Working for the Run: How Does a Running Brand Owner Do Her Job?

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: Hello and welcome to working the show about what people do all day. I’m your host, Shannon Pollin’s. I’m a writer at Slate, where I cover health and science. This season, we’re talking about the world of running with athletes, coaches and people who do all manner of things to help others go for a run.

S3: This week, we’re talking to Monica Devries. She’s the co owner of a running store in Santa Barbara and the co-founder of the running apparel brand, Robert. We’ll talk to Monica about why she’s always been so obsessed with gear. How do you evaluate someone’s running gait to match them with the perfect pair of shoes and why she felt compelled to strike out on her own and design her own running shorts? Like so many clothing issues in this world, it has to do with pockets.

S1: What is your name and what do you do?

S4: So my name is Monica Devries and I have a running store that I owned with my husband and called Santa Barbara Running. And then I’m also the co-founder of the Men’s and women’s running performance apparel brand named Rabbit.

S1: So we’re gonna start with the running store. How long have you owned that and how did you decide to start a running store?

S4: So let’s see. I. We’ve lived in Santa Barbara since 2003. And that’s when we opened the store. Both my husband and I, we have both been in this the running industry for a very, very long time. Right out of college, we both started working at local running shops in the towns that we were living in.

S5: And then we both ended up going and working for one of the big footwear brands that people, I’m sure, had heard of called Adidas. And we both met through there in one of the running meccas. I think in the world, Boulder, Colorado. So that’s where we met.

S4: And at the time, I was running sales rep for the Rocky Mountain region and my husband was managing there’s a a chain of running stores called Runners Roost in the Colorado area. And we met through that. And then we both ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, where the Adidas U.S. headquarters was located. And then, you know, after some time there, there was an opportunity that was presented to me to move to Santa Barbara for work. And what kind of sealed the deal was, there was not a running specialty store in this incredible active community. So how could you pass up the beach, the mountains? Sunshine? Yeah. So that’s sort of how it made the jump to Santa Barbara.

S1: So you’ve worked in selling running apparel and a bunch of capacities. What did you like about it early on that made you stick with that?

S5: My freshman year in high school, I started running cross-country to stay in shape for basketball and soccer. And I found out that I was actually pretty good at long distance running. And also at that time, I really.

S6: Got into gear. You know, just as a consumer and I always wanted to have, you know, the latest and greatest running shoe, the coolest tracks, bike, whatever, you know, new cool running gear that was on the market, I had to have it.

S5: So that kind of just, I guess, was always just sort of a part of who I was. And then after college, I did the corporate thing. But also I worked at a running store on the weekends just to like just engage with the community. And I was really intrigued with the process of design, you know, and like how how there is this consumer need. And then just how like it ends, like this idea becomes a product based on if off of a consumer need, I guess, and not really like just sort of throughout my entire career, like I’m just really intrigued with that process of building product and building meaningful product that performs and works well and like giving the consumer, I guess, what they want.

S1: So you started the running store in 2003. What is the process of like selecting what kind of gear you’re going to sell to people like.

S5: Yeah. I mean, so it’s it’s been really interesting. You know, just over the last few years, like, obviously there’s been like this trend happening and, you know, the the athleisure world. So, you know, at the running store, you carry all the big name footwear brands, obviously. And then you would always carry the footwear brands, apparel. And, you know, obviously, I’ve been on both sides of this. And the reality is the big footwear brands, they focus on footwear first and then apparel is just from a resource standpoint. It is secondary. But, you know, that’s all that would be available to us. So we would have the footwear brands, apparel come into the store and then it would kind of go on the sale rack. And I was just sort of the cycle we lived in. And then you really started seeing, you know, once Lululemon and Athleta and, you know, this whole athleisure trend really started taking off. A lot of the big footwear brands tried to chase that. And they really went away from, you know, what runners are looking for in their apparel in terms of like fabrics and fit. Is this short going to ride up? Is it going to chafe? Is there going to be too much fabric flopping around? I mean, runners are finicky. And I mean, I think the last thing you want to be dealing with when you’re on a run is having uncomfortable apparel. So, yeah, I mean, that’s. In terms of like what? As a running store apparel buyer, that’s what we’re looking for is we want true cuts. We want things that aren’t overcomplicated. They’re not overdesigned. They’re lightweight. They’re breathable. You know, they’re going to dry quickly. They’re not going to have seaming in the wrong place. You don’t want to have all of that fuss when you’re out on your 20 mile long run training for your marathon.

