Jordan Wilie '10
It’s 10:00 pm and I am happily working my way through a stack of pink sticky notes. With no restrictions on what you can and can’t do, the hardest part of running a business is staying focused on one task—for me, the current solution is to write down each separate task on a sticky note. I’m proudly maintaining around five-to-six notes an hour.
These tasks help give my rowing apparel company, Athletes Earning Medals (AEM), a competitive edge in its industry. In August we sent out over 200 orders, raised thousands of dollars for the Canadian national team and even had athletes acknowledge us on the podium at Rio 2016.
Three months before that, this company didn’t exist.
Rewind back to 2014, my final year at Queen’s University. I remember celebrating. My housemate and best friend, Jordan Rendall, had been selected for his first world championship to represent Canada in rowing. Considering that he was the type of person that you and I would admire—kind, hard working and never giving up—this acknowledgement of his tenacity just felt right. But then the bill arrived.
Even if Rendall didn’t come from a humble background, the costs of going overseas to compete in France at such a distinguished level were enormous and prohibitive. We considered paying for the trip with crowd funding, taking out a loan and everything else shy of selling an organ, but it seemed that nothing was going to cover the costs. Determined to find a solution, I told Rendall to keep training and that I was going to find a way to cover the amount.
In the end, I found a corporate sponsor that would cover the costs of the trip. However, Rendall had to work off the full amount for them in his own time outside of classes when he returned. In an attempt to help, I was able to convince the company to take a dollar off for each Facebook page like I got them over a two-month period.
It was a full-time endeavour for me, but by the time Rendall raced in France, his whole trip had been paid off with social media likes. The best news was that his employers loved it—they immediately saw an increase in sales, community interaction and notoriety. That’s when I knew this model had potential to help more athletes.
Over the next two years I hosted philanthropic events in the athletic community, completed my thesis on national team funding in Canada and helped many other driven athletes find flexible work placements outside of their training. The success of Rendall’s fundraising spread throughout the athletic community and messages kept coming my way. Setting up these work placements was challenging and there were definitely times when I wanted to stop; however, even when I was working overseas in Denmark and an athlete messaged me to tell me his story, I couldn’t bring myself to say no. It took me a while to acknowledge it, but I knew I was doing something important.
Eventually I stopped resisting the need to bring this to a larger scale and jumped in; I created an anonymous online blog, Athletes Earning Medals, to share the results of the athletes that I had helped.
As quickly as I had made the page, it’s following grew. In 2015, I had to turn away new athletes, as I couldn’t keep up with the demand. Since I organized these placements in my own time and for free, I was limited in what I could handle. With this realization, I was eager to find a more efficient and scalable way to help.
In May 2016, I found it.
Two years after helping pay for his trip overseas, Rendall was still rowing for Canada and one of the top lightweight rowers in the nation. As we planned and prepared for his trip to the 2016 World Rowing Championships (this time in the Netherlands), he introduced me to his girlfriend.
Little did I know she was the key to changing everything. Working in the eCommerce space, she filled me in on the growing potential of online shopping. The more she talked, the more I knew it was exactly what I was looking for.
I committed all of the month of June to clothing and web design, as well as sourcing suppliers and shippers. When the time came to launch, I knew exactly what to call it. On July 8th, 2016, the athletic apparel company, Athletes Earning Medals, officially opened.
The reputation gained from my work in the athletic community allowed me to connect with some of the top athletes in Canada while I was still building the site. When we first launched, we represented three Olympic rowing crews, including the soon-to-be Olympic silver medal winning lightweight women’s double.
Even though AEM’s role had completely changed, I was determined to keep the spirit of that original blog alive. Keeping true to that guide, we created custom gear for each crew that was available to the public, and the profits from the specific crew’s gear went directly to them.
In no time, our True North Four, Northern Lights and Dirty Double shirts were everywhere. Understanding the need for alternative funding first hand, the Olympic crews loved it. All of a sudden people could show their support and bring it with them everywhere they went in the form of great gear.
Our following spiralled upwards, allowing us to ship orders on three different continents in the first week and continuously hit engagement statistics five times that of industry leaders in rowing apparel.
Having worked at a large rowing-specific clothing company in the past, I had some experience in this trade, allowing me to see the promise of the newest technologies, such as full garment sublimation and ribbed printing. This knowledge (and the experience from the Entrepreneurship 12 class at Brentwood) helped me take the plunge into business; however, at the age of 24, I still have a lot to learn.
With the Rio Olympics firmly in the past, what is next for AEM? Change. Leveraging an offer to move out of the industry, AEM is evolving. Starting November 15th, the company will be rebranded as Athletes of Canada (AoC), where I will focus on telling the stories of the athletes and Olympians I’ve gotten to know in the previous months. I started this journey to help the extraordinary Canadian athletes who inspire me daily and, with this new venture, I can now do that with a clearer focus.
While there are still many steps to take before every Canadian knows AoC, I know I won’t be doing it alone.
Like the athletic community, I’ve always felt my extended Brentwood family behind me. Their continuous support encourages me to take the next leap. Considering the impact AEM has made in a global industry over the last three months, I can confidently say I am ready to take on another with AoC…
One sticky note at a time.