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Episode 68: Accidental Entrepreneurship with Cassie Abel

Are you celebrating Women-Led Wednesday today? We launched this week's episode a day early because today (November 27th) is Women-Led Wednesday - a national shopping holiday founded by this week's guest Cassie Abel! Cassie is a self-described accidental entrepreneur - she’s the CEO and Co-Founder at Wild Rye, Owner at White Cloud Communication, and Managing Director/Creator of Women-Led Wednesday. Cassie talks about her path to being a business owner, her biggest struggle as an entrepreneur, and why role models are important. Enjoy the show and don't forget to shop women this holiday season!

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Episode Transcript

Lisa: Welcome to season four, episode 30 of Outside by Design.

Iris: Hey everyone, I'm Iris.

Lisa: And I'm Lisa. Coming at you from Whitefish, Montana out of a creative agency called Wheelie.

Iris: And this episode, you might have noticed, is a day early. Usually we launch our episodes on Thursdays and today is a Wednesday, and that is because today happens to be Women-Led Wednesday and we are chatting with Women-Led Wednesday’s founder Cassie Abel. So Women-Led Wednesday is a national shopping holiday, just like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And it comes the day before Thanksgiving, which is today when this podcast is coming out. And it is a day to shop woman-owned businesses.

Lisa: So a lot of times people ask us, how do you support women-owned businesses? And the best way to do that is to shop there, buy their shit.

Iris: So Cassie has started Women-Led Wednesday. She has a whole website with a directory on what kind of businesses you can shop that are owned by women, and it is a really cool movement that we're really happy to be a part of. Cassie is going to talk about why she came to found Women-Led Wednesday as well as her two other businesses, White Cloud Communication and Wild Rye. And she gets into, uh, being an entrepreneur, some of the struggles that come along with that, her role models, and this is a really great episode, so let's get started.

Lisa: Cassie, thanks so much for being here today.

Cassie: Thanks for having me.

Lisa: And, uh, the first question we ask everyone is to describe where they are and what they're looking at.

Cassie: Um, I am in the new Wild Rye headquarters, um, in Sun Valley, Idaho. And it used to be a pilates studio, so there are mirrors on every wall. So I'm actually looking at myself times a million, and it's really creepy right now. [laughs]

Lisa: That's amazing. First of all, wow. Congratulations on all the success with Wild Rye.

Cassie: Thank you. Thank you. It's been a wild adventure.

Lisa: I love your products. They are really, really well made.

Cassie: Thank you.

Lisa: Yeah. So, um, you are a multiple, multiple business owner, like entre-... multi-... what do you call that? Like a multepreneur or whatever.

Cassie: Um, I call myself an accidental entrepreneur, but…

Lisa: Awesome, yeah, I'd love, I'd love to hear about that and our audience I'm sure would love to know about your businesses and what you've got going on.

Cassie: Yeah. So, um, I dunno, a little backstory. I used to be in-house at Smith Optics and they relocated to Portland, Oregon recently. Not recently, like four years ago. And that left me to decide whether I was going to move to Portland with my dream job or try to figure it out on my own. And that led me to founding White Cloud Communication, which is a boutique PR/marketing consulting business that specializes in outdoor, active lifestyle, adventure travel brands. Um, and through White Cloud I reconnected with, uh, the woman that I ultimately ended up founding Wild Rye with. So I also kind of stumbled upon Wild Rye. Um, and Katie, who... yeah, we brought Wild Rye to life. And then, um, I actually bought her out at the start of this year. So we recently moved all operations to Idaho from Tahoe.

And then, um, last year I started this initiative called Women-Led Wednesday. And I don't know if I'd call that an entrepreneurial activity because it's pretty much just a money suck for me, it's a complete passion project. But, um, it's a two-part initiative to support women in leadership and ultimately create a more gender balanced economy, um, with the idea of creating an annual shopping holiday, much like Small Business Saturday, dedicated to women in leadership. So encouraging people to shop Women-Led brands on that day. And really every day. Um, and then we also have created a, uh, pretty robust brand directory to help, um, anyone uncover new Women-Led brands.

Lisa: That's amazing. Why is shopping women important?

