Company Q&A: Ergophobia
ERGOPHOBIA: with Rob Sickel and Pete Dispirito
Does the sight of your boss, the waffle cut cubicle fabric at your office, and your $20 wood grain IKEA desk send you screaming out the door? If so, you’re a loyal Ergophobia customer and don’t even know it yet! Confused perhaps? Just Google their name and you’ll figure it out.
All nonsense aside, Ergophobia was launched in 2005 by Rob Sickel and Pete DiSpirito, and is the latest superstar in the lifestyle apparel market targeting the surf and skate industry. To put things into perspective, Ergo walked away with Surf Expo’s “Best Booth” award and 60 new accounts their first year exhibiting at the show in 2008—the numbers speak for themselves. In a short period of time, Ergo now has distribution channels on the east and west coasts. Rob and Pete took the time to break down the past, current and future endeavors of Ergophobia, so sit down, kick your feet up and soak it all in—if you survive work that is.
What inspired you to launch your own lifestyle apparel brand?
Our inspiration stems from a desire to be involved with an industry that we grew up in, along with a true interest in sales and marketing. Most important, we had an opportunity to leave our boring lives and jobs behind. It was a chance to start over and put our soul, time and energy into something that we have a shared a passion for. We’re now working for ourselves in an industry we love.
Why the name “Ergophobia,” and how will the name be brought out in the line, advertising and branding?
Back in ‘03 we were going to open a retail shop and name it Ergophobia, which by definition means the fear of work. To make a long story short, things fell through and it didn’t happen. A few years later we designed some bunk tees for fun (which we thought were sick at the time) and put Ergophobia on them. Back then, we had no clue what we were doing, but we stayed focused on the path and got in touch with the right people to help us make this pipe dream happen.
About a year later, we secured some funding and hit the road in a wrapped coach with shitty graphics. We knocked on everyone’s door from New Jersey to Florida. People didn’t know what to think at the time because we came out of nowhere. The initial response was mixed, but we kept pushing. In the meantime, we were getting in contact with the right people to help us design and manufacture our first line and build our team. After a year on the road, our logo started popping up everywhere on the East Coast and people were talking.
We don’t really push the dictionary definition of “ergophobia” in our marketing or advertising because it’s way better when people find out what it means on their own. The real message that we push to the groms is to follow your true calling in life. If you have a vision of how you want to be perceived in this world, go out and get it done. Don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way. Do everything in your power to become the person you want to be in life. To us, there is nothing worse than a person with wasted talent who didn’t follow their true path in life and now they are stuck commuting to work and sitting in a cubicle as the clock ticks away.
Did either of you have experience within the Action Sports Industry prior to launching Ergo?
Our experience in the action sports industry prior to launching Ergo was that of a consumer and a participant. We had some retail experience, but little knowledge of what it would actually take to be a successful brand. We’ve definitely had a few expensive lessons along the way, but we now have a pretty tight grip on everything plus a solid understanding of what it takes to be on the manufacturing side of the industry.
From the view of an outsider, Ergophobia has become a lot more visible in the last 12 to 18 months. Was marketing and advertising stepped up in an effort to grow, or is what we’re seeing now the original plan?
It was pretty much the original plan, but everything happened way faster then we could have ever imagined. We are fully committed to advertising and understand its value. Our ad campaign is legit and we have a PR team that’s dedicated to growing the brand in a calculated manner.
When was it clear Ergo was growing / succeeding?
Our first sign of growth was when we took Ergo to Surf Expo for the first time. We showed our spring ’08 line and walked away with Surf Expo’s “best booth” award and about 60 new accounts. After the trade show it was clear that there was room for us in the market, and that’s when things got more serious.
With heavy hitters such as Ronnie Creager, Gary Smith and Shea Lopez—to name a few—what impact did building a surf and skate team have on overall business (i.e. sales, reach, audience, etc)?
Besides having tight product, a solid team is an integral part of the puzzle. It is very important for us to choose team riders that bring something to the table, in addition to putting a sticker on their board. Everyone on Ergo’s team plays a key role and provides input on everything from product design to planning.
Once we started making some headway and athletes were finding out how well we take care of our team, the phones have been ringing off the hook. A day doesn’t go by at the office where something doesn’t blow our mind. With the bigger companies putting their main focus on the top three or four guys, there is a ton of talent looking to find a new home and get the exposure and support they deserve.
It’s crazy, just a year ago our top guys were kids that were competing on a regional level. Now, we are sitting at Shea’s house writing this interview waiting for the wind to go offshore. It’s like a fairy tale!
The funny thing is, everyone thinks that we went searching for all of our guys and stroked a bunch of big checks. This was not the case. Everyone on our team came to us wanting to be a part of something sick, to grow with us and be involved on more level than one. It has all been very humbling to us.
Was Ergo’s original target market the action sports industry?
Absolutely! We have been targeting the surf and skate industry since day one.
Seeing that the heart of the action sports industry is based in Southern California, why base Ergo’s headquarters on the East Coast?
The main reason is that this is where we were raised. By no means are we trying to be an East Coast brand, it just happens to be where our day-to-day operations go down. With modern technology combined with the exceptional back end that we have created, we can now handle almost everything we need from any location.
It works out really well. Sometimes when the surf is pumping, we can get two sessions in before our West Coast crew is even out of bed. The only downfall to being on the East Coast is that it makes for some late nights at the office dealing with our West Coast contacts and international factories. It is pretty much a 24/7 gig, but we are happy doing it.
