When a company is around the block for over 19 years, one thing is for sure: with the passage of time, the business will go through various stages in its life cycle. But not only that, the industry changes, the shopper’s behavior changes and the market overall changes. So, being a business owner in the yoga world means that you need to be flexible on and off the mat. Barefoot yoga, a retail online store, offers a variety of products designed to serve the yoga community. To lean more about the story of Barefoot yoga and learn more about the people behind the Barefoot yoga retail website, we asked Kelly LeFebvre, the store’s owner, a few questions. Here is what she had to say.
SYN: Can you tell me bit more about the creation of Barefoot Yoga and the inspiration behind it?
LeFebvre: In 1996, my husband and I traveled through India and Nepal mostly on trains and buses for six months. We had planned to visit Mysore on this trip and possibly spend two weeks practicing Ashtanga Yoga with Pattabhi Jois. When we arrived, he told us we needed to stay one month minimum to practice with him. We agreed, and ended up staying two and a half months in Mysore practicing and could have spent longer. We would be finished with our practice at around 7:30 a.m., so I had a lot of time on my hands during the day and would walk the streets pondering what I was going to do when I returned home to the U.S. I came up with the design of the yoga mat bag because I would every day try to strap my mat onto the back of the bike I rode in the early a.m. to practice about two miles, and drew a sketch of a design I had in mind. I took it to the small tailor’s hut across the street from our hotel and after many attempts, him and I came up with a good prototype of the bag I had in mind to put my mat in and strap on my back. I would go into fabric shops all over Mysore and look for fabrics for the bag. In a back-alley shop, I found some beautiful cotton woven designs that they had very little of. I asked if they had more, and they led me down to their basement below the shop where they had the bounty of these ancient fabrics. They said they were like 50-100 years old. These were the ones I really loved and had the most authentic feel of India to me. I bought what they had and had this tailor make as many bags as we could with the fabric. I sold many of them to my fellow yogis in Mysore, then took what I could on my back home (about 30). I returned to San Francisco where we lived at the time and brought them to my first yoga class. After class, we laid them out on the floor and sold all 30 of them the first night. I thought I had something good here, and pursued making them in San Francisco for a while, but realized that the Indian fabrics were really what I was after, so made another trip to India and connected with some agents that we still work with today. We now weave these traditional Indian fabrics ourselves on a loom for our bags, and we are always scouting out new patterns. We started the company in our apartment in the outer Richmond district of San Francisco. We outgrew that and moved into a couple of offices and some garages we rented for storage. I’m from Seattle and being that San Francisco was prohibitively expensive to run a company, especially one that needed space, we started looking at what we could find in Seattle and now have a big warehouse in Fremont where we do our fulfillment and have been here since 2003. We’ve expanded our product lines since then and continue to expand.
SYN: The company was established in 1998, after so many years on the market what has the journey been like?
LeFebvre: It’s been interesting to see the evolution. It was a completely new genre when we started (with many skeptics – like my parents who couldn’t understand how I could possibly be successful and create a company from a yoga mat bag design). We do feel we were pioneers in some aspects (for better or worse). I do feel now that the westernized commerce end of the yoga world has gotten away from the essence of what yoga really is about (philosophically) and that saddens me some. As a company, we have always tried to stay authentic to the philosophies of yoga, meaning that our products and our way of doing business, how we treat our customers, and the consciousness around what we offer is meant to inspire more practice and bring people more into the present when they are practicing. It hasn’t been easy because in many ways, business and yoga don’t really mix well. But my underlying vision is that the more people practicing yoga in the world, even in the smallest possible way, we get closer to world peace. It’s a stretch, but it is a positive direction. Obviously yoga can change your life for the better, and this can reverberate throughout your life and beyond to help others. We are still a very small company and in many ways we have purposely stayed small so we can provide personal service, provide high quality products with attention to detail, and have integrity around staying true to the foundation of yoga principals.
SYN: What kind of yoga do you practice?
LeFebvre: I started with a devoted Ashtanga Practice. I have dabbled in pretty much every style of yoga and every opportunity I have to try new styles, I take. I’m very open minded when it comes to different styles of yoga and get so much out of every kind from restorative, to Bikram, to Kundalini, even Karma yoga which is really just about giving back in your day-to-day life. Ironically, since starting the business, I do less physical practice than I did when I started the company, but every part of our company is yoga inspired in some way. The company was really born from my daily yoga practice and the enlightenment and freedom it gave me in my life to create the products and believe in myself and my abilities to make it happen and spread it out into the world.
SYN: What is unique about BF Yoga compared to other retail yoga companies?
LeFebvre: We have been first to market with many products and that is not as known now 18 years later because we didn’t invest in patents or attorneys fighting to keep our designs protected. Barefoot yoga was one of the first yoga product companies selling online. There were very few competitors in the early years and for at least 10 years we came up first or second on Google search for everything yoga related and didn’t pay a cent for it. We just didn’t have competitors. We sold our products to Gaiam, Lululemon and many other big companies that now make our designs and put their labels on them. We have always been original, and still strive to be original in everything we do. We still make a lot of our core products in India which is where yoga comes from and makes us feel closer to the source. We are a quality brand and have created a really good reputation in the yoga world for being real, conscious and authentic in this space. People really trust our quality and they know they will be treated with respect on all levels when dealing with our company. Also our pricing is not exorbitant so it stays within reach for everyone.
SYN: Any statistics you are willing to share with our readers? For example, how many mats have you sold in those years?
LeFebvre: Let’s just say millions. 18 years is a long time. We do feel in many ways we are just touching the surface of what we can offer.
SYN: Is it fair to assume that Seattle is one of your strongest markets?
LeFebvre: Not our strongest, but yes. Our core customer base is in Los Angeles and New York. We also sell all over the world and have large accounts in Europe and even the Middle East.
SYN: The online retail yoga space is becoming more and more crowded, what are your strategies to stay up to speed?
LeFebvre: Continue to create exciting, high quality products, a new web site (just launched and in process of design), and stay true to our core principals. Staying authentic, original, high quality, environmentally conscious and kind.
SYN: What is your vision for BF Yoga in the years to come?
LeFebvre: It’s constantly evolving-especially now with our new site. We’d like to be able to offer affordable eco-friendly yoga products and support causes we believe and that relate back to the foundation of the company. It feels important in all aspects of our business to have intentions that help the world move more in the direction of peace. This is very obscure and omnipotent, but I do feel that small, positively intended acts in quantity can change the world and we hope to do this ultimately through the beauty in our products that people appreciate and that inspire them to practice. The more people practicing yoga in the world, the better our world will be. Yoga heals, and brings out the good in everyone.
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