that feeling you get when you know you just discovered what you were put on this earth to do, that’s the feeling my brother jonathan and I had on 15 october 2011 when we started umano in our parent's garage and our rollercoaster journey to empower kids to unleash their creativity
after dreaming up thousands of terrible business ideas, jonathan and I learned about social entrepreneurship--the idea that you don't have to choose between doing well and doing good--and that changed everything. rewind a few years, jonathan graduated from college and took a cool job in finance working for citibank. naturally, I wanted to follow in my big brother’s footsteps but I ended up taking a different path and moved to washington, dc to work for the CIA. the whole time jonathan and I saved up our little piggy banks even though we had no idea what we would do we both knew that one day we wanted to start something together.
jonathan and I are super lucky to travel a lot, we have backpacked a big chunk of this beautiful planet together. we have seen the reality of poverty. at the CIA I did a one-year tour in afganistan and got to experience an entirely new level of poverty. this is something that would come to play a big part in starting umano.
rewind a few years further back. waaay back. our parents are teachers. jonathan and I grew up being taught the power of education and how education can help kids help themselves succeed. this too, would play a big part in starting umano.
if we can do it you can do it too… trust me.
one overcast, chilly night on 15 october 2011, jonathan incorporated umano in the state of georgia. umano was born. let me make one thing very clear--jonathan and I had zero background in retail, manufacturing, fashion, e-commerce or any relevant experience you would want before starting a clothing company. what we had in unlimited supply was a remarkable ability to make irrational decisions (and a bold determination). all of this came full circle, our “big idea” was to start a clothing company with a mission to empower kids to create their own path.
next step, because of our remarkable ability to make irrational decisions, we quit our jobs, moved home with mom and dad, shared a bedroom like we did when we were seven--literally alternated between the bed and air mattress every night--cracked open those little piggy banks, dumped our 401k’s, and went all in.
the year we we weren't on to anything.
early in 2012, jonathan started looking for manufacturers near athens, ga. we ended up with a small shop (a couple of elderly ladies that are amazing seamstresses in north carolina). we bought some fabric and made some tees. we believe that the design of the tee shirt is already pretty darn good--the one neck hole, two arm holes, one big home in the bottom, pretty darn good--so we wanted to focus on the fabric. seeing what we would later describe as the “fashion basics revolution” and knowing what had happened a few years before with designer denim craze, we knew the tee would become a fashion designer staple as more young people go to work in a tee and hoodie. we wanted to be part of it. unfortunately, we (and by "we" I mean, I) thought tangerine and mint colored tees were a good idea. despite our interesting color choices (and by "our" I mean, mine) and our lack of knowing anything about retail, let alone what a “speciality store” was, our first small-batch production sold surprisingly well. umano was in a couple boutiques in our hometown of athens, ga and a couple others in the southeast.
we were on a roll. at least we thought we were! the one thing we got right from the get-go was to let our Giving Trips turn into amazing adventures that inspire us. our first ever Giving Trip was jonathan, my mom, and I with a camera visiting an amazing school in rural mexico. one classroom, 18 kids ages 5-15, one 16-year-old teacher, and a supportive community that welcomed us into their homes.
the year we were on to something.
in order to manufacture a larger batch, we had to look for money. so, naturally, you go to your college professor who taught you about money. I phoned my then finance professor and now friend and said “mark, let’s grab a beer. I need money.” (or something like that.) we sat in a dimly lit, hole-in-the-wall bar in athens known as manhattan and chatted over beers. I explained our new business venture and that in order to manufacture more product, we would need funding. it’s pretty nuts how quickly the money in our piggy banks evaporated. mark invested in umano before anyone. with one production run worth of experience, jonathan moved up to the “big leagues” in los angeles looking for even better fabric. and he found it. even softer than before, but I, once again, made a below average (chuckle, chuckle) color choice. 2013 world, we present lavender tees.
no amount of bad color choices could hold us back. jonathan and I decided to jump into a tiny little rv, aka "el chato," (thanks for the name, mom) and drive across the country, going city to city, door to door, visiting specialty stores to share our story and get umano into boutiques nationwide. it took a minute to find our groove, but somewhere in the middle of west texas—after jonathan's and my bike was stolen from our bike rack on the back of el chato while I was soundly sleeping in austin— we realized we had sold more than we expected. turns out not everyone hates lavender. we drove on to los angeles, where we would spend several months battling santa monica parking authority. we lost. el chato is pretty much banned because of what may or may not be too many unpaid parking tickets.
anyway, one of our very first stops in los angeles was to visit the toms flagship store in venice beach on ultra cool abbot kinney. after sharing our story with anybody and everybody that would listen at the toms store, I met one of the store managers and shared our story one more time. she is an awesome human and offered to introduce me to blake mycoskie, the founder of toms. a guy named tom did not start toms. I won’t make that mistake again. blake apparently was known to swing by the toms store/coffee shop on his way to the office. there were no guarantees, but I hedged my bets. I showed up every morning (around 5:45 am to be exact) to make sure I wouldn’t miss him. a few days passed, I learned how to help turn the espresso machine on, a few more days passed and finally, blake. the part I haven’t mentioned is that, I thought, in my always rational brain, that completely blocking the entire toms storefront with el chato was a good idea. el chato has a custom wrap. super fancy. el chato’s custom wrap is a giant version of jonathan’s and my face (add that to the list of ideas that could have been better). as soon as I saw blake, I knew this would go one of two ways.
