It can be said that every industry goes through its ebbs and flows, as product trends come and go, and new players burst on to the scene, bringing with them innovative ideas that elevate the mindset of what's achievable and redefine the status quo.
The outdoor industry has been growing the last few years, and many brands (both heritage and newcomers) have been pushing products in new directions – going after function and fashion, which in many cases, hadn't been thought about before.
Enter an all-star team with experience launching some brands you may have heard of – Poler, Field Notes, Coal Headwear, Union Bindings and Finex – and the result is new brand, MUUL.
The start-up just successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign for its very first product, The Ruckbucket – a 5-gallon pack that's part-backpack, part-cooler and part indestructible bucket. And now MUUL's founders are ready for what's next: Continuing to build outdoor products that are for everyone to use in real life situations, that stand up to all types of every day adventures – and not just the idealistic (and often unattainable) Instagram-feed types.
We wanted to hear more about the what MUUL is all about and where they're headed, so we asked the founders: Kharma Vella (formerly of Poler), Finex founder Mike Whitehead, Field Notes co-founder Aaron Draplin and photographer Ray Gordon weigh in.
How did the four of you get together to form this new product concept and brand idea? How long has the MUUL Ruckbucket been in the works?
Mike: Everything is pretty much my fault – I'm a dog with a bone. I had an idea for a bucket backpack and joined forces with Kharma. He built a few prototypes and everybody loved them. I'm buddies with Aaron Draplin from starting FINEX Cast Iron Cookware in 2012. Kharma is friends with Ray Gordon from the neighborhood and we all meet at Portland's last legitimate surviving dive bar diner for breakfast occasionally. I like to dare my buddies to try shit and soon they wake up and realize they just started another brand.
Kharma: Like Mike said, it's his fault for sure. I was doing the freelance thing after Poler and was pretty happy about it. I got to pick and choose jobs and had tons of free time. Then I got a call from Mike. He said he had an idea for a new company with Draplin and needed a product guy. I didn't even have to think about it.
Aaron: More and more, I just want to work with my buddies. So I begged them to give me a shot in the graphic department. So far, so good.
Ray: We're ultimately friends. I've known these guys forever. We like to get together and talk shit and listen to Aaron’s stories. We all get together for a weekly breakfast at this Portland dive bar, where you can still get a $6 breakfast. That's where I first heard about the Ruckbucket idea. Not soon after, Mike and Kharma got a prototype together and asked me to help with creative direction and creating content. I knew instantly that I wanted in on this super group. I really have a blast working with Aaron, Kharma and Mike! Total kooks.
What was the inspiration for starting this new brand?
Mike: We think extreme action sports are getting pretty played out and favor a freestyle approach with fewer rules and structure, whether it's moto or fishing or snow sports. We also think a ton of the gear out there is too specialized and fragile, while decently priced gear is under-designed and poorly made. We love ultra-rugged gear that’s versatile enough to pull its weight at a job site and a camp site. We couldn't find what we were looking for so we launched MUUL.
Aaron: I love that my coolest buddies in Portland are going to love this bag, and so are my coolest buddies in Michigan. And those are two different worlds each their own. This thing works, and that translates to so many kinds of people.
Kharma: Man that's a tough one. I get my inspiration from my surroundings, obviously; I guess most people do that [laughs]. The main inspiration for me was bringing some structure into bags. I wanted something you could use as a chair when you got to your zone. Something that was protective as well as something that could carry messy wet shit – I guess the versatility of it all. At first I thought it was a little zany but the more I used it the more I really liked it. It just works so well for so many different applications.
Ray: We always said that MUUL was going to be a brand "for the rest of us," meaning that we wanted to reach regular Joe's like us. There isn't some over-inspired mission statement. We want to create and make cool stuff that regular, hard-working people can afford and actually use in real life – real life shit that you don't have to rob a bank to own.
In our opinion, there’s far too much over-inspired, b.s., outdoor brand visual nonsense going on right now. Everyone seems to have drank the same Kool Aid. We wanted to create a brand that was grounded in everyday reality. We're not interested in creating the fantasy of what you could do with the Ruckbucket. We're interested in seeing what you do with Ruckbucket. Work? Play? Outdoor? Sport? Travel? Life? The possibilities are endless.
In addition to the Ruckbucket, should we expect to see additional product offerings from MUUL? What is the brand’s mission statement?
Mike: Our mission statement is to get MUUL off the ground. Seriously though our mission is to build ultra-rugged products for outdoor recreation and brutal work environments. We want outdoor gear that works harder and great work gear for crappy conditions.
Kharma: Yes. The RuckBucket is just a concession stand at the main event. Our product roadmap is long.
Ray: That is what’s so exciting. By backing The Ruckbucket on Kickstater, you are actually helping start a brand that is going to make all kinds of cool shit that you'll actually use.
What knowledge did each of you bring to the table from your previous and/or current roles in the outdoor industry?
