How do you build a snow/skate clothing brand that has worldwide distribution and collaborates with big names like Red Bull? Join us as we interview Anthony Leffelaar, co-founder of Vivo Headwear.
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About Anthony Leffelaar
Anthony Leffelaar is a pro snowboarder, turned business owner. He’s been involved in snowboarding for over 12 years and you may have seen magazine photos of him launching over the famous Mt. Baker road gap.
These days, he works as the CEO of Vivo Headwear, a snow/skate clothing brand that has seen insane growth with distribution in over 22 countries worldwide.
Text Transcript (click show)
Jedidiah: Hey everyone, I’m Jedidiah Tan, founder of Snomie.com, the home of snow travel. So just how do you start your own snow clothing brand? Well, joining me today is someone who’s done exactly that. Anthony Leffelaar is a former pro snowboarder turned business owner. He’s the co-founder of Vivo Headwear and the CEO as well. It’s based in Vancouver, isn’t it?
Anthony: Yes, that’s correct. We’re based in Vancouver.
Jedidiah: All right. So how’s it going?
Anthony: Everything’s good, thanks. Here doing an interview with you in Vancouver, in our office. It’s Monday and we’re getting started with another busy week.
Jedidiah: All right. So Vivo just signed a distribution deal with the U.S.A. What’s your worldwide distribution looking like? What other countries are you in?
Anthony: Right now, we’re all over the world actually. We’re in approximately 22 countries. We started off in Canada. Obviously, that’s our backyard market. Then we expanded into the U.S.A., which is a really strong market for us, and we’re in Asia, all through Europe, and now we are expanding to countries like Russia, the Czech Republic, you name it. We’re expanding daily into different countries, which is great. So, yeah, from when we started two years ago just in Canada, we’ve been really aggressive with our distribution worldwide.
Jedidiah: All right. Nice. So just how did you get the idea for Vivo? I know you started with beanies, I think, at first.
Anthony: Yeah, Vivo originally was launched on beanies. Obviously being an ex-pro snowboarder, we just wear beanies every day or any snowboarder or skater. So Vivo Headwear was I guess born, so to speak, in January 2009, I believe. For the past 12 years, I was a pro snowboarder living in Whistler and traveling from New Zealand to Whistler. Being in involved in the business side of things a lot as a pro snowboarder, I always took note of companies and where they were making their products and the marketing side of things, and I was always interested in it. So Vivo came about from me being a pro snowboarder and taking what I love doing in snowboarding and then turning that into a business. I decided to launch Vivo Headwear in 2009, like I said. We launched as a beanie company, and now we’ve expanded the products from beanies into hats, and now we’re expanding into a full clothing range for 2012. So, yeah, hopefully that answers the question.
Jedidiah: Yeah, that’s great. All right. So you were a sponsored pro, and now you’ve made the transition into business. Why? It’s a pretty big change in lifestyle difference from snowboarding.
Anthony: Yeah. I love snowboarding, and that’s why I originally started the company. So making the transition, I really didn’t know what I was in for when I made the transition. All I knew was, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to run a company in the snow/skate industry and branch from there to wherever the brand would take me. But really I launched the brand just because I wanted to stay within the industry in something that I started doing. That’s pretty much why I made the transition. And, yeah, the lifestyle change has meant that instead of snowboarding full time seven days a week I am now snowboarding once every two weeks. So, yeah, I mean it’s basically just because I love snowboarding and here it is now, Vivo.
Jedidiah: All right. So you got the idea for Vivo, and what were your first steps to actually make it a company and actually set this whole process going?
Anthony: Well, when we first launched the company, obviously there’s a lot to getting a business started. It’s not easy, that’s for sure. We built a business plan. That was one of the first major steps to guiding us in the right direction. Surrounded ourselves with business mentors and other people that had started companies in the industry and even outside the industry. Yeah, those were the first initial steps and securing financing. With a business, you really need to have a plan in hand. I mean, everyone just jumps into it. It’s because they’re really passionate in doing it. But after we discovered we potentially had a product, then we quickly had to start building business plans and talking to people, and wanted to make a lifestyle of it rather than it just be a hobby.
So yeah, those were the first initial steps, and then we approached snowboarders and skaters that would like to get involved in the vision that we had. I then approached Corey Sheppard, who’s now one of the founders of the company with me, in the early stages. Corey Sheppard, he’s a big pro skater in Canada, and he’s now our Creative Director and takes care of all the skate side of things, well more than that, the design stuff. So once I teamed up with Corey, after a few months, we started putting some marketing out there and whatnot. So those were the first steps of what happened.
Jedidiah: All right. Nice. So you mentioned getting financing for that. Did you finance most of it yourself? How did you go about that?
