As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Altman, CEO & Co-Founder of Sportiqe Apparel Company.
As co-founder and CEO of Sportiqe, Matt Altman is a Phoenix native who spent more than a decade as the director of merchandise for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks and NHL’s Arizona Coyotes where he oversaw all retail operations including buying, sourcing, designing, product development, inventory, sales and logistics for Talking Stick Arena and Chase Field.
In 2006, Altman co-founded Sportiqe, a global, lifestyle apparel company, that is committed to delivering elevated basics using high-quality fabrics, innovative designs and on-trend fit that not only look and feel good, but provide superior comfort no matter the occasion. Sportiqe quickly became a household name amongst some of the most recognizable brands, athletes and celebrities in the world after landing a licensing deal with the NBA early on and being amongst the first apparel companies to bridge the gap between the sports fan and fashion world.
To date, Sportiqe collaborates with global leaders like the NBA, Nintendo, Peloton, Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, Warner Bros. and the Dave Matthews Band, to name a few. Sportiqe has outfitted more than four-million people around the world since its inception.
Altman has a lifelong passion for helping people — supporting them to live their dreams and be the best version of themselves. He serves on the board of The Prem Rawat Foundation, which addresses the fundamental human needs of food, water and peace. He is a member of Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO) and serves on the board of the Arizona Chapter.
Altman holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business from the University of Arizona. In his personal life, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter as well as practicing yoga, skiing, traveling and living his life with the goal of always learning.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
So many people helped me get to where I am today. It takes a village, always. I would firstly say my partners Jason, David, Bruce and the entire Sportiqe family helped me achieve the success I have today. Not to mention family, friends, mentors, peers, and competitors. All in their unique ways they help me with confidence, inspiration, decision making and pushing me to be the best version of myself.
However, the particular person I am infinitely grateful towards is my wife, Clara. She consistently embodies love in all she does. She is my #1 cheerleader, yet challenges me and gives me the space to be me. My world is exponentially a better place because she is in it.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
The impetus to start the company was to fulfill a niche in delivering elevated lifestyle apparel to the destination retail market including corporate retail, resorts, professional sports, events, music, entertainment and hospitlaity. We took boutique-inspired trends in the realm of fabric, body styles, design elements, fit and fused it with classic sportswear. Hence, Sportiqe.
Our purpose and mission is to help people feel comfortable. Whether it’s the products we produce, service we provide, or processes we endure, the notion of comfort is the cornerstone of what we do. Essentially, for humanity, it comes down to feeling good in everything we do. That is fundamentally the experience we are looking for. Yes, we will have ups and downs. Good times or challenging times. But ultimately, we want to find a place of comfort at the end of the day. Sportiqe looks to be a small thread in helping with that.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Using this pandemic as the reference, the one thing I would say is this situation has been new for everyone, including myself. There was no blueprint to draw from, so to speak. That said, this is where the importance of values comes in and what you look to use in your decision making process as a company. In difficult times, from a leadership standpoint, the best place to start is ask the question, “How do we approach this from our values?”
With one of our core values being teamwork, we look to trust one another and have each other’s back and know that ultimately what is best for the company is best for the team. We’re all in this together and it’s going to take each person’s effort to get through it.
Another one of our values is “can do.” This stems from not only having a “can do” attitude, but addressing a situation with the question, “What can you do”? This was a question we asked ourselves early on when the pandemic hit. Our response was to be mindful so we can stay connected, follow the proper guidelines being administered to stay healthy, help, give back and make cool, comfortable clothes. This got us moving and sparked us to start the “Together We Win” Campaign, where 100% of the proceeds from this Sportiqe Comfy Tee has gone to healthcare and community relief affected by COVID-19.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never considered giving up and it never even entered my mind until I heard this question. I learned a long time ago the importance of having a growth and learning mindset. So over that time, I have practiced to look at everything that happens to me from that space. With that, I look at every situation and ask myself, “What am I to learn from this and how can I grow.”
Early on when the pandemic hit, there was a bit of survival mode that kicked in and I used that adrenaline to push forward at a quick pace.
But from a sustainability point it comes down to grit and having the passion to persevere. Just because the pandemic happened, the over-arching vision of the company did not change. What changed is how we will achieve the vision, the path we take, and the new variables we have to navigate.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most critical role is to taking care of yourself so you can be there for everyone else. I feel it’s really important to be present and there for the team. To me, this is the time people really need to shine to be their best. So ensuring my mind was sharp and energy high was critical.
I think staying calm, focused, honest, and vulnerable during challenging times are also critical. You want to remain optimistic and have a postive outlook, but be rooted in the reality of what is happening. There is a fine line in being optimistic versus having “pie-in-the-sky” thinking. So a good approach during challening times is to be optimistically hopeful and humbly realistic.
