Nope, its not “Vancouver Ultimate.” Though they do hail from Canada. Montreal based VC Ultimate was one of the first companies to cater solely to Ultimate players. Co-founder Adriana Withers gives us a look at VC past, present and future.
Adriana Withers: I started playing Ultimate with friends after school about 15 years ago. There wasn’t a team at our high school and we didn’t really have any rules, but there were a slew of fields hidden within Toronto’s decent park system and we took serious advantage and had a blast.
My brother, Graham, who still plays competitively on GOAT, introduced me to Ultimate as an actual sport in twelfth grade and I started tagging along to all of his league games.
I played at McGill University in Montreal until I left school to work full-time on VC, and started playing women’s club. Soon after, for some unknown reason (throws have never been my strong suit), I was handling one game and laid out for a wild dump pass… driving my right hand in to the ground and breaking it in two places… the week before I was going to Hawaii to play World’s as a pick up on the Toronto women’s team.
Hawaii was fun but I got tired of the sitting around pretty quickly… so I took off my own cast to go body surfing, which meant that it still wasn’t healed a few weeks later when I was playing again at Canadian Nationals. Running off balanced with my hand up against my chest, I cut back sideline for some give and go and “pop!” A torn ACL and meniscus took me out, and that was the last competitive game of Ultimate I played.
The rest of my Ultimate history includes working for VC and getting to go to some of the sweetest tournaments and meet some of the best players in the World. Throw in a weekly league game and I can live with that.
Tell us about the inception of VC. Where are you located? When was it started?
One of my partners, Don Cooper, came up with the idea to start an Ultimate-focused street ware company in 1998 just before I entered in to first year at McGill. Don has a great design sense and is a really good ideas guy and although he received a positive reaction to the casual gear side of things, customers kept asking us for uniforms.
Don brought me and our other founding partner, Ben Unsworth, on to help actualize his visions for VC in 1999. Vicious Circle Ultimate Company became VC Ultimate Inc in 2000, and we opened a killer office in a loft on the top floor of an old building on what’s now super-trendy St. Laurent Blvd in Montreal. We worked hard developing ideas, built supplier relationships, threw insane 350+ person parties to pay our rent, built an innovative website and soon enough the US College kids started calling.
How has the company grown?
We were slightly unprepared for the 300% growth we experienced in our second year. Between the three of us, we had strong design and systems knowledge, but we were lacking in the fundamentals of exporting, accounting and financial planning. In the beginning, a strong manufacturing partnership and a really strong US Dollar helped keep us going as we learned the ins and outs of running a growing apparel business.
We started hitting up the tournament circuit hard – driving to FL, TX, MA… anywhere that would invite us. I think this put a real dent in the market and gave us great visibility, especially in comparison to our only real competitor at that time, GAIA, who had backed off the tournament tour a bit.
The US College teams really gave us a chance, as did some really big Club teams – Doublewide, Zanzara, Fury, Johnny Bravo, Ozone… and of course, GOAT, who has stuck with us through all the years of learning and materials experimentation.
How many employees do you have?
It varies seasonally. In the dead of winter, there are as few as three full timers, a full time US Sales guru and a couple of part-timers. In the heat of summer, it can increase to nine or ten.
What is your mission statement?
To produce the highest quality, innovative performance Ultimate apparel in the most socially responsible manner, with the best service possible.
What products do you offer? What are your signature products? What are you most proud of?
VC was the first Ultimate company to offer sublimation, and we stand by the claim that we are the best. We have created a design services department with six skilled artists to help our customers realize their sublimation dreams, and we are constantly innovating to bring more products in to this offering.
VC offers sublimated jerseys, shorts, long sleeves, zip-ups and jackets. We have a new product called the Front Panel Sublimated Jersey, nick-named the Frub, which will allow teams to fully design the front of their jerseys for much less and much faster. We advertise that we can turn a fully sublimated order around in about three weeks, which is almost always true… except when it’s the beginning of the College series and we have dozens of teams lined up. We do absolutely everything that we can to push orders through for our customer’s tournaments (including waking sewers up at 2am as jobs come hot off the presses), but there are definitely a couple of times in the year when we’re over capacity. Our hope is that the Frub excites the market with a lower cost sublimation option while freeing up some of our capacity since there’s less to print and sublimate for each jersey.
We’re definitely most proud of the fact that we locally manufacture all of our custom uniforms.
