Friday, February 12, 2016

Product Review: Orange Mud Q&A with Co-founder Josh Sprague

Trying out my Orange Mud HydraQuiver Vest Pack 1 back in December!

Late last year, I was able to product test an Orange Mud HydraQuiver Vest Pack 1 as a BibRave Pro. Through some product follow-up, I started a conversation with Josh Sprague who is one of the co-founders of Orange Mud.  The following is an interview that gives more insight into the man behind the original HydraQuiver and how the product came to life.  Enjoy!

Brad Zinnecker/Trail Running Faith:  Josh, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your endurance sports background?

Josh Sprague/Orange Mud:  I grew up a country boy in rural Kansas.  When you live in the middle of nowhere you learn to make due, fix things yourself, and explore your surroundings.  You have to be a jack of all trades to get things done when the closest major city is 30 miles away.  I’d like to think a lot of my “innovation from frustration” inventions have come about from my country boy “get it done” lifestyle.  

I also have a background in adventure racing and mountain biking where I’ve competed in somewhere around 200 races.  Riding single track on a mountain bike opens your mind and senses unlike any other experience.  The spirit of adventure, excitement, taste of fear, and conquering the next big climb or technical descent is a rush that I absolutely love.  Adventure racing combines mountain biking, trail running, kayaking, rope work, navigating ability and often many other skills across a course that is not marked, has no aid stations, and no support.  You’re forced to make it on your own via a map and compass to given coordinates with your team. I absolutely have loved the adventure race sport and community and it’s certainly a major knowledge base that I draw upon for our highly functional designs. 

Brad:  Adventure racing is awesome!  I remember training for and racing in a sprint adventure race several years back with one of my best friends.  One of the toughest days I've ever had in competition, yet I absolutely loved it despite the bee stings, bonking, getting lost, and my friend blacking out!  

In one of the videos for Orange Mud, you tell of your frustration and what generally led you to actually making your first pack.  But what particular experience actually tipped you over the edge?  What was it like actually trying to craft that first pack?  What were your thoughts, hopes, dreams, ideas as you did so?  Was is primarily for your own training/racing?  Did you think at that time about creating a product you'd actually see sold on the shelves?

The HydraQuiver Vest Pack 1.
Josh:  The design of our HydraQuiver had been in my head for years from adventure racing. When you race 12-24 hours or more, you spend so much time being frustrated with your gear and you get to stare at your teammates for a very, very, very long time. I always thought if I shifted the weight up and isolated the water bottle in a rigid structure the weight would be stabilized for a pack like the HydraQuiver. 

The turning point to get the product moving however, was after racing in Ironman St. George. I hated waste packs and I never liked handhelds, so I stashed bottles on my runs. One day either another person or a coyote drank or peed on my bottle. I saw both at the same time as I was running a big loop.  When I got home that night I decided it was time to build this thing. 

So I went into the garage and destroyed a gun holster, tie down, and a waist pack to build the first HydraQuiver prototype.  I went on a little jog with the pack and realized it was a solid concept, and the next thing you know we were belly deep in the development phase!  I still remember telling my wife that night, “Sweetie, we’re going to start a company. It’s going to cost us about $50K, we’re going to make this backpack, and worst case scenario we’ll have two packs perfectly designed for us worth $25K each.”  We had a 4 month old at the time, so she looked at me and said something to the effect of “Uh, okay, have fun with that.

Designing our first pack was incredibly hard. First, my crude looking prototype was worth about 50 cents by appearance. Contract sewing manufacturers wouldn’t even return my calls or emails since they knew consumer based products would just be shifted overseas anyway (at least they thought). Local seamstresses were more use to wedding dresses than backpacks, and the companies that make materials for backpacks have some of the most poorly optimized websites on the planet.  Honestly, it wasn't easy.  It was very humbling.   I knew what I wanted, but didn’t have the skills to make it myself nor the contacts to get it created.  Finally, I got a couple of lucky breaks. One local seamstress helped me to get a prototype that looked legitimate and then I had a friend that connected me with one of his friends that was a prototype backpack dude.  Next thing you know we were in business. It’s the little breaks that made such a huge difference in the beginning. 

I really wanted to change the way people look at hydration.  I wanted a way to carry my hydration, with my phone, electrolytes, gels, keys, and backup nutrition. By using a standard water bottle, putting in ice cubes would be easier and refilling at aid stations would be quicker.  Volunteers wouldn’t need to struggle with them like with hydration bladders or soft flasks and clean up after a race would be a breeze.  I imagined the triathlon crowd would jump all over this, and though that market is great for us now, it was the trail and ultra community that latched on quick and helped grow us like crazy.

