Celebrating the Pacific Northwest with The Great PNW Founder

Words by Aaron Gerry
Photos by Joel Barbour

Joel Barbour is a happy man. After years of wayward exploration from the asphalt streets of Spokane to the Oregon coast, he’s found his element in an idea that’s close to home.

It is home, in fact. Joel founded The Great PNW, an apparel line that celebrates the unique character of the #UpperLeft, the land of his youth, middle years, and future.

When we spoke he had just gotten off a call assuring more delays for his dream. They are about a year behind schedule on their new office, a place where friends, family and community will soon congregate, where memories will be made, and which features a half-pipe on the first floor. Unfortunately, they have to reduce the size of the skate ramp to leave space for increasing production needs. A good problem to have all things considered. He’s not bummed. That’s part of business, and the unexpected nature of things. It’s all a work in progress, like growing up.

He talks of the Pacific Northwest fondly, and his excitement for the business percolates in fizzy plosives, like how a freshly opened Coke can pops. Otherwise he speaks with a rolling tongue, like skating down a gentle slope, smooth, rumbling, and going with the flow.

Joel is a designer by trade. The business is his personal creative expression, and an invitation for others to celebrate their own relationship to the land of the Cascades. In our conversation we chatted about what the PNW means for him, starting the company, and lessons learned along the way.

You grew up here. What does the PNW mean for you?

For me, growing up in the PNW has meant summers spent at the lake, winters spent in the mountains and loving all the changing seasons we get here. Whenever I go on vacation somewhere I typically find myself, after about a week, getting restless to get back home. I love it so much.

 

How did the idea for the company come about?

The biggest push I needed to start the brand was realizing there was no clothing companies that embodied how much we love the Northwest.

I’ve been in the design space a long time [and it came about from that]. When I was younger, I was doing a lot of graphic design for local skate shops around Spokane. Whether it was skateboard designs or t-shirts, they’d say, “Man, this stuff is selling through quickly. People are buying boards just to put them on their walls.”

And then in 2007, we took our first trip: 10 buddies in a van, camping and skating around the Northwest. Which became an annual thing. After doing road trip after road trip, it just sort of struck me.

I was thinking, “Well there’s nothing that exists, and I’m already designing stuff [that people seem to like], why don’t I just try this on my own?”

Kickstarter was relatively new and we put it out there. It was funded within 36 hours. That was six years ago.

What is The Great PNW brand about?

With Kickstarter it wasn’t so much about the money, but is it a good idea? We found that there are other people who love the area as much as we do, so that’s why we started it.

Our brand is really associated with what already exists. It doesn’t take a lot for us, because the people that are here, it’s about them and their experience. Whether they grew up here, went to school here, whatever.

We created a small flag that people can wave to celebrate what they already love about the Northwest. I’m just glad I can design well enough that people think it’s cool.

Does entrepreneurship run in your family?

In the fact of hard work, yea. But as far as running your own business, no. But hard work is something I definitely got from both my parents.

I grew up in what might be the poorest zip code in Washington, Hillyard in Spokane. And a ton of my family still lives there. I remember going to a friend’s house and in the kitchen, one of the legs was missing from the table. In its place was a rubber car tire. At the time, I thought, “Oh that’s normal,” and didn’t think much of it.

My parents worked really hard. My dad always left for work before I ever got up. If I was up early enough to see him in the morning, that was a special thing. Eventually, when I was in sixth grade, we moved out to a more affluent neighborhood. I think that’s definitely where I get my work ethic from.

 

Since business is not something you grew up with, did you have support or mentorship along the way?

My mentor, and I still meet with him every few weeks, was my former employer, Tyler Lafferty [Co-Founder of Seven2]. Holy crap, that guy. He has multiple businesses, totally opposite of what I’m doing. I used to work at a digital marketing agency.

When I had to put in my two weeks, I had to tell Tyler I was quitting. I was all emotional about it, “I don’t want to leave, but I have to. This is what I’m passionate about.”

He just gave me a big hug and goes, “This is what we wanted when you started this thing two years ago.”

He’s really held my hand. Any major business decision, I always run it by Tyler, because he’s the one that forces me to answer the hard questions I don’t even know to ask. You have to be really practical about this stuff.

And I try to pass that on. That’s become a real passion of mine, coaching people through that same process. I started with a full-time job, doing this thing on the side, trying to figure out. It’s been cool to see a handful of close friends leave their day jobs, start small businesses, and be successful doing it; for them to realize, “Oh, it’s possible.”

What’s next for you and the new office space?

We’re slowly trying to become more of a lifestyle brand. Today, we’re majority casual wear: t-shirts, hoodies, hats. This year we tested the waters with flannels and board shirts. We want to start a bag line too, expand our offering.

On the business side, we’re bringing more production in house, like screen printing. With that comes hiring new staff. So far it’s been mostly friends, and I really love that. It makes life a lot easier and more fun.

In the WAYWARD spirit, Joel is driven by finding purpose through exploration and engagement in the everyday. The Great PNW is a way for him to cultivate happiness and contentment, as he says, “I find that in running this business, to use my skills to thrive, to face the challenges, is super fulfilling.”

If you’re a fan of The Great PNW’s tees (let’s be honest, of course you are!), stay tuned for their new products celebrating all things outdoors in the great Pacific Northwest.

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