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Learning by doing: The Homeschool Outerwear story

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The journey for Homeschool Outerwear’s founder, Danny Clancey—a journey to create some of the finest technical outerwear—began in a climate where “outerwear” is often nothing more than a shirt. In Hawaii.

Yes, Hawaii.

Sun to snow. From wanting to be in the water, to finding the best ways to keep the water out.

But for Danny, the path to being an outwear apparel entrepreneur can be traced back to his roots in Hawaii.

“I come from an apparel family,” he said. “My dad was a successful entrepreneur and I always admired how he built his business, treated his employees and had this core desire to make a quality product. The fact that I grew up around an entrepreneur who essentially came from very little but accomplished a lot showed me it was possible—if you have the drive, passion and desire to do what needs to be done. That was something I aspired to.”

IMG_9714Danny came to the mainland to get his degree. While pursuing his education, he got turned onto snowboarding. But coming from Hawaii, he never had the need to buy or own any kind of technical product. But a funny thing happened when he started wearing technical clothing – he became fascinated with the idea that you could be protected from the harsh environments with the proper clothing.

“I think coming from a place with no snow makes it an interesting story, as to how I developed this weird desire to make the best technical outerwear in the world. But those initial insights and fascination stuck with me, and created some weird drive to develop really good technical product that looks clean, and works in harsh conditions regardless of activity.”

Heading for the hills

After college, Danny came to the NW to pursue a degree in apparel design and immediately started working in the industry on the design side, first for K2 and then Columbia Sportswear. The latter brought him to Portland, and also gave him some knowledge of not only how tough the industry is to break into, but what goes into the entire design to production process.

“My time at Columbia prepared me for what I’m doing now. I had knowledge and drive but my time at Columbia showed me the “nuts and bolts” of how to get a product made, and the process that goes into that. I was there long enough to become dangerous so to speak but still retain the drive and optimism needed to go on my own. Sometimes if you stay somewhere too long you lose that.”

Danny didn’t stay in one place.

That desire to create unique and highly technical outerwear led him to strike out on his own, and the knowledge gleaned from watching his entrepreneurial father gave him an innate sense of confidence.

“My dad’s reaction to my decision to go my own way was also not what I expected. The first thing he said to me was ‘Why don’t you come work for me?’ The second was ‘How can I help?’ That moved me to the point where I felt I could do this and was prepared to face the realities and hardships of this business and find a way to pull it off.”Ghost-Shell

Crafting an outdoor apparel brand

As Danny made the jump into launching an apparel company, one thing became clear: the need to have a memorable and meaningful brand on which to build a new outerwear line. A brand that evokes a certain feeling, but also holds true to the core beliefs of the company.

“The name homeschool comes from the idea of learning by doing; doing for ourselves as a small brand what a bigger brand can’t or won’t do. We didn’t start with a price point and work backwards like you would at a bigger company. We decided to make the best product we can, which in itself is not a unique concept, but one that just isn’t done much anymore.”

From the outset they believed that authenticity is something that money can’t buy, and therefore didn’t spend money on trying to convince their customers they were the real deal, and the brand name fits perfectly with they wanted to do.

“Some people love it, some hate it, and I don’t care. You can’t please everyone and we aren’t going to try. The brand promise is that we are going to deliver product that allows you to spend more of your precious time outside doing what you love and the weather won’t be a hindrance. We have done this by learning what works and doing what we say we are, super simple yet really hard to pull off.”

Getting traction and movement in the chaotic and competitive apparel market took a focused Universe-Both-SKUsapproach. Danny was a designer by trade, but he was well aware that the technical specifications and features are just as important as the aesthetics, which the team describes as ‘clean and mean.’

Designed from the ground up

“We use a technology that we believe is revolutionary and dramatically enhances comfort outside, called 37.5. It’s an activated Carbon technology that increases breathability and dry time significantly. We also believe ‘cheap’ product is a false economy. We build our stuff to hold up to hard use over multiple seasons. Technology, style not fashion, durability and a great brand story are the foundations of Homeschool.”

