The HippyTree Tale: A surf brand launched in Hermosa Beach
How two childhood friends built an iconic South Bay-based brand (And how they plan to go global)
by Mark McDermott
The crooked little trees started appearing around the South Bay early in the summer of 2005.
The trees were about seven inches tall, made out of metal, and usually found in pairs hanging off power lines, much the way pairs of sneakers are sometimes thrown over power lines. They veered slightly leftward, like a little pine tree enduring the wind as it grows in some unlikely place, like a mountain cliff or a canyon gorge. Conspicuously, some were hung from piers, or near good surf breaks, like El Porto, or post-surf hangs, like Martha’s diner in Hermosa Beach. Others appeared as bright green decals on paired bottles likewise hung over lines, and not only in the South Bay — Ventura, Newport, Huntington, San Clemente and Topanga beaches also reported the appearance of the weird little trees.
Police were perplexed.
“As much as I would love to have an answer for you on this story, I haven’t got a clue,” Hermosa Beach Police Sgt. Paul Walcott told the Daily Breeze crime reporter Larry Altman in top-of-the-fold, page 1 story titled “Mystery trees stump local authorities.” “There appears to be a methodology to it,” said Sgt. Phil Keenan of the Redondo Beach Police Department.
This went on for months. In November, when the story hit Channel 13 nightly news, Andrew Sarnecki knew it was time to get a lawyer. Sure enough, within days HBPD officers tracked him down and arrested him. The Breeze cover story was in his backpack, along with tree stickers. His attorney told Easy Reader that Sarnecki was a designer about to launch a clothing line and “the artist who came up with this particular logo.” Though Sarnecki only spent an afternoon in jail and the charges would later be dropped (after he paid all the costs of mystery tree removal), HBPD was not amused. “There’s nothing clever about what he did,” Sgt. Walcott said.
Thus was born HippyTree. And while the sergeant might not have recognized it at the time, what Sarnecki had done — aided and abetted by his partner in crime (literally in this case, figuratively ever since they were both six years old), HippyTree co-founder Josh Sweeney — was, if not clever, extremely ingenious. Sarnecki has mixed feelings about it now. “I wouldn’t recommend starting a brand that way,” he said. “Going to jail isn’t on most people’s list of things you want to do.” But what he and Sweeney had done was launch HippyTree in an extremely cost-effective manner. In the months that followed, when the pair arrived at surf shops up and down the Southern California coast with their very first line of HippyTree tee shirts and calendars, they already had brand recognition.
We found a reliable custom tshirt printing service and were getting ready to launch the brand and wanting to sell product to stores. And it was more than just an idea or a hobby. It was like, ‘We are going to do this for real.’ I’m getting ready to quit my job,’ said Sarnecki who worked as a designer for Body Glove at the time.
“But if you don’t have a lot of money, you are not going to roll out some $50,000 ad campaign in magazines, and people weren’t selling online yet…So how do you kind of make a statement about your brand, or get people to recognize it?”
Like any good entrepreneurs, the key was to utilize what resources they did have, which in this case turned out to be unruly imaginations and a whole lot of metal — Sweeney’s family came from the steel business.
“It was kind of an art project inspired by street art,” Sarnecki said. “Street art is kind of played out now, but it was a burgeoning thing then. Right then, there were more people doing it, and it was a total kind of a counterculture. And that goes back to the hippies who were kind of a counterculture movement. The thought was, ‘What can we do to get people’s attention that would be just off the wall and completely out there but would get people talking about it?”
The logo these days is recognizable nationally, and within the climbing, action sports, and surf cultures, internationally. And that little green tree has not changed: it shares a quality very few logos possess — think of the Nike swoosh — in that the logo evokes a very specific vibe and does so with no text at all.
The logo didn’t happen by happy accident. Sarnecki was only 25 at the time but deeply versed in design. He’d grown up not only surfing but paying particular attention to the iconography of surf brands, then attended the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and studied graphic design. His four years at Body Glove were the equivalent of design grad school. The void in the market he and Sweeney were trying to meet with HippyTree was an outdoor apparel and surf brand that was nature-based in its design ethos. Hence the tree.