Cassie: Um... So, my take is that there are so many initiatives that bring women together that support women from an emotional and role model... well, role models are very important. We'll come back to that. But, um, lots of networking events, lots of networking platform, career advice, but what women entrepreneurs really need is funding for their businesses. And an easy, obvious way to do that is just help more customers discover them. Um, and, you know, rather than having to outsource funding and doing a round of funding, or in addition to the round of funding, women-led businesses, like any business, needs customers and awareness. And, um, yeah, it just seemed like an easy way to, um, help people who are interested in shopping consciously discover these women-led brands.

Lisa: That's cool. And how can people find that and support it?

Cassie: Uh, Women-Led Wednesday. The website is just On Instagram @WomenLedWednesday. Same with Facebook, sort of all the places. Um, and then keep an eye out, um, poke around the directory now, whenever, um, but plan... mark your calendars to shop women on November 27th, which is a day before Thanksgiving. So this is the second year of it, and we hope to make this an annual, um, an annual event.

Lisa: That's so cool. How did you think about this? Like, why did you come up with this?

Cassie: Again, sort of by accident. Um, I don't know. I mean, I've been... I've always been pretty darn passionate about supporting women in business and pretty career driven myself. Um, up until the Smith decision, every move I had made had been for a job and for my career. And I finally made a decision for myself and for my lifestyle over career. Um, and, um. I was looking for, honestly, I was looking for a holiday sort of sale angle that felt right for Wild Rye, um, and didn't get lost in the shuffle of, you know, cyber Monday, black Friday, all of that madness.

Um, and so Katie and I were talking and we're like, well, why don't we launch just the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and we can keep the sale going all weekend? Like, okay. And it just sort of was an idea that got kicked around and I started researching, um, I was like, I bet there's a holiday for Women-Led businesses just like there is for small businesses and nonprofits and online businesses. And more poking I did, the less I found. And, um, through that research I learned that American Express had completely manufactured Small Business Saturday coming out of the recession to boost small businesses. Um, sort of after that downturn. Um, and cyber Monday was also just manufactured by some agency out East to support some of their clients who are online businesses.

So, you know, I didn't quite have the resources that American Express has, but, um, I figured we'd start small and grow it organically. And here we are today with like, 300 brands involved.

Lisa: That's amazing. That's so cool. It ties in really nicely. The word of the month on our podcast is cultivation. Um, so when you hear the word, when you hear the word cultivation, what do you think of? What comes to mind?

Cassie: I think, uh, passion and patience. [laughs] So I'm just throwing two more words on there. Um, I think cultivation is a very careful process of, um, taking care of something that's really meaningful, um, to yourself or whoever. Um, and. You know, it takes, it definitely takes patience and it definitely takes like, just little steps, lots of little steps. Um, and I think that's such a perfect word for Women-Led Wednesday as a result, and same with Wild Rye. It's... it... it just takes time and passion to cultivate anything.

Lisa: Yeah. The Wild Rye photography and kind of the whole, the whole look that you've curated feels effortless. Like it's one of my favorite brands as far as like what it feels like to be a female mountain biker.

Cassie: Yeah. I mean, that's been one of the things that has been really important to us - I mean, Katie and I from day one and I'm continuing on - is just showing the overall experience of mountain biking and mountain biking with women. Um. And encouraging people while obviously, you know, celebrating the badass theory and, you know, massive boosters and gnarly lines and all of that is definitely to be celebrated. But we don't want to neglect celebrating all the, the small moments. So stopping on the side of the trail for snack breaks with friends or, you know, trying something and eating shit [laughs].

Lisa: Yeah.

Cassie: Because that happens to all of us. And, um. I think one thing that a lot of women have sort of... that's kept a lot of women from mountain biking is just the intimidation factor of it. Um, the idea of falling over and the idea of, you know, needing to be the best. And so in addition to celebrating those PRs and summits and, you know, uh, victories, obvious victories, um, we want to celebrate the journey. And, you know, welcome people to celebrate that with us. Because it is, I mean, I found that when I started mountain biking with women and not just a bunch of dudes, I had just such a different experience and it was a more long-term, sustainable type of experience for me.

Lisa: Yeah. And now you've expanded into like base layers and ski apparel?

