The James Brand: Fusing style, ethos and distinction

It's called The James Brand for a reason. That’s what founder Ryan Coulter tells me, anyway. We’re talking about the brand – where it started, what the journey has been like, and what the future has in store.

The conversation started when a press release went out announcing that Mike Hoefer was joining the James team. We all thought it would be great to dive a little deeper into the topic, and a phone interview was scheduled.

Mike Hoefer joins the James Brand, bringing years of industry experience to his new role. Photo: The James Brand

What started off as a typical conversation quickly evolved into one that encompasses both the masterminds behind the brand, as well as the brand ethos itself. We’d talked for the better part of an hour, when the conversation somehow came full circle.

What does the name mean? Well, Coulter explains, a couple things.

“There is no real person that has the name James, but when we were doing the work on this, we were looking at our views, and who we believe is the person that we wanted to design product for. We were orbiting around three different people: James Bond, James Dean, and James Cooke, who discovered the Hawaiian islands. All these debonair, suave adventurers from different eras, who definitely need a knife, but one that works in a tuxedo and in a gun fight. James, really, is the name of this kind of made-up, multi-faceted, outdoor adventurer person. And the reason it's James is it's a little more formal— someone who demands the respect of being called 'James.'

What follows is the rest of Transworld Business’s conversation with Hoefer and Coulter.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on joining the team, Mike. What are you bringing to your role with the James Brand?

Mike: I want to leverage my experience, having 16 years at Nixon, Director of NA Sales for Salomon Snowboards before that, and then ran a sales agency on the East Coast for Burton and Arnette. I want to take that experience and assist the team in making the best decisions, keeping the brand as disciplined to what it’s built and meant to be, and keep the team’s confidence going.

The James Brand focuses on quality, and spent years in brand development before launching a product. Photo: The James Brand

Do you think you're bringing your experience to a brand that may not have had that leadership?

Mike: I think there's such a great foundation already put in place, and it just needs a little bit of fuel, a little bit of focus. I think that's got to come from the CEO perspective, and the leadership team. Aside from that, it's just bringing what the James Brand has to the market, and bringing it globally.

Small companies make quick, rash decisions, and they don't often have the discipline to sit still and think "Okay, what's right for the brand?" And that's where I want to take my experience and say "You know, we tried it that way, but it really works better this way. Let's go to option two.”

How did you all get connected?

Ryan: [laughs] We've known each other a long time, and we have a lot of mutual connections. We were both in NYC, and a mutual acquaintance told us we should meet, so I took an Uber downtown and met Mike for a beer, and talked him through what we were doing, and he kind of looked at me like I was crazy, and then we left.

I think the idea was planted in Mike's head at that point, and was germinating and growing, and every time we talked after that, Mike had a point of view on things, and was clearly looking at the market, and had ideas. That was about a year ago. Between then and now, we've been slowly coming up with a way to work together.

The James Brand logo is a modern interpretation of the Clovis Point, one of mankind’s first tools. Photo: The James Brand

What are you goals together, cohesively, with Mike's input and the brand ethos? Do you have a plan for what's next for the brand?

Ryan: I think we've built a really nice base; the brand and the product is very solid, but we haven't really fueled its growth, at all. We never had much of a sales plan, and we never had too much of an operating plan – it was always "Build it, and they will come." And so we built it. But we haven’t been highly strategic in our sales, and marketing and ops, and there hasn't been much financial discipline, and that's where Mike is such an asset.

Mike: When Ryan first showed me the brand, I said to myself, "I have five or six knives at home, but they sit in a drawer next to some watches and sunglasses— they’re not a regular piece that I put in my pocket.” And he said to me, "I was the same way, so I built a knife I was proud to carry.” That's where it really started making sense. I looked at the market a little deeper, and I started getting excited as I began understanding the whole "everyday carry" market.

From a distribution standpoint with James Brand, we have the ability to select the best outdoor, the best streetwear, the best high-fashion accounts while staying disciplined enough to exclusively send product where it is best represented. We want to elevate the classically tactile knife to be recognizable, yet functional. With each piece, people should be able to look at the user’s pocket and say, "What have you got in there? Is that a James?"

The inspiration behind the product. Photo: The James Brand

Do you have plans to go beyond knives, and differentiate product? 

Mike: Besides self-driving cars, we can't talk about the other ones. We are looking at products, and again, I think you can probably figure things out, but the idea is that "Let's really think holistically about the pocket," and what you're carrying. How do we keep that person very prepared, very ready?

Will you place any focus on women's knives, or women's specific products? Maybe that's an even more untapped market within this market?

Ryan: We would love to be able to do that. I think that market in particular has been neglected by the sort of historic knife industry. If you look around at a lot of the people that we know, and that we hang out with, there are tons of women who are charging, and who are out adventuring, who have knives, and use knives, but no one has ever really spoken to them.

I really hope that our brand will be a brand that speaks to women, and that is absolutely invitational to women. I feel like women have an even harder time than men do in trying to find the right brand or product in this space. I want to make sure we are the brand that is invitational to women, and speaks to women. It's on our map for sure.

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