“You want to make sure your logo is fully functional on all scales,” Sarnecki said. “And that’s where that came from, beyond wanting to have a positive symbol — nature, growth, and foundation. Which just kind of backed up my own mindset at the time. It was in the trees and the outdoors. And that backs up where HippyTree is at today.”
HippyTree today is in places that would have seemed unimaginable at its outlaw outset. The brand is in more than 500 stores worldwide and now includes an extensive line of apparel for men, including hoodies, flannels, beanies, pants, button-up shirts, boardshorts, and even backpacks (a collaboration with beloved old school, outdoor brand JanSport). HippyTree can be found in the most revered among outdoor equipment and apparel chain stores, REI. And perhaps most impressively, HippyTree boardshorts are now the official boardshorts of the oldest and most respected lifesaving organization in the world, the Los Angeles County Lifeguards.
HippyTree is the little tree that keeps growing. And now, at the tender age of 15, the brand hopes to enter a new stage — HippyTree is for the first time looking for someone to help scale the brand up to include a women’s line, a kid’s line, more effective eCommerce and more global reach. And while the brand is 100 percent legal now, it has somehow maintained that crooked, offbeat authenticity it began with as street art.
“The logo is a little funky. Like, I look at it now, and it’s not a perfectly straight tree, versus perfect and symmetrical,” Sarnecki said. “It’s a little off. It’s a little funky. But you know, that’s the brand.”
It all began on a soccer field. Sarnecki and Sweeney were both six years old. And Sweeney, much like today, was impossible to miss, even on a field full of hyper, chattering, scampering six-year-olds. He rarely stopped smiling and never stopped talking.
“I definitely got in a lot of trouble in elementary school, and all through school,” Sweeney said. “You know, for just standing up in the middle of class and walking over and talking to my friends. I’m always out to chat and then trying to help people. Or just bullshit with people.”
“‘People person’ means Josh Sweeney,” Sarnecki said. “He is the people person.”
It turned out they lived within a bike ride of each other’s homes, and both liked to skateboard, and eventually surf. Thus was born HippyTree, the buddy movie, in which two friends whose qualities almost exactly counterbalance each other embark on an epic adventure — in this case, taking on global giants in the outdoor surf and apparel industry, and doing so with a crooked tree and tribe of likewise lopsided-leaning athletes, musicians, and wilderness wanderers. Sarnecki, although hardly a recluse, was from the outset the more cerebral of the duo — the kid who excelled in school, who liked surfing but also analyzed its aesthetics, and who could draw everything he saw in complete detail. Sweeney, on the other hand, was kind of a force of nature unto himself, a catalyst of an unusual kind — where he went, things just seemed to happen, be it a high school prank or the surf trip that turned into a life-or-death epic.
Sweeney was also an excellent athlete and after high school earned a scholarship to the University of Nevada Las Vegas, eventually transferring to Cal State Fullerton. After school he was working for the family steel business when Sarnecki, who was living in Hermosa Beach and working at Body Glove, called him up and pitched the notion of starting their own company. They met regularly at Pedones in Hermosa to flesh out the idea.
“I used to drive up from Seal Beach where I was living at the time and hang out at Pedones, eating pizza and drinking pitchers of beer outside at a little table,” Sweeney said. “He just used to jot down like chicken scratch kind of graphics; I can’t draw for the life of me, but I can come up with some creative ideas. Andrew and I have worked together on different projects since middle school, so I kind of knew how to work with him.”
Both had grown up admiring surf culture and surf brands, such as Stussy, Gotcha, T&C, Jimmy Z, Hang Ten and Quiksilver. After Sarnecki went to work for Body Glove, where he did graphic design as well as helped design wetsuits and eventually worked his way up to art director, his appreciation for what it took to establish a brand grew. And as much as he learned at Body Glove, it was an extremely established brand, with a defined identity. He had a yearning to build a brand from scratch and saw something missing in the market.
“It was pretty simple. There wasn’t really a nature brand in the surf industry,” he said. “I’m looking at all the big dominating brands, Billabong, Hurley, Volcom…What we were thinking of was a brand that was more than just surfing. Obviously, creativity and art is a part of it, but all brands have to have good creative work and compelling design. But on a grander scheme, like a marketing side, I thought — and Josh backed up this kind of lifestyle — it was like, ‘Hey, we’re in the outdoors.’ We are in Southern California and we are so close to the mountains and the deserts. We are next to Yosemite and Sequoia and Bishop and the Sierra Nevada mountains, and next to Joshua Tree and Death Valley, all these amazing places. We were inspired by that; it’s a big part of our lifestyle. But it’s also a big part of a lot of people’s lifestyles, going to the outdoors and doing stuff, and none of the brands were really tapping into that.”
