Celebrating 5 Years of Wild Rye with Founder & CEO, Cassie Abel
When Cassie founded Wild Rye five years ago, she was a completely different person. Okay, maybe not a completely different person, but certainly a very different person professionally. Without knowing anything about the supply chain, manufacturing, design or anything else besides marketing a brand, she jumped in head first and started building a business by women, for women. We sat down with Cassie to review some of the highlights and extreme belly flops of building a business from scratch. In this interview, we dive into memorable successes and challenges, valuable business advice to get things off the ground and where she sees Wild Rye five more years down the road.
Q: To date, what are the most memorable successes for the brand and what impact have they had?
A: 1. Winning Title Nine’s Movers & Makers Pitchfest in Fall 2019. When we applied, I didn’t know what to expect. Title Nine had never promoted cycling in a big way, so we figured it was a long-shot. Not only did we win and get a PO for Spring 2020, but upon launch, they sold out of our shorts in three days. Title Nine now officially has a bike category and we can feel proud that we helped one of our top retailers create an entirely new (and successful) category! Not to mention they’ve since increased their orders in a way that’s had a MAJOR impact on the trajectory of our brand. The launch with Title Nine happened just a month after COVID paralyzed our country, and that big win was our indication that our little business was going to be just fine amidst a sea of uncertainty.
2. Hiring my first full-time employee, and then four more soon after after that - I’m so lucky to have a team of incredibly bad-ass women supporting me and Wild Rye. Each of these women is FAR better at their jobs than I ever was when I was trying to hack through all aspects of the business. Having a team around me that I trust and value allows me to free up my time to think big picture, look ahead, cultivate partnerships and support each of my team members as needed.
3. On a personal level, surviving my first year of motherhood, which also happened to coincide with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and a massive growth year for Wild Rye.
4. Finally, we have a few more successes in the works that we’re not yet able to share, but we are so excited to yell them from the rooftops when the time is right, because each of these successes will allow us to reach even more women who deserve a welcoming access point to try mountain biking, skiing or other outdoor adventure sports!
Q: What did you foresee as the biggest business obstacle BEFORE you started Wild Rye and did that change after you started the business?
A: In all honesty, I think the biggest thing I was most nervous about was whether the industry would embrace us or push us out. As a woman who’d been in the outdoor industry for many years and had cultivated a lot of really wonderful relationships, many of them male, I was nervous about what the male response to Wild Rye would be. That said, the industry was (and still is) very male-first which needed a little shake-up! Here at Wild Rye, we never had and still don’t have the goal pit men and women against each-other, but also knew we needed to take a stand and fight for better options for women: better product, more airtime, more appropriate messaging and a general celebration of women-identifying adventurers in ways coed brands rarely have. Sure, I’ve run into some trolls along the way, but generally speaking, the way my male (and female) colleagues have embraced, encouraged and even celebrated what we’re doing has certainly helped fuel my growth and confidence.
Secondarily came juggling running two businesses - one that paid the bills and one that owned my heart - Wild Rye. The day I said goodbye to White Cloud Communications for good, was one of the most exciting days of my career, because it meant I could pour my entire heart into Wild Rye.
Q: What is one piece of advice you'd give someone looking to start their own business?
A: Just start. Perfection can be paralyzing. If you wait around for perfection, you’ll never get anywhere. We’ve put out countless newsletters with typos, miscalculated numbers in orders and said the wrong thing, but as long as your head and your heart is in the right place, you’ll get to where you want to be eventually.
Q: Tell us about some business mishaps + challenges and how you overcame them
A: Wild Rye became a dream of ours in 2015 but our first product didn’t arrive until summer 2016. When it arrived, it was beautiful, but VERY flawed. We found the elastic leg bands on our chammy shorts were sewn inside-out and our original Whitney Shorts fit a full size bigger than we’d spec’d. We scrambled to fix the leg bands, but there was nothing we could do to fix the sizing on the Whitney. Upon launch, we had to emphasize the strange fit and hope that customers would give us a second chance. What this led to was us quickly realizing that we needed to seriously consider manufacturing our high-quality product overseas. We heard over and over again that consistency, quality and communication would likely be serious barriers for growth if we kept manufacturing highly technical product state-side. By Spring 2017, we’d found and moved to a series of quality, ethical and sustainability-minded factories overseas that genuinely wanted to partner with us to grow our brand. We haven’t had a second thought on that decision since.
As a continuation of this challenge, within a week after launch, we were issued a cease and desist order requiring us to change our name from Buttermilk Mountain Apparel to…. ?? - within one week. While the sender wasn’t demanding this quick of a turn around (they were actually quite friendly about it), in order to have our tags and trims changed to this TBD new name in time for the launch of our winter product, we had to resubmit art to all of our suppliers within the week. We put our heads down, poured over names, cross referenced the USPTO, consulted lawyers… and finally landed on Wild Rye. Looking back, we are and were always meant to be Wild Rye, so this all happened for a reason, but boy was it a rocky start to launching a new brand!
In December 2018, my business partner came to me and essentially said 'I don’t have the stomach the personal risk growing a business requires any more and am burnt out from the long hours and constant belly flops' - so we had two options: let the business fizzle out or I buy her out and go it alone. I was devastated by the idea of letting our momentum fizzle and completely overwhelmed with the thought of forging ahead solo. Deep down, I always knew there was only one right answer to this conundrum, but still, I made a few phone calls and realized that even alone, I was never alone. I had my community and my family on my team to bounce ideas and support me as I fumbled through running the business alone. It was NOT perfect. I made a lot of mistakes, like not knowing that I needed to place factory POs and dropping the ball with some key retailers, but little by little, I found my way and learned from each and every one of my mistakes and couldn’t be more proud of what Wild Rye accomplished in the last two and a half years.
Q: What moment are you most proud of? Most embarrassed by?
A: The moment I'm most proud of: The day I found the confidence to rip off the metaphorical financial Band-Aid and went ALL IN on Wild Rye. Completely shuttering my well-paying consulting business so I could give Wild Rye all the attention it deserved and more!
Beyond that, there are too many moments to count. I was proud when REI placed it’s first PO, proud to win Title Nine’s Pitchfest, proud to be named a Tory Burch Foundation Fellow, SO proud to hire each and every one of our current employees, proud to introduce our SheJumps collab (coming soon), proud to be certified Climate Neutral and especially proud of a new retailer partnership we’re in the works with, which took months of preparation and will welcome even more women into the outdoors. But honestly, I'm most proud, every time one of you writes in to let us know how much of a difference we’re making for YOU.
The moment I'm most embarrassed by: I’m not easily embarrassed (at least not anymore) and when I do get embarrassed I pretty quickly correct my reason for embarrassment and push the thought aside. It’s the only way I’ve been able to overcome imposter syndrome and finally believe in myself and believe that what we’re doing here at Wild Rye is worth fighting for EVERY DAMN DAY.
Q: Where do you see Wild Rye in 5 years and how do you hope Wild Rye grows?
A: Wild Rye will be THE go-to outdoor and adventure sports apparel brand for women identifying adventurers. As we grow, we hope to broaden our communities of support, do better by the planet we call home and support every woman we touch in some way shape or form. In the last year we’ve joined the Climate Neutral community of brands, covering the costs to offset our entire carbon footprint AND joined 1% for the Planet through which we’ll donate even more to non-profit organizations that support our environment and women.
Finally, while we started as a mountain bike and snow-sports soft goods brand, as we grow, you’ll notice we’ve added and will continue to add more bike and ski adjacent pieces to complete your adventurous lifestyles.