Interview: Dana Gleason of Mystery Ranch

"When what you do actually matters for a large group of people you respect, it's so addictive."

Dana Gleason, the designer behind self-titled backpack label Dana Design—a brand that ruled the outdoor pack market during the ’90s—has always found solid ground in individuality. Mystery Ranch, founded in 2000, is his second label alongside long-time business partner Renee Sippel-Baker. Though the brand was founded nearly two decades ago, its more recently-acquired popularity in the mainstream market seemed to unfurl quite suddenly.

Mystery Ranch began by designing and selling packs in the outdoor retail space. When they were approached by the Navy SEALs for custom packs in 2004 they shifted primarily to servicing the Military, Law Enforcement Agencies and Wildland/Hotshot Firefighters; their roots are still clearly defined and this is visible on their site through product lines: Military, Fire, Mountain and Hunting. The technical specs of packs like the 3 Day Assault BVS (which was originally designed for the United States military) bleed into commuter packs like the Urban Assault with ease. Part of that is understanding the consumer; another is understanding the product and having unwavering faith in it.

Earlier this month, Gleason and I spoke about Mystery Ranch, Dana Design, and how longstanding relationships and sudden demand, especially in unexpected markets, differ.

I’m curious to know what motivates you. It doesn’t seem like you’re kicking back. You’re putting everything you have into continuing to make the best bags.

We were at a point in time where I was trying to build a line that would work really well with hardcore specialty dealers that were willing to provide service. At that same time, the hardcore specialty dealers were getting utterly freaked out about the reality of eBay.

It is something that really disrupted the model that we had started up with Dana Design. And, as it turns out, we needed to find some people who need what we do—which is very reliably let people carry whatever kind of load they’re going to need for what they’re doing in the field. That turned out to not be the outdoor industry as we knew it very early on.

One of the most delightful moments in the whole process is when I’m looking at something that I never would have done. But, it’s done beautifully and it just tickles me to no end.

So we had to start thinking about Plan B. We also had virtually every dealer telling us nobody would ever pay $300 for a pack again, and to get our prices way down. We ended up producing in China for a full year, and it pretty much shut down our own production. That was a nightmare. Just a damn nightmare.

Then we had the opportunity to start doing some substantial stuff that had real demand—initially with the SEALs and then on to some other groups within Special Operations Command. It was a brief refresher; we were back in control of building great stuff for demanding users. And then we disappeared for eight years, right down that rabbit hole of trying to build stuff to sell through the different shops. We ended up doing a lot of stuff for what we now call the mission side, both the military and wildland firefighters. And it’s interesting to note during those years, we disappeared but the company got much bigger than Dana Design had peaked at. So we’re doing something right.

In terms of the design process, obviously, you’re thinking about a different user and different uses each time. Are there things that you learned when you started down that path for those customers, for those contracts?

The things we learned, we’re now applying across the board. Early on in the military side, they had alluded to the fact that the gear they regularly issued in the US sucks. There was a real movement to start using gear derived from the outdoors side of things. As a matter of fact, the Marine Corps ended up adopting our product. It’s a good path.

If a piece of equipment doesn’t work properly for a Marine, the nicest thing he might say is, ‘it sucks’ and then he will proceed to use it in a way the designer had nightmares about.

For my stuff at Special Operations Command, there was a little more patience and a little more exposure to true outdoor gear. They were doing longer range things that had reference to what we were doing with backpacking but the basic needs were still required—pretty much shorter, fatter packs that make it easy to get to any point of your load. Something that nobody really took into account with the Marine Corps experience was that everybody’s wearing body armor.

We were able to design some features that let the pack carry better on armor without rolling around on the wearer’s back. We’re still to this day about the only people that pay attention to the ergonomics of body armor and the load bearing interface. It gave us some opportunities to simply find ways to make the whole process less horrible.

I’d be curious to hear about whether or not the design process has changed over the years as new innovations in technology became available. 

Certainly for the process itself, it is computer aided design these days. When you look at the workstation of one of our designers or developers, we’re running a full program; there are two enormous screens facing the user. In some cases we’re using a tablet, or something equivalent, for doing some of the more freehand elements.

I don’t really know of any place where the design folks have such a clear understanding of production—in addition to having some really cool vision in terms of what they’re building.

But 90 degrees from that computer workstation, there’s a sewing machine and all of our designers still sew their own prototypes. I don’t really know of any place where the design folks have such a clear understanding of production—in addition to having some really cool vision in terms of what they’re building.

How would you describe the way you lead this design team?

I set the parameters. I set the expectations of how we do these things. And then as much as possible, I sit back. I am not touching these things on a daily basis. These folks know what is expected. They also know that we’re hoping for moments of brilliance. And, that we’re looking to broaden, not just the utility of what we do, but to make a certain amount of stuff that just looks beautiful. One of the most delightful moments in the whole process is when I’m looking at something that I never would have done. But, it’s done beautifully and it just tickles me to no end.

Where does the name come from? Mystery Ranch?

I wish I had a more uplifting and intelligent answer. After Renee and I had sold Dana Design, for the first time in many years we did not have a company that was ours. So we decided to simply set up a shell corporation just in case. I didn’t know what we would do with it. But it needed to be done. So we had to call it something.

