The Craigslist NYC Ad - 2008
The original idea of creating a personal security consulting service in West Africa died on my plane flight back to America, two years earlier than planned. What lived on was the idea for a bag that you could use in Baghdad or New York City, that would be tough enough for Special Forces, but that I could use in NYC without looking like I was still in the military. GR1 would have to build a bridge between the military world I was coming from, to the civilian world I was in.
I learned pretty quickly that ideas aren’t all that valuable. It’s the execution that’ll test your mettle. I didn’t know how to sew, had no background in manufacturing, and had no idea how to run a business. Most problematically, though, I didn’t even really want to be in business. I never even had a lemonade stand as a kid, and my heart lay with telling America to Send Me where she needed me - the more wartorn the destination, the better. GORUCK became a hobby, something to do. Half reluctantly, I officially formed the company in February of 2008 as a way to catalog expenses, which add up quickly.
And I had to start from a rolodex of nobody to find someone who could build this bag that first lived in my imagination, then as napkin sketches. I tried googling this or that, and eventually found a YouTube video about how to build a backpack. But it didn’t explain how to get one built. Eventually, I placed an ad in CraigsList New York City for a “backpack designer.” A design team, Sky and Trish, living in Montana, had been laid off from their job in New Zealand, and moved back home. They were trolling for work, trying to make ends meet.
It was a stroke of luck that they found me. They turned napkin sketches into reality, and in that process gave me a lesson in manufacturing for dummies. With each successive prototype, we removed the unnecessary features, and increased the bag’s toughness. Less is more, more is lazy became our guiding philosophy, and it still is, to this day. We continued to struggle with the laptop compartment, though, which increased both the time required and the length of time between the prototypes. For six full prototypes and countless components, for all the hours of sketches and line drawings and pattern work, I paid $3,XXX. It should’ve cost 10X that, easy.
By 2010, we had something that could work. I was in my first year of business school, and I had to find a factory that could scale the prototypes Trish and Sky had built. What I found was that it’s a completely different process to scale quality than to create one perfect thing.
I always thought it would be easy to find a place to spend money on building a bag to scale, but was proven wrong. It’s expensive for vendors to take on new work from unproven
clients. They spend a lot of time learning the gear you bring to them, and time is money. If you flake out or can’t scale with them, they’ll end up losing money.
Eventually, though, a shop in Colorado agreed to take the business. It felt like starting over to get them to understand the quality that was in the samples I gave them. It seemed every day, every week, every month, was full of opportunities for me to say a million different ways, usually with a smile, that it’s not good enough.
Meanwhile, a website. We had one, with one black and white picture on it, and a brief story about my time in Special Forces and a guy wearing GR1 in clearly an urban environment. Summer was just around the corner, and I was planning a cross country trip with Java to introduce the brand to small retailers. I figured that would be a lot better way to sell something than to just email them. You know, the personal touch.
But you can’t sell charm alone no matter how charming you think you are, and we were struggling to get GR1 scaled to quality. I knew that my buddies would be taking early versions to war with them, so to me this was a matter of life or death. The prototypes had held up just fine in war, but we needed all of them to hold up just fine, and to thrive. What I found out is that if you hold your line, people will rise to that level, eventually. And so while we saw some aesthetic issues with our first run of bags, the quality was there. I still have mine, they’re thriving.
The next problem became the price point. I was shocked when I saw how much GR1 would cost, us. It seemed crazy, it seemed suicide to have to charge $295 for a backpack. I had no idea what I thought we’d have to charge, but I wanted it to be much less than that.
The first run of bags, at order minimums from the vendor, wiped out every dollar I had. Every dollar I had saved from my deployments in Special Forces. So I went to my step dad, who gave me $150K for inventory and some “operating capital” to help grow the business. He became my partner and advisor from that point on, and owned 20% of GORUCK. Later on, he told me he was sure that he was going to lose his money, but that it was worth it to him, just to support me.
LAUNCHING THE BRAND
So I have boxes and boxes of inventory in the basement of my DC condo, and I have an open summer coming in between years at business school. What I should have done was stay in DC, take pictures and tell stories about the gear - show the world what made us great.
My background is not in retail, or business, or Google adwords or Facebook. My background is in Special Forces, which gave me the skills to understand the difference between good gear and bad gear. Gear that will fail, and gear that will thrive.
So I had a great plan and by great I mean terrible, to visit small men’s shops spread out across all of the lower 48 states. The thinking was that they would buy some, but that if we got in enough stores, it would help us drive awareness to our website, and we’d become a “hot brand.” Or something. I loaded up Java and most of the inventory in the back of the truck and hit the open roads.
The first stop was May 2, 2010 at a Tough Mudder event in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I got a bunch of my old Special Forces buddies to come. We loaded down our GR1’s with bricks and rucked what was being called the “toughest event on the planet.” What was most interesting to me was that people there wanted to join us. To be a part of what we were doing. They wanted to hear our stories at the bonfire the night before and over beers after the event. It felt great to be back to doing something physical again, around great people.
Nobody bought anything, but a seed had been planted to bring people together.
That summer, Java and I drove all over this great country. We met people, we got into adventures. I took a lot of pictures, especially of Java. I hinted at a story on the GORUCK website of open roads and adventure, of the American dream, but I was still hesitant to tell my story at all.
My buddies were using our gear in combat while I was wrapping my head around why I wasn’t preparing to go back to war with them. I missed the camaraderie, the family, the feeling of service.
I didn’t like feeling like a salesman of goods, even though I believed in them. And GORUCK was far from a real business. The summer of 2010 was an unmitigated disaster for all but its natural beauty, of people and places, and the time I had with Java. As I returned back to DC for my second and final year of business school, I had more doubts than answers.