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Mike Nemeth, CEO & Founder

Nemeth: The origin of Emblem goes back to years before I even thought I’d have a career outside of the military. I was always the one pulling shirt orders together and trying to wrangle peoples’ payments and checks and come up with a cool design that everybody likes — I just viewed it as a hobby. And I knew it was a difficult task then — nobody ever wanted to do it. It was another 15 years until circumstances led me to an end-of-my-time in the aerospace technology world (my whole team got fired after an acquisition!). I was in a completely different industry just two years ago. I was a little burnt out and ended up at one of those personal roadmap decisions of, “What do I really like to do?” And I really liked solving those problems and helping teams look great and getting those pictures back from people when they have their new team gear. So, that’s what started it. I had a chance to start something from scratch, and that’s what we did. Now we’re just coming up on two years and beginning to see the potential for how automation technology can transform this part of the sports industry.

Nemeth: One word: Automation. We harp on that consistently because there are a million apparel companies out there. It’s such a crowded space. I still laugh when one my family members say, “Mike, how’s your T-shirt company doing?” It’s very different, obviously, than that, but it’s a tough thing to immediately explain to people what makes it different. The automation piece is throughout the entire design experience of the company. We automate the design for every customer. It’s an experience. And it’s more of a stitch-fix style quiz than your typical industry builder. Then we automate the manufacturing and that’s some behind-the-scenes stuff that the customer never sees. But it allows us to do custom sizing and one-off replacements when someone orders the wrong name on the jersey and needs a replacement. So, stuff like that makes a big difference and that’s what we’re doing a better job explaining and telling other people about.

Nemeth: When we started, we obviously had the idea that we’d serve all of these very visible markets, like the high school football teams and that kind of stuff. Our largest market is, collectively, what we call “the long tail of sports.” So, there is a massive amount of really passionate, amazing sport teams that don’t fit into the regular school infrastructure. We’re able to deploy and test our systems with real customers in all sorts of sports I’d never considered. These are actual customers: a Canadian youth arm wrestling league, a Kansas fencing club, hundreds of e-sports teams. All of these teams are of underserved. We have a huge market in all of these niche sports. And it’s been really cool to deliver to them a professional uniform experience that they wouldn’t otherwise get from their local screen printer.

Nemeth: We would say that the track jacket is one that’s a lot of fun. We’ve done a lot of cool projects for a lot of these teams and club sports — some people participate in them for years. It’s not a one-year and then your child moves on… So, with the track jacket we’ll do stuff that is military-inspired, where they can put their years of service on the sleeve. So we have a lot of customers that have, across their team, an immediate recognition of who’s been on the team longest and fun stuff like that I think is something a jacket can do more than just a T-shirt.

We’ll also do fun liners on the inside of the jackets and things like that. Everybody wants that Hollywood, pro experience. They really do. That’s the gap that we fill. People see that stuff on TV and then they’re like “That’d be sweet for our team… but our team’s only 20,” and that doesn’t bother us. We’ve got everything automated so we can handle a small team like that. Just the same a big organization would be able to handle a large team.

Nemeth: So, when we started and looked around at the marketplace for the full custom orders, the best option was 4–6 weeks. With our earliest versions of automation technology, we’ve got that down to two weeks. And we think that lightning- fast, except when you’re the customer and need something tomorrow, that’s a week and a half too slow. So, our big initiative for 2020 is to do stuff that has previously been thought of as crazy. We’re looking at having a facility and capability to do instant design, since we’ve got the design piece automated and then a two-day production turnaround time for urgent items like that. That was always on our radar screen, but to have the customers so clearly say, “Hey, I need this fixed,” “I forgot,” “I screwed up,” “We procrastinated, can you get it to me in two days?” Nobody else can do that right now, so that will be a nice place for us to be coming up this year.

