Team Talk: Ben Massey, Founder of R.A.D on Why Training Is The New Sub-Culture

·14-min read

Men’s Health: For people who don’t know, could you explain what R.A.D is?

Ben Massey: R.A.D. is primarily a footwear company. We make performance shoes. Currently, we have one model, which is mainly for the training market and we're developing a running shoe. Then, in our third year we’ll be doing a skate shoe. What we're trying to do, is bring the aesthetic of skateboarding and streetwear to the training community. That's it in a nutshell.

Do you see training as a subculture like skateboarding?

It is exactly that. The sports that we reference and look at have traditionally been lifestyle sports. When it comes to skateboarding, snowboarding, or surfing, there's this organic fluidity to them. You as the athlete can, I guess, choose how you want to perform it. Now that they have all become more professional, there is this crossover with training that I don’t think we had before. It goes both ways. Training used to be going to the gym, hitting some five-by-fives your side by fives then doing your 20 minutes on the cross-trainer. But now you train to live better outside of the gym, or to be better at your chosen sports, so there is a real synergy. Training has become a lifestyle. Whereas before you were looked at as a bit of a weirdo if you went to the gym all the time, today it’s seen as a cool thing. Fashion, music and culture all comes into the training sphere now.

Subculture sports are traditionally very tribal. What’s R.A.D.’s tribe?

I often use the skate crew analogy. You all have this love for skateboarding and that’s what binds all the crews together. But then, depending on where you are geographically, you'll all have a style. Our crew is CrossFit. But in Boston, I'm sure everyone is head-to-toe in NOBULL because that's where their stronghold is. It’s the same with any CrossFit gyms. If the affiliate owners have a particular style then that permeates down to the members. People like to identify with a gym, or a skate park or a surf spot but then collectively all love the same thing. People want to belong to something and there's no better way to do that, I think, with what you’re wearing. Take sneaker culture for example. You wear Pumas, or you wear Nike SB, or you wear Jordans or you wear Adidas. Whatever you're wearing, you can say that type of shoe is what your crew wears, or your football firm and so on. That sense of belonging to that that tribe, that crew, is so powerful and so strong.

How did you come up with the idea for R.A.D.?

I opened a CrossFit affiliate in 2011. I was also competing at the time and back then sponsorship was non-existent. A brand gives you a bag of protein and say you're sponsored. But of course, that doesn't pay the bills. So, I opened the gym pretty much so I could train all day. I had a business partner who would coach in the morning until lunchtime. I would train throughout the day and then coach in the evening. It enabled me live sort of like a “professional” athlete. In 2017 I went to the CrossFit Games in the team division. We were the first British team to every make it. We had a strong culture as a team, we were really tight-knit and we'd also managed to get the UK behind us. Everyone was excited.

But there were a few things that happened that the Games that were out of our control and I think that really rattled us. Certainly, me and Steve [Fawcett] found it really hard. We'd worked really hard to train diligently and mitigate as much risk as possible. But ultimately, in competition, there are thing that are out of your control, no matter how well prepared you are. You don't end up where you thought you should, or where you believe you should be. We had amazing support from sponsors, we had amazing support from all our fans. We had a great setup, yet we didn't achieve what we thought we could.

That was a big moment of reflection for me. I thought things would change getting to the CrossFit Games but it didn't. I said to myself ‘OK, what's the next challenge?’ That’s when I started playing around with this idea of a brand. I felt like the gym had a limit on how big it could be, and I wanted to do something that I could reach lots of people. I felt like a brand was the way to do that. Before I had the gym, I worked at a Japanese streetwear company called a Bathing Ape and I've always had this love for shoes and fashion. I thought I would merge those two worlds together.

To get people to notice us, we decided early on we were going to launch with a shoe. There were two reasons for that. Firstly, creating a show was really, really hard. I didn’t know at the time quite how hard but I knew it was going to be tricky and I thought people who stand up and take notice. The second was that, while there were shoes on the market that performed amazingly well, they weren’t my vibe aesthetically. I wanted to create a shoe that you would want to wear outside of the gym.

Was launching with a shoe a bit of a risk?

Definitely. I 2017, when I was coming up with the idea, I really realised that I'm one of those people that do one thing and go all in. I was going to need to sell my share of the gym, in order to go all in. I didn't want to do it safely. I had this cash, so that was what I'm going to invest in this new venture. Anyone can start a T-shirt Company, pretty much. You can get amazing blanks, find a great screen printers and you're off. You can do it about four weeks or so and I felt like that was it was too crowded, that it was too hard to to get seen. I wanted this to be a project that was going to live for, decades to come, so I knew that the first product had to be shit-hot. I spoke to quite a lot of people in the early days about the idea and I'd say 90% of people said to start with a T-shirt and see if the brand resonates. I was not going to do that.

I started to do two things in parallel. One was to create the brand and the other was finding a shoe designer. I had done some sketches, but I had no idea how we were actually going to make a shoe. I knew we needed someone on that side. You can't just Google ‘footwear designer’, though. So I knew that I needed to have a solid brand vision that I could present to designer and for them to take us seriously.

After eight months of working on the brand, I flew to Portland, which is of course, the home of performance footwear in the US. I basically stalked a guy out there and said I was in Portland and I wanted to meet him. You always go into those things a rough idea of how much you think something is going to cost but I very quickly got an understanding that the pot of money was going to last me years, was going to last me months.

The designer, Tom, was fantastic at explaining the process and the stages that we needed to go through. We also met with a development agency ad they simply said that with the funds we had, they could get us to what they call a ‘salesman sample’, which is the stage where you would normally take your shoe into retailers. So our plan was to get to that point and then use the samples to and raise more money.