S1: You mentioned that you felt like the athleisure trend was sort of leaving runners behind and not really taking their needs into consideration. What is it about athleisure shorts that doesn’t work for runners? What about a running short or a rabbit short is different and specific to runners?

S5: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, I don’t have like a specific. Athletes are short in mine and I’m not putting down athleisure. I think as a performance running brand, like it’s definitely the cuts in the fabric, you know, and it’s those little built in details for function. Does the pocket fit your nutrition? Is your key going to follow? Is this fabric going to dry really quickly? Is this liner going to ride? You know, is the line are going to support you? Is it going to dry quickly? Is it going to chafe? Is it going to rub in the wrong area? I mean, I think it’s just the wear testing that goes on is probably just under a different set of circumstances. I don’t you know, I’m not here to put down athleisure. I just think what we’re bringing to the table is it’s it’s running first. Obviously, it has to look good, no doubt. And then it’s about what’s behind the brand.

S1: I guess what kind of testing and product development did you go through to design like that first pair of rabbit shorts?

S5: I was after I had my second child, I was just helping my husband, you know, full time at the store. And, you know, and I was running, I would say, pretty competitively sell. And and we had this women’s race team through the running store. And Jill Dering, who has rabbits, other co-founder was on the team. And she came to me one day just expressing her frustrations as an athlete with what running apparel options were available to her as a competitor. And I was frustrated as a runner. But. Also as a running store owner with the options available, and she said it would be crazy if we started a brand and I said absolutely not. It’s brilliant. Let’s do it. So I mean, really, the birth of the brand started. From Jill and I, my husband in this local running community, you know, and we we validated and mined the feedback of the frustrations that we were having as athletes and. Across the board, everyone had the same frustration. So we we started making our first prototypes and we prototype to prototype and we prototyped until we were happy with the fit and function of the product. And I couldn’t even tell you how many rounds we went through. I mean, those first shorts, they were so hard. But yeah, I mean, we just kept testing until we were hundred percent happy.

S1: How do you go about that first prototype? Because I think a lot of us have had that moment where we’re like, I hate all of the options for like whatever piece of clothing. But how do you get from that’s like, OK, I have like prototype number one of like my new shorts. What do you do to get there?

S5: I mean, I think I we were in a pretty good space in terms of how to navigate this whole landscape. Based on my experience, you know, so with my previous background in the industry, I knew how to navigate kind of that, I guess the product development steps and just through word of mouth. You know, I think the other like the big thing was in terms of a factory with my previous jobs, I was traveling to Asia a few times a year going over to factories. And I just had two little kids at home. And not just the thought of that did not interest me at all. So we were fortunate enough. We found a couple of factories down in L.A. just through networking, just through friends that we knew that are in the industry. And we we were lucky to make those connections and reforged tremendous relationships with those factories. And they were onboard to help us get going. So they were, you know, obviously 100 percent behind our vision to help us get this thing off the ground.

S1: So when you’re going through those countless prototypes, was there a specific detail or aspect of the short or another piece of clothing that was just really tough to get, right?

S5: Yeah, I mean, I definitely think the shorts are still by far the toughest. We would get a prototype back and I’d be like, OK, fits great through the waist, but the hips too tight. Or when you run, you know, and you’re lifting your knee, you’re showing too much leg or the splits. Not long enough or the liner is writing up, you know, a little too much. It was just constantly tweaking. It was always just the littlest things. And you would think, OK, we’re going to make that little tweak. And then the next sample, we know we nailed it and then it would throw something else off. Yeah. So it was just constant back and forth tinkering.

S1: Did you go for a lot of runs personally to test out those prototypes?

S5: Oh yes. I actually did a one hundred mile race in one of the shorts. Those that’s usually my test because I pretty much do. I spend most of my time like running Ultra’s these days. And that’s always like one of the big tests before we launch a product. We’ll have some of us, you know, wear it for a really long race to make sure that we’ve nailed it.

S1: I’ve noticed that a lot of the I’m looking at your website now and a lot of the enzymes I’m at your shorts seem pretty short. I’m wondering how having a nice like short inseam balances with not having a lot of chafing going on. How do you get that ratio correct.