Did I expect to see it on retail shelves?  Yes and no.  I knew that the big box stores wouldn’t carry it since it’s a premium product. Specialty run and triathlon stores were certainly a target right out of the gate, but I really didn’t have any retail experience in that segment and had not been in that many specialty run stores, so I didn’t know what to expect.  It’s still a tough sell unless the store has a staff that understands the product.  Ninety percent of a specialty run store customer base are not marathon or greater distance runners, the category in which our packs are often marketed.  But the reality is that we see a huge percentage of our customer base run far less than a marathon distance as their norm. There is a big perception gap between the front of the pack and the back.  If you run a 3 hour marathon, you probably don’t carry anything.  But if you run a 5+ marathon there is a great chance that you’re carrying a pack since aid stations run out of water all the time late in the race. I believe many retail stores miss that aspect and it’s a big reason why we have such strong online sales versus store sales. 

Brad:  Where does the name Orange Mud come from?

Josh:  Our company started with the premise of the hydration pack first, so I came back to tell my wife we're starting a company and we need a name.  For the next three hours brainstorming was full speed in front of the iMac on trying name combos based upon trail running, dirt and my middle name, which is Clay.  My wife wouldn't let me name our first boy Clay despite my request, so I told her I'd turn it into our company name somehow. Unfortunately I couldn't get anything to sound right with Clay.  As I looked back to my Kansas roots I remembered mud was a norm of life, so Clay turned to Mud and I've always liked the color Orange so the two came together and viola...Orange Mud!  The funny part is that night I bought about 30 domain names, from which we may someday have a vineyard, a custom bike building company, a vodka distillery, and who knows what else!

Brad:  Sounds like you've got some more inventing to do in the future!  

Why do you think some people are so passionate about your products?  

Josh:  We do have an incredibly passionate following, one for which I am very thankful.  I’m guessing there are a mix of reasons.  

First, I’d hope that the biggest reason is that they appreciate our attention to detail in the design of our products.  We take great care to ensure our gear has the features actually needed, not what is the norm, and certainly not a bunch of bogus features that are useless.  We also focus on a very high level of quality in materials as well as fabrication. 

Second, we take great pride in our customer service.  A lot of people are surprised when they get a phone call or e-mail back within minutes not only with an answer to their question, but typically with even more information. 

Third, and this is one I kind of joke about when answering this question, yet I am also serious.  I honestly think many people are shocked that our packs work so well.  When they do, we often find we have very passionate customers.  Our designs are unique, but the trick is when you put on the pack it doesn’t feel that comfortable.  I’ve told many that I didn’t design the packs to be worn in your living room, I designed them for the trails. We have over one thousand reviews on our site, far more than industry average, and there are a lot of them that say something to the effect of “I can’t believe how comfortable this thing is and I thought for sure the bottles would bounce,” or “I’m shocked the straps don’t rub me at all."

Brad: I would agree.  It doesn't feel comfortable just walking around with it on in the house as you prep for a run.  But on the run, that's a whole different story.  Very stable and works great.  

How has the rest of the outdoor/endurance sports industry received the Orange Mud product line, especially the HydraQuiver?  Was there initial skepticism?  

Josh:  Oh yes, lots of it!  Our HydraQuiver Single Barrel and Double Barrel packs put a strap through your armpit.  Most think that there is no way that won’t rub, especially over long distances. Honestly I totally agree with them, it shouldn’t work….but it does.  We got lucky in the design phase by figuring out that the strap has to be thin and of a specific nylon, the pack has to be shaped just right, and the tension is critical.  Once all these align, the pack doesn’t move and no chaffing will occur.  

The other side of the skepticism is that it only holds one 25oz water bottle, or in the case of the double barrel, two.  Some have asked “Why wouldn’t we just buy a bladder pack or use a handheld or waist pack?”  My reply is always the same, “Do you like bladder packs, handhelds, or waist packs?”  Their answers are usually no.  The quantity of water that a 100oz bladder holds has a perceived value in many minds that is higher than something that holds less ounces.  We get that, but focus on function first, then education.  Ours is significantly better than all three of these options when it comes to runners.  Here are a few of the big differences. 
  1. Our pack rides stable thanks to it’s position on your shoulders. 
  2. It’s quick and easy to refill.
  3. Easy to see how much water you have left.
  4. Provides quick access to your phone, gels, nutrition or whatever you put in the shoulder pockets.
  5. Has a tiny heat signature compared to a big bladder pack (which traps heat on your back).
  6. Very easy to clean the bottle, and also to use before and after exercise. 
  7. Can use an insulated bottle instead of the one that comes with our pack to keep your hydration cold or, on the contrary, from freezing. 

Brad:  I wish I had had it at a race in MN one winter when using a handheld was a pain because I needed my hands free to grab onto trees so I wouldn't slide down the descents!  

What obstacles have you had to overcome in creating things like the Hydraquiver?

