October 19, 2009 | last updated December 1, 2011 2:03 am
New Ventures

Green gear | A conversation with Jeremy Litchfield, chief pace-setter and founder of Atayne in Portland

Photo/David A. Rodgers
Photo/David A. Rodgers
Jeremy Litchfield, founder of Atayne in Portland

Founded: September 2008
Number of employees: 2 part-timers
Startup costs: $150,000
Projected revenue, year one: $60,000
Projected revenue, year two: $200,000
Contact: 888-456-0470
110 Marginal Way No. 967, Portland (mailing address only)

What is Atayne?

Atayne is a line of green or sustainable outdoor and athletic gear. Our mission is to create the highest performance product in a way that's sensitive on the environment and safe for the people who make and use it.

Why did you decide to launch this business?

I decided to launch Atayne because a couple years ago I bought a new performance top, the wicking top that everyone is so into right now, and at the end of my first run in it my body was covered in red dye. It was a very uneasy feeling wondering what chemicals were being absorbed in my body as I was trying to make myself healthier. So I started doing some research and realized that the whole model of how apparel is made, specifically athletic and performance apparel, is very destructive on the environment and potentially harmful to people. I decided to start a company that was dedicated to a higher purpose of really looking out for the safety of the environment and for people.

Why did you re-locate your business in Maine?

I grew up in Brunswick and went to Bowdoin College and love Maine. My fiancÚ and I were looking for a different lifestyle than the cities of DC and New York where we'd been and wanted more access to outdoor activities. At the same time I was looking at other markets and saw a lot of activity going on in Maine that was supporting small businesses, startups and entrepreneurs and realized there's a huge opportunity here. In places like Northern Virginia and DC no one cared about a small company like Atayne. Unless you were a $100 million company, no one cared. The resources that are here to support startups are incredible. Right now we're in a program called Top Gun, which is run by the Maine Center for Economic Development and it's all about supporting entrepreneurs to help them get to the next level. We also just found out we got approved for a program through the Finance Authority of Maine, which allows investors to get tax credits for investing in Maine companies. There are so many resources that I wasn't finding in other areas from DC to Chicago to Portland, Oregon. And Portland, Maine, had so much support from people who really want to see Maine prosper economically.

How did you finance this business?
It was a lot of my own money, I basically put my life savings into the company and then support from anyone I could talk to who believed in me or the idea.

How do you market your business?
As a startup we don't have money to engage in marketing, so we have to outsmart the competition not outspend them. We've recently done some work on the website to make it more friendly for natural search and we're seeing an uptick in traffic, but really our plan is based on grassroots and guerrilla marketing. We started this initiative call "trash marketing" where we started groups of runners across the country who meet once a month to run and pick up trash at races to make sure we can help recycle at the race as much as possible - that gives us some great coverage. We also have a pretty aggressive PR initiative reaching out to people and we've been featured in Trail Runner Magazine and in American Way and also locally in the Portland Press Herald and Brunswick's Times Record.

Can you talk about the process of making green clothing?
Our clothing is made from polyester which is found in #1 plastics, so your typical plastic bottle. Our goal is to collect the waste that would typically go into a landfill and work with our partners to develop the fabrics. Our ultimate goal is to be able to collect the waste and have the capability to turn it into the yarn, knit it into the fabric and cut and sew it into the garments. There's a lot of upfront cost to convert plastic into yarn and we'll probably continue to partner with companies who can do that. There are some companies locally we'd like to partner with, but the first thing we want to be able to bring in house is the cutting and sewing. Right now we're working with a facility in Canada - it's extremely hard to have apparel made in the U.S. nowadays and to find good quality cutting and sewing facilities that would work with us as a small company. We're always looking to bring things closer to where we are. Maine has a lot of manufacturing and textile roots so there are a lot of people with expertise that we can talk to.

What's been your biggest challenge running this business and how have you overcome that challenge?
It's always resources, and resources come down to time and money. It's definitely very difficult starting up a company, you're always undercapitalized and there's never enough time in the day. Ultimately, I'm always working, whether I'm sitting in front of my computer or running I'm always thinking about work. It's also trying to find ways to find partnerships that you don't have the money to pay for out of pocket but you find good partners who are into alternative arrangements - so it's networking and trying to be creative about how things are traditionally done, especially in this economy. We've developed good partners who are giving us discounted rates or providing services for free. It can be challenging as a small company to find manufacturing partners because as a small company, they see you as more of a hassle than a partner.

How has the economy affected your business?
It's affected us primarily in that it's been harder to raise money to help us grow. The way we grow is by developing new products and being able to go into larger production runs and those both require money, so that's slowed our growth. We got to the point where we couldn't keep up with demand - we've actually spent the last three months out of stock on most of our items because we didn't realize how well things were going to sell and then didn't have the money to go into larger production runs. A lot of companies are probably suffering from a sales standpoint, we have a problem with keeping up with demand because we don't have the money to support our growth so we can have more inventory. We have to be smarter about developing products and lowering the cost of that and also getting creative with how we're purchasing inventory.

What have you learned starting this business?
The biggest thing is you can never count money until it's in the bank. When we launched sales and we were getting investors in, it was right around the time that Lehman Brothers collapsed and the economy tanked. We had commitments of $250,000 but people started pulling out and scaling back so when we launched we launched thinking we had more money than we were going to get, so we had to scale back operations.

What are your goals for the future of your business in the next 5-10 years?
Our goal is to find the market for high performing outdoor and athletic gear that's safe for people and the planet and that doesn't mean we want to be the biggest company, we want to be the best and we want people to recognize us as the leader in that space. There's still a lot we have to do to get there - we have to expand our line but also stay true to our values. We want to design products where less is more, so that people can have just one pair of shorts that are versatile enough to do a number of different activities. We want to hire more people and create jobs here and be a model of a great place to work. We also want to change people's mindsets about trash and inspire people to reduce their impact on the environment and create a more positive one.

Do you have a lot of competition?
We face competition from Nike, Adidas, New Balance and Brooks, but at the same time we face competition from other startups. There's a company in Portland, Oregon, that happens to be making clothing from recycled material. We're dedicated to using 100% recycled materials and to making things as locally as possible, whereas many companies produce abroad.

Are you going to set up a retail location?
Since we're selling online we have a big following in DC, Chicago, Texas, California. In our first year we shipped product to 42 states and eight different countries. We've thought of having a retail location, but it's not in our formal plans. Retail can be difficult and our approach now is to work with retailers who can carry our products. Right now our products are carried through Potomac River Company, Maine Running Company, Bowdoin College and we have an online retailer that's based out of Utah. Right now we do 90% of our sales online or direct at events, from green festivals and expos to marathons up and down the east coast and west coast.

Interview by Mercedes Grandin

New Ventures profiles young businesses, 6-18 months old. Send your suggestions and contact information to


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