Note: This Friday we’re releasing an episode of Future Commerce, co-hosted with Ingrid Cordy. We recorded it the same day as the Outdoor Voices announcement of the departure of founder and CEO, Tyler Haney. This essay expands on things that I think are risks to the future of Outdoor Voices.
I take issue with the phrase “create a community.”
As Alicia Silverstone’s character in Clueless (1995) would say: “Wow, that was way harsh, Tai.”
Let’s talk about Ty Haney, founder and (ex-) CEO of Outdoor Voices. She founded the company on the idea that there was a segment of consumers of athletic wear that would resonate with the concept of “doing things” for the love of doing them, not for the love of sport or the pursuit of performance.
To hear her tell the story you’d hear that she was attempting to create more than a brand, more than a company, and more than just comfortable workout wear. In her words, she was attempting to create a community:
And the beauty of Outdoor Voices as a community is that I have an awesome team here, and they’re all working toward a common goal. And I think that by creating an environment and a community that really believes in this Doing Things mantra, I feel supported and able to move through any moment I might be burnt out or thinking negatively about something. -Tyler Haney, Parade 12/5/19
You cannot create a community any more than you can create a tree. You can cultivate the tree. You can plant a seed; you can water it, you can put it in direct sunlight. You can provide it with nutrient-rich soil. But you can’t create a tree. You can only provide the right environment in which a tree can grow. And so it is with communities. You can provide forums for discourse, you can provide space for participation, you can encourage, and even steer, conversation, and you can cheer on those who are taking initiative.
But you can’t create a community any more than you can create a tree.
In this issue of Insiders, I want to make the case that Outdoor Voices’s biggest failing to date isn’t burning $2MM per month, it isn’t dismissing their founder, and it isn’t their less-than-stellar $40MM annual online sales.
Outdoor Voices’s biggest failing is believing you can manufacture a community.
Community (and, by extension, culture) exists wherever people are. You can have a healthy community, you can have an unhealthy community. But wherever people are, a community exists. Outdoor Voices as an “events-driven” organization had the ability to turn out crowds at one point in time. But were they able to sustain that, grow it into new geographies? Were they able to inspire others to create their own local meetups outside of their brick-and-mortar locations?
The fact that Outdoor Voices intended to try to bring people together is noble. The question is how many of those who attended an OV IRL event self-identify as part of the “community” of Outdoor Voices?
Let’s define some standards by which we can measure their investment into community. Josh Hotsenpillar has a fantastic blog on the topic, and I’ll use that as the basis of our measurement. He outlines 5 pillars for self-sustaining community:
- Common Vision
- Apparent Progression
- Shared Responsibility
- Rewarding Rewards
- Continuous Infrastructure
Consider some of the social movements of the last decade. Communities came alive without a clear leader, decentralized, and able to self-sustain around a vision-message.
By contrast, Outdoor Voices seemed to centralize its message on hero/founder. Ty Haney is a personality - she made the media rounds and represented the brand. She was the first true believer in #DoingThings, and she proselytized others into that belief.
One area where OV has succeeded is in unifying their potential audience under a common vision. Whether that vision is able to affect a movement which self-sustains community? I believe it can, but I don’t know that OV has succeeded in that mission yet.
We can’t fault Ty Haney for setting a table at which no one has been seated, can we? As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. The question I keep asking is -- was the community ever led to the water in the first place, or were we all duped into believing it existed because it was so often repeated?
One has to wonder if the brand’s investors were asking the same questions.
Your nav bar says it all
My own journey as a customer so far feels like the progression is to just purchase more clothing. This could be due to my living in geography outside of their brick-and-mortar stores, a fact that makes me more representative of an OV customer by virtue of their relative lack of retail frontage outside of their major metros.
My journey to first purchase from OV stems from having purchased athleisure wear from two other brands and being dissatisfied. The OV Sunday Sweatpant was modestly priced at $85 and looked like it was the style of what I was seeking - very narrow, almost legging-like, through the knee to the ankle.
I remember creating an account via Google sign-in. I then received a 20% off coupon for signing up. I purchased from them nearly immediately, using Amazon Pay to easily check out from my phone.
