellow members are consistently impressed by his thoughtful input. One such member, Thomas Blase, attests to Holton’s impressive skill set and contribution to the group. “He’s insightful and mature in his feedback. He earned my respect right off the bat, and he’s only worked to increase that respect,” says Blase.

Through the RAIN network, Holton has been able to bring on two partners, both software developers in their late 30s. Knowing that there are people relying on him is part of what motivates him, especially when he feels like giving up.

“You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, but honestly, passion isn’t enough,” explains Holton. “There will be days when you wake up, and say,‘What am I doing? I’m not going to jump off this cliff today. I just want to go back to being a normal student, a normal 21-year-old.’ But there are people counting on you.”

There are times when Holton is reminded that he is just a 21-year-old, and he credits his friends with forcing him to take time off. His friends support his ambitions, but appreciate the time he spends with them. Jake Smith, who grew up with Holton in Fresno, California, and was his roommate freshman year, says, “He is super busy, but he manages to maintain his relationships with his best friends. He makes time for everyone who’s actually important to him.”

Holton is quick to tell anyone who asks that starting a business in college is a terrible idea. He tells students who ask him for advice to find a stable job—preferably one that offers health insurance.

“It’s really hard. The experience is not fun,” says Holton, the adamance of his statement contradicted by the smile forming on his face. “People equate being an entrepreneur to having a sickness. For some reason, you get it, and you look at things differently, and see opportunities other people don’t see. I really don’t want it. I wish I could cure it,” Holton shrugs and pauses, still smiling, before saying, “But it consumes your life. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it’s still worth it.”