As an MBA professor, I see a number of students who aspire to create their own firms. For those of us educated in the last century, the courses, incubators, advisers, and funding that exist at the top schools is unlike anything we witnessed. It is far easier today to learn about being an entrepreneur and to find resourcing within higher education to support a startup. Despite the greater access, the number who have the tenacity to pursue a new venture beyond the first couple of years is limited as the challenges are quite daunting.
One early success story is a company called Rhoback, co-founded and run by Kristina Loftus, a former student of mine. I have had the good fortune to watch her develop the company from its infancy (and can attest to her grit, determination, and creative marketing prowess). As CEO, she has stewarded the firm to achieve strong early growth behind great marketing—a differentiated product that has a great story. Below, I share insight about how she used marketing skills to help drive early success.
Kimberly A. Whitler: Can you share a little background on your firm for those who aren’t familiar?
Kristina Loftus: Rhoback is a high-end lifestyle activewear brand for men. We’re known for our incredibly soft high-performance and wicking fabrics and for the construction of our products, which are made to transition from activity to activity – whether that be a round of golf, an intense workout, or a dinner party. We specialize in performance polos, pullovers, and t-shirts but are expanding our line into other activewear products. The brand was born out of social media so we tend to focus a lot of our marketing efforts in digital ad and social media to drive ecommerce engagement. Our name, Rhoback, comes from our brand inspiration (and mascot), the Rhodesian Ridgeback, a dog that always craves activity.
Whitler: What inspired you to start the company?
Loftus: A few years ago, my co-founders, Matt Loftus and Kevin Hubbard, started an Instagram account with a couple of our friends which they ultimately used as a marketing platform for men’s apparel brands. They developed a following that numbered in the thousands by posting adventurous photographs on Instagram while wearing khakis and buttons downs… essentially traditional, cotton attire. Once they started sweating through said attire, they started looking to replace it with stylish wicking apparel. We immediately realized that there were no high-quality activewear brands that reflected our fun, active lifestyle, so we set out to make it.
Whitler: Can you share more about how digital, social, and marketing activities have helped drive awareness, interest, and growth?
Loftus: Rhoback is primarily an ecommerce company. We’ve found that digital marketing and social media are great ways to bring new audiences to our website and social channels. That said, since launching the brand, we’ve discovered the importance of meeting potential customers in person and letting them feel and see our products first-hand. So we built a wooden teardrop camper to use as our mobile pop-up shop to hit the road and spread the brand up and down the east coast – as far south as Vero Beach, FL and as far north as Nantucket, MA. Not only has the importance and success of in-person connections been a surprise, but it has brought on new challenges. Specifically, managing the operations of the business – from fulfilling orders to answering customer service emails to procuring new growth opportunities – gets a lot harder to juggle when you’re on the road.
Whitler: Do you have any news to share about how the business has grown?
Loftus: 2018 was an incredible year for Rhoback. We released our new line of performance q-zip pullovers and tees. We expanded our collection of performance polos and even added long sleeves to the lineup! We traveled over 30,000 miles (50K miles since we started!) selling out of our handmade wooden teardrop camper and met thousands of new faces and current customers along the way. We have been able to grow well over 300% from last year and 500%+ growth in Cyber weekend sales alone. In our first two years, we are growing faster than industry-leading activewear brands like Under Armour did in their first two years. We’ve been so lucky to see such incredible growth. One of our biggest goals is to develop a relationship with UVA similar to what Nike has with the University of Oregon or what Under Armour has with the University of Maryland. We see our presence in Charlottesville, VA, as a strategic advantage.
Whitler: That’s terrific. Any insight on how the marketing activities are having an impact?
Loftus: We’ve been really fortunate to see a lot of traction in the industry as a result of our marketing efforts. Our focus on content creation has led to an Instagram engagement rate that is ~3x higher than our competitors which in turn leads to more loyal customers. We have also seen a number of celebrities wear Rhoback, many of which we share via Instagram, and other social media outlets to further engage our audience. Some examples include Kevin O’Leary of ABC’s Shark Tank (aka Mr. Wonderful), John Boehner, former Speaker of The House, Brian Scalabrine, Boston Celtics NBA Champ, Chevy Chase, actor and comedian, Sam Hubbard, NFL defensive end for the Cincinnati Bengals, Sam Bradford, NFL QB and former Heisman Trophy Winner, Brogan Roback, NFL QB for Pittsburgh Steelers and HBO’s Hardknocks star, Jesse Watters and Dana Perino (and her dog Jasper), Fox News anchors, and Don Lemon, CNN news anchor.
We even received a nice letter from President George W. Bush about playing golf in our polos!
We were also lucky enough to be included in some fun media and TV features from 2018 – we didn’t pay for any of these, we simply reached out to editors whose audiences we thought would be interested in hearing our story. We were included in articles and features in Golf Digest, Town & Country, CNN, Fox News, Golfweek, Roll Call, Manhattan Magazine and other local news outlets.
Whitler: That has to be really exciting. What marketing advice do you have for other startups?
1. Take advantage of creative partnerships and leveraging networks, especially on social media. Try to tap into some of the relationships that you already have to get your idea to the next level – don’t be afraid to ask for help or favors. Invest some thought into a partnership that will benefit both parties and spread awareness of your brand or offering.
2. Just because you’re new to the space doesn’t mean you can’t learn and innovate in it – being inexperienced can actually be an advantage! Lack of experience means you’re unaware of some of the invisible boundaries placed on an industry that are just waiting to be broken. Use your propensity to think differently as an opportunity to take chances and risks on new ideas.