Writing about death is an art. I was recently reminded of this by a handwritten card my vet mailed to our family at the passing of Madison, our 14-year-old yellow lab. Compassionate, celebratory, and empathetic without smoothing the rough edges that made Madison, shall we say, lovable, it hit all the right notes. I won’t pretend to have that deft a touch.
John Bresee would appreciate that I introduced this mini-memorial to him with an anecdote about my dog. “Shock me” was one of his tenets. But we’ll get to that. John Bresee passed away on June 29, 2019. He was less the proverbial bull in a china shop and more the Ducati in the Prius-packed Whole Foods parking lot. He and Jim Holland co-founded Backcountry.com (nee BackcountryStore.com) in 1996. They were yin and yang: John, the disruptive visionary technologist; Jim the level-headed counterweight keeping the enterprise grounded in reality—their version of it, anyway.
Through the years we worked together (I was the PR “agency” for Backcountry), John and I shared many meetings, meals, and walks around the Backcountry.com warehouse—walks in which he attempted to debase me of what were obviously my misplaced beliefs about any number of issues, both personal and professional. In other words, John cared deeply about the things that John cared deeply about.
Hard on the outside, soft on the inside, John was opinionated, stubborn, gruff, candid, passionate, funny, charming, brilliant, joyous, and generous—with his time and advice. Reading Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, I was struck by the similarities.
Like Jobs, John believed in the future that technology promised and was eager to get there. “Drive fast, take chances”’ was not just a sound bite to John. Indeed, as anyone who has been in a car or on a motorcycle with him knows, John took the concept of “escape velocity” literally.
That was what was awesome about going along for the ride with John. The status quo was unacceptable. He knew that it takes extremes to break out of the pack. Which gets to John’s gift to me, one that I will always carry.
John’s many tenets surfaced during conversations in which we conspired on how to disrupt the PR game in the digital age. Many have stayed with me, but one in particular I think about every day: The risky way is the safe way; the safe way is the risky way.
This was the cornerstone of everything John did, whether independently or in collaboration. And it’s a useful reminder for anyone trying to manage Backcountry.com today. In John’s world, a strategy was not a strategy if it just mimicked what everyone else was doing, only better. For Backcountry.com to realize its promise, we needed to focus more on the community than the corporation. We had to be willing to do and be and go where others were not. In true service, that meant using our talents, instincts, and experience to contain or leverage whatever disruption occurred.
The risky/safe paradox sounds callous and reckless. Sometimes it was. Usually it was calculated, but it always proved true. With everyone so focused on data these days, going with your gut is a bold step.
Just before his unexpected death this June, in response to one of our ongoing debates about the future, this one dedicated to the relevance and reality of the Segway (Yes, that Segway. Did I mention John was stubborn?), I sent John a link to a Wired article called, “Fifteen Years Ago, the Segway promised to make cars obsolete. Here’s why it didn’t.” Clearly, I was chumming for a bite.
John wrote back, “Mike, I know I wasn’t easy but I had such a blast working with you. Why don’t more people know that e-commerce and PR can be fun and funny? It really has to be that way to really kill it. Thanks for your brilliance, it was a joy.”
Perfect John. Just when I was ready to wrestle, he gave me a hug.
Mike Geraci is principal of Geraci & Co., a brand strategy and communications group in Jackson, Wyoming. He writes the marketing column for Outdoor Retailer Magazine and will be reporting on how brands are driving fast and taking chances at Outdoor + Snow Show 2020 for The Daily.