“When somebody wants
something that you
created, it's mind blowing.”
Lionel Brodie, founder of Original Propaganda and Original Propaganda Athletic Club
Lionel Brodie is the founder of independent clothing label Original Propaganda and the Original Propaganda Athletic Club, an athletic and social club for runners at all levels. Here he talks upending the public perception of competitive running without being ostracizing, and learning to find inspiration in the creativity of others—no matter what they’re working on.
What was your initial vision for Original Propaganda?
On the fashion side, we just wanted something that kind of captures how we dress. I'm from West Philadelphia. I went to Villanova. I live on the main line. I need pieces I can still wear when I go back home and not look like or feel like Carlton Banks, but then also when I walk out of my apartment in Wayne, my neighbors don't look at me like, "What's going on?" That versatility is what we're looking for—being very punk rock but in a preppy sort of way; athletic, but in a leisurely sort of way.
From an athletic side, we wanted this one community. We wanted the community to be competitively equal. To us, that means that if you are a couch to 5Ker or you are a Boston Marathon qualifier, we can exist in the same room right here, and me as the couch to 5Ker, I don't feel intimidated by you as an ultra marathoner, and you don't feel frustrated with me because we're on different levels.
Now that's going a step further because I'm beginning to realize that the narrative in the running community is that in order to be considered a runner, you have to either run fast or run far. Everybody doesn't fit into that mold. I'm embarking on this crusade of trying to make sure that the entire story is being told when it comes to running—people's mentality and feeling toward running, people's bodies and how that's being dictated. There are a few brands out there like, ‘We're for the competitive runner,’ but they start at a women's double extra small and they only go up to a large, and they start at a men's extra small and go up to a men's XL. If you fall outside of that range, in my mind it's saying that you can't be considered a competitor. That doesn't land well to me. When you have certain parts of the running establishment basically saying, “Oh, if you're not running this 5K in 14 minutes, then why are you even talking about it?” It's absurd.
What drew you to that vision personally?
I've always been into fashion, and fashion is so subjective. You look at these magazines like a GQ or Cosmopolitan, and they paint this universal version of what fashion should be, and it's really not. Since I was maybe six, I was just trying to be fly. You can almost get away with anything if people think that you're dressed a certain type of way. As much as Original Propaganda was inspired by old war posters from the 1700s, it's been all about like, how can I feel like it's 1987 every day without looking like an 8-track player? And so it was that, and then working at Villanova on the Nike front and being hands on with picking out the product for the coaches and the players and administration. Picking out the shoes, and then going a step further and picking out the designs, and then going a step further and creating new designs. It was just everything I was doing at Nova, I wanted to be able to do this with a clean slate, and not looking at a chart of 20 logos. After a while you're just plugging in the pieces.
From an athletic side, I had a really bad experience when I was training for my first half marathon. We were training as beginners, and the one group was at one store and then we did a partner run with a group from another store. At this partner run, we knew everybody was on a different level, but everything that people hate about running I feel like we all experienced that this run. We're beginners, wearing some camp T-shirt and basketball shorts, slouchy socks—whatever. And this particular group was wearing singlets, and split-side, two-inch shorts, all talking about like the race they did last night. So already you're intimidated, right? And then there's just no inclusion. It’s like going to a high school dance where the cool kids are on one side, and the not-so-cool kids are on the other side. I wanted to create something that wasn't that. You could be super fast and I could be super slow or vice versa, and we can all exist, because on race day, we're all at the same race. We're all in the same space.
Did you have any fears about becoming an entrepreneur?
I think one of the biggest but often overlooked fears is talking about it outside your own head. How many times have you had a great idea, and then you mention it to somebody and they look at you like you said something ridiculous? I think I knew eventually that the more and more you talk about it, the more and more it becomes a real thing, and you have to answer adult questions. Do you have a business plan? What are your financials? What are your projections?
