Sales Are Good–Strategic Customers Are Better
Tyson Toussant and Tim Coombs invented a clothing fabric made from recycled plastic. Now to brand it.
Landing that first big customer can be intoxicating. Just ask Tyson Toussant and Tim Coombs, cofounders of Return Textiles, a New York fabricmaker with a green bent. The avid outdoorsmen and former high school classmates spent six years developing Bionic Yarn, a more durable yet soft substitute for canvas. It’s made by wrapping plastic from recycled bottles around a polyester fiber and swaddling it all in cotton. Bionic Yarn is 30% stronger than canvas and dries 30% faster, claims Timberland, which this spring will launch a line of 80 Bionic boots, jackets and sneakers.
“We wanted to establish a brand that everyone associates with high quality, like Gore-Tex,” says Coombs, 34. Making yarn by shrinking landfills was a nice hook, he adds: “If we presented it right, it could turn into a movement.”
Easier said than done. Four years ago Toussant and Coombs hadn’t any sales. So when Cole Haan, the upscale shoemaker owned by Nike, ordered 3,000 yards of Bionic Yarn at $12 a yard for a new line of handbags, the twosome jumped at a contract. Recalls Coombs: “We were just so excited to have a customer.”
Not that the agreement contained specifics about how Cole Haan would promote the yarn. Cole Haan’s ads, featuring tennis star Maria Sharapova, didn’t mention Bionic Yarn or that the bag was made from a new, environmentally friendly material. The multipage hangtags safety-pinned to the bags mentioned Bionic Yarn, but only briefly. While the bags sold out in a few months, Toussant and Coombs knew they had missed a critical opportunity to generate buzz with consumers. (Cole Haan’s purchasing department subsequently turned over, and it discontinued the line.)
The twosome spent 2009 crafting the story of Bionic Yarn and its (since patented) manufacturing process. That year rapper Pharrell Williams invested a “high six-figure” amount for a 30% equity stake in the company–enough to hire graphic designers to create slick brochures and a new website with color diagrams on Bionic’s manufacturing process.
Next trick: finding influential customers willing to showcase the Bionic brand. Timberland, which preaches performance and sustainability, seemed a good fit. After courting the company for about a year, Toussant and Coombs met with its advanced materials design team. Timberland asked for samples of 40 colors in four thicknesses.
“It was a nightmare for our mill,” says Coombs, who scrounged a $200,000 loan from an undisclosed green-tech investor to cover
enough raw material to complete the order. As part of its “Reinvent Canvas” campaign, Timberland agreed to put Bionic’s name on the front of its hangtags and to pay for in-store displays showing how the yarn is made.
Last year Return Textiles generated $1.3 million in sales and churned through 1.7 million plastic bottles. Toussant and Coombs expect to triple revenue in 2011 thanks to Timberland and smaller deals with Italian sporting wear company Moncler and London retailer Topshop. Says Toussant: “You need partners who want to tell your story so the customer understands it.”