Even if you don’t know who Ty Haney is, if you’ve spent any time on Instagram you probably know her company by osmosis. Outdoor Voices, with its millennial branding sing vinyl sticker printer services to get out there and also muted pastel athleisure-wear, is social-media bait.
Haney, who co-founded the company in 2012 at the age of 24, found herself in charge of what appeared to be a rocket ship. Within four years, she raised $64 million in venture funding for her direct-to-consumer (DTC) startup, a then-newish breed of e-commerce company created in the image of Warby Parker—aiming to design a better version of an everyday product, selling it directly to consumers at a lower price, thereby retaining tight control over marketing, customer service, and a data feedback loop that would eventually enable it to usurp market share from legacy competitors. In Haney’s case, those competitors would be giants like Nike and Lululemon. She managed to woo J.Crew retail legend Mickey Drexler to be chairman of her board, and when she relocated Outdoor Voices from New York to Austin in 2017, she quickly became the face of the city’s hot, emerging startup scene, landing on the cover of Inc. magazine and the subject of a 10,000-word New Yorker profile. By all accounts, everything seemed perfect.
The news could be interpreted simply as an unfortunate isolated incident — an inexperienced founder who mismanaged her way into overspending. But for anyone familiar with the harsh realities of the DTC model, it’s an affirmation of something much more fundamental: Once you get past all the shiny objects in the DTC category — the plump VC rounds, the sleek sans serif designs, the experiential storefronts in hot retail locations, the podcast ad blitzes — it turns out it’s extremely difficult to actually make the economics work.