Finally, Fanny talked about life in a small but supportive community like Nederland, both family and business wise. And you can find Hill Road Merino online at HillRoadMerino.com and on Instagram at Hill Road Merino. So of course all these links that we discuss in a conversation as well as finding Fanny will be in the show notes. And I’m really excited to bring you this conversation.
So here we go. My conversation with Fanny Toorenburg of Hill Road Merino.
Okay Fanny, thank you so much for taking the time to come down to the studio and talk to us a little bit about yourself and kind of how you ended up in Colorado and of course Hill Road Merino, your new company.
Fanny Toorenburg: Thank you Doug, thanks for having me.
Doug: I appreciate it. So as we got into in the introduction you are from New Zealand. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about your journey, how you ended up not only in Colorado but actually in the really funky little town of Nederland. And what that journey was like for you and how that’s been, maybe some of the surprises along the way. What really brought you to Colorado?
Fanny Toorenburg: Well firstly I’m French Canadian. From Montreal. So I spend half my life there. Grew up in a big city. And for me the outdoors was, it’s my thing. So it didn’t take me long to move from Montreal and go to New Zealand to study. So I was about in my early twenties when I did that. So in New Zealand I lived there for about 15 years and studying and bumming around. I only owned a car, I didn’t even own a car. I owned a bike and a bag. And that was about it until about I was 30. And living in New Zealand, I guess that’s where I met my husband which was a successful entrepreneur at the time. He started his own company there but it grew and it became international reasonably quickly. He had an office in Broomfield, so we got relocated to Broomfield in 2015, to Colorado in 2015.
After a year in Boulder, I don’t know, Boulder’s great but I love the mountains and I love small communities and so it didn’t take me long to say, “Hey the snow’s up, Nederland way, and that’s where they’ve got all the mountain bike trails and we can’t find a home in Boulder. Well I’m gonna look in Nederland and see what we can find.” And that’s how I ended up in Ned.
Doug: Gotcha. So it wasn’t necessarily, so the company already had an office in Broomfield and so maybe that decision was made for you guys. But clearly Colorado wasn’t hard for you to accept as far as a nice outdoorsy place to live, it sounds like?
Fanny Toorenburg: It’s kind of interesting because I’m a bit of a dreamer. I have these dreams. When I was a little girl I had my walls plastered in back country skiing pictures of Colorado. For me the outdoors was my main, my love I guess. I guess my journey goes this way, I love skiing and I wanted to go to Colorado but it was way too expensive for a 14 year old to afford a ski holiday in Colorado. It’s crazy, so I never made it here. I thought, “Well back country skiing, I need to be fit for that.” And I worked out how fit I needed to be so I started riding my bike and running and swimming. And I ended up becoming a top triathlete. I had a really successful sporting career in triathlon and cycling. Even handball, a team sport, so various sports.
When I was an elite triathlete I wanted to come to Boulder to train as a logical progression once you get to that point. But I saved all my pennies to come and train in Boulder but then I had also applied for scholarships to go to New Zealand and I got the scholarships. So I was like, “Oh, okay well I’ve got this little bit of pennies. Which one do I go to, New Zealand or Boulder?” And I guess New Zealand won because of the attraction of the outdoors and the mountains. I needed a bigger adventure. So I ended up there and never came back to Canada.
Now how I came to Boulder, the company was relocated here. There were a few options before that never really eventuated. It’s like, “Oh Boulder, if that’s the way I’m going to Boulder I guess I’m going to Boulder.”
Doug: So the dream was already there it’s just something that happened maybe a little later. Later than you expected.
Fanny Toorenburg: There’s no way I would have figured out how I was going to get here. In the very round about way. But that’s …
Doug: That’s so interesting. What a great story. And then as far as, I hear this a lot, when we moved to this area as well, which is, but we look at it from the other side where a lot of people move down into Denver and Boulder, say when they have kids or for work reasons or things like that, but they say, “Well I used to live in the mountains, but now I live here.” Whereas when you’re like me and you have lived in New York City and out on the west coast, I thought we were moving to the mountains. The fact that there’s some mountains in the backyard, I can see them. But I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. It is interesting what a different community you get and also just a different setting, half an hour up the road. It’s such a different town, such a different setting, you’re up there, you’re getting a lot more snow than we are obviously. Your access to all those activities that you want to do is just even that much closer I guess.
