The Art and Science of Brand Storytelling with OROS

Yaw Aning Headshot

Yaw Aning

Founder & CEO

Image from i OS

Rithvik Venna

OROS Cofounder & COO
OROS Website

In the direct-to-consumer space, an integral part to the success of the brand is how they tell their story to consumers over time.

And Oros has an incredible story. Founded by two pre-med students, the company creates cold-weather gear and apparel by harnessing a space-shuttle insulation technology developed by NASA.

In this episode, we hear from Rithvik Venna, the Cofounder and COO of Oros. He shares the incredible journey the company went through to create and commercialize its first set of products. You'll hear:

  • How they used Kickstarter to launch the business
  • How they leaned on their pre-med background to grow the brand
  • The unique techniques they used to perfect their brand story to connect with customers

Episode length: 28:17'

in their words

I think it all comes down to how relentlessly you're willing to work at something.

Rithvik Venna, Cofounder & COO of OROS

Podcast Transcription

Y: Yaw

R: Rith

R: OROS believes in giant leaps. We took a space-age approach to an age-old problem: How do you stay warm in the elements? Rather than improving on goose down, we created something new that offered more warmth with less bulk. We learned that giant leaps are made of small steps and developed an R&D program that’s unmatched in the industry. We seek to make better cold weather gear through NASA accredited know-how. And our aim is to elevate the kinds of experiences that help you rethink the realm of possibility.

Very aspirational in that, in that regard but you gotta think we get most of our inspiration from NASA so might as well literally shoot for the moon.

Y: Welcome to Touchpoints! A show where we celebrate the stories of Direct To Consumer leaders, marketers, and operators that are creating breakout brands in the digital era.

I’m Yaw Aning. I’m the co-founder & CEO of Malomo, a shipment tracking platform that believes in helping brands drive deeper relationships with customers.

In this series, we celebrate and share the stories of individuals working at direct to consumer brands. Behind every great brand are great people in the trenches every day, putting in the work needed to help these brands grow and develop. We uncover ways that those people are creating unique experiences for their customers and building the next generation of dtc brands.

We’ve got a special episode for you. We hear from Oros, a dtc brand that’s using NASA inspiration to disrupt our perception of outerwear. I’d like to introduce you to Rithvik Venna.

R: "So I am Rithvik Venna I am the COO and co-founder of OROS. OROS is a performance apparel brand that took a NASA space shuttle insulation called aerogel and put it in outerwear and so now you can wear incredibly thin gear and be really warm."

Y: DId he just say space shuttle insulation?

The story of OROS is out of this world. When Rith shared their mission at the start of the episode, you not only hear the passion behind the brand, you feel it. They’re on a quest to create the warmest outerwear with the lightest profile ever.

Now I don’t know about you, or the company you work for, but it seems like it would be pretty easy to create a compelling narrative for your company and its mission when the technology that goes into your products is literally created to take people to the moon.

But the story of OROS has been anything but easy. Rith’s team worked for years building the company and trying to find a way to tell the company’s story in the process.

In a previous episode, we heard from Camille Baldwin, the Director of Brand Strategy for Gin Lane, one of the preeminent branding firms in the DTC space. I highly recommend listening to that episode first if you haven’t already and then come back to his one. In that episode, Camille shares two powerful principles for brand-building: having a strong point of view and communicating that point of view with relentless focus.

We’ll hear those principles in action as the Oros brand was actually created by Gin Lane using those same principles.

Cofounders Rith and Michael were named to the Forbes 30 under 30 back in 2017, and after talking to Rith, it’s pretty easy to see why. He’s humble, but extremely driven and focused on creating a revolutionary brand.

Like the Apollo 11 mission that made it to the moon for the first time, OROS is trying to do something no other brand has done before. Still fairly early in their journey, we learn how Rith is building the launch pad of their brand and instilling the values of experimentation, authenticity, and relentlessness across the company.

We start at the beginning - where Rith and Michael first met.

R: So it all started when Michael and I were both sophomores in college at a small liberal arts school in Ohio called Miami University. And so it was the summer leading into our sophomore year and Michael, who is the other co-founder, he's the CEO, he was backpacking across Europe. He did a bunch of cool things while he was out there but he said the coolest thing he did was he climbed one of the tallest mountains in the Northeast Swiss Alps called Santas. And when he was up there it was his first or second time climbing and so he had all of his incredible gear and he went summited the mountain but when he got to the top, he kind of realized despite the fact that he was wearing all this great year he still felt really big and really puffy.