One thing I have maintained is that we are all leaders in some shape or form. First we are the leader of our own life. Then you must ask yourself, “How can we show up as a leader for our friends, family, and our fellow teammates?”
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I think the first thing to acknowledge is that you are alive. If you find yourself alive, then all is well. It helps put things into perspective to then deal with the uncertainly of the future. The reality is nobody ever knows the future. But this pandemic has certainly rattled people’s ability to predict what will happen from one day to the next like they used to be able to before.
Human beings are highly resilient and adaptable. However, sometimes with fear or trauma we can get stuck. I think that as a leader you have to make sure things keep moving, even if at first it seems at a snails pace.
With the pandemic, we all really needed to process what was going on in the world. We needed to ensure ourselves and our families were safe and secure. I thought it was really important that we stay connected with one another, especially since we were now working remotely. One thing we did was have daily huddles with the entire company. Once there was a sense of comfort we moved to twice a week. Each meeting I would begin with a quote. If may seem elementary to do this, but I would intentionally pick quotes to help with inspiration, motivation, or simply to shift how you may be looking at your situation.
Socrates said “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighing the old but in building the new.”
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to prepare is by advising that you’re about to share difficult news. Be candid, compassionate and courageous. After sharing the news provide an explanation to why. People need to understand why something is happening in order to better process the situation on their own. I always try to think about how I would want someone to deliver difficult news to me. It helps to put me in their shoes and have empathy around the situation.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to continue to exercise your strategic muscle with what you know today. Even though when the pandemic started, things were highly unpredictable from day-to-day, we didn’t stop making plans. First we got very defensive, which was a complete 180-degree pivot to how we were operating. Once we made a number of strategic, defensive moves we were able to shift back to looking at more offensive-minded initiatives.
I have a practice of looking out three years, one year and then putting 90 day goals together that support the longer vision. With things becoming highly unpredictable so many things had to be scrapped. I think it’s important to still utilize best practices to operate a business. So at first it was just about planning one day at a time. One day turned to one week which then turned to 30 days and now, we’re making plans that will take us through the end of the year.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, values. I think using your company’s values is a good way to guide a company through the ups and downs. Values are important as they help shape the company’s behavior and culture. When issues arise, problems need to be solved or decisions need to be made and it’s best approached by looking at your core values to guide behavior and choices.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
A few things I have seen as common mistakes made during difficult times are:
1. Waiting for things to get back to normal. One of the early things I said to everyone was our business will never go back to how it was. It was not meant to scare anyone, but to present a new reality and look to create from the space we are in.
2. Stop forecasting because they don’t know what things will look like. You need to continue to forecast, plan, and pivot as new info is gathered.
3. Managing Cash Flow. As the life blood of a company, this has to be your first priority to ensure you can manage what you need to in order to get through this difficult time.
4. Look for new opportunities, they are there. There is a great quote by Sir Winston Churchill to illustrate this point. “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
In these turbulent times, maintaining financial stability was imperative, so at the onset of the pandemic, this was the initial focus. Where we were in the process of ramping up our business going into the spring/summer we had to completely shift and turn to self-preservation mode, preserve cash, and make a lot of cutbacks to the business.
I’m also a big proponent of personal and professional development, so I doubled down on investing in education and development during this time. Our finance team went through a three-week intensive course on cash flow and profitability, while our sales team went through training to sharpen their skills to look at new ways to operate the business. I personally have also attended a number of webinar and educational programs on leadership, strategy, and finance.
Life is like that of a river, and so is the flow of a business. The key is to keep moving and to stay with the vision and goals that you have, and continue to move in that direction. In turbulent times, you may have to alter your course drastically, look for new ways to do things, find new clients, let go of things, and put more energy into things that are working.
With more people working from home than ever before, we’ve seen a 167% direct-to-consumer growth over the last few months as we’ve shifted our focus from our bread-and-butter wholesale division to bolster e-commerce sales as demand for quality, comfortable clothing grew amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
As stay-at-home orders went into effect across the country in March, we saw an opportunity to double down on our branded, lifestyle apparel and quickly launch a work-from-home campaign that showcased our best-selling t-shirts, hoodies, sweatpants and more. Through targeted social media and digital marketing efforts, Sportiqe acquired a flood of new customers that catapulted online sales by 300% year-over-year within the first 45 days of the nationwide shutdown. Similarly, massively popular core styles received even more attention as Olsen Hoodie ($60) sales were up 594% and Comfy Tee ($28) sales were up 62%, among others.
