As you may have heard, John Bresee, Backcountry’s co-founder, passed away on June 29. We wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate the adventures and accomplishments that shaped his vibrant life. There’s no one better to do that than his lifelong friend and Backcountry co-founder Jim Holland. Here’s Jim’s tribute to John’s entrepreneurial spirit, zeal for adventure, and role in shaping Backcountry.
When John and I first met in fifth grade in Norwich, Vermont, little did we know that our paths would intertwine for over four decades to come.
When I think back over the years, it’s a miracle that we survived high school. After getting our learner’s permits, John and I both drove as fast as humanly possible given the parameters of our parents’ cars, only stopping for signage if the local cop was in sight. John’s love of adrenaline translated to a fixation on cars and motorcycles. He collected them, and retired them almost as fast. Over the course of his life, John piled up over a dozen cars and motorcycles and somehow emerged with little more than a broken nose and a lot of road rash.
Throughout our lives, John and I remained good friends. Our bond miraculously survived being roommates, when we were widely referred to as “the odd couple.” In fact, I considered borrowing my father’s pitchfork at one point to shovel John’s crap back into his room. But they say messiness is a trait that often aligns with creativity. John had vision and our differences turned out to be a great asset when we started a business together.
Utah drew us both in like a tractor beam. It was like Vermont on steroids—bigger mountains, deeper snow, desert, rock, trails, rivers, canyons and endless corners. The open expanse felt liberating and invigorating—the possibilities felt endless.
After college, John got his adrenaline fix at Snowbird, where he applied his college degree to secure a job as a dishwasher (it came with a ski pass!). In his heyday as a ski bum, the snow was crazy deep and John skied every day, earning the nickname of “The Rhino” for his tendency to charge through the down feathers, unperturbed by trees, rocks, or other skiers. As for me, I found my fix ski jumping at the Utah Sports Park.
Fast forward a couple of years. I had retired as a competitive ski jumper and was contemplating what was next. John had found a new source of adrenaline: the startup. He was eating ramen and living on the edge of poverty. But he was his own boss and passionate about what he was doing. He and another friend from Vermont had created The Wasatch Canyon Reporter, a free newspaper available at coffee shops that survived on local ad sales. It was flippant and edgy, at times offensive, rarely unbiased and often hilarious. The masthead noted that they published it “reliably every 3 to 7 weeks,” depending on the snow quality and their ability to pay the printer. You needed my dad’s pitchfork to forge a path through their funky office that resembled a Hobbit hole. The entrepreneurial creative juices were flowing.
With my athletic career over, I was looking to redirect my focus and wanted in on the startup adrenaline. John was looking for a way to get out of the Ramen cycle. We were in the right place; We’d found the mecca for outdoor adventure. And we both damn well knew that we didn’t want to sell insurance in a cubicle. It was 1996, and the nascent Internet fascinated us both. It was the Wild West. The potential to connect with people of shared interests was alluring. I had learned to code and was building websites for doctors and realtors. John loved technology and had learned a great deal at his newspaper. But we wanted to transact, and John came up with an idea: avalanche gear. Although it was a tiny market, it seemed like a cool niche, and maybe, just maybe, we could aggregate enough traffic online to make a viable business.
We beat the pavement at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City—having gained entrance with a media pass through the fledgling Wasatch Canyon Reporter—at times hiding in the shadows because we felt like we didn’t belong. After countless rejections, John suggested we expand to include pack vendors, so we refined our pitch and kept swinging.
We brought the idea to Sandy Brown, a local rep for Life-link and Pieps. I remember a protracted pause after we finished our pitch. Was he actually considering it? He looked us over and said, “Okay, so long as I can be assured that this is not about hooking up your friends!” We agreed. Our feet were in the door, and we had our first shot of adrenaline!
New vendors gradually signed on and we started to gain traction, operating out of a tiny condo in Park City (yet another odd couple roommate situation). Somewhere around this time, John moved out. His writing style at the newspaper had caught the attention of the HR manager at Powder Magazine and he was offered his dream job as editor. John needed to write—it was his creative outlet, and he had a unique gift. We restructured the company, but John stayed on as a partner, sharing ideas from California. He encouraged me to take more risk, bringing on great people before it seemed we were ready.
After a couple of years at Powder, John took a job at a Silicon Valley cellular service startup where he cut his teeth in marketing as director of e-commerce. John and I talked on the phone regularly. He shared his insights and coached the marketing team at Backcountry, helping us build depth and institutional wisdom.
During this time, and later, when John returned to Backcountry to serve as president, he fostered innovation and encouraged everyone to explore the bounds of what was possible. He used to quote Seth Godin in saying, “The safe way is the risky way and the risky way is the safe way.” He warned of the dangers of hubris. John understood the importance of innovation and that big, bureaucratic, organizations that think they are invincible grow stale and fail. It’s the scrappy, entrepreneurial, agile organizations that aren’t afraid to step out on the edge that ultimately set new standards and really knock customers’ socks off.
Over the years, John and I complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses, combining left brain and right brain thinking in a way that just somehow worked. John stepped back from Backcountry around 2011 to pursue other interests, and again, defying the startup odds, we came out the other end as friends.
On June 29, a day after completing a 180-mile motocross ride across the desert, John passed away in his sleep. He had texted me that night to tell me about his “epic adventure.”
While I will greatly miss my friend, with whom I shared many profound life experiences, I take some comfort in knowing that his final day was steeped in adventure. John’s fingerprints are interwoven in the fabric of Backcountry, and his legacy lives on.