Interview: Matt Taylor of Tracksmith

Photo: Courtesy of Tracksmith

I spoke with Matt Taylor, co-founder and CEO of Tracksmith, a few days before the 2018 Boston Marathon for a live recording of the morning shakeout podcast. We covered a lot in a short period of time, including the impetus behind launching a premium apparel brand, how Tracksmith continues to support the sport of running and its culture as both continue to evolve, what’s going on in the running space right now that’s exciting him personally, where he sees things going in the next several years, and much more. 

My next guest here on the morning shakeout podcast is Matt Taylor, the co-founder of Tracksmith, who is responsible for this whole mess that you’re all part of right now, this beautiful mess that is the Trackhouse on marathon weekend. Matt, thanks so much for joining me on the show.

No worries. It’s hard to follow Knox but let’s jump into it.

Whether he likes to admit it or not, he’s a tough act to follow. I’m obviously really into what you have going on here this weekend. The Trackhouse has been a mad house of sorts. This is the third year in a row. Two years ago, this was a pop-up, last year you guys were in this space and hosted a few events and this year sort of builds on that. Just talk a little bit about the importance of Boston Marathon weekend to the Tracksmith brand and what you guys are all about.

I mean, it’s interesting because we launched in 2014 as an online brand and we did our first pop-up in 2015 at the Boston Marathon. It was actually in this space, just the downstairs area. What was really interesting is when you’re an online brand, your relationships with your customers are all virtual and it was the first time that we actually got to interact with people in the real world and people got a chance to touch and feel the product and try it on and meet the people behind it. So for us, Boston has always been, it kind of felt like a little bit of our coming out party in 2015, then we did a pop-up in 16 and 17, last year, is when we actually moved into the space full-time. So the Trackhouse is almost exactly one year old today. So the nice thing now is that we’ve had a year to really be involved in the community in Boston. Louis Serafini, who manages all of our group runs out of the Trackhouse. We’ve built up a great group of people here. It’s just such a great weekend for Boston in general. I like to think that Boston is still a bit of the heart and sole of the running community in the country and maybe even the world. It’s just a such a special place for a lot of people, especially for us.

What is the impetus behind launching a—we’ll call it a premier clothing line for runners and you can correct that in your own way—back when you did a few years ago.

So it’s interesting because I was listening to what Knox was saying about culture and really the impetus was much more around culture and community than it was around apparel or footwear or anything else. I’ve been a runner my entire life and I’ve worked in industry for a decade and a half and what I noticed is that what I was really interested in is sort of the other brands are growing and getting bigger and bigger, to continue their growth, they had to make some decisions, either going into other sports or looking for other distribution channels and that’s just the natural cycle. But what happened is, as you try to reach a broader and broader group of people, sometimes your message gets a little bit watered down. So when I was a kid growing up in high school, and even early days in college, I felt like the culture of the sport was front and center in marketing, and storytelling, and advertising, and that then slowly faded and it became much more about general health and wellness, which is great, the push of getting people off the couch and onto their first 5K. And now we’re sort of at that point where everyone is off the couch, so with everybody out there running, the marathon has become the great suburban Everest—everyone’s running marathons now, it’s not necessarily what it used to be, so the void was the culture, it was the storytelling. And an interesting tidbit from from Knox that I had the same experience, and you probably remember but not a lot of people do, but a long time ago I did this project, Chasing Tradition, and I spent one week at 11 different NCAA colleges and had the same experience where people were writing in, they didn’t care what the workout was that the athletes were doing, they wanted to know what the trackhouse was like that the team was living in, what they were eating, all of those different things. So everything I’ve done leading up to Tracksmith, I really like to tell the stories behind what you normally would see. So it started from a cultural perspective, a community perspective, a storytelling perspective. And then on the product side, I also felt like there was definitely a void. I think five years ago, the men’s apparel for instance, everything looked the same. If you took the logos off the clothes you’d really have a hard time knowing whose stuff was whose. You know, our approach from the perspective of a consumer brand, and I won’t bore you with some of the unit economics of what that means, but it allows us to use fabrics that are a much higher quality because we don’t have to give up the margins to a retailer who is going to sell and market our brand. We do that ourselves and it gives us an opportunity to create a really high quality product. And then aesthetically, we saw an opportunity to do something a bit more classic and timeless, using colors that you already had in your wardrobe and that you feel comfortable wearing versus the Power Ranger look that dominated running five or ten years ago.

This is might come off as a kind of self-serving question for you guys because the answer is obviously going to be yes, but have you seen that culture that you’re trying to promote, the storytelling that you’re trying to get out, have you seen it catch on through the things that you’re doing digitally, on your website, through your newsletters, through social and also what you’re doing on the ground here in Boston now that you have a home base established and people were coming in?

