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Ryan Coulter: “Division is our greatest enemy and the easiest way for us to be controlled”

Division is our greatest enemy and the easiest way for us to be controlled. It’s amazing how similar we are, despite all of our differences. We all need to eat, need love, like to make babies, etc. Kanye goes to the bathroom just like you do. I think that the work around shred empathy that […]

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Division is our greatest enemy and the easiest way for us to be controlled. It’s amazing how similar we are, despite all of our differences. We all need to eat, need love, like to make babies, etc. Kanye goes to the bathroom just like you do. I think that the work around shred empathy that people like Michael Ventura are doing is really important work. We are all humans. We all do human things and have human needs. The sun on your face on a warm summer day with a slight breeze feels amazing to everybody. We are all the same, and we are all in this together. It doesn’t take much work or digging to find the common ground, because we generally have the same goals. We may have different approaches to getting to those goals, and we may have different interpretations of what the obstacles to getting there might be, but in the end we all want the best for our families, friends and communities. We have to be loved, we want to work hard, to enjoy our communities. The more we remember that we are all the same, the better off we will be. I want to see more empathy throughout our world.


As part of my series about the leadership lesson of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Coulter, Founder of The James Brand. Ryan is an award-winning innovation leader, creative director and entrepreneur with more than two decades of experience bringing new products, services and brands to life. Ryan founded the James Brand back in 2011 based on the simple fact that he couldn’t find a knife that he truly wanted to carry everyday. Ryan has spent his career directing innovation programs for major brands including Nike and Burton Snowoards, innovation consultancies such as Ziba Design and JDK Design and start-ups like The James Brand and Uncommon. Ryan has written on design and culture for Core77, Adbusters, EXPN, Frequency Magazine and others. He has taught design and innovation at the Art Institute Portland and at the University of Portland, and has more than 30 patents to his name. He received a B.A. in Industrial Design from Purdue University, and has done course work at the Art Center College of Design and Dartmouth College. Ryan lives with his wife, 2 kids and dog in Portland, Oregon. He’s also a commercially certificated helicopter and airplane pilot, a life-long skateboarder, and snowboarder. He’s worked as a professional backcountry ski guide, and currently ranked 7th in the world in the classic video game “Spy Hunter”.


Thank you so much for joining us Ryan! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It’s really a three part story of growing up in the Midwest, split between a rural and an urban environment, having a career at lifestyle-focus brands like Burton Snowboards and Nike, and last, but not least, being a designer and creative leader. I’ve carried a knife and other tools with me since I was a kid. They helped me do things throughout the day that I wanted or needed to. In more recent times, it was harder for me to find knives and everyday carry gear that spoke to me; there was no brand that I necessarily aligned myself with. I had to shop outside of my channels to find products. Why? Answering that question is the story of The James Brand and what we are trying to do.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Knives seem like they would be easy to make. There aren’t that many parts in there! Our first knife, the Chapter, was a study in simplicity, and as such, it’s total part count was really low. However, when we started working on our first samples we realized we were in trouble. The tolerances were way off. The blade wobbled. It felt like a toy. The tolerances required in making knives makes aerospace tolerances seem big. You are machining things down to thousands of an inch. If you are wrong, the blade may not close. It may not lock. Somebody could actually be hurt. So every part really matters.

I remember at that moment saying to myself “you are in for quite a ride here”. It took us another two years of trying before we had a suitable knife build and into the market.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Learning new things is fun. Building things is fun. It’s all a bit of adventure, and since we were new to this, we were motivated to continue. Nothing good ever comes easy. The fun is in the learning. The fact of the matter is, that when you make something new, you don’t really know where it’s going to take you. For some people that’s terrifying. For entrepreneurs that’s exhilarating.

So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?

Success and failure are both (and always) relative terms, but things are going great so far. We just launched a brand manifesto video that really helps unpack our story, and it has been received very well. If you believe in what you are doing, and you are able to pivot or change when you’ve made bad decisions, you can keep going. You are going to have people that don’t like you or don’t see what you see, and it’s important to engage with them on a human level to find out what they are or aren’t seeing. They aren’t wrong, they just see things differently. But that difference can be important, and it can teach you something. It’s important to listen to the market, even when the voice is negative. But you have to just keep going. Day over day, one step at a time.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we first launched in 2014, I went to the BLADE Show (the world’s biggest knife show) in Atlanta, Georgia. We rented the cheapest table that they had available. I didn’t know anything about the show or the market. I’m different, and the entire company and brand is different from what’s happening in the historic knife market, so I stuck out like a sore thumb. We were in the knife collector area, surrounded by 60+ year old guys and their collections of Civil War era swords, Bowie knives, etc., and here I am with a black tablecloth and these really minimal pocket knives and a video playing on an iPad.

