The Pure Muskoka Story
Organic, Authentic and Full Of Passion
Founded in 2011 by brothers Ben Kelly and Andy Hansen, the story of Pure Muskoka is one of family values, quality of life and love for the place they have called “home” for their entire lives.
After the loss of their mother in Feb. 2011, Ben and Andy decided to move their young families from Toronto to Muskoka. The brothers' early history involved a lot of moving around, and they came to live many different places (Muskoka included) during their childhood years. Luckily for them, the family cottage in Bala was a permanent fixture in their lives and it was a mutual dream to one day retire, at “home," in Muskoka. The tragic loss of their mom had been a reminder of the preciousness of life and the uncertainty of the future. It was this perspective that prompted their decision to stop waiting, and within a few months of each other, they both found their dream properties on the water in Bala.
The original plan included keeping their city careers - Ben as a Creative, Brand and Marketing Strategist, and Andy as a videographer and Digital Content Creator. Initially, neither of them told any of their clients, business partners or contacts that they had made the move North. They successfully balanced both worlds, quietly commuting back and forth, without making it known to anyone that didn’t need to know. They were essentially doing the opposite of the weekend cottage commute. This worked, but it meant a lot of time was spent away from their young families, which was less than ideal.
It All Started With A Single Facebook Post
One day after a heavy snowfall, Andy sent Ben a photo of his snow covered picnic table saying the snow on the benches looked like seat cushions. Just for fun, Ben created a Facebook page (and Instagram account) and called it “Pure Muskoka”. He posted Andy’s photo and captioned it, “Picnic Table Cushions - Muskoka Style”, and by the next day the photo on this previously unknown page had over 300 likes and 100 shares. During the following days they continued taking photos, coming up with clever captions for them, and posting them on social media with the same great results. They knew they were on to something!
They had so much fun doing the daily photos that it became a “side hustle” for years to come. They didn’t miss a single post for well over a thousand days. Pure Muskoka wasn’t a business, but they were building a brand and the potential for a future company. It quickly became a serious project for both brothers and they were committed to make it work…..whatever “it” was. With a relentless commitment to capturing that “Muskoka Feeling” and sharing it on social media, they were quickly becoming one of the most recognizable brands in Muskoka. They didn’t have a business model, but they kept the momentum going and moved it along anyway.
Their first crack at turning Pure Muskoka into an actual business was the creation of 25-30 Portraits of Muskoka videos. These videos showcased some wonderful local companies which were shared with the Pure Muskoka audience in an attempt to create better brand recognition and increase business for those companies. Although it was a fun and beneficial project, it was not a sustainable business model that could earn enough to support Andy and Ben’s growing families. The brothers dabbled in photography prints and books, and even had some hoodies made, but these were all just small side projects. Pure Muskoka continued to take a back seat to their city careers, which were continuing to gain steam and demand more and more of their time. They would work on Pure Muskoka as much as they could......when they could, but soon found that they were burning the candle at both ends.
Pure Muskoka was a brand that so many people loved and enjoyed, but it had to sit on shelf while they were busy with other things.
In October 2019 during a meeting at the Bala Falls Pub, the brothers decided it was time to recommit and attempt to take Pure Muskoka in a new direction - one that would require them to learn a new craft. They decided that designing and printing clothing and lifestyle products was the new way forward. Knowing that they both thrive on creative challenges, they decided to take a unique approach and begin a monthly T-shirt club. They planned to design and print a different, Muskoka inspired T-shirt for their members every month. The catch? The shirts would retire (view retired shirts) after each month. It was a similar challenge to their daily photos, but with a twist.
After purchasing all of the needed equipment and gear to hand print the t-shirts themselves, they converted Andy’s garage into a full-scale print shop and began to do their research. They launched the T-shirt club in time for Christmas that year and managed to sign up their first members. They hadn’t yet printed a single shirt, but they were committed to make 100 in the first month. They were all in!
All of the research and trial-and-error paid off. The first shirts came out great, and over a year later, they have over 500 monthly subscribers in the club!
At the same time as the global Covid-19 pandemic was declared, Ben, Andy and family were busy planning to fully jump into e-commerce and retail. They added their hoodie line to puremuskoka.com and opened their first store in Bala. Having built consistency in the Pure Muskoka brand over so many years seemed to finally be paying off. Online sales were immediate and the Bala location was holding its own - even with COVID restrictions in place. In fact, it was as though the pandemic made an important decision for them: as their work in the city came to a halt with lockdowns and new challenges, it became evident that it was time to switch Pure Muskoka from the side hustle to the main one.
In September 2020, they opened their second retail (and first year-round) location in Bracebridge. They also added some other lifestyle products, such as puzzles and candles and hats to their offering and they continue to see an encouraging trend in the business.
The best part about what they’ve built is that it has been organic, authentic and on their own terms….and in their favourite place on Earth! It’s been a labour of love the whole way through and more and more, every day, it’s growing into something that they are all truly proud of. The Kelly and Hansen families hope that Pure Muskoka will continue to resonate with lovers of Muskoka, whether they are residents, cottagers or guests, for many years to come!