The Carbon38 Founders On Conquering Community And The Future Of Athleisure
At mindbodygreen, we get to meet the female entrepreneurs who are passionate about making the world a healthier place. In this new series, we're profiling #WellnessWonderWomen who inspire us with vision and dedication — and hopefully inspire you, too.
Caroline Gogolak and Katie Warner Johnson are the co-founders of Carbon38, the go-to website for gorgeous athleisure. What started as a shoppable magazine with five brands is now the go-to site, offering about 100 (mostly) luxury activewear brands from the U.S., UK, Canada, Brazil, France, and Japan.
The duo disrupted the way activewear was sold by bringing together niche brands from across the globe and getting behind athleisure in a way that hadn't been done before. Carbon38 launched before Yoox's Net-a-Sporter and Bandier entered the market and before the rapid expansion of Six:02 and Revolve at the middle of the market.
The secret to their success? They called the athleisure trend long before bigger brands got into the market, and created a fitness community from the ground up, giving their brand a street cred among fitness enthusiasts. There's now a community of 300-plus ambassadors worldwide who share their Carbon38 love via social media and appear in the product shots. The upside for shoppers? You won't see a model with incorrect form in a Warrior II. Not to mention carefully curated, gorgeous collections.
The business model evolved in November 2015 when the duo announced that they were launching a private label collection. The collection blurs the boundaries between athleisure and everything else that you would wear outside the gym. In addition to the pieces like sports bras and leggings you would expect to find in an activewear collection, there are parkas, blazers, and dresses. It's helping to usher in a new way to dress that's part of the larger cultural shift happening. As Katie explains, "A few generations ago, we were investing in handbags and shoes, items that enhanced our appearance and status" and now women are investing in the experiences and clothing that affect our health and longevity.
Carbon38 isn't taking its focus off of curating of-the-moment brands, "We are a retailer first and foremost, but we do see this private label as an opportunity to build recognition for Carbon38. We are very careful to give every brand we carry room in the spotlight and limit product overlap as much as possible," Katie told mbg.
What's being a fitness entrepreneur all about? The duo, both Harvard-educated ex-dancers, who did stints in the finance world, did every job function from modeling to shooting images and fulfilling orders before hiring their first employee in 2014. The founders share their thoughts on starting a business with a friend, the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, and give us insight into the 2016 fitness fashion trends.
A Q&A With Katie Warner Johnson and Caroline Gogolak
mbg: What's the best business advice you've ever received?
KWJ: “Perception is reality.” Hands-down has shaped the company we have today.
CG: "What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” — Sheryl Sandberg
KWJ: “Get a real job.”
CG: In general, I hate when people tell me something is really difficult and say it in a tone that scares me and doesn’t give me the confidence to go ahead and do it.
Lesson that you have learned from starting a business?
KWJ: It can be the most thrilling and fulfilling thing; it can also drive you nuts, and every day you wake up simultaneously thinking “how could I be so lucky?” and “when is it going to fall apart?” Carbon38 is my great love affair.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to turn their passion into a career?
KWJ: Know you’ll work harder than you ever imagined. If that doesn’t scare you, then go do it.
CG: Don’t be too timid and know you will make mistakes. Don’t take too long to think about anything.
What do you love about being an entrepreneur?
KWJ: The people I employ. Nothing can be more fulfilling than walking into an office of individuals who have caught fire to your idea and built something great.
CG: The constant strategy and energy. Also, not knowing what the next day will be like.
Anything that you would change?
KWJ: Someone once told me “There are no such things as happy endings, but there are successful finishes you could have never imagined.” Nothing has gone according to plan, but along the way I have learned to chill out (to an extent) and treat this company like the organic, living beast that it is.
CG: The roller-coaster ride. There are so many ups and downs but that’s part of the game. I wish there was more balance.
Speaking of balance ... how do you maintain it?
KWJ: I am not so great at the balance thing…
CG: I don’t have much balance. I try to stay on a schedule. I work out almost every day at the same time and eat the same foods during the week.
What's your breakfast?
CG: Hard-boiled eggs, Cholula hot sauce and Sir Kensington mustard.
KWJ: Two soft-boiled eggs, green tea, a probiotic shot, and an apple cider vinegar/oregano oil concoction that is potent! You don’t want to get near me for a good 20 minutes after I consume it — I smell like an Italian grandmother.
Any tips for starting a business with a friend?
KWJ: I think the biggest lesson we had to learn starting out was that we’d accomplish very little playing “adult soccer,” or chasing the same ball around all day. As soon we divided responsibilities clearly, we not only became more efficient, we also set a precedent for independence, accountability, and efficiency as we grew our team.
CG: Your friendship is now a business relationship — it won’t be all laughs and giggles. Try to divide and conquer and not tag-team the entire time. It’s so much work and you have to execute separately.
Tips for building a community?
KWJ: Listen to your customers. If they feel heard and taken care of they will be loyal forever.
CG: Engage with your influencers. Even if they have small followings or no followings at all, word-of-mouth builds brands and businesses.
What's next for Carbon38 in 2016?
KWJ: We are working on an unconventional offline strategy that I’m really excited about. Stay tuned for more details.
What does mindbodygreen mean to you?
KWJ: My daily dose of health for all facets of my life.
CG: The most up-to-date information on what’s going on in health and wellness. I also consider mbg my personal doctor. I learn so much about how I should be nourishing my body.
The Carbon38 founders share the fitness fashion trends they have their eye on in 2016:
Fitness trackers will feature in your clothes.
This year's CES [the biggest tech conference in the country] was full of activewear with heart-rate monitors and fitness trackers woven right into the fabric and seaming.
Athleisure will make its way to the boardroom. I’d love to see athleisure make it onto the trading floor and into law offices. By launching our own collection of blazers and dresses in machine-washable, performance fabrics and construction, we hope to take the trend one step closer. I think it really speaks to the change in a woman’s lifestyle.
Get ready for the catsuit. There's something sexy and efficient about a one-piece. First of all, a solid unitard lengthens the leg line and creates a seamless, slim silhouette. We carry quite a few jumpsuits that not only will up your game at Pilates but will also make a prettyrad transition to a cocktail party with the right sleeveless trench and booties."
Say hello to outer space. (Seriously.) We're seeing lots of attention on Star Wars and space. I've seen more metallics and reflective detailing this season.
Technical cashmere! I threw my first technical cashmere sweater in the wash the other day with trepidation. But care instructions said to go ahead and give it a dip in the ole machine and those instructions were right! This new fabric development will change how I layer this winter on runs, on the slopes, and on planes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.