Cassie: Mhmm. Yeah, that's been our plan from day one, um, was to be a four season brand. So we actually did launch a small, very small winter collection our first year. Um, but we've greatly improved it, um, in the last two years, I think. And it's, it's still small. It's a smaller piece of our business. But, um. You know, skiing has always been Katie and my, sort of, top passion. So, um, it just felt like a good way to stay, um... Yeah. I mean, it just felt right.

Lisa: Yeah. And it's kind of hilarious... I thought I saw a photo of somebody using like an outhouse at a yurt?

Cassie: [laughs] Yeah.

Lisa: Yeah, like, your photography is hilarious. How do you make those creative decisions? Um… You know, they just kind of come. Um, we, I have to say our photo shoots are always like, Oh shit, we should have done this two weeks ago, but we didn't have product and we're trying to launch. Um, so it's always a mad scramble. It's never as thought through as I'd like it to be. Um, you know, we're fortunate we have so many active athletic women in our local valley. And, um, you know, we were just talking yesterday about how we need to make an effort to do more photography out of the Wood River Valley area. Um, but, um, because of our leverage with our - lack of leverage with our factories, um, we oftentimes don't have product until our whole production inventory lands, um, for these photo shoots. So that last shoot was, um, thanks to Sun Valley Trekking, they offered us, uh, one of their yurts to use before Forest Service closed the roads. And so we pretty much pulled the shoot together in, I want to say, like two days, um, found a bunch of, you know, model friends, just normal women from the falley. And, um, Krista, my now partner and I went up early and did some powering and just sort of scoping around. But, um, yeah, it's just, I mean, if there's an outhouse, use it.

Lisa: Yeah. It made me laugh [laughs]

Cassie: I mean, anyone who's been on a hut trip or a, a year trip, you know, knows that the outhouse is a big, big part of that experience and the views from the outhouse and you know, just sort of surviving the outhouse. [laughs] So yeah, it felt like a good fit.

Lisa: Yeah. That's awesome.

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Iris: So Lisa, Cassie identifies as an accidental entrepreneur, which I think is really funny because it seems like she's very good at spotting problems and thinking of solutions and then actually creating a solution. Which isn't very accidental. It seems like she's, she's just a natural born entrepreneur.

Lisa: Absolutely. And I know in a, in a few episodes when we speak to Alyssa from Hipcamp, she talks about something similar, which is, um, if you have a solution and you're looking for a problem versus if you find a problem looking for a solution. So I think Cassie's just naturally able to find those problems and supply solutions, which is awesome.

Iris: Yeah, exactly. It's the root of entrepreneurship right there. Let's get back to Cassie.

Lisa: One of the things I'm most excited to hear from you about is what have you learned? Like what's the difference for you personally between owning a product-based company and a service-based business?

Cassie: Hmm. Um, I found that they, I mean, in general, they compliment each other really, really well. Um. You know, no offense to any of our clients. I love all of our clients. But if I'm sick of dealing with people, then I dive into, um, sort of the backend of Wild Rye business. And if I'm sick of product being frustrating, then I, you know, spend more time on White Cloud, but, um. I think the biggest thing is they're just, uh, I mean, I, you definitely can't control everything in a service based business, but I just felt like, I feel like there's a lot more that I can control on a daily basis and it's a lot to do with how hard I work and how effectively I work.

Um. The product-based business of Wild Rye. There's so many external factors that are just so far out of our control. So I've had to learn to let go and roll with it and you know, plan better for the future. But the number of times I've wanted to bang my head into a wall, pull out my hair and scream at our freight forwarders or our factories and had to bite my tongue and just be like, “okay. It's going to be two weeks late.” Or, “we're going to have to fix this.” Or, “Dammit, that surcharge is way higher than I was anticipating.” So, um, yeah, it's, uh, I don't know if that's answering your question, but the product based business is just, it's hard. It's really hard and I lose a lot of sleep over it.

Lisa: Did you expect it to be like... Well, I mean, you probably can't anticipate a lot of those things that are out of your control, but did you expect it to be really challenging?

