Most entrepreneurs will tell you they've always wanted to start their own business. That's not the case for Stacey Gose.
Despite being surrounded by entrepreneurial women, the warnings she got growing up in Stockton, Calif., and spending summers on her family's farm in Iowa actively discouraged her from running a business.
But in 2013, when Gose found herself landscaping in a pair of ill-fitting men's pants, she knew there was a real problem waiting to be solved. She launched Tougher, a women's workwear brand, whose flagship product is work pants designed for women and made in Oregon and California. Today, Tougher's pants, gloves and tees are selling online and in select hardware and gardening stores. Revenue, which Gose would not divulge, is set to double this year.
In April, Gose was the 2019 runner-up at the PitchfestNW competition, in which her firm was up against more than 140 other startups. Recently, we met with Gose to discuss her journey to become an entrepreneur. Video of her presentation at TechfestNW can be found below.
WW: Tell us about yourself.
Stacey Gose: I'm a fifth-generation Iowa kid. We have a farm that's still in the family. My family moved us from Iowa to California when I was 5. And to give my mother a break from her three kids, she would ship us back to Iowa in the summers. Some people do yoga to feel connected to what's around them. I like plowing and mowing the lawn and raising chickens.
I was raised in a North American Baptist family. The message I got growing up [was] money is the root of all evil. That's not an accurate translation [of the Bible], but that was the message I got. For most of my life, I believed that if you want to start a business, you do it to be wealthy, and that's not a morally good thing to do.
[It took some time] to break that paradigm. If you want to be successful you don't have to be an asshole. You can do some social good and be a good person.
When did you decide to start Tougher?
It was 2013-14. My wife, Becca, and I were on a wine tour in Southern Oregon. We're in this beautiful setting on deck with a pinot gris, and she said, "What would you do if you could wave a magic wand?" And I said I would quit my job and start a business for women's apparel because I feel like I'm always left out.
The "a-ha" moment for Tougher was years earlier when I was doing some landscaping, in my Carhartts and they didn't fit well. I went to the farm and ranch store nearby, and all they carried was men's work pants. With workwear, for women who work hard with their hands, I felt like there were these two extremes, where you look like a dude or you look like Construction Barbie, and nothing kind of in the middle.
Stacey Gose speaks at TechFestNW.
So you decided to start a business but also decided to go back to school.
I didn't want to be one of the multitude of businesses that fail in the first two years. And I didn't have contacts in apparel or know much about business. So I entered the University of Oregon entrepreneurship MBA, an innovation track. With every class, whether it be finance or marketing, you incubate your company. One of my faculty advisers was Michael Crooke, the former CEO of Patagonia. School was huge.
What keeps you up at night?
I sleep pretty well. I think I'm at a point in my life where I realize you have to let some dumpsters burn. I think if I had started this business in my 20s, I don't think I would have gotten as far as I have now. I think I have more grit and patience now.
I do worry about timing. It's the perfect market opportunity, and it's something that I'm passionate about. I just really want women to have accessible gear they can get in their hands and use. But I know I could always be faster and it's maddening that I can't be.
Have you been pitching a lot to investors?
I haven't done a lot this year. Obviously, I did TechfestNW and that was my big splash to get to top of mind for people around here. But I've talked to enough VCs, at least around here, to know that they have a certain kind of algorithm in their head, and they want to see x sales and this person added [to the team] before they'll write a check. And that's hard because you need capital to get there. So it's a chicken-and-egg issue. But, I will say that I always prize people over money. You can't put a price tag on that.
What happens if a large corporation like Levi's started to sell women's workwear?
It's inevitable that other brands will enter the market.
The mission of Tougher is lowering the barrier to entering the trades by outfitting tradeswomen with well-fitting gear. So more brands making workwear for women is a great thing for women. Where Tougher is unique is that we are solely focused on women—her needs and wants. Plus, our brand's attitude is different from others. If you are a self-confident work-hard, play-hard woman with a hint of mischievousness, there's a chair on our community's front porch for you to join us.
Ryan Nguyen contributed reporting to this story.
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