S5: Yeah, I think for women we do have a six inch inseam, which is pretty long. I would say like the standard longest, you know, within women’s shorts. A lot of it has to do with the hip how loose fitting the hip is, but also the leg opening. And definitely I mean, it’s a great question. It’s very, very difficult to nail because there’s not one standard, you know, for the circumference of a human’s thigh or quad muscle. You know, we’ve created these standards that, you know, are working for us. But, yeah, it’s definitely I would say like one of the harder things to nail.

S1: So your shorts are in the like 50 to $60 price range. Can you talk a little bit about when, you know, if someone comes to your store and buys a $50 pair of shorts? Where does that $50 go to make those shorts?

S6: Yeah. I mean, I would say no one would definitely like just with premium running shorts were definitely like right there, you know, in terms of being competitive in the market, shorts are there. They’re very complicated. I mean, no one barmaid in Los Angeles. You know, I think right there alone that, you know, there it’s the labor is not cheap to make those shorts, number one. But then they are also they’re very technical. I mean, the fabric, obviously, that goes into it, we’re using, you know, as light as wayif woven fabrics that we can that drive very quickly. Our liners in the shorts are very thoughtful. We want them obviously to be very comfortable and well designed. The waistbands. And I’m just talking about like these are our core shorts for women. You know, the waistbands have a back center pocket with reflective zipper that holds nutrition keys, credit cards, hotel keys. It also has two front internal waistband pockets that can hold more nutrition keys. Credit card. So, you know, there’s a lot built into the waistband and just the construction of that alone. Is is labor intensive. Yeah. So I think, you know, our trail shorts are definitely on the higher end of the price point because you’re getting more technical woven fabric being used. And then just in terms of like all the pockets, you know, you’re getting six and seven pockets on a short so. Yeah. I would just say like kind of the more pockets you get, definitely the more labor intensive and expensive pockets are definitely nice to have.

S1: And I think shirts. Yes. As someone who’s done a lot of like sticking things in her sports bra.

S7: I feel like, gosh, if you say the shorts and hold your phone that alone, they’re like that’s an important feature to have. They actually hold phones are Trail shorts do in the back pocket. The back centers that pocket. Nice.

S1: I’m impressed. What has been the most surprising part of owning a running brand?

S6: Oh, gosh. By far just the community. I mean, it is just really incredible. Just like the people that you meet, the stories that are told. It really just like will blow your bar, your mind, you know, like what what running does for people’s lives in a positive way. And having other people there that understand you, that are there to support you, to listen to you, to go for a run with you. I’ve always grown up being on teams, and I think it’s really cool to see that, you know, as a working professional mom, adults, you can still run and be a part of a team.

S7: It must be really fun to have all of your co-workers be runners, too. Yes, we do. A lot of. We call our office the rabbit hole. So we do a lot of lunch. Rabbit hole runs. What’s the most annoying part of owning your own brand?

S5: There’s just the to do list is never it never gets shorter. You know, I mean, I’m very committed. I’m type-A, you know, and I love checking the box, you know, on the To-Do list.

S6: But having your own business, it it’s a real challenge to put it to sleep. I have to be really, really mindful and check myself quite a bit. Just, you know, as a mother or a wife, just making sure to take the time to turn it off. I think that for me is like the most challenging part for sure. But I love it, too. So that also makes it hard to turn it off.

S1: What’s something that’s haunting your to do list right now that might not be on the to do list of someone who owns another kind of business?

S5: Well, I think we’re still I mean, we’ve been shipping product that’ll be for years and may, you know. So we’re still I mean, we’re still a very small company, you know. So, yeah. I’m the co-founder of this brand, but I’m still unpacking. You know, we fulfill all of our orders direct to consumer and B2B. And, you know, I’ll still help open boxes and pack orders. I mean, you know, go mail stuff. The next hour, I’ll be working on our business plan for the next five years. You know, or closing out the books for twenty nineteen. So I think the range of work is kind of all the full spectrum, if you will.

S1: So if I order something from Rabbit, it’s possible that like you actually will be the one to put it in a box and not often.

S5: Yep. And Jill could be the one if you comment on our Instagram. Jill could be the one to respond.