Fanny Toorenburg: For me living out in the mountains, life is not about the high pace highway that people perceive it to be. And people live in their little cocoon and they drive in and out of their garage. This is not life for me. I’d much rather step outside and there’s a trail and there’s a mountain and a view. Most of the things I learned in my life wasn’t sitting behind a school bench. It was playing outside, it was riding my bike, or running. Thinking about how beautiful nature is. I studied environmental science and surveying as well. You have, if you experience the outdoors and the way you’re in it, then you appreciate all the different ways in how you want to preserve it for generations to come. For me it’s a no brainer. I want my kids to experience it and to live in it if I could. I totally understand that it’s hard for a lot of people to actually have that chance. But because it was there and I could take it up.
Growing up outside is just the most wonderful thing. It’s priceless.
Doug: Sure I agree. That’s why we’re raising our kids here. I want them to be outside just as much as possible. I think one of the reasons that I wanted to have these conversations with people is because I think that’s a common thread with the people I’ve spoken with is whether they moved here and have had that lifestyle. They realized very young that they wanted to just have that outdoors active lifestyle as a very core part of their whole life. Or if people wake up one day and just want to make changes, and there’s a lot of people moving to Colorado because that’s what they’ve got going on as well. They just want a different, they want to change their environment, they want to bring that into their life or bring that back into their life maybe if it’s been missing for a little while.
That’s just really one of the things I’m finding is very interesting about the conversations I’m having is how people are fitting, they love the outdoors or maybe experiencing and participating in sports at a very high level like yourself, with having businesses having families, all of these things and making them all work together. Speaking of that, let’s move on to Hill Road Merino and how that evolved. I was reading on your website that it started, so here you are, you’re living this outdoor lifestyle, and part of that is having the proper gear. So you were getting worn out other pieces of merino clothing as your blanks, and maybe starting with the kid’s clothes. I don’t know that’s what I read on your website, maybe you can elaborate on how merino, Hill Road Merino evolved?
Fanny Toorenburg: Firstly, I believe that life is what you make it. So I guess I always had that entrepreneurial spirit in me. And always wanted to have my own business which was linked to something I loved. I tried different things and they worked but it wasn’t like a love inside me. Like a passion. So I ended those ventures. The merino, in New Zealand, merino is a staple in everybody’s wardrobe. That’s where Icebreaker started. Icebreaker started actually in Wellington more or less at the same time as I was there. It kind of evolved along the journey of Jeremy Moon at the time. I had three children, I wanted them to wear merino, I couldn’t afford it, cause it’s so bloody expensive it’s just for the top five percent income earners.
So I used my old merino to make them clothes. But in New Zealand a business like that is, everybody wears merino, so it was never going to be anything. When we found out we were relocating to the US, I thought, “Merino, the US hasn’t gone through that craze yet. So I wonder if I could do something with it.” So basically, we packed up the house and as I was driving to the airport I kept a spot in the airplane, luggage allocation, for one box of merino, and I drove past the merino factory, filled up the box, and took it on the plane with me, thinking maybe I’ll, we’ll test the waters and see what happens.
As I said I was making various clothes for my kids. Once I got to Boulder we were in the Shining Mountain Waldorf school community and wool is a big thing in the Waldorf philosophy. I was like, “All right, well I’ll sew up a few garments for the winter fair, and see how that goes.” So I spent the summer sewing up kids clothes with a lot of the remnants that I had. I had probably one of the worst spots for my booth. For the whole fair, I was at the end of the room. It was in an old two by two meters. I had just one rack, no advertising, all my clothes were jammed into a [inaudible 00:12:30] rack. It was totally not idea. And then I pretty much sold out of everything I’d made. Plus I had another one to two orders to fulfill for the Christmas break.
