Malcolm McCassy on starting his brand, 15 years strong
“Yeah, I think there were about five major life decisions I made over these last 15 years since Ethika was conceptualized,” says a casual Malcom McCassy as we toured the San Clemente headquarters. Photos adorn the walls, each with a memorable story revealing a timeline of the early days. “Business is really interesting. You see the outside perspective, the end result, but we went through some hard years to get to where we’re at now.”
The moment you meet McCassy, you easily identify his most captivating asset: his passion. In every sense of the word, he’s undoubtedly passionate, and with that passion, he attracted this team of equally talented people to develop the brand into a global forerunner in action sports. Before Ethika, underwear was a trivial category, which in 2001, carried a stigma that made it difficult to define as something more than just underwear.
Identifying an untapped product in the market, McCassy turned to his friends to help build the brand: “Danny hit me up on MySpace…literally, MySpace. He invited me to his 21st birthday party and talked to me about an internship.” Danny Evans, now VP of Marketing for Ethika, joined McCassy as his first employee. “Malcolm put me in the cockpit. He opened up his whole book to me. It’s the ‘shirt off my back’ mantra here at Ethika.”
The “Familie,” as Ethika defines their ambassadors, is really the foundation of the brand. “Everything is about relationships. It starts internally with our team and extends to our retailers, our partners, consumers, and ambassadors,” says McCassy. The deep seeded ties to a family of friends and athletes, artists, and musicians who believed in the brand have helped tell the story, but ultimately it all started with McCassy. “I grew up in Encinitas, California. My neighbor, Trevor, had the only eight-foot half pipe in the entire area so we’d skate all the time,” said McCassy. At the time, Encinitas was arguably a mecca for the skate, surf, and moto culture – cultivating this hybrid that would become the “action sports” generation. “I grew up not fitting into traditional sports. We had a heavy home that was constantly full of drugs and bad stuff, but it was all a blessing. It was my childhood that really helped define me.”
A lot of people need to fail repetitively to succeed. It was all trial and error and a lot of learning. The lowest parts of your life, the times when you feel like you just want to give up, are often the moments that make a stronger CEO and stronger entrepreneur.
The brand’s growth, although organic with their ambassador growth, has been strategic and calculated as a business.
When going into retail, the brand had to use their creative juices to help their first retailer Zumiez, understand the need for Ethika underwear. “It sounds weird, but I literally dropped my pants in our initial meeting with Zumiez. I think they got the point and later that season we were in their shops.” Evans contributes their e-commerce platform as one of their strongest “R&D” assets when testing new product or limited releases. “…our ecomm platform is largely used to test our product and its effectiveness with our loyal consumers. We have limited release products as well as our new women’s line that we regularly watch on our online platform. We look at [ecommerce] as a testing ground sometimes before releasing things into retail.”
Over the last 15 years, Ethika has built a simple product –the 9” brief- off the “familie” appeal and passion from their founding members. The brand created a category when no category existed. And in 2015, Ethika welcomed a complete women’s and youth category to the mix. “We always knew we wanted to do a women’s line. It wasn’t a matter of if; it was a matter of when. We had to do it right and properly. We really did our research on this line and we’re very proud of how it came out.”
We sat down with McCassy and Evans to discuss the story of where it all started.
Can you give us the story of how Ethika initially got its start? Why underwear?
I had worked for great lifestyle brands and learned so much through the years, and ultimately inspired this deep desire to start my own project. At the time, several of my mentors said the same mantra: ‘keep it simple, make one thing, and make it the best.’ This had me searching for a new category I could develop that was non-conflicting within anything else on the market.
I did my research and I knew there was a great niche for underwear and I could help change the market from looking at it as an accessory to its own category. I targeted over 3,000 influential doors to go after that had not successfully sold underwear. My focus was to make Ethika a success in these doors— and that we did!
I had a great group of friends—athletes & musicians I’d bonded with over the years and I knew could be part of it all. Being a passionate person, I knew it had to be a product that I really felt there was a need for in the market. I also knew the name needed to be something that just screamed epic, like Volcom or Bones—the brands I grew up with. So I did my research. I came across the once awkward category of underwear and for whatever reason, my gut said right away, “Oh this S#$%’s about to get real!”
Fast forward to a random night in May of 2000. I was watching the movie “Road Trip” with the great Tom Green, dying laughing as his crew went on this crazy mission to Ithaca, NY. Something went ‘banana sandwich’ in my brain when I heard the name Ithaca. This was the name I was looking for to launch my brand! I made Ithaca into Ethika, which would soon stand for Ethnicity, Ethics, and Athletics.
From this point, I handled production, trademarks, the factories, import/export, financing, design, and developing the perfect game changing fit. But back then you couldn’t just Google every contact. It was all about who you knew. While building all this, I created Ethika stickers. I starting putting the brand out there, sticking the logo everywhere in a very ‘gorilla style’ fashion, and telling my story of how I was going to make underwear cooler than your favorite shirt.
But it was the 2003 X Games, when my close friend Ryan Sheckler won with a massive Ethika sticker on his helmet, that the ‘familie’ had started. There was no looking back.
After that initial takeoff, we had some key hires: Danny being one of them, and Mitchell Bailey, our talented creative director, being another. Bailey has really helped to evolve the story of Ethika in our collections through the art. Every brand needs a Mitchell Bailey.
Ethika is meant to inspire other people. From day one, we’ve always had this as our central focal point.
When, where, who, and what inspired it into being?
Through my youth it seemed like I was always being judged, and told I had to be a certain way if I wanted to make it. I’ve been and seen people in their highest and lowest points of life, but instead of judging I’ve always tried to just believe in helping them to get out of that rut and to reach their true potential. Ethika is a family I built where no one judges, but uplifts and support each other, regardless of their ethnicity, ethics, or beliefs.
What were the life decisions you really had to endure, personally and as an entrepreneur, to get here?
A lot of people need to fail repetitively to succeed. It was all trial and error and a lot of learning. The lowest parts of your life, the times when you feel like you just want to give up, are often the moments that make a stronger CEO and stronger entrepreneur. I come from some rough beginnings. We grew up in a trailer, turned meth-lab. I knew I had to figure out something or else I was going to fail.
To kids out there looking to get into something, just set sail and you’ll figure it out as you go.
Now, there are ways to start a business for about $500. If you have that passion, there is absolutely nothing that can stop you. So you get that $500, make your first piece of product, put your logo on it, sell one, and now you’re an entrepreneur.
What’s your opinion on the growth of the category?
Competition in life is amazing and competition in a category only brings more success. It helps all sides of the business. Our competitors’ success will only help to legitimize this category that used to be, virtually, non-existent. But our goal is to stay true to the vision on the product and ultimately grow the legacy.
How have you worked with retailers on the product and the category?
First off, having underwear now be considered a category in the market in itself is huge. We’ve been able to grow in multiple retail doors just through working together to build the category. Going back to relationships, we’ve been able to learn from the retailers on how to properly present the product so it sells the features, etc. We couldn’t have done it without the faith of some of these senior buyers.
Ultimately, McCassy and the team at Ethika has developed a brand, gathering a group of like-minded influencers together around the most unforeseen category. “Ethika is meant to inspire other people. From day one, we’ve always had this as our central focal point. Nothing was built in a day. We’re going on 15-years as a brand, and when we started, we were attacked for how we weren’t doing things as it should go, but as long as we’re delivering from the same respect and integrity that built the brand, we’re going to be good. The future for Ethika is to finish what we started and to continue making the most premium products, allowing people to go after their dreams.”