Feature Story

Sally Bergesen

CEO and Founder of Oiselle

I’m a strong believer that exercise and eating well have a huge impact on the success of your career. Sally Bergesen agrees – running changed her life. Her passion for the sport led to the creation of her company Oiselle, a women’s running apparel line. Under her leadership, Oiselle has grown 100% each year since it was founded in 2007, which is highly impressive!

She humbly says Oiselle’s incredible growth has been more about the product and less about her, but Sally’s passion and commitment are at the crux of her success, too. Read more about Sally’s inspiring journey, her top tips for starting a business and more in this 1:1 interview.

Q: Can you share your top five tips for turning your passion into a successful business?

Sally Bergesen: I heard an inventor say that his way of coming up with ideas was simply to ask, “what things suck?” The answers equaled opportunity because people will pay good money for something that solves an annoying problem. For me, it was running clothes. Ill-fitting, un-flattering, poorly designed, low quality…the list goes on.

If you have a passion for something – you’re committed. And if you’re committed, you want everything surrounding that passion to be amazing. The right materials, the right quality. At the same time, the market that’s serving your passion may be on autopilot. That was, and still is, the case in running apparel. Running shoe companies make most styles, and apparel design is not their priority. Therein lies the problem and the opportunity. It was further driven home when I did a consulting project for Nike prior to starting Oiselle. I got inside and realized, in the words of Master Shifu, “The secret is, there is no secret.” (Yep, just quoted Kung Fu Panda).

Five tips:

1. Be a student of the industry, not just the product. Make sure you have as firm a grasp on competitors, sales channels, price points, as you do on the product or service you’d like to create.

2. Don’t underestimate funding. I did this. Getting the business up and running will likely cost you 3-5 times more than you originally anticipated.

3. Create sales before inventory. Entrepreneurs are wired to be in love with their own ideas. Don’t let that cloud reality in terms of demand. The fastest way to lose your shirt is to build inventory before demand.

4. Hire your team. Hire to your weaknesses and make sure your home team (family) is on board with the sometimes long-slog that can come with starting a business.

5. Kiss frogs but marry a prince. When looking for investors, you’ll meet and talk with a lot of people, which is great. Many will be frogs – the wrong fit. When you choose your backers, make sure they’re a fit in three areas: money, shared passion and their ability to provide new connections for the business.

Q: How did you combat the adage ‘never turn your hobby into a job’?

Bergesen: Ha, I’ve never heard that one. Having my hobby as my job means wanting to go to work every day, and never looking at the clock. And believe me, I’ve had jobs where I looked at the clock, counting the minutes until Friday. I’d much rather be all in on a lifelong love and interest.

Q: Under your leadership, Oiselle has grown 100% each year since it was founded. What are the top factors that have contributed to this growth?

Bergesen: It’s less about me and more about the product. If the product is good, people will buy it. In my opinion, the piece that accelerates great product is authenticity. And the piece that accelerates that, in the current era at least, is social media. I got hooked on Twitter in 2009, and since then, it’s been nothing but an incredible ride meeting and learning and being inspired by fellow women runners, and the running community at large. The group I refer to as #runfamily.

The other part is being committed to a central tenet for the brand – something everyone, both inside and outside the company, can rally around, which stems from my previous job as a Brand Strategist. At Oiselle, we call it “feminine fierce,” and it’s this notion of beautiful design meets strength and edge meets competitive fire. That has also accelerated our growth. So many women are ready to let out their inner badass, and we want to help them do that…even if it means simply giving them great clothes to power their run!

Q: As a personal believer that regular exercise and eating well can impact career success, I’d love to understand if and how you feel running has impacted your professional life?

Bergesen: Running changed my life. It’s why I care so deeply about the sport. I honestly feel like it gave me the foundation and the direction to do everything I’ve done, both personally and professionally. Whether it’s wrestling through a problem, coming up with a new design, or de-stressing from the email inbox, running opens all the doors – and the windows, too!

There’s a great interview with Malcolm Gladwell in a recent issue of Runner’s World (author of The Tipping PointOutliersBlinkDavid & Goliath) where he talks about running: “Increasingly, there are so many impediments to people doing the things they want to do. In running there really is no impediment. Some kid in the highlands of Kenya can run on an even playing field with some kid in Orange County, California. That’s fantastic and rare. I find that very beautiful, and it makes the sport more powerful.”

Photo: Courtesy of Sally Bergesen