“How to Run”
Jeremy Litchfield and Atayne
Jeremy Litchfield has always been a runner. But when he was out exercising one day and the dye of his red athletic shirt began to run all over him, he wondered, “what, actually, is this made of?” Toxins and carcinogens, it turns out. Shocked by what he found and by the environmentally unfriendly industry standards, Jeremy identified a new market and a necessary intervention. Using his training in biology and experience in marketing, he founded Atayne, which features safe and environmentally friendly sports apparel, made from recycled materials. He is building a brand that wears its values, literally, on its sleeves. Here Jeremy reflects on how he got started and offers candid advice on building from scratch, keeping things moving, and finding — as well as being — a source of inspiration.
So how do you go from the red shirt “aha” moment to really creating a feasible business plan? What were your first steps as you decided, I’m going to start a business?
From the experience of the red shirt to me deciding to start Atayne, it was literally two days. A lot of my background was around marketing plans and branding strategies. That’s where I started because that’s what I knew. I did a really deep dive into the target market. I spent the first 15 months doing research and developing the business plan. I knew nothing about how to get apparel made; all I knew was that what was being offered in the market didn’t meet my needs and there was a way that it could be done that was much more sensitive to the environment and safer for people. I just had to figure out how. So it was research: spending hours and hours everyday reading research reports, trade reports, trying to get people within the industry on the phone to make contacts. And I did that until I had a rough business plan put together.
Things change so quickly, and what you think might be your primary source of revenue might be different. You have to adjust and be flexible and see where the market takes you. I was a runner, and I was living the lifestyle that we were looking to provide products for. I was building a company around me as the target consumer, which was maybe a little bit easier.
And what were the initial funding strategies? The first pools, the first investors?
We’ve been running extremely lean. And how we’ve been running to date is basically just friends of family and friends of friends. We raised a very small amount of money compared to what comparable companies are raising and we just have been bootstrapping it as much as possible. Not only is the economy not really great for raising money right now, but the people who do give you money want you to hand over the entire company. And I’m not prepared to do that. At the same time, our company is completely based on very strong values, and I’m not going to do anything that might force us to compromise those values.
I had some friends who knew a lot of people that had a decent amount of money – small business owners or people who have done well in the Washington DC area. And I basically had a prospective investor dinner where I went in and I presented the idea and the investment opportunity. And from that meeting we raised about 100,000 dollars. A little more has trickled in in the last couple of years, but that is how we did it. I just tried to get as many interested investors as possible and just presented the story. Most people weren’t investing in the idea of Atayne; they were either investing in me because they were friends of family or they were investing in the passion I had for the idea.
So that makes it sound like the funding strategy was kind of based around you and who you were, as well as the marketing strategy – you were marketing to yourself.
Exactly. Whether you’re starting a company, a triple-bottom-line company, whatever it may be, if you are not extremely passionate about what you’re doing, then you should not even consider it. Because it is mentally tough. I went from a very good paying job to making no money. And I haven’t made any money in the last three years. One of the misconceptions that I had was I’m going to go out and raise this money and I’m going to start paying myself a very good salary. Well if you’re an investor, the last thing you want money going toward is a salary; you want money going toward stuff that is actually going to grow the company. And getting up each day and working 16, 17, 18 or however many hours and not getting paid is extremely difficult unless you’re extremely passionate about what you’re doing. You basically can survive off that passion. That’s why I think that social entrepreneurs have kind of a leg up because there’s so much more behind what they’re dong than purely money. Obviously I want to be able to make money from Atayne, but I really do think of this as a vehicle to drive a lot of positive social change and that’s really what keeps me going.
And how do you put together a team that shares that drive?
I am the only official employee of Atayne. We have a lot of contract workers and freelancers that do a variety of things for the company – from product design to web design, accounting, PR. Everything we do is trying to find people who share the same values. That’s how we want to hire. Because you can teach certain hard skills, but the soft skills of understanding the lifestyle that we’re trying to promote and the change that we’re trying to create – you either have it or you don’t. I’d rather hire someone with no business skills, with the pure passion and the drive and who believes in what we do than someone with five to ten years of the experience that we’re ultimately hoping to get.
