About seven years ago Nate Checketts was working for his dream company, the NFL. He had always loved sports, especially football, and now he had a prestigious position handling the organization’s sponsorship strategy. There was only one problem, Checketts told the students at the Baker Executive Speaker Series: He wasn’t happy.
“I just was not a corporate guy,” said Checketts, who today is the co-founder and CEO of Rhone, a successful men’s performance lifestyle brand. “It feels like in these big environments, if you disappear, nobody’s going to miss you… you’re not going to change anything.” He also wasn’t fond of the suit-and-tie atmosphere, not to mention a long commute that limited his time with his young sons.
It was actually not a surprising reaction for someone who had already dipped a toe—well, more than a toe—into the world of entrepreneurship at an early age. Checketts had started an extremely successful sports camp in his home town of New Canaan, Connecticut when he was only 14. “By the time I was 17, we were making like $45 grand over the course of three or four weeks,” he commented.
The Inspiration for Rhone
After some other entrepreneurial stints, such as in mobile software, Checketts said he got the germ of an idea for a high-end sportswear brand for men. It was inspired by his mother’s traditional Christmas gifts for the family: pajamas for all. One year, it was sweatpants from Lululemon. This met with some resistance from the men in the family, but not Checketts. “My brother-in-law was like, ‘I’m not wearing this… it’s ridiculous, this is a women’s yoga brand. And I said, ‘You’re crazy, these are really comfortable.’” The brand clearly knew how to make quality products, said Checketts, and he was inspired.
Thus Rhone, the men’s performance lifestyle brand, was born. Rhone “fills the void between big box retailers and high-end yoga brands,” according to the company. Founded in 2014, today it’s sold in all Equinox locations; at Nordstrom, Dillard’s, and Peloton Studios; and at more than 350 gyms and specialty stores across the country. Rhone also has three New York store locations: Flatiron, Hudson Yards, and midtown Manhattan; a store in Connecticut at Chelsea Piers Stamford, and a store in Massachusetts on Newbury Street.
Checketts described how he built the Rhone brand. Rather than seeking celebrity athlete endorsements and focusing the brand on athletic performance—as he said many men’s sportswear brands do—he emphasizes wellness, mental health, and self-care. He noted that as a father of three boys he wants to push back against the “toxic masculinity” found in some aspects of society.
Putting the Customer at the Center
To grow customer engagement, Rhone has created theme months (“The 12 Pursuits”), with topics such as hydration, movement, nutrition, and sleep. “We’re trying to build a community that has value and utility above just selling clothing,” he said.
Rhone’s customer communications during COVID were especially unique. Rather than just informing customers about store closings and the like (although they did provide a link to this essential information), the company created emails with subject lines such as “Not Another COVID Email.” The emails contained useful and reassuring content for people who were stuck at home, like list of shows to watch, home workouts, and recipes with simple ingredients that didn’t require special shopping trips.
“The response we got to emails like that—where we put the customer at the center of our communication—was overwhelming,” Checketts said. “We’ve never had inbound responses like that: ‘Thank you so much’ and ‘I’ve shared this with people I know’… I think the customer relationship was deeply strengthened.”
On that note, Checketts advised the Baker students to think about consumers in terms of relationships, not transactions. Businesses should not be like “friends who you only hear from when they need something or want a favor.” Instead of constantly chasing customers with discounts and offers, think about what is happening in their lives, and give them things that address their needs. That way the business “ask,” when it happens, seems more natural.
Above all, Rhone is focused on creating well-made clothing—quality that customers will recognize and appreciate, he said. “Having great products is the best form of marketing in the long run that you can generate.”