Mike: You can't spit in Portland, Oregon, without hitting someone in the outdoor industry. Kharma has the deepest outdoor cred and is usually the most likable, too. I have an engineering background and am part redneck entrepreneur. Ray has worked behind the camera for several national outdoor brands and Aaron considers himself unemployable but seems to have a pretty good gig making graphics.
Aaron: I love starting brands from the ground up, and my favorite? Doing it with buddies. When I got to help birth Coal Headwear, Union Bindings and Snowboard Magazine, each were so raw and challenging. We're tapping into the same spirit here – for us, by us. That's pretty contagious stuff! Watching Kharma bring up Poler with his friends and then have the opportunity to help Mike on the graphics of Finex, I'm equally a fan of these guys, and, a buddy who'd be on the same chairlift.
Kharma: I hope I bring some sort of wisdom from the past opportunities I've been involved in. I learned a lot with Poler of course – a lot of what to do and what not to do. I learned a lot about trust and how quickly shit changes. I hope I bring more to the table than my Rolodex and sourcing knowledge… I do think that we all have a keen bullshit detector, especially Ray.
Ray: I've been working in big advertising for 20-plus years. I've been really fortunate to work alongside some really brilliant minds on some cool campaigns. I've learned a lot over the years. One of the most important things is to be brave and stand up for yourself, follow your gut, make cool shit and fight for it all the way. I would completely feel safe in a fox hole with every single one of these guys.
Kharma, you helped found Poler – a brand that has seen success in the outdoor market with a younger demo. From your perspective, does this product speak to that same audience? Why or why not, and was that intentional when creating it?
Kharma: I think it appeals to a wide demographic. Not just age really, I think it appeals to anyone that uses a bag and goes outside. Like I mentioned earlier, the more I use it the better it gets. I find new ways to use it every day and have made it my daily carry. The intention was to make a structural bag that could be used in a ton of different ways, but also keep it as simple as possible. I think we achieved just that and kept the price point at a good spot.
Mike: MUUL and the products it creates will definitely be useful to those kids but we aren't really aiming for them. We are really interested in less irony and more iron and gasoline than that demographic usually goes for.
Ray: This product is for everyone. Plain and simple.
What lessons have you taken away about getting a brand off the ground in the current economy? In hindsight, what will you do differently with MUUL?
Mike: Starting a brand is crazy hard. It takes hard work, luck and then more hard work. The current economy is really good but we are happy we aren't creating a super snooty brand that isn't accessible to people who work for a living.
Kharma: [Laughs] …Not sure I can divulge that info. Honestly, Poler ended up being a painful event that I've spent time putting behind me. But I will say, we have already done quite a bit differently. My life motto, if that's what you want to call it, is don't burn one damn bridge, ever. You never know when that bridge is going to come back in your life and you're going to need it.
There are ups and down, highs and lows. Sometimes you feel like you are on top of the world and sometimes you feel low as can be. And regardless where you are, the more friends and love you have, the better. When I was done at Poler some of my tightest friends at that time slowly bailed. I didn't think much of it at the time, I know how it goes. But when we launched this Kickstarter so many of them came out to support it, many that I hadn't spoke with in years. It was really f*#%ing emotional for me.
Now that the Kickstarter campaign has been funded, will this product be offered only as direct-to-consumer or do you foresee it being carried at retailers? What about with future products?
Mike: We'll sell on our own site and at a few select retailers that we like. We may do some fun collabs, too.
Kharma: We have some things in the works for sure. One of the partners and our CEO, Brad Gleeson, has deep connections with a few of the retailers we want to role with. And without giving too much away, our retail plan is broad.
On that same note, what are your thoughts about the state of retail at the moment and how has that influenced your path for MUUL?
Mike: Retail is brutal right now, but retail brands with the right focus are doing just fine. We intend to reach most of our customers online and at events but the right store location wouldn't be out of the question at some point.
Kharma: Exactly what Mike said. If you have common sense and are humble with your brand, you will do fine. The brands that think their shit doesn't stink and that they invent/reinvent shit, usually go down in flames. Maybe it's a slow burn, but they end up dust, at some liquidation mart or licensed to some whack conglomerate company.
I got a design patent on the Poler Napsack, but I didn't think I invented the damn sleeping bag.
I just want to keep the brand honest and fun, and not take ourselves too seriously. I honestly want to blow Muul up and take over a few market segments that I think are controlled by kooky-ass companies that were just in the right place at the right time. I won't name names but man there is some goofy shit out there right now [laughs]. But I guess we did put just put a bucket in a backpack…
Any final words you’d like to add?
Mike: I know we make them but listen – the RuckBucket is crazy useful. You won't regret having one anywhere!
Kharma: It is so useful. And this is just the beginning for MUUL.
Ray: I am super stoked for the future of MUUL and damn proud to be a part of it. I'm really excited to work with my friends, film everything and bring you great stories!
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