I think another fear is that when you're doing something creative on your own in an entrepreneurial space, you're on your own. If I'm at Nova and I put out a shirt for the field hockey team and they don't like the logo or placement or cut or whatever, I just come back with the next shirt next year. Nova's been around since 1842. This team's been around for, let's say 50 years. The sport itself is not going anywhere. It's a global sport. So you get that mulligan. You get that chance to come back and do it again. But when you're on your own, if you crash and burn, that could be it.
“You think about these terms
like ‘self-made’ and
you realize that's true
in a lot of ways, but your
creation is more powerful when you have a platform.”
Lionel Brodie, founder of Original Propaganda and Original Propaganda Athletic Club
What has been your greatest struggle in founding Original Propaganda?
Until you find a backer, you have to fund it. You have to fund it, so you have to continuously believe in it to put your own money behind it. You have to believe in it enough to continue to want to put resources behind it, and that number-one resource is time. So if you have another job—because everybody hears entrepreneur and thinks it's people who don't work. People start companies, but then they work. You work for AT&T, but then you started this other thing. You have to realize that if you want this baby to grow—whatever it is—and you're working somewhere full time or even part time then you have to go home and continue to work, or work on your lunch break or on the weekends.
You read these stories on [Capturing Lightning] or whatever, and you look at all of these people who have created something. They had this vision. It looks super easy when you look at it, right? Everybody is smiling. They got their legs crossed with the coffee. They got picked up [in the news] as a Philly startup. You're like, "Man, that's amazing. I wish I could do that." And then you realize that it takes a lot when you get into the backstory. It's like, "Oh yeah, we started thinking about this in 2009." And you're like, "Wait, that was 10 years ago!"
What has been your greatest triumph in your founder’s journey thus far?
We do a weekly run Tuesdays at 7 o'clock at Ten Stone [Restaurant & Bar]. Such a shameless plug. [Laughs] If you can continue to get people to show up to the run, knowing that you're putting into verbiage all runners and non-runners welcome, all faces and paces welcome, and then you're explaining to people that the route might be three miles, but if you want to run one mile or two miles, that's fine. If you're training for something or you're just enjoying it or whatever and you want to run six miles, that's fine. We're going to all start and end at the same space, and then enjoy that fellowship afterward—the food, the drinks, whatever.
Working with Nike has also been a huge triumph because, I mean, it's the swoosh. As a kid growing up, you idolize these athletes that wear these brands, and then you always wanted to be in a position where you're either working for that company or working with that company. That's a really cool feeling. The mutual support between us and them [Nike] has been something that I would have never thought would be possible five, six years ago.
And then I think the first time we printed something on an apparel piece and somebody else wanted it was like this awesome sort of validation. When somebody wants something that you created, it's mind blowing. It's hard to explain.
What has been your biggest sacrifice?
Definitely the time, because when you want to go on some crazy Netflix binge, there's so many other things that you can be doing. If you're not working on your competitive analysis or you're not working on the next event or you're not working on the next design or whatever it is—there's always something that you could be doing. And so you're definitely sacrificing your time.
Has anyone in your personal life been a constant source of support?
A lot of the people were there in the beginning like Quincy Johnson. We were like the two brainchildren behind Original Propaganda, the fashion side. And then it's just been friends that support in a way, who have just been—I mean, I don't even want to name names because you forget people, but definitely tons of people. [Laughs] There's my family, and people at Nova who knew what I was trying to do and were super supportive of me leaving there to kind of follow my dreams.
We had a T-shirt and it just had everybody on it, like the people who were around from the beginning—myself, Quincy, and then Abby Freitag and Alexandra Diekmann, and Patrick Price. Patrick was the first person ever to show up for an OPAC run, and he still is around now. Jamie Shroy, who is a teacher and also the head cheerleading coach at Villanova, is my girlfriend. We live together. She's super supportive even though she's got two jobs. She still helps out with stuff and right now at this current moment she's been the hugest supporter and the one of the biggest believers in what we're trying to do.
