Rob Canales and Kurt Spenser were working on the perfect wetsuit for close to two years when they gave one to professional triathlete Meredith Kessler for Ironman New Zealand in 2013. The friends and former Stanford swimmers had been inspired after unsatisfactory experiences with some supposedly top-of-the-line wetsuits during Ironman 70.3 Austin in 2010, and decided to spend the free time they had from their demanding jobs—Canales was a corporate lawyer in Austin while Spenser worked as head of creative for a design studio in Los Angeles—trying to make them better.
Initially, it was just a hobby. When their hobby started working for them, they approached pro triathletes for feedback. They added buoyancy where it was needed (and removed it where it wasn’t), allowing swimmers to move through the water as quickly as possible. “We started from a real place of authenticity; we made it for ourselves,” Canales says.
Kessler won the Ironman swim by four minutes against a woman who had beaten her just a few months earlier. “From there, athletes really started wearing them,” Canales adds. The friends also launched a successful e-commerce website in spring 2013, making their company, Roka, a full-time job.
Today, their smooth, ultra-thin wetsuits, along with similarly innovative apparel and gear for running, swimming, and cycling, are on display in Roka’s new Design District headquarters, where Canales is based (Spenser still resides in LA). The 11,700-square-foot warehouse and former home to the Goss-Michael Foundation offered Roka the opportunity to grow beyond its startup roots. The company, which has seen its revenue triple in growth year-over-year, can now focus on prototyping new apparel and gear requested by athletes that love the brand, a capability that has helped them stand out in an already crowded market.
“Most brands take up to two years to bring something to the market. We’ve been able to bring something to market in nine to 12 months; that’s where technology has helped us,” says Canales.
The warehouse’s state-of-the-art prototyping equipment includes two multi-material 3D printers and advanced textile bonding machines. There’s also a small, 80-degree pool that creates a motorized current (a good place to quickly test whether goggles or a suit is up to par). After releasing a line of swimsuits and cycling apparel in 2015, Roka has continued to expand organically and rapidly, adding running apparel and, most recently, sunglasses, all of which boast the same sleek, ultra-lightweight appeal of the wetsuits with equal attention paid to fit, performance, and fashion.
A Dallas location has afforded Roka more than just space, though. After leaving his law job in Austin, Canales made the move to Dallas for his wife, Kate (the product design expert runs a master’s program in design and innovation at Southern Methodist University), and found that, to his surprise, the area had a lot to offer a performance wear brand.
“It turns out, Dallas has this huge population of triathletes and a big running scene,” Canales says.
Originally, it was just Canales working out of a small Deep Ellum loft. As the company earned funding and began to grow, they moved to an office in the historic Meadows Building off Greenville Avenue, and finally to the polished—yet industrial—Design District warehouse. Canales says he feels it is perfectly on brand for the aesthetics-conscious company.
“We’re trying to draw on what Dallas has to offer,” says Canales. “On the labor side, we’ve been able to hire some highly experienced people who’ve worked in operations or finance at bigger companies in Dallas; an all-star team. With SMU, we have this really awesome well of young talent who have a perspective on the world.”
Included on Roka’s current roster of 25 employees is Jamie Oman, a former director at Oakley (brought on to help with goggles and sunglasses); Mark Niiro, a cyclist and former head of packaging at Apple; and employees with experience at Google, Speedo, and running brand Pearl Izumi.
After their breakthrough moment with Meredith Kessler, Roka now sponsors close to 50 global athletes, including reigning Ironman world champions and Olympian Gwen Jorgenson, who won the USA’s first triathlon gold medal last summer.
“As former athletes, it’s all about empathy,” says Canales. “What do athletes want? What’s bugging them?”
Their direct-to-consumer model helps them absorb customer opinions, and they say it that helps quickly improve and expand their product base. “It’s the little details that count, and we’re trying to do it right,” Canales adds.
As brand recognition grows, Roka has also started seeing interest from a second set of influencers. “Zac Efron loves Roka. He posts an Instagram fly fishing in our Phantom aviators and gets a million likes and it’s super organic,” Canales says. “Daisy Ridley also posted a video working out in a bunch of our running stuff.”
Though Roka is currently only available online, Canales is open to a retail store. “We’ve got this really cool product mix now and we’re thinking, ‘Okay, could we go live at NorthPark or have a pop-up at Nordstrom?’”
No matter what Roka’s next move is, the talented local team is sure to do it right, and quickly.