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6 Small Running Brands Making Big Impacts

A wave of entrepreneurial spirit is flowing through the running world.


The running marketplace has been and still is mostly run by industry giants. Nike, New Balance, adidas, ASICS and similar brands dominate. However, smaller running-specific brands are entering the playing field with one-of-a-kind products, innovative ideas and quality, purpose-driven gear. They’re setting trends as opposed to following them. They’re expanding the definition of running. In this age of startups, we profile six of the most influential micro-level running brands and the entrepreneurs who founded them, and what they have to offer the sport that’s game-changing.


Independent Ladies

Oiselle, founded 2007, Seattle

Sally Bergesen founded Oiselle in order to solve a problem. Prior to 2007, women had to tolerate poofy, ill-fitting running shorts that neither looked good nor felt great. Then Oiselle came along and presented to female runners a solution: the Roga shorts—slim, sleek and snug in all the right places. It revolutionized what women’s running-specific apparel could be: both stylish and performance-oriented without having to sacrifice one for the other.

Almost a decade later and despite the proliferation of women’s workout apparel by big-name brands, Oiselle still sets itself apart, providing more than just unique products. “We are the community that we serve,” says Bergesen, a 2:59 marathoner, on how Oiselle differentiates itself from the mass market. “We live the values of being a ‘by women, for women’ company, which is a really unique way to help women develop confidence within the sport and their own lives.”

Last summer, Oiselle opened its flagship store in its hometown of Seattle to give its fans a physical space to experience the brand. There’s also talk of possibly opening another future store in New York City.

But the Oiselle narrative has become so much more than cute running shorts and female empowerment. The more involved the brand became in the sport by sponsoring its own elite team, Volée—recruiting beloved pros with equally strong presences like Olympians Lauren Fleshman and Kara Goucher—the more it developed a championing voice for the representation of all small running brands. “I have a lot of opinions on why the professional field is extremely unfriendly to newcomers that are not just us,” Bergesen explains in reference to the exclusive licensing agreement between USATF and Nike. “It’s not set up to have other brands engaged in it.”

Oiselle aims to change that by continuing to grow and inform Volée and the Oiselle “flock,” a non-elite membership, so one day its voice becomes loud enough to be heard.


Head Trendsetters

Ciele, founded 2014, Montreal

Ciele may be young in the biz—it’s less than two years old—but people are taking notice of the brand’s hip technical caps made for running. “We’re a very small business in an industry run by giants,” says Jeremy Bresnen (left), co-founder of Ciele along with Mike Giles. “And I think we’ve done a fairly good job of getting the word out. People think we’re a lot bigger than we actually are.”

In reality, it’s just Bresnen and Giles in the main office in Montreal. From there they connect and work with a grass-roots network of photographers, specialty retailers, regional sales reps and brand ambassadors across North America to bring the Ciele brand to life.

“We call ourselves an athletic brand with a focus on running,” says Bresnen, who previously owned a skateboard shop and pursued the Ciele project after picking up running and discovering a lack of hats that he’d want to run in. “But we’re well aware that people are using the hats for a lot of other things.” And that’s the secret behind Ciele’s three simple, stylish designs: the GoCap, FastCap and TRLCap. It’s a hat you’d wear outside of running, to a coffee shop, out with friends, or even at the office (if the dress code allows). Because if it’s one thing the brand is trying to communicate, it’s that running is a lifestyle, not just a sport.

Ciele will continue to create different variations of the color-blocked ’80s and ’90s turned modern, outdoor-inspired caps. But Bresnen and Giles are also looking to expand to other services. Giles hints that along with launching a new website, they’re working on a new Ciele social app that’ll be ready by the end of August.


Homemade, Elite Approved

Picky Bars, founded 2010, Bend, Ore.

Imagine groups of college students coming in and out of your home kitchen in four-hour shifts, 40 hours a week, producing 15,000 real-food performance bars each month for nine months. It sounds chaotic. But that’s what it took to grow Picky Bars since it was founded by husband-wife duo Jesse Thomas and Lauren Fleshman.

Add to that two full-time professional athletic careers (Jesse is a triathlete; Lauren is a runner), and having a son, Jude, a few years after launching Picky Bars, it’s hard to believe they had time to start and maintain a successful business. “It’s still a work in progress for sure,” Jesse says with a laugh. “Any entrepreneur you talk to would agree that it can be all-consuming.”

Without Jesse’s and Lauren’s pro statuses, though, Picky Bars may not have taken off as rapidly. From the beginning, Picky Bars had the support and trust of the greater running community, including that of elite marathoner Stephanie Bruce, who helped concoct the first bars. “Any athlete that puts him or herself out there gets lots of questions about what they eat,” says Fleshman, who has a combined 90,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram. “You can tell people, but how cool is it to give them something and say, ‘This is the thing’?”

The mini home factory full of college students has now expanded to an office space in Bend and manufacturing facilities in Spokane, Wash., and Portland, Ore. And starting this past month, Picky Bars are on sale in Trader Joe’s across the country (along with the launch of a new flavor called Moroccan Your World in June). “This fundamentally changes our business,” Thomas says of Picky Bars’ model, which until now has been mostly subscription-based. “We’re going to be significantly bigger than we ever have been.”