I was like, “Okay well that’s good. I guess that works.” Again I was in the Shining Mountain community so I already had an in on the wool stuff. People already sold on wool. But the moms were like, “Oh the kids love their merinos. Do you make any women’s garments?” Well maybe next year. So the following year, then I made women’s hoodies, so people knew. It wasn’t even, the week before the winter fair, everything I made was gone. Well I need something on the rack for the winter fair. So at that point I already had some sewing contractors that would help me, and they just kept working through the night to get enough garments to put on the shelf for the two Christmas markets I did.
Doug: Oh interesting.
Fanny Toorenburg: Again, all the women’s stuff sold out, no advertising, I didn’t even have a website. Nothing. And then I got the husbands to say, “My kids have merino and my wife’s got a merino hoodie. I want one too. They love it, they wear it all the time.” I was like, alright. So that December last year. So January 2017, just this past January, I thought, “Well maybe there’s a business in there, so I would just do the business,” and I started to be a bit more official. And I started making men’s hoodies, so I walk around with my bag of, “Hey what do you think of this?” “Oh, how much?” And I sold all my samples, just walking around the block. It’s like, “Alright, I think these men’s hoodies will work too.”
So now I’m producing men’s hoodies, and I guess that’s how the business grew.
Doug: That’s the best way for it to grow, when it’s just, “Well, this stuff’s flying off the shelves, and people want it, and I know my kids have the woolies with the knee patches from I think maybe that first round of winter fair stuff that you did. So those are already popular ski garments in our house. So that’s amazing just to keep getting that feedback from your community. So now that you’ve got that, you’ve got the kids, you’ve got the women’s hoodies and the men’s hoodies. Where is this thing going now? Are you still distributing through little fairs and popups and things like that? Are you selling mainly through your website? Are people starting to, is this showing up in stores anywhere? What’s your next phase?
Fanny Toorenburg: One of my things is, because when I started, merino wasn’t affordable, one of my things is to keep my prices below the big brands just to make it more affordable for people. And the fact that it’s made with remnants. Merino, everyone should have merino in their wardrobe, just it’s such a wonderful fabric. So by keeping my prices lower, I prefer selling direct to customers, cause my margins are a little bit smaller. But saying that, I prefer selling online, but selling online doesn’t work, I just put my stuff online, people see the pictures and they give me a call, so I don’t actually sell direct online. Just people come in to my house or they want to meet up with me and I just take the pictures off the website.
So it shows I don’t have any sales because everything’s sold, everything’s gone. But saying that though, I want people to know about what I’m making, just I don’t want to go beyond my circle of friends or my network. So I do have two stores in Nederland, one it’s called the Wild Bear Nature Center. Which have the kid’s garments. And there’s a women’s store next door, it’s called The Shop, have my women’s hoodies. And now just recently I’ve done a big push in outdoor store, and in the fall I’ve got some orders from a very big mountaineering store, Neptune Mountaineering will have my garments there in Boulder. And I’ve just partnered with the Durango Outdoor Exchange, so they have some of my garments there.
Plus other order pendings and some key small mountain towns. And it’s super easy. I walk in, and I toast the people, ten minutes later I come out with a purchase order. So you just have to show up basically.
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Doug: That’s nice. It was funny, two questions, one are you still making it mainly from remnants? Is that what you mainly use as your product, first of all?
Fanny Toorenburg: It’s a bit of a mix. End of rolls or smaller rolls. Now that I have to produce more like hundreds of garments I have to buy the rolls. What I do is I love the garments to be unique. So the inside of the hoods, they’re all different colors. That’s what people love, when I walk into a store, they don’t want to buy twenty blacks and twenty greens. They want blacks and blacks and greens, and green with an orange hood. They just like the variety because it’s different than what the big brands offer. That’s what they love, or stripy body, or orange arms, or whatever. That’s what they love, and that’s part of my brand, I guess it’s about having a unique garment that has a personality.