The name came from a nickname Sarnecki had acquired from his friends and co-workers. “They would call me Hippy,” he said. “I was just out of college, longer hair, surf bum. I was a designer working for Body Glove, and they said I had hippie tendencies…And then, I was a graphic designer, photographer, and artist, and I had a signature for Hippy, and the ‘I’ was in the shape of a tree. So that’s where the tree got added on to the Hippy.”
Sweeney was all in. “Dude,” he said. “We can sell this.”
“I was like, ‘You know, we’re young in our life. Let’s do something fun and interesting and not be so tied to regular jobs,’” Sweeney said. “I was like f*** it, let’s try to see if we can do this.”
Sarnecki went to Dennis Jarvis, the founder and owner of Spyder Surf, and asked him what he thought of the idea.
“We met a few times as he was asking questions on how to run a business and conceptual ideas on how we helped VOLCOM and Billabong grow in their early days,” Jarvis said. “We were the third shop to carry VOLCOM and pretty sure the second for Billabong as my team rider Chip Rowland brought it over to the USA. Andrew was passionate about his new endeavor and after he showed me some of his ideas and artwork, I told him he should go for it. And that I believed in it enough to bring it into our stores.”
Sarnecki was already a known commodity in the local surf scene for his photography. He was a distinctive figure on the beach, a tall, artistic guy who at the time had a dreadlock-enlarged head. “These days, Josh is totally the hippie, with the long hair and the beard. He looks like a roadie for the Grateful Dead,” Sarnecki said. “And now I’m a little more clean cut. But yeah, hippie tendencies.”
For a few years, Sarnecki had been making the rounds to surf shops with his surf photo booklets, which he distributed for free. Now he made the rounds with Sweeney, tide calendars that featured his photography and designs, the first line of HippyTree tee shirts and a few trucker hats.
“The first generation had a lot to do with this kind of street art with really interesting local graphics,” Sweeney said. “I mean, some had to do with those metal trees we were hanging up on the telephone wires — there was like a picture of a cop holding those. There was a tee-shirt graphic with different-sized leaves that were kind of in the shape of surfboards, called ‘Nature’s Quiver.’ Again, everything went back to this surf meets nature kind of conceptual, artistic way. One of the first iconic graphics was an illustration of a wheatfield that goes into the shape of a wave with a big windmill in the background of it. Just all the funky, cool, nature-inspired surf graphics that we could come up with.”
The shirts were a hit. All their inventory sold out quickly in the first dozen stores in which they had product. The company at this point was based out of a little apartment on 8th and Cypress in Hermosa Beach where the fledgling business partners lived. The garage was packed with inventory. They dubbed their spot HippyTree headquarters. The company was off and running.
Locals took happy note of the new arrival on the scene. Jeff Vincent, aka the Dirty Hippie, a professional dog walker, owner of online radio station DirtyHippieRadio.com, and a local style icon of a certain sort, had known Sarnecki from his photography but then ran into him one day outside Dive N’ Surf.
“He lays this bitchin’ tee shirt on me that stood way out among the flock,” Vincent said. “ I mean, I’d worked from the first day I was legally allowed at the age of 16 all the way until the end of college in a local surf shop, and much as I loved selling boards and hooking kids up with the sweetest grip tape jobs in town, what really kept the industry alive was the retail clothing aspect, and let me tell you — there was some seriously sad and ugly crap passing for ‘cool’ during my time. Andrew lays this sweet rag on me, real classy, real fine, nice n’ fitted, great material, and it’s an unobtrusive, un-narcissistic navy blue tee adorned by nothing but a sewn on white chest pocket with blue pin-striping and a little unimposing tree. My first HippyTree…I still wear it; that is to say some 15 years on my beer belly still has not outgrown it, by too much. I reckon it’s vintage.”
Musician Joe Firstman, who was the music director on the Carson Daly show at the time and had just escaped Hollywood for El Porto, was also an early customer.
