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The Barcode Podcast is presented by Titanium CPG Insurance. Titanium protects forward-thinking consumer brands with a range of commercial insurance products and risk management services designed specifically for natural and organic food and beverage companies. Learn more at titaniumcpg.com

This week on The Barcode Podcast, we’re talking to Rick Wittenbraker and how he went from commodities trader to the Chief Marketing Officer for Howler Brothers – a design-driven, Austin, Texas based outdoor apparel company.

A well-thought out, immersive brand has the power to create a true tribe. And Rick has been able to do that at Howler Brothers and previously during his time at YETI.

Listen in as Ben and Rick have a wide-ranging conversation about the importance of people and community and how knowing the personality of a brand can make that brand truly magnetic.

WATCH THE INTERVIEW:

 

CLICK HERE TO VIEW FULL TRANSCRIPT

 
 BEN                           Welcome to The Barcode Podcast. My name is Ben Ponder, and I want to remind everybody that The Barcode Podcast is presented by Titanium CPG Insurance. Titanium protects forward-thinking consumer brands with a range of insurance products and risk management services designed specifically for natural and organic food and beverage brands. You can learn more online at TitaniumCPG.com.

                                    And I’m really thrilled today to welcome my friend Rick Wittenbraker, who is the CMO at Howler Brothers and an all-around interesting good dude, and really glad to have you here, Rick.

RICK                         Well thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure.

BEN                           Yeah. We’re going to dive into all kinds of things. We’re going to talk outdoors, we’re going to talk apparel and fashion and style and all that kind of stuff, marketing, storytelling. But I do want to start off with your favorite meal ever.

RICK                         Oh man, okay. Oh, that’s a great question, and I love food. I love meals with friends and people, and I like all kinds of food. I mean, I think despite loving all those fun, cool, exotic, fancy foods and things, I think my favorite meal though probably is not fancy at all. My family has a lake cottage up in Michigan, and it’s sitting on the deck on the lake.

BEN                           So I’m assuming this is in the summer.

RICK                         Yes. Most definitely in summer, preferably the latter half of the summer.

BEN                           That’s right, yeah. The special six weeks, yeah.

RICK                         But let’s call it August, on the deck, everybody’s in and out of the water a hundred times. Kids are still dripping wet. And my wife, she even calls it late dinner, but she just puts out this awesome big cheeseboard spread of all this different stuff. And it’s the total happy moment where everyone’s together. We’re all in the moment. All five of us are together, and it’s not even the food, it’s just the place and the setting and that we’re all together.

BEN                           And the moment and the freedom, and the kids grab the cheese and then they jump. They do a back flip into the water.

RICK                         That’s it and been fortunate enough that this has been in our family so long that I grew up doing this as a kid. And so, you see the full circle, and it’s the most un-fancy vacation you could probably ever get. But man, it’s like everybody’s favorite moment. It’s great.

BEN                           Oh, that’s super special and cool. You’ve been a lot of places, I’m sure eaten in a lot of interesting, fancy, exotic restaurants. And those have value, right?

RICK                         Oh yeah.

BEN                           You know it’s funny, you didn’t even talk about the food. It’s about the company.

RICK                         That’s right.

BEN                           It’s about the place and the full circle part of it, which is really amazing.

RICK                         Yep.

BEN                           That’s good. That’s cool. Well thank you for sharing that. So, we’re going to get to Howler Brothers in a second, but I want to catch people up really fast. You are an interesting guy who if I recall, you got your start professionally speaking as a commodities guy, right?

RICK                         Well, that was when I was in New York, but actually before that I was in private equity. The company was based out of Dallas.

BEN                           When you were in private equity, was your beard as excellent as it is right now?

RICK                         No. No, no, no. I used to wear a suit, all that stuff.

BEN                           Unrecognizable.

RICK                         Not really every day, but in the Dallas office I often wore a tie. I wasn’t there very often, but I got really lucky. Prior to graduating from college, I lived in several places that you only speak Spanish, and that was sort of a passion for me. And so, I wanted to parlay that into the next chapter and a job, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to, and there’s nothing wrong with it, I knew I didn’t want to just go somewhere and teach English or something like that. I wanted a real J-O-B.

BEN                           Something that felt like it was a career trajectory for you.

RICK                         Yes, yes. But I didn’t know what that was, and so I got really lucky and stumbled across this opportunity through a connection that said, “Here’s this private equity shop in Dallas.” And they had made an investment in Argentina. And actually, I had said, “I really only want to go to Argentina.” I had lived in Mexico, I had lived in Spain, and I thought it sounded awesome.

                                    I knew the fly fishing was great, and I was like, “I think this is my spot.” And back then it was almost impossible to find a job on the internet. And my folks were actually pretty encouraging, but they didn’t know anyone in Argentina, and it wasn’t like I had some network to tap into. I got really lucky.

BEN                           Yeah.

RICK                         This firm had already made one investment down there and it was going really well, and so they wanted to make additional investments and their eyes were open to the opportunity, and back then too the Argentinian government was privatizing a lot of businesses. And so, there was this gold rush, and there was a lot of things happening down there and it was a great time to be there, and the peso was still pegged to the dollar, and it was great.

BEN                           So you’re back and forth between Dallas and Buenos Aires?

RICK                         No, I really just lived there.

BEN                           You just lived there all the time.

RICK                         Actually I lived in western Argentina, in a regional province called Neuquén and it’s a two hour and change flight from Buenos Aires. But it’s a cool place. It’s a rough equivalent of being in Denver, where you’re on the high plains right next to the mountains.

BEN                           You can see the snow-capped peaks.

RICK                         You can see the snow.

BEN                           Foothills, trout streams, yeah.

RICK                         Yeah, so drop fishing, but also ski mountains and all this stuff. So, every weekend I was out the door.

BEN                           That’s good. That’s a good first job.

RICK                         And it was cool, and like I said, I got really lucky and the job paid not all that well, but you got all these perks of being an expat. And so, you get this ex-pat package, you get an instant bump plus they paid all my bills and expenses.

BEN                           They pay for all your expenses, yeah.

RICK                         And my apartment and all this stuff.

BEN                           So it lets you save up, yeah.

RICK                         I didn’t save anything, but –

BEN                           If you’re in your 20s, it lets you live.

RICK                         But it empowers you to do more stuff on the weekends, and I did a lot of that. It was really pretty incredible. It was definitely over my pay grade on the work front, and so it was a crash course. And I didn’t have a business degree, I had taken some classes, like a minor, but I really was just shooting from the hip.

BEN                           You learned on the job.

RICK                         Everything I had learned in school, we went past that in the first afternoon, and so it was really a lot of asking a lot of questions and trying to figure stuff out and not look stupid.

BEN                           Right, because really school, college, all that stuff, it just hopefully teaches you how to learn, and then you get out and really learn the stuff that you need to know.

RICK                         Yeah, I think that’s right. But regardless, it was this great experience and I learned a ton both professionally and personally, and had this wonderful time doing it. And so, I did that, and I was there for, I don’t know, a year more or less, and then I got transferred to a different project in El Salvador, and I was there for three years.

BEN                           Were you fluent in Spanish at that point?

RICK                         Yeah, well it’s a funny thing because you think you’re really good…

BEN                           You’re in a lot of different countries, too.

RICK                         Yeah, and so I thought I was really good until I went and did a semester abroad in Spain. Where we had grown up and where I’d lived previously was in Mexico, so I know Mexican Spanish. And then I go to do a semester abroad in Spain.

BEN                           Right, and the Spaniards made fun of your accent.

RICK                         It’s totally different, and so I got a little humbled and brought back down to earth. And then after being there for seven months or whatever it is, you get a lot more confidence and like, “Okay, now I get it and I see the delta between the two, and okay, now I’m great.” So, I went back and said, “Oh, I’m great.” And then I get back down to Argentina, it’s a totally different thing and once again you’re just humbled and brought back to your knees. But it’s a great thing.

BEN                           That’s an awesome experience.

RICK                         I will say the more places you go like that… I mean same holds true for English. Someone from Texas verses Ireland, South Africa, it’s all different.

BEN                           The idioms are different.

RICK                         Yeah, the slang, the inflections, all those things. But you learn to figure it out and figure out the deltas, and I really loved that component of it, but it was definitely a challenge.

BEN                           That’s good, that’s good. So you got a new assignment, El Salvador.

RICK                         Yep.

BEN                           And then how long were you there?

RICK                         I was there for three years and it wasn’t supposed to be that long, and I sort of agreed to stay on. Long story short, until we sold that business. And so, we finally made it happen, sold that biz. We flew to Dallas to sign all the paperwork, and that was my last day. And it was great, and I had a great time, I worked with some great people, but I was ready for something new. And I didn’t really know what that was going to be, and so I took a summer off and just played and fished and traveled a bunch.

BEN                           In the US or around the world?

RICK                         All over, yeah. And then at the end of that summer one of the places I’d considered was New York.

BEN                           It’s known for its trout fishing.

RICK                         Yeah, no. Well I was just intrigued, and it seemed like the pinnacle of a lot of stuff, and I was just intrigued.

BEN                           Go big or go home.

RICK                         But that was by no means a thing. I actually had a job offer in Spain, and I was pretty intrigued by that. But I started dating who is now my wife, and she was already in New York at the time, and so that was an instant.

BEN                           It’s a pretty good draw.

