This article was published in the Silicon Slopes Magazine, Summer '22
Q&A with Jake "Charlie" Bessey, Founder and CEO, Coalatree
Q: Some people aren’t familiar with Coalatree, can you give us a brief rundown?
A: Coalatree is an eco-minded lifestyle apparel and accessory brand with a focus on making versatile products that can be used from the mountains to the city. Our goods are made almost entirely from sustainable and/or recycled materials. We strive to use the most environmentally friendly inputs in our supply chain and partner with Bluesign-approved factories to ensure that we cause no unnecessary harm to the planet during our production processes.
Our flagship product is our Trailhead Adventure Pants. The Coalatree Trailhead Adventure Pants present a comfortable, flexible, affordable, multi-purpose outdoor pant—they’re great for traveling, climbing, hiking, and lounging. They have won the best pants by Outside Magazine, Range Magazine, and Climbing Magazine over the years. We also just launched them nationwide in over 1,100 Kohls stores as a part of the Curated by Kohls outdoor section!
Q: We love a good startup story, tell us how it all began.
A: Coalatree just hit the 12-year mark and it is my greatest accomplishment. Our brand has stood the test of time, and I am incredibly proud. As the saying goes, 90% of businesses fail within the first 10 years. Achieving this benchmark, and having the company grow at a faster rate than it ever has is incredible.
However, in the beginning we were dealing with a lot of rejection, for every yes I got we had 20 no’s and that was just when dealing with the buyer and shops. On top of that, you had sales reps, employees, and athletes to keep happy about continuing to be involved with the brand. Having left Skullcandy after 3 years of working with them, I felt I had a great grasp on how to grow a brand, but it is a whole new ball game to dive right into running your own business from the ground up. In the first year of getting the brand’s products perfected, we had a lot of late evenings and strategy meetings on how and when we should enter the market.
We eventually landed on the plan to get the sample sets, catalogs, and a sales pitch together. We traveled the US, visiting key shops and buyers in the cities like Boston, Chicago, Portland, Austin, and about 27 more. We reached out to as many contacts as we could to line up meetings before hitting the road. However, on many occasions, we just rolled into the shop or headquarters and tried to get as much facetime as we could. We did this at places like CCS, Barney’s Co-op, REI, etc. In some cases, it worked and we were able to form partnerships with shops like BC Surf and Sport, EVO, and Powder and Sun. In other cases, it made the buyers aware of the brand so that when we did show up with the brand at trade shows they had that personal interaction with us and would stop by the booth and say hi, which then sometimes resulted in them deciding to bring the brand into the shop.
I tell this story because, in the beginning, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get seen and heard in your industry, if people are receptive then you know you have something special. Everyone doesn’t have to love it or say yes, but if you get out in the world and ask enough people, you will then be able to get a good gauge on if you can add something unique to the market and grow that concept, brand, or product with confidence.
Q: Tell us about MTN2CTY lifestyle and #greettheoutdoors
A: In 2013 when Instagram was really taking off, we wanted to provide a message that would promote people to get outside and enjoy the beauty of nature. We believe here at Coalatree that nature is a big part of not only enjoying life, but healing from trauma. A great book that dives deeper into that topic is The 3-Day Effect which took place here at the University of Utah. This book was not yet published, but in the outdoor space we had a lot of discussions around the theory. Due to this belief, we started producing and selling hammocks. While other brands were selling hammocks for $69, we sold the same hammock for $39 in an effort to get more people outdoors. There are now over 900k #greettheoutdoors posts shared on Instagram, it has become a community of its own over time. The MTN2CTY slogan came about as a direct reflection of the products we make and having our homebase in SLC, UT. We wanted to produce functional and stylish clothing that would be durable and perform in the outdoors, as well and fashionable and comfortable enough to make people feel great about themselves when out with friends in the city!
Q: What has been the hardest part of building a business from ground zero? The best part?
A: For me, rejection. I wish I would have embraced the fact that failure is everything, as long as it is followed up by a giant cup of perseverance and dedication to keep learning and growing at what you love to do. Each failure, including the business almost going bankrupt in 2015, has helped the business dig deep and pushed it to that next level through the hard times.
Below are a few things I remind myself of each day that I’m in the ring here at Coalatree.
