Update: Vuori just announced a $45 million growth equity investment! Read on to discover how they built "exactly the type of positive brand experience we search for in our consumer investments," and "versatile products with tremendous energy and soul."
Vuori is an apparel company based out of Encinitas, California that in 5 years has gone from the founder’s garage to the fastest growing performance apparel brand in America. On
Nikki Sakelliou is the VP of Marketing and was one of the company’s first two hires. She has previously been Marketing Director for prAna Living (2009-2013) and Globe International (2004-2009).
How did Vuori do it?
Granted it’s a great product. But plenty of great products are born, live, and die without reaching those who would have loved them.
How does a startup brand break through the incredibly crowded, noisy, and competitive apparel marketplace?
And if you do manage to find an audience, how do you scale your business? How do you stay true to your brand, build your team, enter new markets, and develop your community?
Nikki did all those things. So I asked her. And she was kind enough to answer.
On the Startup Attraction & Brand Strategy
You were the marketing director for a couple pretty decent sized brands, hundred million dollar revenue brands, with Globe and prAna. What attracted you to a startup like Vuori?
I think the notion that it was just a different opportunity to come in on the ground floor and really have an impact at a different level. And also just feeling a little burnt out. While I really enjoyed my time at the other two roles, they were both really fantastic companies to work with and to work for, I was just really excited at the challenge and the potential of being part of something from the ground up, and having more impact in terms of the overall direction and positioning of a brand. I just found it really exciting and also completely terrifying at the same time.
I just found it really exciting and also completely terrifying at the same time.
Did you come in and set out a three to five year plan, something like that?
We didn't really do a traditional five year rev plan, but what Joe [Kudla, CEO and Founder of Vuori] and I spent a lot of time on was the brand strategy and what the brand would look like going into the market, what the look and feel would be. And then we always had a clear path of what the distribution would look like, and we always figured it would be an omni channel business, but we didn't have ... I think when you're literally just in a garage, it's so much different than where we are today, because it feels very clear today. When you have a path and you have a distribution, you can see the next step. Where when you have nothing, you literally exist nowhere in a marketplace, it can be very challenging to really see what the next three or five years might look like, even though you might have a vision.
It's like every step forward feels really new and is uncharted territory. So you're constantly learning and reworking your plan. You really have to be nimble when you're in a situation like that.
You're constantly learning and reworking your plan. You really have to be nimble when you're in a situation like that.
On Point of Difference & Shifting Channels to Survive
What were the bones of your strategy in the beginning?
So basically the premise of the brand is we really wanted everything to be built to move and sweat in. So it was the top performance fabrics, the best properties. But the point of difference was really that we wanted it to look like it wasn't workout clothing. Joe really felt there was a void in the market, because everything was either very traditional sports or was really geared toward women. And so having always lived a really active lifestyle, but also going to college and living in Southern California, all of the surf and skate brands always resonated with him—and I would add the same with our current audience—as a really aspirational brand that you wanted to be part of. So the idea behind Vuori was creating an aspirational brand that people associate and identify their active lives with. It wasn't as “useful” as say a traditional surf or skate brand. The products were more tailored and just more vibrant than traditional athletic gear. And to be honest, the wholesale market… our original plan was to get into yoga studios and fitness studios, and quite honestly they didn't get it at first.
The point of difference was really that we wanted it to look like it wasn't workout clothing. Joe really felt there was a void in the market, because everything was either very traditional sports or was really geared toward women.
Because there was such a void, men's yoga gear was where we were going to start. We thought it would be much easier to get into point of participation, whether it be yoga studios or different gyms or an Orange Theory. We thought, “Wow, what a great opportunity.” And it was just really challenging. People didn't really understand the brand and some of the smaller fitness studios just weren't really well versed in retail or merchandising.
So anytime they would place a buy it was incredibly small. And it just presented a lot of problems for us as a startup. You really need that growth to take off in order to continue producing additional product and keep the lights on. So we kind of quickly, while we maintained and continued to focus there, we knew we had to lean heavily into our direct marketing efforts and direct customer acquisition. Otherwise we knew we wouldn't make it. So that's where we really put a lot of our energy in that first two years. And quite honestly if we hadn't leaned into that so heavily, we probably wouldn't have made it.
You really need that growth to take off in order to continue producing additional product and keep the lights on.... We knew we had to lean heavily into our direct marketing efforts and direct customer acquisition.
