When Tyler Haney appeared on the cover of Inc. two years ago, the direct-to-consumer athletic apparel company she founded, Outdoor Voices, was one of the hottest startups in America's hottest startup city, Austin. At gyms and on college campuses, OV's signature color-blocked leggings had become a kind of athleisure uniform for the Instagram set. Shortly after our story appeared, The New Yorker followed up with a long meditation on the brand's appeal. No less than Mickey Drexler, the so-called Merchant Prince who'd turned both the Gap and J. Crew into retail icons, invested in OV, and became its chairman in 2016. OV had 130 employees when Haney appeared on our cover, and by late last year it had opened 11 brick-and-mortar stores around the country. Then came news of internal turmoil.
Outdoor Voices had raised more than $60 million in venture capital, but its latest round, which closed in early 2020, valued the company at only $40 million, compared with $110 million two years earlier. The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and the news site Business of Fashion alluded to battles between Haney and Drexler, who quit as chairman in mid-2019. Employees accused the founder of everything from cronyism to wasteful spending. Haney, who was 24 when she started her company as a recent grad of New York City's Parsons School of Design, was 31 when she announced she was stepping down last February--just as she was set to return from maternity leave.
The very public crisis at Outdoor Voices was one of a series of falls from grace of young female founders of high-profile startups. Audrey Gelman of female-focused co-working company the Wing was ousted in June. So was Yael Aflalo of sustainable fashion label Reformation. Steph Korey of luggage maker Away was out in December of last year, back in January, and then slated to be out again.
To other female founders watching, there was little to do but wonder what forces were propelling this trend--and who might be next. Says Haney: "How do we as founders recover?"
For all the buzz that followed the public humblings, one thing was conspicuously missing: the perspectives of the women leaders themselves. Here, Haney describes her saga for the first time, from startup hero to cautionary tale, what she learned through the experience, and what she hopes to do with that new knowledge. --As told to Tom Foster
When we were going through this whole thing, I asked our head of finance, "Do you have any advice for me?" And he said, "You don't naturally think about the downside." It's totally true. I have this mantra for myself: "Totally possible." I would use that often with the team. From day one, and through all of the dysfunction, I kept thinking, "It's going to be OK. Totally possible. Keep going." But I absolutely have a blind spot in considering the downside.
That kind of everyday optimism goes for a lot of founders. Optimism is what helps you want to tackle huge issues--or start a company from scratch. But that's certainly an aspect of what allowed things to come crashing down for me, too.
We were a Ferrari brand with a Honda engine. The perception of the brand was much larger than the reality. There were issues. We needed the right operating leader in place. That's hands down my number one regret. Our organization was growing too fast. We were hiring too many people not to have a central operating system. I totally underestimated how important that was.
Plus, the basic units of the business were not in place. There was pressure after raising a lot of money to land as many new customers as possible and grow at all costs. That's part of a big learning here. When you see a lot of success off your story and your product and your value proposition, you kind of neglect the fundamentals. You feel that with enough VC money, you'll be OK, you'll always figure it out. But that's not a business. I almost felt like we were faking it.
I will now always, in my next ventures, get that shit together first.
I would say I was an inspirational leader. That was certainly one of my strengths. I was super clear on the vision. Where I'm best is the product, the creative, the brand, the connection to the customer. And I'd push us constantly to renew ourselves.
But I was also not great at developing relationships with board members. I think this is the case with a lot of first-time founders. You learn how important investing time in those relationships is, so you can count on them when you need them. I was super naive. I just figured, "They're on the board. They're here for us." But you have to communicate, give updates, and build trust, not just assume there's trust there.
That's 100 percent my youth showing. Youth can make you fearless. You don't know what you don't know, but you're going to proceed anyway if you're the type who wants to build something and can find an idea that's worth building on. In my case, people also undermined me because of my youth. Maybe they were right. But that created a poisonous dynamic between me, the board, and the team.
Gender is another factor here. On the one hand, I very much believe being female was an advantage for me in fundraising. I read a study that said 25 percent of the top 250 direct-to-consumer brands launched since 2010 had female founders. That's compared with only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies. So even if investors were just being opportunistic about a trend--which certainly was the case--it worked in our favor being in that first wave of DTC female founders.