Design and technical performance. A crafted balance in which there is a lot of subtlety and nuance in how they are different and they don’t try to over simplify the product or the message for a less sophisticated consumer.

Even as they promote their current lines, the Hood and Baker Series, the company is looking to the horizon and preparing their next line, and that preparation requires an evaluation of what has worked and what hasn’t – and also new ways to extend the brand.

“It’s been an evolution as we learn what works, and what does not. We do best with our high end product and our best selling pieces are our most expensive. Right now it’s all about ‘hybrid’ apparel that combines really technical fabrics or stories but looks like stuff you can wear in your day to day. We evolve the brand and product every season and strive to make it better and better. We are introducing a women’s product line next year and we will begin offering a technical 3-season product as we expand and grow, but ultimately how we evolve has to make sense. The last thing we want is a bloated line that tries to cover everything and everyone. That is a recipe for disaster.”IMG_9715

Challenges and Opportunities

Danny had the entrepreneurial passion in him when he set off to launch Homeschool Outerwear, and that passion has enabled him to go from concept to growing company. But the challenges in starting any business start to come at you fast. The moving parts associated with an apparel company, including materials, sourcing, manufacturing, and sales channels, all have to be dealt with at once, which can seem daunting to a first time founder. He watched his dad run a business that made Aloha shirts, while he wanted to make the ‘space shuttle’ of technical clothing.

Homeschool Outerwear focused on being small and nimble at the outset, with a line that was as tight as possible. They established a relationship with a good factory and started to get samples made, which is when they started to be taken seriously.

But each of those steps can be seen as insurmountable barriers.

“It’s overwhelming. I’ve dealt with it by not thinking about everything at once. Find the barriers and break them down one at a time. I have a lot of really good and talented people around me that believe in this brand and have made huge personal sacrifices to help bring this idea and product to fruition, for which I am eternally grateful. I believe that without the small brands’ point of view, there is no progression or energy in the outdoor space and that helps drive what we do. A belief in the product and that we are bringing something to the table that has been missing for a really long time.”

Heavy-Days-Both-SkusThat belief is what not only drove the design and construction of the apparel line, but also how the approached retailers and talked to consumers. Taking the approach that their products are good enough to be in the top retailers so let’s start at the top and see where we get.

“When we first launched the brand our focus was on 20 of the best retailers in the country, and we ultimately got into 18 of them in our first year, which was a major accomplishment because these are shops that typically take 3 years or more to break into. We haven’t lost many customers over the years and I think it’s partly because the major apparel players consolidate retailers and consumers are looking for an alternative they can get behind.”

Danny and his team also saw an opportunity overseas and have grown their distribution in Japan.

“Japan has been great for us, I think the Japanese consumer really appreciates quality and technology and are willing to pay more for that quality. Small brands with unique stories really resonate in Japan. We also have a great partner and distributor over there who is doing it right and willing to work hard to make the brand a success.”

The growth challenges that come with any early stage company continue as Homeschool Outerwear looks to scale. Raising investment money. Expanding the sales channels and growing revenue. Continuing to evolve the lines, while maintaining the brand essence. Hiring new talent and retaining the core team.

Danny knows that at every step there will be more barriers to break down one at a time, but he is also aware that Portland is the perfect place to build this type of company.

“ The environment and closeness and proximity to the mountains, ocean and a large active consumer base make it easier on a lot of levels. There is also a lot of great talent due to the big brands being located here, and a great entrepreneurial scene. The challenges are probably the same as they always have been. Even with the great infrastructure and entrepreneurship scene we have here a lot of people still don’t get what it means to start a business though, and I have always found that interesting. Unless you’ve done it there is no parallel.”

And now that Danny made that leap and has done it, what advice would he go back and give himself after he left Columbia?

“Wow, That’s a tough one. Be prepared for the long haul. If I knew what I had ahead of me I probably wouldn’t have done it! You need a little of that naiveté in the beginning for sure. Despite everything this is experience has been the most rewarding of my life and the most challenging, and I’m not sure I would have done anything differently. I try not to have regrets.”

For more information, visit www.homeschoolouterwear.com, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter and Instagram

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Mitch Daugherty