When and why was the Southern California office established?
In November of 2007, we established an office and warehouse in Costa Mesa for a few reasons. The main reason is because product from our factories goes through the dock in L.A. and our screen printing gets done in California. To ship the product from L.A. to Jersey is an unnecessary and costly step in the process.
Another reason is most of the really good technical industry designers are located there, and it happened to be where we found ours. We are lucky to have a handful of sick designers that operate under the guidance of our newly appointed Creative Director, Sam Schryver. Sam works in the Costa Mesa office and is the right hand man to our Production Manager and West Coast / International Sales Manager Ron Yoshida.
The last reason is to strengthen our presence on the West Coast. By having our product ship from Costa Mesa it gives us an edge as a brand that stems out of the East when selling to key accounts in the West. They get stoked when they find out that product ships from Costa Mesa. For the East Coast retailers, it’s not that big of a deal because they are accustomed to shipping costs from the West Coast.
What are the benefits of maintaining these two offices?
It all comes down to dollars and sense: what saves us money, and what makes the most sense. Believe it or not, it is cheaper for us to run our back end out of Costa Mesa. If we are going to be an international company in this industry, we need to have a facility located where all the shit goes down. We have an insane group of guys working for us in California that have been in the industry and know what it takes to become a successful brand. It’s tough to find the right people over here that have the knowledge and industry experience of someone on the West Coast.
As far as the East Coast office goes, the biggest benefit is that we can build partnerships with retailers over here and give them the attention and face time they need. This has become exceedingly important especially now that a lot of larger West Coast based companies are selling direct online and building company stores within walking distance to their retailers. Our number one priority is customer service and building partnerships with Ergo’s retailers. Having both locations will only help us in the short and long term to achieve all of the above.
In the long run, will Ergo remain headquartered on the East Coast?
We planted our seed here and we plan to stay. Of course with our rapid growth it’s hard to predict the future, but all of our friends and family reside on the East Coast, and they are the ones that helped us get this far; it’s important for us to be near them. Also, having an industry veteran like Ron Yoshida running our West Coast operation definitely takes a ton of “guess” work out of the business. He gives us piece of mind by knowing that everything is running tight.
How does Ergophobia stand out among the various lifestyle apparel companies in the industry?
We are an East Coast based company breaking into an industry dominated by the West Coast, so we are somewhat working against the grain of surf/skate normality. We are striving to create a core line that is positive, intelligent, and friendly; we aren’t into following hipster internet trends. We are building a solid brand that has its own vibe.
What is the thought process behind designing a collection for each season (i.e. the spring ’09 collection being inspired by the ‘70s and 80s, etc)?
Whatever the theme or look we are creating, it has to work with each piece. There are no straggler or filler items. If a piece is in the line, it’s there to stand out. Inspiration varies season to season, but since we are a young company, each season we work to comprehensively and cohesively build an "ERGO" look that will only become more distinctive and defined in the years to come.
How did “America’s Next Top Grommet” come to be?
We had just started to strengthen our relationship with TransWorld SURF, so we basically came up with the concept, pitched it to them and they were stoked on it.
Are event sponsorships such as this one a more effective way to reach Ergo’s customers, as compared to other forms of advertising and promotions?
These opportunities are very important, but what we have found to be more successful is guerilla marketing. There is no better feeling then rolling up to a shop, skate park or surf spot in the bus with the team guys and stoking out all the employees and groms.
Shop owners are psyched when they get to meet the guys who started the company. They feel like they are a part of something, and in reality they are. This has been the best way for us to communicate with customers and get the feedback that we need to grow a successful brand.
Will the majority of Ergo’s employees be based on the East or West Coast?
Right now it’s pretty even, but we just started our West Coast push. As our distribution grows, so will our West Coast infrastructure, both in-house and freelance. On the East Coast, we are pretty set except for maybe a few more in-house graphic designers and warehouse employees. We have a small warehouse here that we stock all of the team’s product.
What’s the best advice for someone looking to join Ergo’s team?
If you have some industry work experience under your belt, the best advice that we can give is to have a tight resume and portfolio.
Several times we’ve posted open positions and received a ton of responses, but out of the few hundred resumes and portfolios that we received maybe a handful caught our eye.
The other thing is to be persistent, but not pushy; show up to your interview prepared. We like to use a little phrase here, “SHOW US SOMETHING SICK.” If you are a web designer, show up with a few comps of what you envision our website to look like. If you are a clothing designer, design a few pieces for us to look at the first time we meet. If you are an entry level guy or have no experience, but know you want to work at Ergo, come to us with a plan that is going to benefit our company and promote our growth. Show us that you want to become a part of our process and eventually you will hire yourself.
The job market is super tough right now with all the lay-offs and down-sizing going on, not only in our industry, but across the board. The best advice that we can give to someone trying to get involved in the action sports industry is to find a place that you want to put your heart and soul into and start working there for little or no money. If you are truly dedicated to helping a company grow and put everything you have into it, eventually they will rely on you and have to cut you a check. Even if it means packing boxes in the warehouse to get your foot in the door or emptying trash cans. Employers notice hard work and dedication and will eventually reward you. There is a number of employees at Ergo that did just that and we would be nowhere without them.
What type of person is “Ergo” material?
The type of employee that we look for is someone that takes ownership and pride in everything they do. We want someone that gives 110 percent, not because they have to, but because they want to. We need employees that we can trust and will do the job just as good or better than we would. With our overwhelming growth we need employees that are going to eat, sleep and shit Ergo.