In February, Janji, the Boston-based running apparel brand, and Oiselle, a Seattle-based women athletic apparel brand, announced they were partnering on a merger of niche brands in the run space. Here, Dave Spandorfer, co-founder and CEO of Janji, talks about the reasons behind the merger, the mission behind each brand, and the Janji story.
As part of transaction, Oiselle founder, Sally Bergesen will be stepping into an Advisory role and Oiselle will be looking for a new CEO. Long-time Oiselle President, Atsuko Tamura, will continue to lead the brand. Janji’s co-founders, Mike Burnstein and Dave Spandorfer, remain in their roles at Janji.
Can you tell us the story of Janji? My co-founder, Mike Burnstein, and I got Janji started back when we were runners in college. We were both on the Washington University in St. Louis cross country and track & field team. We came up with the idea on the bus ride to a track meet in to create a running apparel brand that was totally different than what was out there. While most brands focus on running fast and winning races, what we both loved about running was really the ideas of exploring, connecting, and creating change. This ended up becoming Janji and what we do every single season is we explore some place in the world, we connect with local runners and local artists in that place, and then we create change by crafting an incredibly sustainable line where 2 percent of the sales then go back towards funding a clean water solution, specifically in that place. For example, the new line this year are inspired by the French West Indies in the Caribbean. We’re working with artists who hail from there and then we’re creating this really sustainable collection where 2 percent of sales go toward funding water projects.
How has Janji been doing? We’ve been very fortunate to have a number of people believe in us and we’ve had a really great growth curve over the last few years. But we’ve been doing it for 11 years and right out of college as a history and an urban studies major, you could certainly make the case that my co-founder and I didn’t know what we were doing those first few years ago. At this point, we’ve been able to carve out a unique place in the market for Janji and develop some truly loyal customers. For the last five years we’ve been growing well north of 50 percent annually.
Is it a true merger between Oiselle and Janji? It is a joining of forces. It is a merger. Both brands will be run autonomously from one another but with select shared services. Sally and Atsuko are carrying equity. Mike and I are carrying equity. And the idea of what we’re trying to do here is to create two mission-driven brands. Oiselle is a brand that’s by and for female runners and that will always be the case and Janji will continue to be a running brand with a foundation of exploring and creating change, but we’ll share services in finance, legal, accounting, admin, ops., etc. that can help both smaller brands really compete in an ever-changing marketplace.
Where does Digsbury Ventures fit in? Digsbury Ventures is a family-run venture capital firm out of Seattle that believed in this merger, helped put together a little bit of capital and now owns a minority stake. The main people at Janji and Oiselle have significantly higher stakes but Digsbury will be a partner in this journey.
Can you elaborate on the synergies and what remains autonomous? Synergies are going to be certainly back-office functions – finance, legal, accounting, admin, ops. The savings will be enormous for two small growing brands working on tight margins. What’s not going to be combined is communities. We’re not combining product. We’re not combining marketing. We’re not combining creative. Those are staying fully independently of each other. We’ll also have different boards of advisors because we want Janji to stay Janji and Oiselle to stay Oiselle. We also don’t think the combination is all that unique. You can look at companies in our space that may have a lot more zeros but have done it really well, such as Nike and Converse. One is in the Pacific Northwest, one’s in Boston. Most people don’t even know they’re part of a single company. Another example is a brand in the run space that’s out of Seattle, Brooks. They’re owned by Berkshire Hathaway, which also owns Russell and Fruit of the Loom, but no one confuses Fruit of the Loom and Brooks. They feel different from one another. That’s the goal here.
Why did a merger specifically between Janji and Oiselle make sense? One, we feel we are two distinct brands that have minimal customer overlap, but that have a shared factory, have shared needs, have a shared commitment to a mission. And those features all coming together really allowed us to believe in this partnership. The other reason is we would not have done it without the team at Oiselle and Janji really believing in each other. We have a long history together that started with an e-mail exchange with Sally before Janji was even launched. And the connection was strengthened when I was visiting Seattle and Atsuko and I just went on a four hour walk together. There was a lot of chemistry between us personally and between the brands.
How will leadership be set up? Mike and I are going to be totally focused on Janji. We’re happily stationed in Boston with an amazing team here. And Oiselle is going to be stationed with an amazing team in Seattle. We have select shared services. Matt McCalpin, who had been Janji’s chief operating officer, is now managing director of partnerships for both brands. We’re going to be hiring an accounting manager and more people on the finance, legal and operations side. Atsuko Tamura will continue to lead Oiselle as brand president. We’re also looking for a new CEO for Oiselle. Sally felt it was time for her to take that next chapter and have her next journey and she’ll be stepping into an advisory role. We’re looking for a woman who comes from a consumer background, but who can work in conjunction with the current Oiselle team to get them to new heights.
Can you talk a bit about Oiselle? How are they standing out in the crowded women’s activewear space? It is a crowded women’s market but what’s so amazing about Oiselle is that they have a completely different take on athletic apparel. You look at Athleta, Sweaty Betty and Beyond Yoga, all female-focused brands that are successful but their primary focus is on wellness. Oiselle is by and for female athletes. And this doesn’t mean you have to be in the woods competing alone, grinding it out hard core. This is about competing with yourself. This is about being a better version of yourself. They’re focused on supporting athletes like Kara Goucher and Lauren Fleshman who exemplify that and they’re equitably building community that embodies that. I think what Sally, Atsuko and the team have built is really a unique proposition with a strong foundation. Now it’s about how do you find that next leader who can continue to take what works with Oiselle and go even deeper
What does Janji have planned for 2023? We have our first-ever footwear collab with a strategic partner coming down the pipeline. We are really pushing the boundaries of sustainability in how we produce our products, so we have several major initiatives there. We are going to have some exceptionally unique stories that over the summer and in the back half of the year explore a new take on Janji. And we’re also doing some exciting hiring here to help grow the Janji team, build the business and expand the idea of using Janji as his way to explore, to connect, and to create change the world.
How is the run space managing in the current climate? I feel great about the direction of the run space. There’s a lot of smart people in this space and a lot of other smaller brands that we love out there. Race participation might be down but run participation is up. Of course, there are macroeconomic issues that you plan for, but can’t control. But you can use the analogy of running a race when the weather turns. In those conditions, you need to slow down a little bit and adjust your pace to keep enough gas in the tank, because you can only control the race that you’re in, not the race you wish you were having. In business terms, that means not overextending, building a healthy balance sheet, and not getting sucked into trends that aren’t core to the long-term visions of the brands. With the Oiselle merger, we feel we now have two brands supporting each other so that if the conditions get worse, we’re going to be able to survive this better together. We’re really excited to use each other as a pacer to run our best times because we feel that the best is ahead for both our brands and for the industry at large.
Photo courtesy Janji, from left to right, Dave Spandorfer, Mike Burnstein and Sally Bergesen