This Athleisure CEO Wants to Inspire Better Men

I know I’m going to catch some heat from Nate for referring to Rhone as “athleisure”, but after taking a close look at the market I think it’s a fair label for where they’re positioned. And they do it incredibly well. Not in the sense that they manufacture yoga pants used solely for watching Netflix and drinking hot cocoa, but in the sense that they design and produce a multipurpose clothing line that’s just as functional in the gym as it is boarding a plane to catch a business meeting on the other side of the country.

Rhone is in no way the only company out there trying to tackle this niche. Companies like Mizzen+Main and Duer both make great casual performance-wear for men, but Rhone has taken an interesting market position as the men’s lululemon. These guys have nailed what guys are looking for in terms of function, style, and comfort.

They’re based out in Stamford so our editor, Jenna Bostock, and I headed out there to meet Nate Checketts and discuss how his brand of athletic menswear is trying to empower men to be the best versions of themselves in every decision they make.

Tell me about the inception of Rhone. Where did the idea come from?

Nate Checketts: The idea came at a family get together. I come from a big family, there’s 6 kids. Now all of us are married and there’s 14 grandkids, you can imagine getting the house together. It’s just packed. My mom one year decided to go out—hmmm maybe I shouldn’t share this on the record. Oh well.

For the ease of efficiency she went out and was buying stuff at Lululemon and they have a little men’s collection—this was probably 6 years ago. She decided to get something for the guys too. Well Christmas morning comes around and we open it up and my brother-in-law looks at me and we just did not think Lululemon was a brand for men. So he and I had this family discussion but nothing really came of it.

Three months later I was at the NFL. I worked there in the strategy group right down by the sponsorship team, and Budweiser, one of the big sponsors, sent a box of Lulu gear for the women in the office for this event coming up. They open it up and said ‘Oh look, this stuff is great!’. I made the mistake of saying ‘I’ve got some Lululemon sweatpants!’.

I was new, I was trying to fit in, I finally had something to say in the conversation. It was that record scratching silence. The guy next to me turned around and asked if I bought my underwear at Victoria’s Secret. I immediately backed away from it. I remember calling my brother-in-law back up and saying ‘Hey, remember that discussion we had at Christmas. Feels like there’s clearly a real issue here.’

Where did that discussion lead you to, what was the initial launch concept?

Nate Checketts: We started looking at the industry and what we found when it came to active is that there were two giant clusters. You got the big box brands, Nike, Under Armor, Adidas, all priced very similar, very similar sales mix between their men and women, and then you had the Lulu’s of the world where men’s clearly isn’t a focus it’s like 0-15% of their sales.

Even though men haven’t been traditionally known as the big retail shoppers they care about the quality and having a brand that speaks to us, that resonates with who we are. We didn’t get that from the premium player and Lululemon’s of the world.

We launched with this idea that speaks to the way the modern man lives, works, and sweats. It wasn’t with the intent to go and specifically do workout gear or ready wear, it was this performance lifestyle category that we wanted to go into.

Nate Checketts, Co-Founder & CEO of Rhone.

Would you consider yourself in the athleisure market?

Nate Checketts: A lot of people have called it athleisure but I think that’s a misnomer. We make clothing that can look good in many settings and can perform in all settings. It’s very different than some of these athleisure brands you see out there, where it’s clothing that looks like it’s made for working out but it’s really made for just hanging out. That’s not us.

What we want is clothing that’s going to be the best performing product on the market. It can have a silhouette that can translate into multiple different settings. I was suit and tie at the NFL, very traditional culture. I’ve got three little boys at home so when I get home the first thing they want to do is jump up on me and I thought I was going to tear those suit pants every single day. Now, when I come in through the door wearing our commuter pant to play with my kids I don’t feel the need like I have to go change my clothes. That’s the belief system that surrounded the brand when we started.

Have you always been pretty entrepreneurial?

