How Chinese start-up Flextail is looking to take the puff out of hiking with its ultra-lightweight outdoor equipment

How Chinese start-up Flextail is looking to take the puff out of hiking with its ultra-lightweight outdoor equipment

How Chinese start-up Flextail is looking to take the puff out of hiking with its ultra-lightweight outdoor equipment

Flextail has sold more than 2 million Tiny Pumps in over 160 countries since 2018, according to Li Tao, co-founder and chief executive of the Shanghai-based company. It is currently the most popular product of its kind on the US site, according to Best Seller rankings.

But 30 year-old Li and his college associates began their entrepreneurial venture with a focus on backpacks.

A decade ago, there was a limited choice of backpacks in China. Inspired by US online outdoor forums where users shared stories about backpack customisation, Li and his co-founders began to experiment with their own lightweight, customised bags, which attracted attention from Chinese mountaineers and hikers.

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The pivot to electric outdoor equipment arrived a few years later in 2015, Li says.

American camping gear maker Therm-a-Rest made waves with its super-light and portable sleeping pads and popularised the use of such equipment. But blowing them up could be a hassle. This gave Li the idea for new ways to inflate sleeping pads, especially after a hard day of hiking.

“We found out that inflating sleeping pads could be quite a hassle, especially after you have just climbed a mountain,” said Li. “It takes about four or five minutes using your mouth to blow up a sleeping pad, which can be very tiring.”

Flextail launched its Zero Pump line in 2023, calling it the world’s lightest and smallest pump for sleeping pads. Photo: Handout

Drawing on his college studies, specifically turbine engineering, Li co-founded Flextail in 2015, with a focus on making electric devices that can rapidly inflate outdoor equipment, such as sleeping pads.

The company name is derived from Machapuchare, a fishtail-shaped mountain situated in Nepal’s Annapurna massif, where the group had been on an expedition. Machapuchare means fishtail in Nepali.

When the team began to think about electric pumps, they hit upon the similarities with Moore’s Law in the semiconductor industry, according to which the number of transistors on an integrated circuit is predicted to double every two years with a minimal rise in cost.

Flextail had its own Moore’s Law, according to Li, with a target to either halve the size of its pump with no compromise in performance every few years, or to double the performance without increasing the size of the product.

“At the end of the day, an impeller [a driven rotor used to increase pressure and flow] is just a variation of a turbine engine,” said Li.

Flextail has sold more than 2 million units of its Tiny Pump across over 160 nations. Photo: Handout

With this inspiration, the company launched its Max Pump, Tiny Pump and Zero Pump lines in 2016, 2018 and 2023, respectively, with each iteration smaller than the previous product.

The Zero Pump – which weighs 1.2 oz or 34 grams – has been hailed by the company as the world’s smallest and lightest pump for sleeping pads. It can inflate a typical Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad in 50 seconds, compared with 55 seconds for its bulkier predecessors, according to company information.

Flextail has gained traction in major international markets and has raised a total of over 100 million yuan (US$14 million) in venture capital backing. More than 80 per cent of its staff work on product development and supply chain operations, Li said, adding that the company’s research and development spend was 30 million yuan in 2023.

“A lot of the talent we hire have worked in Apple’s supply chain, because we are targeting premium quality consumer electronics,” said Li.

With the growing popularity of outdoor pursuits in China, particularly among the younger generation, Flextail is now targeting the domestic market. It is also branching out into outdoor lighting, mosquito repellents and battery-powered ice makers.

“We want to focus on more ultralight electric outdoor gear … that can fit into a backpack,” said Li. “We want every mountaineer to have a better outdoor experience, with minimum weight to carry.”

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