pnw outdoor entrepreneurs
Words by Claire Holley
The Pacific Northwest is a region as geographically unique as the people living here. A haven for mountain bikers, skiers and snowboarders, windsurfers, rock climbers, hikers and more, it is also the birthplace of some of O2’s favorite outdoor recreation companies. Here, the beautiful outdoors coupled with a strong entrepreneurial spirit has lead to some amazing things. We spoke to the head honchos of three relatively young companies—Hydroflask, KAVU and Metolius—about what has made them so successful and why they love doing what they do in the Pacific Northwest.
KAVU founder and CEO Barry Barr has lived in Washington his entire life. Born in the San Juan Islands, Barr started as a commercial fisherman at age 11. By 17, he was the captain of his own boat, sailing in the Bering Sea, where he says he learned problem-solving techniques that have helped KAVU stay above water.
What inspired you to start KAVU?
While I was [fishing] in Alaska I developed the strap cap. On the boats, your baseball caps come off in the wind. So by using fastening webbing that I had up there — I sewed it with fishing line the first time — you could crank it down enough that it wouldn't come off. And you wouldn’t have to grab your hat with your smelly and bloody gloves. Then I came back, one of the summers and just taught myself how to sew, got some parts, made the hat, and then started finding materials for it and actually getting them made.
I actually already had the name. I had the name before I had the product. I said, ‘I’m gonna start a company, it’s gonna be called KAVU,’ but I didn’t know what it was going to be…And here we are 23 years later.
What is unique about KAVU? What sets it apart from other outdoor brands?
One of the things is that everyone is from Washington who works here. I think everyone was born in Washington. We don’t market the same way, we don’t make products the same way, we’re not trying to be other companies. You know a lot of people say, ‘well, Patagonia is doing this, we better do this.’ We’ve always gone our own way. I always say, if people go left, we’re gonna go right. One of the biggest things we’re selling is Klear Above Visibility Unlimited. It’s that philosophy of ‘you gotta make the most of today.’ It’s what we call a KAVU day.
What does your KAVU day look like?
When I wake up, I always try to decide to make the day important. It doesn’t have to be something extreme by any manner. It’s like, today is gonna matter and I’m gonna make the most of it. Whether it’s going for a great run at lunch, if it’s sitting outside and taking in the moment with friends or family at the end and watching the sunset, and just being so happy. Versus just going through the motions, which a lot of people do and don’t realize.
When people find out [our products] have that kind of feeling behind them, they become more attracted to them I hope. If we can touch those people and get them on board to get into our product, and also like what’s behind it, that’s what’s neat. I think that sets us apart.
Noelle Bali grew up island hopping between Maui and Oahu before moving to Oregon to join the acrobatics and tumbling team at the University of Oregon. Following graduation in 2012, she designed a line of swimwear called KAI NOA, which launched in October. Her purposeful design, hand painted prints, and philanthropic efforts caught O2’s attention for all the right reasons.
Can you explain the vision behind KAI NOA?
KAI NOA is an educational journey. There’s a story behind every cut and line of the swimwear. With every collection there is a specific inspiration. That inspiration more than likely will come from the charity of choice. The whole thing is meant to educate people about the culture of the destination. Everything needs to make sense, and everything needs to be really thoughtful and follow some overall concept. And I’ve been very careful with my line. I just want to tell a story and educate people in the progress.
Where did the inspiration for KAI NOA come from?
I say it’s based out of Hawaii because that’s where all of my inspiration has come from. I spent my entire life there. A lot of my inspiration comes from living right next to the ocean, just romping around and exploring all the time. About a year ago I started to notice this big nomadic revival. You see a lot of people in our generation now very willing to travel, very willing to take risks and explore.
Why do you think KAI NOA is appealing to people?
I hope that people are starting to seek something different. That they’re catching on to the story. KAI NOA is a lifestyle. I want to portray something different. I know people are interested in my line, but I’m getting anxious as I get closer to launching, because I want people to understand the concept. I want them to know my story. KAI NOA is about bridging the gap between the fashion industry and humanitarianism. I like to think that’s part of the reason why people have an interest as well.