He actually used the analogy he kind of felt like have you ever seen that movie The Christmas Story? yes yeah we have yeah. So, we kind of felt like, remember that scene when Ralphie's little brother comes out in that big red puffy coat and he's like I can't put my arms down? hahaha yeah yep That's the analogy he uses. I think we've all I think we can all relate we've all been there.

Y: Experiencing that problem planted a seed in the back of Michael’s mind, but the solution to that problem didn’t come to him until a bit later.

R: That summer passed, he comes back to school and our sophomore year didn't’ really think much of that problem and at the time both him and I were both pre-med and when you're pre-med you try to join a research lab with the intention of publishing some papers. You know bettering your odds to get into med school, Michael was in this lab that has that was doing some research on therapeutic treatment for cancer and he had this awesome breakthrough. Through that awesome breakthrough he ended up publishing some papers and through those papers he ended up getting this scholarship from NASA, called the Astronaut Scholarship. Super prestigious award and when he went to go receive it, he started talking to them and just nerding out in general. And they told him about this really cool material called Aerogel and NASA told him it was the least thermally conductive solid on the planet. Meaning it's the absolute best insulator known to man. And on top of that that's the same stuff that they were using to insulate space shuttles and the Mars rover you know up in space, which if you guys didn't know is really, really, really cold.

Y: Have you ever thought about how cold space is? We’re all familiar with the temperature scales of Fahrenheit and Celsius, but have you ever heard of the scale Kelvin? 0 degree Kelvin is called absolute zero. It’s the coldest temperature that is theoretically possible. At this temperature, atoms stop.

Think about that for a second, It’s so cold, atoms stop moving. Atoms should never stop!

In outer space, it’s just a few degrees warmer than that.

So as an astronaut, to survive, normal insulators won’t cut it. NASA needed to create a technology so revolutionary to battle such harsh realities. So, they invented aerogel.

To Michael, aerogel seemed to be the exact material he was looking for.

R: And so this was kind of like his light bulb moment he was like, “Wait, you guys have this awesome insulation material that you use in space - which is the world's you know the universe’s best torture test - but it hasn't been yet commercialized in use and apparel here on Earth, you know, why is that?” So he had this though and one day him and I were studying for an O-Chem exam in our College Library and about 30 minutes before we walked over to go take the exam he pitches this idea to me he's like, “Hey Rith, what if we took this NASA space suit insulated space suit insulation aerogel and put it in outerwear so now you can wear incredibly thin gear that is really warm without all the bulk?” And like the moment I heard it I was hooked I was like, “Yeah absolutely, I'm in I hate being cold.” Held true then, still holds true today.

So from there we started down this path of trying to figure out how to take the same tech that NASA had and repurposing and commercialize for use in apparel. Long story short one of the problems with NASA's tech - if you Google aerogel, throw it in Google Images - you'll see this blue translucent disk, this the kind of looks like a translucent styrofoam. Really awesome insulation material but it's extremely, extremely brittle. We got our hands on it and we found out pretty quickly. So we realized okay this isn't really going to work for apparel. So we set out on a quest to figure out how to make this insulation material flexible and durable so you can put it into apparel you know things that require motion.

We spent our sophomore year to our senior year just figuring out how to make this tech and how to create it and after sinking pretty much that entire scholarship money, plus whatever money we had saved into this R&D endeavor, we ended up coming up with this material called SolarCore, which did just that - it was flexible and durable but it still had the great insulation that aerogel is known for. So super cool, you know, we had this tech, it’s our senior year, we knew we wanted to make some jackets so we reached out to some manufacturers. We ended up just cold calling them. I found a manufacturer that would be willing to prototype with us for free.

Y: Creating Solarcore was just the first of many challenging steps bringing aerogel apparel to market. They had to figure out how to source, manufacture, and distribute the first set of products made with that technology. The first product they created...

R: Our minimum viable product called the Luca jacket. tested it out both from like a wear testing and also in the lab. It worked, two thumbs up, great. That point in time it was March of our senior years we are about 2 months away from graduating, Michael and I knew that we really wanted to do this this whole OROS thing, but we needed to have some real validation before we jumped into it.

We decided to take it to Kickstarter with this audacious goal of doing a hundred thousand dollars in 30 days and we told ourselves we’ll set this crazy goal and if it works, great we'll do this whole OROS thing, if not, worse thing, plan B we’ll go to med school. So we launched it and within the first 36 hours we hit a hundred twenty five grand and that really was the start of OROS our senior years of college.