Josh:  The biggest trick was simply getting people to use them.  Most thought it wouldn’t work before even trying it, so in the beginning we’d have a lot of people buy them and then send us an e-mail saying they were going to return it because it didn’t work for them.  But we e-mailed or called everyone back and found that most never actually tried it, having only put it on in their house.  I designed these for running, not to be worn in the house, so I’d consistently ask them to give it three tries, and then if they didn’t like it, they could send it back for a full refund.  Over time I automated this process to where we send an e-mail three days after purchase detailing with text and video how to wear it, the design intent, and noting the 3 run test.  It’s amazing what this has done and now the e-mails I receive generally say how much they love the product.  This made a huge difference and to this day our returns are very, very small. 

Brad:  What have you learned through this whole process?

Josh:  Where do I start?  Here is the big one: designing a product is tricky, but once you get the hang of it, it’s also a lot of fun, especially if you align with some great manufacturers like we have here in the US.  The hard part is market reach. You can make the greatest product in the world, but if our target customer don’t know about it then it doesn’t matter! 

Managing social media, press, and PR is a huge aspect of my job and one that is a far greater demand on my time that I would have ever imagined.  I’m not complaining, I love interacting with our customers.  That is an amazing experience in itself.  Sales, marketing, and data analysis is a constant work demand in business and they consume roughly seventy percent of my day. 

Brad:  What's your favorite thing that you've produced for the company?  Any new products coming down the line you can give us a hint about for 2016?

Josh:  This is a tough one to answer since it continues to evolve. In the beginning it was the HydraQuiver.  That’s what we launched with, it was my baby and one that I worked on for spent ten months initially.  Finding the right angles and "cut" to make the fit work was such a fine line between success and failure that launching it was something special.  

The Transition Wrap has been very popular and is in over 400 stores and 36 countries now, so I should probably say that, but the thought behind it was so simple that I can’t get as excited.  I’d have to say my favorites right now are the Modular Gym Bag in second, and number one is our new Urban Hippy Tripster Pack.   Both of these pieces are in a league of their own and something that I’ve always wanted personally.

For 2016 we have an amazing development pipeline.  We’re closing in on some production tweaks for some of our existing packs that will be released in mid year to early 2017 which are really exciting in terms of materials and slight tweaks.  This year we will be releasing our first bladder pack with soft flask options in the front.  As of this writing, I just finished testing prototype #6 (design tweak #50 or so!) and I can’t wait to dial it in a bit more.  This one is really exciting as it’s a perfect cross between mountain biking and trail running that truly rocks at both sports.  I had a previous design near launch over a year ago for the same purpose and though it may still come out, I’m glad I delayed it’s production because this one is hands down better in many aspects. As the design phases of this pack are in full tilt right now, I am getting pretty nerded out as I get to ride a lot to test, test, test!

Brad:  I bet!  Sounds like mountain biking is really a favorite pastime of yours. 

Josh:  Mountain biking and trail running are my two loves.  I dig swimming, road biking, and road running too, but the dirt is where my heart is at.  Finding a fast and fun single track always puts me in a good mood.  My latest love has been taking my 4 year old riding with me. He’s up to 11 miles now as his longest ride and he can hang on the dirt.  I still can’t believe how talented he is and hearing his amazing laugh and the big smile during the rides is a dream come true to me.  I’m already planning our mountain bike trips for the next 10 years! 

Brad:  That is pretty awesome!  A 4 year old that can ride 11 miles on his mountain bike!  

IF there was one thing you could change about the whole process of making a new product/product line, what would it be?

Josh:  I’d like to change the introduction phase to a shorter window.  We have seen that each new product generally takes about 9 months until it starts to pick up steam in terms of sales.  This seems to be regardless of marketing spend behind it unless we get a lucky break, like a major magazine noting something about it.  I think it’s a hybrid of a defined number of marketing impressions that are required to convert, mixed with pure word of mouth, some dumb luck, and of course a quality and functional product.  Once all those hit their threshold of nine months, sales seem to be consistent from there on out.  It’s strange, but in twenty-four product releases, this is what the data tells us. 

Brad:  As we come to a close Josh, tell us about a time when you were using one of your packs and it made your day or saved your bacon.

Josh:  Our packs are kind of hard to miss.  As such, I get a lot of questions training and racing in regards to fit, features, comfort, etc. which really helps to take your mind off the task at hand.  A nice attribute when you’re hating life a bit in a race!  This happened at a half Ironman a couple years ago at Tempe Town Lake.  It was super hot out, 93F if I remember right, and when most were hating life because of overheating or having hot water in their tiny little bottles, I had cold water with ice cubes rattling around in my bottle.  It made for some good laughs when people saw it as I ran by and said “Hey, you have ice in there?”  To my delight, it was fun rubbing that in by squirting the ice cold water on my head as I’d run past.  Sales came in nicely after that event!

Brad:  I bet!  I've had days like that running in the Midwest coupled with 90%+ humidity!  Ice cold anything feels good in those moments!  Thanks Josh for taking time out of your busy schedule for our interview!  If you haven't tried an Orange Mud product, head over to and give them a try!

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