“I was quickly introduced to them and they were sizing me up immediately,” Firstman said. “It was fun to be one of the original people rocking HippyTree. And then of course it was everywhere. But I recall the entirety of their business stuffed into the little garage of their surf shack in Hermosa Beach. Boxes full of fresh tee shirts and designs. It was purely inspiring.”
The brand quickly became a staple in South Bay surf shops as well as San Diego, Orange County, and up to Malibu. Now it was time for HippyTree to hit the road.
“We had a dozen tee shirt designs, a tide calendar and a few hats and I’d just roll into a place with like a plastic milk crate, because that’s all I needed, and I just spit my lingo,” Sweeney recalled. “You slowly but surely start growing your distribution. From there, the next season we’d go all up the California coast — pack my truck up, and take a road trip all the way to the Oregon border. You know, it’s surf in the morning or do whatever and the shops open at nine or ten o’clock and you just start the game. It was tough because now you can go to other brands and find a dealer locator; this was just Yellow Pages or just go and drive around town looking for a surf shop. It was super grassroots at the beginning.”
They grew methodically, both in terms of geography and product line. Each year, they’d travel a bit further afield, while also adding new products — sweatshirts and beanies, and, finally, boardshorts. “If we were going to be a real surf brand,” Sarnecki said, “we had to learn how to make great boardshorts.”
In 2007, HippyTree headquarters changed apartments after their Hermosa rental met the wrecking ball. They moved to a little bungalow with a garage on 6th Place and Bayview in Manhattan Beach. Around this time, they also decided to go national. They did it the only way they knew how — they packed up a few boxes, booked a flight to Florida, rented a van, and went looking for surf shops.
“It was like, f*** it, let’s do this on the East Coast,” Sweeney said. “We took two or three weeks, flew to Fort Lauderdale and drove to New York. We went to the weirdest places, like a no stone-left-unturned kind of deal. We also tried to have some fun with it, like at these churches there that have the sign where they have the mass is at this time, on this day. We’d take the letters out and rearrange them to say, like, ‘Nature is coming’ and then leave. We were trying to bend the rules of what you can get away with, without really hurting people or defacing anything, up and down the East Coast and into the backwashes of the Carolinas and Georgia… Once you get out of New York and above, it’s kind of no man’s land where there’s an hour plus drive between shops, and you’re like, ‘Man, it’s really time for us to be done living out of a rental van.”
Out on the road, they also ran into a bit of resistance due to the name of the brand. “There’s a certain demographic of the population that is like, ‘F*** hippies,’ basically,” Sweeney said. “They want nothing to do with it, you know? I mean, you go into Georgia and Florida and they’re NASCAR. They are like, ‘Hippy what?’”
It was actually back in California, however, that they had an “aha” moment that would prove momentous for the brand. They were still puzzling about how to get into landlocked states and truly go national when they went to San Luis Obispo on a sales trip. Both Sweeney and Sarnecki had gotten into bouldering, a ropeless form of rock-climbing, and a rock-climbing movie happened to be premiering downtown. They went to get tickets and discovered it was totally sold out.“That’s nuts,” Sweeney remembers thinking, as they scalped some tickets and got into the theater.
“We go in and there’s just a bunch of young kids who look like me, walk like me, talk like me, and they’re all wearing the big surf brands, from VOLCOM to Quiksilver to Billabong,” he said. “And we’re just kind of blown away that there wasn’t a young kind of grassroots, edgy apparel brand for the outdoors. So that’s kind of when the light bulb went off, like, ‘Man, there’s a huge opportunity here for us if we can successfully bridge into the outdoors.’ That would give us two really unique sales channels. Because action sports is like its own sales channel, and then the outdoors is completely different with different brands and different customers. And that was kind of like the aha moment where we realized if you want to sell to landlocked states, do something completely different and sell to the outdoor world. ”
They went to a few outdoors trade shows and made what they thought were relatively modest inroads. But then all of sudden, calls started coming in from all over the country.
“Every little town in America, in the interior, has a little outdoor shop,” Sweeney said. “By every lake or river there’s a little gear shop, and they greatly outnumber the amount of surf shops. Because the reality is surf shops exist from San Diego to San Francisco and then Florida to New York, just those little stretches of coastline. But anywhere you want to participate in kayaking or running or hiking or whatever, there’s an outdoor shop. We were just blown away by the sheer volume of people that started getting in touch with us and helping us grow this thing. I mean, we were still running it out of our house in Manhattan Beach at that time.”