Part of the reason we ended up coming to that hundred-thousand-dollar goal was that that first P.O. was somewhere in the range of 85 to maybe $90,000 so we just needed that much money to produce our first run of products. Yeah we had every single thing figured out from who was going to make it, where it was going to be made, how is going to be made...essentially all we needed was to wire transfer some money that would officially give them the green light to work.

Y: Such an inspiring story and journey for Rith and Michael. It’s a pretty big leap going from pre-med students to leaders of a high-growth apparel brand.

R: We've now went from a team of two to a team of 14. We raised some Venture Capital Money - about 7 million dollars - and the business has been growing at minimum 2x year over year.

Y: They’ve got a pretty lofty vision…

R: To create a long sleeve t-shirt that keeps you warm in sub-freezing temperatures. We think we can do that in the coming years. So that's what I think the future is. I think the future is no more or at least very limited use of outerwear.

Y: And that vision is summed up in the name of the brand, Oros...

R: Anytime Michael and I set out to do a task, we have this core common set of beliefs that we believe are required to accomplish that task and it's it's a sacrifice. A sacrifice of time, blood, sweat, tears and money. Oros is ancient Greek for Mountain...you know and we kind of figured that was symbolic of the sacrifice that goes into accomplishing any task. You know that symbolic ascension of a mountain.

Y: When they were launching Oros, Rith and MIchael admittedly didn’t know a lot about launching a dtc brand, let alone anything about fashion or apparel. So they leaned on their scientific background heavily to help them figure out what was working and what wasn’t.

R: You know I think one of the things that really helped us from our schooling background, being science majors was that analytical mindset and that ability to critically think and also having that viewpoint of the world that everything is a science experiment. Once you start to really boil things down you realize that everything is really a science experiment. Let's say you want to try new marketing strategy...you create a hypothesis for what you think is going to happen and then you create an experiment to AB test it and then you look at the data and then you let the data prove or disprove your hypothesis and then you move forward and you keep iterating until you solve the problem. I think having that, having that background from a very elementary level of science up till really applying it at a decently high research level allowed us to then translate that into other aspects of, of our business as we built OROS and I think that viewpoint and that frame of mind really helped a lot.

Like when I say we use it in everything, I mean we literally use it in everything.

Y: One place they leaned on this scientific background to build their brand was exploring what narrative and story they wanted to tell to consumers. As a new brand with new technology, creating new products, they’re fighting an uphill battle capturing consumer attention. For Rith, experimentation allows him and the company to continually test the impact messaging has on its customers.

R: As we were launching a new product and as we knew we are going to be launching more and more new products, we just had that conversation with our customers to really understand, you know, what their feelings were about who we were as a company and as a brand. You know, what did they really like about us, what didn't they like about us and really being able to get that feedback...I think maybe taking that a step further, we wanted to really be able to control the narrative that consumers heard about our brand so we could go out there and tell our own story and fortunately enough in this day and age, brands now have the ability to speak directly to consumers. So I think that every brand should be taking that opportunity and should really maximize on that capability that we're offered now which is why we decided to go with direct to consumer.

If you went to a retailer, you're putting a lot of faith in them to then take your story and then tell it for you and it's it's easy if you’re Nike or Adidas and you’re a massive hit and everybody already knows what you're about...but when you're small, you really have to hit the nail on the head and make sure consumers understand why you're important and why they should care and you can't guarantee that if you go through a retailer or any middleman for that matter.

Y: They used this same scientific approach when they were crafting their narrative for investor pitches. OROS has raised $9 million in venture capital funding so far. As they’ve presented to VC’s, Rith and Michael had to learn quickly what was working and what wasn’t. So they, you guessed it, tested things out.

R: We're first time entrepreneurs going after seven figures and there's a lot that we knew and a lot that we just didn’t know and one of the ways we learned was we pitched one story one way and then we saw how that resonated...and then we pitched the story a little differently and saw how that resonated and then we talked about our business a little bit differently and then we saw how that resonated. Obviously we weren't lying or anything like that...we weren't being facetious but we are working through how best to deliver a story and do it concisely, to where people really understand what we're doing and who we are and what makes us tick.

Y: Pitching to investors forced them to figure out what their brand hook was.

