Tanner Sutton is one of the founders of Free Fly, a bamboo performance apparel line with the goal of creating the most comfortable, versatile and sustainable clothing for people who love the outdoors. In this exclusive interview with Tanner, we dive into what a sustainable life looks like as a co-founder of a successful outdoor brand, the inspiration behind the brand and how family plays into business.
What inspired you to start Free Fly?
The inspiration behind Free Fly started when I was a fly fishing guide in Montana. I tried every performance shirt imaginable and everything out there seemed to be over-built and uncomfortable. I felt like there was a major gap in the market for a really simple performance shirt that was all about comfort (aka - Bamboo).
What is Free Fly's mission? What is your personal life mission? How do they influence one another?
Free Fly's mission is to challenge the standards of performance apparel and inspire people to live life more comfortably. I personally connect to our mission because I believe that inspiring others to challenge the status quo in life gives people an opportunity to think for themselves and create meaningful change in the world.
What are some of the obstacles you have overcome in founding and growing Free Fly?
Too many to count! The first obstacle was creating a fabric that didn't currently exist at the time (2011). I spent 2 years of R&D before finally coming up with the perfect fabric blend (in my opinion) that was equally comfortable and technical. The other major obstacle that stands out is the early years of pounding the pavement (with no marketing budget) to spread the word about our brand. It was really difficult to get retailers and customers to step outside their comfort zone and try something new and different. The early days were difficult but it was so gratifying to celebrate the small wins with our team along the way.
How do you create a work/life balance and still pursue the outdoor activities you love?
Maintaining a work/life balance as an entrepreneur has been a constant challenge. It's easy to justify overworking yourself and neglecting your health and hobbies along the way. Fortunately, within the last 2 years, our team has grown quite a bit and I've gotten better at letting go of some responsibilities that have weighed me down. I normally plan my week on Sunday nights and create calendar reminders to leave work at a certain time to get to the gym or go for a paddle. It's amazing how much more productive you can be if you intentionally take time to leave the office and clear your mind for a couple hours.
What are you excited about right now?
I'm super excited about the changes taking place in the industry right now. It seems like the smaller brands with a specialized niche are gaining a lot of traction and market share. The new generation of consumers seems to be looking for discovery brands that tell an interesting story. We love being a young, nimble brand and we're always trying to find new ways to deepen our connection with customers. Really excited about what's to come in 2018!
What piece of advice do you have for outdoor enthusiasts with entrepreneurial spirits?
The best piece of advice I can give is to find one thing that you can do/offer better than anyone else and build a great story around it. Trying to be everything to everyone only leads to mediocre products and service. Keep it simple and don't listen to outside distractions.
What would you have done differently when you started your company if you knew then what you know now?
I would have spent more time and resources on defining our brand story from the beginning. Having a cool product is one thing, but building a compelling brand story separates good from great.
We just finished a re-branding project that took almost 2 years. We're really excited about introducing a lot of exciting branded graphics and accessory items that complement our bamboo product offering.
What’s your favorite product and why?
My favorite Free Fly product is our flex henley. It's a classic design built with our bamboo flex fabric blend and it's versatile enough to wear as a baselayer or dress up with jeans.
Anything else you want to share
You're only as good as your team. I've been lucky enough to co-own this business with my sister and brother-in-law. We are so proud of our small team and we consider all of our staff as an extension of our family. Treat your people great and you'll be amazed at what can be accomplished.
Bonus question: What do you want your legacy to be? How do you want to be remembered?
I've always wanted to focus my time and efforts on the needs of other people and I think that's a great way to be remembered.