One year before the pandemic, Tyrone Hazen and cofounders Byron and Christina Linton launched Puffin Drinkwear, the Bend-based company that endeavors to be a fun alternative to the koozie for bottles or cans. Puffin has since experienced a relatively rapid rise, seeing a 53% rise in sales over the past year and placing its products in more than 4,000 stores. Earlier this year it also successfully closed a round of Series A fundraising – bringing in an undisclosed amount of cash from groups that include some of the original investors in Hydro Flask. Puffin has another tie to that venerable Bend brand; six months ago, it convinced former Hydro Flask CEO Scott Allan to come out of retirement to be Puffin's interim CEO.
Like many startups, Puffin has also had its ups and downs; after gaining funding and bringing in a new board, it moved offices, began work on a new line of products, and this past month, laid off several of its longest employees, including co-founders Christina and Byron Linton. Hazen remains on with the title of Founder.
I sat down with Hazen this week to talk about the past, present and future of this Bend brand.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Source Weekly: Let's hear the back story of Puffin Drinkwear.
Tyrone Hazen: It's one of my favorite stories. This happened all just miles from here. Blocks from here, I was over at a friend's house and he was having a group of guys and we're hanging out around a fire. He passed around beers and then he comes around with a box and starts tossing koozies to everyone. And the one that he handed to me was like a homemade job that was made out of, like, the remnants of an old sleeping bag. So it's just a wrapper. I [still] have it. It's just a wraparound Velcro. But as I was holding it, it immediately reminded me of my sleeping bag because the hand-feel was different than the hand-feel that, like, sleeping bags are made now. So this is like, you know, circa 1985 sleeping bag material. And so it just like popped this idea in my head, I'm holding the bottle, I was like, well that's proportioned a bit like a human, what if I made like a little mummy bag you'd use as a sleeping bag for your beer?
SW: What else is in the line now?
TH: Adventure vests, life jackets, sweaters, t-shirts, we're introducing polos over the next couple weeks. Bathrobes come out — terry cloth bathrobes, which are adorable. Our new launch is called Time to Chill and it's all an assortment of things that are a little less outdoors, a little more travel and leisure.
SW: Why do you think people responded so strongly to Puffin's products?
TH: It's so interesting how much fun people have with them, and I think we timed it really well, accidentally. We were one year old when COVID hit, and people stopped having fun. Our slogan is "fun together," and suddenly you can't have fun or be together. COVID was miserable for people, so I think that any opportunity to kind of spark joy and get a laugh out of someone. ...
SW: Bend has a lot of outdoor brands now. How do you think this environment helped with your entrepreneurial journey?
TH: We're so lucky. I moved to Bend specifically because I was aware of the entrepreneurial support that you have here. I knew about EDCO [Economic Development for Central Oregon], and you know, it had been written up in a number of magazines — Entrepreneur magazine, a couple years ago, I think did an expose on Bend and just the support we have here, and to have a small town, where you have this many startups and support for startups. There are big fish here that I can go and have coffee with.
First of all, we are so lucky that we were able to attract someone as talented as Scott [Allen] again. Obviously, he's got the playbook that we want to kind of lead — to go that same route. There's the similar route as Hydro Flask went. We're obviously not the same company but there are a lot of overlaps there.
SW: You're now following sort of a traditional path for a founder – going from running the company to getting investors and then hiring a CEO. And with that comes a new role for you.
TH: Yeah — my role. We had a challenge trying to figure it out. We just had our first reduction in force. We looked over the org chart, we were like, for this next stage, what do we really need? What needs to be here? And that was a really challenging time because we have to say goodbye to some really great people that have, you know, blood sweat and tears have been put into the organization on their behalf, and some of them from the beginning. Both my co-founders — their last day was last week. They're still board members, but they're no longer involved in the day-to-day. They're off to go do their next exciting adventures. And then we no longer warehouse, so we lost two warehouse staff that were amazing and really got the vibe of it and the culture and were great to have around, but we just didn't have the seat for them anymore. So that was challenging. And then personal to me, my fiancee, Elif [Koyuturk]. She was doing content creation and stuff for us and it just was no longer a fit, the way that we were structuring the marketing department.
SW: What are you doing on the day to day?
TH: So I get some really fun stuff. I get to be our brand filter. I do think of the brand as being a bit of an extension of myself and my personality. It's a little bit. There's some utility there, but it's mostly just goofy and fun.
SW: So you mentioned that you just moved into a new space, and I guess that means that you're planning to keep the business headquartered in Bend.
TH: Absolutely. Yeah. We have been a Bend brand through and through and I said before, we wouldn't be here if it weren't for the support, and we're good, we got and we continue to get that support.