How This Sister and Brother Co-Founded a $45.1 Million Revenue-Generating Sustainable Business
How siblings Caroline and Jake Danehy took their idea for sustainable swimwear and turned it into a retail juggernaut.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Venus and Serena Williams, and even Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss have proven that great ventures can emerge from sibling relationships. Unlike the business relationships between parents and children, sibling ventures are much more likely to be a partnership among equals.
While the dynamics may be smooth or rocky (or a little of both), the alchemy of sibling partnerships can sometimes be magic. As a case in point, sustainable lifestyle brand Fair Harbor, a sibling owned business that was started by Caroline and Jake Danehy in 2014 when Caroline was a senior in high school and Jake was a junior studying geography at Colgate University.
The idea for Fair Harbor was somewhat simple – using recycled plastic bottles to create an ultra-soft fabric for clothing with a fun family-friendly brand that would evoke the feelings of summers spent on the Fair Harbor beach in Fire Island, New York. The pair were inspired when they saw the effects of plastic waste on the shores of their beloved beach town, so they turned that frustration into motivation. They decided to find a way to not only prevent plastic bottles from polluting the water but to honor their special community in Fair Harbor and preserve those places for future generations.
In the early years, the two-handled fulfillment from the family garage with the help of their family and hired friends, hand shipping as many as 1,000 units per day by 2019. Fair Harbor achieved profitability in 2019 and went on to make $18.1M in gross sales in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. The company has continued to thrive with gross sales in 2021 reaching $45.1 million, thanks to the rise of comfort wear and the brand's experimental approach to advertising. The swimsuits now appear in multiple retail outlets such as Nordstrom, Saks 5th Avenue, and more than 250 specialty retailers, although for now, the company maintains its own retail presence entirely online.
While the line has been based on men's swimwear for its first seven years, 55 percent of its customers are female, purchasing suits for the men in their lives In March of this year, the business launched its first national TV ad campaign. And in April, the brand will launch its first-ever women's beachwear line with 25 additional pieces. This month it secured a strategic investment from Broad Sky Partners to fuel its expansion into new product lines, new retail expansion, and sustainability initiatives.
All in the family
In a joint interview with Jake and Caroline, it is clear as I talk with them that the venture was a full family affair. While the supplies and manufacturing were outsourced to various factories around the globe, the initial fulfillment happened from the family home with the help of several hired interns. The two had taken over the garage. The kitchen table became the company's headquarters. Folding tables in the living room formed the assembly line for fulfillment, with a designated driver running shipments between the tables and the post office. By 2019, the team was sometimes shipping as many as 1,000 orders per day. On Fridays, the team would pack up for trunk shows over the weekend; then the operation would fire back up again every Monday a.m.
There were several important lessons learned during this time, Caroline says:
- "Grit would push us forward."
- "There was no job too big or too small."
- "Trunk shows would be unable to scale them to the size they wanted to grow."
- "We had officially outgrown our parents' garage."
The two moved into a shipping facility and a New York office space in September of 2019, and have continued their growth in the two years since. Today, the company has grown to 25 employees and occupies a loft-like floor of a building on the buzzing streets of Soho in lower Manhattan.
Some of the challenges have become indelible memories in time. For example, to celebrate their first production of 500 units, Jake and Caroline held a Fair Harbor launch party at the Delancey Rooftop in Manhattan for family and friends and set up a table to sell the shorts at the event. The first challenge of the night took place when Caroline – not yet 21 – was nearly refused entrance into the facility.
The second crisis occurred when Jake went into a restroom to try on a pair of the new shorts, only to discover the factory had glued on the Velcro closure instead of sewing it on. On at least some of the pairs, the Velcro was peeling away from the shorts. It was a near disaster that required the team to take back all the suits they had sold and hire a local seamstress to sew the Velcro down on every enclosure.
"That night we learned the importance of customer service, quality testing, and treating every customer like family," Caroline said.
What's most difficult about working with a sibling?
During the joint interview, the two reported many advantages, particularly as the family is close knit and the siblings' interests – Caroline in fashion design and Jake in business– are nicely aligned. Both are interested in sustainability and the environment. Having separate areas of focus and clear boundaries have been beneficial.
For the most part, the two "have each other's backs" in ways few working partnerships could, they remark. However, Jake acknowledged the 4-year age difference led to a bit of friction during the time periods when he had graduated college and was working on the business 100 percent of his time while Caroline completed her final years of college. Caroline acknowledges missing as many classes as she dared during rush periods of business and felt keenly the pressure of carrying the full weight of her business role while also honoring the demands of her university degree.
Where will Fair Harbor go from here?
In addition to the 2021 accolades as no. 26 fastest-growing private company and no. 2 fastest-growing private company in retail on the Inc. 5000 lists, the Danehy's have earned the prestigious EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award and the Reuters Responsible Business Award. The company expects to achieve B Corp status in 2022. The initial TV campaign, based on the humorous horror stories of a gritty old seaman about bathing suit chafing and the ravages of salt, sand, and aggravating mesh fabrics, is appearing on ESPN, Food Network, truTV, VICE, and Comedy Central and appears to be performing well so far.
Riding this wave of momentum, the company has a strategic plan for the future, including expanding into new categories and opening a retail location in the coming year. But as for the all-in-the-family business model, the founders have no regrets and are grateful to have created a thriving business that is not only a financial legacy but has forged experiences and memories that have filled them with joy.
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