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Title Nine CEO Missy Park Talks About Taking Risks, Building A Brand, And The Transition To Retail

Too often we focus on the risk rather than its upside.
When I ride my mountain bike across a skinny log, I find myself looking at the drop, looking at the place that I don’t want to go. Inevitably, you go to the place you’re looking.
I think it’s the same thing in business and life. If you focus on what you fear the most, you’re gonna end up right there.
-- Missy Park, Title9

missy park, title9 ceo

Missy Park is CEO of Title Nine, a web/catalog/store retailer of women's athletic gear she founded in 1989.

Title9 sells great stuff, has a tremendous brand, and creates fiercely loyal customers. I should know: my wife is one of them.

The company name refers to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which among other things, prohibits discrimination based on sex in high school and collegiate athletics.

Here's a neat conversation with Missy about risk, branding, and Title Nine's transition to retail.

The direct business is a control freak’s dream job and retail is a control freak’s nightmare.
-- Missy Park

Listen to podcast: rkgblog_interview_Missy_Park.mp3

Alan Rimm-Kaufman: I’m honored to be here today with Missy Park, founder and CEO of Title Nine. Hello, Missy!

Missy Park:Hey Alan, how are ya?

Alan:I am doing great. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

Missy:Oh, no problem.

Alan: For folks that aren’t familiar with Title Nine, could you give a little bit of the company history?

title-nine runner

Missy: Well, we are a multi-channel retailer and we focus primarily on women’s athletic apparel and sportswear. One of the things we like to say is that we try and bring the functional, athletic apparel to every day use. The comfort of those athletic fabrics and features that we all enjoy when we’re playing sports but also bring those into the workplace and the weekend.

Alan: And you founded the company yourself?

Missy: Yeah, I did. I started the company back in 1989 out of my house and had our inventory in the garage and it was something that only a 26 year old who didn’t know better would do.

Alan: I’ve heard that your first catalog mailing generate a total of 3 orders?

Missy: Yeah, maybe three or four. I think the more important statistic is that there was only maybe one from someone I didn’t know.

Alan: You've said that 30% of the response to your first catalog came from your Mom.

Missy: Yeah, exactly.

Alan: But you’ve stuck to it and the business has grown beyond those humble starts. You have stores now, you’ve got the catalog, the website. Can you tell us a little bit about those?

Missy: Well, I think we obviously have gone off in a lot of different directions. I think I’m getting re-acquainted with my naïve 26 year old again. We have moved off into retail, the bricks and mortar side of the business as well as the web to me is just the next generation of a paper catalog so, people talk about that as multi channel and I just see, this is evolution, it goes on.

So we see retail as a way, we sort of see that as our brand billboard, our brand come to life both in the kinds of backers that we have there and what, how we can interact with our customers on a personal and three dimensional basis and we see the web as, quite honestly, the next generation of catalogs.

Alan: You brought up brand. My sense of Title Nine is you have an incredibly strong brand from the models to the choice of the way you describe products to how you answer your phones. Is that something that you’ve worked on?

Missy: Yeah, you might say that. I think for me the brand is a very personal brand. The people here, all of our buyers are product users, the folks on the phone are product users and basically it’s important to us that we be able to speak authentically about what we’re selling so the brand is awesome, we are the brand and that’s for good or ill. I often say if we don’t hear from our customers it might be because we’ve put her to sleep. title nine surfer

So we’ll often, we’ll say things that not everybody likes and certainly it wouldn’t be approved over at Procter and Gamble but I think that our customers respond to this sort of – you know everybody’s owned by somebody, this increased sense of homogenization and unwillingness to take a risk but I think that’s what people connect to as well so for us the brand is all about being personal, if that answers your question.

Alan: It does. I’m looking at your spring catalog. In your President’s Letter on page 2 you talk about "...taking risks, focusing on the trail and not the drop off to the left of the trail.. focusing on the opportunity, seeing the finish line rather than the hurdles."

Are those business metaphors or sports metaphors?

What do you mean when you talk about risk?

Missy: Well all of life can basically be a sports metaphor don’t you think Alan?

Alan: I do.

Missy:S o, and I think it’s something that women in particular can relate to. I think that the risks that we take can often be smaller, ones that feel like oohhh, that doesn’t feel so scary and I think when we start thinking about risk we think about it in a way that is oftentimes can be focused on the risk rather than the upside of it so I was just thinking about when I run or actually when I’m riding my mountain bike and I’m trying to go across a skinny log or something like that I find myself looking at the place that I don’t wanna go and inevitably you go to the place you’re looking.