Cassie: Um... hmm. I don't know that I like honestly put a lot of thought into it. Um, as, as we continued along, I, you know, Katie handled a lot of the operations products out of the business before I bought her out. And I'd always hear, you know, we always talked about the frustrations that she was having, but she was more affected directly by those frustrations on a day to day basis than I was for the first year and a half of the business. Um. I really started to feel it once I took over.

But I mean, just a perfect example is our first season. Um, we were planning to launch, I want to say, in April, and we didn't get product ‘til July. And then when we got that product, the leg bands on our chamois short were sewn on inside out. So we had the silicone beading on the outside of the short rather than the inside. So we had to take it, take all of those shorts to a seamstress and you know, eat the money and have those unsewn and resewn on the right way.

And same with our Whitney short. The waistbands came in about an inch bigger than they were supposed to, an inch bigger than we approved. And so we had to, you know, basically come up with creative language on our, on our website to explain why a medium fits more like a large and a large is more like an extra large, um, and it was just, uh, a heartbreaking, a heartbreaking way to launch.

But, um, you know, I think that's why a lot of people don't make it past their first season. And you know, everything's, everything's been a little more manageable and I've become, I dunno, better at preparing for the worst case scenario. Um, we've also done a lot of exploring new factories. We found that manufacturing in the US just wasn't up to our quality standards. Um, considering that we use super premium materials and... I mean, the price point on our product would be unattainable for most people if we both manufactured with a high end enough manufacturer stateside, and continued to focus on our four way stretch nylon shorts, et cetera. So, you know, we've had to make a lot of changes and adjustments and um, yeah, none of those challenges were expected necessarily. But, um, they've come to be expected as we've continued on.

Lisa: I can't even imagine what that would feel like to be so excited that, oh, like our product arrived and you open the box and then like… duh nuh nuh. Like, the legs are sewn on backwards.

Cassie: Yeah, it was... It could've ruined us. It could’ve. Thankfully it didn't. But, uh, there was some tears.

Lisa: Yeah.

Cassie: Some yelling.

Lisa: Yeah.

Cassie: For sure.

Lisa: Wow. Well, way to power through that. I’m glad you did.

Cassie: [laugh] It might have taken a few years off both of our lives, but we're stronger as a result.

Lisa: Yeah, no kidding. Wow. So, and then were you able to remedy that locally?

Cassie: Um, yeah, we had it done. So Katie was based in Tahoe. We had it done by a seamstress, I believe in the LA area, or, uh, you know, a network of seamstresses. Um, so semi locally.

Lisa: Yeah.

Cassie: I'd have to double check with her. It was either the Bay area or LA, but I think LA, which is where most of the, you know, textile garment manufacturing happens stateside, or at least in California.

Lisa: Nice. Wow. Um, so what, are you allowed to talk about what's next for Wild Rye? Like what products you're looking at?

Cassie: Sure. Um, well, one thing that we're super excited about, and, you know, like any women-first brand, um... we've been hearing about it from the beginning, and frankly, just let everyone know it's been in our plan from the beginning, but it's very expensive to execute. And so, um, we've had to be very slow and strategic about adding sizes. So come spring 2020, we will have up to size 18 in our Freel and Kaweah shorts, um, and up to size 14, I believe in a lot of our tops. Um, and you know... We always want to do more than we're able to, but, um, we've had to fight with our factories to get them to even extend our sizes that far.

Um, because we are such a small drop in their bucket. So we're really excited about that. And we hope that everyone else is also really excited about it. Um, we get a lot of frustrated emails, rightfully so, from people saying, well, you call yourself a women's brand, but your sizes aren't inclusive. Um, and that's... emotionally been hard on me because I have known that this has been something we've been striving for from day one. Um, it's just not always financially feasible. For a small self funded brand. Um, so that's one thing.

And as always, limited edition, new prints, um, new colors in the Freel, a new Kaweah short, and, um, we're adding a couple new tops that we're really excited about. Um, you know, one of the things on, on our sort of product assortment, on the bike side of things, is that we really want to have more versatile layers, um, less hardcore bike jerseys and more shirts for the everyday rider that may also go hiking and cruising around town and, you know, technical shirts that are more versatile, um, for, you know, the average woman.

Lisa: That's awesome. Where does your motivation come from, do you think?

