Catching Up with Oiselle CEO Sally Bergesen
2013 has seen some wonderful U.S. track and field success stories. While most of these success stories are tied to athletes, one of the best stories of this year is the rise of women's running apparel company Oiselle. If you have yet to hear of Oiselle, go look at their website now. The Seattle-based company has grown tremendously, shifting from a small start-up into one of the strongest brands in the sport. Whether it be sponsoring Team USA contender Kate Grace, giving shout-outs during races or having the coolest looking running apparel out there, Oiselle is reshaping the sport in a big way.
We recently caught up with Oiselle Founder & CEO Sally Bergesen, as she discussed their new professional training group Project Little Wing, the company's deep passion for empowering runners, how she views sponsorship of professional athletes and much more. This is a must read!
Runnerspace (RS): Oiselle just launched Project Little Wing, a professional training group in Bend, Oregon. How did this group come about and what are your goals with the group?
Sally Bergesen (SB): The genesis of Little Wing was that we had Lauren (Fleshman) there as anchor, and we realized it was an amazing place to train. At the same time, Kristin Metcalf (who runs the Oiselle team and elite athlete program) knew from husband Greg Metcalf (head of track and xc at University of Washington here in Seattle) had two extraordinary athletes finishing eligibility--Mel Lawrence and Christine Babcock. And then lastly, we met Betsy Flood through her younger sister, the already-famous Katie Flood, who ran with Mel and Christine at UW, and who is doing an internship for Oiselle this summer.
The timing was perfect, we could see the lack of infrastructure out there for young post collegians who hadn't had the career momentum to get a bigger contract. Our hope is that over time, other post-collegians realize what an amazing place Bend is to train, and that the running community there grows. If Oiselle can help accelerate that process, then mission accomplished!
RS: What type of support are you offering the athletes? Who is the coach? How do interested athletes get more information?
SB: We are giving the athletes gear, travel, coaching, PT, a health coach and a support network of superfans who will cheer them on to the ends of the Earth. Pro running is actually very simple: be born with overwhelming talent, do the work, and stay healthy. We have 4 women with amazing genetics and work ethics.
The workouts will be overseen by Bob Lesko (The Enclave founding athlete, sub-4 miler, has book in process with Coach Frank Gagliano), health and recovery physician Dr. Sarah Lesko, with a lot of input from Fleshman as the team captain and mentor. Dr. Lesko is working with Jay Dicharry (who just relocated to Bend) to guide balance, core, flexibility, lifting, and power strength regimens to keep everyone on their feet and strong at the core.
Interested athletes should reach out to us early (email@example.com). We need to have a relationship with them, and we really only want women who have had to come back from a challenge. Post-collegiate running is too hard and lonely for you not to be certain this is your passion.
RS: A lot of people don't know the backstory of Oiselle, rather it seems the company just appeared out of nowhere. Can you give us your backstory a bit, from your point of view?
SB: I started the business in 2007 as my dream to combine my two passions--running and design. At first there was a Eureka moment where I couldn’t find a pair of running shorts that fit women well, and so I designed one. Each year, we have expanded the apparel line and keep evolving the styles, fashion, design, and fabrics to keep on the cutting edge.
In 2010, Bob and Sarah Lesko came on as my partners and really helped me conceptualize this as a moment with a community, a team, a social network and a way to turn this sport and lifestyle into something we could celebrate and recruit others to join. Bob was the original founding athlete of the Enclave in the early 90's with our beloved Coach Gags, and he has also been an active angel investor in Silicon Valley internet companies for the past 15 years. A unique and lucky combo for Oiselle to have on its bench!
RS: The Oiselle community is both vocal and passionate. Why is this?
SB: We're drunk on #runlove
RS: Being a smaller company, you and the rest of the Oiselle team seem to really embrace the power of social media to connect. Was this move strategic or did it just come naturally based on all of your personalities?
SB: Women's Running is about sisterhood. It's about finishing your race and turning right around to cheer everyone else on. Running is a lifestyle choice, it's hard, it's challenging, and you need a community to make it worthwhile.
Oiselle takes all those teams, clubs, running groups, and just helps give that feeling a national stage through social media. And at the heart of it, we're just giant track nerds. Best of all, with media outlets like Runnerspace, we can stay connected all the time! That just wasn't possible ten years ago.
RS: Oiselle has become much more mainstream in 2013. What are the goals moving into the back half of this year and beyond?
SB: I hope we aren't mainstream! I think that our marketing efforts and organic growth through word of mouth has finally reached the point where people are recognizing the brand. Soon we'll launch the remainder of our elite team (Haute Volée, French for high flyer) and expanding our Volée team (French for flock) to 250 special women around the US.
In terms of product, we're looking at non-traditional distribution (for the athletic industry, anyway) to larger fashion retailers so that our fans can find the clothes more easily in every market, and find us online. Oh, and we're doing a runway show at Nolcha Fashion Week in NYC this September that is going to be amazing!
RS: A lot of shoe and apparel companies sponsor athletes, but few actually promote them. What are your thoughts when it comes to athlete sponsorship from the business side of things?
SB: There is fundamental difference between what we are trying to communicate to our customers and what a lot of the older companies are communicating. We want to tell stories, and have our athletes show the ups, downs, pain, struggle, of trying to reach incredible goals. And we want our athletes to be a central - not fringe - part of our brand message. In our minds, that's the only way we'll bring fans back to the sport.
Running itself is not a great spectacle -- it only has drama, passion, and suspense when you know the people running and care for them. Look at what events in the U.S. are thriving in running -- road races and big relay meets like Drake and Penn -- because they are participatory, the fans are running with the pros, and the stands are filled with friends, family, coaches, etc.
If you want to have 50,000 at a track race in the U.S., make certain that 4,000 different athletes at all levels are running races! So yes, we promote our athletes, help them tell their stories, and hope that everyone out there falls in love with them like we do. We also have a no holds barred approach to cheering on the athletes we love that are sponsored by other companies. "Be a fan, regardless of brand affiliation..." is part of our manifesto.
RS: How does Oiselle running apparel differ from apparel from companies like Nike or adidas?
SB: Well, I don’t want to give the competition our secret sauce. Let's just say that if we keep innovating, keep obsessing the details, and stay close to our sister runners, our apparel will always stand out. After a few years, we can see the big shoe companies are starting to knock off our designs, but that is flattering (and a few seasons late!).
As Karl Lagerfeld, longtime creative director for Chanel, once said, "You don't have time to stop and do market research on the competition. Find your vision, execute it, and move. Move fast." Apropos for the running industry, don't you think?