1. Become a professional problem solver, don’t resist it, embrace it!
2. Take time to stop and enjoy the small successes.
3. Live a life by design, not by default.
The best part of growing the business has been creating a community of people through co-workers, customers, and brand ambassadors who share in the message of giving back to the community and being conscious consumers. I get messages frequently talking about how Coalatree was an inspiration for people to lead more empowered lives. Whether it be planting a garden for the first time, getting serious about recycling, or supporting eco-friendly companies in all aspects of life. Having Coalatree be a vessel for these types of positive changes is what keeps me going day after day!
Q: What kinds of things do you wish you had known at the beginning?
A: One thing I learned the hard way and wish I knew from the beginning is following the idea that if you work hard enough it will all happen. This helps to drive that workaholic mentality. I grew up with this mentality and was always seeming to get burnt out after 4-5 years of cranking away at a business. What I learned in my late 20’s is that you need to take that time for your headspace. Einstein said we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. This is so true, and by taking time away from work, you allow your mind to organically make magic happen for you and solve problems you could never solve if you were at the office in a work mindset. It’s all about a balance in your life to make success happen while staying happy and true to yourself.
Q: Tell us about a time in your career that you wanted something so badly that you were unstoppable in pursuing it. What happened as a result?
A: In 2011 we developed the plan to go around the USA visiting shops to promote and sell the brand. This was a HUGE amount of work, resources, and time, however that did not stop me, and as a result the brand is thriving today! I spent countless hours researching every possible shop we could visit, and then cold called them to get appointments during the time we planned to be in that city on our tour. Most said they were not interested, but we showed up anyway with a Coalatree growbag and a watermelon starter plant. This creative approach allowed us to curate relationships with key buyers in the industry that was based on shared morals and values, rarely did the majority of the conversation focus on the clothing. This never-give-up attitude and approach allowed the brand to create huge buzz at industry trade shows due to the relationships built, and ultimately led to the brands immediate retail success.
Q: We know giving back to the community is a big part of Coalatree, can you tell us about that?
A: We have a saying we will keep living by here at Coalatree, “The bigger we get the better we get at giving back” This motto allows us to not only have an impact on the environment in which we live, but also helps us to empower underprivileged communities surrounding our home in Salt Lake City, Utah–specifically our youth. We have donated product to youth programs such as YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Christmas Box International, and the Anazazi Youth Foundation. We also work every year with the Cottonwood Canyon Foundation to clean our canyons and work on trails here in Utah—that is always a favorite!
Q: As founder and CEO, what brings you joy in your work?
A: Being able to provide jobs in our community and cultivating an environment where people can learn and grow, all while doing something they are excited and passionate about is my biggest reward. Another really important part of the business for me is staying creative with what we can use to produce our clothing. We use everything from recycled coffee grounds, plastics, and denim. Being able to repurpose wasteful products from the world, and turn them into functional products that can last a lifetime brings me an immense amount of joy!
Q: What was the last thing you really geeked out about?
A: In Dec. 2022 I started looking for eco friendly textile mills and cut and sew facilities within the Americas. This took an insane amount of geeking out to find the needle in the haystack. I traced around Mexico, Dominican Republic, United States, and Colombia to find a sustainable mill that could make Coalatree’s unique technical fabrics. After a year and a half of aggressively searching, I found two incredible mills in Colombia, Fabricato and Lafayette. They have both been around for more than 100 years and have incredible stories of how they both take care of the environment and the people of Colombia. Last week Lafayette came to Salt Lake City to visit with us and inquire with other Utah brands about moving production closer to home. I had the privilege to show them Peruvian Gulch trail at Snowbird. We hiked up and took the new tram back down. They were truly mind blown after spending a week in SLC and fell in love—they look forward to growing their business and message here in Utah more than ever now! I also geek out on cryptocurrencies, I find that market to be absolutely fascinating!
Q: Forest, beach, or snow?
A: Moderation in everything is how I live my life, so I would say the perfect dose of all 3 would be how I plan my year around travel. However if I had to choose, I would say forest. I aspired to be a wildlife photographer and National Park Ranger during my adolescent years. I just returned from a trip to Yellowstone and have been blown away by the positive impact for myself from being around such abundant wildlife. Seeing bears, bison, moose, elk and wolves with the naked eye in their natural state is truly mesmerizing, peaceful, and inspiring for me beyond words.
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*Read the latest issue of Silicon Slopes Magazine, Summer 2022