Do you have a physical office space there in Maine?
No. We’re completely virtual. I work out of the home office, and everyone works out of a home office. People might say, “That doesn’t make you very much of a company.” But that’s the reality of how the world works today. You don’t want to limit the right people who work in your company by saying, “you have to work in an office.” Plus, why would I spend a thousand dollars a month on an office space.
The one thing that has been very important to us is bootstrapping like you wouldn’t believe – trying to get things done, or getting services either free or very inexpensive. So many people say that you need to pay for certain services. But every dollar that goes out to some sort of operating cost that doesn’t actually move the business forward is a wasted dollar. The amount of money that startups might spend on a phone system is silly. Some of the online options that they have for phone trees and forwarding calls are incredible. And it makes you look like a large company. It’s all about making yourself look like a much bigger company than you are but making it look professional and doing it on a shoestring.
What steps do you take to build and maintain the team culture in the virtual office place?
We organize a lot of different volunteer activities. We call it trash-running. It’s going around and picking up trash. A lot of the people that are involved in our company come out for those things and that’s a great way for us to connect. It’s less about the office culture, and more about the lifestyles we lead. It’s all about getting that work done, and I’m not going to micromanage. But if you’re not delivering than we’ll have problems. So if people that are working for us love to be able to spend their summers outside biking, swimming, and they want to work at night, I could care less. It’s really about, how can you let people live the lifestyle that they want to live?
Who are some people and sources that you go back to as you go forward?
My junior year I read the book Double Dip which was written by the founders of Ben and Jerry’s and it talks about business as this powerful machine for driving positive change. And ultimately that’s what I wanted to do with my life. There are a handful of companies that we model ourselves after. We want to do in athletic apparel what they’ve done in other spaces. Cliff Bar is a great inspiration. Stonyfield Farms is another one. Tom’s of Maine. Seventh Generation. These are companies, and founders, who I read their books and I study. Because they all have times in growing their companies where they face very hard decisions where they choose not to compromise values. In general you can get inspiration from so many places in the world.
It also seems like there is a whole element of inspiration built into the marketing strategy of Atayne. There’s Leonardo da Vinci, RFK, and Dr. Seuss on the website. And on the shirts themselves there are messages. Could you talk a little bit about inspiration as a strategy?
We make performance and athletic gear made from recycled materials, but really our passion is to inspire quality change. A lot of what we do as a company is providing people with the tools to do that. So our trash runners program gets people to realize they can make a difference. The idea of putting graphics on our shirts was – there’s a lot of people who run and bike and do yoga and do all these activities and when they’re doing it they’re promoting a billion dollar brand. So our idea is, why don’t you promote your values? So a lot of our design and how we do our logo treatment is, lead with our values and the brand will follow. Our logo is always on the back of our garments and front and center on the chest we like to put what we call point-of-view graphics, and we like to view them as mobile billboards. If you have a few million runners out there and they’re supporting recycling and they run by a family having a picnic in the park, they see that and think, we’ll take these bottles home and recycle them.
At the beginning of the interview you said that, “if you knew then what you know now…” What do you know now that you would tell an aspiring social entrepreneur?
I think number one is, people need to understand that starting a company and being a social entrepreneur is hard, but it’s not hard in how you think it is going to be hard. I don’t find it hard to do the bookkeeping, to do the marketing plan or anything like that. What’s hard is the mental toll that it takes on you and the fact that you continually have to have this entire world on your shoulders. You’re the sole person responsible for moving it forward, and lots of the people that are around you won’t understand that. And the only people that will understand you are other social entrepreneurs. Being able to interact with them and talk with them is important because no one will understand what you’re going through unless they’ve done it before.
The other thing is, I spent 15 months doing a lot of research and writing a business plan. And I continued to always revise my business plan, thinking that was the key to success. And I was wasting so much time working on my business plan that I wasn’t running the company. And about last December I said I’m not touching my business plan anymore. I know the plan. It’s in my head. Now I do little plans with bullet points that have what the main ideas are, but don’t get so wrapped up in this idea of a business plan. That’s just a marketing document to try and get investors in. The best thing you can do is just focus on your core business and making sure you’re doing things everyday to move that forward.