I started Inverted Gear in 2012. I never thought in my wildest dreams Inverted Gear would be as successful as it is today. I am still amazed that I can travel to remote places and find people wearing our gis or scroll to my Facebook feed and spot pandas in the background during technique videos filmed as far away as Japan. I still remember working on the website, hosted on BigCartel back then, and having a presale of our first batch of gis—50 blue and 50 white. I remember how nervous I was.
I thought, “Did I just throw all my savings down the drain?” and “How many people are going to want to wear gis with a silly upside down panda on them?”
My life has changed tremendously since those days, but let’s start at the beginning.
For starters, I had no business background. I took exactly one business class in college before I dropped out, 20 credits away from an exercise science degree. As you can imagine my parents were thrilled by this decision. I was 24. I was a purple belt in BJJ, was working a part-time job during the day and teaching BJJ at night. I still lived at my parents’ home when I started the company, and their basement is still referred to as our old “warehouse.”
I read a ton of business books in that time. I dreamed of what life would be like when I earned my black belt and could have my own Jiu-Jitsu School. The students of the school I currently taught at wanted a patch for their gis and some shirts with “Nelson Puentes Jiu Jitsu” on it. One of my students, Steve Pachon, offered to help out with a logo. Steve and I started throwing ideas around and the idea of a BJJ panda stuck. I had recently spent about a week teaching what I called Panda guard, and we were all obsessed with it.
It all started with that logo.
A local print shop made the t-shirts, and we started rocking them at local tournaments. Then something funny happened—people that I had never met before kept coming up to me and asking me to buy one of the shirts! I would ask them “Are you sure? It has my name on it?”
The logo struck a chord in the community. At that time, in 2012, the BJJ gear scene was drastically different from where it is now. Other than Shoyoroll, the general direction of the industry was to take the MMA-tough-guy route. I recognized this and thought, “Maybe we can start a brand for non-tough guys!”
There was a clear disconnect between where the market was going and what BJJ guys were about. Most of us looked like accountants. If you saw us on the street (other than the cauliflower ear), you would have no idea we trained martial arts. Sure, we trained, but then we went home and read books and played card games or got sucked into video games. So I asked Steve to redraw the logo and came up with the name Inverted Gear. Bearimbolo Brand was a close second, and thank God we didn’t go with that one!
After we drew up the initial gi design, I contacted 10 factories. Five of them didn’t bother getting back to me since my order of 100 gis was too small for them. Of the five that did reply, only four agreed to produce samples. After many weeks of late night back and forth emails—it felt like I lived on Pakistan time—and after many trips to Western Union, my first gi samples were on the way. Some of them were terrible.
One factory “corrected” our design, “Hey guys here is the sample. You had put the panda upside down but we fixed it for you!” Another factory took “artistic liberties” and added artwork that wasn’t there before. Two factories stood out though, and I ended up deciding on the one we still use today because the cut and quality was better. I emptied my life savings and used it to make my first order.
The first shipment was a nerve-wracking experience. The estimated deadline approached quickly, and we had issues with customs. I didn’t file all of the proper paperwork, so it took some extra doing to get the shipment cleared. When it finally did, I borrowed the Puentes family minivan and drove from New Jersey to a New York airport warehouse to pick up the first ten boxes of Inverted Gear product. The feeling was electric. I already had preorders to fill, and the very first order was going to New Zealand (which meant having to figure out international shipping; something I didn’t expect).
I recruited a few friends to help ship orders and paid them in gis. By the time it was all said and done, we shipped 80 gis. Soon after I shipped the 20 remaining gis. I could not believe I had pulled this off. I remember my first company expense was buying a laptop for Steve who had been helping me with the design work so he could work on some shirts for Inverted Gear as well. Quickly the second shipment followed, then a third, and then on the fourth we outgrew my parents’ basement.
Our last shipment was 2100 gis—large enough to warrant our own container. Thank you, all of you, that have supported the brand over the last few years, especially those of you that have been here since the beginning. I could not have done it without you. It’s been an amazing journey, and we are glad you are a part of it. The community behind this sport is incredible, and I hope that other creators take the plunge to bring their unique vision to the world.