way 1: blake, with every right in the world, would ask “what the [bleep] is that? you better move it because I’m about to tow it.”
way 2: blake, being a super cool dude, would ask “what the [bleep] is that? tell me more.”
luckily, it was way 2, and what I thought was going to be a few seconds with the founder of toms, turned into more than an hour and an invite back to toms hq. we got to meet some amazing people and are extremely grateful our little bromance with blake.
our first near death experience
what people told us was a lie. (surprise!) all good manufacturing doesn’t necessarily come from los angeles. unfortunately, more than 50% of our women’s tees were defective. already having put a down payment and having a rainy day, emergency fund of exactly zero dollars and zero cents, we were in a pretty tough spot. we would not sell the damaged goods, but couldn’t afford not to. throughout this time, to find the only quiet space to have “conference calls” with our manufacturer, jonathan and I would have to run out of our co-working space, jump in our car, and close the door. we agreed to purchase only the good product and moved on. we dodged a bullet, however had significantly less inventory than expected.
okay, this is the year we were on to something.
I got arrested (sorry mom, not funny). not really. but I may or may not have been on probation for six months… don’t jump to conclusions. this is what happened. in 2012 and 2013, umano world headquarters was located in my parents garage. apparently in the great town of athens, ga, it is unlawful to screen print in a garage. (who knew!) little did umano corporation’s legal counsel know that such a law existed. a couple friendly faces from the county office showed up at our world headquarters one day and informed us of said law. we were given 60 days to relocate our operation. we were super lucky to know a local business who had just moved out of their 47,000 square foot warehouse. although umano obviously didn’t need all 47,000 square feet, we were able to use about 1,000 square feet in the corner. for free. a common theme to most great startups is something you have to go to a really good school and work really really hard for: luck.
it’s a good thing we had some extra space in our warehouse, because we also had some extra luck that year. jonathan and I flew up to new york to meet with bloomingdale’s. let me make one more thing clear: we had absolutely no business shopping in bloomingdale’s let alone meeting with bloomingdale’s buyers. we snuck in the back door, took the stairs instead of the escalator (to avoid getting confused and kicked out by security) and turned what was scheduled to be a quick phone call to a 1-hr+ face-to-face meeting. after explaining and apologizing for “our mistake,” sitting in a bloomingdale’s meeting room, we proceeded to share our story. and proceeded and proceeded and proceeded, and after 45 minutes, we had yet to show a single sample of our product. somehow, we convinced bloomingdale’s to give umano a shot.
back at the new umano hq, it was back to the drawing board. with a long, long, long career that spans two entire seasons, we scrapped everything (remember this was the year we were on to something). our fabric was good, very good, but it could be better. and while we still believed that the basic t-shirt design is pretty darn good, we obsessed over perfecting every silhouette detail.
jonathan traveled the world, searching for the best fabric on earth. after visiting many different countries, spending time with many different fabric knitters, he ended up in turkey with a sheet of paper with the names of some of the largest fabric knitters in the world. let me say that again: jonathan had a single sheet of paper, in a foreign country with the names of people he could not pronounce and was about to go all the way down to the yarn level to develop, from scratch, our one-of-a-kind, freakishly-soft signature fabric. to show that this was truly a miracle (because the feat was truly a miracle) we decided to name our signature fabric omobono after saint homobonus, the patron saint of clothworkers. plus, after many months we finally manged to perfect the seven silhouettes that would become the core of our collection. hopefully it paid off. we’ll see. but at least miranda kosgrove from dancing with the stars wore one of the silhouettes on national television that one time.
the year we were really, really on to something
launching our signature fabric and re-designed silhouettes was a game-changer. our bloomingdale’s business picked up, we knew what speciality stores were and we were in more of them. our team also started to grow. we had graduated from the kitchen table to the broom closet with a broken door to the small office with no windows to the bigger office with still no windows to the same size office but with windows. at this point we had managed to give 10,000 backpacks. might seem like a lot of work and a lot of years for 10,000 backpacks and it was, but we knew that we were building something bigger.
we decided to test this theory by taking to kickstarter to raise money from complete strangers to expand to a bigger warehouse. one badass summer intern team, our first ever vogue article (not bragging… but totally bragging, vogue called us “the summer’s cutest tee”) and $30,000+ later we moved to our very own, ultra-sophisticated, high-tech warehouse full of automated robots about 15 minutes outside of athens. except only one of those things are true—it was about 15 minutes outside of athens.