They turned to consumer branding powerhouse Gin Lane to build their brand and narrative. Gin Lane is behind some of the biggest upstart challenger brands including Hims, SweetGreen, Harry’s Razors and more.

R: Right off the bat, Michael and I were able to do a really good job capturing that initial essence of who we were. We knew that if we were going to try to take this business further and really open it up to where we told our story and we also made it very easy and relatable for anybody else that's out there that doesn't know us or that doesn't have the opportunity to directly interact with us or our company. We knew we had to go see some professional help to really bring that to life.

I think it was about this time last year...so this time 2018 we started to look at a bunch of different branding agencies and we looked at everybody that had, you know, experience with massive Fortune 500 companies down to people that were a handful of people you know 1 to 5 employees deep and we looked at branding agencies that had multiple skill sets. Ones like I said that do conventional, you know big box retail for consumer packaged goods, we looked at people that were just DTC brands, we looked at big people that did stuff for big companies, people that launch startups, and in that whole process I think we went through and assessed maybe like 20 different agencies and actually met with about 10 different agencies. All of them are great and can't and definitely can't discount any of their work. What we ultimately found was Gin Lane was the one that really resonated with us. We told them who we were, what we did, what what our viewpoint was on the world and on product, and you know what we wanted to do with our technology and how we really wanted to bring that to the forefront of an industry that doesn't necessarily talk that type of narrative...they just got it. Actually I remember we had flown into New York and our flight was delayed so we only had a 45 minutes with them rather than the two hours that we had with every other agency and they got it that quickly that we still went with them..like it was just one of those when you know you know moments.

Y: Once you’ve got that brand created, you have to ensure that the brand is being represented consistently across all customer interactions.

Delivering the brand consistently is a primary responsibility for Rith. He does this by making sure everyone on the team internally understands the brand values so that they all communicate it the same way externally.

R: It all comes down to open communication and making sure from the get-go everybody understands what we're working towards. So that up front alignment is key to making sure that everybody's work output it really, really hits the mark for us in terms of the brand perspective. And taking that a step deeper, it's important to have a brand book or a set of guidelines that everybody has to follow, so if you're doing anything for OROS, you have this type of font and this color pallet that you play within. If you are designing a product or a t-shirt or jacket or whatever...this is the design language that we speak at OROS. And that way you can keep it really consistent and tell that same story ubiquitously across every touchpoint of the brand. I think communication and upfront alignment and then having something tangible that people can always refer back to like a brand book.

Y: Alignment on brand initiatives all points back to one thing for Rith...

R: The number one thing and this is another one of those things that I learned from making the mistakes myself is staying authentic to who you are. Again very cheesy, very such a trite phrase in the world of branding, especially in DTC brands... but it's so easy to to see something happen and say, “Okay yeah that's done so moving on to the next thing.. to the next cool thing.” Really staying authentic and not trying to be too cute about where you think you can go for growth reasons or money reason or anything like that. I think authenticity is the number one key from a brand perspective

Y: One example of how Oros has stayed authentic to their brand is in an upcoming collaboration with the very organization that inspired Rith and Michael to start Oros in the first place, NASA

R: It's going to be a super cool product collaboration between OROSs and NASA and what really makes ours a little bit cooler it has that little bit of X Factor it is the fact that we have technology that NASA actually used in space you know that's powering that product.

We're trying to take the business and we're going to take the business is going more brand driven and have more branded form product and branded form marketing and the OROS <> NASA product collab is sort of our first attempt at doing just that. Like while it is bringing a innovative products to market and from a design aesthetic perspective bringing a more a product with a stronger viewpoint the market is still all done within the lens of what we deem to be appropriate for the OROS brand.

Y: But staying authentic also means saying no to things that don’t stay on brand.

R: Yeah you know in the past we've contemplated product extensions that were good and actual fits for our technology, you know, we've got an all translating technology there's tons of things in the world other than the human body that need to be insulated. Think like a cooler or something like that and we've kicked around the idea of doing something along those lines they could like a Yeti cooler or a backpack cooler and in th e past it didn't feel as though the brand is at the point where we would do something like that. So we just nixed it even though the opportunity felt like it was there, like it was something that we could actually win in, it didn't feel like it would create the synchronous brand experience so we just decided to nixed it entirely.

Y: No matter what product they choose to create, the use of aerogel makes it a very technical product. There’s the data and the scientific reasoning to make it logical why you’d buy the product. But the challenge in selling lifestyle consumer products isn’t just naming all the facts and figures that make your products different, it’s also about being intentional about finding ways that the brand can connect emotionally with customers.

