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The Playbook

How Matt Quann founded the country’s coolest line of cycling apparel.

Ornot founder Matt Quann grew up racing bikes across the Midwest--now he makes his living as the man behind Ornot, which produces some of the best-looking cycling apparel in the country. Here, a six-step primer on how Matt married his passion for bikes with his vocation in design — and launched his company on his credit card.

Step 1: Take a classic Midwest, Gen X childhood. Add bikes.

When I was a kid, I was into two sports: cycling and skateboarding. I loved bikes. The first bike I ever rode was a BMX bike. I was five years old, and my friend, who already knew how to ride, hopped on my bike, which had training wheels, and took off. I didn’t even think about it — I picked up his BMX bike, without training wheels, and just chased after him and started to ride and was like, ‘Whoa, I can do this.’

Step 1A: Have such a Midwest, Gen X, bike-loving childhood that you actually know one of the guys who starred in the Midwest, Gen X, bike-loving classic, Breaking Away.

“My friend’s dad was in that movie! He played one of the bad Italian riders who tries to knock [star Dennis Christopher] off his bike. That friend went on to become a professional cyclist, too.”

Step 2: Go as fast as possible.

“I had this paper route where I just skateboarded around and delivered papers — and I used that money to buy a Trek road bike. You hop on this bike with skinny tires, and lots of different gears, and it’s fairly lightweight, and it was just so fast. At first I wasn’t even thinking about racing — I was just really into that super efficient machine. Then Greg LeMond won the Tour de France, and I got into it to the point where, during the summer, I worked at a bike shop during the week, raced at this velodrome in Kenosha one day a week, raced at this track in Northbrook, in northern Chicago, another day, and then raced [elsewhere] on the weekend.”

Step 3: Also be really good at something else — like graphic design.

“It’s an amateur sport, so you find someone who’s good with money, and that’s the treasurer, and someone who’s good with graphics, and that person designs the clothes. I started doing the graphics for a couple teams, and pretty soon, some guy is like, “Oh, you designed your team kit? That guy needs some jerseys designed.” So I did that for a bunch of teams — not the fit and fabric, but the graphics. At one point I just said to myself, I don’t need to make this only for a team. I decided to do a jersey and bib shorts. I spent a lot of time developing it, because I couldn’t do just 20 jerseys and 20 bibs — I had to do a lot, and I had to do one design. At that point, I’d been freelancing [as a graphic designer] for a long time, and that job is doing exactly that: figuring out what the client wants and what will market their good and tell their story. It’s an educated guess.

I didn’t just do the clothing on its own — I did all the visuals and creative to start a company. I spent at least six months working on it. Ornot wasn’t even the first name I came up with — the earlier ones were too bike. “Pitch” was one. “Ornot” somehow was related to cycling, but it could live on its own. I figured that if the jerseys and the bibs didn’t work out, it could become, like, posters of cycling. It could be really serious — or not. It could be cycling clothing — or not.

When I think about it now, I’m like, why didn’t I do this way earlier — merge my my profession with my hobby? The short answer is because the Internet [eventually] enabled me to set up this ecommerce site and accept these credit cards. That’s it.”

Step 4: Bootstrap!

“I put the first order on my credit card. I had money saved from freelancing to cover it, but it was still big enough to be, like, ‘Oh, shit — should I be doing this?’”

Step 5: Diversify to various continents.

“Everything was delivered to my house. My mom was visiting from Wisconsin, and she saw all the clothing in the basement and was, like, “Whoa, Matt, are you going to be able to sell all this stuff?”

By that time, it was October, which wasn’t the best time to launch. But I was like, Alright, whatever, I’m just gonna release this. I was a graphic designer, but my trade had been motion graphics video design, so I had a lot of experience shooting videos. I went out and shot a video, and that started getting some traction — and then people started emailing to see if I would ship internationally, especially to Australia. I was like, Sure, I’ll handwrite your customs forms!

That ended up fueling the first round of sales, just because it was their summertime. I didn’t see that coming at all.”

Step 6: Plan for a livable future.

“In the early days, I never wanted it to get bigger than just myself — I’d do some photoshoots, and go to the post office, and it’d be all good. At some point, it got too big, and I had to hire help. And you can’t go back.

Right now, we’re going to start distributing in the U.K., and we’ve got a new collection of casual clothing, plus we’re still refining our bread and butter, our cycling clothing for 2018. It’s a real balancing act between self preservation and getting out and having fun myself, running the company, and being present and being with my kids and my wife. There’s only so much time in the day — though I definitely still make time. If I had to do this so much that I couldn’t ride my bike, it wouldn’t be worth it.”

Ornot is a cycling apparel company devoted to minimal design, domestic manufacturing, and having a good time on the bike.

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