How A Back Injury Led To a Billion Dollar Business10 min read
In a time when scores of gym wear brands seem to pop up out of nothing more than a barrage of sponsored social media posts, the quieter success stories are increasingly rare. Born out of a garage in California that’s freezing in winter and far too hot in summer, premium active wear brand Vuori has done it the right way: connecting with real people, serving the communities it’s built and stitching innovation into the seams of each product it releases.
Joe Kudla, the founder and CEO of Vuori (Finnish for ‘mountain’) has guided the company from that pokey garage to a recent $4 billion valuation, with their emphasis on the versatility, sustainability and subtlety of their sports-lifestyle apparel striking a chord with the modern gym-goer in the US.
With roots now being planted here in the UK, we spoke to Kudla and found out how a serious injury and doubling-down on his health and fitness turned into the biggest brand you’re about to start wearing.
Men’s Health: Where did you grow up and what were you into when you were young?
Joe Kudla: I grew up on Vashon Island in the State of Washington, just outside of Seattle. We had very similar weather to London, actually. It was a very rural, small town. We had one little blinking light, so no stoplights on the entire island. I just grew up in the woods and playing in the forest, pretty much. It was an idyllic childhood.
I was a really shy kid and I kind of struggled socially a little bit. Sports were my way out of that and that’s how I built a lot of confidence. I remember the first time I played American football at recess in preschool, I just fell in love with it. I always played sports, from that point forward. I had a lot of learning difficulties as a kid, I had a hard time studying and I was very fidgety. I didn’t like being in a seat in school and just always wanted to be physical in my body: football, soccer, baseball, basketball. But then as I got older, I really started to focus on American football and lacrosse.
As sports go, those are very physical…
When I really think about connecting all the dots of my life, I got some injuries from playing football. It was never diagnosed, but I have some curvature in my spine. So, I was probably not a great candidate for playing running back. I dealt with some back pain in my junior year of high school and then, in a game, I slipped a disc in my back. From that point forward, my relationship with my back has been one I’ve had to be conscientious with. I’ve had to connect the dots. I realise now that high-inflammation foods put pressure, oddly, on my organs and my back. And that can lead to a slip if I’m not careful. Whereas if I eat clean and then I follow kind of a physical practice, I typically do well.
What does that discipline look like on a daily basis?
I started getting into ice baths maybe five years ago, after watching a documentary about Wim Hof. I had been doing meditation and yoga for a long time, so breath work was something I was already familiar with. I got an ice bath for the cold exposure. It was a chest freezer and I just plugged it in and filled it up with a hose. I have a better one now that’s designed for purpose. I’m in a sauna and ice three to four days a week and that’s been really a big unlock. But the biggest thing for me has been yoga. It has its challenges for somebody who has back problem, but I’ve grown to understand what works for me.
When did you get start getting into yoga?
Probably about 15 years ago. When I was around 30, a friend suggested I try it for my back. I was hesitant because I was like, you know, ‘a guy’s guy’. I always thought of yoga as something that was a little more feminine. But I fell in love with the practice. I started going every day and I didn’t miss a day for five years. I was that devout. I was getting a lot of relief and just felt good, both physically and mentally. Taking an hour, just to be on your mat and move and breathe and sweat. It was the first time I’d really ever done anything therapeutic for my body. Crucially, it was also the first time that I’d ever really paid attention to athletic clothing.
Is that where your interest in fashion and clothing came from?
Yes. Growing up, I would train with my teams you’d would wear whatever shorts the football team gave you and an old cotton t-shirt. It wasn’t as much a social thing. But then with yoga, you’re going to the studio and you’re around this community of people. There was a bit more of a fashion element to it and it was the same with studio fitness. People want to look good and feel good. People were starting to trade out happy hours for going to meet up and take a class. The experience of working out was becoming much more social. I started scratching my head and asking myself; what does a guy wear to yoga? You had the mainstream active brands that a lot of us grew up wearing as kids who idolised, our favourite athletes. It was always about team sports, the competitive spirit and winning. They were distributed at mass market retail and the archetype of active wear at the time was very much defined by these monolithic brands. It was all shiny polyester, big brand logos and primary colours.
A lot of people in Southern California would wear surf brands to the gym, or yoga because they identified as surfers. They didn’t identify as jocks. It interested me that people were sacrificing the performance of their clothing to wear products that just identified with their lifestyle. We felt like we could merge those two worlds by building product that would support you through a tough workout, but we could strip it down of all the things that identified you as somebody that was going to the gym. We wanted to make the product versatile, so that you could wear it across multiple aspects of your life.
Did you have any experience in the sports apparel industry before starting Vuori?
