SOM Couple Collars Support for High-End Shirt Company
Not long after Amanda Rinderle and Jonas Clark started together at Yale’s SOM, they determined the world needs another shirt. Not just any shirt, but one representing the finest quality workwear, from a company modeling ethical consciousness and sustainable environmental practices.
Rinderle and Clark graduated from SOM in 2015. Along the way, they got engaged and started Tuckerman & Co., an ecommerce company offering twills, poplins, ginghams and checks for men and women.
"We wanted to do something that felt impactful in multiple ways, both in terms of the business as well as social and environmental impacts," Rinderle says.
She and Jonas Clark decided to work on a startup "pretty much during orientation week." The pair wasted no time creating a prototype and planning for a Kickstarter campaign during their first year, which would go live in the fall of their second year.
Upon graduation, they had a full e-commerce website up and running that reflected their efforts and progress raising on Kickstarter.
Rinderle credits her time at Yale—including her independent study, "the precursor to what now is the entrepreneurship program at SOM"—for providing the couple with valuable feedback on their ideas related to different aspects of their business.
"We were able to get feedback from every business school classmate about what they'd want to see improved in dress shirts as part of a first-year project," she says. Rinderle also notes the highly integrated entrepreneurship curriculum at SOM, which allowed her to learn corporate strategy and “apply that knowledge the next day."
Also hugely helpful to Tuckerman's progress were Rinderle's relationships with Kyle Jensen and Jennifer McFadden, whom Rinderle cites as amazing mentors and teachers.
"They were super supportive, and at one point Jen literally drove to the factory to pick our shirts up," Rinderle recalls. "A dozen professors still email me to this day just to ask how Tuckerman is going, and this helpful feedback and meaningful support means Tuckerman didn't feel like just me and Jonas—it felt like a community effort."
Yet another early challenge remained: deciding on a name.
"We were down to the last minute choosing between many names for the brand," Rinderle remembers. "We had the shirts and website, and the name was the last thing to come."
She explains that the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute brought in several branding professionals to conduct workshops, and she and Clark researched different ways of coming up with names based on what a company wants to evoke.
"We tested them through a survey and got feedback from advisors who were talented at branding," she says. "One of the things that came up a lot was trademarking in a consumer industry like clothing: it's hard to come up with something that's good without it already having been trademarked."
The name comes from Tuckerman Ravine, a hiking and skiing destination in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Rinderle and Clark completed the Venture Creation Program, which provided them with some funding for Tuckerman. They then applied for the YEI summer program and worked on Tuckerman over the summer full time, with the additional support of the Harley Lippman Yale SOM Entrepreneurial Fellowship Fund, which provided funding for the summer between their first and second year. The pair also won the Henry F. McCance Entrepreneurial Award for new venture seed financing for second-year students.
After graduating, Rinderle spent an additional two years as a Yale SOM post-graduate fellow in entrepreneurship. During that time, Tuckerman became a Certified Benefit Corporation.
Despite Yale's extensive support, the entrepreneurs knew they should seek outside customer validation via Kickstarter in order to figure out their next steps with the business.
"Part of the reason we did a Kickstarter was because we had to order the fabric, and it would be four months before the fabric arrived in the US and we could begin making the shirts," Rinderle says.
The biggest challenge for Tuckerman's co-founders was putting together the supply chain, because no suppliers or companies had been making organic cotton dress shirts.
"It was a little unclear if you could even get the fabric to do it," Rinderle says.
She explains that, with shirts, it's common practice to source the fabric through the factory and let it take care of the designs: a cookie-cutter process that wasn’t an option given Tuckerman's goals.
"There was no obvious way to call up someone who makes a bunch of fabrics and shirts,” she says, “so we had to piece together the supply chain and go deeper than one normally would."
The pair started by calling 500 fabric mills across the country and around the world.
"Jonas likes to joke that he knew he was exhausting the search when he was being referred back to the same people over and over again," she says.
They eventually found a few people who could make organic cotton woven fabric in fifth-generation Italian mill, but because the factory wasn’t already selling it, the cotton mills had to specially make the fabric for Tuckerman.
"They sourced the organic cotton and had the ability to sustainably dye and weave it so that it was made only for us," Rinderle says.
Although Rinderle and Clark found themselves "deeper in the supply chain than we'd have liked to be," this was the first step before the process of getting the fabric into the US, creating labels, and beginning the manufacturing. They worked alongside an experienced factory manager in Massachusetts, who assisted them along the way, ensuring the product was styled and fitted on different bodies. A year later, Tuckerman launched new colors and patterns while growing their customer base, and in the spring of 2017 it launched a women’s line of tailored workwear shirts.
Rinderle says she and Clark have decided not to take outside financing, and instead bootstrap the startup and fund it through Tuckerman's organic, month-on-month growth.
"In order to take funding, you want it to be the right funding, where the funder has the same vision for the business to serve it, as well as the right reasons to take funding," Rinderle explains. "Looking at the likes of Casper and Warby Parker, they’re taking on monopolies in their respective industries, so they need funding. Healthcare startups need funding to invest in research and development."
Rinderle adds that she believes she and her business partners can get in front of many more people and sustainably grow the business without investing in brick and mortar.
Funding should be sought, she says, only when you have a “compelling enough reason why taking outside money is really the best option for scaling.”
Still, Rinderle acknowledges that bootstrapping a business comes with the challenge of needing more inventory to satisfy demand.
"Being able to invest in enough inventory so you’re able to grow is important,” she says, “so the trade-off is really how much are we limiting growth but not taking outside money."
While Tuckerman has received no outside funding, the brains behind the company have since collaborated on another business venture, Quarterdeck, which provides consulting services for companies. A third business school classmate, Chelsea Acosta Patel, was involved in Tuckerman on the creative side and helped with visuals and photography at various points. After receiving requests to help other startups or larger businesses, the trio decided to put their expertise to use and share the lessons learned at Tuckerman with other companies.
"We'll take a brick and-mortar store and help develop its e-commerce plan, or do digital strategy and marketing for a new business division," Rinderle says, adding that the three team members have complementary, strategic skills that suit them for joint consulting roles.
Patel is located in Boston, and Rinderle and Clark have since located to Providence, RI, where Clark is now associate director of entrepreneurship at Brown, so digital communication and occasional meetings in New Haven form the basis of their collaboration on Quarterdeck.
Upon reflecting on her experience working on a husband-and-wife team, Rinderle admits the experience is not for everyone.
"Being a husband-and-wife team is not enough to be successful, and you have to reflect on whether you, as two people, with your personalities and skill sets, are a good fit to work together," she says. "Luckily enough, I think that is the case for us. With Chelsea on board as well, it's more fun to work with people you enjoy spending time with."
She explains the importance of having different areas of expertise on a team, where everyone’s contributions are really valued.
"I am very strategy oriented, data and finance driven, and Jonas is a much better storyteller and creative thinker who also has technical software skills" she says, adding that she would have not been able to come up with most of the branding on the Tuckerman website or the inspiration behind some of the cool things the company has done. "Coupled with Chelsea's incredible eye for design and branding, we make a good team.
"Building a business is a challenge,” she continues, “but there are so many enormously talented women out there – having confidence in yourself is key, but so is having a community to support you along the way, and I think the future is bright for women in entrepreneurship, both at Yale and in the larger startup community.”
Veena McCoole is the YaleWomen Innovation Fellow at Tsai CITY.