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Nau: An Elegy
Alex Steffen, 2 May 08

I just got off the phone with Ian Yolles at Nau, and have some sad news to convey: Nau is going out of business.

The immediate spur for this decision, Ian says, was the Nau team's inability to close the deal on their next round of funding. Needless to say, volatile recessions are a hard time to raise money for innovative concepts.

And innovative Nau has been. From writing a new form of corporate charter that literally incorporated sustainability and social responsibility into the the business' core to pioneering new materials and a great new retail concept, the webfront, Nau has been not just a leader, but way out there ahead of everyone else. They have been allies, and we'll miss their boldness.

Nau has failed as a business. At the end of things, though, it's important to remember that there are different kinds of failures, and not all of them are tragic. To me, Nau has been the best kind of failure: a smart, creative, energized bunch of people who saw something wrong with the world, thought they saw how to do something better instead, and went for it with everything they had.

In the process, Nau has prepared the ground for a whole crop of innovations and new thinking. That they will not be the ones to harvest the benefits of that crop is disappointing, but shouldn't dim our view of what they've accomplished.

I'm sure today's a tough day down in Portland, but I hope when the microbrews get poured tonight, the Nau team keeps what it has accomplished in mind. Nau is a "failure" that's changed the world for the better.

(And if you want to show that you agree, leave a comment here saying so, then go over to their site and buy something -- it's all 50% off -- and help them close down gracefully.)

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Comments

That's too bad...I did think their charter broke some ground.

That said, I excitedly ordered a bunch of stuff when the company first came out. And it was of bad quality. However, Nau was great in all aspects of the refund.

Great idea but the actual merchandise, at least in my mind, didn't come close to delivering in quality.


Posted by: JS on 2 May 08

Good intentions need to be followed with good execution. Here the need for a quality product that is at least as good as non green alternatives, in terms of design, quality, and price. The research keeps telling us that. Green companies need to listen, otherwise they will go through painful times, as Nau here.

Also, in hard economic times such as right now, there is a return back to the basics, and to forced conservation, as shown in following study:

http://lamarguerite.wordpress.com/2008/04/28/the-green-power-of-shrinking-wallets/

Maybe the Nau folks can regroup, and go back to their true intent, and see how else they can manifest their vision? Maybe a more pure execution could be around swapping or recycling of fashion clothing?


Posted by: marguerite manteau-rao on 2 May 08

Well, this is indeed a sad sad day. I have to confess, I am one of the folks who worked on the website. Working with Nau to bring that site to fruition, indeed, being associated with this group of people at all, was one of the proudest parts of my career. I have never met a team who so passionately practise what they preach: everyone there is devoted to the outdoors and to making the world a better place. The merchandise was beautiful, innovative and good for the planet.

They raised the bar in so many directions and leave a huge legacy in style and technology from which we all will benefit for years to come.


Posted by: Rene Gourley on 2 May 08

I saw Chris Van Dyke speak about Nau and sustainability once, and it inspired me to take action in my own business. The company will be missed, but the good it did will live on forever. Their company charter is one that will be emulated for years to come.

Now, if they would only fix the web site errors so I can go buy some of their amazing clothing at a reduced price!


Posted by: Tricia Butler on 2 May 08

Update: Polly Labarre says smart things about the end of Nau here:

http://www.mavericksatwork.com/?p=126


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 2 May 08

That really is sad. I was looking forward to a NAU in my town... What they had going sounded so incredible!


Posted by: Clayton on 2 May 08

They didn't have any merchants running the business - just brand people. In order to succeed they would have had to have that expertise. The website looked great but didn't work well and the navigation was terrible.

So inspiring but not enough.


Posted by: craig on 2 May 08

They didn't have any merchants running the business - just brand people. In order to succeed they would have had to have that expertise. The website looked great but didn't work well and the navigation was terrible.

So inspiring but not enough.


Posted by: craig on 2 May 08

I appreciate the good that Nau has accomplished, but rather, I wonder if we should use this opportunity to discuss financial sustainability. Specifically, what went wrong with their model. Maybe we'll do this later when the wounds of going out of business aren't so fresh.

But when you think about it, going out of business isn't sustainable. I see that they donated +$200k to other causes (maybe for the tax benefits). Would that money have been better put to operations? I don't want to be insensitive and I haven't followed the specifics of their business affairs ... but, I can't stop thinking: you have to sustain yourself before you can sustain others.


Posted by: Preston on 2 May 08

Those who knew the REAL Nau(the one the public didn't see)know this; They did this to themselves.


Posted by: UTW on 3 May 08

Wow. I'm really surprised and disappointed to hear this. I was extremely impressed with Nau. Having worked in luxury fashion for a long time, it was incredibly refreshing to see this kind of approach to define a great new lifestyle brand. And everyone I spoke to about the brand was really energized by it. I hope someone does a good case study on this. I'd like to know what really caused their decline.

Good by for Nau. I'm off to the sale!