Definitely. And actually I was talking to Jaggie, I remember we did the pop-up here in 2015 and Jaggie and Knox and some of the other Black Roses people came in and it was so clear that something was happening in running that was different and unique and you could just sort of see not only them but the other crews and clubs around the world that are popping up. We just went to The Speed Project and had a team run there and sort of some of the experience that we had there, but also the other people we met through who were there, the feedback that we got from people who didn’t know the brand a year ago. A lot of people were finding out about the brand through the storytelling that we’re doing. We have an amazing photographer, Emily Maye, which really has elevated the brand just from an aesthetic perspective that way. So yeah, and then here in the Trackhouse we’re doing runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Sunday morning, and anybody’s welcome but we run hard. So it’s not just come out and run an easy 3-mile run and be chatting the whole time. We’ll warm up over to the MIT track and we’ll do interval workouts. We’ll go to the common and we’ll do a tempo run. So some of that cultural, historical education piece is starting to come through.

And just riffing off that, I would say in a lot of ways you guys are traditionalists—I wouldn’t say you’re a traditional brand but you’re traditionalist in terms of the sport that you’re celebrating. You just talked about The Speed Project. That is a non-traditional running event and there’s a lot of things like that, these non-traditional gatherings and run crews that are happening now that are growing the culture and that are growing the sport. As someone who’s running a business in that space and who is trying to relate to a lot of people who are doing these things, what are your thoughts about trying to support the sport of running and the competitive side of it and races like the Boston marathon that have been going on for a hundred twenty something years? How can those things play nicely with things like The Speed Project, with these run crews and with some of the non-traditional things that are happening in the space?

It’s a good question. And I think a lot of people like Knox and myself and you are likeminded in the sense that the sport has been damaging itself for a very long time. And I think that’s why some of these things are starting to pop up, and I think a lot of the attraction to them is coming from that. And Speed Project, what was really unique about it, and yes, I’m a traditionalist and I grew up in this sport and in its most traditional forms, but what was really unique about it is that at its heart it was a race from Point A to Point B. Our team battled with a team from France for 80 miles through the desert. We were trading off the lead probably 40 times in those 80 miles. And so yes, it wasn’t a normal track meet or road race but it was a race and I think that competitive spirit is something that is the glue that binds the sport we all relate to and I think that’s the thing that, you know, that doesn’t go away: people either want to be competitive or they don’t. And I think that people who have that competitive spirit, they have that competitive edge, that’s certainly who we talk to.

How does Tracksmith continue to support the sport and the culture as both continue to evolve?

I wrestle with that personally because I’ve done some things in my career previously where I naively thought, “I really want to change the sport.” And I’ve done small things that have had such a small impact. And the reality is that the sport is massive, and it’s a bureaucracy and it moves very slow. And so when I started Tracksmith, in the back of my mind, I thought, I really do want to change the sport in a positive way, but the reality is we can’t do it yet, we’re still too small, we don’t have enough leverage, we don’t have enough influence. So we’re doing what we can, which is great storytelling, you know, digging up these stories about the sport, building community, and celebrating the culture and to an extent even sub-culture of the sport and maybe down the road, five years, 10 years down the road, we’ll be in a position to do something more substantial to really try to push things in a different direction.

What’s going on right now that’s really exciting you personally, not even necessarily as someone who is running a brand in the space?

That’s a good question. I mean, that’s obviously tied to the business to a certain extend but the retail landscape is really interesting. Um, you know, “experiential marketing” is really interesting right now. We just sort of learned over the last few years the opportunity to be in front of customers, to be in front of people is very powerful. And so personally, but also as a brand, I’m just paying attention to sort of where those things are going—we created this Trackhouse here in Boston, so how can we do something like this in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world? And so just watching that space a little bit I think is really interesting and I guess the other one is a little bit is just social media in general. There’s so much going on, some positive, some negative and I’ll just be really curious to see where things continue to go in social media. It wasn’t that long ago that brands were spending lots of money with media buyers and nobody’s spending money there now. It’s all on Instagram. What’s going to happen three years from now? Will those things still be important? And it’s really hard for personalities, it’s really hard for brands, I’m curious where all of that will just sort of shake out.

Just building on that, and my last question to wrap things up here, where you see things going in the sport culturally and competitively in the next five, 10, 15, 50 years—as far out as you want to go?

I’ll tell you what I’d like to see—I don’t know if it will go there—but I think what’s happened with some of the sort of things maybe on the fringe, like adventure racing, like color runs, ultras, these relay races. Like I mentioned before, the one thing in there that I think that can be saved is the competitive aspect and that competitive spirit. I think there’s a huge opportunity for running to learn from that and not be upset that it’s happening and maybe draw people away, but learn from it. I’d love to see in five years or ten years where cross country becomes a thing that people do in the fall and racing on the indoor track is not just something you do in college, you can do it as an adult. So the mile, another event I think has huge potential to sort of bring people back, because I think what’s clear is the marathon has become a thing that maybe doesn’t have the same gravitas that it used to have, so people are searching for something different. And I think as a sport we’d be doing ourselves a big service to not ignore that. I think the event side of our sport has so much potential but it’s gotta be done in the right way and it can’t be built for the elite athletes. It has to be built for the fans.

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