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Carry Conversations :: GORUCK

by , January 18, 2013

GORUCK is a brand that prides itself on passion and determination – passion for people and top-quality bags combined with a determination to honor people’s support of GORUCK through durable carry that will go the distance and then some. The legendary GR1 rucksack and GORUCK Challenge are just some of the amazing things to have stemmed from GORUCK since it was founded in 2008. We chatted with founders Jason McCarthy and Jack Barley to get more insight on this impressive brand…

Goruck Jack Barley

Can you give us any key insights that guide your products? What do you know that most others haven’t realized?

Jason: To be honest, I don’t know. We’re just doing our own things and leveraging heavily off the military gear that I had when I was in Special Forces and how to sort of transition that to a broader base. That goes to the roots of GORUCK which are I was a Green Beret and Jack was in fashion in New York. You put those two together and what you end up with is GORUCK.

Jack: (Laughs) That’s for sure.

Are there any common mistakes you see in other brands that are driving you crazy? Things that are missing the mark?

Jason: To say that I and we never look at other peoples’ stuff would be incorrect – of course we do – but other brands’ stuff doesn’t guide us at all. It’s more that what I see with other people’s brands is “too much”. I see them telling people what to do with the gear and what we like to do is give people options that are very simple. Let them make it theirs and let them use the gear as they see fit. Really the struggle we have is – and Jack can really attest to it – is that my tendency is always to slash and burn everything that’s not completely necessary. What guides our design process is our collaboration between me and Jack. His background is more aesthetic and mine is more functional but both of us are into simplicity.

Jack: I’ll also talk about – in terms of how we do what we want, we don’t tell our consumer what to do. I mean initially – essentially, we just wanted to make a simple black backpack. We wanted to make a simple black backpack that met certain criteria that we had in mind that we wanted. We kinda let that stay at the core of what we do, and obviously over time that will shift as you see other opportunities. You at one time said in an interview: Less is more, and more is lazy…

Jason: Oh yeah! I’ll say it again for your interview. Less is more, and more is lazy. It still holds true, it will always hold true!

Jack: When we were designing the GR1, we got it about 95% there, and it would have been a good product, but it was getting that last 5%. I’ll never forget Jason came up with that, remember? The last 5%. That’s where all the real focus and attention to detail really came out. We were able to get through the first 95% without too much trouble.

Jason: That was the first year…

Jack: The second year, year and a half was getting it the last 5%. Really sticking to our guns about where we saw it going and getting to that.

Jack cutting materials for GORUCK in Bozeman

Tell us about the GORUCK Challenge. It seems like a big part of your brand. How does that change things, and is it shaping things for the brand because of its success?

Jason: The Challenge and the gear, it’s both GORUCK to me. I think ultimately what GORUCK succeeds at is we’re passionate people. We’re passionate about our gear and we’re passionate about people. That comes through with everything we make – the way we tell the story, the way we give people the “behind the scenes” whenever possible. The greatest extension of that passion and love for people comes through with the Challenge. I can promise you that if I were sitting, and not doing Challenges, GORUCK would not be what it is to me. The reason GORUCK means so much to me is the reaction people have to the message. It’s not just a message of gear because – gear is great, and good gear is great, and you need it. I’ve depended on good gear to save my life, so I understand it. On a personal level, the outreach that the Challenge gives us in such a positive way, it keeps me going and allows us to answer this call for a larger vision of GORUCK, which is to be one of the most respected brands in the world. To do that you have to have people who support you, who believe in you and who want to support the larger message. Part of that larger message is showing people what they can do, bridging the military and the civilian world, and inspiring people.

“We’re just doing our own things and leveraging heavily off the military gear that I had when I was in Special Forces…”

The Challenge does all of that, and it does it everywhere. It’s a really neat event where people learn about themselves, they learn about the military, they learn about why camaraderie in the military is so high. People have taken it, have driven and built the brand of GORUCK. We’ve given them a platform, our message and our values but they have built the brand of GORUCK with their own passion. So, that’s what happened and we are really trying to keep up at this point. That’s been really neat and it’s really encouraging.

Jack: I would say to add to what Jason is saying, the Challenge is more his brainchild. I’m out here in Bozeman but I get back and forth and get to spend some time with the Challenge cadre – hundreds and hundreds of people who have done the challenges. For me, when I started to see the engagement of the Challenge-takers with our brand, it almost raised the stakes and the responsibility of this message Jason’s speaking to – how hard we have to work now to continually maintain and earn their willingness to share themselves with us. That’s a huge responsibility that inspires me every day to stay on point for these people because we’ve earned that from them and we have to keep it and maintain that.


All of your bags are based on the GR1, how many versions did you go through before you settled on its current incarnation?

Jack: A couple. One or two. (laughs)

Jason: 143. (both laugh) It’s tough to answer that question. A series of line sketches became refined sketches, became Illustrator line drawings, became patterns, became prototypes – and this is months and months already at this point. It was back and forth and back and forth. We had a design team lined up, and we ran through our contract with them, and had to get it made to scale. Then we started altering the patterns further when it was made to scale because it wasn’t done. The design team was done, and had fulfilled their obligation to us, and was already working on new business. The place where we scaled it up was also making tinkerings, it was probably 10 prototypes. It’s not like a prototype where you get it and you look at it and it’s like “this needs to look prettier”. It was going through things like the Challenge, it was going through massive stress testing, it was being scrutinized by Green Berets, and all of the above.

“Less is more, and more is lazy.”

Jack: I gave him a strap rip test when he first got here, where you stand on the bag and pull with all your might.

Jason: Yeah. That’s a good one. He does that to brag about his muscle weight currently residing on his arms. He definitely made sure the biceps were in view of the camera!