RICK                         Yeah, that’s a big check mark as to why I might want to go there. And then 9/11 happened. We had only been dating for two and a half weeks or something, and weirdly enough on 9/11 I was the only person she could receive calls from, just weirdly, and I was the only person she could call. And so that day in all its craziness and hairiness, it was this bonding moment for us.

                                    But I became the conduit, like the switchboard operator between her family and her, and you can imagine how many calls were back and forth.

BEN                           It was a very intense day, particularly for New Yorkers.

RICK                         That solidified it for me, and I just said, “Well I don’t want her to be alone up there.” And so I was on the first flight from Dallas to LaGuardia.

BEN                           When it reopened.

RICK                         Yeah, it was three days later I think, and I said, “All right, I’m staying.” Worst time ever to move to New York and try and find a job, but I’d prioritized her and being there, and I wanted to be there. And so, I said, “Okay, let’s go do it.” And it took a while, it did. I mean, I struggled actually to find a job up there, and so I actually started taking classes at NYU, and would do some part time stuff to help friends out.

                                    But it was really this struggle, and partly too because I wanted to leverage this experience I had in Latin America. So again, I got super lucky. I’ve realized I have this bad habit of picking a destination before I have a job or anything. But I got really lucky and found this little job posting online and applied, and it said, “Commodities trading, must speak Spanish.” That’s it, and they had made up a Hotmail account to receive the resumes but didn’t tell you the name of the company, it didn’t tell you anything.

BEN                           Right. Hotmail wasn’t quite as shady back then.

RICK                         Yeah. It was kind of the only free email back in the day. But in the email, in the name of the email they created, they inadvertently, I think, put the name of the company. And so, I just-

BEN                           You figured it out.

RICK                         I figured it out and then I just called them. And I said, “Hey, I want to make sure I applied for the job, I want to make sure you got my resume.” And they were more intrigued by the fact that I figured out who they were and that I had called, and said, “Okay yeah, we have it right here. Can you come in tomorrow?” I said, “Sure.” And I went in there, and I didn’t know anything. They didn’t tell me anything.

BEN                           Right. You didn’t know what commodities was.

RICK                         I didn’t know anything about commodities. I literally Googled it and turns out it was this really interesting boutique commodities trading firm that only dealt in sugar. And our niche was that they had relationships with all the producers, all the growers in Latin America. And so, their niche as a middleman was to place this sugar in other places across Latin America and the rest of the world.

                                    And so that’s why you had to speak Spanish, preferably have lived in Latin America, even if I knew nothing.

BEN                           Preferably have lived in multiple places in Latin America.

RICK                         Yeah, but they said, “Look, we can teach you sugar, we can teach you this other stuff, the trading side of it.” But it was really fascinating, and I was the only American in the company, and everyone’s from a different country, and we all sat at a big trading desk, our desks mashed together and phones ringing all the time and stuff.

BEN                           Yelling into phones in Spanish, in different dialects.

RICK                         Yelling into phones. Yeah, and so everybody’s screaming across the table.

BEN                           It sounds like a movie scene.

RICK                         It wasn’t that crazy actually, but there’s a lot of slang bouncing around from a lot of different backgrounds and things, and it was pretty interesting.

BEN                           What did you learn about the sugar business from that?

RICK                         Oh you learned a ton.

BEN                           Is there anything that’s not obvious to a person who just buys sugar or whatever?

RICK                         Yeah, okay. So, there’s really more or less four grades of sugar qualities, and it’s a scientific grading. Whereas stuff like coffee is very subjective.

BEN                           It’s more like grading diamonds.

RICK                         Yeah, I mean there’s four things, and one’s color, one is this ICUMSA test that’s a chemical test they do on it to see purity, basically. And so, there’s things like that which you don’t really think about, you just think sugar. Brown sugar is different, it has molasses in it. But there are differences.

                                    I think what was, to me, the most fascinating was not even the sugar, but rather that here’s this thing that’s produced, this product that’s produced on one side of the globe and through network and technology and all this stuff we would end up moving that to the other side of the globe. And it was pretty fascinating, and so a lot of what we actually handle a lot of the times was logistics. And it could be just ocean freight containers, but a lot of it for, raw sugar especially, which is in bulk, it’s not packaged. And so when you charter vessels, you charter entire vessels.

BEN                           You just fill the whole thing up.

RICK                         And you fill the holds, are like a big conveyor belt. Whole thing gets filled up with sugar, and these vessels would go from point A to point B, whatever that was. But that’s pretty crazy.

BEN                           Oh, I know. The scale of it’s just massive.

RICK                         Twenty thousand tons of sugar going from port A to port B, and it’s pretty interesting. And not a ton, but some of that logistics stuff has helped me along the way at different jobs, especially when you’re dealing with foreign entities and processes.

BEN                           The complexities, and what happens at a port and all of that stuff.

RICK                         Yeah.

BEN                           So as a commodities trader though, were you dealing with futures and things like that as well?

RICK                         Oh yeah.

BEN                           So you’re making bets on whether the price of sugar’s going to go up or down based on unrest in a given country or something?

RICK                         Yeah, so that’s a lot more like speculation, and we did a little bit of spec trading if we had good intel, or we felt like the market’s moving in one direction, or there’s an opportunity there. But mostly what we did was we were the middleman; we were actually buying the sugar. And if I’m buying a pound of sugar from you the grower, and I’m going to turn around and sell that pound to someone else, a customer.

                                    Then if I buy it from you, for ease of conversation, a dollar, and I want to go sell it for $2, then I’m making that dollar margin there. But you have a lot of risk, and that risk is the way these contracts are done, you have to deliver it within a certain window. It has to arrive of the certain quality that they specified, free of all these-

BEN                           Contaminants or whatever, yeah.

RICK                         Yeah, or anything bad. And if a vessel shows up late, you’re out. And so, it’s things like that, and so your balance there, your ballast and shoring up that risk is you offset it with futures. And so, in the worst-case scenario, you’re delivering that load against your own futures and you crisscross it.

                                    There’s going to be some difference there, maybe even a little loss on that, but it’s a whole lot less.

BEN                           It’s an insurance policy.

RICK                         It’s an insurance policy really. And there’s a way to make additional money on that if you time your future stuff right, but it’s a different thing. And it’s very different than trading the stock market. It’s more like calls and puts than it is like actual equities. It’s pretty neat, but I think what I enjoyed as much as anything was the environment and the people, and learning this new trade, even though I never really use it now.

BEN                           That’s still fascinating.

RICK                         Yeah, it was interesting, and it was fun and cool.

BEN                           I love it, I love it. So, let’s fast forward a little bit. You find your way back from New York, you spent some time in New York. You find your way back to Austin at some point, and I know that initially you were just helping the Cedar brothers out, right? It was just like you were friends.

RICK                         So I’d moved back to Austin, and two of my college buddies had started this medical device company. And again, I knew nothing about medical devices or the disease state they were trying to really solve for.

BEN                           That’s pretty funny. That’s really funny by the way.

RICK                         Well actually, what’s even funnier is that it was more really centered around diabetes. So, I went from-

BEN                           Sugar.

RICK                         Years of slinging sugar in New York to then now solving diabetes over here.

BEN                           I met this guy in a small town in Arkansas once, and he owned the only pharmacy in town and the only funeral home in town, so he was going to win either way. You’re just playing that; you’re playing that game.

RICK                         And so I did that for several years and that was really interesting and fun, and a great startup experience. We accomplished a ton there, but we hit this crossroads and it was late ’08, the economy is crapped out-

BEN                           Everything is falling apart.

RICK                         That’s right, and we needed to raise more money and it was a terrible time to raise more money.

BEN                           You couldn’t do it, you couldn’t do it.

RICK                         And so we said, “Okay, the company needs to go down to skeleton crew.” And frankly I’d had a great run, but I was ready for something different, and so I didn’t really know what I was going to do. And so, took some time to chew on it, and actually some friends had decided to put this event together and they asked me to help them, just helping out. And so, I said, “Okay, here’s a little project. I’m going to go help out on this project.”

RICK                         It may sound silly if you’re not into this, but it was the Austin showing of the Fly-Fishing Film Tour. Just as an independent promoter we can get a license and put on this event, and they wanted to do it. And so I said, “Okay, cool. This is great.” This is 11 years ago or something.

BEN                           Yeah. You’re like, “I’m in fly fishing, I’m down.”

RICK                         I’m in, yeah, this sounds cool. Let’s do it. And so, part of it was like, “Hey, we’ve got to reach out and we’ve got to get the word out. We got to sell a bunch of tickets.” We had taken on all this risk of renting out the theater, the Alamo Drafthouse. And you don’t just rent out one seat, you rent out the entire theater. And so, we had this risk, and with that there’s a food and beverage minimum per seat. So, we were like, “Oh man, we really got to make this thing happen. We got to sell tickets and we got to get people to buy food and bev, and we got to drum up sponsors and exhibitors and stuff to have a little…”

BEN                           A little cushion, yeah.

RICK                         Just so it’s a full-bore event, but also that we have some cushion to fall back on. And it ended up being wonderful, and so much fun and cool. And so, here’s the first time ever my hobby is in sort of a project, but it was just a fun project. But I didn’t know Roy or Ryan back then, and I didn’t have one of their coolers at that point, but I’d met their other brother, Rick.

                                    And so, I got Rick to make an intro to them, and I asked them to be a sponsor for the event. They said, “Sure.” And they gave us a cooler to raffle off.

BEN                           And what was YETI at that point?

