Nov 10, 2014

Kickstarted! Tuckerman & Co launches at Yale

He took a deep breath. "How am I doing? I'm great. Tired. But I signed up for this. We didn't apply anywhere else. We knew we were coming to SOM. We knew we were going to start this business." It had been barely a week since Jonas Clark and his fiance, Amanda Rinderle (both SOM '15), had launched a website and a kickstarter campaign for their organic cotton dress shirt line. They had also just incorporated as a Benefit Corporation, hosted a launch party, won reSet's top prize for Social Enterprise, and were fielding interviews left and right. Tuckerman & Co was live. And there wasn't a lot of time to breathe. They've taken one day off this year. It was the day they got engaged. 

Did I mention that they're both full time students at SOM?

Entrepreneurship isn't new to Yale, but it feels like we're heading to a critical mass for developing new ventures at the nexus of business and the environment. With new institutional support for the SOM Program on Entrepreneurship, continued innovation coming out of SOM's Entrepreneurship Club, and dusting off of FES's Environmental and Social Entrepreneurship SIGon top of CBEY's valuable Sobotka and Sabin prizes, students looking to start something have more tools than ever at their fingertips. Of the ideas coming out of SOM and FES, Tuckerman & Co feels like one of the most substantial launches we've seen in recent memory. Like Jonas said, they came to SOM knowing they wanted to start something, and 12 months later, they've assembled an advisory board, a supply chain, numerous mentors, and business skills that they're applying every day. Jonas proudly wears some of the first shirts to come off the line, and donors are starting to line up online. Sitting down over tea in the Evans Hall cafe as we both fought off November's cold season, Jonas and I had the chance to talk through the challenges and opportunities they've seen in preparation for the launch. (You can also hear them tell their story in their Kickstarter video, below.)

 

Entrepreneurship in the blood

Not everyone has the guts and vision to take the leap into the unknown of starting a business. Jonas said that for him, it was only a matter of time - he's a natural tinkerer - and Amanda's mom's experiences as an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist demystified things significantly. After finishing his Master's in Divinity from Harvard, Jonas spent five years on campus as a Freshman Dean while Amanda worked in consulting. They had jobs they loved, but they found themselves itching to form something of their own. Thankfully, they have complementary skillsets, and were eager to work together on a new venture. Jonas could spend every minute thinking through branding and marketing strategies, while Amanda, as the "analytical powerhouse" (Jonas's words), helps to ground their ideas in concrete numbers.

Why shirts? 

Wanting to start something is one thing. Narrowing in on a specific idea is another. As Jonas and Amanda prepared to hit the books at SOM, they spent the summer of 2013 running through what they'd most want to spend their days working on and determining possible market needs. They kept going back to Patagonia. They loved the company's vests and down jackets and commitment to sustainability and transparency. But when it came time to head to an interview or business meeting, there was no sustainable and affordable clothing line that met their needs. Essentially, there was no Patagonia for the office. They knew they weren't the only ones looking for clothes that would meet their needs. So they decided to tackle sustainable apparel. The first logical piece to make was a men's dress shirt. As Jonas says, "they're the foundation of the professional uniform." Closets are full of them, and they're easier to make than a blazer or pair of pants. So, they started pulling the pieces together, calling hundreds of mills and manufacturers looking for high-quality organic cotton fabric and well-treated workers, finally narrowing in on a prestigious Italian mill for fabric and contracting with a historic Fall River, MA manufacturer for assembly. No detail went unnoticed - even the buttons and collar linings are sustainably sourced. 

In thinking through how they'd pull together their first production run, Kickstarter was an easy choice. They knew they wanted their friends, family, and colleagues to feel invested in their success. Kickstarter tends to reward mission-driven companies, so they were a good fit for the Kickstarter audience. And, they knew that, for their first foray with shirts, they could potentially avert some of the challenging cash flow issues that many apparel companies face by limiting initial inventory to the amount of shirts sold through their Kickstarter campaign. They hope to move into a direct-to-consumer e-commerce model post-Kickstarter, and this first campaign will give them experience so they can "plow the money we save on markups back into the business."