The business kept scaling up, as did the product line, which soon included jackets, pants, and flannels, and a lot more variety of everything. Part of what was differentiating HippyTree wasn’t just the bridging of different markets and the nature designs, but also the attention to detail. Some of the plaids, for example, were inspired by vintage plaids from old Sears & Roebuck catalogs; HippyTree wasn’t reinventing that wheel, but they were making it a little better and a lot cooler.
“We were always putting our touch on it,” Sarnecki said. “If you look at a plaid, it was like, ‘Okay, what else can we do to make it cool? Like all of our plaids usually have an interior yoke, and that’s where we would put a topo print, or a photo print, or some kind of cool collage. And then we’d look at your buttons or snaps — let’s customize the snaps or let’s engrave the buttons.”
And always, somewhere on the garment, was the crooked little tree — sometimes as a little metal tree at the end of a zipper pull, or a little label on a pocket. That little tree was growing by leaps and bounds, so much so that in 2010 HippyTree headquarters finally moved out of its garage and into a warehouse in Torrance. They also brought another partner on board, Andrew’s sister, Carolyn Sarnecki. She had a background in finance — an MBA from Columbia and a decade on Wall Street — and thus became HippyTree’s COO and CFO. In an interview with Notre Dame’s alumni magazine in 2012, Carolyn noted that her family had recognized Andrew’s unique talents early on but had been a bit surprised at his entry into business.
“We always knew Andrew had a special talent and that he would do something creative with it,” she said. “But, really, Andrew was an accidental businessman.”
Thus assembled, the HippyTree crew set sail for the holy grail of outdoor retail, REI.
Mountains and oceans
There is nothing like REI in surf industry retail, a sort of mega-store chain with 165 stores that is revered among outdoor enthusiasts. REI has grown from its original co-op roots in Seattle to national prominence without losing the respect of ardent backpackers and climbers, a notoriously meticulous folk who don’t generally traffic much in corporate stores. The HippyTree guys were among its admirers, and they knew if they could get into REI, the company would enter another, more exalted realm.
But REI is indeed a large corporate structure so it took a few years of trying before HippyTree got its opportunity to make a pitch. Sweeney, who is nothing if not persistent, kept REI in his sights until finally discussions began.
“REI. That was always a dream for us to get into that account, and still is,” he said. “Because it is the premier outdoor retail business in the US and if you can get your product in there, that really says something about you, that they trust your brand enough to offer it to their customers and they think it’s cool enough and unique enough that there’s a place for it.”
The duo flew up to Seattle. Sarnecki remembers feeling a little queasy as they entered the meeting room.
“Like, don’t mess this up, this is a really big deal,” he said. “Let’s make a good presentation, buddy.”
Sweeney felt it too.
“It’s always a bit nerve-racking when you’re going into a major account like that,” he said. “Those are the conditions I thrive in and once you get past the initial butterflies, take a few breaths and realize it’s just another person sitting across from you, it just starts flowing.”
It went well. The match between HippyTree and REI was a natural one, and the presentation got things rolling. By 2015, HippyTree was in a few dozen REI stores. It started with baby steps, with HippyTree products in a few stores as a test, and then just kept growing, little by little. If there’d been any doubt left, now they knew that HippyTree could go anywhere.
“That was when we felt like, wow, we really have something here if the best of the breed retailer in the outdoor industry is carrying our product,” Sweeney said. “It was a real big step for our brand. You are in the big leagues now.”
At the same time they were truly going national, HippyTree was also looking to enter the most rarefied realms locally.
“We’re out there almost every day surfing or body surfing. We are always in the ocean,” Sarnecki said. “It’s right there. And part of that is who is also at the ocean and on the beach every day is the LA County Lifeguards, and we are friends with a lot of lifeguards. And naturally, we noticed the lifeguards wear boardshorts every day, and we are like, ‘Hey, HippyTree makes boardshorts. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could make boardshorts for the LA County lifeguards?’”
They knew the LA County Lifeguards were the longest-standing organization of its kind in the United States and the most respected lifeguards in the world. They also knew they had top-notch equipment and a lot of protocols and were managed by the LA County Fire Department.