Cassie: Um, I mean a lot from ourselves, a lot from what I feel is lacking in my personal wardrobe. Um, polling friends. We, um, occasionally we'll put some, you know, polls out on Instagram or, um, survey or customers, um, to see what they feel is missing. Um, but a lot of it has to do with just seeing what's out there, seeing what's not out there, and what we feel is missing. Um, and also talking to our retailers because, you know, they know what sells to their customers and what doesn't. And um, yeah, so I'd say it's a very hybrid model of, you know, product development.

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Lisa: Well, I really enjoyed Cassie’s perspective on running a service-based business and a product-based business and kind of the highs and lows of both of those industries. I think that's a multifaceted entrepreneurial ability that she's honing in on to be able to shift rapidly between those, those two genres.

Iris: Yeah, it sounds like it's almost her strength that she can go back and forth between serving, like, clients and serving customers and kind of find that well-roundedness within herself. Um, and we work with clients that are both service-based businesses and product-based businesses. So it's interesting to hear that with product-based businesses, you have to be able to roll with the punches of the things that are outside of your control much more than you do with service-based.

Lisa: Oh yeah. I mean, that is the... That's why Outdoor Retailer exists, and you can source all your materials there. And I mean, that's, that's a big wild thing that you have to be comfortable kind of just rolling with it.

Iris: Yeah. So entrepreneurs just have to keep that in mind when they're jumping in to products, especially if they're used to doing primarily services.

Lisa: Yeah.

Iris: Look out for the roller coaster ride. Okay. Let's get back to Cassie.

Lisa: Have you, have you always been like this even as a kid where like, you would see kind of like an area that could improve and then figure out a creative way to solve it?

Cassie: Hmm, yes and no. Um, I would probably be told by friends and family that I'm not the most observant person ever. So, um, I, I, uh, kind of, I mean, I'm pretty a pretty content person. I feel like, um, you know, I think my biggest thing with the apparel side of things is just like, I'm tall, I'm athletic. I can't tell you how much I hated bike shorts for years. Um, they were uncomfortable. They felt funky. Um, and I will be totally honest. I probably would not have gone anywhere near a manufacturing business if Katie hadn't come to me and say, you know, we got to do this. Like, let's do this. I have this idea. And you know, she had the relationships that were needed to get us off the ground, but, um, yeah. I guess, I don't know. Maybe?

Lisa: Yeah. Or like killer lemonade stands as a kid?

Cassie: Oh yeah. I did a lot of cookie and lemonade stands. Yep. For sure. I always loved like playing with my toy cash register and like running businesses as a kid. So [laughs] less of tinkering, fixing, and more of the like, Hey, let's, uh, yeah, let's, let's create a business.

Lisa: Yeah, that's cool. And now you have two of them, and this Women-Led Wednesday initiative.

Cassie: Mhmm.

Lisa: Which is awesome. Um, so what else, what have I not asked you about that you think our audience of creative professionals in the outdoor industry would be interested in knowing that you know?

Cassie: Well, I know for myself, I feel like I have days where I'm struck with creativity and I have days where there's absolutely no creative juices flowing. And I'm sure that any creative listening, um, has a similar experience. And one thing that's... I've always been really hard on myself. Um, I internalize a lot of things. I get frustrated if I'm not, you know, putting out the work that I know I'm capable of when I am having one of those creative moments. And so I've had to take a lot of deep breaths and take a step back and not be so hard on myself when I'm having those moments. Um, step away. Go for a walk, read an article, do something that's not work related to, um, sort of salvage my day if, uh, if I'm having one of those sort of creative blocks.

Um, yeah. I don't know. I think my biggest struggle with running a business is just taking things personally and being hard on myself. So.

Lisa: Yeah.

Cassie: I’m sure others can relate.

Lisa: Oh, absolutely. It's hard not to, especially when you invest so much of your energy into your business, it sort of becomes this living, breathing entity that's part of you.

Cassie: Mhmm. Absolutely. Yeah. Um, I dunno the other, I mean, just on a personal level, like the other thing that's terrifying right now is that I'm due with my first child in January. And, um, when you work for yourself, you don't really have maternity leave. And... trying to figure out how I keep my first babies alive and thriving while I'm trying to, um, keep a small person alive is somewhat terrifying. So.

