Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Outdoor apparel
After several seasons working as ski instructors at Beaver Creek, the husband-and-wife team were fed up with single-purpose gear lacking in both fashion and function. They were so frustrated with the products available in the outdoor-apparel market, in fact, that they decided to develop their own. "Will's background was fabric design and development," Kelly recalls, "and he was pretty confident he could make something better than what was currently out there. My background was in management, so I came on to help him with the business side of it."
A short time later, Western Rise was born -- though it wasn't an easy delivery. The couple quickly had to scrap their original distribution plan. "We realized the entire model was more or less broken," says Will. Rather than continue to try to get their products into traditional outdoor retailers, they shifted towards direct-to-consumer sales. "We've now innovated an entirely new design, development, and sales strategy for our outdoor apparel program and will be relaunching with it this January."
Though the couple has been producing a core line of tops, bottoms, outerwear, hats, and accessories that are manufactured overseas and available year-round on their website for immediate delivery, they will soon be augmenting that with new small-batch collections every month. "These monthly collections will be crowdfunded on our site and produced domestically," Will explains. "Each will have two or more products, and we should produce between 100 and 500 units of each, depending on how well they fund."
"In the apparel industry, between 15 to 20 percent of the products produced either end up being sold at an extreme discount or donated to thrift stores," Kelly says. "Some even end up in landfills. The small batch launches will help us mitigate that."
Even though they've used social media to build an online community of ambassadors, influencers and customers on which they can test product ideas, fabrics and colors, "It's still a gamble every time you launch 1,200 pieces of a new product," Kelly continues. "We'll now be able to safely experiment with a wider variety of products and expand our core line significantly with best sellers from the small batches."
It will also help the couple deal with the cash flow difficulties that are common for small apparel businesses. "We're basically purchasing our fabrics ahead of time and then waiting for our customer to pre-order during the crowdfunding process in order to pre-fund the garment cut and sew," says Will. "This prevents us from having to make a huge inventory purchase."
"Instead of paying two or four massive invoices a few times a year, we can spread those expenses out to 12 times per year," Kelly adds. "That's less of a hit on the company and will allow us to invest in other things -- like staff -- as well as just have a more consistent cash flow."
Since the initial launch, Western Rise has sold a little more than 10,000 units while reducing the usual 18 to 24 months to get an outdoor-apparel product from inspiration to customer to a mere 10 to 12 weeks. "We've been doubling our sales every month this year versus last year," says Kelly. "We're on track to continue doing that through the end of this year. Next year things will change dramatically when we step away from seasonal and move more into our monthly small-batch collections."
Adds Will: "By 2020, the small-batch lines should account for more than 50 percent of our revenue."
Challenges: "We're doing something the outdoor apparel industry hasn't really seen before," Will says. "So trying to get people to understand this new business model can be pretty challenging." The couple is currently raising their first round of capital, so they're spending time explaining their innovative approach to potential investors as well as new customers and fabric suppliers.
"Traditional fabric suppliers are used to selling 3,000 yard minimums with 1,000 yards per color," Will explains. "We're asking for 300 yards split between two colors. It's a significantly smaller amount, but we're also spreading their development time across 12 months instead of having one large spring and one large fall order. Once they understand that we're going to give them business during their slow time, they're very receptive to the idea."
Opportunities: In addition to launching their first small-batch collection in January, Will and Kelly are excited about expanding their women's line. "We've just started working on women's pieces," says Kelly. "I think there is a huge opportunity there for functional and versatile women's apparel that performs well, looks really clean, and is available in less openly feminine colors. I'm really looking forward to designing more pieces on that side for a full women's launch next year."
Needs: In short, a bigger team. "We're in a high-growth stage right now and doing far too much between the two of us," Will says. "We're focusing on multiple priorities while traveling quite a bit. We only spent five days in Telluride in the past month and it's hard to manage everything from the road."
"We're looking to make two full-time hires sometime this fall," Kelly adds. "Expanding the team will enable us to focus more specifically on what we should be focusing on as founders."