A little bit but I was certainly never classically trained. I was a jock. You know, I played sports my whole life and never took an art class, so I wasn’t in tune with any kind of creative outlets for myself, but I always loved brands. When I was 21, I graduated from college and the night I got my diploma I went to LAX and I flew to Milan. I got this random opportunity to work in the fashion industry as a model and I didn’t come back for two years. I ended up travelling around working with all these incredible designers. I didn’t love the modelling if I’m being honest, but I did love watching these designers build product and I always thought it was just so fascinating how they told stories. It was like a peek behind the curtain. I graduated from college with an accounting degree, so when I went home, I went to go work for an accounting firm. But I couldn’t get the idea of working in fashion out of my head, but I didn’t know how to get there. The only way that I knew how was to start something myself. I started a women’s contemporary line with a girlfriend of mine at the time. We were just scrappy kids trying to figure it out. We’d go to LA on the weekends and buy fabric, we’d bring it home, we’d work with the local cut and sew mills in San Diego to turn these these fabrics into garments and then we’d go on sales trips to boutiques. We got a good little business going. But I was still full time at Ernst & Young doing 60 hours a week, so I was I was always one foot in and one foot out. It wasn’t until I got into yoga and I saw this opportunity that I decided this it was something I want to fully jump into.
What were the early days of Vuori like?
With my first businesses, I was always the kid that had a trunk full of T-shirts and the early days of Vuori were really, really tough. We started in a garage that was freezing in the winter, then way too hot in the summer. I had a hard time raising money. This is before investment became accessible. I was raising money back in like 2013 and it was hard, because everybody wanted to know if there some kind of new hook, some way that you are using the internet, some proprietary technology or AI or some inventive business model. Our model was to create a lifestyle brand, just do everything right and focus on making great product, Investors didn’t want to hear it. We got rejected by everybody.
I was able to piece together enough friends and family money to get the samples made. And our premise was that we were going to enter through men’s yoga because there were 30 million people practising in the United States and 30% of them were men. There was a huge network of yoga studios that all had retail components, so we thought we could sell in there. We got a lot of them to buy the product but the lines weren’t selling through and we were running out of money very quickly.
Right before we were almost out of cash, we decided we needed a direct relationship with our customer, so we started learning how to market on the internet. We still had just enough in the bank that we could test a couple of strategies and we quickly learned that the customer loved the product but they didn’t resonate with how we were marketing it. The customers told us what they were using the product for and yoga was something like number 30 on the list. What we heard consistently was that people loved the versatility. It was always the ethos of the product, were just marketing it wrong.
All of a sudden, bigger retail partners in the US started paying attention to what we were doing. They saw the community that we’re building – a digital community at first and then we opened our first pop up and then our first retail store. It was all about bringing people together. Our stores were hubs for the community to come together, to work out together, to have art shows, talks and parties. We started getting callbacks from a lot of these wholesale accounts. Once they tested it and it performed well, we were on our way. Those early days were very difficult and Vuori was not an overnight success. It took a lot of pivoting and work on coming to terms with how to speak to people in a way that is meaningful and aligns with their lifestyle.
How have you grown as a leader as the brand has evolved?
They always say that the only constant is change and I think that that’s been true for me. When we started in that garage, there were three of us. Now we have 1500 employees and we’re one of the fastest growing consumer brands. The challenges of today are so different than the earlier ones. We’re not questioning whether the lights will be turned on tomorrow, but we are constantly building scale, and infrastructure, meaning more people, more efficient systems, and new technology. What I spend a lot of time thinking about beyond the products, is how we can continue to nurture a great culture. At the end of the day, businesses are just people. You’ve got to have the best people and you’ve got to empower them to do great work. Are we creating an environment where people can thrive. In the early days, that can come down to having Kind bars in the fridge and making time for everybody to have fun together. That’s the big way I’ve developed as a leader – navigating how to invest in the right places, so that you continue to set your business up to scale at these new levels of size and complexity.
Finally, where do you see Vuori going in the next five years?
We have core franchises across fitness, lounge, travel, commute, and outdoor and swim. We feel like we’re already in the categories we want to be in and so we’re going to start building off of those core franchises and extending into more product newness. We built out an innovation office in Taipei and have an incredible leader there and we’re going to be bringing some really incredible, first-to-market textiles to the customer. We’re just in the early innings of launching our global business, so while the lion’s share of the growth over the next five years will be in the United States, we’re planting seeds in the UK, China, Japan and Korea.
We’re just really excited to bring Vuori’s message to new markets. Our vision is to inspire happiness and we take that seriously. It’s not only the products we make, it’s how we work with our people and the relationships we have with all the people that we serve. We’re currently building the business responsibly through some really cool stuff that we’re doing from a sustainability standpoint, too. We want to keep driving that message, keep inspiring happiness and we think that we have an opportunity to be one of the most meaningful active brands out there. We’re excited about what the future holds.
David Morton is Deputy Editor at Men’s Health, where he has written, worked, edited and sweated for 12 years. His areas of particular interest are fitness, workouts and adventure.