Nemeth: Great question. From a core team standpoint, we’re only 10 people. That’s a testament to how much we automate. So, we put out hundreds of team stores a day. But we’ve only got 10 people in-house; 3 of them are the artists who oversee the design and development of the work; production-wise, we have a couple key partners; but what we do is automate all of the prep work for them to manufacture and cut and sew. We’re an entirely virtual organization. We meet daily on a zoom call. From a structural standpoint, it’s entirely built from scratch with all the latest technology out there. I’ve never sent a company email. It’s so bizarre. I’ve never sent an email out to everybody in the company — It’s just a message on Slack if it’s something I want to say to everybody. So, it’s crazy to think about how quickly some of that stuff has changed. We think it’s a big asset for us, because we can recruit and use talent from anywhere. We’ve got the model set up to bring them on board without it being a big decision for them re-locate to Columbus, Ohio.

Nemeth: Love it. This is what we’re all about. I spend more and more time with coaches. It’s been a huge blessing as the company’s grown. It’s given me more time to spend more time with customers and I’ve been able to do more coaching myself. The impact, socially and developmentally, is unparalleled. I love the role that sports can play in helping kids navigate social challenges, teamwork, losing — that’s what I talk to my track team about all the time. My first race that I ran, I came in last. Dead last. They’d taken the chute down when I came out of the woods. I got the embarrassing, pity clap form everybody. But you’ve got to get back out there and run again. That’s the biggest thing. Kids today only see these curated Instagram lives of everybody and they don’t see what it’s like to lose. So, to experience it is a huge help for them to help set them up for success in the future — and then have them put on their kick-ass uniform from us and smile.

Nemeth: Whew. There’s so many. The biggest challenge I’d say is really staying focused on what we’re trying to do in the marketplace and the industry we’re in. Having the infrastructure to do the apparel that we can, it opens up what we call the “idea fairy.” “It’d be cool if we did this.” Or “What about this?” If you’re constantly jumping around and chasing after things, you don’t get to build that core competency in one particular space. And I’m guilty of having new ideas every week, of things we could get into and it’s important for us to stay focused in the markets that we’re in and really build a scalable business that can impact the lives of athletes instead of just always chasing after the dollars.

Nemeth: Plenty of ideas all around. I try to filter them down into the ones that actually support our mission. Back into the discussion of what’s the advantage of team sports and the experience — it really bothers me when somebody is left out, joins the team late, or they ordered the wrong sized and they don’t feel comfortable playing because of a fit issue. And for us to be able to solve those issues, quickly, just really elevates the experience we can give to customers. We’re spending a lot of time and effort on creating this nearly-magical turnaround time for something completely custom, cut and sewn in a matter of hours, is really something tough to do. Nobody’s doing full custom that quickly. I’m not an apparel guy, I’m a helicopter system engineer — I look at things from scratch, I don’t have any pre-conceived notions about what can or can’t be done, and we’re looking at some really amazing off-the-shelf robotics technology that has never been used in apparel before. So, that’s where we see this marriage of technology to do something again that from the outside may seem trivial to be able to make a uniform for a kid in 2 days like, “Why can’t they wait?” But really being next to the customer and understanding that it is the most emotional purchase they’re making all year. And they do need it quickly. So, we’ve got to deliver on that promise.

I’m certain everyone has been on a team we’re someone has a uniform misfire and they say, “Oh, well. Sorry.” Fixing that is a noble goal.

Nemeth: To be candid, I really see us acquired as part of a larger organization. So, from a business standpoint, I think we’ve built the business and built the model so that we can demonstrate to someone on the outside that personalization at scale is possible. And I think, if given the choice, customers would naturally want more and more of their products truly personalized. So, if some larger organization were to try to build this from scratch, they are a large organization, so they’ll struggle, as this is a tough thing to do. So, I see us in 5 years, all still on our mission, just inside a larger group that can really deliver the channel access that would take us a long time to build organically.

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SFIA is the leading global trade association in the sports & fitness industry. SFIA is the #1 source for sport & fitness research. More info at www.sfia.org.

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