Doug: That’s hard to find. That’s another thing people are looking for. I think that’s really interesting. Even if you get to the point, where because of the scale that you’re working at, you said you need to buy the rolls now for the main body of cloth. You’re still finding ways to keep pretty much each garment unique, whether it’s the inside of the hood or a random sleeve or something like that. You’re not just going to walk into a store and see twenty of the same thing sitting there which is really amazing. I’m sure that’s part of your success. I think a challenge might be in the future how do you hold onto that uniqueness when your numbers are growing. How about, so it sounds like this has been the dream entrepreneurial journey. You made something for yourself, for your kids, that other people want. It’s taking these steps.
Were there any other unforeseen challenges along this journey? Was there anything that you just didn’t expect? I think entrepreneurs, they always have to tackle problems and be creative, not just in their product, but in how they’re managing their business. Is there anything that stands out?
Fanny Toorenburg: The main thing, which I actually identified earlier on was the merino supplies. Because I’m still small, I can’t buy 600 yards of one color. As a minimum from a supplier. So I really have to put a lot of time and energy to find the right supplier for the right price and I have a variety of colors. And now a lot of the merino is actually, the merino fabric, is made overseas. And the minimums have increased exponentially over the last year. So I’m at a cross point now. Everything’s been self funded so far. And in trying to stay cash positive and all that, but now I need some funding to grow to the next level. And oh, how am I going to afford 600 yards of one color, or even 200 of four colors. That’s a big … I guess it was foreseen but the scale of it was likely unforeseen. So I need to find some parlor tricks or grow exponentially over the following year.
I guess it’s hard to juggle and doing this business or growing this business, being a full time mom. And then the costs of childcare are enormous so I’m basically funding myself with the business but also if I want to grow the business I have to pay for childcare and it’s like a double whammy. That’s slightly unexpected right there. The amount it comes up to is, I don’t want to count.
Doug: Right yeah. It’s really interesting, there’s only so many, you have limited resources, whether it’s money or time. When one starts pulling both of those things in your equation, you gotta figure out how to plug those holes. You’ve been super creative with your brand and everything so far so I’m sure your creativity is working on that as well. It’s really fascinating. I think it’s just unbelievable because a lot of people out there, when you speak to other entrepreneurs, you think about those brands where you’re constantly trying to push, push, push. You are being pulled along, almost. That’s just really, some people might think, that’s the best place to be, everyone wants my product, and I’m selling out every time but it does lead to other entrepreneurial challenges like you’ve said. From scaling and funding and things like that. Those are real challenges.
Fanny Toorenburg: At the moment, my brand is me in some ways. So if I go in front of someone and I have a conversation with them, I’ll come out with a purchase order. So I can’t send somebody else to do it. So I need the time to be out networking and talking to people and being in front of people. And then I’m just overwhelmed by how much support I get. People love it for all sorts of different reasons so it motivates me to keep going. Then you have to go in front of people, so you have to have that time. Who’s going to look after the kids? But last week I had the chance to go away on I guess a business trip. Which I took my tent, my skis, my mountain bike and my car. That’s it, all my life, packed into my little car. And I just drove off in southwest Colorado. That’s for me, that’s life. You know?
You don’t need anything apart from that stuff. I just stop at all the mountain towns, talk to people in the stores, got some orders, talk to different companies, I just played outside all day. Tried all the trails, and worked in my tent that night. It’s life. I do what I love and I love what I do.
Doug: The perfect Colorado business trip, right there.
Fanny Toorenburg: Yeah perfect. I’ll do that anytime, I’ll be on the road like that anytime, all summer.
Doug: You were telling me a funny story, actually, Jessica Beacom had relayed that story to me a little bit. Of course, Jessica Beacom is a friend of ours in common and the first person to help me by being on this podcast. So be sure to go check out her episode. Jessica Beacom is of the real food dietitians and you can find them at their website and they have an amazing food blog and just a really awesome community around healthy food and healthy living so be sure to go check that out. But anyway she was telling me a couple stories about you when I asked her at the end who she would love to hear on this podcast, you were the first person and you were the only person that came to her mind.
So she was telling me how you were listening to her podcast in your tent during a crazy storm in southwest Colorado and I was just thinking, “Wow I’ve only done like a few of these episodes, and I’m already getting these awesome stories.” I can only picture just listening to the podcast that we’re making in a tent during a storm. That sounds super funny to me considering this journey has just begun. She also relayed to me a really amazing story, it was how you were at a race. I guess you showed up at the finish line before the organizers were even expecting people to finish. So the finish line wasn’t even up yet. Is this a true?
