Investors Didn't Take Her Seriously. Then She Built Outdoor Voices, Activewear's Next Big Thing.
In 2015, Tyler Haney showed up at the Crosby Street Hotel for one of the biggest pitches of her life. She was meeting David Fialkow, of General Catalyst, to add him to a Series A funding round for her startup clothing brand, Outdoor Voices. And she was bringing two unexpected things to the table: a photo of Girls star Lena Dunham jogging in head-to-toe Outdoor Voices wear, and a shiner.
The night before, Haney, a former track star, was jogging her usual route down Manhattan’s West Side Highway, her favorite place to clear her mind, and a spiritual path of sorts for her company: It was on this same road, four years earlier, when Haney first hatched the idea for Outdoor Voices. This time, however, she tripped over a dog.
“So I have this shot of Lena and I’m like, ‘Here’s a win,’ and” -- pointing to her eye -- “‘Here’s a loss,’” Haney recalls with a laugh. “It was perfect.”
It also worked. The meeting, which resulted in a $7.5 million round led by General Catalyst, sent the right message about the brand -- a line of apparel with an emphasis on a playful, “human, not superhuman” approach to everyday fitness -- and about Haney as a competitor: “I’m out there, I’m determined and I’m running so hard that I fall on my face.”
The trail Haney blazed is paying off. Outdoor Voices is jockeying for position in what seems like an impossibly tight race of major players in the athleisure space -- Nike, Under Armour and Lululemon chief among them. Since launching in January 2013, Outdoor Voices has grown from a collection of five samples and a few bolts of technical fabrics stored under Haney’s bunk bed into a thriving e-commerce business with a brick-and-mortar retail presence in six cities, a staff of 70-plus people, more than $29 million in venture backing and high-profile supporters like French designer and A.P.C. founder Jean Touitou and Goop founder and actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
In August, the company named a new chairman of its five-person board: former J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler, who also led its most recent $9 million round of funding. His investment in activewear might seem surprising, but the conspicuously understated design and unique feel of Outdoor Voices -- designed to maximize cool in several senses and minimize intimidation -- has drawn support from all corners of fashion. The brand has even done flash collaborations with fashion-world names like A.P.C. and Leandra Medine (author of the blog Man Repeller), quietly granting Outdoor Voices a level of runway cachet not often bestowed upon what were once known as “gym clothes.”
All this forward momentum took time to build, and as any runner knows, sustaining the right pace is a matter of heart over lungs, and endurance over speed, especially on an uphill climb. Haney’s past life as a track star hasn’t just fueled the passion she has for her product; it’s shaped the way she leads her company -- keeping your stride, anticipating every step, not letting the hurdles trip you up and, most important, not sweating whom you’re up against.
Now, as her company enters a new phase and an ambitious expansion plan, she’ll have to remember those lessons more than ever. Creating a brand is hard; accelerating requires a new set of skills entirely. “Being naive is ultimately helpful when you’re starting a company that you say is going to be the next Nike,” she says. “I had zero to lose, and that’s what kind of kept me going.”
On your mark...
Growing up in Boulder, Colo., Haney, 29, was “the ultimate tomboy,” sporting short hair and Nike everything. She played on the boys YMCA basketball team (scoring only one basket -- for the other team) and the boys soccer team, rode horses and ran track. In fifth grade, she quickly established herself as the fastest in class while running laps around the school for PE class -- notably defeating a particularly fleet-footed boy named Alec. She savors this memory.
By the time Haney reached high school, she was performing well enough on horseback and in hurdles (which she picked up by hopping broomsticks in her backyard) to inspire Olympic fantasies in each. A number of colleges saw the same potential, attempting to recruit her, but something else was calling to her.
“Since I was little, I’ve been into color and design and material,” she says. Her father owned a small screen-printing and embroidery shop that had given her some scattered hands-on experience with crafting bits of clothing. As graduation drew closer, she became more apprehensive about committing to a “singular, sports-star focus.” Plus, after such a long run in Boulder, she was craving new inspiration, a change of scenery, a different starting line.
