Entrepreneurs

This 27-year-old CEO is taking on Lululemon and Nike

Harder, stronger, faster, better. These terms have long been ingrained into brands that have dominated the athletic apparel market for decades. But for Tyler Haney, the messaging never quite resonated.

Haney, now 27, grew up in Boulder, Colorado, hiking, playing basketball and hurdling. She never took to the idea of wearing neon spandex with hyper-competitive messaging, despite her love of being active.

"While you're running over hurdles in high school track, that message makes sense. But I realized that there was a powerful combination about being feminine and athletic that wasn't embodied in a brand," Haney says.

Tyler Haney is the 27-year-old founder and CEO of Outdoor Voices.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Tyler Haney is the 27-year-old founder and CEO of Outdoor Voices.

She was meant to go to college to run hurdles. She instead took a year off and decided to attend the business program at Parsons at The New School in New York City, graduating in 2012. There, Haney says she became "obsessed with technical materials."

She continued to learn about the science behind raw materials, and how they work with your body in different states of sweat. Haney eventually decided she wanted to make her own clothes, and began working with fabric mills.

"I wanted to create a fabric that functions across multiple activities, but looks more like the brands I wear every single day — something less sporty looking," she says. "I started with the material and grew the products and took them to market."

Using her own savings and a round of investment from friends and family, Haney launched the Outdoor Voices line in 2013.

The clothes were sold in small U.S. boutiques and abroad. Haney says the name is a play on "indoor voice," what adults often use to tell children to quiet down. And don't expect neon colors or shiny spandex. The material is instead designed to not show sweat during exercise, and is offered in chic grays and blues. The line has since expanded to offer some brighter colors, while keeping its aesthetic.

To be fair, Outdoor Voices is taking on an increasingly saturated "athleisure" market with giants like Lululemon Athletica, Nike, Under Armour and Athleta in the mix. Even Beyonce has entered the market with her new line, "Ivy Park."

But Outdoor Voices has gained traction. After the line was featured in a London boutique, Garbstore, J. Crew reached out to place the clothing in the retailer's "brands we love" section in spring 2014. Since then, Haney says her line has grown a "cult following."

"We really wanted to create a brand that celebrates activity rather than making it competitive," Haney says. "We talk about our customer as someone who is active but not defined by it. For that reason, we get people from all walks of life."

Clothing at Outdoor Voices
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Clothing at Outdoor Voices

Outdoor Voices opened its first retail store in October 2014 in Austin, Texas, where the brand is partially headquartered. Then came a Soho pop-up shop in November 2015. That successful run paved the way for a permanent shop in lower Manhattan, scheduled to open in early summer 2016, with office space as well.

The stores are also "clubhouses," Haney says. Outdoor Voices wearers can gather and go for dog walks, runs and more.

And after being turned down by more than 50 investors over time, Outdoor Voices has raised $9.5 million from investors including General Catalyst Partners, which also has tech giants like Airbnb and Snapchat in its portfolio.

"I think being young without experience was helpful at the time because I'd ask to be in people's offices all the time, and if I had more experience I wouldn't have. But that was the beauty about being a little bit naïve — there weren't boundaries."

Today, true to form, Haney is very much running her own race, and encouraging her growing team to do the same. While the company won't disclose the figures, sales have grown eightfold since last year.

"My mom was the best kind of coach growing up, and she had this saying 'TYB, baby. Try your best, baby.' Whether she was sending me to school or soccer practice or a slumber party, she'd say 'TYB, baby!' And that's kind of this ongoing model we have at Outdoor Voices. It drums up enthusiasm and energy."