Anthony: Yeah. From what I can remember, we in the beginning, obviously, put my savings into starting the company, because I believe if you’re going to be successful, you need to put your own money into a startup venture before you then take your business to outside investors or sink some serious financial cash flow into it. So, yeah, at the start, I put in our savings. We started off just with a couple of thousand dollars, made a few hats. Then from there, we while we were building our business plans, we went back to banks and investors and all that type of stuff. So everything today is being financed from the riders that started the company, and that’s what keeps us working really hard is to make sure that we sell hats. Otherwise, we’re not going to be able to eat.
Jedidiah: All right. So it was really bootstrapped, the company, basically is what you’re saying. Like what entrepreneurs call it, like no outside funding, pretty much just yourself?
Anthony: Yeah. I mean in saying that, we had some outside financing, some sources, so to speak. In the past 12 months, we’ve really had to step up that side of things because the brand’s making some really great traction at the moment in different markets. But starting out, we were putting our own money into it. We still are. I mean, our money or our investors’ money, it’s still the company’s money. But in the very start, you’ve got to put your own money into it to prove a point.
Jedidiah: All right. So you’ve got the idea for the beanie. How do you go from idea to getting the beanie made and in your hand?
Anthony: Basically flying to meet our manufacturers offshore in Asia. We went from sampling a few hats, in our first couple of months, to taking the business to the next step. I said to myself, “If we’re going to be serious about this, then we need to go meet our factories, meet our suppliers, and do all that.” So that’s where it first started from making a beanie to actually seeing how the beanie was made or a tuque, so to speak.
There’s a process in making any product. The idea needs to be created, and then you need to draw it up on Illustrator or Photoshop, and then you need to submit that and you need to get approvals. A lot goes into every single piece of product, especially with Vivo, because we’re very attention to detail with everything that we do rather than a lot of other companies that are producing more generic products. We’re quality, attention to detail focused. So, I don’t know if that’s going off topic, but that’s pretty much the process.
Jedidiah: Yeah, all right. So you have a pretty solid riding team now. I saw that you started with a pretty small team, but nowadays you have big names like Mark Appleyard, I mean that guy’s a legend in the skateboard. How do you go from that small rider team of pretty much your friends and close associates to big guys like him?
Anthony: Basically, we’re a rider driven, rider owned company, myself and Corey. Corey is obviously one of the biggest Canadian pro skaters to come out of the woodworks, and a lot of skaters have a lot of respect for him. Same on the snowboard side of things. I came from the professional snowboard side, and a lot of the guys who ride for us are our friends, but at the end of the day it’s business. So we approached our team riders with our concept and showed them what we’re doing and how much traction we made from the start, and they loved what they saw. The most important thing to securing our riders was just showing them, actually, our products and what we’re about and trying to keep the team involved with everything. So everyone was really stoked. Securing riders like that, it’s because of who we are and where we come from and the products that we make. The focus that we have as a brand is quality, and people like that and so do our riders. A lot goes into it with rider contracts and everything like that, but at the end of the day, they’re stoked on what we’re doing and we’re stoked on them.
Jedidiah: Basically, what you’re saying is you need to get involved with the industry that you’re going to be working in, basically.
Anthony: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, the number one rule in business that I’ve learned is that you need like a good five years in your industry, or at least know the industry really well for a few years before you launch a product in that industry. At least be involved in it or be involved in the skate industry some way. If that’s you read magazines every day and know all the pro skaters or whatever it is, you’ve got to know about the market that you’re getting into. It’s like me trying to go sell cars. I don’t really know how to sell a car. So at the end of the day, you’ve just got to know the market that you’re with.
Jedidiah: All right. So basically, you’ve got your product now in your hand. You said you spent some money. You got some products in hand. How do you go from having these products to setting up and getting it into the shops and then distributing it worldwide?
Anthony: Well, usually we take a production trip and see our products before we ship them out to all our suppliers to ensure quality control. Then we have our production managers on the ground. Basically, you produce a product. You work with your logistics team for shipping to different countries. I mean, we have distributors in different countries.
Jedidiah: I’m just going to step in here. Say I had the product, because I’m just curious, how would I first start going to a shop and saying, “Look, I’d like you to carry my product”?
Anthony: I guess there are lots of different ways you can do it. The first stage is, obviously, creating a catalog of your product, talking to the buyers of a store. Or having, for example, in different countries we have distributors where they have sales managers and they have a huge network of stores and have personal relationships with the retailers and the buyers, so they know them as friends. Usually your distributors are carrying a bunch of other brands, so it’s an easier approach for you to be launching a new brand into a store and them to have some faith behind the brand. But at the end of the day, the best way to do it is network and find those people that are the buyers and go and visit them and introduce yourself. Just be yourself and show them the product, and if they like what you’re doing, then they’ll give you a chance.
