This month we chatted with the founder of Blyss Running, Alyson Neel. In October, Alyson celebrated her 5th anniversary in business with Blyss and she sat down to talk about the history of the brand and how it’s gotten to where it is today from a desire for a better running product. So grab a cup of coffee and read on about this fantastic female entrepreneur!
As we do with every person we interview and since we’re all Asheville-locals, you gotta start off sharing your birth sign with us.
Share with our readers how you came up with Blyss:
I started Blyss because I couldn’t find running apparel that met my needs. For years I didn’t run, telling myself that I couldn’t because I didn’t have the right body type (isn’t every runner tall and sinewy and don’t they all wear short shorts?). Entering my forties, I met women who didn’t fit my ‘runner stereotype’ and I realized “Hey, maybe I should give this running thing a try!” so I did and I started to fall in love with it. As I started running more, I also realized that it was time to upgrade my running outfit from baggy sweatpants to something more streamlined and designed for running. Unfortunately, it was summer and there was nothing that fit my running style except capris, which were way too hot. I had tried running shorts and found them either way too short or they rode up and caused horrible chafing and I couldn’t find a single pair that had a pocket big enough to carry more than a single key. I knew I wanted longer shorts with big pockets that looked good and felt comfortable.
Once you realized this, what were your next steps in your process?
That’s when I decided to design a pair of long shorts for myself along with a skirt that I could run in comfortably! My friends came to me saying they had similar frustrations and that’s when I realized that I could have a real business opportunity with these designs. I signed up for a small business course with Mountain Bizworks and came out of it with a business plan and a small loan. My next step was to find a US manufacturer! Being based in NC, I was sure it would be extremely easy to find a manufacturer, I mean we have a history rich in manufacturing…but finding someone with the capabilities to do the type of sewing I needed at a price I could afford was challenging. So, I worked closely with a great resource, the Carolina Textile District, to find the same manufacturer I work with to this day in Pennsylvania.
After you had your business plan in place and found a manufacturer how did you get the word out about Blyss?
My first collection was small and consisted of the Trail Skirt, Blyss Skirt, Blyss Short, and the Distance Short. I took this collection and set up a booth at the expo at the Charleston, SC Cooper River Bridge Run. One of my fondest memories is of that first sale in Charleston SC. Seeing the customer’s face when she tried on the skirt and seeing how happy it made her, that’s when I knew that I was on the right track. Since then I’ve focused on selling direct-to-consumer from my website and at expos throughout the country.
I always love when people buy a skirt or shorts from me at the expo and then come back (on multi-day events) wearing their Blyss and their medal and they tell me all about their race, especially if it’s their first 5k, half marathon, or first whatever. The excitement and pride people have is contagious!
Although it’s a lot of work to travel to expos, I think I’ll always do it because the connection I get with my customers is invaluable. I love meeting all my interesting customers and hearing their stories. Obviously in 2020, that all changed and I had to focus a lot of my attention to marketing online, but I know that when we can be in-person at events again that I will be right there sharing Blyss with my customers, new and existing!
I believe that growing my business slowly is the smart thing to do and I’ll keep taking it step by step, even though I have lots of designs that I’d love to see come to life! Just like my motto in running, slow and steady wins the race, ha! I just love what I do!
Congrats on 5 years of Blyss! That’s such an accomplishment for a small business! What did you do to celebrate?
Thanks! For our anniversary we celebrated by having a sale and some special giveaways, which we don’t do often, but it’s my way of saying thank you to my customers for their support.
Being in the mountains of WNC there are lots of ways to get outdoors to enjoy our area. What are some of your favorite things to do here?
Running of course! I love trail running, so in my down time you can find me on the trails either running or hiking. Spending the day hiking and picnicking with friends is a perfect day! I also enjoy cycling and don’t do it enough!
What was the very first apparel piece from Blyss and how much has changed since that first design?
My first designs were a grouping – shorts and two skirts. The basic design and functionality are still the same, but the differences are in the way they are constructed and the materials I use. Going into production with a design is very different than designing just a one-off piece. All the trim and extras are very time consuming to manufacture and expensive to produce in numbers, so there was definitely a bit of editing. I did have one sample skirt that had this toggle on each side seam so you could cinch it up. I thought it would look cute, but it didn’t! And the toggle was so irritating banging against your leg while running, ha! But that skirt eventually became the Blyss Skirt – toggleless!
