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In Conversation: Tracksmith and East Fork

MATT TAYLOR AND ALEX MATISSE ON CRAFTSMANSHIP, BRAND BUILDING AND COMMUNITY 

The idea for a Tracksmith pie plate was born on a Zoom call during the pandemic. As the team discussed ways to celebrate the home-grown traditions of the Turkey Trot, we were reminded of our favorite prize from the most low-key races: a pie. When it came to designing our dream pie plate, we immediately thought of the team at East Fork in Asheville, NC. We’ve long admired their approach to craftsmanship and community building and hoped they’d consider working with us on our, literally, pie-in-the-sky idea. A few enthusiastic email exchanges later, we dreamed up a Holiday collaboration that includes a pie plate (launching today) and mug (coming soon for No Days Off). In celebration of the launch, Tracksmith founder and CEO Matt Taylor hopped on a hang out with East Fork founder Alex Matisse to share more about what makes each brand unique.

Matt Taylor (MT): I’d love to hear the origin story of how you started East Fork?

Alex Matisse (AM): East Fork was not started to be a brand, or to be big, or to grow. It just started because I finished three years of a pottery apprenticeship after dropping out of college. I went to college in Greensboro, NC, and just by chance happened to be in a state that had this surviving legacy of pottery making. Clay had always been my medium. I went to college to study something academic. I was quickly miserable. I made my way back into the ceramics studio and burnt through the classes that were offered there. And then I was looking at three years of independent study and taking art classes in mediums I had zero interest in,  I just wanted to get to work.

I’ve always liked physical work. I worked in construction through high school. I worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club for a year after high school working on the hut system. When I was in college, I started going out to help this guy fire his wood kiln. I fell in love with that. The process isn’t just about making something. You have to chop the wood. You have to stack the wood. You have to clean the kiln shelves. You have to prepare the clay. There are all these things that surround it. There’s this whole life that surrounds that making. You’re out in the country, it’s very rural, bucolic, and romantic. I fell in love with that.

A friend of mine was apprenticing and he realized it wasn't for him. He called me up and basically wanted to set up his exit plan and asked if I would be interested in taking things over for him. I was really excited and started that apprenticeship. That locked me into this lineage of potters who had done these apprenticeships. You can trace it back like a family tree, all the way to England.  My second apprenticeship was with Mark Hewitt. He was from a family of managers at Spode China. He was the black sheep of his family and left to join this renowned country potter, Michael Cardew.

It was Mark who always pushed me and my team to look outside our niche bubble of what we were doing. He was out there one day when my co-founder John Vigeland and I were working on one of the early iterations of East Fork, and said, “You guys should think of yourselves as industrialists.” Because we had my drive and ambition and curiosity about ways to do new things, and John’s financial acumen, and Connie’s (my wife’s) marketing, brand and storytelling sense. So we had this three-person team and we saw what was happening in ceramics, which was starting to become in vogue again. T Magazine was writing about a potter who had a studio in Brooklyn and 100,000 Instagram followers. It was having a moment. And we felt we had something to offer to that conversation and we wanted to involve more people in what we were doing. We also saw the collector base for what we were doing, this southeastern American pottery collector.

So we bought a gas kiln from the Netherlands and it was completely computer-controlled, the polar opposite of firing a wood kiln. And we made a small collection of plates. We thought those would be our bread and butter. We’d make them and then we’d go back and do our art in a wood kiln. The very first kiln opening where we sold that collection, nobody showed up. Because it was so different from what we’d done previously. Then things did start moving and we never ended up firing the wood kiln again. And then over a period of four years, we made our way through the industrial revolution, from a potter’s wheel to now bringing some of the most advanced forming equipment in the states. 

MT: The only apprenticeship I have heard of is in falconry, which is something I am interested in. Is that common in your world? Is that the equivalent of a great internship where you get a network and experience? 

AM: Yeah, there’s sort of different levels of apprenticeship. This was a pretty formal apprenticeship the same way that each person who was offering it had done to start their career. You go there and it’s not to find your voice and make your craft. You’re there to help the person do what they need to do and to learn how to make potts in a very specific way.

The type of throwing that we were doing is very technical. And it takes a long time to get those skills in your hands. It’s sort of a repetition game. Whether it was Mark or it was Matt, they’d make a demo pot. They’d throw a pot and put it on the end of your board and the rest of your afternoon would be spent trying to replicate that piece. That was perfection. That’s what you’re striving for to the best of your ability. So you go through and try to capture the essence of the thing, which is very elusive. You know, gradually, you start to find your own voice.

