Four years ago, after losing everything, Brian McKinnon sketched out an initial design for a cooler that helped him turn his life around.
The Wasilla resident had survived a mass shooting at a music festival in Las Vegas a few months earlier, followed by a dark period of substance abuse, homelessness and serious mental health challenges.
Since he drew that first sketch, McKinnon has funneled every resource available to him into the development of a product that he bills as more than just a cooler. It’s also a mobile kitchen with a battery-powered vacuum sealer, built around his needs as a fisherman in Alaska but suitable for hunters and other outdoorspeople.
Now, his efforts have paid off. The prototype design and his fledgling company, PacBak, recently beat out around 900 other products from some of the world’s leading brands to win the best of show award at ICAST, a major sportfishing trade show held in Florida last month.
The victory was unexpected. Randee Johnson, a good friend of McKinnon’s, said hearing about PacBak’s success at the show gave her chills.
“I know a lot of people believed in him and this product, but a lot of people really don’t know the time and energy and effort — you know, blood, sweat and tears — that went into it,” including tinkering with almost 100 versions of the product, she said.
In the weeks since the show, PacBak has received numerous multimillion-dollar contract offers from major distributors across the country.
For McKinnon, 38, the cooler is something special not just because of what it can do that other coolers can’t, but because it helped him heal from the trauma he experienced. It gave him something to work toward.
“I don’t think that I would have honestly survived,” he said, “if I wasn’t able to replace those bad feelings in my brain and occupy it with this motivation.”
Coping with pain
On a recent afternoon in a parking lot near Anchorage’s Ship Creek, McKinnon hauled the 60-pound P88-MK PacBak Combo cooler out of his truck. The vanity plate on his pickup read, “PACBAK.”
The cooler features two major compartments for separating out the wet and dry, or hot and cold, plus a smaller compartment that contains a battery-operated vacuum sealer. A cutting board and a fold-out table are also integrated into the design of the cooler, whose durability was tested by a 1,250-pound brown bear named Izzy.
Fielding business inquiries and describing his design with a quiet pride, McKinnon has come a long way from where he was just a few years ago.
In fall 2017, he was feeling low: There’d been a string of deaths in his life, and he was grieving.
His friend, Adrian Murfitt, convinced him to come on a trip to Vegas “to get my morale up,” McKinnon said.
They went to the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. There, a man opened fire on the crowd from a nearby hotel, striking McKinnon in the shoulder and fatally wounding Murfitt, who died while McKinnon held him and refused to leave his side. Murfitt was one of dozens killed that day. Hundreds more were injured.
“I went home and just kind of — I’d love to say slowly, but pretty quickly lost everything,” McKinnon said.
He saw a few counselors, but he felt that none could quite understand what he was going through. Post-traumatic stress manifested as social anxiety, panic attacks and hallucinations.
“I would walk into Walmart, and I would start breathing heavy. My heart rate would go through the roof. I would start shaking, and I would hear stuff, and then literally see people start to bleed through their shirts,” he said.
Needing reconstructive surgery on his shoulder was painful and frustrating, but “the physical pain, it had absolutely nothing on the mental downfall,” he said.
McKinnon drank to cope with the pain and trauma, and was unable to work. He became temporarily homeless — a fact that he says he hid from most of his friends and family at the time, due to shame and not wanting to ask for help.
“I got to the point where I didn’t want to be here anymore,” he said. “I gave up.”
McKinnon attempted suicide on the morning of Nov. 30, 2018, moments before a magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook Anchorage and the surrounding area. A friend went searching for McKinnon after the quake, and found and revived him.
‘I had to completely relearn how to be myself’
When McKinnon recounted waking up after that suicide attempt, he had to pause to collect himself.
“Giving up was terrible,” he said. “But waking up and realizing that I almost left (my daughters) alone? I was really, really angry at myself for a while.”
But that moment became a turning point. He made his daughters, now ages 12 and 10, a promise: to give them a life that they can’t imagine.
“And that’s what I did,” he said.
He got a job on the North Slope a few days later.
The week that he started work, McKinnon — who was born and raised in Alaska, and has a background in product development — decided to build a company around a cooler that could shake up the fishing industry.
He drew an initial concept for the cooler on the back of a receipt for the drug test he had to take for his new job.
Randee Johnson, an old friend of Murfitt’s, got to know McKinnon after their mutual friend’s death. She was battling cancer at the time, and he quickly became someone she could count on.
“Brian’s really a gives-the shirt-off-his-back type of guy. And he’s got big ideas,” Johnson said.
In the evenings, McKinnon dreamed up his future business with an intense focus. He found purpose in creating something new.
“I tell everybody, the guy who’s the old me is still sitting out there confused, you know,” he said. “Like, I had to completely relearn how to be myself.”
He made a color-coded graph that showed his wage and how many hours he needed to work in order to pay for the patent and technical drawings for the cooler. Half of each paycheck went into his business; the other half went toward building a house for his family.
Eventually, McKinnon saved up most of the money he’d need to get his patents and designs. But he still needed more investors.
After a conversation late last year about McKinnon’s struggles to find an investor, Johnson connected him with her friend from college, Jac Arbour, a wealth manager in Maine.
The two quickly hit it off. Arbour said in an interview that he saw in McKinnon and PacBak a rare opportunity, one with all the right ingredients for a successful business. He was in.
A game-changing victory
By July 2022, they were in a Kickstarter phase, with the first shipments expected to go out to customers in October.
McKinnon and Arbour decided to fly to Orlando to attend ICAST, billed as the world’s largest sportfishing trade show, as a way to network with potential partners and distributors.
They didn’t expect to win.
“We were going up against, like, Garmin’s new sonar system, and Bote’s new motorized kayak, so we just wanted to watch, you know. So when they called our name, we were all absolutely thrilled, to say the least,” McKinnon said.
The winning products are chosen by buyers and media who attend the show, and typically between 10,000 and 20,000 votes are tallied each year, said Blake Swango, who helps put on ICAST each year. He thinks the uniqueness of the product is what caught voters’ eyes.
Winning best in show changed everything for McKinnon and PacBak.
The company currently has offers on the table from both American and international retailers for hundreds of thousands of orders each, according to McKinnon and Arbour. They’re on the verge of achieving a kind of success that Arbour said is virtually unheard of in the startup world.
He credited it to McKinnon’s passion, resilience and vision.
“Yes, it’s a cooler. Yes, it’s a (vacuum) sealer,” he said. “But what it represents is what gave Brian purpose in life, to keep on going after so much loss.”
McKinnon hopes to use some of his company’s profits to help support other entrepreneurs in Alaska, where he says support is lacking — and to fund mental health resources in the state and beyond.
When he recounts some of the darkest moments in his life that all led to where he is now, there’s emotion in his voice. He’s told his story so many times, and he still can’t talk about the 2017 Vegas shooting without crying.
But sharing his experiences and being open about his struggles, while painful, has “actually been kind of healing,” McKinnon said. “And now that I’m at a point where I’m not there anymore, it’s now a situation where I could use (my story) to help people.”
He said he has so much compassion for other survivors of shootings, and those who’ve had to deal with a kind of trauma that doesn’t ever truly go away. He has advice for them — something that helped him keep going when life got hard.
“One more day,” McKinnon said. “Every single day, say, ‘I’m going to give it one more day.’”
If you or someone you know are dealing with a mental crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can call the Alaska Careline by dialing 988 or 1-877-266-HELP. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.