Outdoor Voices Became A Staple For Millennial Cool Girls Thanks To Its Chill Aesthetic. Employees Say They Were Drowning.
“Each day I walked into that office I felt more and more worthless,” one former director told BuzzFeed News. “She had beaten me down, like she had done to many others.”
Ty Haney built and sold Outdoor Voices as a bright alternative to an athletic wear industry that glorifies perfection, captivating millions of millennial women who rushed to be part of a movement that simply celebrated being active. But behind the company’s bright Instagram aesthetic was a toxic, destructive, and, at times, abusive working culture, according to interviews with nearly 20 current and former employees and executives.
The employees, men and women, told BuzzFeed News they wanted to be part of a company that was disrupting the activewear industry while fostering a movement to uplift women of all shapes and athletic abilities on what is an overwhelmingly masculine stage.
But soon after they started, the workers — who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements and fears of reprisal — say they were often belittled, berated, gaslighted, and underpaid for work that intruded into their personal lives. Interviews with family members of the employees, documents, emails, texts, and Slack messages corroborated their accounts.
“I went to work for Outdoor Voices because it was my dream company and Ty was my dream CEO. A young female founder who was so inspiring, and I believed so much in what her company stood for,” said a former director who worked closely with Haney. “The minute I got there, I realized it was all smoke and mirrors.”
The former director, who also spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition that her name not be used out of fear that OV would enforce her nondisclosure agreement, eventually quit, calling her time at the company “the most horrific experience of my life.”
“[Haney] spoke to me like I was in an abusive relationship,” she said. “Each day I walked into that office I felt more and more worthless. She had beaten me down, like she had done to many others.”
Much of the grind fell to younger, junior staff members, who said they routinely cried at work, had panic attacks, and went to therapy because of the environment and events they were expected to run with little help or guidance.
“A girl would come and hide in our building because she was afraid of running into Ty,” a former 25-year-old employee said. “The level of emotional trauma was so high. I was so afraid to even ask my manager to take a day off for a funeral so I went through someone else.”
Former employees said that Haney often appointed friends with minimal experience to senior roles, which caused friction and confusion. Nearly every former employee also recounted how this select group of higher-ups cultivated a Mean Girls environment of cliques, fear, and intimidation that permeated the workplace and repressed people from speaking out.
“Ty is the root of the toxic culture and put people in place who executed bad behavior and made it hard for people to do their jobs — trickled down from her,” one former employee said. “Would say she didn't like something, but said it in a way that gave you a lot of anxiety and made you feel like you weren’t showing up or doing what you were supposed to be doing.”
Haney, who recently resigned from the company after being pushed out as CEO, declined to comment for this story beyond a statement.
“As a young founder, I know my strengths, and I was excited to bring in experienced retail leaders to scale. But in doing so, I was no longer able to lead this company in line with the values and vision that guided me early on,” she said. “I’m heartbroken, but have learned a lot and know that OV is just the beginning for me.”
A spokesperson for Haney added that signed agreements prevent the ex-CEO from speaking about the company’s financials and operations.
“Those speaking about her role at the company are putting out an inaccurate story about her leadership that they know she cannot publicly defend,” the spokesperson added.
However, on Tuesday night Haney posted on Instagram and said that she was "unable to tell my story in full because of documents I was required to sign when being removed from my position at OV while on maternity leave."
"In response to what continues to be a one-sided narrative, and one in which I am not able to defend myself, I am proud to have strong conviction in my vision and my legacy," she continued.
Outdoor Voices declined to comment. However, Christine Olcu, who was OV’s vice president of retail from 2018 to 2019, told BuzzFeed News “it is both unsurprising and unfortunate to hear of the recent turmoil — this is an incredible brand, with an amazing team and fabulous customers that deserved better than this from the leadership.”
One 24-year-old former employee, who did not want to use her name out of fear it could affect her chances in the industry, said she started on a contract basis marketing the brand at college campuses and events, hauling equipment on her own from city to city across the country. The work and hours were grueling, and the pay wasn’t great, but she was excited “to learn and grow alongside the brand.”
For several months, she worked on cobbling together crews of random college students whom OV paid $12 an hour to help drive U-Haul trucks from Austin to cities like San Francisco and Denver to set up pop-up exhibits.
“At one point, I couldn’t find people to drive from San Fran to Boulder, so I had to do it all by myself because my manager was like, ‘This has to happen,’” she said. “So in January I drove 22 hours straight with no breaks through a blizzard.”
Then, when she got to Denver, she broke her toe while working an event, but said she got no support.
“HR told me to go to Urgent Care, but I didn’t have a corporate card and couldn't afford an expensive bill. I didn’t have health insurance,” the employee, who provided BuzzFeed News with emails confirming the debacle, said. “I couldn’t drive [the U-Haul] back and I started crying. They wouldn’t help me, and so I had to buy a plane ticket out of my own pocket and go back.”
After going on workers' comp for three months, she said her contract for the pop-up event campaign was canceled.
“I straight-up died inside,” she said. “I didn't know what to do.”