Lisa: Yeah!

Cassie: That's something I’ve been... yeah, dealing with the last six months, um, is trying to figure out how that's all gonna work. And I'm a total planner, so I want all the pieces to be in place today and they're not. Um, but you know. I'm figuring it out and I know I want a family, so it's one of those things where we had to just take a leap and hope for the best.

Lisa: Well, first of all, congratulations, because that's awesome.

Cassie: Thank you.

Lisa: Um, and second of all, like I'm a little terrified for you.

[both laugh]

Lisa: Like, you're a woman with a lot going on.

Cassie: [laughs] Yep.

Lisa: And now you're going to keep a kid alive too, which is going to like, it's going to be an awesome kid.

Cassie: I hope so. I hope he's not a jerk.

Lisa: Ah, so you know it’s a boy.

Cassie: It is a boy. Yeah. So, yeah. I mean, the good thing about being in Sun Valley is, uh, we will definitely rely on our village, um, to help and to guide us. We’re the last of our friends to have kids, pretty much, so, um, we have a lot of great advisors and friends that we trust and friends that we can lean on and family and, yeah. So, I dunno, it turns out, you know, there's a good chance we'll keep him alive.

[both laugh]

Lisa: Good. I bet you will.

Cassie: We're excited.

Lisa: Yeah. But that's interesting ‘cause it kind of reminded me earlier, you were like, “Hey, we can go back to talking about role models. More on that later.” So, you know, you kind of... sounds like you've got to get friend crew that can kind of be role models through this, like early, early stages in parenthood. But how else, how else do you think role models are important?

Cassie: Um. Well, there was a quote... um, I think it's Marian Edelman, uh, that you can't, you know, can't be what you can't see, which I don't believe 100%, but I think that having role models is so important, especially as women are venturing off doing things that aren't the norm.

Um, I just read this great... um, I follow this LinkedIn newsletter by Caroline Fairchild, um, who grew up in Sun Valley, but now she's a news editor for LinkedIn. And it was all about, um, how important, how having good role models have changed the trajectory of some pretty powerful people, women of today's lives.

Um, Katrina Lake of Stitch Fix, um, you know, had always envisioned women in business wearing business suits and being super unemotional. And, um, in her first job out of college - I'm, I'm improvising, so this is maybe not a hundred percent accurate - but, um, she worked for someone who did not wear power suits and had a really strong personality and, um, she's, you know, that role model sort of changed her vision of what's possible for a female CEO. Um, and same with Awkwafina, which is kind of a random mix up of, um, examples. But, um, they're both cited in this newsletter that I read this morning. Um, she, you know, had not even envisioned, um, being a comedian or an actress until she saw some other Asians, uh, as leading ladies in, in various onstage, uh, performances.

And I mean, I feel the same way. Like, I feel like I've had some great role models, but, um, I think that we all need... I think we all need... I think, yeah. I mean, I, I wish I had more. I wish I had more role models. I wish I had more people I could turn to and just pick their brains and, um, I'm hoping to pay it forward. And that's a lot of what Women-Led Wednesday is about, is, you know, empowering these women in leadership so that they can then turn around and be role models for the next generation and the next sort of wave of, uh, female entrepreneurs and women who have big dreams. Um, so, yeah.

Lisa: Yeah. I love it. I love it. I love that. I love that. Yeah. Cool. Well, um, thank you so much for being here today. And, uh, where can people follow you?

Cassie: I am, my personal is @CassieAbel on Instagram, um, or at @wild_rye_ on Instagram. @WomenLedWednesday on Instagram. Um, yeah, those are probably the best places.

Lisa: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

Cassie: Thanks for having me and keep doing what you guys do. I'm stoked to hear this episode.

Lisa: Awesome. Well, thanks for being here, Cassie. You're fantastic. Thank you for inventing Women-Led Wednesday to all our listeners out there, if you would like to support women owned businesses, you can check out the comprehensive list at which is also in our show notes, so you can just click right from there.

Iris: Yep.

Lisa: And happy... happy holidays.

Iris: Yeah, have a great weekend.

Lisa: Happy shopping.

Iris:Take some time off.

Lisa: Thanks for being here.

Iris: See you next week.

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