“It’s a well-oiled machine,” Sarnecki said. “They are looked up to by everybody. But we were also lucky in that they are headquartered right here in the South Bay.”
It didn’t happen quickly. Izod had the lifeguard contract locked up for years and when it came up for renewal, HippyTree had trouble even getting LA County to look at their boardshorts. But they didn’t give up. Instead, they decided to start talking to lifeguards they knew about what they needed in a pair of trunks and started making specialized prototypes based on that feedback. Lifeguards tend to be in and out of the water all day, for example, so they need trunks made of water repellent fabric so they would dry quickly. Lifeguards always carry latex gloves; HippyTree made a special, super-secure pocket just for gloves. And perhaps most importantly, these boardshorts had to both be ultra comfortable and very durable.
“Surfers wear boardshorts and they surf in them and they’re in them a couple hours,” Sarnecki said. “But a lifeguard puts on those boardshorts at like 7 a.m. and they don’t take them off to like the sunset.”
HippyTree took everything they’d learned over the years about boardshorts and design generally — Sarnecki, after all, had formerly designed wetsuits for Body Glove — and tried to make the highest-performance, most durable trunks they could.
“We built some prototypes, and we started passing them out to the lifeguards, kind of grassroots style, like how we did it back with the surf shops,” Sarnecki said. “‘Let’s give them to two dozen of the key lifeguards and get their feedback and see what they say.’ And they started coming back to us with ideas like, ‘Hey, we have our two-way radio and we always clip it onto the hip, just the waistband, and it sags the boardshort a little bit.’ And so we built this little welt pocket on the back that fits the clip for the radio.”
They also included a personal touch. A little interior label has the LA County Lifeguard slogan on it: “Watch the water.”
“That was a cool little unique thing we added to it to make it kind of special, to feel like this was made for them,” Sarnecki said.
Lo and behold, it worked. In 2018, HippyTree was contracted to make the boardshorts for the LA County Lifeguards. Pono Barnes, ocean lifeguard specialist and spokesperson for the LA County Lifeguards, said he and his colleagues really took note of how much attention to detail HippyTree put into those prototypes. He said they were up against some of the biggest brands in the industry and simply made shorts that were better tailored to the guards’ actual needs.
“They really nailed down the boardshorts,” Barnes said. “They went above and beyond the call for us in creating shorts that were very specific and tailored to the needs of our lifeguards, and they were doing this well before there was any order, or even any glimpse or hope of an order. And designing that was one thing, but then just navigating the process and all it takes to push these things through. They just stuck it out with us. It was huge. That whole process can be very frustrating for a vendor in general, but for a smaller vendor like HippyTree, to be up against large corporations like Quiksilver and the big brands you think of when you think of certain apparel — they really hung in there for us and stuck out the bureaucratic process. And then finally, we got the shorts and they’re awesome.”
Barnes noted that other lifeguarding agencies around the world tend to have their own homegrown brand, such as the Maui Rippers in Hawaii, Birdwell Britches on the East Coast, or Quiksilver in Orange County.
“But LA County really didn’t have that,” Barnes said. “And it’s really cool to have that with a company now.”
There are more than 500 LA County lifeguards. The boardshorts were so well-liked that a new order was placed — this time, for the 5,000 kids in the Junior Lifeguard program.
“It’s a pretty cool thing to see,” Barnes said. “In the middle of winter, you see Junior Lifeguard tee shirts and shorts are being worn around here at the beach. These kids, they work so hard to meet that swim time and be accepted into the program. And that logo on those shirts and shorts is something really, really cool to have.”
Sweeney said lifeguards rocking HippyTree is pretty much the mountaintop for him.
“That is massive,” he said. “It’s such a rad accomplishment to be the official boardshorts of the lifeguards…It feels so great. That’s a highlight of my life, for sure, to be like, ‘I made it that far.’”
The path forward
HippyTree has done pretty much everything in its own, very unique way.
Surfer Jason Napolitano knew of them before they knew of him and was surprised one day when the HippyTree crew approached him to inquire about sponsoring. Napolitano was a well-respected surfer, but not one of the big names, the pros who usually get sponsorships. But he was living the life — often living out of his van when he wasn’t in Fiji, where he’s spent a good chunk of the last 15 years.