Strap rip pull test

Okay, so you are focusing heavily on durability. What is the Achilles heel?

Jason: The Achilles heel is that they are not made out of steel. At a certain point, Cordura – we use the best everything but it’s still something that is made by hand. It’s the best, but it’s not steel.

Do you have relationships with other local brands, like Mystery Ranch? You are in the same town, what are your interactions with them?

Jack: We know who Mystery Ranch is and we respect the brand tremendously. I mean it’s really an incredible story, it’s a Montana story – it’s an American story what Dana Gleason has done. I’ll be honest – from my civilian side, I didn’t really know much about them until I got involved with our company and I moved here. Everybody knows Mystery Ranch in Bozeman. We did reach out to him at a certain point because we are making bags. Our brands are very, very different but just to introduce ourselves and listen to him, and listen to his story. He was incredibly gracious and spent time with us and it was really inspiring.

“I can promise you that if I were sitting, and not doing Challenges, GORUCK would not be what it is to me. The reason GORUCK means so much to me is the reaction people have to the message.”

It seems that brands that want to deliver the next level of quality are going directly to consumers to afford it. Any thoughts on this?

Jason: It was born of necessity, really. In 2010, I drove to 48 states trying to visit every retail shop in the country that I thought could support our price point. Keeping in mind, of course, that a single black bag made by a company with a not-established brand gets lost in a sea of other bags. It wasn’t viable in a big box. To be honest, we didn’t have the manufacturing to support that. We didn’t have infrastructure to that scale. Sure, we could have figured it out if we got a large order, but we went around to a lot of smaller shops and the price point was something that people always defaulted to and they just didn’t understand it.

They didn’t understand why something cost so much. Around the time the Challenge was born, “GR1 Explained” happened as well. Those were two important things in the history of GORUCK. The Challenge happened organically the same way the GR1 was built organically and was refined further beyond that. I’m sure the day will come where we go to more retail stores, but right now we don’t need to and, to be honest, we can’t make enough bags to fill our online stuff right now via Challenge growth. We don’t need to focus on retail yet.

Jack sewing

GORUCK patterns

Where is most of your learning happening these days? On the business side? Development of new products? Marketing?

Jason: We’re like Socrates, man, we learn every single day. (laughs) We are getting a lot smarter at operations and all those things because think about it – Jack didn’t know how to sew, he barely does and I don’t know how to sew at all except a ripped uniform or something. We came into this with a vision for a brand, not knowing how to sew. It’s easy for me to communicate the brand, to get out there and talk to people about the bags, my time in the Service and about why GORUCK does the things that it does from a branding perspective to try to bring people together, try to unite the military and the civilian worlds. We had at the time zero experience in operations or in any of those kinds of things so I am sure Robert there, he’s been an enormous asset on that front. On the marketing front, it is about being more than just promoters and becoming actual marketers. That’s happening as we speak. The Challenge started out as a marketing arm for GORUCK and it became its own thing. The marketing arm, in essence, separated from the bag company, at least from an operations standpoint. Putting on an event and making a piece of gear is completely different. That’s where the knowledge comes in; you have to figure out how to sew gear, how to sell events and communicate each of them.

John Franklin (Chief Marketing Officer): From a marketing perspective, a lot of what we are learning on how to get the word out there is, as the audience grows, we are starting to see trends in how our gear is used and why it’s unlike other bags they’ve had and that is kind of like a snowball. We take that and incorporate messages that people have latched onto and have taught us and use that in our own marketing. An example is with our GR2, which is our largest ruck. People love taking it on international trips, taking pictures of it like a travel companion, so that’s guided us a little bit in how we approach marketing that specific bag.

Jack: J (John), remember we bumped into that gentleman on the beach, we bumped into a guy wearing a GORUCK Challenge t-shirt. An incredible guy who is a manager at a Target in Austin, Texas. I’ll never forget, we asked him how he’s doing and he’s like “I am a manager at Target, and I am so blessed to have my job and have my family”. He was chatting with Jason and his wife leaned in to me and said “He thinks when he wears his GR1, he has superpowers”. This is the quality of character who are blessing us with their interest in what we do; it’s pretty neat.

Jason: The other interesting thing with that conversation is, we rolled up and he had our reverse flag zip-hoodie on. John said “Hey man, nice sweatshirt”. He looked back and said “Yeah, did you do it?” Then he saw we had GORUCK (written) on the truck, and he’s like “Oh, I see now”, but think about that man – to him GORUCK is synonymous with the Challenge. People want to talk about things that bring them together, and the Challenge is such a personal experience that people still call (the event) “the GORUCK”.


Goruck GR1

What’s next? Duffle bags? Messengers? Outerwear? New Colors?

Jack: To quote Jason, “More, better, faster, gooder”. We are busy doing all kinds of things. But the process where we conceptualize a future product through the design process to the testing, prototyping, using it in the Challenge, etc. etc., that’s given us a platform where using those guidelines the sky’s the limit for what we are able to make. We feel we can do anything we decide to do; it’s just a question of timing.

Jason: The other thing I always tell Jack is “Hey dude, it’s cool if you just want to rest on your laurels and say GR1’s a great bag; that’s cool with me”. (both laugh)

Jack: It is pretty cool, Jason.

“He thinks when he wears his GR1, he has superpowers”.

One last question, and we’re quoting Jason here: “We have the highest attention to detail in the world, and have the highest quality in the world”. As newcomers in the bag-making world, how have you attained such a high level of production?

Jason: Unrelenting standards and a highly-tuned case of OCD trained by the US Military. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! I’m usually the one doing the traveling to other people’s places, so it’s really cool you came to our place in Bozeman.


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