Feature Article: Austin Makers

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MP Mueller
Photographs by Bill Sallans

In this Austin Makers issue, we look at three Austin-based entrepreneurs who made it out of their garages or studio, and on to a much bigger stage. While their inspirations and motivations varied, they share common ingredients to their successes. They all leapt without a safety net, and support of friends and family were key. But their businesses took a distinct upswing with one unglamorous and centuries-old tactic, the trade show.

Austin Makers

Soda Good

Mark Seiler,
Maine Root

Maine Root organically sweetened sodas got its start 12 years ago with a signature root beer formulation in … you guessed it, Maine, but moved operations to Austin not long after. Now with 25 flavors, including best sellers Mexican Cola, lemonade, root beer and ginger brew, you can find Maine Root in 7,000 restaurants and grocery stores across the US. It’s a staple in 400 Austin restaurants like Torchy’s Tacos and internationally — bubbling out of fountains in Dubai and the Middle East at the popular chain Blu Burger. Who would have thought?

“Your 80 proof peanut butter, my chocolate. “Our office was [physically] attached to Tito’s Vodka for a number of years. We would bring Tito’s to shows and mix it up with our ginger brew and the old-timers would tell us, ‘That’s a Moscow Mule.’ I can’t claim that I told Tito about Moscow Mules, but we’d say to him, ‘We’ve got ginger, we’re mixing it with your stuff and it seems to be a hit.’” “

Admittedly, not even Mark Seiler, their president, who is still pleasantly surprised at the company’s success. His brother, Matt, developed the soda when working in a pizza restaurant in Portland, Maine. The soda company that served the restaurant was bought by Pepsi. Pepsi switched the formulation to high fructose corn syrup. Customers complained, Matt took notice and made a better root beer using fair trade organic cane sugar. During that time, Mark was coming off some high-flying golden boy years in software sales. He bounced around for many years, doing sales for three software companies enjoying each more than the last, landing in Austin in 1996. Then 9/11 happened and sales stopped.

He was burned out. A long-time friend from college died suddenly driving to see Mark. His friend’s brother had died shortly before that. “I took that as a sign. I was 38 and I thought, ‘Am I going to be more or less desirable at the age of 50 in the software world?’ You can be number one for four quarters, but if I missed my numbers for a quarter, you can get fired.” He decided to leave his job and work with Matt selling soda. Without telling Matt. “I didn’t want a safety net. I call Matt and tell him I’m flying in [to Maine] on Monday; have a couple of cases of root beer and I’ll see what I can sell. It was the middle of January and we would make 20 sales calls and get 16 placements out of 20 stops. Did that for a month and learned all the objections to why they wouldn’t carry my product. Wanted to hear them a few hundred times. Then I came back, walked into Central Market on North Lamar with a bottle of root beer and asked who bought root beer. They said go see this guy—Rex Howell-Smith. Rex said, ‘Leave it with my assistant and if I like it you will hear from me.’ I told him I had a wife and three kids and he needed to hear my pitch. He repeated, ‘If I like it you’ll hear from me.’ So I got in my car and within five minutes he called and said, ‘I like it. Come see me.’”

Austin Makers

That was a seminal meeting for Mark. During that meeting Rex pulled out a calculator and helped Mark figure out his wholesale and spurred him to get a distributor. Mark quickly figured out the logistics for getting the sodas from Maine to Texas. He and his wife Marianne spent pretty much every weekend for months handing out samples in Central Market. And then Maine Root started taking off.

“Every four minutes there are fire drills. But it’s still really fun and we are still steering our own course. We’ve got fantastic customers and plan on being around for as long as we can push our walker to the root beer mixer and keep it going.”

He credits those early sales calls in winter’s longest shortest days in Maine as pivotal … hearing yes more than no. And a subsequent New York City trade show — the Fancy Foods Show — as a turning point. “The reaction to our brand on a worldwide stage was very affirmative and told us we were on the right track,” Mark shared.

No matter how big they grow, they are a personable and tightly run business. Mark, Marianne and his three kids still work the Maine Root booth at Austin City Limits Festival — this will be their 11th year — handing out soda. “I can’t believe we’ve gotten this far,” Mark confessed. “Every four minutes there are fire drills. But it’s still really fun and we are still steering our own course. We’ve got fantastic customers and plan on being around for as long as we can push our walker to the root beer mixer and keep it going.”

Austin Makers

Cut From A Different Cloth

Miranda Bennett Studio

Miranda Bennett’s women’s clothing line story arc might go something like this: launch, grow, grow some more. Stop, reinvent and start anew. Often when a company pauses and pivots, it’s because they are missing the mark with their market and need time to retool. But that wasn’t the case with the 32-year-old Bennett. Her New York City-based line of clothing, launched after graduating from college in the Big Apple, had been growing steadily for seven years before she hit the pause button. Bennett put everything on hiatus to fulfill a longing to get her hands back in her business — literally — starting with developing natural dye techniques.

Starting from a 180-square-foot studio in East Austin, she experimented with natural dyes made from wood fibers to achieve signature colors no other designers could offer. She developed techniques to do patterning and evolved from exclusively using higher end silks and georgette fabrics to incorporating cotton gauzes and denims. After a gestation period of six months, Bennett gave birth to the Everyday Dress, now her line’s perennial anchor style that women can wear week round.

She relaunched by showcasing her new styles at Feliz, an Austin event that makers have to be invited to. Buyers from local fashion retailers Kick Pleat and Olive were early fans and Bennett was back in production. More trade shows and more orders followed in 2015. This time, every stitch, dye batch, fabric cut and order shipment was done in-house.