our goal in 2015 would be to give 10,000 more backpacks in a single year. in the south people say something about putting lipstick on a pig… anyway, point is… we ended up finding ourselves in places we don’t belong--bloomingdale’s, probation, toms hq and now a pitch competition for tech start-ups. because we have a website, we obviously qualify as a tech start-up. we made the final cut and were one of ten companies selected to compete at pandoland. after sharing our story with a panel of investor judges, we were summoned to the green room. jonathan and I were ecstatic beyond belief. we though we were selected as the runner-up and were to wait for the winner to negotiate the terms of the prize, live on stage. we were wrong. but this time we were happy we were wrong. we found ourselves on stage as the winner of pandoland, negotiating mano-a-mano against a panel of some of the finest venture capitalist minds in america. needless to say, they were outmatched. jk. jk. we were outmatched. badly outmatched, until from the crowd a five foot-ish man with an untucked hawaiian-looking shirt and thick-framed glasses started running towards the stage. a brief moment of panic, trying to decide whether her was friend or foe was followed by jonathan and I realizing it was the david hornik, general partner at august capital, professor at harvard law and entrepreneur in residence at harvard business and professor at stanford’s graduate school of business and law school, and esteemed founder of ventureblog— the first ever venture capital blog. right then and there, we were faced with the hardest decision we ever made, mr. hornik asked “you guys mind if I help you out?” thanks to hornik’s negotiating prowess, umano left the stage with a very friendly convertible note.
let me back up a second before we move forward. rewind to late 2014, jonathan emailed email@example.com to apply for umano to potentially be publicly embarrassed on national television. a powerful example of great communication skills between brothers and co-founders, I had no idea that jonathan had applied because I also emailed firstname.lastname@example.org. it wasn’t until a few months later in 2015 when we received two separate calls from shark tank casting agents that we realized that we are both practically the same human and identically went behind each other’s backs to apply to a reality tv show. (smh. desperate times.) we flew out to los angeles a few weeks after pandoland and pitched the sharks. reality tv is weird. we’re sworn to secrecy but I’ll let you in on a couple of fun facts.
-although you cannot tell anybody what you are doing, a 15-passenger van with the shark tank logo all over it will conspicuously pick you up from the airport
-mr. wonderful isn’t mean all the time
-it takes a lot of cameras to film shark tank. there were probably 13 cameras rolling at all times
-the set is made of plywood. it looks way fancier on tv
-when the producer tells you that as soon as you left the tank, the sharks raided your display and stole all your samples and asks if the sharks can keep your samples, it’s not really a question
yes reality tv is weird, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to raise awareness about our mission to empower kids through art education. reality tv is also a great opportunity to launch your new + improved website one month before christmas.
thanks to those wins in 2015, we reached our Giving Goal and have set the monster of all Giving Goals (until next year’s). in 2016, our goal is to be able to give 30,000 backpacks. there are 9.5 million kids in the us who attend schools in neighborhoods defined as “high-density poverty areas.” the #umanounion is about being part of something bigger than yourself. together, brothers, umano team and #umanounion, we will continue to write the story about a little engine that could.
where did we leave off? oh right, 2016.
this year was the wildest on our “rollercoaster rocket ship” to date. we are at a major inflection point. we did a lot of new things. we launched umano mini—our kid’s line—which you seem to love, a monthly subscription service, our first ever Kartwork contest that received the coolest entries from kids all over the world, and we tested different limited-edition, small-batch releases.
but we need additional resources. we are exploring all of our options and chatting with angel investors, venture capitalists, and industry execs to take our company and the #umanounion to the next level. and for the first time in five years we missed our Giving Goal. we measure our progress and our success in number of backpacks given, so falling short of our 30,000 backpack goal is a very tough pill to swallow.
so what are we going to do? we’re doubling down! we started this company because we believe that you don’t have to choose between doing well and doing good. and we know we’re making an impact when we get heartfelt notes like these:
“the fact that everywhere you go children are left with the mindfulness that you care is amazing. something as simple as a backpack can change a child’s small way of thinking and feeling and I thank you guys for that.” – mother of Geraldine (Artist of THE ROAR)
“this opportunity has transformed the attitudes of several students; it's life-changing for a student to discover that their work/creations/efforts have value. already I've seen a positive change in the attitudes of one student in particular." – art teacher at our newest Giving Partner school
so we are grabbing our mission by the horns. this year we are blazing forward with a plan to open our first ever “creative space” right inside umano hq. our “creative space” will provide a safe, accessible space for kids to unleash their creativity and a place to share our mission firsthand in an interactive design lab. we’re starting right here in our own backyard.
we will also continue to leverage technology to better connect people like you with the inspiring stories behind each Kartwork.
we want to talk to you, hear what you think, get your feedback, your input. it’s what makes us better! please reply with your thoughts, join our next google hangout on jan.17, and/or stop by umano hq if you’re ever around athens, ga, for a tour of our design lab and a beer (160 tracy street #10).
for now, a massive “thank you” for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you have given us to bring this dream to life, from our parents’ garage to where we are today, to empower kids and create the “fridge door” of the internet--for all to discover, celebrate, shop, and share kid’s art.
be the thing that starts the stuff.