Rith touches on a tactic that’s been proven successful for OROS.

Y: One of the big areas is just content. What are you throwing out there both visually and from a copy perspective that gives people some really awesome insight into who you are as a brand and why should they really care about you? In this day and age, there's just so much stuff flying out there in the world that you really got to give people compelling reasons to, to listen to you and not only listen to you once but come back for more and come back for more and eventually hopefully they’ll become a customer as well. It really falls down that path of building up your brand through storytelling and through content. Sharing things that people care about with the people that care about it.

Y: The biggest ways they gauge whether the brand and product is resonating or not is going directly to customers and simply asking.

R: Your classic post-purchase surveys...you know we’ll run one a couple days after your product gets delivered to you, more to hear about what your experience was as it pertains to our operations, or our marketing.. you know the actual delivery process to get you your product. And then a little bit after that we’ll have another, you know, survey or post-purchase email that asks you for a little bit of feedback about the product itself. In there we’ll ask a ton different things like, “what did you think about the fit? What did you think about the color or the feature set?” and then we'll also ask you know, “What do you wish was on it?” And then sometimes we'll ask, you know, what product extensions do you want to see in the future?” So for instance last year when we ask that question of what products do you want to see next year, the big resounding number one was gloves. So this year we introduced a new pair of gloves and they've been doing pretty well. So you know, I think there's a bunch of different ways you can get a lot also get a lot from a customer service, so people just directly reaching out to our customer service team and just telling us what they think. Typically there, you'll hear more of the areas of improvement but again it's all great feedback. Same thing on social media, you know Instagram, Facebook, Twitter you just get a bunch of feedback both positive and negative and regardless it gives you more data points to which you can make decisions to improve your product or improve your offering.

I would also caveat that with the feedback that you get is very contingent on the questions you ask - meaning if you ask, “Why didn't you like it?” you'll get you'll get a shotgun spread of responses. If you ask, “was the fit what did you think about the fit? (On a scale too big or too small)” then you'll get a pretty good read and a good understanding of what people thought. I think the other aspect of it is when you get all of these individual data points, you have to aggregate them and actually sift the data and understand the trends. I mean there's always going to be the one or two outliers in any data set and you can't let that dictate a decision you make. Like for instance, one person might say the hood on a jacket is too small, the other person might say the hood is too big but if 90% of the people say it's too big and one person said … 10% said it's too small, odds are it's probably too big. So it's just keeping things in context, as well. Pretty obvious stuff but I think it's I think it's important to aggregate all of your data and then look at it as a whole.

Y: As a first time entrepreneur, Rith will admit that his early success is the result of seeking out mentors, advisors, and others he can learn from.

R: I think it's always important to have people around you that are smarter than you and to not shy away from that. To really embrace that because you'll just never grow if you don’t have people that are around you that are more intelligent in their individual fields and that are really pushing you to get better and get better. I think this goes back to that advisory board that I talked about earlier and even our team of investors they're all really, really, really bright men and women so they push us, Michael and myself, like crazy, in good ways so it makes us better and makes the company better and ultimately makes what we offer to our customers better.

I think it all comes down to how relentlessly you're willing to work at something. I'm smart I'm not the smartest person in the world. I would say the same thing about Michael. We're both intelligent guys but we're not really, really smart..we’re not by far smarter than anybody else but we are willing to work really hard for the things that we want and I think that creates an infectious aura around the thing you're trying to build. So it's not even about us..it's about the idea and getting people behind that and I think when you're working so hard towards it another person is working really hard towards it, you can start to convince one or two or three or four or five other people, it becomes easier to attract more and more people especially when they see that you're committed to it day in and day out. I think it's just our relentlessness keeps people/gets people attracted and keeps people coming in.

Y: This is Yaw Aning, thanks for listening.

I really hope you enjoyed listening to this episode as we enjoyed creating it!

Huge thanks to Rith for sharing his story. You can find out more about OROS at OrosApparel.com

The Touchpoints series is brought to you by Malomo. A shipment tracking platform that lets retailers create magical moments that drive engagement with customers after they buy.

To learn more about Malomo, go to www.gomalomo.com.

To listen to other episodes in this series, search for other Touchpoints Podcasts on your favorite podcasting app, or visit www.gomalomo.com.

The music was created by the amazing James Kennedy.