hen I was in college, I was crazy into snowboarding and skateboarding; the University of Vermont was a great place to pursue both. My friends and I knew we wanted to move out West after college and had plans to head to California. Around that time, I was realizing I wasn’t going to make it as a professional snowboarder but was trying to figure out how to stay connected to that culture and community. I thought it would be sick to stay plugged in and keep skating, surfing, and snowboarding while getting a paycheck along the way.
My friend got a job running High Cascade Snowboard Camp, which at the time was owned by Vans. It’s a summer camp based in Mount Hood, Oregon for competitive snowboarders to train on a glacier during the summer months. He hired a bunch of us from the East Coast for the summer. Once we graduated from college, we were outta here. We did some consumer focus groups for a new run of snowboard boots, and sometimes they had new skate sneakers we’d try out and distribute to the campers. That was my first touchpoint with product and plugging into a larger brand like Vans.
We intended to head to California after that summer, but we settled in Portland, Oregon. At the time, Nike was starting up Savier Skateboarding, a footwear brand. It was their second go at launching a skate division at Nike. I joined Savier in an entry level marketing position and that was my first real gig which was cool because it was connected to the larger Nike beast and I was able to learn so much. We had the freedom to do our own thing and since it was only an eight-person team, I quickly caught the entrepreneurial bug.
After working for Nike for about three years, I went back to doing contract video and marketing communications work. I did that for a little while until this opportunity at Puma popped up to join the product team, which was based out in Boston.
I joined as a product manager on the lifestyle team and got put on all these special projects that were super fun and successful, which helped accelerate my growth within the company. I was there for eight years. When I left, I was the Head of Lifestyle Footwear, which was Puma’s largest footwear business unit.
I think when some people talk about that corporate experience, getting high up to a senior executive position, they feel really limited and disconnected from what is happening in the real world. But my experience at Puma was really different. Our team was fully empowered and we had a lot of autonomy within the company. I had an awesome ride there, it was great.
It was tough switching from Puma to launching a consulting firm, McGarry & Sons, with my wife. That was something I really took a lot of pride in, providing for my family. I had two boys, and my youngest Kieren was just born. It was a high-risk proposition, but it helped that my wife, Elizabeth, was freelancing at the time and she was getting pretty busy. She’s experienced on the design side, while my skills lie in strategy and business development. So, it was de-risked in that sense where we already had some business on the books.
I knew I still had that entrepreneurial bug in me, and I needed to try that out and start my own thing. When you put yourself in that kind of a position, your behavior changes. It’s go time. It’s not an option for it to crash and burn. You have to change your mindset and your behavior.
Early on, it was really nerve-wracking. There was definitely that first year of securing a roster of clients to sustain and grow the business. We were fortunate. We quickly saw the business click, got really busy, and that’s all you can ask for.
ALL ROADS LEAD TO YORK
My friend Travis York, Elizabeth, and I had been meeting over the years. One day, he told me about how his grandfather used to own a performance footwear factory up in New Hampshire called Indian Head Shoe Manufacturing. When we started McGarry & Sons Consulting, Elizabeth and I had talked about how cool it would be to resurrect a New England Sportswear Brand, to take all this experience we have consulting for major brands like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Reebok, and re-birth a sportswear brand. Travis and his brothers were anxious to carry on this family legacy that they have in footwear.
The more we talked about it, we started aligning these ambitions and decided maybe we should put our heads together. Elizabeth, Travis York, Kyle York, and I started putting together the vision and the concept, which ultimately lead to an investor deck. Things started clicking way faster than we had anticipated, and it was go time—we had funding for the company. We take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re still funding the company through friends and family. We strive to grow responsibly while maintaining full control and ownership of the brand.
At York, we pride ourselves in maintaining this independent, family-owned vibe. We saw the white space in the market with the rise of direct to consumer brands. There were so many apparel brands out there, but because of the high barrier to entry and footwear being so expensive, there’s not too many players, especially on the performance footwear side. We knew from day one that we wanted to focus on footwear and keep it true to the family heritage.
The press immediately grabbed onto us. “Who are these guys who have the audacity to go up against Nike, Under Armor, and Adidas?” I think that resonates well with our customers, who identify more with that underdog mindset; that’s been a big connection we’ve found and cherish with our community.
Growing up as an athlete and a skateboarder at heart, it just felt weird throwing on my training gear and rocking these big brand logos, but it was really my only option. Through our consumer research, we learned that it was a default purchase for a lot of people, because what else were they going to buy? There are only a handful of training or running shoes out there that look cool and actually perform.
I think culturally, a lot of people now are more mindful about their mental and physical health, which is a great thing. Group workout classes really changed things and people started caring more about what they wore to the gym. When I went to the gym in college, everyone was wearing sweatpants or a crappy old Hanes t-shirt. Now, if you’re in a boxing fitness gym or a Barry’s Bootcamp, you’re surrounded by a lot of people. There is such a need to feed that community and there is room in the market for new brands.
That’s really where we fit in, with the credibility and performance of York and minimal aesthetics with no huge branding on the side of the sneaker. We aspire to be like what the Chuck Taylor and Vans represent in the lifestyle footwear market but in performance footwear.
But what does that look like in performance? How do you check the boxes for performance but remain easy on the eyes and easy to wear? How can you make them look good in rolled up denim or chinos and be able to rock them all day at work and at the gym? Those were our goals from the start.
When we launched, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t perceived as an “athleisure” brand. That’s a term that gets thrown around a lot. It was very important for us to go to market with a credible performance product, which led us to get some pretty great credentials. We recently won our second award from Men’s Health Magazine, winning the best cross-training sneaker award for 2018. From the beginning, we hyper-focused on the health and fitness community. One of the things we learned when we launched was our vision for the brand from the beginning was not always where it eventually ended up.
I think most startup founders will tell you that often who is rocking your brand is a lot different than what you originally envisioned. We wanted to be this footwear brand for these multifaceted people and not get pegged as a running brand.
The boxing and UFC community immediately grabbed ahold of our shoes. We had so many fighters reaching out, telling us there hadn’t been a cool authentic brand in this space before. Reebok was playing in the space, but then in came our brand, which looked better and performed with an authentic, gritty vibe.
We never set out to be a closed brand. So when we started to get feedback from people saying, “I don’t box, but I love your sneakers,” we thought no no no, these are great training sneakers for running, boxing, or casually wearing at work. We had to figure out how to respond to this and evolve York so that people felt more welcome. Learnings like that really help you grow, and how you respond to that is how you evolve the brand to be successful.
I’ve been fortunate to have been around a lot of smart people who have been in the industry and started a few companies. Some of the best advice I’ve received (and I inherited this from my parents as well) is always be true to your values as a human and for your company. When you’re a brand, a company, and an entity—everybody is trying to claw at you in some way. It’s very easy to get pulled into a direction that at the time may be validated, but you must have the strength to always be true to your values and be confident in that.
At York, we talk about being strong, confident, and trusting your instincts and that’s the ultimate compass for the brand. It’s simple advice, and I think it holds true in business and relates to who you are out there in the world.
At York, we’ve never been interested in the conventional path. If you tell us to do something a certain way, we will do it differently. If you tell us we have to do something, we either won’t do it or we will find a way around it. That’s just inherently woven in the fabric of this brand and our mentality.