Rock A Pocket, Empower A Kid: The Warby Parker/Tom’s Shoe’s Model In The Apparel World (Interview)

An interview with co-founder,  Jonathan Torrey of Umano … by Brittany Sheehan
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Jonathan Torrey is one half of the dynamic brother duo who launched Umano, an apparel company which specializes in T-Shirts with pocket art drawn by children in impoverished parts of the world. For every T-Shirt sold, they give a backpack full of school supplies to a child in need. I sat down with Jonathan last week to get some insight into the day to day life of a budding entrepreneur.

TANR: You and your brother Alex, left your day jobs to start Umano. What inspired you to dive into something totally new, and how did you come up with the concept?

Alex and I have always been very entrepreneurial. We knew we wanted to start something together, and we wanted to start something that matters, we just had no idea what type of business to start. After graduating we spent several years working and brainstorming full-time.

We both got to travel a lot. On one of our best trips we got to spend time in an impoverished community, where we met an awesome kid named Beto who gave us an awesome drawing that we kept. For about a year we were drawn to the drawing (pun intended), it had a weird energy about it. We came up with the idea to showcase the drawing as artwork. We came up with the idea of PocketArt and created Umano (Italian for “mankind”).

How do you decide who does what? In a company as small as yours, both of you must wear a lot of different hats.

We definitely wear a lot of hats. Honestly, most of the time the hats are way too big for us.

Alex focuses on all things marketing. He is responsible for all our touch points. I focus on operations. I get to figure out how to get our super soft and eco-friendly garments made. We both do sales and distribution. Since we jumped into a totally different industry, we rely a lot on each other. While we each try to focus on our responsibilities, we spend a large portion of our time helping each other out. I can hear the HRM consultants cringe. Definitely not the most efficient setup, but so far we have been very successful at reducing the numbers of mistakes made and, more importantly, learning from them.

You are based out of Athens, GA – which is unusual for a clothing company. What was your thinking behind keeping your headquarters there?

Athens, GA is a totally cool place. It has the perfect combination of West coast cool and trend-setting New York. As UGA alumni, we like working closely with the University, students, and recent grads. We work with the College of Education to understand the intricacies of basic education, several student organizations from the business school have helped us with ad campaigns, as well as all the local musicians and entrepreneurs that are an awesome source of inspiration. Plus, we started back in the day in our parent’s house in Athens. Our parents, friends, and interns helped us pack and ship orders. We mean it when we say we are “homegrown” in Athens, GA.

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What has been the hardest learning curve you’ve had to overcome since launching the product?

Establishing our supply chain and distribution channels has been challenging. As a startup, there are many factors that add to the challenge. For example, it is hard for us to reliable forecast volume demand. At the same time, manufacturing has longer lead times and a good forecast is essential to having the right product at the right time, at the right place.

Have you drawn inspiration from any entrepreneurs who came before you, and if so, what have you learned from them?

Absolutely. Without a doubt. 100 percent. The social entrepreneur that has inspired us most, and continues to inspire us, is Blake Mycoskie, TOMS founder and Chief Shoe Giver. TOMS pioneered the “One for One” giving model, they started a movement. Social entrepreneurship is bigger than any one brand. It’s a revolution in the way that our generation looks at business. We believe strongly that for-profit ingenuity can help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems, such as childhood education. People like Blake have taught us a lot. We are crazy fortunate to have Blake as our mentor.

What is one mistake you’ve made in the business that you’d like to do over?

I wish we would have hit the road the first summer. It has been such a great learning opportunity for us to spend every day with specialty shops. Going city by city and door-to-door to share our story has taught us a lot about our business and life in general. We definitely understand both or retail partners needs and our customers wants much better now and begin on the road reinforces our mission and our role as chief storytellers, Alex and I joke that we’re Chief Storytelling Officers.

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This here, inspires us.

What’s the best part about having your sibling also be your business partner?

That it’s your brother and best friend. We don’t have to worry about feelings as much. We get right to the issues. We both know we are first and foremost bothers and best friends and that we are both in Umano for the right reasons. I can’t say enough about how important this is to us.

Do you have a morning routine/ritual that you follow to make sure you have the energy to live the life of an entrepreneur?

We try to exercise as much as possible. Honestly, that doesn’t always happen. Alex qualified to run the New York City Marathon in November but I know he wishes he could train more. It’s tough for us to get a solid routine because we travel so much. We never know where we will be next or for how long. It’s a lot of fun, but not great for a routine.

How do you ensure that you maintain some semblance of a work life balance while building out a new brand?

Ha, unfortunately I have no idea how to answer that question. We tend to spend most days (okay, everyday) working on Umano. Starting a company is a lot of work. The few times we are home it seems its always work. Alex and I are very close with our parents. I would say 90% of all conversations are Umano related. However, I would add that working on Umano honestly does not feel like work. That’s key.

What advice would you give to twenty and thirty-somethings who are thinking about launching a new company, before they do so?

DO IT! Don’t wait until it’s the perfect time or you have a bulletproof idea. Know that it is a more work than you can imagine but that if you are passionate about it you will chance of success increases exponentially. It has been the best experience for us. Also, you will meet many people who will not like your idea, learn early on when to be stubborn and push through and when there is valuable insight and adjustment is needed. Be humble but have thick skin.

Thanks to Jonathan for the interview! Now go check out Umano

-Brittany Sheehan

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