Drawn to the energy of the East Coast from a visit to Boston during her senior year, Haney moved there for a year “on a whim,” slinging margaritas at the Border Cafe in Harvard Square; hobnobbing with students, tourists and the occasional Patriot (she credits the late Junior Seau with giving her an early push toward entrepreneurship); and plotting her next step. More and more, she was thinking about a career in design. And like so many others harboring that same dream, she decided, I’ve got to go to New York.
Haney enrolled in a design and management program at Parsons School of Design, an institution synonymous with upstart fashionistas making it work. But she had different plans: “I really did think I was going to go to [well-regarded design company] IDEO and think about how to design airports better.” She learned to problem-solve and communicate through design and picked up practical skills, from mastering Adobe to drafting pitch decks.
Outside of school, though she no longer competed on the track, she kept running. It was one of the few things that came with her from Boulder, but in New York, she struggled to find the same seamless integration of recreation into everyday life. “I remember at the end of school, jogging down the West Side Highway,” she says. “I was going on, like, a 1.2-mile jog -- very recreationally paced. I remember thinking about how activity had changed for me, very drastically, as I’d aged. In high school it was all about beating Jenny the hurdler to the left who was always beating me.” Now it was just about getting outside, connecting with friends or going solo and “moving my body for my mind.”
The athlete in Haney had always understood fitness as a function of the everyday, the reward of a life lived actively. Meanwhile, the newly refined designer in her wanted to know why she was still dressed for the Olympics.
Like most of her fellow joggers, Haney was outfitted in the now ubiquitous black spandex, perforated neon and muscle contouring of tellingly named “performance” apparel -- the bulk of which seems more appropriate for the podium than a Pilates class. “I looked down and thought, I’m not going fast. There’s some dissonance here in what I’m wearing and what I’m doing,” she says. “At that moment I wanted to create for myself a uniform for activity that didn’t have the loudness or the high-intensity, big-muscle connotations.”
All around her, Haney could see her market, and it extended well past the West Side Highway to include anyone (read: any body) who felt benched in advance by the intense vibe of contemporary activewear. The idea was all she could think about. But she needed a product.
“I knew nothing about this,” she says. “And I was going to learn everything.”
Running down a dream
By day, Haney worked at a fashion startup incubator called Launch Collective; by night, she googled. She researched materials and blends, the science behind them, the factories that made them, the vendors who sold them, the trade shows where those vendors gathered and, ultimately, directions to Utah. In 2013 she persuaded her father to accompany her to the annual Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City. After driving through a hailstorm, shaking dozens of hands and feeling hundreds of swatches from around the world, she knew her obsession was official.
Haney returned to New York and started filling her room with reams of fabric that satisfied three criteria: good with sweat, long-lasting and comfortable in motion. She sketched an initial set of ideas and embarked on a search for local patternmakers to execute her designs. After much trial and error (and some very wonky leggings), she developed five staple pieces that formed the basis of what Outdoor Voices then calls kits: a compression top, a compression bottom, a jogger pant and two tops. Each item is what Haney considers a “core essential,” and each a vision of chic minimalism that defines the line to this day.
Haney handcrafted dozens of kits for her friends and family. “Take this and go do things,” she instructed and then asked for their unvarnished feedback: Did it look good? Did it fit? How did they feel wearing it? Friends reported feeling more confident in her clothes, less intimidated to work out and, most important, more likely to be active. This reinforced the name she’d dreamed up for her new brand: Outdoor Voices, a playful flip of a childhood directive from her mother to use her “indoor voice.” And her early instructions evolved into a company mantra; the phrase doing things is now embroidered on its ball caps.
Haney’s designs for Outdoor Voices were taking shape, but not without some snags. She set out to hire a lead designer, but her first applicant backed out when she realized Haney wanted to compete directly with the industry’s major players. “I’m like, ‘Come on; don’t you get it?’ And she was like, ‘You’re crazy. You want to go up against Nike and Lululemon? You’re insane.’”
