Steady As She Goes
Entrepreneur|Startups Fall 2017

TYLER HANEY knew how to pace herself on the running track. But as she’s learning with her hit athleisure brand, Outdoor Voices, pacing a business is just as important—and a lot trickier.

Michael Andor Brodeur

In 2015, Tyler Haney showed up at the Crosby Street Hotel for one of the biggest pitches of her life. She was meeting David Fialkow, of General Catalyst, to add him to a Series A funding round for her startup clothing brand, Outdoor Voices. And she was bringing two unexpected things to the table: a photo of Girls star Lena Dunham jogging in head-to-toe Outdoor Voices wear, and a shiner.

The night before, Haney, a former track star, was jogging her usual route down Manhattan’s West Side Highway, her favorite place to clear her mind, and a spiritual path of sorts for her company: It was on this same road, four years earlier, when Haney first hatched the idea for Outdoor Voices. This time, however, she tripped over a dog.

“So I have this shot of Lena and I’m like, ‘Here’s a win,’ and”—pointing to her eye—“‘Here’s a loss,’” Haney recalls with a laugh. “It was perfect.”

It also worked. The meeting, which resulted in a $7.5 million round led by General Catalyst, sent the right message about the brand—a line of apparel with an emphasis on a playful, “human, not superhuman” approach to everyday fitness—and about Haney as a competitor: “I’m out there, I’m determined, and I’m running so hard that I fall on my face.”

The trail Haney blazed is paying off. Outdoor Voices is jockeying for position in what seems like an impossibly tight race of major players in the athleisure space—Nike, Under Armour, and Lululemon chief among them. Since launching in January 2013, Outdoor Voices has grown from a collection of five samples and a few bolts of technical fabrics stored under Haney’s bunk bed into a thriving e-commerce business with a brick-and-mortar retail presence in five cities, a staff of 70-plus people, more than $29 million in venture backing, and high-profile supporters like French designer and A.P.C. founder Jean Touitou and Goop founder and actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

In August, the company named a new chairman of its five-person board: former J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler, who also led its most recent $9 million round of funding. His investment in activewear might seem surprising, but the conspicuously understated design and unique feel of Outdoor Voices—designed to maximize cool in several senses and minimize intimidation—has drawn support from all corners of fashion. The brand has even done flash collaborations with fashion-world names like A.P.C. and Leandra Medine (author of the blog Man Repeller), quietly granting Outdoor Voices a level of runway cachet not often bestowed upon what were once known as “gym clothes.”

All this forward momentum took time to build, and as any runner knows, sustaining the right pace is a matter of heart over lungs, and endurance over speed, especially on an uphill climb. Haney’s past life as a track star hasn’t just fueled the passion she has for her product; it’s shaped the way she leads her company— keeping your stride, anticipating every step, not letting the hurdles trip you up, and, most important, not sweating whom you’re up against.

Now, as her company enters a new phase and an ambitious expansion plan, she’ll have to remember those lessons more than ever. Creating a brand is hard; accelerating requires a new set of skills entirely. “Being naive is ultimately helpful when you’re starting a company that you say is going to be the next Nike,” she says. “I had zero to lose, and that’s what kind of kept me going.”

On Your Mark…

Growing up in Boulder, Colo., Haney, 29, was “the ultimate tomboy,” sporting short hair and Nike everything. She played on the boys YMCA basketball team (scoring only one basket—for the other team) and the boys soccer team, rode horses, and ran track. In fifth grade, she quickly established herself as the fastest in class while running laps around the school for PE class—notably defeating a particularly fleet-footed boy named Alec. She savors this memory.

By the time Haney reached high school, she was performing well enough on horseback and in hurdles (which she picked up by hopping broomsticks in her backyard) to inspire Olympic fantasies in each. A number of colleges saw the same potential, attempting to recruit her, but something else was calling to her.

“Since I was little, I’ve been into color and design and material,” she says. Her father owned a small screen-printing and embroidery shop that had given her some scattered hands-on experience with crafting bits of clothing. As graduation drew closer, she became more apprehensive about committing to a “singular, sports-star focus.” Plus, after such a long run in Boulder, she was craving new inspiration, a change of scenery, a different starting line.

Drawn to the energy of the East Coast from a visit to Boston during her senior year, Haney moved there for a year “on a whim,” slinging margaritas at the Border Cafe in Harvard Square; hobnobbing with students, tourists, and the occasional Patriot (she credits the late Junior Seau with giving her an early push toward entrepreneurship); and plotting her next step. More and more, she was thinking about a career in design. And like so many others harboring that same dream, she decided, I’ve got to go to New York.

Haney enrolled in a design and management program at Parsons School of Design, an institution synonymous with upstart fashionistas making it work. But she had different plans: “I really did think I was going to go to [well-regarded design company] IDEO and think about how to design airports better.” She learned to problem-solve and communicate through design and picked up practical skills, from mastering Adobe to drafting pitch decks.

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