All Good Things Must Start
Path #14: Best Made founder Peter Buchanan-Smith on buying back his iconic brand
“This is my lifelong project now. I’m not building [Best Made] to sell it in 5 or 10 years. And so I have the luxury of time, in a sense. Everything will get done in its own good time.”
Peter Buchanan-Smith has lived a wildly Desire Paths-worthy life.
He’s had jobs planting trees in Ontario and artificially inseminating sows (!) in Scotland. He was art director of the New York Times’ Op-Ed page on September 11th. Creative director of Paper magazine. Design director of fashion house Isaac Mizrahi. He, along with the great Maira Kalman, designed the illustrated re-issue of Strunk & White’s classic grammar book, The Elements of Style. Peter even won a Grammy for the design of A Ghost is Born, the best-selling (and excellent) album of Wilco.
But because careers tend to be unfairly distilled to a single project or gig, Peter’s probably best known for his company Best Made—which, if you know anything about it, you’ll probably remember as ‘the nice axe brand’.
But that’s being ungenerous. Because Best Made was so much more.
Founded in New York City in 2009, Best Made arrived at a time when 20-something city-dwellers were rediscovering age-old trades and pursuits. Gin-distilling, fly-fishing, workwear, beautiful tools. You probably remember this time well. I do. Having graduated college in New York in 2008, I was a sitting duck for this sort of stuff. It was a time when J.Crew turned an old bar in Tribeca into a cozy boutique called the Liquor Store. When Freemans Sporting Club on the Lower East Side was a mecca for a new kind of style. And mixed neatly into this cauldron of quality stuff was Best Made.
The spark for the company came when Peter and friends were hunting for a small axe to chop wood and could only find cheap plastic-handled ones. That market gap led to research, and obsession, and soon, a business.
Peter was gunning for Best Made to be a modern L.L.Bean—a new type of outfitter-slash-lifestyle brand. The products were beautiful, cat nip to a certain demographic, and its catalog was eclectic. Hand-painted axes made from American steel and Appalachian hickory? Yes, please. Thick totes and beautiful pocket knives? Sure. Enamel cookware? Haven’t camped, but why not?
I wasn’t the only fan. The company gained widespread support, a strong e-commerce presence, and opened brick-and-mortar stores in New York and in LA.
And that was its story for years.
And then… here’s what went down. In 2016, Peter sold Best Made to a curious company called Bolt Threads. The exit turned heads. (Bolt was then known for next-gen materials like spider silk). Peter eventually left the company for good, moving to a cabin in the woods. And Bolt soon sold Best Made to Duluth Trading, a gear company that’s more Target than Filson, where it remained a forgotten sub-brand and shell of its former self.
That is, until recently, when Peter announced he bought back Best Made:
I gave Peter a ring to get the inside story. Enjoy!
Hey Peter, let’s rewind a bit. Best Made was your baby. Why’d you leave?
Hey. I sold the business to Bolt Threads in 2016, and my contract essentially was to stay on for three years, at which point we would renegotiate it. I got to the end of those three years feeling like I’d never been more burnt out and ready for a change.
Sometimes you can make those changes in the same place, but for me, and from conversations I had with Bolt, it became clear those changes weren’t going to be able to take place there. They were a Silicon Valley company that had completely different expectations for growth, which was to scale a lot faster and bigger than I think you can even possibly do in retail. I hear this a lot from more traditional companies that partner with, or were bought by, west coast companies. There were things I wanted to do that just didn’t make sense for them. And so I just took that as a cue.
I wasn’t planning on leaving New York City at that point. I didn’t really have a strategy for my life post-Best Made. But my girlfriend ended up leaving her job shortly after I left. We looked at each other and were like, What are we going to do? Why are we here? We’d both been in the city for a long time. We were paying a lot to be there. So we decided to move to the Catskills, where we’d been coming quite a bit. We had a cabin up here. So that’s where we moved. That was our life change.
And that’s where you wrote your book?
