By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Apr 17, 2016
Backpacks and outdoor gear
When Popp graduated from CU Boulder, he decided to start a company and focus on a personal passion. "I love bags," he says. "I had a million bags growing up."
But Popp wanted to do things his own way. He thought backpack design had stagnated, and saw a need for a fresh approach. "We consider ourselves a non-traditional outdoor company," he says. "We love hiking and backpacking but we don't necessarily identify with the outdoor crowd."
He also wanted to spark a design revolution with a slew of new features. "We actually started with very complex designs," says Popp. "Our goal is to do form and function better than anyone else."
The first MHM products launched in 2010, and the catalog has since grown to include seven different packs that tend to eschew tradition. The brand's innovations include S-shaped Snake-Loader zippers that allow for better access, sturdy but breathable M-Flex suspension systems, dual-pivoting hip belts, and integrated rainflys.
While MHM's stock and trade is outdoor gear, CO.ALITION has targeted a broader market since its launch in 2015. "We always wanted to do something in the urban sphere," Lorenzen explains. "As it evolved, it made less sense to do it under one brand."
The first CO.ALITION backpacks, dubbed the Colfax and the Federal, have a wide range of techie options, including integrated phone chargers and wireless media servers. They're fully-featured, quasi-custom backpacks that double as mobile digital workspaces.
When you're breaking the mold and working with manufacturing partners in Asia, communication is key. "There's a lot of back and forth, for sure," says Lorenzen.
Popp and Lorenzen originally contracted with a manufacturer in the Philippines, but have since moved production to a facility in Vietnam. The first factory "did great work for us, but we were the small fish in a big pond," says Lorenzen. "We're in the beginning stages of finding U.S. manufacturers for our small stuff."
5 Horizons Group in St. Louis acquired Denver Design Co. in March 2016. "We're their first in-house brands," says Lorenzen. "Their main business is licensing." He says it's a great fit for both operations. "They're very well-versed in back-end operations. We're very focused on product design and brand building."
Challenges: "We're not salespeople," says Popp. He says he's fostering a direct-to-consumer model for CO.ALITION, but the majority of MHM sales are wholesale.
New owner 5 Horizons should be able to help develop new channels for both brands. "A lot of challenges we've had are going to be alleviated," says Lorenzen of the acquisition.
"It's still going to be an epic struggle," adds Popp.
Opportunities: "With CO.ALITION, there's a ton of opportunity," says Lorenzen. "We're one of the first to integrate technology into packs." Popp says that strategy won't shift, but future designs will focus on "refining it and making it better” by working with top-tier tech partners. For MHM, new products will include daypacks and other "lighter-weight stuff," he adds.
Another MHM opportunity is to catalyze more direct sales. "We can be a pioneer on that side of the aisle," Popp says.
Needs: More time to brainstorm new products and features, says Popp. "That's one of the big benefits of getting acquired," he adds. "They're handling all of the ridiculously hard stuff. We just need to handle the samples."