It is a coincidence that I am writing about SCOTTEVEST the week the company announced its ability at CES to provide the first clothing to accommodate a wearable battery power source for Google Glass (see The Shirt That Powers Google Glass).
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I am interested in the company for another reason. SCOTTEVEST is a company that has been doing really, genuinely good PR from the moment it opened its doors.
As wearable tech becomes one of 2014’s hottest trends, my eye was caught by an article on the ways to travel without incurring carry-on fees. Then I noticed the company, reported by Inc and Entrepreneur to be currently producing $10M in revenue, is based in the small town of Ketchum, Idaho (my own home state) and is headed by a former attorney, Scott Jordan (Oh! Now I get it. “Scott-e-Vest”). Travel, Idaho, fashion and gadgets. So far, so good. Then came the element that caught my undivided attention: when it comes to communicating about an early stage company and product, particularly as the company’s sector becomes mainstream, this is an entrepreneur who really “gets it”.
Good PR Should Begin The Minute a Company is Started.
It is clear through my research and in my phone interview with Jordan that this CEO and founder understands the powerful “zen” of PR. SCOTTEVEST (SeV, the provider of TEC Technology Enabled Clothing) began communicating with and through the media the moment he opened his door. He’s appeared on the Today Show. Steve Wozniak (The Woz) is one of the company’s advisors. More recently, Forbes’ Karsten Strauss covered SCOTTEVEST in an Oct. 2012 feature on wearable tech and contributor Rawn Shaw covered the company in a June 2013 post on Fathers’ Day gifts for gadget-oriented dads. Strong communication is fundamental to this entrepreneurial company, not an afterthought, and the high visibility has rewarded the business with strong differentiation and burgeoning sales within a category that is now becoming mainstream.
Born During The Dot.Com Bust
Like many founders, Jordan’s jump into the world of entrepreneurship wasn’t Plan A. In 2000 he was a practicing attorney working for a law firm that was one of the largest in Chicago (and one of the largest now in the world). He was successful, but he was unhappy. “From the moment I started, I wanted to quit,” he said. He tried to find his chops in business, but once an attorney, “people think of you as only a lawyer,” he said. He finally found new work as the general in house counsel for a public company that was launching a web portal for seniors in New Jersey.
He also found himself a frequent flier, commuting from New Jersey to Chicago and back every week. For Jordan, the lengthy flights underscored the need for a better way to manage his growing fleet of devices. Fortuitously, it was on a run through an airport that one of his headphone cables got caught on a doorknob as he ran, nearly “pulling off my ear,” he recalls. The seed of an idea—clothing that could accommodate the wires of a person’s mobile devices—was born. During the Dot.com bust, the portal Jordan was working on faltered. He looked in vain for another corporate position, but the need for travel clothing “that didn’t look like travel clothing” to was still high on his mind. He decided to take the plunge.
An Idea That Blossomed
It was clear from Jordan’s research that other companies dipping their toes in the direction of wearable tech didn’t understand the implications he viewed as “the elephant in the room.” What he could see emerging as the issue nobody was the issue of clothing with pockets that could accommodate not only a person’s devices and wires but also the connections to the additional battery power that is inevitably required. Initially, Jordan’s plan was to develop a prototype and to file for a patent. He had no prior experience in the clothing industry—he’d simply license his idea to a manufacturer who could answer that need.
Still, when it came to the specific needs of wearable tech, he could see that nobody really understood the issues of wearable tech in the way he felt that they should. (Jordan’s team has patented the ability to incorporate wires into clothing through hidden conduits in the lining. He is concerned about the weight balance of the carried devices. He wants pockets that don’t spill the device when the individual bends over.) So he developed a product. And then another. The name “SCOTTEVEST” (“Scott’s e Vest”) was initially meant as a temporary standby because the name “eVest” was already taken. But despite the choice of a name Madison Avenue branding agencies would most assuredly never approve (“how do you spell SCOTTEVEST? Is it “scoot-e-vest”?) the name has stuck and the brand has grown. The initial product, the eVest 1.0, got picked up by PARADE magazine and several hundred thousands of dollars in initial orders ensued. As copycat products emerged, Jordan’s legal background was now vital. He defended the company’s patent in scuffles that included a spat with ski outfitter Scott USA and a highly publicized difference of opinion with Delta’s Sky Magazine, who rejected his ad promoting SCOTTEVEST as a way to avoid baggage fees. He argued with Mark Cuban on Twitter, after rejecting an offer from the investors of Shark Tank in 2012.