S1: Are you hoping so. Like one day move away from that kind of work or is it sort of funds like actually have your hands on stuff still?

S6: I mean, I love having my hands and everything. I know that’s not sustainable. You know, that’s not probably great for the company. I mean, I think, you know, as we continue to grow, I definitely would never lose sight or appreciation, you know, for what it takes to do those jobs and how important they are for the company. And of course, I’ll always want to get my hands dirty. But, yeah, I mean, I think as we grow this thing, it’s probably not in the best interest of the company for me to be packing orders running.

S1: The thing that I do to wind down from work. And so I’m wondering if you have anything else that you do to warrant down from work since running like kind of is your job.

S6: Oh, my gosh, it’s so funny. I think I’ve. Well, I turned to ultra running and I mentioned that. So I. Now I just I spend a lot of time, a lot of time on the trails and like for me. Yes, I’m running. But just like being up in the mountains and just not having anyone around me, I think just having that piece, you know, it just calms me. I’m a hundred percent the same way. Like just to be a better human mother, wife, coworker, I have to. To have that release too through running though. Yeah. What I’ve really found is like now for me just being up on the trails because it’s just so serene and beautiful and peaceful, I just like quiet. So any time I can just get like alone time and quiet, I would say, you know, as therapy for me and just calming myself in my mind.

S7: Do you listen to music while you read? I do. Sometimes I listen. I would probably more podcasts. I love podcasts. So it’s a good time for me to, you know, I guess just like I’m always trying to learn and challenge myself. So I find that that’s a good time to listen to the podcasts.

S1: So I want to move over to talk about the running story side of your job a little bit more. What is the most common question or problem that people come into this store with?

S5: So a lot of people come in and they will say, I’m not a runner.

S6: And we always have to reassure them, that’s OK. You don’t have to be a runner to shop at our store. But then I would say it’s always foot problems. My feet hurt. My knees hurt. You know, I would say by far no one.

S1: So one of the things that I love most about running stores is coming in and saying I need new shoes and having them watch you walk around or maybe even watch you walk on a treadmill. Could you take us through the process of helping someone find a new pair of running shoes? What does that look like?

S6: Yeah. So like I said, we definitely like, you know, get the history of what’s going on. And then we definitely do. It’s called a gait analysis. You know, so we watch them walk. We watch them run and see if we can identify any issues. Biomechanically.

S5: Because what that does is it helps us. You know, there is a plethora of shoes in our stockroom, you know, so it helps. That sort of eliminates, you know, certain brands or styles.

S6: And then we try to ask, you know, in terms of like cushioning or the type of ride they like, you know, do they like a more responsive ride? Do they like more a more soft ride? Do they like a lot of cushioning? Do they like to feel the road more? Or the trail? So we sort of do all of that analysis and then we will measure their feet. And then, yeah, we just end up bringing out, you know, a few options that we think they’ll be happy with. And then it really boils down every brand definitely has a different fit and feel, and that really is just personal taste. And that’s typically how the final decision is made. You know, it’s like when they put the product on their feet, what just feels best for them.

S1: One frustration that I have with running shoes is I have my one brand and my one model that I really like Mizuno wave riders. And I’ve been buying them for like fifteen years, I think. And they keep updating them. And it’s frustrating because I just want to buy one shoe until I die. You know, Waverider keeps coming out with Wave Rider 20. Wave rider twenty one as gearhead. Why is that necessary? And am I the one who’s wrong here?

S6: That’s a great, great question and very consistent feedback with most runners. I will say like 98 percent of the time, the brand is making improvements, you know, because these brands, the access to innovation that they have in technology, you know, is just constantly changing. Right. With anything. So I think you have to give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re using that knowledge to improve the product. I would say it most of our customers, they do want the latest and greatest. You know, they want that next new model and they’re excited when it comes out. And I think it’s just like anything, you know, even when you do get a fresh new pair of your wave riders, you know, it takes a few runs till they’re kind of a little bit more molded to your feet, you know, and you feel they feel a little broken in. I think it’s kind of the same thing when it’s a new model.

S1: I’m not totally convinced, but I see here that other writers have this complaint as well. How often do you get shiny new products into the store? Is there like a time of year where it’s like, all right, all of the new, like, shiny spring things or.

