Core Careers: Stance VP of Creative Aaron Hennings

Aaron Hennings with wife

“When you are doing a start-up there is not a safety net… If you tell a pure and true story, the right people will gravitate to it and make the brand feel larger than it is.” − Aaron Hennings

In early 2010, Stance emerged on the scene as a pioneering brand within a virtually untapped accessory in the industry: socks. Since then, Stance has been steadily gaining momentum not only domestically, but internationally as well. With over 1,000 stores carrying their designs, Stance brings joy and artistic stories to many devoted fans.

VP of Creative and designer Aaron Hennings has been there since Stance’s infancy and was formerly Billabong’s Art Director for nine years.

As part of our Core Careers series, Aaron talks about how several industry leaders took him under their wing as a teenager, his thoughts on start-ups, what he looks for in his designers and more.

What are some key things you learned while working at a larger company that helped you in your new role at Stance?

I learned the importance of creating a brand that consumers love and consider to be their best friend. I learned about selling a dream and delivering a consistent message to your audience. The dream has to be relatable and an aspiration.

Athletic ability alone doesn’t always translate to market influence. It’s easier and more probable for someone to dress and create bad art just like their hero, rather than duplicate the athletic abilities of their hero. The lifestyle is more of a direct connection when selling apparel.

I learned merchandising and how to see the collection from the perspective of a buyer and consumer. A creative person must also consider the economics of wholesale and retail, not just the artistic merit of a product.

I learned the dynamics of communication and teamwork amongst all departments and what happens to each as the company grows. Specifically, what causes strain on each area and how to help each other eliminate the pressure points.

You are a father of four. Were you nervous about leaving an established company to join a start-up? If so, what made you decide to take the leap?

Yes, I was nervous, but also understood an established company wasn’t the only way to go. Being a father means there is tension between the responsibility to provide for the family through a big, safe, time-consuming job, and the yearning for flexibility to enjoy free time with family.

Seeing what was happening in 2008 and 2009, it was apparent that even established companies were not always safe. They could instantly eliminate many jobs at any time. I thought it was possible that a start-up could actually be more secure and also allow for flexibility in time.

The opportunity for a new career experience and to build a brand from the ground up with talented people was a key factor when I made the leap. Stance was a carefully crafted perfect storm: a start-up scenario that had a unique business opportunity, an experienced executive team, strong financing, a generous employee equity pool, carte blanche creative freedom, and an unmatched lifestyle opportunity. A combination like that does not come around too often in our industry. It felt like now or never and I didn’t want to miss the chance.

Jeff Kearl (Stance co-founder and CEO) helped me look at it objectively. I realized that at worst, the market would not accept the concept and we would run out of money in 24 months. Then I’d just go back to doing what I was doing after having had a start-up business experience. But on the upside, it could potentially be a life-changing opportunity and a lot of fun along the way.

See Page 2 for Aaron’s early career and design inspirations

Is there something in your education or early career that brought you to where you are today?

Growing up in San Clemente and around Orange County, I could observe the people and businesses that have shaped our industry. I saw the success and watched the epic failures.

The confidence and guidance given to me by industry leaders early on was influential. When people I respected were showing confidence in my abilities, I got the feeling I should keep going. They showed me business and lifestyle can be one in the same, and I wanted that for my future.

Bob Hurley was the first to encourage and support me from an early age. He gave me an enormous confidence boost when he put me on a monthly retainer as a designer for his Billabong line when I was 16. I thought I had found the best job in the world! He made me feel awesome and talented beyond reality. His enthusiasm helped push me into thinking youth ruled the world and that I could actually have a career in this.

Will Howard let me shadow him and work for Dragon one summer in the early days of the company. I saw some of the beauty and pain of a small start-up business and flashed back to those memories frequently when we started Stance. Will took interest in me and gave me business advice that as a teenager I thought I’d never need to remember, but now I see the wisdom in his words and have used his advice along the way.

I chose to go to college in Southern California instead of Utah. This allowed me to work in the industry during school and have a little more experience when I graduated. Paul Naude and Steve Wilson gave me another break in 2001 when they offered me the Art Director position for the new Billabong and would hold the position open for me for three months until I finished school.

Graduation was on a Thursday, and on Monday morning, I was there. I wasn’t really 100% qualified for the job in the beginning and had to grow into it. However, the faith they put in me and the instant responsibility I felt forced me to learn how to make things happen.  

What are your design inspirations? Is designing socks different than designing apparel?

I look at the various mediums of creative expression and what they were doing in each of the decades past. Photography, fashion, music, fine art and interior design, each has something incredible to offer in the different eras. Inspiration comes from absorbing it all and then filtering to taste while injecting a new twist.

I’ll add a touch of what’s going on now, and always consider the audience as well as commercial implications. Color is the foundational design element for socks, I love looking at the color combinations in artwork by Rex Ray.