But, Jonas is quick to mention that shirts and the online campaign are hopefully just the beginning. As an important wardrobe staple, they're a key to entering the market, but as they increase their scale, they hope to eventually bring prices below the $100 mark while expanding offerings. They're not counting their chickens yet, but Jonas notes that he thinks "someone is going to build a big mission-driven clothing company. And that could be us." 

Benefit Corporation from day one

One of the reasons that he thinks Tuckerman & Co could go big is the fact that they're starting out with a mission. They're not trying to shift an existing company or segment a specific niche. They're going all in from the beginning, making great clothes that customers can be proud to wear. And they're institutionalizing that by following in the footsteps of Patagonia by legally incorporating as a Benefit Corporation. By definition, Benefit Corporations seek to pursue a broader set of aims beyond pure profit maximization, and report on their progress on an ongoing basis. Although relatively new as a legal entity, some companies are turning to Benefit Corporation status as a way to put those missions into the core of their businesses. Jonas is quick to point out that it remains to be seen how a Benefit Corporation could also be a shareholder-beholden publicly traded company, but they're not looking back at their decision. What they are thinking about, however, is how they're going to approach the post-Kickstarter rounds of investment as a Benefit Corporation.

Narrowing in on the brand

Part of that approach will be informed by their brand. They needed something that would speak to their customers, and to potential investors. And, when it came down to it, developing their brand identity ended up being one of the hardest parts of the process for Amanda and Jonas. They knew they wanted something that evoked history and tradition in the form of a person or a place. Tuckerman represented both. Having spent many weekends and vacations in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the couple had a deep love of Tuckerman's Ravine (see photo at left). "Tuckerman" had a nice ring to it, but the more they learned about its namesake, Edward Tuckerman, a 19th century botanist, the more they found a synergy. Not only did Tuckerman work to preserve plant species, he attended Harvard Divinity School like Jonas, and taught for decades at Amherst, just steps from Amanda's childhood home. The name stuck.

But, their brand isn't just the name. On top of focusing on quality construction, flattering design was essential. And, they wanted to give their shirts a little something special - a badge of honor. They didn't want to hit people over the head with their mission, and didn't want the designs to be seen as "granola," but they wanted to make a subtle nod to their roots. So, the top buttonhole of each shirt is stitched with bright green thread and each button bears a subtle green cross stitch.

Taking full advantage of Yale's resources

That touch of green at the collar wasn't just Jonas and Amanda's idea. SOM Professor and Honest Tea co-founder Barry Nalebuff kept telling them that they needed to do something to make their shirts stand out. But, Nalebuff's insights weren't the only ones Jonas and Amanda were gathering. They came into business school ready for anything, hoping to use their two years to workshop their ideas as thoroughly as possible while gathering a new network of friends, colleagues, and mentors. The real turning point came when they heard Vincent Stanley of Patagonia speak at a CBEY event, and, as Jonas says, "we cornered him" afterward. Instead of pushing them aside, Stanley kept his ears open and encouraged them to keep going, pressing them with questions and sharing lessons learned from Patagonia. Stanley now sits on their Advisory Board, and helped to kick off their launch in person.

Further brainstorming has come through the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute this past summer- they've worked with mentors from Macy's and Tommy Hilfiger, who have helped teach them the ropes of apparel marketing and operations, and more recently through Yale SOM’s Program on Entrepreneurship and the counsel of Kyle Jensen and Jennifer McFadden. While they're both SOM students, Jonas noted that they can easily walk across the street to FES to talk with Paul Anastas about non-iron treatments, Marian Chertow about supply chain sustainability, or CBEY’s own Stuart DeCew about starting a mission-driven business. And, they're less worried about their debts and financial risks because SOM's loan forgiveness program applies to certified Benefit Corporations. Adding it up, the decision to apply to one school and one school alone starts to make more and more sense.

They still have 17 days to go on their initial Kickstarter campaign. And, while they'll deserve a break in 17 days, I'll follow up here on the blog as their shirts come off the line.