How has your time in the Pacific Northwest influenced you and your company?
I have lived in the Pacific Northwest on and off for the last six years. I would say the PNW is a big part of KAI NOA. Maybe half Hawaii and half here. If it wasn't for being here, I wouldn’t be as curious. In the PNW, you have access to everything. I’m an hour away from the ocean, two hours away from the mountain, and a short road trip to anywhere else. Moving to Oregon is what inspired me to get outdoors and explore.
Metolius prides itself on being “safer by design.” CEO and founder Doug Phillips started the company with no real game plan other than providing his fellow climbers with high quality gear they could trust, no matter what the situation.
What inspired you to start Metolius?
Besides needing a job? Well, you used to make a lot of your own gear. When I started climbing, I didn’t know anyone who actually went to the store and bought a harness. You already made quite a bit of the stuff, so it wasn’t that big of a leap. It was really just selling stuff out of the truck in a parking lot, or to friends. It was easier than you would think. Climbing was a lot smaller, and you just knew more people. It was pretty easy to start doing something that was a little bit new and different. People were really receptive to buying things.
How has your climbing experience influenced the way you run your company?
It just goes into everything that we make. It’s a lot more than just me. There’s a core of fifteen or so people who have been here for twenty years or more. It’s really about the group of us. We just sort of learned to work together. It really helps that most of the people are climbers. You just have a better sense of what each piece of equipment really needs to do.
What about the Pacific Northwest?
We wouldn’t really have a company without Smith Rock. There were just a lot of people out there climbing. Way fewer than now, but Smith Rock was really the place where you came together and met the other climbers. That’s where the cutting-edge routes were happening.
What sets Metolius apart from other climbing equipment companies?
We have our fans. [Our equipment] typically ends up being higher quality, higher performance. We really focus on the safety aspect.
Can you talk about the importance of the safety of your products?
A lot of equipment can be designed so if you use it correctly, then you rarely have problems. Where you tend to have problems is when you go outside the lines. That’s really what was behind it. Make the equipment so it works even if you make a mistake. We try to cover all of the bases that we can. Any place that you can clip a carabiner to can actually hold you. You sort of reach this point where you want to go as light as you can, but you want to be responsible at the same time. That’s the balance that we try to hit.
Hydro Flask, born in Bend, Oregon, in 2008, began with a simple vision: save the world from lukewarm. It now seems as if everyone in the outdoor recreation world doesn’t leave the house without theirs—including the O2 staff. Scott Allan, who has been the CEO and President of Hydro Flask since 2012, is a self-described “Bay Area Refugee,” who has lived in Bend for almost 10 years.
How does the Pacific Northwest, or Bend specifically, influence the product and company?
Hydro Flask is really a reflection of the Pacific Northwest, especially of all that Bend has to offer. We have the hot and the cold. People are always outdoors, they’re active. They want cold water, hot coffee, cold beer—and we deliver.
How has Hydro Flask evolved since its inception?
Hydro Flask has come a long way. We started just as a better water bottle. We were selling them at the Portland Saturday Market, trying to convince people to spend $26 on a water bottle. People liked them because they like the idea of having the water stay at the temperature they want. Since then, we’ve grown into more of an active lifestyle brand. We’ve expanded well beyond the Pacific Northwest. We now distribute across the country at stores like Whole Foods and REI. We’ve become associated with the outdoor lifestyle.
What does the future of Hydro Flask look like?
Our purpose is to save the world from lukewarm. Obviously this is literal — hot coffee, cold water, cold beer. But it goes beyond that. It’s the experience people have. We’re saving them from compromise and settling. We apply this to our service, how we partner with retail companies and with distributors. We want to impact consumers on a global basis and bring a smile to their face. The next few years we’ll be expanding our footprint internationally. As we expand, we want to maintain our values and culture, and stay true to the benefits of Pacific Northwest, and that work hard, play hard attitude.