Sweat Equity: 5 Questions With WOLACO CEO Terry White

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WOLACO white leggings

New York-based WOLACO (Way Of Life Athletic Company) makes high-performance technical active apparel for men, with a core product of compression gear. Made in the USA, founder Terry White started with $5,000 and 12 rounds of prototypes to launch with The North Moore Short, a dual-pocketed compression short built to meet the needs of active guys like himself.

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The key proposition: a simple solution to a frustrating everyday problem—no good place to store phone, keys, cash or credit card while running or working out. White planned to treat compression shorts as true gear, “not as sweat-wicking underwear. Essentially, I wanted to re-imagine the purpose of compression shorts.”

wolaco-jumping-rope

WOLACO launched a Kickstarter campaign three years ago, hitting its initial fundraising goal of $28,000 (to manufacture its North Moore shorts) in 40 hours. Over 30 days, 2,300 pairs were sold to 1,465 people in over 40 different countries, exceeding a projected goal by 400%, raising $120,000 and garnering 1,445 brand advocates out of the gate.

Using bootstrap marketing techniques, WOLACO hosts free workouts in downtown New York.

It has also partnered with the Sean Kimerling Testicular Cancer Foundation and sent about 100 men wearing their compression shorts onto the streets of New York City to raise awareness. It also launched a Hand-Delivery Day in NYC, running product to any customer in NYC who made a purchase.

Next the brand partnered with “the best Spikeball team in the US,” hooking them up with gear, documenting their journey at Coney Island and began interviewing high-performing guys in their 20s and 30s: Ironman triathlete Rob Mohr and para-athlete Glenn Hartrick – doing ‘ridiculous things.’

It also just released its first web series, “The Circuit,” across its website, YouTube and social channels. The description: “The Circuit is a partnership series from Wolaco to show how our community GETS AFTER IT. CHECK OUT ep1 w/ @sltnyc” or SLT, the acronym for NYC studio Strengthen. Lengthen. Tone.

The upshot of all this guerrilla marketing: Last year, the startup closed a first round of seed funding. It’s still looking to raise more, even as sales of WOLACO’s North Moore Compression Shorts ($50) and Fulton Compression Pants ($75) continue shipping like proverbial hotcakes.

So where to go (and grow) from here? For more insights, we spoke with Terry White.

brandchannel: Aside from the innovative pocket, what distinguishes your brand in a highly competitive market?

Terry White Founder and CEO WOLACOWhite: There are two brand differentiators that we like to focus on. The first is a unique—and what I like to refer to as more “thoughtful”—approach to product development. The second is a highly relatable and inclusive brand personality which speaks to our broader marketing approach.

From the start, I’ve never relied solely on the unique functionality of our compression gear. I’ve known that unique product functionality on its own wouldn’t be enough ground to stand on as a new apparel brand in the market.

So there were a few criteria that I decided we needed to deliver on: Unique functionality, distinguished design and quality. In surveying the market, I generally found that there were few active apparel brands that could hit on all three.

Most compression shorts in the space are very underwhelming. They’re made overseas with frail, cheapjack fabrics and do little more than hold your manhood in place. We’ve set out to treat compression shorts as gear, an item that is essential in every man’s active wardrobe, not as sweat-wicking underwear.

Second is our brand personality. The intimate and “open” relationship that we have with our customer is an important differentiator for our brand. To me, WOLACO has always been about creating a community of active, driven, and passionate young people. At the end of the day, that is what’s most important.

As a brand we have gone to great (and in some cases inefficient) lengths to stand by and authenticate this. We believe that the current state of the social and digital landscape presents a unique opportunity for us. We can communicate with our customers constantly and from multiple directions.

More generally, our brand aims to solve a much larger problem than simply enabling you to store valuables during exercise. We want the everyday guy to succeed and be the healthiest, most effective version of himself. We’re here to support that pursuit. Our brand exists to empower the up-and-coming generation of young professionals by inspiring active, healthy and passionate living.

bc: Why did you choose non-traditional methods to market WOLACO?

White: Two reasons: necessity and authenticity. Early on, capital wasn’t easy to come by, so we turned to non-traditional marketing out of necessity because it was a low-cost option.

At the same time, since day one, we’ve been committed to being as authentic as possible. It’s almost an obsession. And so naturally, we’ve built a marketing strategy that prioritizes authenticity above all else.

The launch of our Kickstarter campaign at the end of 2014 was the event that really ingrained this “scrappier” approach into our DNA. Since then, we’ve continued to find inventive, cost-effective ways to market our gear.

If we had tried to market our brand in a more traditional sense, we would have spent money in highly inefficient ways. We are a young team with a young business that’s new to the market. Adopting a “spend money to make money” approach out of the gate can be dangerous.

WOLACO compression shorts

It is inevitable that you will make mistakes early, and if those mistakes are at the expense of precious founding capital, it can be detrimental to the business. So we decided to mitigate risk and take things into our own hands.

As a result, we’ve actually found our limited access to capital to be a strength for our team. It’s forced us to get creative and be gutsy. In turn, we’ve established a brand authenticity and an intimacy with our customer base that’s become a unique differentiator for us. We plan to carry this forward and scale it.

We see the current digital environment as a great leveler for WOLACO as an up and coming e-commerce business. By truly harnessing digital, we’re able to engage with our customer base in ways that bigger brands simply aren’t doing. Most importantly, we maintain control over our brand.

BC: While the need for the compression part is clear, why are you just targeting men? Any plans for a women’s line?

White: I personally felt under-represented as an active male. I started WOLACO because there was no active apparel brand that I could identify with. I saw athleisure brands, sports-specific brands, overly “techie” apparel brands, but there was nothing for the everyday off-the-field athlete. I felt strongly that this was the glaring opportunity that I could address most immediately.

Additionally, I’m a guy, and that’s what I know best. I initially founded the company to solve a problem that I faced personally. So that was where it made sense to start.

Lastly, focus. Focus is so important when starting out. It is easy to get caught up in what you “could do” and what others tell you “you should do.” Early on it’s important to be the best at something. This will allow you to perfect your marketing messaging and drive real impact within the market. With a small team this becomes especially important.

That being said, we’ve done a good job proving our concept with men, and I feel strongly that our brand purpose speaks to a much broader audience. I am especially excited to explore the possibility of launching a women’s line.

bc: With the ever-changing size of mobile phones, how will your shorts accommodate such shifts in design?

White: Since the start, our most invaluable source of feedback for product innovation has been our customers. They’ve inspired many of the upgrades we’ve made to our gear, including the size of the pockets.

Fortunately, for the most part, we’ve stayed ahead of the curve with sizing our pockets to accommodate the rapidly evolving mobile device industry.

With all of that said, the best insurance against the volatility of the size of mobile devices is to build a brand that people love. That way customers are likely to adopt any product that you put into the market.

bc: What are your two lessons learned from the experience thus far that you’d either do again – or do differently?

White: 1. Go with your gut. Listen to feedback and advice, meet with mentors and advisors on a regular enough basis, but at the end of the day you are in charge and you have the vision for your brand. Always listen, but be very particular about the advice that you decide to implement. It’s going to take longer than you think to build and grow your brand, so having conviction behind your vision and brand direction is essential.

2. Fail inexpensively. During the early stages of building a business and brand stay away from anything that requires a significant upfront financial commitment. Especially when it pertains to marketing. For as long as possible, take it upon yourself and your core team to market your business and sell your product, spending money sparingly. That way, when you are ready to spend more, you will have a more acute understanding for where to allocate those funds. It is inevitable that you will fail, that’s all part of the process. It’s just better that you don’t fail at the expense of your precious founding capital.


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