Posted by: Matt on 3 May 08

Nicely said, Alex. I appreciate your keeping focused on the positive aspects of this news: the accomplishments, the leadership, the groundbreaking, the innovations. The folks at Nau are doers, not just dreamers and talkers. I'm confident that we will see more from them.


Posted by: Tara Bloom on 3 May 08

One thing is certain; there will be so many positive seeds spawning into other innovative businesses and organizations from the Nau collective. Nau has shown the world a new way of doing business and a vast amount of individuals will demand other companies to do good. Thank you from PDX to Chicago. Keep up the good fight!


Posted by: JSPC on 3 May 08

that nau could not be sustained by the mass market is not surprising...in sportswear there are so many unsustainable, toxic, slave labor choices - that nau thought through the real problems, and attempted to solve them with great design and thoughtful, interesting products was a bright spot in the fashion/apparel space. may their designers and visionaries find places within other venues to spread their goodness.


Posted by: dominique pacheco on 3 May 08

They should have looked for a strategic investor rather than just financial. They have a strong brand, I wonder if the founders were unwilling to give up control. I suspect that would be deemed "selling out."


Posted by: Sean on 3 May 08

Dang!

I loved this brand. Loved the people, the mission, the processes, the product, the stores.

But we have to keep in mind that the fashion business is one of the toughest.

Only the brave go where this team went.

But others will follow. They've blazed a bright trail.

Best to you guys.


Posted by: Rick Seireeni on 3 May 08

A sad day, but what they did for me was instill an innovative and progressive form of hope, and that will never go away. Be the change you want to see in the world. How many people can say that?


Posted by: marty mcdonald on 3 May 08

This is sad news.

I live in Vancouver, Canada so it is really hard to get their stuff. But I've been visiting their website for a while and I have been really admiring what they've put together. Now I have the dilemma of unsustainably going to Seattle to get some clothes or sit here and hope the next incarnation of Nau has a good way of getting things to Canada.


Posted by: Jack Sam on 3 May 08

To UTW:

Teddy Roosevelt spoke eloquently about the difference between doers and talkers:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.


Posted by: portland on 4 May 08

I am taking the risk of being accused of kicking someone when they are down. That is not my intention. I am not even speaking directly to NAU, other than a sincere wish that all involved learn and grow from the experience. I'm speaking to a generation of web designers who have been mislead - sometimes self deluded - into thinking they are web site developers because they can do Flash.

An online store is not a medium of entertainment. Offering eye candy instead of merchandise, accompanied by an intuitive ordering system, is a waste of time. People will not suffer it.

The fundamental problem is that graphic designers are rarely also business people. Their interest, perhaps rightly, is focused almost exclusively on how a web site looks, not how it works for the buyer.

I'll refer to what may be an apochraphyl Chinese proverb, "when the only tool you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Just because Flash is do-able doesn't mean you should do it.

Simple shopping cart tools (for example CubeCart, OScommerce, etc.) are a far better option. They offer the customer fast, intuitive navigation, goof-proof ordering; the store owner gets a feature-rich admin back end where the operations are installed, tested and ready to work. Customizing one, including eye-catching graphics, and installing products, ready for business, can be done in fewer than 10 hours. As an established developer I've done it for clients many times and not one has ever gone out of business.

As I understand what NAU was trying to do was create a lifestyle clothing brand. I spent years as an independent manufacturers rep for multiple major brands of active sportswear. What they were trying to create requires a lot of time (also known as "capital") as well as a tightly controlled distribution.

None of that can be done on the basis of "let's rent a sewing machine - or a contract sewing operator - and put on a show." As their farewell statement clearly indicates, having long-term financial commitment from a reliable source is fundamental. Bank borrowing will not do. As Abe Lincoln said, "A banker is a man who will lend you an umbrella on a sunny day and as soon as it looks like rain, he wants it back."

Ave atque vale.


Posted by: Joe Harkins on 5 May 08

I'm very sorry to hear this. I didn't know about Nau until ~1 month ago. Like most here, I was blown away by their site, their attempt to put ideals into action, and by the gear! My wife and I were saving coin to buy a shirt, a skirt (and maybe the trench-coat!). Wish I would have known (and bought) a half year ago.
Hope the Nau folks move onto something equally as righteous, and that they do indeed prove to be a noble, precursive failure...


Posted by: William Betz on 5 May 08

To critics of NAU,

Anyone who assumes or suggests that NAU was a marketing facade run by slick marketing people who contracted out work and "tried" to assemble a product line without experience you are sadly mistaken and uninformed. NAU product was conceived by, designed, and executed by some of the most talented product artists, fabric engineers, industrial designers in the Industry. Folks like Mark Galbraith, Peter, Jamie Bainbridge, Rittmeyer, and Lisa Street have many cumulative years of experience. This effort was crafted into a bold business model that revolved around environment and sustainability first, business second. Their business and marketing peers had equal bravado and experience. It was a bold and taught endeavor that relied on sequential linea of funding. It failed not because of product, lack of heart-felt passion, or even hitting their plan. It failed because the current invesment environment could not support the plan as attempted. While I agree their website was über-flashed and not user friendly, to suggest it was a reflection of the entire team's inexperience would be wrong. The credit goes to the innovators who were willing to risk their careers and time for both the greater good and the beauty of truly innovative stainable design.


