Shares stories of start-up life, hundred-hour workweeks, and lessons learned from life in the mountains.
It’s a winter morning in the small, snowy, mountain town of Jackson, Wyoming. Stephen Sullivan, ‘Sulli’ to all around him, arrives at his office at Stio headquarters, a building with plentiful windows and a relaxed vibe. A large black and white photo of the Grand Teton adorns one wall, above a skateboard, guitar, and a large cushion where his dog, MJ, promptly settles in for a nap. Photos of Sulli’s wife and 3 children surround his desk, where he sits looking comfortable in Stio pants, a plaid Stio button down, and a Stio fleece jacket.
Sulli’s just arrived from skinning up and skiing down Snow King mountain, a quad-burning local favorite featuring a steep climb along with views of the town and the Tetons.
“I love being outside,” Sulli says with a smile. “I ski a lot. I skinned the King last year 55 times. I thought I would skin my age, 53, but I ended up with a couple extra days so I got 55. I can go up the King at 6:30 in the morning, and be at work at 8, it works out great and you still got to ski a run.
Sulli pushes his glasses to the top of his thick head of brown hair that’s graying at the temples, and surveys employees greeting each other. “We have about 60 employees. We’ve grown very rapidly and are continuing to do so,” he says. “Being able to employ people with professional careers here in Jackson is really a cool thing, that’s something I’m very proud of.”
Sulli, what is your job?
I’m the CEO and Founder of Stio outdoor apparel company.
What do you love about what you do?
Being hands on with the creative direction of the business. Building new product, creating marketing campaigns, that stuff is really fun and energizing.
One of the coolest things we do here, is conceptualizing a product, actually making something, and you get to see people wearing it and enjoying it.
I definitely wear and enjoy! Everyone in Jackson does!
The adoption of our products in the valley has been tremendous. We’re very thankful for the Jackson community and that our brand has resonated so strongly with people here, because that’s what the brand is about. Living the mountain life.
But we’re not only here in Jackson - 90% of our business is through e-commerce and catalog. We have sales in every state, we planned to be a national brand from the beginning.
We are a direct to consumer business, that’s the biggest difference from my last company.
Tell me about your last company.
I started a company called Cloudveil, with co-founder Brian Cousins. We grew really fast, then went through a private equity deal, and then subsequently actually sold the company, twice.
We got sold to much larger organizations, and at the end of the day were owned by Spyder, a skiwear brand in Boulder, Colorado. They went through a challenging time, and decided to divest Cloudveil.
With a strong financial partner, I tried to buy the company back. I spent 8 months trying and we were unsuccessful in that effort.
Now, Cloudveil basically doesn’t exist anymore. I mean, someone owns the intellectual property, but it’s not an active brand.
So you built up a successful company, and now it doesn’t exist.
It was very, very disappointing. Brian and I put our heart and souls into that business. It was a roller coaster, we went through 3 different ownerships and so many transactions.
That must have been challenging to go through.
Oh, it was epic. It was the million dollar MBA for sure.
What did you do after Cloudveil?
I had consulting opportunities right away, so working distracted me.
It also allowed me time, to get my thoughts together for Stio.
I had a non-compete for 18 months. I incorporated Stio two weeks after my non-compete was over.
Whoa. You knew immediately.
Yeah. I knew I was going to do it again.
I just wasn’t done. I wasn’t done trying to build something meaningful.
I was also super bummed that I had lost the business. I wanted to prove to myself that I could start over and do it again. And soon we’ll be bigger than Cloudveil ever was. And it happened in roughly half the time.
This is so interesting. You’ve been through a lot, you knew right away you would do it again. What is it about you, that makes you look at moving forward, rather than complain about what happened?
I don’t have a lot of ‘give up’ in me.
That ties back to a life spent in the mountains. My formative years were in Colorado, involved in mountain activities.
In the mountains, success or failure has a hell of a lot to do with how thoughtful and smart you are, and your will to get to the top of things. I always had a big will to get to the top.
It’s also about knowing when to back off, when to turn around.
The lessons you learn in mountain life are really good lessons for operating a business.
Just because you’re tired or have a shitty day, doesn’t mean you give up.
You grew up in Colorado?
In Grand Junction, then Durango for college.
Durango was super formative for me. It’s such a cool town, and a wonderful community.
I was really into mountaineering, climbing, skiing, fishing, and biking.
Durango was an early hub of the mountain bike revolution. The cycling community was really cool, one of my training partners was Ned Overland, who went on to be the first World Mountain bike champion and a legend in cycling.
I met a group of like minded guys, we still get together every 2 years for a ski trip. Our last trip we skied the Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt.
