I have been a runner since I was 15 so that was a while ago. “Runner” is actually not accurate. I am a jogger. I jog because I don’t move all that fast. I am an average 10-minute miler. But I am consistent and have been since the age of 15.
Even when I was younger than 15, I still ran. But that was for team sports like soccer during middle school. The first time I stepped out of my parents’ doorway to take a run around their block was when I was 15, and that was when I officially became a jogger, I would say.
Fast forward 35 years later and I am 50 and driving myself to my town’s middle school so I can go for a 4-mile run around its track. It is 8:45 am. I do this everyday. I like this routine. If I jog 4 miles a day for 40 minutes, I can eat 2,100 calories a day and not gain weight. I love to eat so this lifestyle is working for me.
On my drive to the track I look down at my shirt. It is black. It is my black cotton shirt my parents gave me when they returned from visiting Texas. Since it is made of cotton, I will feel sticky while I am running in the shirt because the cotton sticks to my sweaty skin. But the good news is I can use the bottom of my shirt to dry the dripping sweat off my face. Cotton is absorbent that way.
The next morning during my drive to the track, I again look down at my shirt to see which one of the two shirts I wear for jogging I threw on before leaving the house. It is my yellow polyester one. “Ok, Joanie,” I say to myself. “I see you are wearing your poly shirt today. That means you will not feel sticky while you are jogging, but the bad news is you won’t be able to wipe that dripping sweat off your face during your run.”
I probed myself with these two questions every day on my drive to the track. It obviously meant something to me because I would always check. I had a “eureka moment” after a year of this daily questioning - what if I tried to come up with a shirt that was part-polyester (for its sweat-wicking benefits) and part-cotton (for its sweat-absorbing benefits)?
I quickly went to work on designing the concept of a mostly polyester, and part-cotton running shirt. I didn’t know how to sew any longer, but I remembered being taught in the eighth grade. I thought that I could re-learn but for the time being I sought a professional seamstress and mailed her two red shirts along with instructions. One shirt was polyester, the other cotton. Jeannie went to work and made me my first prototype.
After I received the prototype in the mail from Jeannie, I tried it on and went for a run. I liked the concept and it worked well overall but I decided to switch out the cotton portion for a towel portion. That worked even better.
Now I needed to find a way to make the shirts so that I could have other runners try them and maybe sell them on the internet or in a retail store one day. I knew I couldn’t actually make the shirts myself. I lacked the expertise and machinery needed. I was definitely willing to try to modify the shirts, once I had them, by adding a towel panel at the lower front of the shirt. But where do I get the polyester shirts I needed?
I made some calls and did some research. What does a print screen company do when it needs t-shirts to screen print? Who do they get their t-shirts from? They don’t just buy them at Walmart. Is that allowed? I thought if I talked to a few people I would find the right way to get some shirts.
That’s when the moment came. I would call it the opposite of an “a-ha!” moment. It was more like an “oh, no!” moment. I was on the phone with a man who helped run a clothing company. I don’t remember what he did or his title. And my one goal was to find out which companies make shirts for other companies to use. That‘s when he told me that there was no such thing and that no clothing company does that.
My heart sank. My shot at making and designing shirts for runners and other sweaty people fell to the wayside. I thought that the opportunity I saw for myself was over. I was deeply saddened.
But, on the very next day, and most definitely while consumed by a “what the hell” moment, I got on the phone and called someone else listed in my notebook. I asked him about finding a shirt supplier the same way I had asked that person from yesterday. “You mean blanks?” he said. I said “yeah,” even though I was learning that word for the first time. “Try San Mar. They make blanks you can use and then modify as you want…”
A few computer clicks later I was on the phone with a San Mar representative. Yes, they had blanks, and yes they had a lot of blanks! Blank running pants, blank shorts, blank jackets, caps, and of course, tee shirts. They were all laid out in front of me to choose from. What color? What size? Will that be blue? What shade of blue? We have three shades of blue: cardinal blue, royal blue and navy blue.
Wow. What a difference one day can make.
It turns out that this was just the beginning of a very bumpy road to starting my startup. And there are more parts to tell you about if you are interested. For example, I have moved into using sustainable fabrics and am working with a manufacturer now. Stay tuned for more. But the moral of this portion of my startup story is to keep trying because some people aren’t going to want to help you succeed (but some people are).