Sitting down with Sulli: The Adventurous Entrepreneur behind Stio

Stephen Sullivan’s first decade in the Grand Tetons as a serious skiing and climbing bum, working outdoor retail and falling in love with Jackson Hole, gave him a solid foundation for traversing the trails and climbing the heights of the business world, building not just one but two successful outdoor retail companies; Cloudveil, and his present company, Stio.

Stio—an abbreviation from the founder’s name in Gaelic—has grown since 2011 into one of the most innovative and cutting edge boutique and direct to consumer retail lines in the outdoor and adventure business world.

We sat down with Sulli (as the world knows him) to find out what makes Stio tick and how they transformed from the small Jackson Hole gear startup to the success story they are today.

Sulli Stephen Sullivan Stio Jackson HoleHow did you first get involved in outdoor retail?

Well, I started working in the outdoor retail world when I was actually a senior in high school, and then continued that in Durango, Colorado, where I went to college.  I managed a store here in Jackson Hole for four or five years,  and then decided that was great, and I loved it, but I wasn’t going to be able to support a family on that, so a buddy of mine who I’d met there and I decided to start our own thing and that was how Cloudveil got started.

What attracted you to Jackson Hole?

Well, the exceptional skiing and climbing in the Tetons, basically taking it to the next level.  You know, these are big mountains!

So you founded Stio in 2011.  How did your previous experience with Cloudveil affect your business plan for Stio?

Cloudveil was an omni-channel business; wholesale, retail and direct to consumer. When I started Stio it dawned on me from the Cloudveil experience that as they got larger all the wholesale accounts started buying the more traditional kind of classic designs and textiles. They didn’t want to experiment or go out of the box with some of our more creative styles.  But what was interesting was that we actually did really well with those styles in the direct to consumer business, so our retail store and our online business could sell the more unique, creative styles readily and our wholesale channel just would not adopt them.

With Stio the first part of the premise was to try to go completely direct to consumer. I wanted to own the whole experience, so literally within the month that we launched the brand to the public we started an ecommerce web site, we announced a catalog business and we also opened a retail store, and the combination of that was also really important to make sure the consumer saw our intent and our focus on this channel and that seemingly has been a success thus far.

What is the essential DNA of Stio?

The culture is all based around the mountain lifestyle, and actually people that are living the mountain lifestyle, and perpetuating it, rather than wannabees buried in an office somewhere in San Francisco or New York, but people that are actually out here and testing the product and using the product on a daily basis.  One thing we want to emphasize is that we make product that goes from the top of the mountain all the way down to the resort. That was really important to us, because that part of the lifestyle is just as important, if not more so for most people on a daily basis, the daily living that they do in the mountains.  We really strove to make a versatile product line that could be worn in a wide variety of circumstances.

Design versus function, and leisure versus adventure, how does Stio strike that balance?

The premise from a product development standpoint is that we are using technical textiles or fabrics and then applying those textiles to end uses that are both lifestyle end uses and technical end uses.  Now, one of the great things about living in a community like this is I literally live one mile from the beginning of Teton Pass, so i can leave my driveway and literally have an adventure before work.

I mean Mount Glory, I can be up at the top in 45 minutes in howling, white out conditions, skiing power up to my waist, and then be at my office ten minutes after that.  This is the balance of the life we live here, which is filled with these mini-adventures that we can have everyday.  For instance, after this call I’m going out for a trail run.  And I’ll be totally away from people, up in the mountains, and then I can turn around and get back to the office in ten minutes.

Tell us a little about Stio’s focus on technology.

I think the application of taking a technical textile and building it in a more lifestyle-centric product is a distinguishing point for us.  A great example is we have a soft shell blazer, a traditional blazer, that’s sells very well and has been in our line for four years, and it’s a great travel piece, it doesn’t wrinkle as much and it’s completely durable — you could drag it behind your car for half a day and you couldn’t wear a hole in the thing — so it was a matter of turning a classic design on its ear with a technical textile.   Because there are occasions here in Jackson Hole that we need to throw a blazer on, for a wedding or what have you.

Stio partners with several conservation organizations.  How important is that as part of the company vision?

Extremely important.  Anytime you are trying to build a brand and attract talented employees and attract people to the brand, you want to partner with organizations that are protecting the world that the brand operates in.  So we are pretty focused on a national level with Conservation Alliance and Protect our Winters.   And on the local level, youth athletic sponsorships and organizations like Habitat for Humanity.

So what’s new at Stio?

There is always new stuff.  One of the greatest things about a direct to consumer channel is the immediate feedback that you get from your customer base, and that indicates  the direction you take your product line, which does not happen with wholesale where the process is much longer. That has allowed us to be very nimble in our product development process and deliver to our customers what they are asking for.

Lastly, perhaps you’d share some business advice you’ve received or given out?

When I first started Cloudveil someone said to me “cash is king in this business”, and I always go back to that.  You are always going to need more than you think.  You need a runway to get the business or brand off the ground.

To aspiring entrepreneurs, you have to be passionate about a business that you are starting in almost every way if it is going to be successful.   If the passion isn’t there, you may have some success, but how enjoyable and how rewarding is it going to be unless you are passionate?  Passion is key.

Living and working in a place like Jackson Hole is still hard work.  A couple of days this week I got in at 4:45 a.m. and worked till 7 in the evening.   Adventure is nearby and available, but there is still hard work to do to build your business.