Our Punks & Poets help shape the brand and inspire design in a meaningful way. That group provides plenty of creative material. Socks are similar to apparel when they provide an outlet for self-expression or a way to share a mood. They are an extension of personality.

Obviously silhouettes and fabrications are much simpler than apparel. Sometimes we design socks with the intention to be the main feature in what one is wearing. Other times they complement another piece of clothing or footwear. They can be on the front edge of trend or just a great basic anyone can pull off.

We use the same design process and a 40/40/20 merchandise philosophy many companies use.  Our process is similar to how a brand would create a T-shirt collection or a line of footwear.  I think through the same steps we used when putting together the boardshort line at Billabong.  However we do try to stay fast, fluid and flexible to allow for that last second good idea to be added to the line a week before we release the collection.

The way we hang our socks vertically on our display rack with minimal packaging showing off the color and pattern was inspired by the way boardshorts are merchandised on the wall in the stores.

See Page 3 for Aaron’s thoughts on succeeding in a start-up

What are some key things you learned working at a start-up that you didn’t know before?

The greatest opportunity lies in the contrarian thinking.  If you start something, it must be truly unique. The courage to start the journey into the unknown is probably the most important trait of an entrepreneur. Strategy is important but execution is paramount.

When you are doing a start-up there is not a safety net, so the strength and longevity of the brand will be equal to the effort and quality of the people building it. The unity of vision and trust amongst the founding group of individuals is critical to get the brand off the ground. If you tell a pure and true story, the right people will gravitate to it and make the brand feel larger than it is. 

Don’t chase every shiny new opportunity that pops up. Stay focused, but it’s great to be nimble and quick to adjust when needed. The ability to turn on a dime is an advantage the big guys don’t have. It’s nice to use that to your advantage, and you may not always have that.

Because of limited manpower and resources, most of the time you are delegating tasks to yourself. One can talk, think and strategize way faster than actually bringing an initiative to life. Be careful in those brainstorm meetings, being able to pull something off is as important as the brilliant idea!

How has your role there evolved with Stance’s growth?

It’s been unreal to go from zero to where we are today. The roles change fast with growth.

Day one was setting the table with basics that an established brand doesn’t even think about. We needed a name, a logo, development calendar, an office, desk and chair. Then it was figuring out strategy, brand positioning, a factory to make this stuff, and how to get a line of socks by a brand no one had heard of into the best stores in four months. 2010 was like a pure insanity of speed with no sleep.

Today I’m thinking longer term, globally, and creating product for new distribution and consumer types. We work together to figure out how to grow the company in the right sequence. The brand is navigating multiple market segments and being introduced to the international market.

Now that we know the concept works, the role has a piece of brand management to not screw up what we have created. Last year we hired an incredible group of girls and launched the women’s division. This year I’m working on staffing the creative area of the company with amazing people who see the vision and realize a company’s culture is its most important asset.

See page 4 for what Aaron looks for in designers

What are you most proud of in your current job?

We got a lot of funny looks when we said we were going to create a sock company. I remember the day I had to come home and tell my wife that the new company without a name was going to specialize in men’s hosiery! Today it is amazing to see the range of people wearing our product with pride.

I am most proud of the execution and success of the concept by the group of people we have put together. I love that we are building this category for the retailers and the consumers. Creating a product and brand that people are excited about and adding a little fun to their day is awesome.

I’m proud of retailers calling and asking to buy any inventory we have available, and then a month later having the reps report great sell through. It’s been surreal to witness the caliber of talent asking to be part of Punks & Poets.

What are the qualities you seek when working with other designers?

I want to work with someone who has a unique and original perspective. They need to have natural talent, vision, passion, and commitment. I look for people who understand how to manage the opposing forces of artistic integrity and commercial viability.

Also someone who understands our brand and can create a product, campaign, or service that will clearly enhance the message. I like a bit of unpredictability in the creative process. People who create in a nonlinear format usually bring the magic.

My favorite designers to work with have come from a different sphere of influence than my own, and bring new solutions to design problems.

What are your biggest challenges at the moment and how are you working to overcome them?

From a business point of view, it’s managing the growth and not feeling overwhelmed by all the great opportunities that we have in front of us. It feels like I am holding a 10-gallon bucket with one hand while someone is pouring 30 gallons of water into it. At the moment, I spend a lot of time prioritizing initiatives, planning for the future and help decide which opportunities to invest in.

To eliminate that overwhelming feeling I try to look at everything as good problems to have − they just need some attention. I step back, take a breath, and we get together as a team to figure out the “what” and “why” first. Then if we decide to do something, we address the “when” and “how.”

Next, I try to pace myself when executing a plan. I remind myself it will not be pleasant if you sprint the entire distance of a marathon.

Personally, the biggest challenge is maintaining the correct work and life balance. A start-up company brings a lot demands on time and a sense of urgency.

Every week I’m looking for a feeling where I’m proud of my productivity and execution at work, but also know I am saving time and energy for myself, my friends, and my family.