Nate Checketts: When I was young it was just lemonade stands. One time we had this really great day, we came home and had sold $40 of lemonade! Turns out it was our next door neighbor’s wake. He had passed away! My parents had to go smooth over their son profiteering off their tragedy.

When I was 15 I started a summer camp for kids in my parent’s backyard, that’s how I made my first summer money. My parents told me I needed to help contribute to pay for some of the sports camps I had signed up for so we started this summer camp. I saved that money, that’s how I paid for my very first car. I actually used some of that money to buy my wife’s engagement ring. I didn’t know the term entrepreneurial. It was just this idea that I liked building things and I liked starting things.

I also started a company right out of college, it was the first kind of mobile point sales system inside stadiums and arenas. We allowed people to order food and merchandise using their phone and then it would be delivered down to their seat. That way you wouldn’t have to miss any of the action on the field. We took that IP and sold it to the San Francisco 49ers, that’s kind of the pathway that led me to the NFL.

Can you speak a little bit to how you funded the company?

Nate Checketts: We had this idea, we had incubated it and put this little deck together. We went to friends and said ‘Hey, we really don’t have any apparel background, e-commerce background, and you’ll probably gonna lose your money, but this is our idea. So don’t give us more money than your significant other will be upset about.’

We raised a lot of small checks and cobbled it together and after we had done our initial run and photoshoot we went out and raised a slightly larger round and that was more of a $5M round. We had some notable investors in there like David Stern, the former commissioner of the NBA and Shane Batter the basketball player, Steve Bornstein former CEO of the NFL, there are some other really notable names that we unfortunately are not allowed to talk about but just a group of really great people. Then most recently we raised a round from LCatteron, which is the private equity firm backed by the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Group.

Did you do it as a part-time side hustle at first?

Nate Checketts: In the beginning it was all part time. In fact the week before we launched both myself and my brother in law were so stressed out—because we had full time jobs so most of it was being done on the trains to and from New York. Two weeks before we launched his kitchen caught on fire, total freak accident. His entire family had to move in with my parents, their whole house went up in flames.

Then the week before I had stayed up till 3am three nights in a row just getting the website ready, but then I had to wake up at 6 to catch the train to get to NY, and I’m type 1 diabetic. So I was staying up and I had given myself an insulin shot to get something to eat but I was so tired I had forgotten that I had given myself a shot so I went to bed and I went into diabetic shock and started having seizures. My wife woke up and called the ambulance and I ended up in the emergency room, it was really scary. This is the week before the launch. I remember my brother-in-law and I looking at each other and saying ‘Are we really sure we want to do this? It seems a little crazy.’

What would be your advice be to aspirational entrepreneurs for leaving the comfort of the “side hustle” and committing to their dream of running their own business? 

Nate Checketts: You’ll hear a lot of people say that no man can serve two masters. You can’t really be successful with something on the side. I think it really depends. What are you trying to do, what are you trying to get out of it? If the idea is the supplement your income there are a lot of people who do that successfully with side businesses like renting your home out on Air B&B or driving a few hours on Uber, there are models where that makes a lot of sense.

Building a brand is not one of those. It takes so much time, focus, energy and passion. That doesn’t mean that you can’t de-risk it to start. Does it make you brave or foolish to leave a lot of comfort and start with no data whatsoever on whether or not your pursuing is going to be successful? What’s shocking is that there are so many people that are thinking about starting a company. It’s pretty much everyone.

People tend to romanticize other people’s lives. For me, we worked really hard to develop the opportunity and we went into it with this idea that it might not work but when it came to the point where we had to make a decision there was a leap of faith. We had just tried to shorten the gap to some extent. Im glad we did that—I’m not sure that it would have worked had we tried to go straight out on our own and build it.