I think it’s the same thing in business or really in any part of your life. Once you focus on that thing that you fear the most you’re gonna end up right there. For me both athletically and in business you kinda gotta keep your eye on the brand and what it is that it stands for and if you start looking down there at all the sharks then it might eat you up and they will.

Alan: Excellent.

The paper catalog. What’s the future of the paper catalog?

Missy: Well, I don’t think it’s gonna be, it clearly already has not been and is not revolution. It is evolution and quite honestly I feel like the Internet solves a lot of pretty intractable problems on the catalog side. Things that I think about is inventory management for instance.

Alan: Yep.

Missy: We print up five million catalogs and in the first week are sold out of our best seller but all those catalogs are still out there. Keeping track of the NCOA, the National Change of Address, how do you keep up with people? I think we’re seeing more and more that even on the Internet with emails those email addresses are staying good for longer, people are holding on to those. They can stick with that email address even if they move four times.

You know, postal rates, paper and the environmental concerns, the Internet solves a lot of those things.

But do I think catalogs are going away tomorrow?

title nine tree climbing

No, I think it’s very important for, on the catalog side certainly for people to know that is it five years from now, is it ten years from now?

I don’t what that date is but I can tell you that there is no question that the web not only is the way a lot of people are shopping now but in a way that addresses a lot of catalogers concerns is here to stay and it’s gonna solve a lot of problems.

Alan: I would definitely agree. I think the web makes the direct channel stronger, even if the catalog channel itself weakens.

Missy: Yeah, just things for me I think about things that we’d love to do, the things that we really care about. Our community stuff, our brand building. You have to measure it in pennies.

How much more is it gonna cost us to communicate that message in the catalog and we don’t have to measure that any more so you can in many ways build a stronger brand.

Alan: And be interactive. The paper catalog is a one way; you’re just talking to your folks.

Missy: Exactly right and that stuff is scary. I think for catalogers, I was talking with another cataloger and they started doing some product review stuff and she’s like wow and someone reviewed the product poorly and I didn’t know what to do with that.

Alan: Fix the product.

Missy: Yeah, well you can change your product and you may or may not like it and there may be some strong reasons why people don’t want people to review their products but the fact of the matter is nobody’s gonna have a choice.

Alan: Yup.

Missy: You know, that’s what good retailers are gonna do and you’re gonna have, we’re all gonna have to do it.

title9 fishing

Alan: Excellent. What would you single out as your biggest business challenge you’re facing today?

Missy: Well I think ours is more specific to us rather than sort of a global business challenge. Certainly making that transition from sort of paper is a big one but it is still, I mean it’s still basic direct marketing techniques.

For us I would say the greatest challenge is the transition to retail. Retail is a completely different business than catalog.

Alan: Interesting.

Missy: And managing, I would say the direct business and I would say web or catalog. The direct business is a control freak’s dream job and retail is a control freak’s nightmare. So for us I would say certainly it is a completely new business. Yes it is retail, we’re selling to the inline consumer but it is a very different business and one that, well it’s kind of like when I started the business. If I’d known what I know now I’m not sure I would’ve done it.

Alan: Good stuff.

Wrapping up, what is the single most important piece of advice or pieces of advice you’d give to other online retailers?

Missy: You know my sense ,with the online retailing is there’s a sense of urgency and chaos.

Which can be harmful to get caught up in: that a good business model painstakingly built and organically grown as a good business model whether it’s online, in the catalog or retail and I think particularly on the internet now, and it has been because things change so quickly there, it is very easy and I see it for us as well, it is very easy to get caught up in speed at all costs.

I still think in many ways the internet is the great place to build a nice strong business, organically grown and slowly cultivated to make a great brand with great customer service and I hope that because of the ease of scalability we don’t forget that ability to also grow a nice, strong, organically, fundamentally sound business.

Alan: That’s great advice. For folks that aren’t familiar with Title Nine, the URL is titlenine.com and it is really a great place to get women’s athletic gear, if that’s what you need to get.

Missy, thank you, I really enjoyed our conversation today.

Listen to podcast: rkgblog_interview_Missy_Park.mp3

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