BONUS: For the month of May, use code PickyFounders to receive 25 percent off your entire Picky Bars purchase.


Modernity Meets Legacy

Tracksmith, founded 2014, Wellesley, Mass.

Call it New England, throwback, or classic Ivy League style—Tracksmith’s apparel is truly a unique offering within the running market. And yet it harks back to running’s roots, borrowing concepts from the past that have become lost in the present sport of running.

“I found that the sport itself was being relegated and more brands were going for a much broader health and wellness method,” says founder Matt Taylor, who was the head of global marketing for Puma’s running and training category before launching Tracksmith in 2014. “I wanted to create a brand that kept the history, legacy and traditions alive and act as a steward for the competitive side of the sport.”

Where better to start than the most iconic running city in the nation: Boston. The Tracksmith office is located right at the halfway mark of the Boston Marathon in Wellesley, Mass., and hosts monthly 13.1-mile group runs from the Boston finish line to the front of the office.

However, the brand has also been criticized as coming across as “elitist”—cotton T-shirts cost $55, running shorts are $70 to $80 and a knit hat runs $38. But Taylor says the brand is all about producing quality apparel tied to the origins of the sport.

“The way we look at it, racing in the culture of running plays a pretty significant role in the brand,” he says. “It’s just part of the DNA, and we really believe the richest reward in running comes through racing. Anybody can partake in the type of brand we’re creating.” That’s partially the purpose of Tracksmith’s own quarterly magazine, Meter—to inform and involve the consumer with the culture and history of competitive running.

Along with setting up its pop-up store at the Boston Marathon for the second straight year, the brand is also looking to expand from its purely online sales model and move into local run specialty stores this year. And even bigger than that, Taylor says to watch out for a Tracksmith racing event sometime during the second half of 2016.


All-American Minimalism

Carson Footwear, founded 2015, Milwaukie, Ore.

A year and a half ago, entrepreneur Everett Carson ambitiously launched Carson Footwear. It took more than a year of sketching shoe designs, researching materials, importing equipment to build his own manufacturing plant and investing $400,000 of his own money (he also runs a marketing business) to start this micro-scale minimalist running shoe brand, but that’s exactly what Carson hoped his shoes would become.

Other than most of the materials being sourced in the U.S.—according to Carson, about 99 percent—what’s unique about Carson Footwear’s shoes are the polyurethane midsole/outsole and a dye-sublimation printed upper mesh with a zero-drop profile. Unlike most shoe brands that use layers of EVA foam and a durable rubber compound for the outsole, Carson chose a one-piece, single-density polyurethane construction for his shoes.

“If you drill down two midsoles, cut them in half and put a microscope to it, the EVA is a square cell whereas the polyurethane is a round cell,” says Carson. “It distributes the energy differently. So in that virtue, it’s what makes the polyurethane live a lot longer.” He says he’s done 800 miles in a pair he’s been running in for almost a year, which is 500 more than the industry mileage standard.

Despite the shoes’ reputation among barefoot and trail runners for having amazing traction, they haven’t quite caught on in the mainstream market yet, but for now Carson is pleased with that. Slower growth means more time to perfect the product. However, in March the business moved from its old manufacturing facility in Milwaukie, Ore., to its very own retail store where customers can view the final assembly process of their shoes with custom fittngs. “It will be the smallest shoe store in the world,” Carson says. “But everything we’re doing, we’re just so much better at today than we were a year ago.”


Apparel That Gives Back

Janji, founded 2012, Boston

When Janji released its first spring line in 2012, founders Mike Burnstein (left) and Dave Spandorfer were in the midst of finishing their senior year of college at Washington University in St. Louis. “Mike and I were part of a team,” says Spandorfer. “We had a school that we were running for [in track and cross country] and we were running for something bigger than just personal performance. We wanted Janji to be about the idea of running for a much larger community and for something that’s unbelievably important.”

So they built a brand based on a charitable business model: For every piece of running apparel sold, 10 percent of that sale would go toward clean water projects in one of nine countries—India, Haiti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Peru to name a few—where they’ve partnered with nonprofits Water.org, Living Water International and DIGDEEP. It was an exceptional idea, but getting started wasn’t easy.

Having to buy Walmart fabric because the factory overseas couldn’t send samples in time for an important industry trade show in Austin, Texas, dyeing the first samples in a friend’s bathtub, pulling two all-nighters to build a booth, missing a week of classes and Burnstein having to write a senior thesis on the drive to Austin are some of the crazier challenges the two had to overcome in the months before they even got started. Now their products feature top fabrics, advanced manufacturing techniques and distinct patterns.

“We’ve come a long way in terms of product—we’re not using Walmart fabric anymore,” Spandorfer jokes.

Janji has also been making significant connections at home. In April, Bostonians and Boston marathoners alike had a chance to explore Janji’s second pop-up store. “It really comes down to how we make the greatest impact,” Spandorfer says. “And hopefully that’s increasing the connection for people buying Janji in knowing exactly who they’ve helped.”