We caught up with triathlon wetsuit brand ROKA co-founders Rob Canales and Kurt Spenser, two former All-American swimmers and Stanford teammates, on the heels of announcing their multi-year sponsorship of Olympians Javier Gomez and Gwen Jorgensen.
Triathlete.com: You guys announced today that ROKA has signed Gwen and Javier—big news especially with 2016 Olympics in the distance. Can you tell us a bit about the groundwork you’ve been laying to make that happen?
Rob: The groundwork we laid for Javi and Gwen, as well as the other top athletes we’ve signed, was in trying to develop the fastest suits on the market. Full stop. We really do have a product-first philosophy and have found that good work gets noticed, among athletes and in the market. After last season, we had significant athlete interest, so while we definitely wanted to grow the team, a big part of our athlete partnership strategy has been reactive, not proactive.
Triathlete.com: What is part of a larger plan to focus more on ITU athletes with the Rio Games in the not-too-distant future?
Kurt: I don’t think we made it a big strategy—we’re really big ITU and Olympic fans. Growing up swimmers, we dreamed about the Olympic rings and Olympic gold. It’s something that we really are passionate about and want to support. Absolutely we’re excited to support ITU and ITU racing and the development of that next generation of great triathletes. But we love great triathletes of all kinds, of any distance.
Rob: We just really want to work with amazing athletes. The lines are kind of blurring between ITU and non-drafting races and distances. Someone like Javi is super interesting because he’s in that crossover phase of his career where he’s a mature, very accomplished ITU athlete who is dabbling in 70.3, he’s won the XTERRA off-road world championship, Hy-vee and has expressed an interest in moving to Ironman.
Kurt: Our relationship with the athletes has been incredibly organic. Through word-of-mouth we’ve been introduced to people and just really sought out the best.
Triathlete.com: You also recently signed Melissa Hauschildt, Emma Moffatt, Rachel Joyce—a lot of big Ironman names. Can you speak to the value of having these athletes representing your brand?
Kurt: Rob and I were on the swim team at Stanford together and I think what was so valuable for us was the team culture that we took away from that. It was a really collaborative, supportive team environment. We don’t take a marketing perspective towards our athletes—it’s just team first. We really consider those athletes members of the team, from a technology and development standpoint and then from a brand standpoint. We want to support their passions and their dreams, just like they’re supporting our development efforts. We tried to set a template with Jesse [Thomas]. Having his early input on the original Maverick Pro wetsuit and just the process we went through was so invaluable, and it’s so important that we take an athlete-first approach to everything we do.
Rob: We talk a lot about designing for performance, not product. The products we design are just a means to an end. We definitely will expand our product offering in the coming years, and I think you’ll see a pretty logical progression. We’re working very closely with Javi and others to understand how we can translate their needs to product solutions that really improve performance, and we’re super excited about what’s in the pipeline.
Triathlete.com: Can you talk a bit about the product development process you go through with your pro athletes?
Rob: We have a very human-centered design process—we do a lot of rapid prototyping and talk a lot about ‘building to think’—we don’t design products on a whiteboard. We have commercial sewing machines in our office so we can literally make something on very short notice. We’ve got amazing, very experienced factory partners who are also nimble enough to meet our needs.
Kurt: I’m a product designer by training, and there are a lot of products that come out of the process that we never expected. The SIM is an example of that. It came out of our other development; we didn’t go in thinking ‘let’s develop another training tool.’ It came out of a process. Javi is going to be our first major deep-dive into really technical apparel for the ITU circuit and for Ironman—all different types of racing. We’re going to be pushing the envelope with him.
Triathlete.com: Where did the name ROKA come from? What does it mean?
Rob: ROKA means ‘the white crest of a wave’ in Japanese. And apparently there’s some cool urban slang meaning that we did not input ourselves.
Kurt: Regardless, that’s what it means to us—that white crest of wave—just riding the top of a wave and seeing things clearly.
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