RICK                         So YETI at that point, they were back in a shared warehouse in Driftwood, Texas, and it was maybe a total of eight employees, including the warehouse. They all shared one Gmail account.

BEN                           It was Gmail instead of Hotmail.

RICK                         Yeah, they had one really wobbly circular conference table. Every time you put your elbows on it, everything would run towards you. But it was really neat, and it was one of those things where my friends that already had one of these coolers raved about them, loved it and said, “Oh, you got to get one of these. These are the greatest things ever.” And so, I was intrigued by that as a consumer.

                                    And I actually took them out to lunch to say thank you for being a sponsor, and it was at that meeting that I was so intrigued. I kept asking all these business questions, and I got some of the answers I wanted and sometimes I was like, “Well I don’t know.” And so, I went home that night and just researched everything I could, googled them and dug up all this stuff. And there were things that I was blown away they weren’t doing. There are things that I was surprised they were doing, and there are things that I just didn’t see, or I didn’t know.

                                    And so, I reached back out to Roy and said, “Look man, I have all these questions. I know this is kind of a pain, but I have these questions for you, and I think there’s some stuff I think you ought to hear, that you ought to be doing.” And so I went back out there.

BEN                           Now at that point, did you consider yourself a marketing guy?

RICK                         No, not at all. In fact, honestly, truly, I still don’t.

BEN                           Yeah, that was an obvious kind of segue there, but yeah.

RICK                         I just went and sat back down with Roy, and it’s not early stage of the internet, but it’s not mature either. And I just sat down with him, I was like, “Hey man…” I had this legal pad of all these notes and comments and bullet points and things. And he was like, “Oh man, I don’t know what that is,” or, “We don’t want to do that, we’re too focused over here.” Whatever the answer was.

                                    And finally, he just cut me off. He goes, “Man, this is all great, but we don’t know, we don’t have time to mess with all this stuff basically.” And I, spur of the moment, just out of nowhere said, “Well, just deputize me and let me do this.” And he goes, “Okay.” And so, it started that simple and off the cuff, and we hammered it out. And so, there were certain things that I wanted to do for them, and there were certain things he wanted me to do, and so we just prioritized these things.

                                    And some of them were project based and some were commission based, and some were retainer based and it started pretty modestly.

BEN                           So you’re just really a contractor effectively, at that point.

RICK                         Yeah, and it wasn’t even all marketing.

BEN                           Business stuff.

RICK                         He didn’t want to start a Facebook page.

BEN                           How many followers do they have on Facebook now?

RICK                         I don’t know what they have now but it literally was me setting it up and doing a really bad Photoshop of the logo and cooler in one image to be the profile pic. But I was the first follower, of course.

BEN                           Of course, but somebody’s got to start it.

RICK                         But it was stuff like that, and they just didn’t see the value in it. It’s not that they couldn’t, they just were so busy running with other stuff.

BEN                           Right. Was the logo the logo at that point?

RICK                         Yeah. It’s that super bold Arial black.

BEN                           Arial black, it’s the most generic thing ever. Did you guys ever talk about that in those early days? Of like, “I don’t know if this is going to take off.”

RICK                         Well that predated me, but every time that it came up… Roy is a great entrepreneur, but he’s also a great tinkerer. He’s the one really that will sit there and tweak all these little things on a product and test it and say, “I want this to be one eighth of an inch different.” Or whatever. Or, “I wish it did this.” And he tells the story too, but I think he just wanted something that was really bold and could be easily recognizable, both in name and in logo.

BEN                           That’s right. But it’s interesting, because it’s a typographic font, and you would assume that you would have had a picture of a YETI.

RICK                         I mean, everyone that has Windows has this font.

BEN                           That’s right.

RICK                         I mean it wasn’t like some custom designed thing with a graphic designer, or some big discovery process. No, it was like, “Hey, this is big and bold, and it looks pretty good. Let’s do that.”

BEN                           That’s good stuff. Okay, so you’re doing some marketing, some just general business stuff.

RICK                         Some was sales.

BEN                           Sales stuff? Yeah.

RICK                         Some was what you would probably call biz dev.

BEN                           Right, right. And I know that they didn’t have hats at that point, right?

RICK                         They were making hats, but they were just giving them to their friends. They weren’t selling them, and it wasn’t a real customer facing effort. They weren’t selling them on the website, and they weren’t really even a thing.

RICK                         It was sort of like, “Hey we got some of these made, you want one?”

BEN                           Yeah, this is an interesting tie-in to your own personal career trajectory too, right? So, this is probably the first time you’re involved, I would assume, in a true apparel project.

RICK                         Well, dating back to high school.

BEN                           Oh okay, fair.

RICK                         I did some event tee shirts and merch and hats, for athletics and for events and things like that. My friend Glen Collins who I went to high school with, who’s still in the Dallas Heat. He did lots of that, and so we did a few together.

BEN                           So you had a knack for it already.

RICK                         And then I did a lot of it in college too. I ended up taking that over, the party tee shirts and those sorts of things. I always liked side hustles, it was way more appealing to me to go try and sell through a batch of tee shirts and make 400 bucks than, say, have a steady job where I would wait tables, or some hourly job where I was just going to end up making 400 bucks.

BEN                           That’s right. That’s good stuff.

RICK                         That’s probably not a great characteristic.

BEN                           No, no, no, that’s good. I think it’s an indicator of an entrepreneurial spirit, right?

RICK                         Yeah maybe.

BEN                           You’re maybe not the best employee.

RICK                         Or A-D-D, one or the other.

BEN                           Yeah, some A-D-D, yeah. Okay, so they were giving away some hats, but then that somehow fell into your lap, right?

RICK                         Yeah, that was over time, but it really was, “Here are all these things that we’re doing, but they’re not on the site.” Well why wouldn’t we talk about that? Why wouldn’t we put that on the site? That was just one of the things that we worked through and talked a lot about.

BEN                           And again, I’m going to assume that most of the people who are watching or listening to this are familiar with YETI coolers, but they’re really expensive, right?

RICK                         Yeah, they are, especially back then. It was really taking something that was 30, 40 bucks in a Walmart, to saying, “You can’t get it there. You have to go to a specialty retail shop and it’s 10X the price.” And it has a lot of value.

BEN                           And it worked.

RICK                         And it works, and it holds ice incredibly long, and it’s extremely durable, and you won’t have to replace that crappy cooler once a year or whatever. But in those early days it was hard. I don’t mean me, I mean for the whole company, there’s a lot of evangelism that you have to do. There’s a whole lot of just getting out there and pounding pavement and demonstrating and just doing it.

BEN                           Because it’s a major investment, and a lot of the people who are buying it aren’t necessarily like…these aren’t people driving luxury cars.

RICK                         I believe that that’s one of the intrinsic things of why the hats were so important. And so, you have a lot of people that they made this $300 investment, let’s call it, and back then… It’s still a lot of money, but it was a big commitment, and no one really thought of a premium version of an everyday item like this. Now it’s more commonplace. And so, if you were the guy that plopped down 300 bucks for this cooler, you want to go all in on it.

BEN                           That’s right, it’s part of your identity.

RICK                         And so I’m all in and-

BEN                           I’m the kind of person who pays 300 bucks for a cooler, right?

RICK                         I think it’s even more like, “Oh crap, I paid 300 bucks for a cooler. So now I better defend this.”

BEN                           That’s right, “I got to get out ahead of this before the criticism starts.”

RICK                         But no. And it was one of those things that so many people push back on the price and all this, but then once you had one, or once you used one, or sort of experienced one in use, you got it. And so even if you didn’t want to pay 300 bucks, you understood it. But you’re also not going to carry around your giant cooler down the street every day.

                                    And so there was definitely a tribe mentality, and it was like this club. Especially early on, but if you knew of them, had heard of them and had one, it was like, “Oh, you’re in the club.”

BEN                           You’re in, or you’re out.

RICK                         You’re in the club. And so, the hat was this way for people to wear that badge of honor, but also, they would wear it in an outward fashion. But then also on the inbound, you see a guy walking down the street that has a hat on, and if you were in the club, you’d be like, “‘Sup dog?”

BEN                           “Hey, yo.”

RICK                         Like, “I get it, man. We’re the same. I’m in the club too, man.”

BEN                           That’s right, that’s right. Our beer’s ice cold.

RICK                         Yeah.

BEN                           Were there a lot of people, was it aspirational too, though? Like people who hadn’t yet or were thinking about it, on the fence, maybe they couldn’t afford a cooler. They were like, “Well, I can at least afford a hat.”

RICK                         Yeah, in fact we saw this crazy phenomenon, and to go a little deeper, back then there was a very little slice of YETI’s pie that was made out of e-commerce, and it was largely by a huge distributor, a retailer network, and that was the lion’s share of everything.

BEN                           Specialty outdoor retailers.

RICK                         Yeah, and Bass Pro, Cabela’s, a lot of specialty hunting and fishing stores. And then we ended up getting really big while I was there into Ag feed and seed ranch stores. You’re speaking to the same places and people that also like to hunt and fish a lot of times.

BEN                           Places where people are buying Carhartt clothing, or something like that.

RICK                         Yeah, yeah. So, there is this barrier of price, that, “Oh, it’s 300 bucks to really be a card-carrying member of the club, but I can go get this hat and be a fan.” And so, what we saw was that even when we started offering the hats online and in the catalog to retailers, they really weren’t pulling them in.