Fanny Toorenburg: Yeah pretty much.
Doug: Alright, so let’s talk about this. Let’s just shift to this a little bit. Again we spoke about, you you’re running a business, you’re being the mom and you’re also an athlete. And I think that’s something people, especially in Boulder, but people in Colorado can identify with, trying to juggle all those things. So tell me a little bit about this race. What race was it and what happened?
Fanny Toorenburg: I was at the Ned Ned last year. So basically I haven’t raced really for about ten years, having kids and other priorities in life during those years. When I came back to Boulder, it’s like, “Oh man I’m in Boulder and I’m not training, I don’t even own a pair of running shoes. I have to do something about this.” So I started running again about a year and a half ago. You know, just slowly getting back into it, not racing, really. It’s like, “Okay, I should probably enter some races.” So I entered some races. I entered Ned Ned, we just moved up to Ned, and no expectations. In my early years I wanted to win, I wanted to be selected for something or whatever. Now I’m just doing it for fun. I just show up and have a nice time.
Anyway, I show up to this local race. And it’s at altitude, it’s eight and a half thousand feet up there. Just started running, it’s like, “Oh I’m doing okay here,” but I wasn’t, I was juts in the front group, but nothing. It’s like, “Oh, okay three miles to go, I think I’ll just push it a little bit, see what happens.” It’s like, “Oh okay I’m first, oh whatever.” First I’m in overall in front of the boys too. And then I just turn up, “Oh it’s the finish line.” And then nobody said anything. And I walked in and it’s like, “Oh, you’re already there.” My support crew wasn’t there, my kids weren’t even there, they were not expecting me. Nobody was expecting me. And then other people started coming in, it’s like, “Oh we missed the first person.”
Doug: That’s unbelievable. I love that. That’s just amazing. So what is your, so are you training really regularly? I know like you said, just being even prepared, not competitively, but in order to back country ski, and just really be functioning at a high level out in the mountains, what’s your training regimen look like?
Fanny Toorenburg: Pretty much every morning I’m out the door by six. When the kids sleep it’s the only time I can go training. If I miss my 6 am spot that’s it for the day pretty much. For me it’s just going out training. It’s about having a balance in life. And just clearing my mind for the day. Because I know it’s pretty intense looking after three children for the whole day. There’s never a break, like never. If you think you’re having a break, somebody’s going to jump on you, that’s for sure. So I have to get out everyday, and I have found an amazing coach which is my friend as well. She lives in Neds so we train together sometimes. She’s a woman and having a woman’s coach is just so valuable. I suppose, her name is Kathy Butler. Back in Ned.
I don’t need to train twenty hours a week like I used to do. Maybe ten would be a big week. And then that’s all. I’ve got the background and I’m probably racing better than I did ten years ago. And I’m in the mountains, what else? The sun rise over the mountains, you think about, you dream, you solve all the world’s problems, and then when you finish, your mind’s clear and you start your day. And then if you’ve got time to go out and do a race or something, then I just do that.
Doug: And how about, some favorite spots? If you’re heading out for a nice active day with the kids, do you have any go to favorite spots up there?
Fanny Toorenbur: We live right next to the mountain biking trails so we can go hike out from our front door. And mountain biking just near Mud Lake. I can make the rides with the kids anywhere from five minutes to five hours. It’s just right there. I guess because we’re new to Nederland, all the places like [Brandon Lakes 00:29:57] and Long Lake up there, or up at Eldora, Lost Lake. They’re just so easy access. And I think because I still have a four year old I can’t stretch too far, the car ride has to stay pretty short, just to make sure the trip is successful, the longer I make it, the higher the chance of decreasing success. Or me having to carry everybody’s stuff, and then everybody’s … And then in winter, skiing is right there, ten minutes drive to go to Eldora. So with the boys, I would take them before school if they had afternoon kindergarten. I take the two boys for two hours of skiing and a hot chocolate and then drop them off at school.