That “no” set Haney off. She quit her job and doubled down. “I thought, Well, if I’m not going to be able to find a designer, I’d better learn how to make patterns and learn more about production.”
She found a factory just outside Los Angeles, in El Monte, that could execute the tricky technical stitches her pieces required and would entertain her “tiny orders” of just a few hundred units. By January 2014, Haney had shipped limited orders to small boutiques like Couverture & The Garbstore in London; ByGeorge in Austin, Tex.; and Fivestory in New York City. Outdoor Voices was evolving organically, even settling into something of a steady clip.
Then J.Crew buyer Tracy Georgiou called. She had spotted Outdoor Voices pieces in London and wanted product for J.Crew’s “Discover” series of featured brands. Suddenly, Haney found herself on the hook for 11,000 units. She turned to family and friends for help. “I was scraping together pennies,” she says. “I had put all my savings into [the business] to accomplish this first production run. So we scraped together the money, and every single day I was in that factory watching.”
The finished line was on shelves in spring 2014 -- the first activewear line ever carried by J.Crew -- and it fit snugly into the brand’s cool-classic aesthetic. The kits were hits, flying off shelves online and in select stores. “We were like, ‘OK, we have a real thing,’” Haney says. “‘Let’s go after this.’”
Hitting her stride
J.Crew had given Outdoor Voices a sizable audience but also left it with a problem. The startup wasn’t connecting directly with the customer; the orders were all going through J.Crew. “After that order shipped, we said, ‘You know what? Let’s put up a site.’ And we started, from a word-of-mouth perspective, just driving people to it: ‘You want the kit? Just go to OutdoorVoices.com.’” She gave her e-commerce strategy the same voice her clothing had: easy, simple, friends bringing along friends.
Haney employed a version of this approach with investors as well. To ensure the e-commerce operation and her inventory would meet the sudden uptick in demand, she assembled an initial $1.1 million in seed funding through a group of seven investors -- all either friends (like Sweetgreen co-founder Nic Jammet, of SWTLF Ventures, whom Haney befriended at the company’s New York flagship location next to her first office) or friends of friends (like Fialkow, of General Catalyst). This initial boost was enough for Outdoor Voices to hit the ground running.
Around this time, a love interest gave Haney opportunity to visit Austin, where she’d enjoy some Veracruz tacos and have her mind blown (by both the city and the tacos). Austin’s organic culture of recreation seemed like untapped potential. “It dawned on me: It’s crazy there’s no activewear brand in Austin,” she says. She got to thinking about how symbiotic cities have been for the largest companies in her space -- Nike in Beaverton, Oreg., and Under Armour in Baltimore -- and saw a chance to plant her flag. “At that moment, I said, ‘This is going to be the land of Outdoor Voices in the future.’” By October 2014, she’d opened her first retail outpost there, a tiny flagship in an 800-square-foot bungalow tucked into a residential neighborhood on Blanco Street. You actually have to leave a busy commercial strip (and walk past a Lululemon) to find it.
“One thing we’ve really focused on since the beginning is making things very human,” Haney says. “You go where you feel comfortable in your neighborhood.” As such, the cottage on Blanco feels kind of like a clubhouse, not least of all because of the community jogging clubs, yoga sessions and dog walks it hosts.
The store led to another important realization for the brand: Despite all the talk of the death of retail, having a brick-and-mortar presence can be a real boon, especially when your business is so tactile. “What we found interesting is that people liked the kits online but wanted to touch and feel the fabric. That was super important,” Haney says. “So as we opened the store, online [sales] in Austin and then in Texas really took off. We hear it all the time -- the combination of physical and online is much more powerful than just one in isolation.”
Outdoor Voices was finding its voice in a crowded market; now Haney needed to amplify it. But she quickly saw that funding her company beyond that initial seed wouldn’t be a jog in the park. “The Series A was, like, taking every meeting I possibly could,” she says, recalling about 70 meetings that ended in “no.”