                                    And so, we realized this phenomenon with accessories, like mounting systems and locks and seat cushions and all these things that really get to how you use your cooler.

BEN                           Cup holders on the sides of things.

RICK                         Yeah, all this stuff. There’s all kinds of accessories they have. And so, we found even if customers were buying their coolers at a store, they were still coming back to YETI to get these accessories to really trick out their truck or their boat or whatever it was.

BEN                           Which was super valuable to you guys from an e-commerce standpoint.

RICK                         Super valuable. But even pre e-commerce, pre really dialing in CRM stuff, was just that even if you buy it at the store, they’re coming to us to get this stuff. We started pushing that stuff out to retailers, and they just didn’t want to stock it because it was too hard to have all the accessories for all these sizes and things, and it didn’t move as much because everybody utilizes their cooler differently.

                                    And so, they just pushed back and what little merch we had, stickers and hats and some tees, they didn’t really adopt either. And what we learned was that it was actually all these people that bought the cooler at a shop, a lot of them ended up coming back to us for the accessories and what we call gear, which is really the logo merch. And then you had this whole other crowd that hadn’t yet bought a cooler but aspired to or wanted to.

BEN                           They’re on the fringes, some of them.

RICK                         Yeah, and they’re at some phase in the cycle, and they would come to us for the merch. And even when we pushed it out to retailers and they would only buy some of the classic navy and white trucker, they wouldn’t buy the other colors. And so, then it became this huge opportunity where we said, “Look…” We did several things with that, but one was if you bought a cooler direct from us, we threw a hat in.

                                    Back then we inspected it, and I believe they still do, but when the office and the warehouse were connected, we inspected every cooler by hand. And so, during that inspection process, if it passes before, they tape the box back up they just throw a hat in. So, there’s this unboxing experience for the guy who just shelled out 300 bucks and is so excited for this cooler to show up on his porch.

BEN                           And now he gets to show off.

RICK                         And he didn’t order the hat, the hat came for free and now he gets to show off and say, “I’m in the club too.” And the other thing was all those people who were avid fans and customers and had bought coolers and had bought accessories and tricked it out and they had everything they need. And so, they’re satisfied in those two buckets for the most part, but what was open-ended was this merch.

                                    And so, we started coming out with more colors of hats, more other products, and it would just disappear. It would go so fast. And so, it just opened the door to saying, “Well, we’ve got some latitude here and we can be a little creative.” And the more that we did that, the more gravity it had to pulling people to the site and being direct customers, as opposed to just being on the other side of a retail relationship.

BEN                           Where there’s a lot of opacity to what’s happening there, yeah.

RICK                         Yeah, you just don’t know who buys it. And there’s nothing wrong with that, and the wholesale channel and retailers are a super big component of YETI’s story and a lot of people’s story, especially in CPG. But it was this great way to connect to who your customers were, the same way that now everybody takes it for granted. But back then social was this other great way to go in parallel but over the top of the entire supply or logistics chain, distribution chain, and get direct to your consumer.

BEN                           Speak directly to the consumer.

RICK                         Yeah, or fans. But anyway, so we figured this out, and figured out that merch was this huge opportunity. And so, it’s like, “Okay…” And when I left, I think we had 36 different hats. Different colors, different styles, different profiles, all this stuff.

BEN                           And all of a sudden, the merch ended up being a nontrivial revenue.

RICK                         Yeah, I don’t know exactly, I want to say it was eight or nine percent, which isn’t that big, but back then it was.

BEN                           That’s still a deal.

RICK                         It was still a lot, and we were growing it triple digit growth every year.

BEN                           People are paying you-

RICK                         To advertise.

BEN                           … To advertise for you.

RICK                         That’s right, and that’s the biggest thing.

BEN                           You’re like, “Really? That’s awesome.”

RICK                         It was pretty amazing, and to the point where we were making so many hats that we were getting screaming good pricing on hats. At that time Outdoor Cap was like, “We’re out. We’re out of blanks. Y’all consumed everything we have in stock.” It was really neat, and then we got into other products and other things. But what we ended up finding out of that too, back to your earlier comment, was that there were guys who had bought 20 different hats but didn’t own a cooler.

RICK                         And had they just saved their sheckles they would be a proud owner of a cooler, but instead they have 20 hats in various stage of abuse. But it’s pretty fascinating. There’s a lot of lessons to be had there from a business standpoint, from a product offering, e-commerce, and what we now today call digital marketing.

                                    But then I also think about building a brand and creating a tribe, and how much impact those things all have on the success of a business, and it’s pretty interesting.

BEN                           Absolutely. So, I want to get to Howler Brothers in a second, but just a couple more questions around the YETI experience. What was the magic there? All of those things you said I think are completely valid. When you go from starting the snowball effect, you got to get somebody to pay 300 bucks for a cooler. Now if I can get somebody in Austin or somebody in Dallas to pay 300 bucks for a cooler, that doesn’t mean that somebody in Nashville, Tennessee has ever met anybody who paid 300 bucks for a cooler.

RICK                         Yeah, that’s fair. Early on that was definitely the case, and so I think there’s a couple of things that really factored into that. I mean one, the product was awesome.

BEN                           Light years.

RICK                         Light years, a step function greater than everything else around it.

BEN                           But was it hard for people. Again, if you didn’t know somebody who already had a YETI cooler, it looked sturdier, but how did you know? You’re like, “Oh, no really, the ice is going to stay ice.”

RICK                         And part of that we had to inform, and so in those days everyone, even in a shop, had product literature inside it, and we had to come up with the in-store displays and all those things. And so, we realized that because they’re big and boxy, one of the best ways we could do that was by putting a big sticker on the front of the cooler. Because usually it was sitting on a shelf or something, and that front face, there was this big opportunity.

BEN                           You got a billboard.

RICK                         There’s a lot of real estate, it’s a big opportunity to educate. So, if you didn’t have any, if you’ve never seen it before, or had heard of it but didn’t really know the ins and outs and were wondering. So, there is that, that’s a very practical component of it.

But I think the other thing I believe was really important was turning these customers into advocates and into fans and making them feel like a part of a tribe. And I think that’s incredible, because what happens then is the difference between advertising and PR, right? If there’s a trailer for a new movie and it’s like, “All the critics are saying this is the greatest film of the year,” and you’re like, “Okay, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

                                    Yeah maybe it’s good, maybe I should go see that, whatever. When your friend tells you, “Oh man, I saw that movie and it was incredible. You got to go see it.” You’re like, “Okay, well that’s a validation that I trust, and so I want in.” And so I think when you turn these people into advocates, and what really happens if you think of it from a posturing standpoint, they’re looking at the brand, they’re facing the brand, and the minute they buy in or they espouse what we’re talking about, they then turn outward and face their friends or their network or their geography, and they become a diluted spokesperson in a way, right?

BEN                           Do you think the premium price point actually fed into that?

RICK                         I think in a way it does, you know?

BEN                           Because you almost have to justify to yourself and to your friends.

RICK                         Yeah there is that, but I also feel like there’s this thing of like, “Well, hey man, I just upgraded my game over here. So now I’m just ratcheted up on you.” So, there is some of that, but I just think really you get people that start advocating and they go use it, and I think that’s the biggest thing is just using it. Same thing with food and bev. You’re like, “Just taste it. Just try it,” and let that speak.

                                    The packaging could be great, all that stuff, but you still got to taste it. And so, I think that was a big part of it, and then I think the other thing that I really believe was one of the critical components there is that we weren’t telling everyone. It’s broadened considerably since then, but at that time it was almost exclusively focused on hunting and fishing, outdoors.

                                    And some general outdoors, and then my last time there we broadened into the Ag, ranch, rodeo, and broadening into some beer and some other things. But really by and large it was wholly focused on outdoors.

BEN                           You weren’t really in the general sporting goods set yet.

RICK                         Not really. Sometimes depends on the shop, or the account sometimes, but by and large and all where we spent marketing dollars, and the imagery and the story we were telling was really all-around outdoors, and primarily hunting and fishing.

BEN                           And were you going after influencers in a deliberate way at that point? Again, that’s before a lot of that stuff.

RICK                         I would say it was really before that.

BEN                           Were you finding a famous hunter and being like, “Hey…”

RICK                         Yes. And as a category, most of these people had relationships with other brands, but that would be different product categories, and the cooler was wide open.

BEN                           They were already sponsored?

RICK                         That was a no brainer yeah, we’re taking coolers.

BEN                           The bow company or whatever, yeah.

RICK                         Yeah, if its fishing let’s say, you might have an apparel, you might have a rod, a reel, line, lures, boat, motor, all these other things, gizmos, whatever. And the cooler was this overlooked opportunity. I think that’s one of the things that’s really genius about it actually, is that you’re not telling people what a cooler is or how it works. You’re not telling people when and where to use it. We’re not even telling people like, “Hey, we like these activities so you should come do these activities, hunting and fishing.”

BEN                           Right, they’re already doing it.

RICK                         They’re already doing it, and I think really the magic lies in that people are already doing these activities, and actually that’s one slice when you really zoom out. People, even if they like to hunt and fish, let’s say, they also like to tailgate and go camping, and float down the river, and take road trips with the family, and go to the beach, and all these other things.

BEN                           Plenty of aspects of their lives where these are useful.

RICK                         And most of those instances are things that they are really happy about and love to do. They’re fun, interesting activities, right? All those things we just named that people get excited about, people all spend too much money on and too much time on and all that, and cooler was already a part of all that.