Best Made signed a book deal in the last six months I was at the company. And so I met with the publisher and gave them an option to cancel the deal—or to keep going with it, but it would be just me. Luckily they had faith in me. I don’t even think we’d finalized what the book was going to be, which made it a bit easier. But it became my love letter—or my thesis—on the axe.
As you can imagine, when you start a company with an axe, you accumulate an axe library! And so there were a few books I loved, but I’d never found a book that was all-encompassing. A lot of them were quite old, and not many were told from a newer point of view. That’s the book I set out to write. It took about a year to do it. It came out at the height of the pandemic and sort of got lost in the shuffle. I wasn’t able to really promote it properly—not only because of the pandemic, but also it was harder than I thought not having the Best Made platform.
Yeah, in many ways your personal brand was tied up in the company you built.
Totally. When I left Best Made, I moved to the countryside, grew my hair long, grew a beard, and it felt like I was disappearing. It was like going into what I called witness relocation. In hindsight, that was a blessing and a curse.
As an entrepreneur I always have a thousand ideas, but throughout most of the pandemic my ideas stopped flowing. I was almost paralyzed: Where is the world going? Where do I belong in this? Are my ideas still relevant? It was like writer’s block—you don't even know where to begin.
But the pandemic was also a reset for many of us. It gave permission to unplug from a lot of ways of thinking and gain perspective. I lived in New York City my whole adult life, 25 years. And when I moved to the country, I realized those 25 years were spent just hustling and going all-out, full tilt. Just doing, doing, doing. I never really had the opportunity to just be. To get off that treadmill.
The irony is that as you were getting off the treadmill, the products that Best Made popularized were more relevant than ever. People were going into the wilderness. Slowing down. Using handmade things.
That’s true. That’s obviously a really good thing. It’s kind of weird that I wasn’t able to be there to be part of that conversation and continue fostering it.
When you left Best Made, you said “Who’s to say that somehow I’m not going to end up back there someday? Stranger things have happened.” Was that an offhand comment or can you somehow predict the future?
I’m definitely prone to never saying never! When we closed the deal, the lawyer who helped me sell to Bolt said you wouldn’t believe how many times he’s seen someone sell their company only to buy it back—and then even sell it again and buy it back again. I was really rooting for Duluth. I didn’t want to see it squandered or run into the ground or any of that. I wanted it to succeed. I can’t blame Duluth, but I don’t think Best Made could have ever really succeeded under the umbrella of a large corporation like that.
So when Duluth called you and said they were looking to sell it back to you, was that completely out of left field?
Completely. When I was at Best Made, Duluth wasn’t in the picture. I left Best Made, then maybe 6 months later Bolt sold it to Duluth, so I had no overlap with Duluth. When Duluth bought the company, it kind of went into dormancy for another six months. And then it was rereleased. I sat on the sidelines for a while, watching, and then eventually I put it all behind me. I started working on my vest project, learning to sew, and focusing on apparel.
I was literally in production on the vest this past summer when I got the call from Duluth. They wanted to know if I was interested in bidding on Best Made. And I said… yes! To make a long story short, I got it. The deal closed in November.
I'd love to know who else they approached…
I would be so curious. I don’t know if you or I will ever find that out.
So you’ve got it back now. It's been a few months. I know you're not trying to rush into churning out products for the sake of it. So what are you thinking about? Does it change every day?
It was changing every day for a bit, but now it’s go-time. I don’t want to give too much away yet, other than it’s going to be a small start. I’m not bringing on investors or big money or anything like that. It’s going to be organic, self-funded. I’m so convinced that’s the only path to success with Best Made. Unless something big changes, then I need to be at the helm. If I have to hand over the reigns too quickly, it’s just not going to work.
In terms of product, I haven’t finalized a plan. We’re sort of waiting on bids and things from vendors. I don’t think there are going to be any surprises—maybe some—but my goal is just to get the plane airborne. To get the business back up on its feet in the healthiest possible way.
Any other hints?