Before the pandemic, spring 2020 was on-target to be a very profitable season as the lion share of our business is reliant on the wholesale division, which makes up 90% of revenue and is predicated on some of the country’s most recognizable brands within the sports, food and beverage, hospitality, tourism and entertainment industries. With these industries taking a massive hit early on, we were forced to make tough decisions to reduce staff by 50%, inject more capital, restructure relationships and negotiate deals to ensure cash flow and profitability. Once we saw this sudden shift overnight, we knew we needed to quickly rev up online sales to offset the losses we incurred.
A key factor in our viability was our state-of-the-art, 30,000 square-foot warehouse that opened in February, which allowed the company to be nimble and quickly pivot into designing new products and collections with all decorating, labeling, finishing, distribution and fulfillment done in-house. With a mission to make an impact that goes beyond its comfortable fabrics and clothing, we debuted a special-edition, “Together We Win” Comfy Tee ($28), with 100% of the profits going to healthcare and community relief. Similarly, Sportiqe expanded its product line to offer comfortable, branded Face Covers, sold in a pack of three for $25, with 10% of the sales from all orders being donated to frontline healthcare workers. Finally, with so many people staying home, cooking and spending time with family, Sportiqe launched its first Comfort Box by partnering with “comfort driven” brands to create a curated collection of specialty items shipped directly to the customer’s door.
While Sportiqe experienced a 40% decline in its wholesale division during the pandemic for most of its business-to-business clients reliant on in-person customer sales at brick-and-mortar locations, its was able to hone in on its e-commerce clients like Nintendo, Barstool Sports, Proper No. Twelve and Trek Bicycles and help them make the switch by providing web-ready images and content, usually used for social media, in order to better market their products online. Also with the NBA being among the brand’s first clients and recently awarded them “2019 Licensee of the Year”, Sportiqe was selected to produce branded face covers for the players and staff of the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Hold the Vision of the Company. When a storm comes and this pandemic was definitely a big storm, it’s important to continue to steer the ship and ensure you’re moving in a good direction. It’s important to share information and be as transparent as possible. Working remotely has its challenges but you want to make sure you are there for people and answer any questions they may have as if they can walk into your office.
2. Empower People to Lead and Make Decisions. This is the time for people to really shine. However, the only we to get through this is as a team. There is a great Navy Seal quote, “Individuals play the game, but teams beat the odds.” During turbulent times, it’s important to trust your team and empower each person to be even better than they thought they could be.
3. Inspire. Even though things are uncertain, people need to know everything will be okay, and it will. It will require being steadfast and focused to maintain the course as best as possible. It’s become my thing to share inspirational quotes. I try to provide ones that reflect the theme we are dealing with and associate it with our values. Little things like that to help people with motivation or look at things from a different perspective.
I also incorporated a one-word theme for people to share at the beginning of each week. The “one word” is unique to them and provides motivation and a guiding point for people throughout the week.
4. Keep up and Strengthen Your Business Habits. During uncertain times, it’s hard to see from one day to the next. It’s easy to fall into shock and a trap of waiting. I think this is an even more important time to utilize best practices around operating a business. Forecasting, planning, analyzing and reviewing reports are essential. Start with what you know today, given the predicament you are in, and stretch your muscle to forecast. I learned a great lesson through my Executive Education experience at Harvard Business School. That is when we are starting down the path of a new strategy or sales forecast “use your gut.” From there you can validate, test, and see what will work best, but getting to a steady starting point is half the battle.
Also, simplify your focus. Focus on things that are small enough to change and big enough to matter. Getting small wins along the way for the team really help with morale and confidence to persevere.
5. Look for opportunities. Ben Franklin said, “Through great adversity comes great opportunity.” As you navigate through the turbulence, you have to be mindful of opportunities and then have the courage to pursue. Some opportunities maybe short term, like we experienced with the face covers, and others have arise that will take time to manifest. It’s still important to have a long-term view of the business and to look at opportunities from that perspective. This is a great time to try new things. It’s also a great time to get new feedback from your team, customers, and partners to further your efforts collectively.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love this question, as I actually begin our company meetings with a quote. I am constantly finding new quotes to inspire and share with others around me. As you can imagine, it was very hard to pick just one, but this is one of my favorites.
“What you practice the most, you get good at.”
To me, this quote means that as much attention and focus I give to something, the more achievable it becomes. Even the act of being happy requires practice and with practice you get better at it. Success requires effort. I look to this quote as a reminder to continually put focus on things I want to get better at.
Other top quotes for me include:
“Obstacles are the frightful things you see when you take your mind off your goals” — Henry Ford
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves” — Viktor Frankl
How can our readers further follow your work?
Personal Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/matt-altman-b44a899