                                    So they already love these activities, it’s what they get excited about, why they leave work early, what they spend their money on and their vacation days.

BEN                           And these are expensive hobbies, too.

RICK                         Yeah, a lot of them are. But even if it doesn’t have to be expensive, but it’s still like, “This is what I want to do on my free time, on my weekend or on my day off, or whatever. I want to go do this.” And we didn’t have to tell people what those activities were, they were already doing them.

                                    We didn’t have to tell people how to use a cooler, that they should take a cooler to these activities. They’re already doing that. What we basically said is, “This cooler works so much better and lasts so much longer and it’s so much tougher.” So, we’re basically putting your hobby that you’re already obsessed with, we’re putting that on steroids. We’re making your hobby better.

BEN                           There’s a very clear value proposition.

RICK                         Once anyone figured that out, either on their own or someone told them, it was like this light goes off and they go, “Well, what have I been waiting for?” And, “Why wouldn’t I buy this?” Because of course I want my weekend to be better. I want my hobby to be better.

BEN                           This is my passion.

RICK                         I want to improve what I already love doing, and so when you really got down to that, it’s a little bit of psychology there, but it’s actually really simple. And so, I believe that, that was a big part of it, and so when you look at it like that, it’s like, “Oh, we’re just helping people do what they love.” And so, it kind of became real easy in a way.

BEN                           Well yeah, at some point it’s pull, right? You’re not pushing. Yeah.

RICK                         And I love the push versus pull thing, and I think that anytime you can get in a position of pull, you’re winning.

BEN                           Absolutely, absolutely, that’s excellent. Okay. So, to transition, again fast forwarding, how did you get involved with Howler Brothers?

RICK                         Yeah. So through a mutual friend, I got introduced to the founder Chase Heard. And I was still at YETI at the time, and I think it was even the week or something that they launched, right around the time that they launched, and I didn’t know much about it. I had seen it pop up here and there, but I really loved what they were doing, and I could see what they were projecting, and I loved the product. Instantly bought some and I loved it.

BEN                           And what was it at the time? I know at the time it was called Howler Brothers; it was named after the howler monkeys that they’d heard when they were surfing in Costa Rica. Is that right?

RICK                         Yep, yep, that’s right.

BEN                           And it’s two brothers, right?

RICK                         They’re not brothers.

BEN                           Not brothers, friends.

RICK                         And that’s part of the thing, is that it’s brothers in a friendship sense, or a co-conspirator sense, but not actually brothers.

BEN                           Not birth.

RICK                         Not blood brothers. Joined by shared callings and shared activities and things, and that still holds true today. So that’s where the brother’s component of it comes from.

BEN                           So you met him, you’re still at YETI. You think it’s pretty cool.

RICK                         I’m still at YETI, and I was really impressed by the product and by the brand. You see all these new company and new brand pop up, and they have a very narrow offering, and it’s like they rushed through all the brand stuff because they just wanted to get it out there. And you could just tell that they had put so much effort and energy and really considered every little detail of who they were, and the story, and what they were trying to project, and it just really spoke to me.

                                    And so, when I went to lunch with Jason, our mutual friend, and then Chase and I just totally hit it off, and we’re not only talking shop but as a person, and I just thought he was great. And so, we became fast buddies, and I just wanted to help them. So we tried to fold them into some YETI stuff when we could, and we’d probably go get a beer once a month or something and just see, and, “Hey, if I can help, if I can make introductions or whatever, let me know.”

RICK                         And so we just went like that for a while.

BEN                           And what was Howler Brothers at that point? What did they make?

RICK                         One of the things that I loved about them is most people would come out with tees and hats, because that’s the lowest barrier. Easiest to do, and inexpensive, and this was not that. So, they had a bunch of tees and hats that were all really well done, but they weren’t just screen printed on a blank. They were a fully custom tee, and they had custom hats, but they also had a bunch of woven button up shirts, short sleeve, long sleeve. They had shorts, they had board shorts, they had sun shirts, they had this whole thing and none of it was off the shelf.

                                    And everything was really cool and really considered, and lots of cool little details.

BEN                           That’s super ambitious.

RICK                         Super ambitious.

BEN                           I mean I’m kind of blown away that they had it that much together out of the gate.

RICK                         They could have easily launched sooner with the tees and hats, or with a lot less of an offering, but they really stuck to their guns. And kudos to Chase and Andy Stepanian, our other founder, about really saying, “No, we want to do this what we believe to be the right way, with a fully developed story and brand and all this stuff.”

                                    And now that I know them and am business partners with them, I know that they’re two incredibly smart, incredibly creative and talented people, and so it doesn’t surprise me one iota now that I really know them. But coming out of the blue, it looked like, “Dang, is this some foreign brand that’s been around for a long time and I’ve just never seen it?”

BEN                           Were they apparel guys before?

RICK                         No, in fact, along with our other partner, Mason, they all went to college together, and were all actually are still all in a band together called the Wrinkle Neck Mules, check them out on Spotify. So, they had a history of creative collaboration, they had a history of working together.

BEN                           That’s huge.

RICK                         Huge. I mean endless hours, not only being college friends but being in a van.

BEN                           Rental vans.

RICK                         And going to crappy bars and loading in and out your own gear and all this stuff, and all that. And they had a good stretch there where they were really giving it a go, and touring musicians, and that was the only thing they were doing. Now they’ve put out eight albums or whatever it is, they’re super talented and wonderful musicians.

                                    So, they had this history of friendship and work collaboration and creative collaboration. And Chase was an artist first, and fine art painter, and still is although he didn’t have too much time to do it anymore. And then he decided he wanted to be an architect, that’s why he moved to Austin, to go to UT, get his master’s in architecture. And so, he is a musician, he’s an artist, then becomes an architect. But the music never went away, and they’re touring, and Chase had actually been contacted by another apparel brand to come up with some designs, and then they ended up not using them.

BEN                           Was he ever a practicing architect?

RICK                         Yes. He worked for a firm here in Austin, designed residential homes. Really successful architecture firm.  So, he did that for several years, and he was a practicing architect when they launched Howler. There was some point six months later or something where they said, “Okay, this has enough traction. I feel comfortable quitting my day job to do that.”

BEN                           So someone had approached him and said, “Hey, would you help because you’re this great design mind.”

RICK                         Yeah, I think they met through music or something, but it was some other brand. And then he designed it, he was like, “Oh, this is a cool new canvas, or a cool new medium that I haven’t really messed with that much before.”

BEN                           Because he had to figure that out. That wasn’t his background.

RICK                         Not design, much as more like graphics and artwork. They probably let him see in a little bit about how their process works, and I think it intrigued him. And then when they ended up not making those designs, and he and Andy were both bummed because they wanted to wear those shirts.

                                    They were excited to get that stuff and then it didn’t happen, and then I think fueled by a little bit of frustration and a little bit of inspiration said, “Well what if we did this? What if we made those exact shirts? Well then if we’re going to do that, what if we made a brand? Well if we’re going to make a brand, what if we fleshed it out, and what’s it going to be, and why this and what’s special about this brand? And what are we going to offer? And if we’re going to do those shirts, what if we did these other shirts? And I kind of always wanted to have one of these.”

                                    It just snowballed, and they spent a lot of time really figuring that out and really distilling what they wanted to do, what the company should be, what the brand should be, what the offering should be, instead of just hurrying out.

BEN                           Launching, yeah.

RICK                         Launching, and then a lot of people do it today, like, “Oh, I got a graphic and I can get tees printed on custom ink in no time, and I can put up website in 30 minutes, and I can buy a domain in five minutes.”

BEN                           Right, I’ll drop ship it.

RICK                         Yeah, drop ship, done. They said, “No, we want it to be really thought out and considered and a lot of detail, and so that’s how it started.

BEN                           So then you found all of this really compelling.

RICK                         Yeah.

BEN                           You found them compelling individually, compelling in terms of a business and how considered they were in everything that they were doing.

RICK                         Yeah. And they were just great guys, and fun and cool to hang out with, and so it made it really interesting. And really down to earth, despite all these abilities and talents. And so, I think that’s how we hit it off as buddies, friends.

BEN                           How did it morph into this business relationship?

RICK                         It just kept going. We’d meet all the time or talk all the time, and then now they’re at some of the same trade shows, and so I’d end up hanging out with them more than I did the YETI folks when I was there, or stuff like that. And then it just snowballed, and there was a point where you tried to make it work and it didn’t, it just wasn’t quite ready. So, I said, “No problem.”

                                    I decided to leave YETI and go pursue other things. And then we tried to make it work that time, weren’t quite ready. “No big deal, let’s just marinate on it.” And then went and did something else for a while, turned out not to be a great decision. And then I said, “Look man, let’s give this another turn here, a crank.” And so, we hammered it out, and it’s now been coming up on six years. Longest job I’ve ever had, and it’s awesome!

BEN                           So, you’re the chief marketing officer, but again, you clearly have some very creative, talented people around you. So, it’s not as if you’re the only creative in the group.

RICK                         Oh no, in fact I’d say I’m the least creative.

BEN                           So how does that work? What’s that dynamic like?

RICK                         It’s actually kind of a dream. As long as ego’s not getting in the way, and we don’t have any of that. One of the things that daily makes me happy and inspires me is that despite all the talent that this crew has, there’s zero ego.

BEN                           How have you guys cultivated that? Maybe that was present at first, but then you’ve hired more people.

