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This Activewear Startup Did the Impossible: Design Products Even the Fashion-Challenged Love

And by ‘fashion challenged,’ I mean me.

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BY Jeff Haden - 07 Nov 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I have a pair of shorts that is... well, I can't describe what they are. I wear them around the house. I wear them to the gym. I wear them when I go for a run. I wear them when I paddleboard. I wear them when I go for lunch.

They're not casual wear, they're not workout shorts, they're not a swim suit or yoga pants or... they're not any one of those things because, really, they're all of those things.

Which means, since I rarely wear anything other than dri-fit shirts and either jeans or shorts... I love them.

Regular readers know I like to talk to the entrepreneurs who create products I love. That's why I talked with Joe Kudla, the founder of Vuori, the San-Diego based activewear and performance clothing startup that makes casual shorts and t-shirts that look like everyday apparel but are made to withstand the rigors of activity.

Clearly I'm not the only person who loves their product: 2017 sales are up by triple digits, their women's line has taken off, and Vuori has landed shelf space with retailers like REI, Fred Segal, Equinox, and Paragon Sports.

I'm not kidding. Clothing tends to be highly targeted and niche-specific, but I really don't know how to describe your shorts.

That's the point. (Laughs.) So much product is defined as "sports specific," and we want to make things that transition between activity and between life.

Look at the woman's market; we took a page from that book. Women's brands have done that for years: Offer super functional products that are designed in a way that can transition from studio to street, like Lululemon. If you're a guy and you go to yoga you felt like you were wearing a technical Under Armour short you wouldn't wear anywhere else...

The initial idea came from yoga?

I was going through a lot of changes in my life and a friend told me I should try yoga. I had beat up my body playing football and lacrosse, and I ended up falling in love with the practice. It feels great physically, it helps support me emotionally... and having this entrepreneurial mindset, I immediately looked at the market and said, "What does a guy wear to yoga?" It was like a black box, and a lot of guys didn't feel comfortable going to yoga, let alone shopping for yoga clothes. (Laughs.)

I saw a unique opportunity from a business point of view, but it was also the first thing I found that merged a passion with a profession. So I was really excited about it from a personal level as well.

So you have this idea -- but since you didn't grow up in the fashion business, where did you start?

First I looked at the surfer market, something I knew a lot about. There are about 4 million men that surf in the U.S., and plenty of brands service that guy. On the yoga side, there were 17 million people practicing yoga, and 30 percent are guys. Plus the rate of growth exceeds almost every other activity: fast forward to today and there are 30 million people practicing yoga.

30 percent of 30 million is a lot of men practicing yoga. Yet the market was wide open.

Then we looked at where we live. We're in Encinitas, an incredible community of artists, health practitioners, studios on every corner, guys into yoga... but also into hiking, rock climbing, and these other activities. The opportunity for the brand was sitting right in front of us: Products that are meant to move and sweat in and have a DNA that perfectly fits our backyard.

That was our initial "Aha!" moment.

Ideas are great, but execution is something else entirely.

Fortunately we have a great community to draw from. They're part of our social group. We brought the idea to friends, started talking to advisors, got some initial support to proceed, developed a few samples, went to the investment community to get some backing... basically we raised a small friends and family fund, produced some samples, and went out into the marketplace to see how customers responded.

So naturally you went to yoga studios first?

Yes, primarily yoga studios. And that was a flawed assertion on our part. We figured there are thousands of them, so why not start by addressing the yoga market? There were brands in the women's category doing by great feeding all these mom and pops, and we though we could do the same for men.

We quickly realized that guys do not want to shop after yoga class.

So, early on we realized a couple of things. We weren't going to build our business through wholesale; our brand was too foreign a concept.

The other thing we realized was that if we wanted to appeal to men that do yoga, we have to speak to their other interests, too -- not just their interest in yoga.

We realized that most men aren't just going to yoga for yoga's sake; yoga is a platform that supports all the other things we love to do. The benefits of yoga -- flexibility, strength, balance, etc -- helps us keep doing a lot of other things.

Once we realized that, we shifted our message and shifted our focus to B2C instead of B2B, moved it to web and social media.... and that was when things started clicking.

That shift in approach made a huge difference. The product remained consistent. You can have a great product but if you communicate its use one way versus another way, the response will definitely be different.

How did you decide it was time to expand in a major way?

I know this sounds simplistic, but as soon as we knew we had something. (Laughs.)