What makes your company different compared to the other Ultimate apparel companies?
By far the biggest difference is the quality of the product we deliver, and that we manufacture it locally.
We also try to ensure that all customers are responded to within 24-48 hours maximum… chances are if you haven’t received a response in that timeline there is a glitch in the matrix and you can find us on the phone quickly. Of course, we have let some customers down, but I can confidently say that 95% of our customers are happy with their VC experience, and that we always make up for it if we make a mistake.
Innovate. VC introduced sublimation to the Ultimate market over ten years ago, and we continue to be the first to launch the new sublimated products that our competitors follow with.
What do other companies do better than you?
You have to give Five a shout out for having the most creative tournament set-ups! It’s not really VC’s style or focus, but they do create a welcome and fun environment at events, and I’ve definitely had some good times with the crew on the couches (and booked a couple of last minute flights using their laptop).
Also, other companies in the market right now are producing less expensive gear. If you are having goods made in Mexico or overseas, it will always be cheaper than producing in Canada or the US simply because the wages of workers are drastically lower. We’ve researched it – our costs of sewing would drop by $5 per jersey if we were to manufacture in China.
If you’re thinking, why don’t we do that? Sometimes it’s tempting, but we stand by our commitment to support local manufacturing for as long as it is possible for our business. Local manufacturing is also way more flexible and gets orders done way faster.
When you look at the cost of VC gear in comparison to some of our competitors, you’ll actually find that it’s not really that much more expensive, and the quality/value is definitely worth the few extra dollars per player. We also almost always have offers going with a number of different tournaments or associations – check with us at any time and we’ll make sure to get you in the best package.
Tell us about your supply chain. Where is your material made and how is it shipped?
VC has awesome suppliers and almost all of our custom gear is made by Ultimate players! We sublimate and manufacture about thirty minutes from our downtown Toronto office. Orders come back to VC to be checked and sorted for printing, at which point they are taken about 5 minutes away to our old office where the screen printing is done. Orders come back to VC, are numbered/named, triple checked and packed up for shipping.
Do you utilize green technologies in any of your products?
The greenest aspect of our products is definitely the local manufacturing aspect and subsequent major reduction in fuel used to transport the goods prior to shipping to our customers.
We do use the most environmentally-friendly inks possible for screen printing. We recycle at every stage… including all of the papers used in the sublimation process. We have shockingly little waste at all levels for a business of our size.
We also run Ultimate’s only Green Program – implementing recycling efforts at every major championship event in North America for the last four years.
How do you view your competition? What are you doing to stay competitive?
Every Ultimate company that I know of is run by a nice person who is trying their best to do right by our community. Will at Spin, George at Patagonia, ALL of the Titcombs, Todd at Savage, Mat at Breakmark…it’s a great group. While he’s more of a partner than a competitor, Pad at Discraft is possibly the nicest man on earth.
I feel lucky to have met everyone that works at one of our competitors.
There is room for all of us in this market, but I believe that VC will continue to stay competitive by leading our market in innovation, quality and service.
Do you believe that the market can support another start-up apparel company?
Running a business is extremely difficult and there are now a large handful of companies doing a pretty solid job at servicing our market. That said, one of the beautiful things about an open economy is that hard work, good ideas and a quality product will lead to success, so who I am to dissuade someone from giving it a try? But, in my opinion, it is probably not as good an idea to start a new apparel company now as it was two or three years ago… there is a lot of competition for a relatively small market.
How do you view an entrance from one of the “big” sports companies like Nike or Adidas? Is it inevitable? How are you planning for this possibility?
It’s probably inevitable eventually…but not yet. The market is too small to warrant the investment in sponsorship and marketing by these huge companies at this point.
Patagonia is a pretty big non-Ultimate focused company that scooped up a lot of market share a few years ago and the rest of us survived or were even founded in this period. I think Ultimate players, teams and tournaments will stay loyal to Ultimate-focused companies for quite a while still.
What do you see as your role as an apparel producer in the sport of Ultimate and the future of the sport?
VC is a market leader and a reliable supplier to the sport. We are entering into our 13th year and we have the experience to stick it out as the market ebbs and flows. Hopefully we continue to be the source for teams that are looking for creative and quality products for many years to come.
What can the Ultimate community expect and look forward to about your company?
Better, faster, smoother – we are always looking to innovate and develop new products and improve our quality and service.