RICK                         Yeah, I think honestly a lot of it goes back to Chase and Andy, and they’re both incredibly talented, creative, and also really smart and business-minded folks. And it would be really easy for them to be cocky, or for them to be very egocentric and, “My way or the highway,” or whatever the case. “Only my artwork,” that kind of thing. And that couldn’t be farther from what our scenario is.

                                    And so, I really credit them a lot with setting that bearing on what is the right way, and how we’re going to handle this and all that stuff. I love the fact that at Howler Brothers we have this great culture of, “Well no one is above any task.” No one’s above taking the trash out, no one’s above this. It’s not necessarily the best use of the CEO’s time, but no one’s above that. And no one’s above helping to get the booth all set up at a trade show, or steam all the sample clothes we have to do before a trade show, or whatever the case may be, right? We’ve all pitched in and done those things that are outside of a job description or outside of a role, and I think it sets a really good example.

                                    I mean look, as the person who oversees the marketing stuff, if what you’re trying to peddle or promote is not great your job gets really hard.

BEN                           It’s terrible, yeah.

RICK                         If it’s, “Oh, it’s a great product but crappy story, crappy packaging,” it’s really hard. And I’m just really fortunate that we have what I believe to be a great product with all these other components that are just stellar, and all these people that are really talented and stellar and not egotistical. And so, it’s the dream scenario for a marketer, because you don’t have to sit there and come up with this great program or this great campaign, because the product is below what you would want it to be.

BEN                           That’s right. How do you guys conceptualize that? So, you’ve got all these pieces, right? You have this Austin nouveau vintage look around the apparel you guys are making. There’s the howler monkey thing, the Heed The Call, which is tapping into this desire to be outside, and together and that sort of thing. How do you weave all those pieces together?

RICK                         Well, it’s interesting. I mean from the inception they always liked a bunch of vintage things, apparel. A lot of vintage Western, pro snap shirts, a lot of vintage other things, and always took a little bit of a different tack on not only things they liked, but when they wore and used those items. And so, I think that was a pretty considerable component of what went into and still feeds into what we make.

                                    And so a lot of the stuff we make looks vintage, but it’s actually made out of technical fabrics or has a very technical aspect to it, but it doesn’t look technical.

BEN                           Yeah, like your hat’s a ripstop fabric thing too, right? This Austin City Limit, yeah.

RICK                         But it doesn’t look like a teched-out piece of equipment.

BEN                           It doesn’t, it doesn’t, yeah. That’s right.

RICK                         And I think one of the big things was, especially in the outdoors world, it’s real easy to go into the teched out. This arms race of tech in fabrics and process and make and all this stuff. And that’s a real easy thing to get sucked into, but that wasn’t what they wanted to do and it’s not what we as a company now have much interest in.

                                    So even when we make stuff that is really technical, a lot of times we don’t want it to look that way. And so, we say, “Look, it needs to work just as well in the bar as it does on the water.” And so if you got done doing this activity and you felt like, “Oh man, okay, this served its purpose when I was doing that, but now I really want to go change clothes before we go to the bar, or go to dinner or whatever.” That’s probably not for us.

                                    But if you have something that you can transition both… You don’t have to, but just like, “Oh yeah, I’d wear that out. I’d wear that on the boat, I’d wear that out to dinner.” I’m like, “Okay, sweet.” Now we’ve tapped into something here.

BEN                           So how do you conceptualize what Howler Brothers is? Is it a men’s apparel brand? Is it an outdoor apparel brand? Do you think of yourself as like, “Well, we’re sort of a Western, RVCA kind of?” How do you position yourself in a broader industry?

RICK                         It’s a really good question, and it’s something that we have actually spent a lot of time on. We don’t really say, “Oh, we’re in this industry, or this narrower subcategory.” Today we make men’s and some kids. We don’t do women’s, and we would love to. We think that to do it right we really need to invest the same energy and creativity and authenticity that we do with our men stuff.

                                    And so that would then require us effectively building a second brand, and incremental to what we’re doing today. So, we just said, “Okay, it’s not that we don’t want to do this, we just want to do it right, so we’re going to put a pin in that and wait or push it off until later.” We look at all these components, the checklist that we want to accomplish, and the things that we’re inspired by, and the things that we want to wear, and the things that we think add value, and say, “Okay, well what does that need to look like? And where does that need to go? And what do we want it to be?”

                                    But there’s no real, I think, silver bullet as to what we are. I mean, we make apparel. We make apparel that’s primarily used outdoors by men, but it’s not exclusive. In fact, the whole reason why Brothers is plural is it’s very inclusive. It’s about shared moments with friends or new people you meet or whatever, that it’s along the way and it’s the moments in between and it’s the journey, not the destination and all those things.

BEN                           And so you guys dig deep, and it sounds like they dug deep in some of this before their early launch, and I assume you do the same thing with it. Like what does Heed The Call really mean?

RICK                         So I give them all the credit for coming up with these things. But even then, when I joined, I had my perception of it even as being a considerable customer and fan and having had a lot of time with the founders. And it was really easy for all of us to say, “Well that’s Howler, but this isn’t,” you know what I mean? This beer label is, but that one’s not. Or this car, or this movie or whatever, this song. And we knew it, but it was a little amorphous.

                                    We as partners got together and did a workshop and put a little more structure around that and came up with some tenants and some pillars about what we are and what we stand for and things. But then even later, fast forward a few years later and we said, “Okay, well now we’re growing enough and it’s important enough to articulate this to new hires and to outside, whether that’s a retail partner, or a sales rep, or anyone.”

BEN                           It can’t just stay in here.

RICK                         That’s right. And so, most of the time when you go through a process like that and what you’re hoping to come down to is this really distilled sentence.

BEN                           Ideally, yeah.

RICK                         Yeah, ideally that is this one perfect sentence, perfectly structured, that meets all these things. And it usually ends up being a very convoluted compound structured sentencing.

BEN                           Kind of a Frankenstein mission.

RICK                         Yeah, and we kind of set out to do that, and we had a shepherd in this process, some friends over at a great creative agency here in town, McGarrah Jessee. We just went to them and said, “Look, we’d love for y’all to help us shepherd this.” And then the output being also like this, for lack of a better term, a brand book that we can articulate.

                                    And we had a graphic brand book, but it was harder to really articulate what was in and what was outside of the Howler circle. And so we set out on this process, and where we ended up was sort of the antithesis of that, and it was the, “Hey, instead of trying to boil it down to this one little sentence that checked all these boxes, actually we think that might not be doable, and that’s a good thing.” Because what we have here has more spirit to it than that and is a little more tactile than that.

                                    And so, what we ended up doing was creating this book. And the book, some of it is a story. Some of it is, “Hey, here’s a playlist.”

BEN                           Absolutely. Multisensory.

RICK                         Yeah, multisensory. And one page is a quiz with our custom little scantron sheet that is like, “Okay, which version of Willie Nelson are we?”

BEN                           Yeah, yeah, that’s good.

RICK                         And there’s two and you have to pick.

                                    And which movie, which guy for this, which car, which thing? And so, there’s so many, and it’s really funny because I actually think if you can get someone to walk through that, it’s the ultimate, and it’s way better than this distilled sentence that somebody wants to print on the back of a business card.

                                    So, it ended up being this great thing, and then with an additional dose of creative flair, we said, “Well let’s make it like a record, like the liner notes of a record vinyl.” And so, we ended up pressing a record, and on the record some of it is songs, some of it is sounds like Howler monkeys screaming in the jungle. Some of it is movie quotes. Some of it is all kinds of stuff on the tracks on the record.

                                    And then the liner notes is this book that you pull out, and it’s the whole book you walk through and it’s a really killer piece.

BEN                           That’s beautiful.

RICK                         And it’s an internal piece. We had a new guy start on Monday, and it was really cool to see him with fresh eyes. And he knew about us, obviously~ and everything, and was a fan and had a bunch of our products. But as a new employee team member, and to open this book with fresh eyes and walk through it, it was like, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, totally, that makes sense.”

BEN                           It’s an immersive experience.

RICK                         Yeah, it is.

BEN                           And you want to get to that point, where you’re not just, “Okay, the brand guide says do X, Y, and Z.” You want them to take it all in and inhabit that, and then say, “Okay, I get it now.”

RICK                         Yep. And it may not be something that every person needs to implement in everything they do every day, but I do think that it’s really great for every team member and partner, outside partner, to know this and have a perspective on it. And so, I love thinking of a brand as a person, and so what is the personality of that person? And it’s not just their voice or how tall they are or how they look.

BEN                           Or their resume.

RICK                         Or their resume. It’s how they act, how they react to things, how they laugh, what music is on their phone, all those things. It’s all of that. The food they eat, all that stuff. The quirks, the good, bad, and the ugly. So, when we sit there and talk with the rest of the marketing team or whatever, almost like an actor getting into character. How do we get into character and really assume this role?

BEN                           I think of it as the identity.

RICK                         I believe it should really almost never be a perfect overlap. The brand should have some independence or some uniqueness from even the founder.

BEN                           It grows beyond just that.

RICK                         That’s right. And just that you can build and identify and create, and say, “Okay, well we believe these things are in the circle and these things are out.” And I think what is outside of the circle and what is not is sometimes even more valuable to identify. Like, “We’re not going to do this, we will not use this tone, we will not put these types of photos up. We will not do all that.”

                                    We actually have a pretty extensive list of those things.