We took our data and to our initial investment group. They liked what they saw and we raised a little more funding. And as soon as we started striking a chord online, the wholesale market responded.

REI contacted us in our second year of business. They were experimenting with men's fitness and did an incubation program with a couple of legacy brands and a couple of emerging brands, we were lucky enough to be one of them, and we were the top performing brand by a landslide.

So REI took us from 10 stores to 70 stores, and in those 70 stores, we were the number 2 brand. Then they placed us in all their stores, we're working closely with them to launch a women's lane as well.

That's just one piece of the wholesale puzzle. We're working with over 250 different accounts, 600 stores across the country, we start shipping to Nordstrom in the spring, we're opening a flagship retail store...

Entrepreneurs ask me all the time about how they can land wholesale accounts. It's not magic. You have to have customers. You have to show a solid base of sales. Then wholesalers will take a look at you.

What has been the biggest challenge?

Creating great products is important, but building platforms that allow small brands to service customers in the way they're accustomed to being serviced is just as important.

From a wholesale standpoint, dealing with all of the different factories, UPCs, managing your style master, managing product inventory, maintaining EDI compliance, meeting vendor shipping guidelines... it's one thing after another. As soon as we feel like we're getting a little air to breathe, we get hit with another hurdle.

It's hard to turn down growth, and we want to say yes, but that means you have to work really hard.

I got into this because I thought I was creative... but only about five percent of my time is spent designing clothes. (Laughs.)

What do you know now that you wish you had known then?

One thing that seems really simple is understanding the importance of how to set up SKUs; we're managing hundreds, if not thousands of SKUs. Say our first basic core short was black, and we called it V302. That sounds simple... but in year five we will have produced 75 to 100 different color combinations of that same short. Suddenly you're calling one of them V302001567. (Laughs.)

The biggest thing is finding a balance between setting yourself up for five years from now while also ensuring you're around five years from now. You have to realize you can't avoid every growing pain. I didn't have the money to invest in hiring a consultant to give me all the insight I needed. I didn't have the money to set up an ERP, so I started out in QuickBooks.

While it would be nice to always plan for the future, sometimes you can't make an investment in things before you know you have a business. Do your best to create a foundation from day one that will let you scale... but also be realistic about what you can afford to spend.

Now that you've built a solid foundation of customers and sales, you can do more of that.

We've started to invest more in infrastructure, in tech, in our internal team... we're investing a lot in getting the right people on board.

Entrepreneurs talk all the time about how you need to hire people smarter than you. They're right: Hire experts and it helps you in every aspect of your life, professionally and personally.

But mostly we're going to keep doing what we're doing right now. We'll keep selling to select wholesale partners. We often say no; we want to find the right partners, ones that understand who our customer is, who want to tell our brand story, who want to give the customer a unique brand experience.

We also really love our e-commerce business and are investing a lot of energy into technology that better services our customers and provides a better shopping experience.

What's the biggest thing you've learned?

At a high level, we manufacture clothes and sell them to people. That seems easy.

But take a step back and think about the coordination that goes into building a full commercial calendar. That encompasses everything from design product, sending tech packs to the factory, receiving samples, kick-off sales meetings, national sales meetings, creating a marketing strategy that overlays the development process and works alongside the development calendar... then on top of that the marketing calendar has tentacles into e-commerce strategy, marketing strategy, all the things that work together to build a cohesive plan... then communicate all that to your investment community and your retail partners... and then every three or four months, reinvent your plan.

I didn't understand the importance of coordinating all the different functional areas of the business, and how they needed to work together when you have such a high rate of change in products and SKUs.

But that's okay. After two years of sleeping in the office, I think we've gotten there. (Laughs.)

We talked a lot about challenges. What's the best part of your job?

People connect on such a deep level with our products. They send us photos. Steve Nash (retired NBA player) wears our products. He found them himself; we didn't send them to him. That's really cool. Jimmy Buffett is a huge fan of the brand.

It's fun to see people connecting with the brand and really getting it: Understanding that it is versatile, you feel comfortable wearing it anywhere, that it's designed with the best quality available.

People -- like you -- realize that you can do anything in them. That was our goal, and it's really fun to see that people appreciate that. When you set out to do something and people respond... that's awesome.

On a larger level, we want to inspire people to be happy and healthy and live their dreams in this lifetime. We want to help be a catalyst for that.

Imagine if you could play a part in inspiring people to live incredible lives. How great would that be?