It started with a pair of orange pants and a surprise partnership with sportswear giant, Vineyard Vines. Today, it's a model for all the ways entrepreneurial innovation can share common ground with a passion for creating community–and serving others.
Not surprising, considering that lifestyle fitness apparel company Rhoback's present success is the second act of an idea born at Davidson.
"We want to show that the company can be run with those principles and be successful," said company co-founder I.S. Dunklin '11. "It's not just about selling products and making money."
With a custom-built teardrop camper hitched to a vehicle in tow, Dunklin, Kevin Hubbard '11, Matthew Loftus '11 and Loftus' spouse, Kristina, introduce communities up and down the East Coast to their company's products–performance polo shirts, hats and, soon, quarter-zip pullovers and dog bandanas.
The partners chose Rhoback–a play on Rhodesian Ridgeback–as the company's name to inspire its customers to be ready for the next adventure. The Rhodesian Ridgeback, a dog bred in Africa, is spirited and adventurous, with an unmistakable ridge that runs down its back. The clothing line's trademark "ridge" and the company's "Crave Activity" motto are daily reminders of the company's philosophy.
Along the way, Rhoback's mission and distinctive brand of clothing have done more than remind people to live healthy lifestyles. Company proceeds directly benefit two non-profit organizations, awarding grants to schools that struggle to fund physical education programs, and forming partnerships with American Humane to provide service dogs to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The entrepreneurs carry out their alma mater's mission of leadership and service.
"Davidson is our rooting bond," said Loftus.
The friends and former fraternity brothers started their venture with a common goal. When classmate John Frankel '11 died in a car accident during their senior year, they teamed up with a few of their best friends to launch a scholarship fund in his name. Frankel's motto, "no bad days," stayed with them in the years that followed.
Riding on early momentum to fund the scholarship, a pair of pants provided the spark needed to help fund the final push toward the ambitious $250,000 goal.
"It all started at a horse race in [Washington] D.C. called the Gold Cup," Loftus said. "One of our friends wore alarmingly bright orange pants. Not surprisingly, he drew a lot of attention at the race...too much in our opinion. We decided to prank our friend the next morning and 'borrowed' his pants."
The gag gained traction–and a following. The Brotherhood of the Traveling Pants was born.
One weekend, while waterskiing in the pants, inspiration dawned.
"Why not reach out to some of our favorite clothing brands and see if they'll send us a free pair of pants in exchange for a fun story?," Loftus said.
To their surprise, one of the largest companies wrote back and invited them to be part of their summer marketing campaign–featuring their active lifestyles and the colorful pants.
The ambitious social media experiment, matching products with Instagram users' areas of interest, proved hugely successful. Throughout that summer, with help from the Vineyard Vines campaign, the Davidson friends funded the remaining $30,000 of the scholarship created in Frankel's name. Today, The John Frankel Scholarship at Davidson College is awarded to one student every four years.
But that was just the beginning.
Once they met and exceeded the scholarship goal, the friends found themselves with more than 10,000 followers on Instagram.
"We wondered how we could use our social media presence to do even more," Hubbard said.
During the Instagram campaign, the partners recognized a problem in need of a solution–there was a clear hole in the market for high-end lifestyle active wear. Some brands are built for activity but not for lifestyle, and some are built for lifestyle but not for activity, Hubbard said.
Rhoback was the solution.
"We shipped our first shirt Dec. 15, 2016, and our 1,000-plus products sold out in a little over three weeks," Hubbard said. "We realized this thing had legs, and our next order was five times the initial order."
Dunklin elaborates on the key to Rhoback's success.
"After Davidson, it's been exciting to see people take concrete steps to do what we talked about at school," he said. "We've reached the age where people are starting to live out their ideas and dreams in earnest."
Day in and day out, while not busy with their full-time careers, the partners build relationships, negotiate contracts and craft their brand.
"Our desire to constantly innovate and to make things better based on feedback–that came from Davidson," said Hubbard. "We're able to deal with manufacturers and customers, and we're committed to having the best products."
Their persistence has paid off. Rhoback, a company that aims to inspire people to get outside and embrace life, continues to make waves both in the fashion world and with consumers.
"We work hard to ensure the work product is perfect," he added. "That's Davidson."