We can’t believe it’s been a year. On October 24, 2017 at midnight, we pressed “publish” on the website we had been designing for months to begin selling the products Jonathan had been sketching for years.
The months before we launched were a frenzy of activity and excitement and trepidation and that day just felt surreal. In honor of this anniversary, I (Jessica) wanted to pull the curtain back and tell you some of the details that we've only previously shared with our friends about how Otter Pass came to be.
As we’ve written before, Jonathan dreamed for years about starting a company helping dads connect well with their kids. He wanted to name it Otter Pass after the fishing lodge where his dad took him fishing for piranhas as a boy growing up in Brazil.
(Jonathan’s dad and granddad pose with their fishing guide in the original Otter Pass; his grandfather Willie is sporting some sweet, sweet orange pants, but it’s his dad’s straight-billed cap that really inspires us as a fashion brand.)
Jonathan’s ideas would probably still be scribbles on a napkin if we hadn’t met Corie Humble who took those sketches and brought them to life. Her stunning designs and practical business acumen brought this company from dream to reality. By partnering with us at every stage of the journey, she helped us develop prototypes, connected us with a manufacturer that could give us quality products and a transparent supply chain, and kept a critical eye on every important detail. She even took the final products one day to Dallas to take professional product shots with these pretty planks of wood I found at a lumber business (don’t worry, when I asked for “nice light wood for a photo shoot,” they didn’t think it was weird AT ALL).
(It really was pretty wood.)
In the summer of 2017, we included those product pictures with the 20+ page business plan that had taken almost three years of research (the footnotes! the charts!) and asked a bank for an SBA loan. And then we waited for weeks and weeks.
Here’s the part we don’t talk about much: at the time, I was also shopping a book deal about refugee resettlement. As in, the book proposal and business plan went out within days of each other. I had recently made some shifts in my career that opened up a year or so to try out either of these dreams while Jonathan kept his day job. It seemed like the safest bet to try both options because they were such longshots. We were tossing a coin to see which one came up first.
And then, within three incredible weeks, they both came through. I sold my book at auction to Viking Books; my narrative nonfiction book will be published in fall 2019 (I’m in the final stages of working on it right now). Three weeks later, we got an email from the bank—they were excited to inform us that we’d been approved for an SBA loan.
By the end of August 2017, we’d entered one of the most wonderful, most intense years of our lives.
Two dreams, three children, and one dog, all within the four walls of our home.
With the bank loan, we took care of the most pressing needs first: we ordered the first round of products from the manufacturer. In the weeks it took to craft and ship the first round of products, we created the website and scheduled the photo shoot.
The best decisions we’ve made for this business happened when we recognized the gaps in our knowledge or experience and sought help from our friends.
Caren George designed our website. She co-founded Hill Country Hill Tribers with us, a nonprofit providing opportunities for Burmese refugee artisans to make supplemental income by selling their handmade scarves, bags, clothes, jewelry and other items. We never want to start anything without Caren. Jonathan’s brother Joel Goudeau, a gifted graphic designer, crafted our logo.
I worked with Amy Bench, one of the most talented Directors of Photography working in Austin, on a short documentary series for Teen Vogue; Amy brought her extensive experience and a fantastic team to our first Otter Pass photo shoot (one of the people doing lighting left later that week to go work on the Black Panther film in Atlanta—no big deal).
We were especially grateful for the “talent” on those shoots: our daughters’ PE teacher and her husband and kids, Lacey and Daniel, were the models for our outdoor shots. Amy’s friends, Chris and Lauren, graciously opened up their beautiful home for us to get some kitchen and office pictures. No one laughed when we asked if they would be our models and muses; instead, they were just game and we couldn’t have been more grateful.
(This is Daniel.)
(This is Chris.)
Those weeks of preparation to launch our site showed us that this company was a work of so much love born out of a rich community.
The products got to Austin in early October. We unloaded them off the truck with our kids.
We tagged each product individually—thousands of tags on string—over one long weekend (we binge-watched Stranger Things). Not having the manufacturer tag them was not one of our better decisions.
A great decision, though, was to leave them in the capable hands of Sauceda Industries, a fulfillment center that works with big and small clients and is perfect for a startup like us. Once products are ordered, our website tells their website to ship it (that’s my technical expertise on how all of that happens). So many startups struggle most with this aspect of the business; supply chain can be a big hassle. Sauceda helps us be poised to grow because we never have to worry about whether the products can make it on time and we can handle greater shipments over time.
The night before we launched, we breathed deeply and checked everything over. The words I had been writing for weeks, the products Jonathan had been thinking about for years, the work of so many people we love together at once, all ready to head out into the broader world.
Our website went live at midnight. Our friend from college, Ann, bought the first Otter Pass product at 12:01: a Dopp Kit. The next night, she and some other friends had Tiff’s Treats and cold milk delivered to our doorstep to celebrate this milestone.
For the first several weeks, it was our friends who bought the things we’d made. We loved seeing familiar names across the screen for the first several purchases. Of course, it was exciting too when the first stranger bought something—seeing these products ship all over the country to people has been so fun. But we’ll never forget that it all began with our family and friends.
The last year has been humbling and exhilarating. We’ve been so touched by the people who have connected us with experts and mentors. We found our digital marketing agency (and the inimitable Aasim, whose vision for this brand continues to inspire us) through friends of friends. We’ve learned that every entrepreneur has gaps and has to hustle to fill them and that there will be both good days and bad.
The good days are extraordinary: few people get to see a lifelong dream come to fruition. These physical products aren’t ideas, they’re things you can hold in your hand. Jonathan and I love partnering together—this is our shared side hustle (along with a tremendous team) and the thing we love to do together the most. We believe firmly in the mission of what we’re doing: we love connecting dads and kids.
The bad days have often been hard. Before we signed with a digital marketing agency, trying to understand social media algorithms was complicated and frustrating (biggest lesson of year one: always work with experts who know what they’re doing). For this first year, we’re experimenting as we try to understand what messages and products connect best with which market—it’s a lot of trial and error and that can be discouraging.
But just when it seems like we’ve hit a wall, another door opens. We signed with our first retail partner, American Reserve, and have more conversations in the works. We’re pretty excited about early metrics and have a lot of faith that the next several months will be growing ones for our business. We’ll be sharing more in the months to come as we forge the next paths—we have lots of ideas for the future and big plans for how to grow.
But today we wanted to pause, look back, and say thanks. We are where we are only because of our incredible friends and a deep network of amazing, talented, delightful people. Thank you for making this dream a reality.
Happy anniversary, everyone.