In the month since I’ve saved all of my communications from OV. Here’s a screen-grab of all of my recent emails from the brand:
In order of receipt, they are:
Oh, and I got a text message from them allowing me to ask them for customer service, which I used because it took almost 5 days from shipment to receipt of product. Unlike most of my other Shopify store purchases, I didn’t get any day-of-delivery communication - email, SMS, or otherwise.
So what is clearly missing here is the community, absent in 10 out of 10 communications. No product onboarding email series. No brand narrative. No “Doing Things” story. Just traditional eCommerce. The “continuous infrastructure” they seem to have invested in the most was their sales infrastructure.
“Show me a brand’s top navigation bar and I’ll show you what they value the most”
A phrase I often repeat. A brief look at their homepage shows me that OV prioritizes purchasing. A banner at the top suggests sale pricing, and they have shop categories - Women, Men, Kits.
A vision statement for a future community
If they haven’t built a community, what have OV created, then? A bunch of really decent products with clever marketing and size-inclusivity. Is that really so bad? I think those alone make OV an attractive brand. The three items I’ve purchased from them (a merino tee, the sweatpant, and a pull-over hoodie) are exceedingly comfortable, reasonably priced, and seem to be of good quality. This is enough to ask me to become a repeat customer.
For community events, I’m forced to scroll to the website footer. I find a lot of sale-centric messaging there, with “Give 20% get $20” referral program and a Student Discount link. The Recreationalist is their content portal, but that isn’t apparent by name alone.
Store-centric events surely hint at their community-centricity? Again, evidently not. Filtering their events website (events.outdoorvoices.com) by location, we see that their NYC stores have a sparse weekend-only cadence, and their NYU location has no events scheduled. Extending the benefit of the doubt, winter in NYC is tough.
- Austin - 3x per week.
- Houston - Regularly 2x per week, with a third, one-off happy hour event happening this week only.
I don’t feel like a part of the Outdoor Voices community of people “Doing Things” and that’s because they haven’t given me a forum to connect with other people like myself yet. They have a vision statement for a future community, but they appear to lack an actual, real, community of people. One that is self-sustaining and doesn’t rely on Haney, or another brand emissary, to spread its gospel of “Doing Things.”
At what point does endless vision-casting with little follow-through cross over into willfully misleading people, investors, and journalists? To this end, I believe that having no community is at least more honest than having a faux community.
As Lianne pointed out in Insiders #025 - The Invisible Social Contract:
Modern brands seem to be built on customer relationships, not the products. That relationship seems to be built on the brand’s values. When brands fail to live up to those values they risk much more than losing a customer, they risk losing their way.
One could argue that Outdoor Voices isn’t living up to its own ideals despite us labeling them a standout performer in this regard in that essay just 4 weeks ago. Time flies.
We have a belief at Future Commerce:
- Commerce is what globally connects disparate groups of people. You have something I need, I have something you need. This connects us, regardless of race, color, or creed.
- Entrepreneurship in a capitalist society is our means to creating upward mobility. Nobody can prevent you from creating and succeeding in a business of your own making - whether you sell a product or provide a service. The American Free-Enterprise System is notable for giving anyone, no matter who they are, the ability to access upward class mobility.
To us, this belief is sacred - that Commerce Entrepreneurship is the tool for global change. Future Commerce has a mission to use our platform to elevate brands that are using their most powerful tool - commerce - to bring about the change they wish to see in the world. We as a podcast and in our original research are spotlighting brands who are upholding this as their mission. In the interest of fairness, we must also take to task brands who haven’t wielded that powerful tool with care.
The public missteps of “brands with a cause” have undoubtedly cast a pall upon the growing segment of mission-driven-brands, and that pains me. I want brands to be more, to do more, and to inspire their customers to take part is something that is larger than mindless consumerism.
I still hold out hope. A brand that has fostered a real community that is centered on its brick-and-mortar presence is Rapha. The premium cycling brand has found that despite ups and downs, slow growth and wise merchandising can allow them to eventually gain broader appeal.
I would assert that a future path to success beyond the Outdoor Voices founder exit is that partners like Rapha can inspire them to live up to their ideals, give them a framework for connecting in real life with customers who take responsibility for organizing and supporting the mission.
If so we will begin to see some “apparent progression” from the brand and their most ardent fans. Outdoor Voices has set the table, hopefully Rapha can show them how to encourage people to sit at it. And if not, then. Well.
That’s way harsh, Ty.