Some big questions for me would be, for example, apparel. We did some amazing apparel at Best Made, but starting apparel alongside hard goods and accessories is almost like starting an entire second business. I’m oversimplifying, but it’s so hard to do. I also think there are some really exciting models of how apparel is sold and marketed online nowadays that enable us to do apparel differently than we did before. I want to do all products well, but to me, there’s no product that demands you take a further step back to reevaluate how you do it than apparel.
I imagine learning how to sew during Covid really gave you a better perspective, too. Just like making a chair would allow you to appreciate carpentry better.
Yeah, oh my god. Sewing was so transformative for me. My mom is a master seamstress. And because she’s so good, it always intimidated me. If you’d asked me a few years ago what is the hardest thing I could imagine doing, it would probably be sewing. A really good friend of mine was a designer at Best Made, and he and I were in touch throughout the pandemic. This is a guy who always has so many incredible projects going at once. And many of them are sewing. I got kind of envious, especially of his sewing machine, which he would wax on about endlessly…
Was it like a hundred year old Singer?
Exactly. And that’s what I ended up getting. That was my entry to sewing—almost falling in love with the machine first. Sewing machines are such incredible, crazy devices. And from there I realized hey, wait a second, I’m actually not bad at this! But more importantly, I really enjoy it and have patience for it. So I kept making things. That’s the beauty of any kind of handcraft—it ultimately just shuts your brain down on a certain level. You go into a flow state and before you know it, your problems just work themselves out. That’s something I’d lost touch with at Best Made. My job became very cerebral. I lost touch with my hands, ironically, at a brand that really prided itself on using your hands and reconnecting with them. And so sewing was my entryway back, which I feel like will be a very big part of the next Best Made.
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Do you think of Best Made as the same company it once was? Or are you doing mental gymnastics where you're like, OK, it's called Best Made, it's still me, it's still the same spirit and philosophy, but it's somehow new.
It’s tricky. I certainly don’t want to be nostalgic. But the hard part is that we now have this legacy, even though it’s not even 15 years old. We have this incredible back catalog and tradition that I feel has to be respected. But at the same time, it’s like, I need to evolve this. Doing something relevant is my priority. What’s the point otherwise? And I think relevance implies something that is new to a certain extent. For me, it’s all about being a good storyteller. Not about keeping people on the edge of their seat, but being honest and true to what’s happening and giving people the transparency they deserve.
That's why you’ve got your new email newsletter. And why you're posting more on social?
I was always intimidated by social media, especially putting myself in front of the camera. I was much happier as the guy behind the curtain. But when I was negotiating to get Best Made again, I had to accept that my role was going to have to be very different because times had changed. I’m not in a position where I can outsource my social media. I knew it was something I had to personally take on and become that public-facing figure. I was terrified going into it. But now I feel much more comfortable about putting myself out there. That’s something I never really had at Best Made. It’s so incredibly valuable in these early stages to have that connection with my customers and the community.
In the months since you bought it back, Best Made's Instagram feed has gone from lifestyle images to very personal videos and photos from you. It's not workshopped to death. It's more human.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. It’s real.
And you have the luxury of having already built a community over the years. You're not starting from scratch, per se. People know Best Made. Does that give you some comfort?
We’re starting from scratch in terms of inventory, but yes, our community is there. And in fact, I would say the community is almost there more than ever. Because we all, myself included, feel like we lost Best Made for a minute, and now that it’s back, we’re going to clutch onto it even closer.
This is my lifelong project now. I’m not building this to sell it in five or ten years. This is it. And so I have the luxury of time, in a sense. Everything will get done in its own good time.
It reminds me of a patch you sewed onto the inside of your vest that says All Good Things Must Start.
That was a mantra I loved when I was creating my vest. It goes back to that sort of writer’s block I spoke about. When you’re sitting with an idea in your head for long enough, it can easily get overwhelming. But if you step back, you’ll realize nothing else matters unless you actually just start the thing.
Until next time…