Jedidiah: All right. So now I’m going to go into marketing. I know I’ve seen a lot of collaborations and music nights that Vivo’s done in Vancouver. Tell me a bit about that.
Anthony: The music side of things, obviously, because we’re a skate/snow brand, music is a huge part of what we do. I mean, we’re a lifestyle brand, like I was saying earlier. We do a lot of different events around Vancouver and different parts of the world. We work with Matt Brevner, who’s a Vancouver local artist who is, obviously, making some fast moves on the international scene in terms of what he’s doing. We work with him and KAi Skywalker, who are artists. We do a lot of nights promoting the brand or just promoting them. Collaboration wise, we tend to just work with the people we’re stoked on.
We work with Push.ca. We do a video viral campaign once a month with our pro riders featuring like Kevin Griffen or Andrew Geeves or whoever. The next one coming out, I think, is going to be Mark Appleyard.
We have a huge network of people that we work with in marketing. We’ve done collaborations with Red Bull. Most of the athletes in North America are rocking around a Vivo/Red Bull collab, which is awesome. Then we did a collab with YES Snowboards, which is a really cool brand, and Airhole. Yeah, just all the companies that we’re stoked on. We usually bump into people along the way at trade shows and we just network. They see what we’re up to, and then sometimes a collab comes from them. If we like it, then we launch it. But that’s to kind of answer your collab questions.
Jedidiah: All right. So basically what you’re saying is for things like Red Bull when you guys did the collab with them, you made the connections through things like going to the SIA trade show and that sort of thing?
Anthony: Yeah, I guess with a company that’s really high profile like them, it was through people we knew in the market and they knew that we were making some good products. So I was introduced to the right people at the time, and in a couple of meetings showed them our quality products. Then at the end of the day, we launched a brand on quality and we stuck by it. People were starting to see that we were doing that, and companies like Red Bull like quality products because they’re a huge brand.
But yeah, if you’re someone starting a new brand, going to those trade shows is a great way to network and meet people. I mean this industry’s all about networking. Everyone is generally super laid back and open to give you a chance. Roll around a trade show and just go talk to some people. You’d be surprised what you can get out of that.
Jedidiah: All right. Is there anything else that you do in particular to market your brand?
Anthony: Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff, obviously, that we do. I mean, first off, we make sure we have an exclusive team. That was one of the first things we wanted to do from the start. Rather than having too many riders on a brand, we decided, okay, let’s put together one of the world’s most exclusive teams and really look after our riders. We’d like to look after every single rider we could, but that was our focus. I mean that’s been a huge part of our marketing because our riders are our marketing. We work with Transworld, Skink, Snow Business snowboard business. Those guys have been a huge support to us as a new brand. I mean the amount of press that they give us is awesome. We do events, lots of viral marketing. I mean, everything that’s going social networking that way.
So we do a lot of grass roots ground marketing, and we are merging into some bigger marketing campaigns in the next 12 months of online and print. We work with Snowboard Magazine in the U.S. We did some print adverts there. I mean, every country that we distribute in, they’re doing marketing through our distribution. So we’ve set up marketing campaigns from country to country, and we support our distributors and what they think is going to work well in their country and we work as a team. I mean, marketing is endless what you can do. Actually the most fun part of running the business is the marketing. So eventually, one day I can just focus on marketing the brand when we’re at that stage, but at the moment I have to do everything with Corey. Yeah, our marketing’s great. I’m really stoked on what we’re doing and where we’re going with it. It’s really exciting what we have planned in the next 12 months.
Jedidiah: All right. That sounds great. So is there one key point that you’d like to get across to anyone else who wishes to start their own snow clothing brand?
Anthony: I guess, obviously, research the market. If you believe in what you’re doing, don’t let anyone else tell you that it’s a bad idea or whatever. Definitely surround yourself with people that are wiser than you. Get some advice from people that run businesses. People that run businesses they like to help out the people that are starting out because they know how tough it was when they started a business. When you start a business, there’s always going to be some humps in the road, but as long as you believe in what you’re doing, you’ll make it through there. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. Just don’t let anyone tell you different.
Jedidiah: All right. I completely agree there. Just before I let you go, where can people find out about Vivo Headwear if they’d be interested in having a look at your stuff?
Anthony: The best place it just to come to our website on VivoHeadwear.com. You can find out in your country where we sell our products and that can lead you to the right stores, or you can just simply shoot us an email at [email protected] and we can answer your questions.
Jedidiah: All right, great. Thanks for joining me.
Anthony: No problem.