That process was to take 12 to 18 months but then the pandemic reared its head, so it took it took a bit longer. Because I had no idea of how long it should take, it just seemed normal to me. Meanwhile, Tom and the development team were going absolutely spare because it had taken two years…

Did that enforced extra time end up helping in anyway?

Absolutely. I think one of the biggest lessons throughout this whole experience is that time allows you to reflect and refine. There was time to really scrutinise the brand, how we were positioning it what it stood for. When I first started the brand, sustainability at the top but from 2017 to now, I actually feel like ‘sustainability’ has become a dirty word for big corporates to hide behind. So, while that element of the brand hugely important to us as a company, I had the time to decide not to make it the forward-facing USP. Consumers are so wise to and wary of companies’ virtue signalling in one way or another.

What did you do with your samples once you finally got hold of them?

We were in the Christmas lock down when they arrived. I had all these meetings with investors lined up and when that lockdown hit I didn’t know what I was going to do. I hate pitching over Zoom as you can’t read what the investor is thinking of feeling. I needed, whatever happens, to have the shoe in their hands. I had five pairs of shoes and I got hold of some Peli cases, the indestructible hard plastic case they use on film sets. We made R.A.D Peli cases, got form inserts with perfect foam inserts to present the shoes perfectly and put padlocks on them. I sent them to the investors and they would email me and say they couldn’t open it. I would say that when they wanted to do the zoom call I would tell them the codes. We’d get on the call, they entered the code, crack open the case and find the shoe. That’s how I got them excited about it. Then I talked them through it and talked about what we've done with it, and they could really build up a picture of the shoe and the brand in the moment. They were seeing it for the first time while I was speaking to them.

Lockdown meant no face-to-face meeting but those cases turned the calls into a teal moment. Because everyone at that time was still lacking connection, it enabled us to create this moment of connection that everyone had been missing.

When did you start planning the full launch?

Originally, we were going to launch in November of 2021. In May that year, there few things happening where we manufacture in China. And so if we had wanted to launch in November, we had to manufacture in sort of June time and that just wasn’t going to happen. So we scrapped that and decided to go for Wodapalooza in January 2022. It was perfect a everyone is getting back into fitness at that time of year. From there, it was about building the brand experience, because I felt like launching at an event in person was going to be the best way for word of mouth to spread. If people are buying it, wearing it and posting about it, then hopefully you're going to build the trust for people to purchase online. Once that first launch was done, we needed to align with an athlete. I played around in my head for a long time because we had decent budget. I was conscious that if we came to the party with a headline athlete, our consumers were going to look at that and assume that we’d splashed the cash and bought credibility for the show. In the end, Danielle Brandon made perfect sense. Danielle is a once in a brand lifetime opportunity. So we did everything we could to get her on board and, again, that just happened to fall into place at the right time.

Does Danielle fit with your skateboarding/CrossFit ethos?

Totally. I think that is certainly why I was first attracted to CrossFit, because it was this new thing that had its own way of expressing itself. I liked that. I liked that they weren't afraid to stand up, or stand for what they believe is right. Whether you think it’s quite right or not, they take a stance and stand for it and Danielle is the same. She looks like a CrossFitter and part of that tribe yet expresses that in an entirely individual way. As a consumer, you can relate and connect with that.

Laura Horvath was your next athlete. Was it a conscious decision to sign a European athlete?

The main thing was that I saw Laura snowboarding on her Instagram. I just thought she was pretty cool. I knew she was obviously an amazing CrossFit athlete, but I didn't really know what she was like outside of competition. Generally the media around her paints her to be this quite stoic, Eastern European. But when you actually get into her feed, what she likes doing and her hashtags that she's really funny, I realised she had this complete s personality outside of CrossFit. It wasn’t a deliberate European play. It was sort of an added bonus. It was more about R.A.D being a brand that transcends the training space and be part of other actions sports. Laura does that as far as what she does when she’s not in the gym lifting barbells.

How do you see R.A.D as different to the functional fitness shoes produced by the big manufacturers?

I think it’s fair to say that the functional fitness training community feels more personally aligned with brands that have come out of it, rather than a Reebok, Puma, Adidas or Nike who also do a training shoe. It’s a counter-culture thing that brands built from within are the ones that test of time in that sport. Nike are an absolute monster, but they came from running and they resonate effortlessly with runners as their target consumer.

I think it's a delicate balance for R.A.D. to make sure that we are always looking after our core consumer but with an eye on other lifestyle action sports that we're passionate about. We don’t want to make niche products too soon but, at the same time, leave it to long and new consumers won’t buy in because they think we only do training products.

What is the next evolution in the training space going to be?

Training will just become part of your every day. Certainly within a certain demographic it is already a non-negotiable. There's this crossover now where it's so important for your life and for your everyday and that is only going to grow and get stronger. There's going to be less of a distinction between what you wear for training and what you wear casually. The concept of formal dress is disappearing, and people just want to be able to wear comfortable stuff that they like the look of.

Finally, what is next for R.A.D.?

We're going to be starting on the skate shoe in a few weeks. Generally, shoes take about 18 months. So that would launch beginning of 2024 if we have an easy ride. Skate as a culture is just so relevant across so many different categories at the minute and I think people love the of self-expression. There's a freedom to it and that’s why people align to it, whether or not they skateboard or not. Yeah, they'll love the whole aesthetic of it. It’s that whole gritty, edgy vibe that people love, because they are part of a group but they're also an individual.

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