People where like “Son, what are you doing here? You are in the wrong place.” It was funny and very awkward. People ended up being nice and giving me guidance (like telling me where I should get a booth next time). I think it was clear to all parties involved that we were in the wrong place.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I think we are just taking an approach that hasn’t really been taken in this category. The market was focused on two segments: people who hunt and fish and the tactical market. I felt like that was leaving out people like me; people that carried these kind of tools and used them for daily tasks. I don’t think a company existed that really had that point of view and design aesthetic. We felt like the stories of interesting people who use knives and tools on a daily basis would be interesting for our audience.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

You are going to feel the desire (the need) to work all the time. That surely isn’t why you started a company, and that’s not the goal of any job. You must achieve balance: time for yourself to think and rest, time with your family. Time to do the things that give you energy. You have to figure out that balance. Sometimes that means working all night, but it doesn’t mean that very often. Sometimes that means taking off on Thursday because there’s a foot of fresh snow on the mountain. It’s all about balance. Be conservative with your energy, since there will be times when you need all of it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

We struggled hard to figure out how to make really good knives. It’s a true artform, and it is not easy. We were at the end of our rope, but then a friend connected us to a person that I’ll call JF. We were pretty different than JF in a lot of ways, but he had lead innovation and engineering teams at a knife manufacturer and had a TON of tribal knowledge. While we had different aesthetics, he understood what we were trying to do. He gave us professional advice and really helped us out. He was one of the first unlocks. We wouldn’t be here without him. He’s very humble and doesn’t take credit or praise easily, but he didn’t have to help us and he did. I give him a lot of credit for us being where we are.

I would also credit Kirk James, at Cinco Design. Kirk is a friend, and I approached him early on with the idea. He hears wacky ideas all the time, but he listened and really seemed to like this one. We struck a handshake deal to have his team at Cinco help bring the concept to life for little to no initial money. He was our first investor and believer in that way and really helped put meat on the bones for the idea. I give him credit all the time, because when ideas are young and fragile like that it’s hard to see them. You really have to believe in the people (in this case us) as much as the idea itself. He did that.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

There is always more work to be done there, but it a definitive goal to use the company to bring good to the world. The most poignant example for us is in helping our friend and ambassador Paul Hewitt and has family in the U.K. We had just finished shooting some video with Paul and he gave us the message that his amazing son Franck had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Their life immediately changed and they began a long and painful series of hospital treatments and stays. We dedicated some money from sales to Franck (#francksfight) and his challenge, but Paul instead directed the money to the foundation (https://www.grandappeal.org.uk/) that makes sure children have a pleasant stay in the Bristol hospital. Paul and his family are the kind of people that wanted to make sure that other children and their families received the same amazing treatment that they had. This was the first time that somebody in our company family needed help. It was great to engage with our community and be able to help raise money to help other children. That, to me, was using the business for good. We were supporting our community in this way, and that is how it should be.

(Choose) Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)

  1. Embrace the dark side. Hearing from Internet trolls that hate you is a very difficult thing at first. But there are key points in what haters are trying to say. Disregard their method of delivery, but embrace their key points and see what you can learn. Any source of free information is an asset to you. I’ve approached some of these people like real human beings, and I’ve turned them into allies and friends.
  2. You are going to want to quit sometimes; don’t do it. There are days that are dark and scary. They’ll make you want to scrap it all; to run back to corporate “security”. Don’t do it. You gotta keep going. Get some rest. Work on the business (on planning and goals and strategy) instead of in it for a bit. Raise yourself up and get some perspective. Perseverance is one of the most critical skills you need. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And it’s a marathon with no finish line. Sorry/not sorry.
  3. You don’t know where you are going (so don’t pretend like you do). Starting, building and running a company is an adventure. You can’t pretend you know what’s going to happen next. You make a move, and then the market makes a move or the world economy makes a move. And then you make your next move, but you are not in control of all of those factors. Part of what makes the job fun is the surprise. Today (it’s a Saturday) I’m going to give a country music star a tour of our design studio. I didn’t know that I was going to do that yesterday, but that’s great! He was traveling and is a big fan of TJB but TSA took his knife. He was coming to Portland for a concert and ended up finding out that we are based here, so he had his manager reach out to us. I told him that I’d be happy to show him. He gave the company backstage passes, etc. This all happened in the last 12 hours. You can’t predict that kind of stuff, it just happens. That’s what makes it fun.
  4. You will have to make decisions that you do not want to make. You are going to have to fire people. You are going to have to hurt some feelings. Business is not not emotional. That said, you have to do what has to be done. If you don’t, problems arise and fester. Honesty is a primary skill set. Being able to communicate with facts and in a non-emotional way is important. That’s still hard for me. I’m always working on it.
  5. Don’t wait until “the end”. There is no end. Building a business is an on-going process. Milestones are important, but, like in all aspects in life, the journey is the actual destination. Sears is in bankruptcy. Is that a failure? Is that the end? Sears was one of the biggest and most valuable corporations in history. Sears at one point had the tallest building in Chicago (and one of the tallest buildings anywhere). They been up. They’ve been down. They’ve been around forever. So is this “the end”? I doubt it. WIll it continue as a retail store? I doubt it but there is no end, it’s just evolution. Even if Sears completely ceased business today and the name went away it left such an undeniable mark on the world that it’s not really gone. There isn’t an end. It’s all just a journey. It’s better to treat it that way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Division is our greatest enemy and the easiest way for us to be controlled. It’s amazing how similar we are, despite all of our differences. We all need to eat, need love, like to make babies, etc. Kanye goes to the bathroom just like you do. I think that the work around shred empathy that people like Michael Ventura are doing is really important work. We are all humans. We all do human things and have human needs. The sun on your face on a warm summer day with a slight breeze feels amazing to everybody. We are all the same, and we are all in this together. It doesn’t take much work or digging to find the common ground, because we generally have the same goals. We may have different approaches to getting to those goals, and we may have different interpretations of what the obstacles to getting there might be, but in the end we all want the best for our families, friends and communities. We have to be loved, we want to work hard, to enjoy our communities. The more we remember that we are all the same, the better off we will be. I want to see more empathy throughout our world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@thejamesbrand

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ryan-coulter-ab95531/

https://www.facebook.com/coultaire

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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