On Facebook to Scale Direct
When you say direct marketing, you’re talking e-comm?
It is e-comm. Yeah. So we really had a great agency that we partnered with and we decided before we started advertising, we did some test budgets just to see what messages were really going to resonate. Again, as a startup, you just don't have those dollars. But we felt it was important to really learn and see what was going to resonate, and I think that really helped us and put us on a path of knowing who we were going after and how to acquire the customer. And simultaneously we were building the wholesale business, but it was just very slow at first.
Was there any channel that you found more effective than the others?
Facebook was really the channel for us that allowed us to grow and to scale quickly. We really did a little bit of everything. I think on the organic side, we were really just getting the product on people in our community, and everybody that was within our circle. We got the product on trainers, on athletes, yoga instructors. Because we knew once people wore the product, they would fall in love with it. And so there was sort of simultaneously this word of mouth marketing that was really creating a groundswell, particularly in the community where we're located in Encinitas. And then building our Facebook audiences is really what helped us scale on the direct side. And then slowly the wholesale channel started to follow and we started getting more visibility on that side.
Building our Facebook audiences is really what helped us scale on the direct side.
The Wholesale Big Break
And then honestly, our big break on the wholesale side, we went to Outdoor Retailer and we connected with REI. Someone I had previously worked with at prAna was working at REI. And one of REI’s main strategies at the time was to bring in new incubator brands that were new and fresh and up and coming. And we just got the introduction and they've been an excellent partner for us ever since that day. So they really, really changed the business. And so all of those things kind of happening simultaneously just created an impactful ground swell and market penetration.
Our big break on the wholesale side, we went to Outdoor Retailer and we connected with REI.
Were you targeting REI or any other key accounts in the beginning? Or is this just sort of something where you saw an opportunity and you took it?
Going back to that brand strategy, we did have a distribution roadmap and we always felt that Vuori's positioning would really be the sweet spot right in the middle between traditional fitness and athletics, outdoor, fashion, and surf. We really felt like if you were to overlay all of those circles together Vuori would sit perfectly in the middle of all of those. So REI, even before we launched the brand, even before we had any product, was definitely on that roadmap that sat within outdoors. We had identified really great partners that we thought could be a great fit for Vuori. For example Nordstrom, Equinox, and REI—and now we're in all of those. So as much as the roadmap might not have been perfectly laid out year over year and exactly how we were going to get there, it's really cool to go back and look at that brand strategy now, about five and a half years later. And there's not a single thing that would be different.
We had identified really great partners that we thought could be a great fit for Vuori. For example Nordstrom, Equinox, and REI—and now we're in all of those.
On Surprises, Platforms, and the Startup Mindset
Were there any big surprises along the way?
I think apparel is always in a very challenging landscape. And so I think the biggest surprise was really just when that wholesale market didn't kinda grab onto the brand as quickly as possible. And I think again, that just comes from maybe an expectation of, "Gosh, we think the product's great. We think the opportunity is there." And so it was surprising for us that it didn't take as quickly. And I think again, just being nimble and being able to shift and just, “every day is a new day and a new opportunity,” having that entrepreneurial mindset really, really helped us.
It was just much harder to get over that hump initially, like those first two and a half years where we worked in a garage, we worked in the back of our first retail store. I think we had like 20 people in a 900 square foot office. But it was also very exciting because the brand continued to gain momentum.
And then I think once we got over that hump, everything else was really what we have laid out and what we had envisioned. But I think it was just much harder to get over that hump initially, like those first two and a half years where we worked in a garage, we worked in the back of our first retail store. I think we had like 20 people in a 900 square foot office. But it was also very exciting because the brand continued to gain momentum. But I think if you're in it, you kind of have this expectation because you're so excited that things might move a little faster.
Like you see it, why doesn't everyone else see it right away?
Exactly. That's exactly it. It was a little frustrating at times just because I think we really believed in the brand position and in the product that we were producing. And just knowing that everybody that we were getting it to within our own community loved it so much, we knew that once we could broaden that reach that it would really gain traction quickly.
Is there something you would change if you had to do it again?
That's a great question. As a startup, you make decisions based on the present, right? Because you don't know exactly what the future's going to hold. So there were some platforms that we were working on that I think really prevented us from scaling as much as we would have liked to at certain points of growth. Technology, honestly, it's moving so quickly that it's hard. You only know what you know at the time.
When you say platforms, are you talking e-comm platforms?
