Priceonomics

For years, Dan Abramson was a closet yoga practitioner. After injuring his back, he took on entry-level vinyasa classes in the confines of his work gym; few were there to bear witness, and his gear was never a concern.

But when Dan’s girlfriend implored him to take up a class in the outside world, he found himself commuting across San Francisco with a hot pink Lululemon mat strapped to the back of his motorcycle. Affected by the social stigmas of the yoga world, the large, hairy man was mortified, and disappointed that other large, hairy men didn’t have a more fitting array of yoga products to choose from.

Dan channeled his early yoga chi into entrepreneurial energy: What if he could make yoga more accessible to dudes? He knew his goal was lofty. In the United States, yoga has long been penned a “women’s activity:” of the country’s 20 million practitioners, only about 17% are men. Moreover, as Women’s Studies professor Karlyn Crowley notes, “the elongated feminine form is still the way yoga is represented in the mainstream media.” 

So, Dan embarked on a quixotic quest to shift perceptions and make yoga dudes feel cool. His journey would take him through various worlds he knew nothing about -- textiles, sewing, wholesale production -- resulting in some of the most badass yoga products on the market today. His yoga goods, in the form of burritos, logs, and quivers of arrows, are things men can get behind (and women too).

This is the story of Brogamats.

Early Brototypes

It was mid-2012 when Dan decided he wanted to design his own mat. By this time, he’d gotten over the horror of his first public yoga experience and had become a solid “vinyasa noob;” the sport had grown on him, and he cared enough to make a difference. In a San Francisco basement, the freelance designer saw the immense potential for prints that would look awesome on a cylinder, and began reaching out to friends for advice. 

From its onset, Brogamats was a “community effort.”

Dan precariously ventured into the world of yoga mats, and found heated debates. Every self-proclaimed yogi seemed to have a different idea of what made a mat “good;” likewise, there were various concerns about chemicals, materials, thickness, and dimensions. He purchased and tested over 30 mats before settling on PVC, which was sturdy, “grippy,” and fairly easy to print on.

Dan’s first design -- a “quiver of arrows” -- began as a Crayon sketch on a piece of paper; quickly, he realized he’d need a bevy of resources to translate the design into a usable product. His brother set him up with Fran, a woman who proved to be invaluable to Brogamats’ early production. Dan recalls:

“I met this awesome, quirky lady named Fran in Bernal Heights [San Francisco], who had a bunch of cool machines and she helped me prototype it. Her and her partner Audry run Ella Print. They make promotional products and engravings, but they're basically a bunch of makers that love fun projects, and they operate out of this Peewee's playhouse of a garage.”

With a rough design and product outline, Dan enlisted Fran to help put the prototype into motion -- a process which proved quite difficult. “Any inventor will tell you it’s the prototype that takes the most time,” says Dan. “The first Brogamat was no exception.”

Audrey, Fran's partner in crime at Ella Prints, holds a future design.

The result -- a giant vinyl sticker slapped on a PVC mat -- was rudimentary, but functional. Through an advertising connection, Dan sought out a Richmond-based printer, Bellair Displays, and ordered his first batch: 20 mats. Two weeks later, Dan received the products, but they came with a plethora of issues.

The printer had experienced such difficulty printing on the mats that they terminated any future production plans. Moreover, each mat set Dan back $70 ($1,400 for the whole batch), and he found he’d have to charge his customers exorbitant prices just to break even. Did I just make a horrible decision?, he thought.

In the midst of doubt, Dan had another realization: all the work he’d put into his mat ended up hidden inside his dull, white yoga mat bag. Dan’s girlfriend Amanda served as the voice of reason: “Why don’t you just make bags? They’re cheaper to make, and cheaper for people to buy.”

Bags To the Future

Dan spent the next year tracing out designs for his bags and figuring out production logistics. Often, he encountered doubt, but didn’t let it get in the way of his creative vision:

“I was making all these crappy bags -- pins were stickout out, poking me all the time, and there were just all these things I had to adjust to. I had no knowledge of fabrics, sewing, zippers -- but I had this annoying, nagging sensation: I had to finish this.”

His drive was infectious, and Brogamats became a family affair: his mom helped with sewing up early bag prototypes, and his brother could often be found stitching late into the night. The bags became an obsession.

After translating his “quiver of arrows” design into a yoga bag prototype, Dan began to think about other designs that would fare well on a 3D, cylindrical shape. A sushi roll? he thought. No, not the right shape -- it’d just look elongated and weird. The ideas got more radical: A salami? Nah, nobody wants to perform a downward-facing dog while staring at a greasy meat stick. Then, late one night, a revelation: A burrito!

Evolution of Brogamats’ burrito bag (left to right); “The burrito improved like a fine wine,” says Dan.

From his work in advertising, Dan had learned to shy away from using food; in order to make the burrito work, he knew it would have to look damn good. Much to his chagrin, Dan’s early designs looked less than appealing; he recalls the burrito’s evolution:

“The first one looked real nasty. I tried to integrate some meat, but it just looked like brains. So, we switched to Rendang beef -- this Indian beef that’s orange -- but it looked equally unappetizing. It just went through all these iterations, and became simpler and simpler, until it was just a closed burrito.”

Dan obsessed over every “tinfoil crinkle,” and every spot on the tortilla, until it assumed the “perfect golden proportion.” Today, he knows every fold: “That burrito is perfect.”

Another design Dan developed was the “Downward-Facing Log.” After looking through thousands of stock images of tree trunks, he “went on an orienteering mission around the Presidio,” looking for the perfect specimen for his design:

“I was basically this really weird, unemployed guy going around my neighborhood taking pictures of trees. Then I saw it -- the perfect tree, the sexiest tree in the forest. I waited for the time of day when the light would hit it just right, and snapped the photo that my print was based off of.”