When I was growing up in the late ’50s, we had three TV stations. They were cutting together old serials from the ’30s and the ’40s. There was this cult film, and there were goofy science fiction things, and there was this one with an actor by the name of Buster Crabbe. They went out and during the week they would be driving cattle and solving crime on the prairie. On the weekend they would get back to the ranch. Strangely enough, everybody either sang or played a musical instrument and they had a freakin’ radio station. They would put out dance music on the weekends. In actuality, it’s kind of like the electronic scene these days but on there it was called the Radio Ranch.

I had a number of people who are going, ‘It’s a terrible name,’ ‘It doesn’t say anything about what we do.’

I thought of this briefly, and I laughed out loud. And thought no, it’s Mystery Ranch. Mystery Ranch turned out to be a great name for what we do. But for the first decade I had a huge amount of static from inside the company because I had a number of people who are going, “It’s a terrible name,” “It doesn’t say anything about what we do.” They would have rather called it Bozeman Backpack Company or Montana Mountain Works.

But it creates intrigue and it’s open-ended. It’s a good story, too. Let’s talk about the Harajuku store. I was in Tokyo in July, and I saw there was a Mystery Ranch. I went in and was really excited about all the new colorways that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. At first, I thought I was out of the loop on what the brand was doing. But, I would learn later that these were all special project items. 

That’s when I became fascinated with the way the brand embraced the Japanese market, recognizing that there was a cult following and doing some special things only for those customers. When I was there, the store was packed, and the consumers were super-engaged. 

What they in general wanted was something that we’ve made in the US—preferably here at the Bozeman plant. We end up doing a fair number of prototypes, and that’s really cool. But, prototypes to either be stored in a 40-foot container and get all musty or to be sold as some sort of giveaway garage sale. The fact of the matter is, that store ends up with a better representation of everything that we do at the Ranch than anyplace else in the solar system.

It is a good thing, at least from my own energy standpoint. In terms of brand building and the energy and it just being something special, it’s awesome. We wouldn’t be in that side of the business if we hadn’t engaged.

The odd thing is, in 2010, when this whole process kind of condensed and we ended up becoming a mission-based company, out of the blue we had a group of Japanese buyers turn up. And they bought the showroom out to the walls and disappeared. The next time it happened—about a month and a half later—they were asking about T-shirts and other things. And we could only sell them prototypes.

It was at that point I knew something weird was going on. So I went to Japan, and I’m on the train to the central station in Tokyo. I come up out of the subway and look left. There’s a hipster looking guy with kind of neat pants on and a ponytail and a really scraggly beard. He rides by with a 3-Day Assault pack on. I’m not even five minutes on the streets of Tokyo, and I’m seeing my stuff.

Once I understood that it was select shops selling our stuff, I talked with some of the folks who were desperate for me to start selling directly to them because they were essentially buying the packs retail and then marking them up 300%. So our 3-Day Assault pack was just under $900 there.

We knew that it was a short term. So we stopped selling to Japanese buyers in Bozeman. We started routing through a distributor. And these select shops cooled on it a little bit. But we had already had enough heat within the marketplace that when the packs started showing up in Tokyo at a number of the department stores and a few of the outdoor stores it kicked off again.

But believe me, sense of creativity and, frankly, humor also enter into it.

But you clearly care about all of the bags you make.

Virtually everybody in our product development section came up off the floor. You’re encouraged to build a pack for yourself or you can buy materials at dead costs for building stuff for your family members. We don’t want people reselling the gear but [when we offered the opportunity] folks started to use modern colors, another would start making little detail changes. In some cases they would combine two or three different packs’ features. It turned out certain people couldn’t not modify things and really think about it and take it further. That gave us a very fertile group of people to start drawing from as we needed to design and produce more, different variants. It’s good that we have an absolute bedrock series of designs that are examples for how functional something needs to be. But believe me, sense of creativity and, frankly, humor also enter into it.

It’s so important to fuel that creativity, experimentation and the search for new and different ways of doing things. It’s an apprenticeship kind of philosophy. People starting on the selling floor and really understanding what makes the product so unique and so robust is the best way to become intimate with it and then develop ideas for how to evolve it.

Oh, yeah. The other thing that adds to how we do things is having customers with difficult problems that we need to solve. A lot of this comes over from the military and the firefighting side of things that I have developed to deal with extremely difficult tactical problems. In many cases, I have been able to mutate something over a few years time and turn it into something that makes for a delightful change of pace.

When what you do actually matters for a large group of people you respect, it’s so addictive. There’s nothing like it. It’s a great life.

To see that point of view or perspective lead to success is really amazing. I feel like you’re running your company the way you want and not necessarily just doing what the market demands.

Obviously, you’re a business person, you pay attention to what the market needs, but it feels like you really are still operating from a place of passion—which is so important and so rare.

It is, and it’s a huge luxury to have in one’s life. To know that what you’re doing actually matters to an awful lot of the folks who are able to use the gear—and that isn’t just the military. The firefighters are awesome. We get visits. We get hotshot crews that stop in here throughout the fire season a couple of times a week because they see the sign on the side of our building from the highway and go, “oh, oh, that’s Mystery Ranch. Let’s go there.”

To even know that you’re making a difference there lights all of us here at the Ranch. We’re working hard but when what you do actually matters for a large group of people you respect, it’s so addictive. There’s nothing like it. It’s a great life.

Images courtesy of Mystery Ranch