In Japan, an apprenticeship is seven years, so three years is nothing. In Japan, you go in and for the first year, you just sweep the floor. Second-year maybe you just throw the clay in the ball and center it. 

MT: Switching gears a little. Your location seems to play a big part in your work. Why Asheville?

AM: I just had some friends here when I finished my apprenticeship. It seemed as good a place as any! I thought about going back to Massachusetts but I wouldn’t have had the built-in collector base that I have here. Because I had done these apprenticeships there were people who knew me, collected my pots. So I had a small email list, it was an easier place to get started. Now we’re here, we’re dug in, we're part of the community. We’re not going anywhere.

AM: I’m curious how you came to starting Tracksmith, what did life before it look like?

MT: My apprenticeship was growing up in an entrepreneurial household. That was part of it at least. My mom was very entrepreneurial. She ran a little craft store, made some furniture and some upholstery items. My dad helped with that business. My brother, he’s the one that got the creation and maker genes. He’s an incredible craftsman in Asheville, actually, mostly woodwork.  So there was that side.

I always knew I wanted to start my own business, so I had that in the back of my head for a long time. I worked in the running industry, starting after college. I’ve been a participant since I was a kid. The collective experiences from those different things, combined with the desire to want to start my own business is what led me to Tracksmith, at a point in my life when I felt like all those things were aligned. I had the desire and drive. Where I was in my life with my wife and family, we were stable enough to take on that risk. I felt like I finally had the expertise from all my varied career experiences to start my own business.

AM: Was it all in the running space?

MT: For the most part. I definitely had a windy journey to get there. I started in sports, took a detour - my panic years - did some finance, did some odd jobs. I started my MBA but didn't finish my MBA. Then got back on the running track and realized that’s what I wanted to do. Just before I started Tracksmith I was at PUMA on the brand marketing side. I’d done some entrepreneurial projects, not that dissimilar from what you were doing in your apprenticeship. I was doing a lot of content and storytelling with no resources, just myself, a credit card, and learning as I went. Each one of those projects led to another one with a little outside funding. I was able to grow and learn over three or four years, really around storytelling, which led to the Puma job and then to Tracksmith.

AM: This is sort of a detour but I am curious. Being based in Asheville this place has this history of pottery and craftsmanship that’s so core to our brand. New England, talk to me a little about what it means to be based there? I went to school with kids whose families had shoe factories there back in the day. It seems like there is a history that you’re tapping into as well?

MT: It’s similar to you. Boston chose me more than the other way around. I was here for Puma and my family. But it made sense to stay.

Boston and New England became a core element of our brand because there is this legacy of running. Of course, you have the Boston Marathon and all its history, but in addition to that, you have this incredible ecosystem of clubs and teams, colleges, and high schools that creates this really vibrant culture. Patriot’s Day - when the Marathon happens - is a holiday, as you know from growing up here. Everyone knows it’s the day there’s a marathon and the Red Sox opening. That particular time of year running is at the same level as the big sports. We talk about it as the heart and soul of the global running community. It’s not the biggest race. It’s not the fanciest. It’s not the fastest. But Boston has something special that no other race or city has. It’s cool.

AM: I love that about your brand. It has this nostalgia. I didn’t grow up running. I didn't grow up in the collegiate world. But it hits that tone.

MT: You also hit on this other aspect. There is an amazing history around apparel and footwear manufacturing in New England. In the very beginning when we made those first five products we made them all in New England and New York City. New Bedford has an amazing history of manufacturing. We still make stuff in Lowell. As our supply chain has become global, that’s the reality of growing in this particular industry, but I still miss those early days of sitting in the factory in New Bedford twice a week. We'd work on prototypes, go run in them, come back and make changes. That was really unique. It’s probably the same as you, the difference of throwing by hand versus having all this computer technology.

AM: Factories are cool. Personally, for me, that’s the part of East Fork that motivates me. I want to sell more pots so we can build a bigger factory and employ more people. And find more interesting and creative ways to make beautiful things. That’s what I love.

MT: You’ve approached your growth in a measured way. How have you thought about both those things, wanting to grow so you can do more to align with your values but not having to bring in outside capital or investors that don’t share those values?

AM: Well it’s been a tough balance. The growth has been measured and constrained primarily by what we can produce. We were production constrained. Whatever we would make we would sell. Now we’re starting to move out of that, where we’re making quite a bit of pottery and the sales and marketing teams are going to have to spin back up the customer acquisition engine. We’re in a new place.