“I would have loved to dress Georgia O’Keefe because she had such a wonderful relationship to her clothing. She had much of her stuff made and once she found a style she liked, she would stick to it. I think she would love the Everyday Dress.”

Austin Makers
Austin Makers

Bennett’s Everyday Dress may soon replace Dianne Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress as a timeless wardrobe staple. It’s purposefully minimalist and seasonless, and offers only one size per item. Refreshingly, one size really does seem to fit “all” well. “I love that I can dress women of every age and size,” the soft-spoken Bennett shared. “I’ve literally had every demographic you can imagine.” Bennett divulged that her director of production, the 20-something Arianna, jokingly complained that her mom keeps stealing her pieces to wear. “I always want things to be timeless and seasonless… putting the woman first and meld[ing] with a woman’ s personal style, to be used in a lot of different ways,” she explained.

Reading between the seams, Bennett’s clothes are as much about freedom as they are looking good. Wearing one of her dresses and getting a compliment from another woman, it’s given and received with an unspoken solidarity — for choosing yourself over being a slave to tight-fitting clothes or fabrics that don’t allow your body to breathe. And still look like a boss. Maybe that’s why her line has such a loyal, expanding audience.

Dye vats, drying racks, cutting tables, rolls of fabric and swatches populate half of Bennett’s 2,000- square-foot studio workshop. Her dog’s paws click on the cement floors, trailing her from room to room on our tour. A soundtrack that’s a fusion of old standards and a reggae beat permeates the studio, filled with late morning sunlight. Her staff of seven is busy, filling orders from more than 50 stores and a burgeoning online business. On a table is a sticky note that reads, “Let’s not run out of fabric.” A smiley face is drawn under it. With the growing demand for Miranda Bennett Studio creations, running out of fabric could be a real possibility.

Howler Success

Chase Heard,
Howler Brothers

For the better part of two years, Chase Heard and Andy Stepanian spent weekends and nights heeding a call. Buddies from their days at the University of Virginia, they grew up surfing and fishing in the waters of Florida and Virginia before settling in Texas. They saw a gap in the sporting goods apparel market. Most of the brands stocked by stores reflected mountain based sporting aesthetics, like ice climbing. They smelled opportunity. “We felt like there was a hole in the market to create a brand with a different aesthetic and voice,” Heard recalled. “We wanted something with a little more flavor and style. We figured out how to make them a little more functional for the outdoors: breathable fabric, stretch fabrics with vintage yokes. Something you can wear on the boat and then wear to the bar afterwards and feel totally comfortable.”

They never intended to own a clothing company, holding full-time jobs as an architect (Chase) and a lawyer (Andy). But in December 2010, Howler Brothers launched before Christmas with a website shared with friends. “We had spent the better part of two years figuring out the brand, sourcing a cut and sew program,” Heard recalled. “We were just thrilled to have a couple hundred dollars in sales. Our entire stock — 18 pallets — was in my garage.”

The Howler brothers named their clothing line after the vociferous Howler monkeys that provided the soundtrack for many of their Costa Rican surfing adventures. “ Our clothing is designed for chasing all your passions,” Heard noted. “ Not only the adventures, but the adventures getting to that surf spot — flat tires on the coast of Mexico, the oyster bar you discover on the way.”

It didn’t stay there long. Word of mouth spread about this coastal brand with a little Texas and surf flavor mixed in. Heard and his wife, Helen, along with another college pal and partner, Mason Brent, based in Virginia, worked the business from their respective homes for two years. Their first boost came from an unexpected market: fly -fishing enthusiasts. “The fly-fishing world has a younger undercurrent that has a more hip aesthetic and appreciates a little more humor and style,” Heard said.

Soon the business grew to where working out of the house was an overbearing presence. “There was no escaping it, especially for my wife and kids,” Heard said. “The blessing and curse was that I could go to the garage at night and work.” When their first employee came knocking on the garage door to the house to use the bathroom, asking, “Is the baby sleeping?” they realized it was time to make a leap. Heard left his job to full-time nurture the growing brand. They then “stumbled into wholesaling,” he recounted. Shops came calling and they found themselves asking other successful brands, like Yeti, “How do you do this stuff?” When they added a regional sales rep team, things really started ramping up. Trade shows, wholesale activity, social media, email marketing and collaborations with other brands like Smith Sunglasses have helped catapult their brand to a bigger stage.

“ACL Fest organizers approached Howler Brothers to create something special for this year’s music fest. Within a week, they ramped up a special Yellow Rose collection including a Gaucho shirt with a yellow rose embroidered on it. A recent run of Gaucho shirts featuring Poseidon riding two dolphins quickly sold out; Jimmy Kimmel emailed Howler Brothers to request the shirt with pizzas on the yokes.”

Heard designs all the clothes himself, focusing on details like top-stitching, fabric colors, and what to embroider on the yoke of their best-selling item, the pearl-snapped Gaucho shirt. Stepanian, a practicing attorney based in Houston, is the voice of the brand, developing copy for their website, marketing and promotional materials. Brent handles CFO and wholesaler duties, and Rick Wittenbraker joined as a partner in 2014, leading the brand’s marketing.

Today, Howler Brothers wear is in more than 250 stores around the country, and 50% of their sales come through the brand’s online store — something unique for a clothing company, Heard said. They are finding a wide audience heeding the call, including Will Ferrell. He’s been photographed wearing gear in W Magazine and as he took in exhibits at Art Basel in Miami Beach. “There are guys wearing Howler stuff in high school and then up through 60,” Heard shared. “A lot of them are like me; they aspire to be like their younger selves.”

Read more from the Makers + Industry Issue | July 2016

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