Mind your Business: Society Nine, Portland

Around these parts, we like to learn about and from people who are running their own businesses – business we love and admire, and the ladies who are running shit behind the scenes. In this edition of mind your business, we talk to Lynn Le,  jiu jitsu and Krav Maga expert-turned-entrepreneur who’s launched a Kickstarter campaign for her company, Society Nine, where she’s developing boxing and MMA gloves and fitness apparel for women. In this interview, Lynn tells us why it’s important to start paying more attention to women in these male-dominated sports, how to cater to women without making everything pink (THANK YOU!), and what it really takes to start your own business.

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milieu: Give us a brief overview of your background and how you came to the idea of creating Society Nine.
Lynn: Professionally, I used to work in social media marketing, early stage venture capital and in retail brand presentation with one of the biggest sports brands in the world. Athletically, I used to be an avid runner and a dancer growing up, but I wanted to try something different. Out of curiosity I found Krav Maga and it became an incredible source of strength and empowerment. I trained really hard and ended up getting my brown belt and teaching kickboxing. The women I trained with and teach, as well as other women in my local MMA community, often commented on how ridiculous it was that men have SO many options for products in the sport – quality gloves, tons of designs to choose from, tons of apparel catered to their aesthetic and fit – and we didn’t. A big gripe was how our training gear didn’t even fit, like our MMA gloves. More often than not, they are a men’s size small, turned pink or some bright tacky neon. Additionally, a majority of combat sports brands who do use female product models sexualize their women’s marketing. Realizing there was an opportunity here to make a change, I started developing a boxing and MMA glove line exclusively for women and began tinkering around with a concept sportswear line for badass women. If the dark, fierce cousin of all these yoga brands on the market existed – what would she look like? After a little over 18 months of developing Society Nine, I quit my full-time job to go all in and launch on Kickstarter.

m: When you decided to create your own company, what were some of your first steps?
L: The first step was creating the manifesto, and the brand name. It was so important to me that we created a brand with core values and a heart and soul. Otherwise, we could very easily be just another hoodie and t-shirt company. I wanted our customer to feel something when they buy and use our products, which is a true sense of unity with this Society of strong, empowered, fierce women. We easily spent three-four months just working on branding alone. My industrial designer and I then gathered a focus group of women who ranged from pro, amateur and everyday practitioners in MMA to ask what they like and don’t like about current brands on the market, as well as their opinions on the best and worst of these brands’ products. We bought our competitors’ gloves, cut them all open to see how they were constructed, and essentially reverse engineered what would become our first glove line.

m: One of the things I love about your project: not only are you creating equipment that works for women’s bodies, but what you’re making is aesthetically pleasing to women, too – so many of us are tired of all the pink products! What kind of research did you do for the design/look of your products?
L: Women have very clear intentions when they buy products, including accessories and apparel for fitness. We approach our purchases with tact – “I need something that will perform what I need it to do, but would look great with what I’m wearing.” Shoes, jewelry, hoodies, gym bags – they all have purpose. So we created customer profiles of the types of women who would train at the gym, and characterized who they were in and out of the gym. This included how they would dress when they train, what kind of career they have and how they dress normally. We use these profiles as gut checks every time we design new apparel pieces or graphic designs. We want to make sure that our colors and designs have the potential to appeal to different types of athletes.

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m: In addition to the glove line, what types of apparel will be on offer?
L: Our first concept collection, launched through Kickstarter, is called the Bia (bye-uh) collection. Bia is the Greek goddess of force and strength, which was really fitting to us for our launch concept. In addition to the boxing and MMA gloves, we have four concept apparel pieces – the Bia “Initiation” jacket, Bia “Initiation” styled jogger track pant, Bia “Initiation” Rashguard and Bia Infinity Scarf. We named these pieces “Initiation” because we wanted our customers to feel initiated into Society Nine, especially being the first supporters and wearers. I created Society Nine to address the full spectrum of the female fighter – from the “core athlete”, which is the woman who does combat sports, all the way to the aspirational customer who may not necessarily do combat sports but loves our brand and who we represent. We wanted to create pieces that could support this full spectrum – we are a small company, and we need the Kickstarter funding to get off the ground so we had to be strategic about how we launched – and that included exactly what products we should launch with.

m: What has been the most challenging part of this process for you, so far?
L: The most challenging part has been making sure as many female fight and fitness communities know about us as possible! And work life balance. I am very intentional about my sleep; I go to bed by no later than 11pm every night and I make sure I dedicate blackout periods during the day where the phone and computer screen are away from my eyes and I’m in the present, hitting up the gym, enjoying a meal, conversations with people, or having a quiet moment to myself.

m: What has been the most rewarding part of the process so far?
L: The most rewarding part has been the enthusiasm and excitement women – and men, even! – have had for a brand like ours. When we get an email, tweet, or Facebook share saying “Can’t believe it took this long for a brand like this to exist!” it just feels so gratifying. It makes all of the fears, doubts and skepticism disappear because at the end of the day, what matters is our customers. We’re excited to harness that energy, and turn it into a great brand with great products for badass customers.

m: Do you think the recent surge in popularity of women’s MMA (in the UFC and beyond) will help the visibility of companies like yours?
L: Absolutely – I think that the more women are able to see what they are capable of through other female role models, the more open they will be to trying various combat sports. That opens up the opportunity then for Society Nine to be a trusted home for customers and new athletes into the sport. Female fighters are looking for a brand that represents them not just in brand name, but in respect. At Society Nine, the way to show that respect is by providing quality products, whose design, creation, engineering and execution is done truly with the athlete in mind, and any aspiring woman who wants to get into combat sports. The other way we are showing respect is celebrating how diverse female fighters are – they have different body types, skill sets, and backgrounds; but they are such strong, empowered fierce women. Society Nine unites these women under the banner of defining power on our own terms, and we hope to become a part of the conversation around what being fit, feminine and beautiful really means. To us, true femininity in fitness is pure resilience and unbridled strength – that knows no size number or body type.

m: Where do you see yourself, and Society Nine, in five years?
L: We see ourselves with our first brick and mortar retail space and fitness gym lab in one. Society Nine is ultimately an experience – we want to give our customers that environment where they can step in, outfit themselves and be a part of a society of badass women.

m: What advice would you give to other women who want to follow their passion in the same way you have – especially in a male-dominated industry?
L: It’s intuitive to think that when you start something, especially a company, you have to be tough and know everything. Especially as women, we feel like we additionally have something to prove. That’s really not the case – DO YOU. The bravest thing you can do is know your knowledge gaps and weaknesses, finding the right people to help you and then asking for that help. At the end of the day, it is about execution – and you have to know your weaknesses to grow the best team. It takes confidence to be able to do that.

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