Photograph by Nolwen Cifuentes
And we definitely pulled that narrative out when it suited us, particularly when we were trying to differentiate ourselves from established companies in the traditionally male-dominated activewear space. We really leaned into that story to grow this thing, and we became press darlings. But that's all great until it's not, because we also made ourselves targets.
"You feel that with enough VC money, you'll be OK, you'll always figure it out. But that's not a business."
It wasn't just me and Outdoor Voices. I have this peer group of women who became the faces of their companies around the same time: Emily Weiss from Glossier is a good friend. Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan from the Wing. Jen Rubio and Steph Korey from Away. We kind of came up together and did similar things in different industries. And over the past year, we have all been put on the chopping block at some point.
For some crazy reason, all of these were female journalists going after female founders. I don't yet know what to make of that. It's certainly been gendered, I think hugely.
You know what's interesting? Women and men in business, we're all here to turn a profit, to make money. But it's almost as if women can't talk about profit or making money. We can talk only about how the brand changes the world or makes our customers feel. There has to be a reconciling of, "Yes, we as women founders are here to run a business and make money."
For me, this never needed to be a public issue. But there's a kind of perverse pleasure that people seem to get in taking someone down. A lot of untruths get perpetuated, and as the target, you're not in a position to defend yourself.
It's broader than journalists. Just culturally right now, people are so eager to turn wildly negative without having a true understanding of a situation. You see it on social media like crazy.
I never want to spend time again like the four or six weeks of essentially BuzzFeed incubation, where they reach out to you and they're like, "We have all this dirt," and you're like, "What the fuck?" It's a scary game. An ex-employee says something, and the fact that it's getting published and you can't do anything about it is so bad that you can't even give it the time of day. It's so dreadful, as if you have some disastrous secret that's going to be exposed.
Then the article comes out and it feels like the end of the world. But it really isn't.
At first, I was so angry and felt like so much had been done to me. Until I said, "Holy shit, I signed up for this. I was the CEO of a company for the first time, and now I know what that is." That's a gift. You learn what accountability really means. I am fully accountable.
One thing I'm certain about is that I approached everything with good intentions, and I would say the same thing for everybody who got involved in the company. There was no malice. Everyone came knowing how good this could be and wanting to be part of it.
My relationship with Mickey Drexler was especially tough. We were hiring people who technically reported to me but were getting different directives from me and from him. The generational gap was also a big thing--he had a much more traditional way of looking at growing a retail company. But ultimately, again, I am accountable for the dysfunction that resulted. I was the CEO. And I've just made the choice that life's too short to get hung up on all of that. Forgiveness is the power move.
For me, this was all going on at the same time that I was having my baby, Sunny, which clarified some priorities for me and meant that I had space to get out and start doing things again--the reason I started OV in the first place. [The company's active-lifestyle catchphrase is "Doing things."]
As everything was happening, a woman named Ashley Merrill, who founded the DTC sleepwear company Lunya, reached out to me and said, "I keep seeing this happen to female founders. How can I help?" She said, "Ty, I want to put money in, and I'll be the interim operator--if you come back and do what you're great at." She's a founder, but she's a lot more operationally minded than I am, so we're a nice fit.
We've cut costs significantly and scaled back digital marketing. But, strangely enough, the company has done really well over the past few months during the pandemic--which is nuts.
My title now is founder. I'm engaged again where I'm most energized and most valuable--helping out with product and brand, but at a high level.
And I'm incubating a few different concepts right now for starting something new in the health and wellness space. The way my brain works, I love building things. I'm so excited to do this again, and do it many times over.
If I could start OV all over again, I wouldn't raise the same amount of venture capital. Absolutely not. I was able to raise a ton of money without having ever done this before. And we didn't need it. It enabled bad business practices and bad decisions in terms of building a sustainable, profitable company.
"Totally possible" still feels like the way I approach things. But my awareness of what can go wrong has been broadened significantly. Call it a more informed totally possible.