E-comm platforms. I think there's been, compared to say like five years ago, there's just so much more available in terms of different ESP's and different customer data platforms. And your ability to integrate into your main e-commerce platform is really important as you start to layer on these new needs of the business as you learn more about your customer profile and sort of move on from say, a MailChimp, which was fantastic for us for many years. It did exactly what we needed it to do. You just get to a point sometimes where you have to continue to evolve and re-look at the technology that's available because it changes so quickly.
Your ability to integrate into your main e-commerce platform is really important as you start to layer on these new needs of the business as you learn more about your customer profile.
On Marketing Plan Today
What has changed in your marketing today compared to those early days when you're mostly focusing on local influencers and Facebook?
Our direct retail plan is a really big part of our future growth strategy. We opened up a pop-up shop in Encinitas. And the community responded incredibly well to that. So then we opened up our first retail store in Encinitas and signed a permanent lease, and have created a phenomenal community around the store and community activations. And it's just been incredibly powerful to bring people together in a meaningful way. And so we really saw a great opportunity to, again, connect with people on a deeper level than just the product itself.
So we've since opened two additional retail stores and that's really a big part of our marketing strategy in the next three years, is to continue to open new retail stores in locations that we think the community is right. So it's not necessarily that we want to be on the coolest hippest street of all time. It's really like, “Where is the community that lives and breathes the Vuori lifestyle?” So it's connecting with those communities. So that's a big component of our marketing strategy.
It's not necessarily that we want to be on the coolest hippest street of all time. It's really like, “Where is the community that lives and breathes the Vuori lifestyle?"
And then just to continue to serve the customer better through some of these e-commerce platforms. So just more personalization, whether that's suggested shopping to understanding where they're at in their lifecycle of product, and product that might be best suited for them based on their past purchases. We've been very, very focused on customer acquisition through our e-commerce platform, and we will continue to be so. It's really important that we can customize that content to different audiences as we continue to scale and broaden that assortment of customer acquisition.
It's really important that we can customize that content to different audiences as we continue to scale and broaden that assortment of customer acquisition.
Have you found any tools or platforms to be especially revelatory for you?
We're actually currently migrating to a new e-commerce platform. And so with that we're launching with a new ESP called SendGrid and also a customer data platform, Evergage, and these platforms are really just going to help us further segment our audiences, and customize the content that we're delivering to them. So it's more relevant to their life, and hopefully we can inspire them with the content that we're creating as opposed to things that might not be relevant. Particularly because we launched as a male focused brand. We always knew women's would be part of the path. But I think as we continue to evolve we know that women shop for men, men shop for women. Everything is not necessarily gender specific, and we want to make sure that we're creating the content that's relevant for our customers.
I actually don't recognize the platform you're on right now. It’s not Shopify or Magento or the usual suspects.
Yeah. It definitely was a more boutique platform. And at the time it was a great fit for us because it wasn't a dev heavy commerce platform. So for example, someone like myself who had absolutely no experience with any development, we were working with a contractor that helped us launch our site. And he basically taught me how to do some light dev work, how to upload the photos, how to change the content. So I basically was doing really light front end development in the early days. At the time, it felt like the right decision for us to go with a platform with the lean team.
On Key Hires & Scaling a Team
You’ve been with Vuori from the very beginning. When you came on you were, what, one of the first five people?
Yeah, so it was basically Joe Kudla and Chris Miller, the founder and co-founder. And then it was myself and Rebecca Bray who did the product design. So it was really the four of us. Lean and mean.
When you're growing as rapidly as you are, how do you go about building out your team? Do you look for specialists or do you need to be super cross-functional since it's a startup? Who’s your key hire?
I think that's a great question. I think as you grow quickly you maybe recognize because you've been so lean and mean that you have maybe some gaps and holes in the business that you want to fill with specialists. But I think you also have to make sure that you're hiring the right people and that everybody is able to really get on board with the vision, the tone, the voice, the goals. Because scaling too quickly and just hiring people can actually be detrimental.
You also have to make sure that you're hiring the right people and that everybody is able to really get on board with the vision, the tone, the voice, the goals. Because scaling too quickly and just hiring people can actually be detrimental. It can actually be harder on the team because you can start drowning in processes.
