Q&A with Ruffwear President, Will Blount
We had a chance to get some insight from our friend, and longtime OOA member, Will Blount, President of Ruffwear. Take a read, be inspired, and enjoy!
1. Outdoor gear for dogs: How was this idea sparked?
Ruffwear’s journey began in 1992 on a mountain bike ride in California’s Los Padres National Forest. Founder Patrick Kruse was riding with his friend Liz and her dog Moqui, and he noticed her struggling to quench Moqui’s thirst using a water bottle and a plastic bag. Patrick, an inherent dog-lover and problem-solver, went home and came up with a solution by sewing waterproof tent material into the first-ever collapsible dog bowl. Two years later, he took fifteen bowls to the Outdoor Retailer trade show, and Ruffwear was launched as the first outdoor company making gear for dogs.
2. What happened next?
One large outdoor company happened by the booth, placed an order for 8,000 bowls, and the outdoor dog gear market was officially formed. Patrick began operating out of his garage and soon took to the road, attending events and shows to connect with customers directly and find inspiration for additional product ideas. Some of Ruffwear’s earliest product offerings included our Float Coat life jacket, Palisades dog pack, Overcoat jacket, and dog boots. Our product line has expanded over the years, and our designs have evolved as we’ve learned from our experiences and listened to our customers’ feedback. One thing that hasn’t changed is our drive to provide dogs with the gear they need to get outside and explore farther with their humans.
3. What inspires the humans behind Ruffwear?
We’re inspired by our dogs and the outdoor experiences we share together. At our core, we believe that every dog is an explorer. We find joy in their curiosity, boundless energy, and grounding presence. We design gear from a dog’s perspective, with a goal of enhancing and inspiring outdoor adventures for dogs and humans by providing high-quality and well-designed performance gear. We tell stories about dogs and how they shape our lives, offering companionship through life’s ups and downs and inspiring us to be the best version of ourselves. And, here’s a fun fact that you probably could have guessed: Our “office” (currently virtual) has more dogs than humans.
4. How did your business respond to the pandemic?
Our first step, in March 2020, was to protect our employees and their families by closing the office and supporting remote work. From there, our biggest priority was to ensure that we would be able to continue meeting payroll and other expenses to keep our business healthy. Once those immediate needs were met, our approach focused both inwardly, on the health and well-being of our employees, and outwardly, on our relationships with our factory and supply chain partners, retail customers, and end consumers.
We adapted our communications on an almost-weekly (or sometimes daily) basis to keep connecting with our customers in the context of what was happening. We took a similarly fluid approach with our supply chain in order to avoid producing excess inventory that might potentially impact our retail partners or our environment by creating waste.
Internally, we facilitated connection through group online meditation, virtual coffee meet-ups, intentional acts of kindness, and socially distanced gatherings when appropriate. We supported our team with flexibility, open dialogue, frequent communication updates, and resource-sharing.
5. What did you learn?
The pandemic has required us to dig into the very essence of who we are and why we do what we do. As a self-funded company, we have the freedom to explore building products, systems, and structures that are fueled by our passion to be a better corporate citizen to society and our living planet. Key to our approach is building lasting relationships, both with our internal Ruffwear team and with our customers.
Creating meaningful relationships has been at the core of our business approach since the beginning, and in 2020, we became even more aware of how important these connections are. Whether it’s picking up the phone to call a supplier on the other side of the globe, checking in with an employee to see how they’re really doing, or reaching out to a fan to ask if we can share their story, it is these personal interactions that provide the foundation for who we are as a brand and business. We recognize that people, ourselves included, are choosing to support brands that align with their values. We believe that by connecting with our community and business partners through our products, stories, and shared values, we can deliver meaningful experiences that earn brand loyalty.
6. Why does Ruffwear believe it’s important to be a part of OOA?
We believe that it’s important to be involved in the outdoor industry in our state. As part of this coalition, we are able to learn from other outdoor businesses, share ideas, advocate for our industry at the state level, and ultimately help create a viable outdoor economy within Oregon and beyond.
7. What are some of the key things you have learned since you started working at Ruffwear?
Something that has taken me years to fully appreciate, is that my leadership qualities have grown in direct proportion to my journey of self-discovery. When I first started working at Ruffwear in 2001, I was twenty-eight years old, with limited work experience. We had a young team of eight people, and we faced daily challenges as most start-up companies do. Being part of a small company was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. And while I loved the challenge of the dynamic nature of not knowing what to do next, I craved wisdom that always felt just out of reach. This led to a thirst for answers to the unending questions I was faced with. I read one business book after another, and I would attempt to implement what I learned in the books. For example, after reading Good to Great, by Jim Collins, we spent time defining our Hedgehog Concept. After reading The Tipping Point, by Malcome Gladwell, we tried to define who our Connectors were. After reading Drive, by Daniel Pink, we redesigned our compensation strategy.
Eventually, I received feedback from a colleague and good friend that my “book of the month club” approach to strategy formation and leadership was exhausting, because we were constantly shifting approaches. Eventually, I started doing work to get clear about my personality and behavior style. By finding out who I was on a very fundamental level, I discovered a new level of freedom and power. This understanding has been invaluable in helping me explain my needs and preferences more clearly, which in turn helps my colleagues, because I am collaborating with them more consciously.
8. What values does Ruffwear hold as a brand?
Ruffwear’s values flow from our relationships with our dogs, each other, and our planet. At our core, we are explorers, always seeking to expand our horizons. We value curiosity, transparency and open communication, learning by doing, and the creativity that comes from a diverse and inclusive workplace. We believe in working together toward a collective purpose that inspires us as individuals as we seek deeper connections with our dogs, each other, and our natural world.