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This resistance took many forms. Some simply offered cockeyed looks at “this young girl who says she wants to go up against Kevin Plank [of Under Armour].” Others struggled with the product itself. “At the time, I only had women’s product, so pitching to male investors was tough. They were just like, ‘I don’t get it. How’s this different from another pant?’” Tech investors struggled with the idea of getting involved with physical product, full stop. “‘You have yarns?’” she says, laughing, channeling the reactions she got. “‘Are you kidding me? No way.’”
She began troubleshooting her pitch, looking for where she wasn’t connecting. One problem: She had been squarely focused on product, talking about how it outperformed Nike. But Outdoor Voices also needed to form an emotional connection with customers. “I started to focus in on positioning around recreation, building a brand around approaching activity with moderation and ease and humor and delight -- activity with a smile on your face,” she says. “Remember back to your YMCA days? That’s the kind of activity that we want to capture.”
She also started leaving plenty of product at meetings with investors, suspecting it would find its way back to their wives. “Early on, I didn’t show up with product,” she says, “which was dumb. Having really good product and getting it on the wives of a lot of these investors is where I started to see success.”
Haney’s “human, not superhuman” approach to fitness apparel made her brand as approachable to wary investors as her product was to first-time joggers. In October 2015, Outdoor Voices successfully closed on that $7.5 million Series A round. The next month, it opened a permanent store in Nolita in New York. The city’s fashion world quickly took notice, with mentions in Vogue and W. A collaboration with the minimalist French label A.P.C. gave the company a share of the spotlight at A.P.C.’s first-ever appearance at New York Fashion Week in early 2016.
Within a year, Outdoor Voices stores were following the Austin location’s clubhouse model, popping up in neighborhood spots such as Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Knox-Henderson in Dallas. And this past summer, another round of pop-ups appeared in downtown Aspen, Colo., and The Grove in L.A. Those temporary ventures quickly turned permanent -- a test-the-waters expansion plan. “I call them all ‘stores’ because we have yet to shut down a pop-up,” Haney says with a smile.
Going the distance
Haney moved full-time to Austin in 2016, and over the course of the next year, she gradually moved the rest of the company along with her. When I visited her office this past summer, she was busy moving Outdoor Voices into a new official headquarters more than double the size. As Haney darted between snipping a top into a crop for a photo shoot and finalizing details for the weekend jet-ski outing for staff and friends, her Austin employees were packing. The design team already had its corner of the office cordoned off, the walls covered with mood boards and racks of inspirational pieces for future lines geared toward hiking and dancing. Experimentation and sawdust were in the air. Tacos were on the table.
Fresh off the addition of Drexler to the team and another $9 million funding boost, Outdoor Voices is set to hit 400 percent growth in 2017 compared with 2016 and plans to open five more stores in 2018. But Haney knows well the importance of properly pacing herself and her company, settling into a groove and finding not just any growth, but the right growth.
“You read about these unicorns,” she says, “and as a competitive person, you think, If I’m not that, I’m not successful, but you have to start thinking about what success actually means. I want the most growth possible, but ultimately the priority is the team’s well-being.”
Haney has also grown more comfortable distributing her dream through others -- delegating responsibility and learning what it takes to lead. There, too, her humane vision for the brand has proved useful. “There are big confidence pits. You screw up, and you have to be transparent about those screwups,” she says. “Being open and acknowledging when you really sucked at something in front of the staff is humbling, but it also makes you grow.”
She understands, both as an athlete and an entrepreneur, that winning, more than anything, means showing up -- even when decisive victory is far from assured. The athleisure trend seems to have plenty of runway left, and with the likes of Adidas, Athleta and Fabletics (among others) getting in on the action, that tight race is starting to look like a marathon mob.
Haney remains undaunted. She knows she can go further. “From a positioning standpoint, we’ve carved out the space for ourselves,” she says. “I’m still very in it. If I’m going to play in this space, I’m going to be the best. We’re going to be the best.”