It can actually be harder on the team because you can start drowning in processes. So I think for the marketing team, probably the most important hire that we made was our director of e-comm. Because it's such a large channel, and because it's so important we really needed somebody focused on that full time and really driving the ship. And really working closely with our agency to continue to push them and really work as a team member. And since we've done that we've seen... It's been a great decision and a great hire.
What sort of qualifications are you looking for in an e-commerce director?
Well, I think that actually can be a very hard question. And the reason I say that is because it's such a new field. You can't actually go out and find somebody that's been doing it for 20 years because that person doesn't exist.
You can't actually go out and find somebody that's been doing it for 20 years because that person doesn't exist.
So experience doesn't necessarily play a part as much as you would think it does in such a critical hire for the business. So I think for this role in particular we were looking for somebody that had worked in a quickly scaling B2C focused business, and really just had the experience working within the ad set, very hands on working with Facebook, and then also had ideas of like “How can we scale outside of Facebook as it relates to direct?”
And so quite honestly, it was more about finding the right individual and just making sure that they had the skills and the understanding of Vuori and what we were trying to do, and just having the background to be able to take what they've learned in the past, and obviously apply it. But most importantly to have that entrepreneurial spirit and be eager to learn about what’s next, and how to be on the cutting edge. Because if you tried to go and do what we have been able to accomplish in our B2C efforts on Facebook, you probably wouldn't be able to do it because it's so competitive now.
But most importantly to have that entrepreneurial spirit and be eager to learn about what’s next, and how to be on the cutting edge. Because if you tried to go and do what we have been able to accomplish in our B2C efforts on Facebook, you probably wouldn't be able to do it because it's so competitive now.
So you have to constantly be re-evaluating and understanding, “Where is the opportunity to reach my customer in such a noisy market?” It's always just looking ahead and less about the past.
Why Vuori’s Not on Amazon
Speaking about where your customers are, and finding them in new channels: I plugged in my location into a Vuori store locator and there were 14 places within five miles, which I thought was awesome. But I've also noticed you don't sell on Amazon. Why isn't Vuori on Amazon?
I think Amazon is an extremely lucrative channel for obvious reasons. It's the largest marketplace in the world. And I think at this point in time we've had some excellent partners. Like I mentioned REI, and Nordstrom is really coming on in a significant way, which we're very excited to see what the future holds with them. And I think it's really important to maintain and have integrity with these partners that are helping to build you, and they're putting in the hard work and the time. And they're committing to us as much as we're committing to them. We don't want to cheat on them, so to speak. And I think the REI customer in particular is also a very loyal customer. And we appreciate everything that they've done to build their business with such great integrity.
I think it's really important to maintain and have integrity with these partners that are helping to build you, and they're putting in the hard work and the time. And they're committing to us as much as we're committing to them. We don't want to cheat on them, so to speak.
And a lot of the brands that they've carried, they've had for many years, they have wonderful relationships and the customer is a loyal customer there. They know what they're getting when they go to REI, they know that they're going to get quality. And these are things that we can really stand behind too as a brand of our own. And so I think at this point in the business, and because we're still in our infancy, we want to maintain the integrity and the unique nature of those relationships. It's kind of too special. Right? It's like we're too early to potentially mess that up. And we certainly appreciate everything that Amazon has done for e-commerce and for many brands. But I think for us it's still more about connecting to that experience and that authenticity.
Nail down your brand first.
On Brick & Mortar to Actualize the Brand
So I was asking you earlier about things you might change or big surprises you found along the way. But what do you think was your best decision?
Oh boy, best decision. It's hard to really say one thing. I think simultaneously all these things kind of happened at once. And I think opening up our retail store in Encinitas, and just like opening up that pop-up there was a great opportunity. The location that we got was a building that hadn't been touched in like 30 plus years. It was an antique shop, it was quite antique. And again, when you have very little money, every dollar really counts.
And so everything feels like a risk associated to it. But I think opening up our doors and really feeling the community respond so fully to the brand—and it was tangible, right? It's like you could... We would have art shows or we would have a yoga class. And the turnout was phenomenal. It was the actualization of the brand coming to life. And I think about moments, I think when we had our first opening party and there were people just spilling out onto the street. I think it was that realization where it's like, “We're onto something.” And I think just being able to see it and feel it, and feel that energy really inspired the very small team that we had to say like, "This is real. And it has a lot of potential." And I think just the actualization of that, of being able to see and feel it really inspired the team to keep charging forward.
I think about moments, I think when we had our first opening party and there were people just spilling out onto the street. I think it was that realization where it's like, "We're onto something."