Not everything went smoothly. The initial products for women failed to attract buyers. But with a late 2010 revamp by Jordan’s wife Laura (the company’s President), the women’s line now accounts for 35% of sales. But why Ketchum, Idaho? As the first apparel company to actually be born on the internet (as opposed to emerging as the e-commerce outgrowth of a traditional company, i.e. L.L. Bean), Jordan and his wife realized they could start the company from anywhere, they believed. As they enjoyed their ski vacations in Sun Valley, they harbored a dream of someday owning a vacation condo, then perhaps a better condo, and maybe retiring near a favorite ski resort mountain one day. Why not go there now?
As they actually made the move, Jordan notes that recruiting talent in a tiny community of 5,000, where most who visit are coming to vacation or ski, is somewhat of an obstacle. Regardless, the company has grown by an average of 20-plus percent every year and has closed 2013 with $10 million in revenue, some 18 employees, and 50-plus pocket-loaded products (including some that boast as many as 37 pockets apiece).
Not Your Father’s Approach to PR
Now for the company’s standout strength, in my own estimation: As a founder, Jordan is extremely good in PR. He is unafraid to pitch the press (in fact, he is unafraid of anything—a recent YouTube video features Jordan himself modeling the company’s boxer shorts designed with an iPhone pocket to keep the ubiquitous device perpetually close at hand).
As other founders spend their companies’ earliest years with their heads entirely focused in distribution partnerships and sales, Jordan spent significant energy and time soliciting the attention of the press, directly. In his his first PR agency meeting in Chicago, he noted that the agent was showing him a plan that was entirely centered on Chicago’s regional press. Why? “Even if we could get you into a national publication, you’d never be able to get inventory fast enough to answer the need,” the agent demurred. It was the wrong answer.
In New York City, after accomplishing the four press meetings his agency had managed to capture, Jordan walked into the Time Life building and decided to give the business of securing press a go on his own. “I need to speak to the editor,” he announced as he entered the building. “Of what?” the receptionist responded. “We publish 116 titles.” (Clearly this was prior to the recent consolidation of publications in the press.) “Travel, lifestyle, tech,” Jordan countered. Amazingly, he was able to talk the woman into sharing a “call sheet” of names that appeared to fit the appropriate publications. Jordan called one, then another and another, leaving messages for 30 individuals, then 40. Seemingly defeated, he began to head for the cab. Then his cellphone rang. One of the editors of Time Magazine called him back. In he ran, presenting her with the vest on his back as explained the many functions and features. Victory had struck.
Or so he thought. Back in Ketchum, he eagerly awaited the pending news and the thousands of orders that would surely ensue. He hired a call center. They waited. And waited. Weeks later the coverage occurred. “It was just a blip. A brief little mention. It didn’t even include the company URL.” However, many additional press appearances in the months and years since have served as a primary strategy for differentiating the products and company and creating a growing audience that has resulted in burgeoning sales.
Although Jordan’s lessons in PR have come the hard way, under his direction, the company’s communications work has excelled. He’s employed visual mediums. He gives keynote speeches. Both Jordan and the products have enjoyed highly placed media appearances, with the products often appearing on notable celebrity spokespeople and on tier one shows. The company has generated highly creative campaigns (“Vote here to get Scott Jordan on Colbert.”) And yes, there’s the irreverent YouTube video of Jordan modeling the company’s boxer shorts that opens with a picture of Jordan next to family poodle Lucy, complete with a cartoon thought bubble that has Lucy remarking “I don’t think he’s getting any.”
The company’s 18 employees include a strong internal PR lead, Emmileigh Buck (go, Emmi!) who supported me in the development of this article. Jordan has even authored the first chapter of a yet-to-be-published book on public relations for early-stage companies. He’s shared a copy of the chapter with me, and I look forward to covering his full thoughts on the role of media in an early stage company in a future column. For anyone interested in further detail on the company’s CES news, the announcement is available here. But regardless of SCOTTEVEST’s success as a company, when an entrepreneurial founder understands the power of public relations as well as Scott Jordan, he is my kind of guy.