BEN                           Kind of like Whole Foods Markets. “We don’t sell products with these ingredients,” kind of thing.

RICK                         Yeah, I mean kind of. And that goes a long way, and it also is really helpful in letting people understand what you are, is by also defining what you’re not. And so, I think the nots or the no’s, or the outside the circle things are just as important. But when we’re really talking about, “Okay, how do we get this to feel really Howlery?” Or, “How do we do this?”

BEN                           So Howlery is a thing.

RICK                         It’s a word we throw out a lot internally, and we’re sitting there-

BEN                           Howlery not Howlery-ish?

RICK                         Well it’s a way for us to check ourselves.

BEN                           Howleriffic?

RICK                         Yeah. That could be on the copy of a social post, or it could be when we’re sitting there doing a line review and making decisions on which shirts we’re going to make the next season and say, “Okay, well I like this, but you know, it’s not quite there. It’s not quite Howler enough.” It sounds funny, and at first it may actually be hard to grasp.

BEN                           No, it makes sense.

RICK                         But for us it’s been this great tool, because it’s almost this checklist that we have to achieve before anything should be coming out the other end.

BEN                           Yeah. That’s all super fascinating to me. Dig into a little bit more of what is Howlery. So, you guys are making apparel, are there certain fabrics that are Howlery? Are there certain color palettes that are Howlery? Or does that evolve?

RICK                         It definitely evolves, and it evolves with both taste and general marketplace, and all those things. But also, what was within your reach, and what are your capabilities, and what resources do you have? There are certain things like fabrics that you might say, “Oh yeah, we use that all the time, maybe that qualifies as being a Howlery fabric,” but it’s not necessarily the fabric itself. It’s the fabric and how it’s used and presented, and the colors, and what are the other details of the garment and all those things.

BEN                           It’s combinations, it’s palates, it’s textures.

RICK                         And we’re big fans of patterns and colors. There’s a lot of things, again, that we’re not trying to be. We’re not trying to be workout gear, we’re not trying to be super high tech, go to Antarctica gear. We’re not trying to be maybe a lot of things.

                                    But there’s a certain way when we look at a shirt and say, “Okay, well I really like this. I kind of wish it had more something.” Or, “Oh yeah, this is awesome because the pattern and the colors and the details, it really feels like it embodies what we’re trying to convey.” And you’d think about someone wearing that shirt, and they might feel a little inspired or slightly aspirational in doing so.

                                    And it’s like, “Okay, well that’s when we know we’re doing something right.” I think we’ve seen a lot of people, with some of our products especially, they almost feel like they’re a younger, cooler version of themselves.

BEN                           Of course, of course, yeah.

RICK                         But hey, we’re the first ones that do that.

BEN                           Totally, totally.

RICK                         I’m the first person to be guilty of that, but if we can help with that? Then shoot, that’s awesome. think the other thing, and back to what we make and for whom, guys by and large are very solution-based when it comes to clothes. And then, “Okay, there’s a solution.” And then on top of the solution, I might inflect some color or flavor, pizazz, whatever you want to call it.

BEN                           Society tells me I need to wear a shirt.

RICK                         I need to wear a shirt most days.

BEN                           Yeah. So, then I either care more about whether it’s comfortable or how it looks, right? And I got to make a decision between those two. If I don’t have to make a decision, all the better.

RICK                         That’s it. And so, if we can do all of those things and make it comfortable and cool and functional. It’s probably is more functional than you ever need to be, but it also makes you feel good.

BEN                           Yeah, you don’t want it to fall apart on you the second washing.

RICK                         Don’t want it to fall apart, and you want it to be able to do these things, or withstand the elements or whatever it is, but you also want it to make you feel good. And that could be feel comfy, that can make you feel cool, or feel like you’re part of the club.

BEN                           Because we’re telling a story about ourselves to ourselves and to others around us, right? So, it’s the theater of life, and you guys, you’re the wardrobe, right?

RICK                         We’re trying it. And hopefully though, it’s more, and what we really try to construct and convey is that it’s actually way more than just the products we make. And that it is the story, and it is the people. People for us, we identify it as a brotherhood because of Howler Brothers, but that’s the core tenant so it’s about how we treat people, and being inclusive and how we interact with each other as a team, how we interact with customers and any third party or retailers, whatever it may be. And it’s to really push out it’s not about ego, it’s about inclusive, it’s about having fun, it’s about being together, it’s about all these things.

RICK                         I think when you have an opportunity to do that and you can do it to any degree, there’s this added lift and it becomes greater than the sum of the parts. What you’re making plus the messaging, plus what you’re also conveying. And it just feels like, “Oh yeah, I want to be there.”

BEN                           You want to hold it to a really high bar.

RICK                         We have a really high standard of what we consider, but also I think what should be received by whoever’s viewing that as, “God, that looks awesome. I wish I was there right now.” Or, “Dang, I want to go do that. I wish I was hanging out with those guys, or in that scene, or in that whatever it is.”

BEN                           That’s a club I want to be a part of.

RICK                         Yes, and so I think that’s really important to. It’s important to us to try and convey, but also, it’s not just trickery.

BEN                           It’s baked into everything that you do.

RICK                         Yes.

BEN                           So I want to dig in just a little bit more too, because I feel like you guys make a lot of pretty significant investments in things that a lot of other startups or scaling companies don’t make, right? There was clearly this very deliberate, considered approach in the very earliest days of what is Howler Brothers. Who are we, what are we not? That’s your thing, that’s evolved. You’ve gone to just tremendous lengths with the vinyl and the liner notes and stuff like that, that again, I could imagine some leaders, some investors going, “Really? Really, bro? You need to spend that much time and money on this?”

                                    How do you guys justify to yourselves and make sense of it in your head when making those pretty intense investments? You say: “This is worth it, and the reason we’re doing this is on purpose.”

RICK                         Yeah. Well that’s a really interesting and cool question. I mean look, I don’t believe that doing the vinyl and liner notes is the right answer for every brand. I don’t think that’s it. It’s very appropriate for us. The way we went about that and what came out of that process was a very appropriate thing for us in our brand. And so, I think we’re always trying, we’re always holding ourselves to that same standard and saying, “Okay, we want it to be really high and we think it looks like this, or it ought to feel like this.”

                                    And so for us, doing it as a vinyl and liner notes was this very, “Oh man, that’s even more inspired.” We could have just printed it, you know what I mean? We didn’t need the record. But this was just added.

BEN                           That’s right, you could have just made it into a PDF and circulated it, yeah.

RICK                         Yeah, exactly. But it’s one of those things that once it is done, the extra mile is taken, then it should make sense. If it were just gluttonous or just superfluous, then yeah, that was a waste of time. But I think anyone who is in the inner circle and sees that piece, really, it’s like, “Oh yeah, this is worth every ounce of time, talent, and treasure that went into this.”

BEN                           It’s indicative of the thoughtfulness that’s going into every aspect of the brand.

RICK                         Yeah, that’s right. And also, to that, it’s not necessarily in the pages of that book, but what we hope to convey with that and just demeanor is that we do care about all those little details, and we want to be just equally as considered on everything we’re doing. That’s how we’re interacting with people, it’s what we make, what our packaging looks like, all those things.

                                    And there’s always room for improvement. How the website functions, what our emails look like, all of those things. I mean it’s just endless, and you can always be better, and we never think we have all the answers, and we never think that, “Oh, this is solved.” This is just where we are today. And so, I think that’s one of those things that it is totally worth it to put the effort in.

RICK                         I think too, and this goes for any company, any product, any brand. If you’re trying to rush past any component that has any interaction with a stakeholder, you’re trying to rush past it, it’s a mistake.

BEN                           Think twice.

RICK                         You should think twice. You should just push pause and say, “Well, are they going to see this?” And look, I get it that you start in the garage and there’s only so much you can do, or this is just the space. But you ought to really consider investing the time needed to put that north star out there, and then work your way towards that. As opposed to just saying, “Oh yeah, I slapped a label on a brown bag I got at Michaels, and then that’s how we’re selling it.”

                                    It should always be, “We’re striving for better.” We want it to be top notch, or we want it to be this, whether that’s packaging or product or execution or distribution or whatever it is. But I think it’s always worth the effort. And every time I feel like everyone who doesn’t put in that effort to really defining who they are and what they’re not, and then there’s an instance that’ll pop up where they say, “Oh, we need to fill in this blank, or we need to write this ad copy,” and it becomes this total struggle.

                                    And they feel like they’re reinventing themselves, as opposed to just saying, “Oh yeah, we already figured that out. You just got to copy and paste it and put it right here.” Right? Or, “We’ve already considered this.” They’re like, “Oh, what should we put in this? I don’t know.” And that’s where they struggle, and it’s because they haven’t really put in the effort upfront.

BEN                           No, that’s excellent. So, I could talk to you all day, but I’m going to ask just a couple of other questions. How big of a deal are collaborations for you guys?

RICK                         They’re really cool. And in the beginning, it was this really interesting way to try and cross pollinate and grow through shared audiences, but always within the parameters of-

BEN                           It needed to make sense.

RICK                         … People and brands that we liked, it needed to make sense, stuff that we aspired to. And that’s still very much the case. We’ve just grown up enough now that it’s less of a tactic and more of something we only do the ones we really want to do. And so, we’re very fortunate in that regard, but we love it. And it can be a lot of fun from a creative perspective and from a business perspective, because most of the time it’s stuff that we’re not going to go do on our own.