We love that you focus on a target market that a lot of fitness brands overlook, the 40+ woman who wants functional, flattering clothing to work out in. Can you share some of your favorite stories from customers who were thrilled to find something that ‘just works’ for them?
Yes, it’s like once you hit your forties, brands think you stop working out or they make the same styles in awful prints! Actually, I sell to a lot of skeptical ladies! They aren’t sure whether to believe that the shorts really won’t ride up because for years we’ve been making do with what’s been on the market – which were things that didn’t function well. Usually though, once they try on that skirt I hear, “Wow this feels good,” “I love the length,” and “The waistband holds me in!”
I’ve had ladies email me and say that they’ve never worn a running skirt before because they didn’t think they could and how happy they are with a Blyss skirt because it is actually comfortable and flattering. One woman, in particular, wrote to me to say she hasn’t worn anything other than pants in 20 years, but now wears only Blyss Skirts.
We are definitely living in unique times, what have you found to bring you calm and happiness as you deal with new challenges every day?
Well this year has definitely thrown a lot at me. Besides the heaviness and uncertainty that everyone has been dealing with in some form, I was diagnosed with breast cancer early this summer. My prognosis is very good, but it’s just another thing to throw into the mix for 2020! For me, my business has helped to keep me moving forward and focused with a renewed sense to do better. There are always those days when the tide seems to be going against you, but perspective always helps. A walk in the woods helps too! I’m really so lucky. I have wonderful family and friends that support me and always jump in when I need help. As a parent, seeing my kids making smart decisions and growing into awesome human beings brings me the most joy!
Speaking of community, we feel that Asheville has a really unique one here that is supportive and collaborative. What does it mean to you to be a part of the Asheville community?
Asheville isn’t just a place, it is just that, a community. I’ve lived here for 24 years and have seen a lot of changes, but the thing that has stayed constant is the great sense of community here. I’ve thought this before, but really believe that had I lived elsewhere, Blyss Running wouldn’t exist. The inspiration from our surroundings and the support of the people make this a truly special place.
Books or podcasts?
Both! I tend to read books in the winter. Right now I’ve got a stack to work through. But I love podcasts! I wish I had time to listen to more of them.
What are you reading or listening to at this time?
I’m currently reading The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova because I listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics, that had an episode with the author and I found the story fascinating.
Podcasts on my regular rotation are No Stupid Questions, The Hidden Brain, Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us, This American Life, and How I Built This.
What’s something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I don’t like going to the movies. I walked out of Forrest Gump – I just couldn’t take it anymore! I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies and being a kid of the ’70s and ’80s, I think I might be the only one of my generation that hasn’t. My husband learned early on that unless it is a documentary, he should probably go to the movies by himself! My entire family are all huge movie lovers and watchers. My oldest son was even president of the film club at his university. I’m working on it though. They’ve gotten me to the movie theater a few times and I’ve stayed!
What’s your advice to someone who wants to start their own business?
Really love what you plan to do because you’ll be thinking about it and working on it all the time! I’d also say that you need to stick with your vision and don’t get sucked into changing yourself/business into something you’re not because someone told you you’d sell more or do better. There’s always going to be naysayers and people who don’t like what you offer – everyone is NOT your customer. It’s always good to listen though. And mostly you’ll never feel ready or fully prepared to start – sometimes you have to just jump because it’s never going to be perfect.
Anything else you’d like to share that we didn’t ask today?
Yes! If you’re a woman over 40, please get your yearly mammogram even if you have no family history. And if you’re younger than 40 please do self-exams! There’s been a lot of confusion lately about how often and when to get mammograms. The National Cancer Society still recommends women over 40 get a yearly mammogram. I had no family history, my risk factors were low, and yet I have breast cancer. I have gotten a mammogram every year since I turned 40 and because of that, my cancer was detected early and is very much treatable. So please ladies, go get your mammogram!