Posted by: Bruce farquharson on 5 May 08

To critics of NAU,

Anyone who assumes or suggests that NAU was a marketing facade run by slick marketing people who contracted out work and "tried" to assemble a product line without experience you are sadly mistaken and uninformed. NAU product was conceived by, designed, and executed by some of the most talented product artists, fabric engineers, industrial designers in the Industry. Folks like Mark Galbraith, Peter, Jamie Bainbridge, Rittmeyer, and Lisa Street have many cumulative years of experience. This effort was crafted into a bold business model that revolved around environment and sustainability first, business second. Their business and marketing peers had equal bravado and experience. It was a bold and taught endeavor that relied on sequential linea of funding. It failed not because of product, lack of heart-felt passion, or even hitting their plan. It failed because the current invesment environment could not support the plan as attempted. While I agree their website was über-flashed and not user friendly, to suggest it was a reflection of the entire team's inexperience would be wrong. The credit goes to the innovators who were willing to risk their careers and time for both the greater good and the beauty of truly innovative stainable design.


Posted by: Bruce farquharson on 5 May 08

As a brand that wanted to grow and succeed and do good for the world, how come they never opened SELECT specialty retail stores? The model has been successful for years: Trade show to store buyer to store staff to end consumer to end consumer's peers.


Posted by: Steve on 6 May 08

Among many other changes to the business that should have been made at the outset, the company should have operated in catalog only form until the model was proven.

I also don't think that they knew their customer, or what the market would support.

Strange, being that everyone was coming from high-powered backgrounds. But, as one commenter noted, the company was unfocused and lacked the right kind/mix of leadership. Just look at the examples in Jack Trout's "Big Brands, Big Trouble" if you don't think that this can be part of the answer.

It's also worth recognizing that the whole enterprise was built upon layers of experimentation. This is certainly not a measured or scientific approach that they took! What data/research did they use to convince the investors?

Notably, nau was attempting to be on the "cutting-edge" with their design, the website, the textiles, the webfront (brick and mortar), and so on. It was too much, all at once. Especially considering that they could have SAVED enormous sums of money by avoiding everything involved with building a physical presence.

Wouldn't it be nice to see the all of the research work that went into onboarding the investors, so that other people can learn from this process?

Just think about what they could have done without needing to pay rent, wages, utilities, architects, designers, engineers, lawyers, etc!!!

I'd imagine that would have given the company several more million to play with...

I would also submit that they needed a shot of reality. Had been advising them at the time, I would have demanded that they conduct extensive market research with the express charge of criticism, and pessimism. Hype is too often a blockade and a blinder...it also tends to create the worst irony.


Posted by: Matt on 7 May 08

I was having a conversation with my sister this past weekend. We were talking about if the rising tide of environmentalism and sustainability would be quick enough to make a difference. I'm currently studying Environmental Design at University and she works for Whole Foods. I said, "I have to believe it will, otherwise, what are we working for?" She said, "I just see so much infighting and it slows down change. I don't know sometimes if we will make a difference."
Why would you come to a site like Worldchanging.com, just to feel superior to a company that was doing something amazing but got pinched by the economy? Why would you read a site like this if you didn't see every new idea as an opportunity, and every stumbling block as a lesson?
Nau will be sorely missed, but only by the small minority of the population who even knew about them. Inevitably something will spring up from their ashes and grow even larger. But until then, please learn to start seeing the possibilities and the gains that are being made in this sphere. If you don't believe we can make it, what's the point in trying?


Posted by: Andrew on 7 May 08

Nau was the first place I have ever shopped that asked me first where did I want to donate my 5% to help our poorly treated planet. What a shift in thought. So sad to hear that they are no longer in the Nau form. I can only hope that their intention will be transformed into a greater vision. All of you at Nau will not be forgotten. Thank you Nau. PS I really loved your clothes - made from the heart.


Posted by: Liz on 7 May 08

Nau's efforts stand as a model to be studied and carried on in some way. It was a heroic stand and I am sure it will re-emerge in some form. This is only the beginning this kind of business consciousness. They will be missed but sure to influence future efforts. Take Heart.


Posted by: michelle ross on 8 May 08

Strange to me that no one has referenced back a company that had some similarities to Nau: Zoza. Targeting a similar market (they had a suit with built-in pants cinchers so you could bike in it) and similarly massively capitalized for a start-up clothing company, I suspect it went bust for the same reasons: over-capitalization led to a completely unsustainable burn-rate. Now when I wear BOTH my Nau and my Zoza clothes--the favorite stuff in my wardrobe--I'll be double reminded of great vision and great hubris. Let's hope the Nau folks can grit their teeth and create a phoenix from the ashes.


Posted by: Joseph Steig on 19 May 08



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