                                    So if that’s maybe a different product category, or in the case of ACL festival, we’re probably not going to go throw our own music festival.

BEN                           Fair, fair, yeah.

RICK                         We might someday, but that’s a whole lot of work that’s very different than what we do today. And so, it’s really fun to get to partner with them on that stuff. And so, to partner with people who are ninjas at their own craft is really cool and really fun. And so, “Hey, let’s go agree on what we want to do, what we want to make, and how we’re going to promote it.” And then we go do that.

RICK                         And it can be really fun, and it’s a great opportunity I think for a lot of companies to do things like that. You can also get pigeonholed as being-

BEN                           The collab people.

RICK                         Yeah, and you become a white label brand. So, we were pretty cognizant of that too, and just trying to-

BEN                           Trying to do it right early on.

RICK                         Yeah, yeah.

BEN                           Okay. Now, in fashion, in apparel, in that world there’s an existing infrastructure, you do the runway shows.

RICK                         Well I’d say that’s high fashion. That’s fashion, fashion.

BEN                           Fashion, fashion.

RICK                         We don’t really consider ourselves fashion, but…

BEN                           Fashion, fashion.

RICK                         It’s apparel.

BEN                           Just like apparel.

RICK                         Yeah.

BEN                           So at the same time, a lot of that world of high fashion, or even mid-tier fashion, is very focused on keeping up with trends and things like that, and then at the same time folding in story. How do you guys see yourself, and you half answered the question and you’re like, “Oh, that’s high fashion. We don’t do that.” But how are you using textiles to tell stories, and how do you tell stories about textiles?

RICK                         Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean, we don’t do runway stuff. We don’t go to Paris.

BEN                           You may go to Paris, Texas.

RICK                         Yeah, right. I think as we learn about or gain access to other textiles or other things, it certainly opens, “Oh, well what if we use this on this other piece.” But again, and I think we try to tell stories creatively and through things we’re doing, or action, and not so much around, “Oh, here’s this NASA fabric that now you too can go to the moon.”

BEN                           But you guys tell a lot of really well produced video stories and things like that.

RICK                         Yeah. I think for us, I mean frankly, a lot of times we have these high-tech fabrics or insulation or whatever it is. PrimaLoft insulation is the same stuff that lot of household outdoor brands use, we may not even talk about it. We’re not giving you the tech specs on all this stuff. Yeah, it’s in there, and yeah, we have the same stuff that they have, but our jacket has its own voice and it’s not just a jacket with the puffy stuff in it.

BEN                           You’re not trying to be Arc’teryx or something like that.

RICK                         Yeah, and all due to respect to all those brands and what they do.

BEN                           Well they’re going after a particular thing, yeah.

RICK                         That’s right, and so ours is just a different. We’re just chasing a different thing.

BEN                           Right. Does that make it more difficult for you to find the right retail homes for your products at times?

RICK                         Sometimes. And earlier on it was tougher, when maybe fewer people knew of us, or we hadn’t been around as long. I think it was a little tougher with retailers and their buyers to say, “Well where does this jacket fit? Because we have this higher tech stuff over here, and we were comfortable with that. We know that, we know how to sell that. And where does your jacket fit?”

                                    Even if it is the same materials and same qualifications, it may not look like the other ones, or it may seem out of place. But I believe the retailers who have really been successful with us, is we’re this breath of fresh air, if you will. A creative alternative.

BEN                           It’s not the same as everything.

RICK                         It’s not the same, and everybody has sort of stuff that looks the same. And if you covered up the logos, it’d be really hard to discern which was brand A or which was brand B. And so, ours, a lot of times, looks totally different. I always relate it to when you walk in, if you’re offered ice cream and they only have chocolate and vanilla, you have to pick. Right? You pick chocolate or vanilla.

                                    But when you walk into a shop that has 20 flavors, you’re going to get exactly what you want. And that can be bubblegum or daiquiri ice or rocky road or whatever, but it’s beyond just chocolate and vanilla. And so, I think we’re just another one of those flavors, that’s not for everyone. We’re not trying to make it for everyone.

BEN                           And that’s important. You’re not trying to be all things to all men, yeah.

RICK                         No, not in any stretch. And so, with that in mind, when you push that out and say, “Oh okay, we’re just trying to attract people that wanted rocky road all along,” or whatever the flavor is, you know? I think because of that we get a lot of people who are super fans, and we get these people who are diehard fans and they own every shirt we’ve ever made, or they collect a certain shirt we make, or all the stuff.

BEN                           Do you try to do extra things to really connect with those people?

RICK                         Yeah, I mean, we do. Some of that through general marketing practices and tactics, but some of it too is we make a lot of special collection stuff, exclusive stuff that is the only on our website or in our shops, but it’s not offered to other shops.

BEN                           You can’t get it at REI or whatever.

RICK                         But it’s super small run, and most of the time that stuff is really funky or out there, or themed. It’ll be some crazy theme thing that the shops weren’t going to buy anyways, in reality. And it’s not even for all of our customers, but for certain ones they’re like, “Oh hell yes.”

BEN                           That’s right. I’ve got to have that, yeah.

RICK                         “This is exactly what I need right now.”

BEN                           That’s so good.

RICK                         We love doing those things, and it’s fun to get to flex that creativity a little bit. We did one that was a Tiki drink themed collection. That sounds like it has no place in the outdoor space, but we love Tiki drinks.

BEN                           Drinks, beach.

RICK                         And we love places where they make Tiki drinks, and so it’s like, “Hey, let’s go do this.” And for a certain subset of the audience, it was like, “Where has this been all my life?” You know?

BEN                           That’s right, yeah. Oh, that’s so good.

RICK                         It’s fun.

BEN                           So last thing, again we could go on for hours, we’ll have to do this again sometime. In addition to all of your amazing experience in your core profession, you’ve done a lot of angel investing and things like that along the way. You’ve been around a lot of startups, and you’ve been in them and around them. Do you have a set of things that you find that you typically, when you’re sitting down for coffee or a beer or whatever with startups, are your go to things that you find more often than not, this is the advice that I’m giving startup founders from a variety of different backgrounds?

RICK                         Yeah, that’s a big question.

BEN                           I know, there’s a lot there, yeah.

RICK                         I don’t know. This may not be answering your question, but one of the things that I always look for is people.

BEN                           What are you looking for in people?

RICK                         I wouldn’t even say that there’s some specific thing or checklist, but you get this sense when you’re talking to people, and part of that is passion. Part of that is experience or knowledge, part of that is a willingness and an openness. And I think it’s pretty obvious when you meet, everyone probably has met people and they’re like, “Oh man, that person, I bet they’re going places.” Or, “I bet they’re going to get it done.” And it may not be because they’re outgoing. They may be the silent killer type.

BEN                           You just sense there’s something there.

RICK                         You just sense it. Because I think for me, one thing I’ve seen is that if it’s a great product and okay people, they’re probably going to get stuck and just sit there and grind this one product, even if the product’s really great. But on the other hand, if you had great people and just an okay product, they’re great enough to iterate or pivot or do whatever needs to happen to be successful and say, “Okay, well that’s not the best option, maybe we need to go over here. Let’s figure out something else or pivot entirely.”

BEN                           Is great people, is there an element where intelligence is a factor in that?

RICK                         I think so.

BEN                           It’s not just that.

RICK                         No, not at all. In fact, I think charisma and fortitude and character has a lot to do with it, persistence.

BEN                           Which is hard to tell in an early set of conversations though, right?

RICK                         Yeah, I think it is. And you can also get false positives, but I think the one thing when you meet someone, if it’s interesting enough or they’re compelling enough that you want to go have another coffee with them or learn more, it’s like, “Okay…” And you might pick up something you don’t like, or the second time might not be as good.

I think on the investing front and the investments that I regret not doing are the ones where I knew the person was awesome and they were going to figure it out, and I just didn’t do it because I doubted the product, or I doubted the market.

BEN                           Or you didn’t like the thing.

RICK                         Yeah, right. And I didn’t have all the background, I hadn’t done all that research. This is me as a dumdum sitting there with a cup of coffee. But I think when you know that person, it’s like, “I want to bet on that person, not necessarily this idea they have.”

BEN                           So you were an early investor in Bonobos.

RICK                         Yeah, that’s a great example.

BEN                           And you saw something there, yeah.

RICK                         Yeah, I mean the first time I ever talked to Andy Dunn, and I think they had four employees at the time, he and Brian Spaly and two others, and that was it. And I’d never even shaken his hand, we’d just spoken on the phone several times. We had friends in common. So, there’s a little validation there, but super smart guy with a great resume and all this stuff.

                                    But there’s a million people like that, it wasn’t until you spoke to him and you’re like, “Man, this guy is sharp.”

BEN                           You like the way he’s thinking about the business.

RICK                         You like the way he thinks, and his energy and those things. So yeah, that was a good one.

BEN                           Yeah, that’s good. Okay, well we’re going to pause here. Always great to see you, Rick.

RICK                         Great to see you, thanks for having me.

BEN                           Rick Wittenbraker, who’s the chief marketing officer at Howler Bros. And just again, a wealth of information. We covered a lot of ground.

RICK                         We did. I probably talked too long.

BEN                           No, are you kidding me? It was beautiful. Sugar to apparel, and everything in between. I loved it! So again, if you’re watching or listening to this, please subscribe, share, and if you find this stuff valuable, tell your friends about it. Thanks for joining at The Barcode Podcast.

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