Name: Kelly Watters
Business: Western Rise
Location: Telluride, CO
Kelly Watters is a 4th-generation entrepreneur, and her husband, Will, comes from three generations of business self-starters. So when they decided to start a sustainable technical-apparel business together, Kelly and Will knew they’d be working long hours, juggling multiple roles and responsibilities, solving unexpected problems and trying to stay positive along the way. Turns out, everything they anticipated about launching, running and growing Western Rise has come true. Also true? Kelly and Will love building an outdoor-retailing business together. As Kelly explains, “I’m the CEO, CFO and COO. Will is the creative director, and he manages all the product and works directly with the marketing team. We get more efficient at what we do every year – so we just keep taking on more projects! We love building something we believe is amazing.”
Kelly, what inspired you and Will to launch Western Rise?
Will and I met when we were both living in Vail, CO. We spent a lot of time of skiing, rock climbing, fishing and hiking. If we were also planning to meet friends for a meal or go to work – at the time, I was running an art gallery – it meant a lot of outfit changes every day. We needed high-performance clothing that worked for all kinds of activities and sports and looked good if we showed up in town. There was plenty of “athleisure wear” that could go from the yoga studio to a café. We wanted apparel that was stylish but truly technical.
What was it like to suddenly start designing clothes?
We had no idea how to make clothes when we started. Our first pair of shorts was made to fit Humpty Dumpty. The waist was big enough to fit three of me, but the legs were so tight I couldn’t pull them up over my thighs.
My mom used to be a professional seamstress, so we called her and said, what do we do? She told us how to follow a pattern and take the right measurements based on the kind of fit we wanted.
Eventually, we found a product developer to help us. But we still had challenges. We started out working with a factory in China, and they wanted us to order 2,000 shirts at a time. That just wasn’t right for our digital business model. Now we work with factories in Portugal that makes smaller quantities of fantastic products using high-quality materials and fabrics we get from New Zealand and Europe.
Humpty Dumpy pants aside, what’s been most challenging about running your own business?
Wearing so many different hats can make things complicated. On any given day, I’m doing fundraising, managing the financials, overseeing operations and logistics and making sure all our products clear customs and get from point A to point B. I handle all of our POs and receivables, pay our bills and ensure we have sufficient cash flow. I help the customer support team, too. We have five employees, so I’m also involved with team management.
It’s a lot to juggle, for sure. But I thrive on the challenge of learning new things, and I like being able to control the direction of the company. We have an unofficial advisory board, but ultimately, Will and I get to say yes or no in direct response to a business opportunity. I love that.
What’s it like to co-found a company with your husband?
You sure get to know someone well! Will and I work really hard to make sure we leave our work at the office. Of course, we can’t always do it, but we try to have a clear separation of space. It helps that on a daily basis, we do such different jobs at the company. We can work side by side all day and have no idea what the other person has been doing. We’ll come home and say, “So, how was your day?”
Honestly, I can’t imagine starting a business with anyone other than your significant other. Every day, we’re going through it all together. We both totally get it. That’s an amazing thing.
What’s been your toughest year in business and why?
Last year, which was our third year in business, we had a perfect storm of events. Our major factory in Asia downsized without telling us, so our spring products didn’t arrive until mid-June. It was really scary and super difficult. We ended up flying to Portugal and setting up a whole new supply chain.
At the same time, we had problems with fulfillment and ended up changing warehouses three times. Each time, we had to move our product back and forth across the country. The delays in shipping were so bad our customer experience manager ended up having all the returns and exchanges shipped to his living room. For three months, he personally handled the shipment of every return and exchange.
It was a crazy year with a lot of logistical learning and growth, but we are significantly stronger as a team and a company as a result.
That sounds super stressful. How did you cope?
We are so lucky to work with an incredible team. Fortunately, everyone here loves the craziness of the startup life!
It also helps that our backyard is 100,000 acres of national parkland. When things get nutty, we get out. There’s no phone service in the backcountry, so we’re forced to unplug.
What shifts or changes are you noticing in the outdoor industry?
I think this is an interesting time for the outdoor industry. It’s finding its voice as a serious economic power in the country and learning how to leverage that influence. The industry is also learning how to adapt as the marketplace shifts from brick and mortar to online and figuring out how all the sales channels can work together.
One thing that hasn’t changed is this industry’s commitment to preserving and protecting the outdoors for future generations. Now it feels more important than ever. I’ve always been passionate that Western Rise is a business for good, not just to create more stuff.
We’re a certified 1% For the Planet business. Since day one, we have donated both services and 1% of our sales to Western Rivers Conservancy and other grassroots organizations including She Jumps, an education program encouraging girls to participate in the great outdoors.
I love working in this industry because the camaraderie is amazing. So many of my colleagues and friends are leading their own companies in the outdoor space. It’s a truly great community to be a part of.
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