John Merris Is Creating Good
“Reconnect to what matters most.” “Good moments, lasting memories.” “Put smiles on people’s faces.”
Over the years, North Texas-based Solo Brands’ mottos and taglines have undergone a purifying distillation culminating in that simple yet profound two-word compass heading by which the company navigates its way in the marketplace.
Every action the company undertakes, from product development to brand acquisition, is guided by this directive, and it shows.
Having started in 2011 with the launch of a diminutive, lightweight backpacking stove, Solo Brands has grown by leaps and bounds to become a global leader in the outdoor recreation category that now encompasses four brands and is traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange. That’s an eyebrow -raising, soft whistle-inducing set of accomplishments for an eleven-year-old company. However, when you consider the bulk of those feats have been achieved in just the last two years, it’s more of a blown-mind scenario. Their meteoric ascent since early 2021 is the result of a perfect storm of extraordinary innovation, elegant design, thoughtful financial stewardship, and bold leadership.
“Innovation” is not an obvious reply to “campfire” in any word association game. How does one innovate what is perhaps the most atavistic object known to man? For millennia, the campfire and the hearth have been the central gathering place for family and tribe. That’s because the campfire is more than just an object; it is a bonding experience. Our ancestors and their ancestors before them were the faithful congregants at a ritual repeated throughout time immemorial – sitting around a fire, cooking, eating, talking, laughing, praying together. To this day, when we gather with friends and family, the kitchen is where we naturally gravitate because that’s where the “fire” is. The founders of Solo Stove understood that and, incredibly, discovered a way to make that primal activity even better.
The Solo Stove burns cleanly, efficiently, and it looks amazing doing it. The brushed stainless-steel body of the stove is pleasantly attractive in its simplicity. As is so often the case, less is more when it comes to beautiful and functional design. The method by which air is introduced to the fire from the bottom, becomes superheated as it travels upward between the two walls of the stove body, and ignites upon exiting from the top means less smoke in your eyes and more heat distributed evenly among your friends. Backpackers loved it because not only was the first iteration small, but it could also boil water very quickly. After its introduction, it didn’t take long for the Solo Stove to grow in scale and variability until now there are seven sizes from the original Solo Lite to the nearly cathedral-sized family firepit, the Yukon.
In 2018, the founders of Solo Stove went on the hunt for a chief executive who could shepherd the brand to its full potential while at the same time stay true to its foundational principles. Enter John Merris.
Initially a sceptic of campfire innovation, John, a father of five who grew up on a ranch outside of Austin, has seen his fair share of campfires. Upon experiencing the Solo Stove, however, he was “blown away,” happy to put behind him the game of campfire musical chairs we all know and hate. No more shifting between the smoky side and the cold side; the Solo Stove changed the entire campfire experience. Impressed with the product and the company, John came on board, and things began to take off quickly, indeed.
Between 2019 and 2022, Solo Stove became Solo Brands, acquiring three other companies that embody the Solo Brands ethos of creating good. Like a long origami Koi fish, the Oru Kayak folds into the size of a brief case and weighs twenty pounds. It makes accessible the thrill or serenity of kayaking to anyone, regardless of location or transportation restrictions. ISLE stand up paddle boards are beautifully designed and affordable, opening the world of paddle boarding to all. The inflatable boards roll up into a convenient backpack so you can hike into hidden streams and alpine lakes and “walk on water”. Chubbies is a light-hearted and playful apparel brand about which Merris said, “There’s never been another brand I have ever met that has done a better job of putting smiles on people’s faces.”
That Solo Brands not only survived but thrived during and after the pandemic is not a surprise considering the collective craving for travel and discovery that we all seemed to experience following lock down. Isolating made people want to reconnect with each other, with nature, and with the outdoors. Merris said, “When life hits you in the nose, and you have a humbling experience, you go back to basics. After World War II, there was a major outdoor recreation renaissance. I believe we are looking at a similar 10-to-15 year outdoor renaissance. There’s something healing about the outdoors.”
Whether that means kayaking or paddle boarding or simply sitting around a fire with your friends and family, Solo Brands has tapped into the primal drive we all feel to connect with people and with nature.
Merris said, “For us, creating good almost always involves the people and the places we love the most. Our hope is that by doing so [creating good], our customers are inspired to go out and do their own version of good.”
Fresh air, a warm fire, friends, family, laughter, and love. That sounds better than good.