In terms of the lifestyle as a kid, I wish I grew up in a place like that.
Doug: Yeah, exactly. I know, I hope my kids maybe one day they’ll realize how lucky they all are. I feel lucky to be here as well. I guess, there’s one last question I like to ask people when they’re here. Who would you love to hear on this podcast? Is there some people in your community that people should know about, what they have going on?
Fanny Toorenburg: I have to say, I don’t know the name exactly, but the organization, SMBA, S-M-B-A mountain biking, I know that David [Femmer 00:31:25] is quite involved up in Nederland. They are amazing. Taking the kids mountain biking, they’ve got the organization sorted out to the T. They take their kids after school, from the gym, they take them for a two hour ride, or in the summertime they’ve got vans, the kids ride all the trails in groups with their friends. In so far as getting kids into the outdoors and into mountain biking, just amazing. It’s all a community endeavor as well. It’s incredible, they get them to work on the trails, to build jumps, to maintain their bikes, to be super independent. I think it’s amazing. And they also partner with a local, the Tin Shed up in Nederland, which is next to the coffee shop Salto. And then the owners and the people that work in there. The owners are Marcus and Karina. Sorry I don’t know their last name.
But in so far as bringing community together and then an active community, because that shop is also a ski shop in the winter. Getting people to come and have coffee and tacos before and after. They do a lot for the Nederland community. And then to feed that outdoor lifestyle to people. I think those two would be my top, I think.
Doug: That’s fantastic, I’ll definitely try to reach out to them and see if we can get any of them. But it really sounds like a fantastic community up there. I’m only familiar with Nederland mostly from going to Eldora or heading up to Caribou or some of those other places that you’ve mentioned. I tend to swing through the town and maybe stop to eat, but I don’t know everything that’s going on up there but it’s just an amazing community.
Let’s see. I think that’s really about it. Is there anything else you just really wanted to mention about what’s going on with your business? How about, where people can mostly find you?
Fanny Toorenburg: I think at the moment online, Instagram and Facebook and my website would be the easiest place. Or contacting me directly. Although shops I mentioned before, people are interested in my gear, so there’s two shops in Nederland, is the Wild Bear and then The Shop. In the fall, like at Neptune Mountaineering, in terms of locally, would be the best place to find me. I guess one of the things that I would like to mention is that the Nederland community is just incredible. There’s just so many skills and so many entrepreneurs up there that work out of their cabins and just get together from time to time. There’s another hat maker up there which is called Ned Gear, and then we’ve been partnering to make hats out of my merino scraps. We want to put Nederland on the map as a cool place to be, and just do our part for the community. I think a lot of people in Nederland want to do that and there’s a lot of partnering and partnerships that happen there.
And I think that’s cool. If we could identify Nederland as a cool place to find cool merino gear, then that’s awesome. But also I want to mention the Born Wild project, which there are some people at the school, like Jason Spearling is involved with, to get the kids outside. Regardless of the weather, and wearing merino so you don’t have to carry a big pack full of gear. They’ve done some, they’re doing some amazing work, and some films to help people find easy ways to get their kids outside. It’s just so important. They’ve also done an interview with me, a bit of a story, which should be out soon on their website. So it’s called BornWildProject.com. And you’ll find out some other interesting facts about me. One of them is why Indiana Jones was my childhood hero and my role model. So I’m not going to give it away so you’re going to have to check it out.
Doug: That’s fantastic. Thanks for mentioning that. We’ll be sure to put the links to all this stuff in the show notes for this podcast. We’ll make sure that we’re finding out resources when they become available, and everybody can find them on the website, for sure. Of course, all the links to your website and Instagram and Facebook, wherever else you are, wherever else people can find you, we’ll have the links to all that as well.
Fanny Toorenburg: Perfect.
Doug: Alright, well thank you so much. I really enjoyed having you here and just learning more about your journey. Both as an entrepreneur and just as your person coming into Colorado and I really appreciate you sharing that with me.
Fanny Toorenburg: Thank you Doug, it was super fun.
Doug: Alright thanks a lot.
Fanny Toorenburg: Thank you.