We had to get more comfortable, and maybe I would have had more regrets about leaving and having to provide for a mortgage, kids, all of that. The reality is you can take steps to minimize the risk and you can also create value with things that don’t cost anything. One of the things I was shocked about was doing a photoshoot wasn’t very expensive for us, but the value that created tangibly to our investors was huge. It all of a sudden became real to them, where they saw a model—not even a professional  model, just a good-looking friend and one of our co-founders. We put them in a cabin-y setting and took pictures of them. Investors were like ‘Wow, this totally makes sense. I get it!’. So what value can you create that really costs you nothing?

It sounds like with the Rhone concept you had a little more experience than the average person thinking about leaving their day job, because you had already exited a company. Tell us what it was like to commit to your first startup, before Rhone.

Nate Checketts: Feeling brave but actually just foolish, from an entrepreneur standpoint. I felt like I could go and conquer the world and wasn’t afraid of anything and didn’t realize how complicated and challenging it was. It was a great learning experience, kind of like the school of hard knocks. We made so many mistakes. We’ve made mistakes in this business too but less mistakes because I had the opportunity to go through that experience.

Interesting example of this, especially in our space, is the Kit and Ace launch. It was started by Chip Wilson’s son and his wife, Chip is the founder of Lululemon. Chip left Lululemon to do this full time. They opened 60 retail doors, signing 60 long term leases over the course of a two year period. But the brand wasn’t there yet. They hadn’t built up enough momentum.

These guys had seemingly endless funding, all the credible experience in the world, they had done it once already. And it didn’t work. You’ve never heard of it. I just find it so fascinating—you can think, oh gosh I’ve figured this out and there’s a formula but the game is changing and there’s no guarantees.

Is there anything from a brand perspective that you think would be important for our readers to know?

Nate Checketts: We are really trying to build a brand that inspires men to be great men. I always hesitate on how I phrase this, because I never want it to sound like preachy—it’s the idea that we believe in self improvement and growth and it’s sort of a taboo topic now. I don’t know why, but there needs to be a community of guys that just talks about ‘Hey how can we be better?’ especially now more than ever.

It frustrates me so much when you see the way our male counterparts, did you see the SNL weekend update, it was kind of like oh, “it’s 20 degrees outside and every man you’ve ever known is a sex monster, stay inside.”

Part of our story is inspiring men to be great men. Whether it’s being better in the community or just working harder in whatever your niche is, just being a good person. I have three young sons and I think about training them to be little men. We were playing a family game last night and my son just lost his temper after every round, I had to sit him down and talk about sportsmanship and what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. I actually took him through a three minute headspace meditation to try and get him to calm down. Trust me, I have not figured this out. I am trying to figure this out. But there should be an area where we can talk about it with each other.

As a brand, how does Rhone try to solve that problem?

Nate Checketts: We put these really great inspirational quotes in our hemlines of the products. They are quotes from Thoreau, John Muir, and Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway. If you look up on that wall there’s a Walt Whitman quote and it’s this small subtle daily reminder about who you are trying to be. The reality is you go to these conferences and you have a big convention you talk about who you want to be and write down your goals. But it’s that daily reminder that gets you over the hump.

It became very real to me when we were developing our first prototype and we put this quote that said ‘What we do in life, echoes in eternity’ from Marcus Aurelius.

I was with my family, we had gone on a trip and we were in the mountains I had been working like crazy. We had a family bike ride planned, my wife and I were going to bike through the mountains together with our two children. I’m buckling the kid and my phone rings. It was one of these big potential investors that I had spent a month tracking down.

I’m looking at my phone and I’m standing there and the hem of my shirt is flipped up, so I see the quote as I’m looking at this call coming in. I thought, ‘Okay, my kids probably won’t remember this bike ride, but it’s the repeated actions that I chose in these moments that ultimately impact their life and my life as a father. If this  guy doesn’t come in because I missed this one phone call, I’m willing to live with those kind of outcomes by staying true to the commitment I’ve made.’ That might be a romantical view of the situation but for me it was a very real and poignant moment.

Someone showed me another shirt that read ‘Run a lap and drink a beer.’ That is not what we want. This is a billboard, this is a chance to impact somebody. We want to make a different choice than that.