Did anyone in your life try to dissuade you from becoming an entrepreneur?
No. I think I'm lucky in that way and blessed that I don't have a lot of people who are like, "Oh, that's not going to work. How are you going to live?" Which is kind of good and it's kind of bad in a way, too, because you need detractors in order to stay focused. You're going to have competitors, and you need that because then you stay driven and focused. People who have a bunch of yes people around them are doomed at some point in my opinion.
Did you ever come close to giving up?
I think most people who have created something, you get to a point where you're like, “This sucks and it's just not worth it, and I would be better off spending my time getting a steady check coming in every two weeks.” You think about it when you designed something that people think is not great. You love it, but nobody else is behind it. Or, because we do run club every week, every Tuesday you're having the same argument with yourself, like, “How come there's only four people here?” And even though you know in your mind it's seven degrees outside and you don't even want to be outside.
I think about it a lot, and I think you should. You get evaluated at your job every year, so you need to have these regular times where you're just like, “Is this worth it?” And are you going to readjust it, where you're like, “Hey, maybe this isn't a job; maybe it's a passion project.” And would you still do it if you weren't going to make money from it? If the answer to that is yes, then you know that you're into it.
What would make you feel as though you accomplished what you set out to do with Original Propaganda?
I think from the fashion side, once we have the website done and we have product online that we can direct people to buy, that will be a huge goal that would be checked off. For Original Propaganda Athletic Club, I think you have these little ridiculous numbers in your mind, like, if we can get 10 people to come to run club every week, then that number becomes 20, then that number becomes 30. You just want people to look at the Instagram picture every week and say, "Damn. People showed up." The biggest measure of OPAC will be once we button up running to a point where we've brought in the next sport. That's the ultimate goal. The next sport, that changes the game. That differentiates us from other running groups.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
I think though one of the ones that I learn every day is that you can't expect other people to be as passionate about it as you are—and then don't let that deter you. You created it, so it's your baby and you're going to be super jazzed and stoked about it. You can't necessarily expect somebody who is really close to you to share in that fervor. It's not like they don't care; they just have their own vision for life, and dreams and goals and things that they want to do.
Another thing I've learned is that you have to be cognizant and know that sometimes you just need to focus on one thing. Walking away from Nova was really hard because I went to school at Nova. I'm from Philly. I love Nova. I still love Nova, but with everything that was required of me there, there was no way that I was going to be able to do this [Original Propaganda]. There was no way I was going to be able to focus on this and be able to do my job well. When you work in college athletics, if you're not doing your job well, it's affecting the student athlete. It's messing with their experience. I didn't want to rob anybody of their experience because I know how much that means to people.
I also learned that you can find inspiration from anywhere. You know like I'm so inspired by anyone who has created something, even if it doesn't apply to me at all. I met two women—I believe they're also featured on your site. I met them at a founder's thing that Philly Startup Leaders had. They were talking about their story and how they started, and I was like, it's amazing that two people thought about how children have the wrong size shoes and the effects that can have, and they turned it into something. It blew my mind. It made me look at TV and listen to songs differently because now I was just so awakened by that experience of that's a real problem that I've never thought of because I guess I always had the right size shoes. And I'm forty, so I know what size shoe I wear. [Laughs]
One of the things that I've recently been learning is that when you're in that business of disrupting as an entrepreneur, and what I thought about people who are entrepreneurs, was that everybody was doing it on their own. You think about these terms like “self-made” or whatever, and you realize that's true in a lot of ways, but then also your movement or your creation is more powerful when you have a platform. So for myself and other entrepreneurs or founders, I don't think should be afraid to partner or work with bigger entities because if you're staying true to yourself, you're just speaking with a bigger microphone.
This interview has been lightly edited from a phone conversation for clarity. Capturing Lightning is a project from Woden, a strategic storytelling agency in Philadelphia that helps organizations articulate who they are and why people should care. To learn more about how to tell your story, visit us at wodenworks.com.