Quirky family company catches on with Ultimate players
Five siblings have thrown themselves into making apparel while promoting the sport they love.
Seattle Times business reporter
Not even the washing instructions for Five Ultimate clothes are traditional.
Outfitting its clothes with tags that warn wearers "Do not set on fire," "Do not eat," "Do not pass go," and "Do not bungee jump in," the Seattle-based apparel company is an unconventional business that players say fits perfectly with an equally unorthodox sport — Ultimate, originally called ultimate Frisbee.
"It's small things like that, where you can tie in the team feeling of 'Hey, we're this weird, quirky sport, we love each other, and here's this company that understands us,' " says Vehro Titcomb, one of the five siblings who founded and co-own Five Ultimate.
The sport with the plastic flying disk has been considered a fringe pastime since it emerged nationally in the early 1970s, never viewed as a big-time sport such as basketball or football.
And while Five Ultimate and its founders might not be able to change that, at least they can affect the appearance of the players.
One of Five's goals is to create a recognizable brand that will distinguish Ultimate players the way, for example, Air Jordan products distinguish basketball players.
"That is what Ultimate players need more of these days to get more recognition in the face of other 'more serious' sports," said the oldest sibling, Zahlen Titcomb.
The company is essentially an extension of the Titcombs themselves — with a lifetime of playing Ultimate and their passion for the sport the driving force behind Five's success.
The Titcomb siblings — three brothers: Zahlen, 30, Xtehn, 28, and Vehro, 26, and two sisters: Rohre, 24, and Qxhna, 19 — founded Five Ultimate in their parents' garage in Sammamish in early 2006.
(Their names are pronounced Zay-len, Ex-ten, Veh-row, Roar-ee and Chee-na. Vehro said he thinks their parents, John Titcomb and Linde Behringer, just wanted them to have unique and fun names).
After outgrowing that homely garage in December 2007, they and the business moved into a house near the University of Washington. They hired their first employee about a month later.
Today, 15 people work in a 7,200-square-foot, two-story warehouse in Belltown, complete with meeting rooms, room for designing and a small photography studio for modeling gear.
Boxes of apparel are stacked 15 feet high, posters and shirts with favorite designs hang on the walls. Large, fluffy stuffed creatures sit on shelves, while several real dogs run around. Makeshift barriers separate the area into different work spaces.
Players and employees said the company embraces the game through its attitude.
A key aspect of Ultimate is "the spirit of the game" — a mindset that puts sportsmanship above winning. Ultimate rules place the responsibility of fair play upon the players, insisting their desire to win not interfere with respect between players or "the basic joy of play."
In most Ultimate tournaments, even at the highest level, matches are self-refereed.
Going to tournaments and embracing that attitude was one of the main ways Five grew its business. The first year, only 35 teams bought gear from Five, but the following year the siblings sold to 150.
Last year, Five Ultimate supplied apparel to 720 teams around the world, with 15 percent of their business coming from Europe.
The owners don't disclose Five's revenues, but Vehro said it was in the low seven figures last year.
Five's pageantry at tournaments was also how Christian Brink found them.
"As a player, seeing that tent was like the coolest thing ever. It was like these people have created this stuff for me," said Brink, who joined the company several months ago. "They're here because they like Ultimate and I like them because I play Ultimate."
Its best-sellers are jerseys and shorts. The company so far has stayed away from manufacturing a lot of other Ultimate gear, such as shoes or disks.
Employees and players say the clothing is unique because it is specifically designed for Ultimate — durable, wicking and stretchy.
The production takes place in China, other than the silk screening, which is done by a printer in South Seattle, Vehro said.
Five Ultimate contracts with each level of production for its jerseys, from thread makers to silk screeners, which Zahlen said allows the company to control quality. But that also made the learning curve extremely steep due to the multitude of jersey variations possible from different materials, fabric density and sewing patterns.
Zahlen said it helps that he speaks Mandarin, because he can go into extreme detail with the factory managers and workers in China about the product. He runs the production side of Five out of Beijing and lives there four months out of the year.
The company's apparel incorporates antimicrobial fibers and high-quality polyester, Zahlen said.
"We're not trying to do the rocket science, NASA-perfect, top Army-level secret stuff," Zahlen said. "It's just basically the highest quality jersey you can design at a commercial level."
Vehro said the family got started in the business after Xtehn left the University of Chicago in 2006, where he was studying Italian literature and economics.
Xtehn wanted to be involved in the Ultimate community, but instead of joining one of the handful of established companies focused on Ultimate, he enlisted the help of his siblings to begin their own firm.
They thought they could design and produce jerseys, so that's where they started.
"We thought there was a lack of a company that could tie the whole section of the sport that we love together under one roof, under one brand," Vehro said.
Zahlen was working in Beijing for two small consulting companies at the time and knew a tailor, so Vehro said they began looking into production there.
The Titcombs worked for about six months on research and development of their jerseys. In hindsight, Vehro said, they should have spent two and a half years on that stage: Their first years were chock-full of jerseys that weren't durable, soft or breathable enough.
"It was rocky. We made so many mistakes it's not even funny," Vehro said. "(An) entire section of the warehouse is full of mistakes."
The Titcombs raised about $25,000 to jump-start the company — most of it from their savings or parents.
Along with not knowing the best design or manufacturing process for the apparel, the company struggled with organization and logistics. Bringing in an outside consultant and hiring more organized employees helped, Vehro said, but they still lose track of hundreds of items.
"We're not a global, megacompany," Zahlen said. "You can high-five anyone in the office anytime you want."
One way the siblings help promote the sport is by donating old gear to organizations that promote Ultimate in places such as the Middle East — more than $115,000 worth in the last five years.
Separate from Five Ultimate, but still in the same building, is the five siblings' self-described attempt to save the world.
The company is called Five Bamboo and it produces clothes, from underwear to dresses, made out of bamboo fibers.
Rohre earned a grant while at Dartmouth College to study the raw-material processing of bamboo. Based on her research, the siblings began searching for a clean process to create workable fibers from bamboo pulp.
It took them a couple years to find the right process, and Five Bamboo began selling the product in 2010.
Five Bamboo produced all the official merchandise for the upcoming Bumbershoot music and arts festival. It will be by far the largest venue Five Ultimate or Five Bamboo has been a major part of, Vehro said.
Echoing their Ultimate apparel, the tags of a Five Bamboo dress — in addition to warnings to wash cold, hang dry and avoid bleach — ask wearers to "Turn lights off when you leave a room," "Support local dance parties" and "Eat healthy, get outdoors and recycle."
Connor Radnovich: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org