S6: Yeah, I would say like typically February is kind of a lot of the new models will come and then like June or July, but you are starting to see like a lot of the brands will launch like a special limited edition model or something and like they’ll email us a month before and say, hey, you got access to this, give a short order today, we’ll ship it in three weeks, which is kind of fine. I think it keeps it fresh and exciting, you know, to offer something new to the customers.

S1: When you are at the store, what are your tasks and to do list look like there?

S6: I am not there very often. My husband really runs the day to day and all the buying pretty much with the shop. Am, you know, helping a bit with the marketing and then more of just kind of the back end operational stuff. I mean we have a a manager for the store and then with my husband, the staff and with Rabbit, I just I can’t be there every day.

S1: Is there anything you miss about being more involved with the store? Yeah.

S5: I mean I love and I guess I get to do it in a different way with rabbit. Like, I guess like at the end of the day, because I think about this a lot, I’m like, God, why do I love this so much aside from gear, you know? But I truly I just love helping people, you know? I love like helping people solve problems, helping them become better at something they were frustrated with. You know, whether it’s finding them a new shoe or a new piece of clothing or helping our staff problem solve. Yes, I guess like with the store. It’s definitely just that you get that instant gratification of problem solving with the customer and then having them leave really happy and feeling good about their fitness journey for runners who are beginners.

S1: Are there one or two things that you would really recommend? Okay. If you’re going to spend any money. Spend your money on this kind of product.

S6: Yeah, I mean, I would for sure. First they appear. You need a good pair of shoes that will work for you and to take the time and go to your local running store and have them help you figure that out for sure. Shoes. I definitely think socks. I mean, a good pair of socks makes all the difference in the world to socks are so underrated.

S1: I know my mom always gives me running socks for Christmas and like the $10 socks that are nice and cushy. And I really appreciate that.

S6: Yes. Hundred percent. I mean, we try to, you know, make sure with every pair of shoes we sell the socks, you know, go with that purchase.

S1: How do you convince someone who is never early, spends a lot of money on a pair of socks to buy it like a $10 pair of running socks?

S8: Oh, we just you use them for the trial. And when they try it on shoes, you try them and they’re sold immediately.

S1: And how do you explain to someone who is just getting started running that they’re going to have to buy like a pair of $100 plus running shoes? Because I think when I have friends who say, like, oh, I’m getting started running and I have these really old sneakers from gym class, then I’m just gonna use until I, like, get on my feet. I’m like, no, you have to go buy running shoes. How do you make that case to people?

S6: As someone who professionally works with care, I do feel like honestly that mindset has already shifted before they come in the store. Whether it’s like someone like you that tells your friend they know, you know. That’s what differentiates running specialty from the Internet or a big sporting goods store. Is that service and the latest and greatest performance products on the market.

S1: All right. Let me rephrase that. How do I convince my friends who are insisting on using like their puma’s from high school, but they need to go to a store like this?

S6: I mean, I always also look at it like longevity in terms of like if you want to keep running throughout your life, it’s better now to get the proper gear. Or if you want to start, if you want to keep running, you’re gonna have to end up paying PTB bills. And I mean, just in terms of the expense down the line of like if you’re injured and what’s the expense of that versus now getting the proper shoe at one hundred and twenty bucks or whatever and then just like how amazing it feels.

S8: I mean, I guess I just can’t imagine like running in crappy running shoes like that just doesn’t feel good. I don’t know. I guess maybe. Can you take them with you to your to your favorite running store made. I feel like you have to get them to try it, you know? I mean, it’s hard. Like until you, like, sink your feet into a good pair of running shoes, it’s really hard to describe it.

S1: Yeah. I think a little bit of it is like sometimes the runners have a presumption that like running is, you know, it’s for you outside. You do it. It’s fine where it’s like you do have to make like a little bit of an investment here for sure.

S8: But I do think like versus like a. Gym membership running is pretty inexpensive and just easy. You can do it anywhere, anytime, you know, and you don’t need a lot to do it. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. This was really fun. Thank you. I really appreciate you guys having me.

S2: That’s it for this episode and this season working again. I’m Shannon Palis. If you like this episode, please remember to rate review and subscribe on Apple podcasts. And if you have any comments or questions, please feel free to e-mail us at working at Slate.com. Working is produced by Justin and Molly. Special thanks to Justin D right for our ad music.

S9: Thanks for listening.