There are three of us that all have a voice. As co-founders, we all have an equal stake in what we’re doing. We have found ourselves on opposite sides of the table. I often want to go bigger, faster. But I think part of our success,  comes from the tension that exists in the middle. John, our CFO, is incredibly measured, incredibly financially conservative. We never went all one way or all the other. It’s not easy. We’ve been very choosy about who we would want to come in. I’m honest enough to scare away anybody that does have a more traditional path in mind. 

MT: I was also curious, when we talk about community as Tracksmith we talk about the running community and people that are out there training for maybe a particular race. Sounds like you think of it more as your employees? Is that accurate?

AM: We think about stakeholders in a broad sense. There is the community that collects our pottery, the community our customer services team fosters and our marketing team is speaking to. There are the people who have buy/sell/trade accounts on Instagram. They’re the ones advocating for the brand and selling mugs for crazy amounts on eBay.

And then we have our internal community, the people that work for us, which we think a whole lot about. One thing we did recently was we raised our minimum wage to $20. Next year we’ll target $22.50, which keeps in line with MIT global living minimum wage. We did that over increasing the wages for our Director level, our highest level folks. And that’s been tricky in some respects, it’s hard to get talent. It’s competitive out there. But we made that decision to focus our resources on the folks that needed those resources focused on them the most. We think about that a lot. Our north star for 2025 is to build a new factory and consolidate both, our two locations are a few miles apart. Have employee childcare, a bigger kitchen and cafeteria. All that stuff.

And then we think about our community where we live and we support through philanthropic efforts. Most of that philanthropic work, we do a lot of it by leveraging our customers. Connie had this idea, if you want access to buy our seconds, you have to make a small donation to our community partner organization at the time.

MT: Seconds are your slight imperfections?

AM: Exactly. Still sellable. 

MT: That's a really interesting way to tie that to a donation. 

AM: We have a community partner for a few months that we're focused on. You make a donation. Send the screenshot to our CX team and they give you a code. People do it. A lot. Think hundreds and hundreds of CX tickets. We’ll raise $50,000 for an organization that way. 

MT:  What’s the most outrageous resale you’ve seen?

AM: Someone sold a hand-thrown mug for $1400 on eBay. A tumbler for $700. Dinner sets for $2000. It’s fun to see some early stuff bubbling up, plates I made before we even started. That’s been fun to see those again. 

AM: I’m curious, talk to me about your growth and where you’re hoping to take Tracksmith?

MT: We have had a pretty measured approach as well, relative to a lot of brands we know. We’ve grown at a good clip and pressed go on the gas pedal a few times. But it’s always been a very programmatic approach. Our industry is unique, some businesses can trade on trends or celebrities, running requires authenticity and credibility within the space. That takes time. You need to be on the ground. You need to be supportive of things that already exist versus trying to make your own things. It takes time. You have to have the patience to let those things work.

That's hard, especially in a time when everyone wants instant gratification, both consumers and investors. They want to put a dollar in and see three come out. The reality is brand building is messier than that. It’s been challenging to keep everyone aligned on a longer-term vs shorter-term vision. Our plans are quite ambitious as it sounds yours are too.

In five or ten years, it’s not that different, we just want to be in more places. Running is truly global. There are very few geographic barriers in our sport. From day one we've had a large international base, even when it was more challenging for them to get our product. I would hope in 5-10 years it’s the same, but if you’re in Berlin, or Tokyo or London you could have a similar experience with the brand, as you now have in Boston or New York.

AM: The messaging you’ve chosen is different. You have more of a serious approach and maybe to someone like me who is new to running, initially a little overwhelming. Like, I don’t know what a split is. Talk to me about maintaining that point of view?

MT:  I think what you recognize from the outside is exactly right. We centered the brand around a subculture within running. Lots of people run for all sorts of different reasons. We were very specific about this idea of centering the brand around competitive but not professional runners. All those people who are never going to make the Olympics get a Nike contract but they’re out there every day putting the time and the commitment into trying to get faster. Whether they measure that on race day or just around the loop in their neighborhood. They have this mental approach to getting faster.

When you do that you go down the experience journey of understanding the language, start thinking about nutrition, and sleep. You make sacrifices and plan your life around running. There’s a whole world that opens up when you cross that threshold. It’s very similar to any craft-based thing. Someone may decide to get interested in pottery. If they listened to you talk about pottery they might be intimidated at first. But if that was a journey they wanted to go on, they would be curious. What should I read about? What tools do I need? For anyone who goes on a journey of a personal passion, there’s a process. You know nothing on day one, you know slightly more than nothing on day two. Running has a natural journey. Like any craft.

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