Company: York River Traders
Founders: Ted and Madeleine Mariner
What: Sporting-inspired accessories for men
Belts made in Boscawen, New Hampshire
Cufflinks made in-house in Boston, Massachusetts
Ties made in Kennebunk, Maine
"My sister is the kind of person who will spend a day in a barn, find a bunch of stuff, and turn it into something cool," says Ted Mariner of his sibling and business partner Madeleine. Two years ago, Madeleine took a pair of old cufflinks, snapped off the ends, attached some shotgun shells and showed them to Ted, who had just graduated from business school. He loved them and suggested they try selling some pairs online. They named the company York River Traders, for the river on which they spent weekends playing in and around as kids. Now their collection of sporting-inspired men's accessories are in over 15 American stores, and not just any stores, "Good stores," says Ted. "We're in stores which provide a context for our products while at the same time allowing for their differentiation. We're in a good place."
What's been the most surprising thing about starting up your own company?
How difficult it is to get stuff made. You can have the best idea for a product that everyone will want, but if you can't get it made then it's just not going to work. But when you ultimately figure out how to make it in a scalable way, it's so worthwhile. We still have a long way to go in terms of getting to the point where we can make 10,000 a year, but we're getting there.
Was domestic manufacturing important to you from the start?
Important from a philosophical standpoint but also in terms of quality control. I'm in Maine right now and the factory that makes our belts is in New Hampshire. I can get on the phone and tell the owner I'd like to come in and make some suggestions about how we might improve the product moving forward. I don't think it works that way if they're being made in, for example, Vietnam or China, unless you have someone who's there on the ground.
I love the usage of sailing rope in your belts. I haven't seen anything quite like them in the market.
Basically, that rope is everywhere in our lives and we felt that other people might identify with it, too, and they have. They're sewn by a terrific woman named Daisy in a 150 year old factory in Boscawen, New Hampshire, which I found through a good family friend of ours over at Port Canvas in Arundel, Maine.
What's it like working with your sister? Have you guys always been close?
It can be challenging, and she'll say the same thing, but our differences are what make us stronger as a company. We grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, but every weekend, we'd drive two hours with our parents to our weekend home in York, Maine. We spent a ton of time together swimming, fishing, and sailing in the summer, and duck shooting in the fall and winter. Our experiences here are on the water definitely informed our sensibility.
Who would you say is your biggest competition in the market?
There are definitely people who sell belts to a similar clientele, but I don't think people walk into a store and see a Smathers & Branson belt next to ours and pick one or the other. I think they either fall in love with it or they don't just because it's so unique.
Do you have any new launches coming up that we can look forward to?
We've been messing around with some bags. We don't talk too much about stuff we haven't done yet, but there's a dopp kit we have a prototype of and we think we can make a duffel using the same method. It'll look really good and be differentiated, which is important. If you don't stand out in some way, you're just going to get killed, especially by people who place giant orders offshore.
How important has social media been as a tool for building out your brand?
Extremely, and that was another thing that was surprising to me: The importance of getting into that social media bloodstream. You have to get in at the top with influencers, and then it flows down and everyone else finds it safe to buy. It takes time. It's about patience.
You hear overnight success stories but it's mostly hard work. You have to have talent and drive.
And you have to have thick skin, too. It's like going to the gym. The way you find success is by going in on the days you don't want to go. Everyone has days where they wonder "What am I doing? Have I made a big mistake?" And on those days, more than any other, you have to plow ahead and keep your head down.