What brought you from Colorado to Jackson?
My college girlfriend moved here, to work for Moosehead Ranch in the summer, and I came up to visit.
I had never been here before. I pulled in and just knew, this is where I want to be.
But I didn’t come right away after college. I got a job in Boulder first, and then San Fransisco. I was there 6 or 8 months when my best friend from college, Scott Richards, was out for Thanksgiving, and he had just moved to Jackson. For two days after that, I missed my exit on the freeway, going to my job in the morning, thinking about moving to Jackson.
On the second day, I resigned.
Clearly a great decision! What job did you end up doing when you moved here, and how did it lead to the apparel business?
I had a series of resort jobs, really the whole littany. Property management, the restaurant thing, I worked at Skinny Skis, I taught skiing.
A friend brought back a pair of pants from skiing in Europe one year, Schoeller soft shell pants. I tracked down the guy who sold Schoeller, and he sent me 5 yards of fabric. I had a friend who was a seamstress sew up a jacket that I sketched, and that was essentially the first Serendipity jacket. I tested it for a year in the backcountry, and I knew I was onto something. I got my friend Brian looped in, and we started Cloudveil. We’re still close friends, he’s on my advisory board for Stio.
It was a fun run, 13 years we built the company up and became fairly sizeable. We had about 45 million dollars annual retail turn, and we were sold at over 600 retailers in 20 countries. There were a lot of great lessons taken from it.
What was it like, starting that first company?
It was gritty. In any business you’re starting, there’s a gritty period.
I didn’t have a bunch of money. I used a 401k I had saved working at Skinny Skis, I had about 20 grand, that doesn’t go very far trying to start an apparel company. Brian put in some money, and his family was supportive of our efforts, but it was not a “well-funded” start up. We had to really want it.
I had about 16 months of hundred hour weeks to get the business launched.
You guys were really willing to put in the effort.
I knew how to work hard.
Growing up, my parents are college professors, they’re not wealthy. I’m not a trust funder, I worked from the minute I could work. I started working at age 13. Having to work to do things I wanted, like be able to drive a car or pay car insurance or buy a race bike or skis, that was a big catalyst in my life.
How were things different when you started Stio?
I wasn’t a rookie. I wasn’t going to entirely bootstrap it, and I didn’t have to because I had knowledge.
I put together an investment group, we have really good, sophisticated, investors.
I hired talented people right out of the gate, many of whom remain with me today.
We launched not just an e-commerce business, but a catalog business and a retail division all at the same time. That was really powerful.
How did you come up with the name Stio?
Naming a brand is insanely hard and traumatizing!
You go through hundreds. I still own over 50 urls, because once you find a name the first thing you do is see if the URL is taken. I came up with so many names, and 90% of them had a trademark issue or a URL issue.
A friend who owns a ranch adjacent to mine in Dubois, said Sulli you’re Irish, you should look up Gaelic names. My name, Stephen, is ‘Stiofan’ in Gaelic. That was a mouthful, but Stio sounded kinda cool.
I ended up having to buy the URL. Back in the 90’s, people bought all 4 lettered URL’s on the internet. I ended up having to pay a pretty good amount of money to get the Stio URL! But it stuck.
Our logo is a modern embellishment of a White Bark Pine cone, it’s a tie to our natural world here in Jackson. The White Bark Pine is endangered, it’s dying all over the intermountain west because it hasn’t been getting cold enough for the last 20 years.
It’s a really powerful symbol.
Any favorite Stio products?
One of my favorite products is the Hardscrabble Jacket. We discontinued it, but decided to bring it back as part of a “Founder’s Collection” so that’s exciting. It’s remained one of my favorites. It was one of our first products, incredibly versatile. It’s fun to go back in time, even just 8 years ago I designed that product, and be able to reimagine it.
What are you goals for the future, with Stio?
My biggest motivator is to build a meaningful business, a meaningfully sized business, one that is sustainable and builds meaningful careers in our community.
We’re getting there, we’re growing super fast.
We will continue to build this business as rapidly and organically and sustainably as possible.
What makes you proud of yourself?
I think I’m a pretty good boss. That is something I like about myself, I’ve become a good boss over the years. I give people a long leash to succeed or fail but support them as best I can.
They occasionally call me a seagull. I fly around, I’ll float in and shit on some stuff now and then hahaha, but I’m not right down in your grill!
What are 3 great decisions you’ve made in your life?
Moving to Jackson, marrying my wife, and following my passion.
Photo courtesy Stephen Sullivan, photographer Mark Fisher
Check out my personal favorite outdoor clothing at Stio.com