When you're speaking about the brick and mortar stores, it sounds like you're not thinking of them exclusively, or maybe even primarily, as a point of sale. It seems like using them as community hubs to host events and brand yourself is a key part of the strategy. Am I reading that right?
Yeah. I think that's spot on. The Encinitas store currently is our largest store in terms of square footage, so it allows us to do a lot more out of this space. But we will even allow local non-profits or local businesses to host an event that Vuori has nothing to do with in our space because they just feel it's such a great space. It's awesome. It's a great location. And so we really do open it up as a community resource, and as a community hub. And I think that's where things get really exciting—when you can bring like minded people together and create experiences that go far beyond the shopping. And then the reality is that a lot of times, again it's like minded individuals so they probably do adventure, or travel, or workout, or are interested in these pursuits.
And so naturally they're drawn to the product. And every time we do something, people just want to shop like crazy because they can actually touch and feel the product. And a majority of our products are so incredibly comfortable, and soft, and cozy and they also have all of these performance properties. People are just drawn to them because of their versatility. And so it can actually help introduce people not only to the brand but to the product and they tend to love it because they've never felt anything quite so soft. So it's a great way to really get people excited on a lot of different levels.
That's where things get really exciting—when you can bring like minded people together and create experiences that go far beyond the shopping.
On the Future for Vuori
What's the future look like for Vuori?
Gosh, if I had to say one word, I'd say “bright.” I think we're really excited. As I mentioned about our current relationships, they're all thriving in terms of our wholesale partners. We're really excited about some of the new platforms we'll be working with, with our e-commerce business. We think we're going to be able to deliver a lot of unique experiences for the customer, opening more retail stores. So I think all of this is just being able to touch people, bring communities together beyond what we're currently doing. It's all just very exciting and we're growing incredibly fast. We're bringing on really great people into the brand to help us scale. And so it's all very exciting. It's very positive.
We work with a wonderful group of people. Our founder and CEO is an incredibly kind person, has a very strong vision, but is really open to all of the changes, and the evolution of the brand, and bringing people in and making people really feel part of it. And so I think people really feel how special it is. So I think the next couple of years is going to be a really, really high growth time for us. Which can present a lot of inherent challenges, but I think for the most part everybody's really excited about it so.
Advice to Young Marketing Directors
What advice would you give to a young brand’s marketing director today? What advice would you give yourself 5 or 10 years ago, before you started this journey?
For me, as somebody that's really rooted and grounded in true brand marketing, it’s to really understand what it is you're selling, what your story is, what your positioning is, and your point of difference in the markets. And you have to hammer that home in every single touch point for your customer. What you're telling them, how many times do you tell them, how that looks, and feels, and translates into the retail store is incredibly important because there's so much noise out there.
Really understand what it is you're selling, what your story is, what your positioning is, and your point of difference in the markets. And you have to hammer that home in every single touch point for your customer.
So if you are scattered with your message, you'll never be able gain any momentum, right? Or break through the noise of everything. So I think just having a very distinct and strong point of view of where you're going to go is really the foundation. And then you can layer on how you're going to get the customers and where you're going to get in front of them. But if you don't have that, you'll never get to the next stage. It doesn't matter how you're going to do it. You have to know what it is, and the entire team needs to be really sync’d on that.
On Investing in Happiness
Any final thoughts?
When you said “What does the future look like?”, there’s one other thing to know that’s always been part of our brand from the beginning. We have a product guarantee, but we also see it as our emotional guarantee, so to speak, and we use the term "investment in happiness." If you buy our product and you don't like it, we want you to be happy. It's like, "Hey, no worries. Send it back, we'll get you sorted." But I think what we're really excited about, like I mentioned in the community landscape, is how can we create and inspire happiness in people to live their fullest life through the brand that we're creating?
When I think about the brand and the trajectory, if we can create meaningful experiences and really bring people together and create happiness, that feels so much bigger than creating this really great apparel brand.
And so when I think about the brand and the trajectory, if we can create meaningful experiences and really bring people together and create happiness, that feels so much bigger than creating this really great apparel brand. And I think that's what kind of is drawing people to the brand, and drawing people to wanting to come and work for the brand. So I think as we're able to actualize these ideas, and make them more tangible in terms of investing in happiness, I think that gets everybody super fired up. So that would be the last thing I would say. It feels really meaningful and I think it really inspires everybody.