With the quiver of arrows, burrito, and log designs set in place, Dan set his sights on production. He partnered with a new printer and worked closely with Fran to get his prototypes set.

At $40 each, the process wasn’t cheap. Dan had to enlist people for each step of the process -- printing, sewing, and cutting -- and each came with its own pushback. Every time he wanted to take an action, there was some kind of roadblock to deal with. In one instance, an order of burrito bags came back with a color defect; to this day, Dan has “20 blue-tinted burritos” sitting in his room.

He also encountered issues with his printer, who wasn’t willing to put in the extensive effort for such small orders. “Imagine you’re a printer,” Dan says, “and a kid shows up wanting to make 20 copies. You’re going to say ‘sorry, this guy from Old Navy wants me to print 30,000 displays -- I don’t have time for you.’” 

Furthermore, his printer had a month-long queue to print on cotton; Dan had an option to switch to synthetics (which are frowned upon by the yoga community), and decided to wait out the process. Eventually, he “charmed over” the company (read: begged for days) and was able to scoot his order up in line.

By September 2013, Dan launched his site with 20 bags in stock. Then, on a whim, he decided to unleash Brogamats on social sharing site, Reddit, in the yoga sub-community.

Reddit as a Product Testing Platform

Dan’s post blew up: within a few days, his inventory was gone and he’d accrued a backorder of 50-60 units. Though he’d made something “geared toward dudes,” he found that the demand for his products was gender neutral:

“Like any startup, I just wanted to see if there was a demand; I immediately saw that there was: a lot of the first customers were those initial Redditors -- equal amounts of men and women -- and they really helped me guide the product from that stage forward.”

Suggestions for additional products rolled in, ranging from “monkey-on-your-back,” to “sizzling pieces of meat candy.” Dan received invaluable feedback that gave him restored faith in his “goofy idea:” people loved the mats. He started putting even more stock in tiny details, down to the “floppiness” of the bags (“it had to flop just right”).

Girlfriends posted in droves, proudly declaring they’d just bought burrito bags for their boyfriends, and the “supportive, hippie spirit of Reddit” influenced Dan’s next design: a few months later, he unleashed “The Lumberjack,” a red and black checkered flannel print.

Urban Outfitters: Brogamats Goes Wholesale

Just a few months ago, out of the blue, Urban Outfitters messaged Dan and asked if he’d be interested in a wholesale order for their site. Dan ecstatically agreed -- though he knew nothing about wholesale vending, and had to make the decision to invest a “ton of money in a stupid idea.”

He reassessed his expenses, and found he was overpaying for many of his materials:

“Once I had to scale up, I dug deeper into every tiny expense I had -- to things as tiny as zipper pulls (the little handle-thingies on zippers). It turns out I was paying three times as much for cotton strap at the fabric store, when I could just as easily have gone on a wholesale site and get it for 1/3 the price. 

Every piece of the bag was being sold to me for way too much, and once I tested out some new cheaper vendors, I was able to cut my costs in half. Put simply, scaling up was about knowing for sure that I needed a lot of something, and then being okay with the idea of buying something like 500 yards of zipper.”

Once again, the community rallied behind Dan and Brogamats. A friend who made pajamas and was familiar with the textile industry recommended that Dan visit the Los Angeles Textile Expo to get a sense of things.

When he arrived, he was completely out of his element:

“I knew no one, nor how to speak the language. Some fashionistas were pompous and would look me up and down and say ‘umm, you probably can't meet our minimums,’ or they'd be completely thrown off when I asked non-industry questions. I was a newb and had no idea what the hell I was doing.”

But Dan found support in others, who took him aside and explained things like the difference between knits and wovens, and guided him in his search to purchase wholesale fabrics. Eventually, he found vendors who could offer him the fabric he needed for less than half of what he’d previously been paying. In due time, he was able to deliver the Urban Outfitters order. 

Within a few weeks, his burrito bags sold out completely; only a few of his lumberjack bags remain in stock. Curiously, Urban Outfitters first had a girl modeling his bags; she’s since been replaced by a “masculine bro:”

Namaste

Before he started Brogamats, Dan had another venture, Wall Sushi, a site that paired local artists to design posters. One time, Dan bought a 1,000 prints of a skiing poster that he thought would sell like hotcakes, and it ended up being an epic flop. “I learned to never overinvest in what I thought was good, because I was probably wrong,” he recalls -- and he’s taken that lesson to heart with Brogamats.

He doesn’t over-invest in new designs, and allows the community to determine what’s good and provide input. The result? People like his products more.

At this point, he’s put in about $20,000 of his own money -- all of it hard-earned through his freelance advertising work for the likes of Mozilla Firefox, Pandora, and the San Francisco 49ers. After considering the extensive overhead to design prototypes and launch his brand, he’s getting close to breaking even, and good things are on the horizon.

He plans to feature guest artists who continue to make his designs “weirder and weirder,” and wants to venture more into changing the yoga mat game: 

“I want to make better innovations: a better yoga mat, more functional products -- my vision is that Brogamats will be the grippiest mats on the planet.”

But Dan’s ultimate goal isn't product-related: he wants to get his dad into yoga. Though he possesses a Brogamats gift certificate, his father has yet to redeem it, and "doesn’t seem to get” Brogamats. But if Dan Abramson has shown us one thing, it’s that he’s willing to go great lengths to see his visions come to fruition. His dad will be a yogi in no time.

And as for practicing yoga in public, let's just say Dan is no longer candid about his mats:

This post was written by Zachary Crockett. Follow him on Twitter here, or Google Plus here.


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