HippyTree calls the athletes they sponsor “Nomads.” They tend to be somewhat lesser-known but almost devotional in their dedication to wandering the wild and watery parts of the world.
“They called me up, and I met Andrew and Josh over at the house that they were living at on Sixth Street and that’s where they kind of broke down what HippyTree was all about,” Napolitano recalled. “And then they gave me some stickers, and we walked down to the garage, and they gave me a pair of trunks, a few shirts and, and said, ‘Go get out there.’”
A lot of companies call those who wear their line “tribe.” But HippyTree means it. Later on, as their friendship grew, Napolitano frequently lived in his van outside of Sweeney’s house, where he had access to a shower, a refrigerator full of beer, and whatever else he needed. He remembers once meeting up for a beer at Simmzy’s one night after Sweeney had just arrived back from a grueling trade show. A guy recognized Sweeney as a HippyTree founder and told him how much he loved the brand.
“And Josh right there just stood up and took off the jacket that he was wearing, gave it to him and said, ‘Hey, thanks for supporting us. Here’s a jacket.’ They’re such good people that they will give you the shirt off their back, literally — I’ve seen it happen multiple times.”
But Napolitano has noticed something else, as well. Though Sweeney and Sarnecki also keep that fun-loving, easygoing vibe and are always ready to head to the beach for a surf or game of bocce ball, growing HippyTree has been anything but easy. A sixty hour workweek is a relatively light one for either partner. For all their success, they are still a small company with ten employees competing with global behemoths; their competitive edge from the beginning has not only been their ingenuity and authenticity but also their sheer endurance and capacity to outwork anyone.
“Those guys, they just do the work,” Napolitano said. “They play hard, but man, do they work hard. Some of the longest hours that I know. They put their all into the brand.”
Sarnecki and Sweeney have come to recognize this isn’t sustainable. HippyTree itself is, of course, but as they enter their 40s, they’ve built a truly beloved brand, and done so against all odds — with no big outside investors, with little marketing punch, and without even a factory to call their own. And so for the first time ever, HippyTree is looking for investors. They’ve been asked over and over to create a women’s line, a kid’s line, each which would require its own specialized team. They have a nice website but don’t exactly have expertise in eCommerce, and they still pay a middleman for manufacturing — a cost that puts them at a competitive disadvantage as they battle giants. They figure it’s an unusual opportunity for the right investor — a fully developed brand with a big loyal following and a foothold in multiple markets that could grow much bigger given a boost.
“It’s come to a point where we really need to take advantage of what we’ve built, or else it’s just gonna be groundhog day every day,” Sweeney said. “It’s just been exhausting. We’re in our early 40s and don’t have a lot to show for it financially. We’re just like, ‘Man, it’d be great to put a full team together, a really great plan, and just execute, and be able to advertise and compete…When you just step into the world of REI, it’s like we are handicapped in what we can do, like we are trying to fight with one arm tied behind our back.”
Sarnecki said every five years they do an evaluation, and at year 15, HippyTree decided: it was time to go for it.
“We never brought in outside capital,” he said. “We’ve always just bootstrapped it, and done it on our own money. But it really hasn’t been enough to really escalate the brand, to really grow brand awareness and brand presence. So we’ve made a decision…If we’re going to take this to the next, logical step; we’ve got to bring in capital. Let’s do it.”
The Dirty Hippie, aka Jeff Vincent, isn’t a business analyst and probably won’t be an investor. But Vincent, who happens to be a HippyTree sponsored dog walker, is also a pretty savvy observer. And as he’s watched the HippyTree tale unfold, he’s pretty sure it’s going to have a happy ending.
“These are a couple of the hardest working dudes who were never going to trade in the hours of blood, sweat, tears, and toil, or success, for a beatdown or inflated bad attitude bereft of the core joy beaming from within, and which roots us to the stone and soil terra firma of family, friends, and well-cultivated relationships,” Vincent said. “They’re the authentic article, and the brand is the difference between a catchy cheesy cookie-cutter pop tune cranked out for a million quick bucks and that of a genuine artist who can also utterly slay. Their sound, flavor, and feel reverberates with respect, reverence, and celebration for these foundational elements that make up the heartbeat of our home and lives here on Earth.”
See HippyTree.com for more information.