People of color who worked for or with Outdoor Voices were also disheartened by the fact that although the brand frequently shared and celebrated diversity on Instagram, they were barely represented internally. According to two former employees and one current employee, the company was mostly white and had no people of color in leadership positions.
“Posting all those images was not done because of inclusivity,” one of the former employees said. “It was not genuine and they were using POC bodies to sell an image to the public. From my perspective, as a woman of color, it felt off.”
In December, an influencer who had collaborated with OV called out the company on Instagram for allegedly stealing one of her ideas without credit. In emails to employees, OV disputed her claim, and she later deleted it. Her posts went viral and sparked a wave of claims about how the brand has repeatedly used creators, especially people of color, without proper attribution or compensation. Soon, users who said they were current and former employees began sharing their stories of mistreatment, hostile working conditions, and bullying in the workplace.
But days later, radio silence. According to interviews and emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News, Outdoor Voices threatened employees if they spoke out or talked to the press. In an email sent Dec. 14, the head of human resources promised new ways in which employees could confidentially report issues. However, people said those channels were never introduced.
“We would be bringing to light issues of unfair, unethical treatment in the workplace, and about emotional and mental abuse, and they told us we couldn't have these conversations,” said a former employee who was recently fired. “Their external rhetoric was that we could be open but in reality we couldn't.”
Nearly every person interviewed for this story described a workplace that was unhealthy and harmful to their mental health, with a human resources department that was woefully inadequate. Three former staff members also said their managers told them not to talk to HR about their issues or concerns.
On July 18, 2019, one woman said she went to HR to talk about the "the psychological and emotionally volatile environment" her manager was allegedly perpetuating. She showed BuzzFeed News notes she made for the meeting, documenting her allegations of "requirement to work more and harder without fair pay for services, emotional harassment, intimidation."
She said HR did nothing.
“HR was nonexistent and incompetent,” a former VP said. “All HR people left or were fired and [Haney] said, ‘Awesome, now we don’t have HR people so no one can complain.’ No one had anywhere to go to try and confide in anyone.”
Those who disagreed with Haney or her close circle on an idea, or tried to change aspects of the operation, would also be marginalized or “frozen out,” multiple former employees and executives said, which often prevented them from doing their jobs and leading their teams.
“If Ty doesn’t like you, you're gone. End of story, you’re fucked,” a woman who worked on the marketing team said. “From the outside, it looks so shiny and cool and fun, and Tyler is so young and hip, and the company seems to be booming, and it’s the Glossier of activewear, and people are just trying to survive.”
Founded in 2013, Outdoor Voices blew up the athletic wear world by billing itself as the antithesis of brands like Nike, opting for soft fabrics and bright matching leggings and sports bras that were more “bike trip to the farmer’s market with your girl gang” than “sprint on the track until you collapse.”
Haney and her presence on Instagram have been deeply tied to the company’s identity, as has the origin story she has told to multiple media outlets over the years. But according to interviews and legal documents, aspects of that origin story may have been omitted or not entirely true.
In nearly every interview, Haney has chronicled her rise from an active, outdoorsy kid growing up in Boulder, Colorado, to a talented runner and track star who caught the attention of prestigious universities. In several articles, including a profile in the New Yorker, she said top schools like the University of Southern California recruited her to run hurdles. But coaches and recruiters from that time told BuzzFeed News they had never heard of Haney, nor did they have any record of her in their notes on recruiting prospects.
She has also said the company’s name came from childhood memories of her parents constantly reminding their rambunctious daughter to use her “indoor voice.”
But Outdoor Voices had a cofounder, Matt McIntyre, who told BuzzFeed News that he came up with “Outdoor Voices.” (Two people familiar with the company’s origin confirmed his account.)
A spokesperson for Haney said the name's origin was "no secret."
"Many startups have co-founders early on that don’t stay with the company," the spokesperson added.
McIntyre was a high school athlete from Toronto when he became friends with Haney at Parsons School of Design in New York. According to early pitch decks, marketing materials, and people who were close with the two as they began to form and build Outdoor Voices, McIntyre was instrumental in formulating the brand’s mission.
“It was very rough at first,” McIntyre said. “There was nothing.”
In 2014, he decided to sever ties with Haney and relinquish his role at the company.
While working at OV was difficult and draining, former employees said there were bright moments. Being part of a brand that empowered and encouraged women to post sweaty, smiling photos of themselves after their first half-marathon, or take a mirror selfie celebrating their curves and rolls, was refreshing and exhilarating. One current employee described Haney as an “upbeat,” “driven,” and positive person who would do anything for her brand, which often meant going against the board.
“Her big priority has always been brand instead of growth,” he said. “For so long she’s been fighting for brand because without the brand we would be like Under Armour or some random activewear company.”
Another woman who had worked at OV for a few years pointed out that Haney was “spot on, creatively.”
“In terms of creative direction, she’s a visionary and a fucking genius.” But, the person added, “Do I think she can run a company? Absolutely not.”
Other former colleagues and leaders who had worked closely with Haney agreed. They said the former CEO would often undercut her own company’s success by preventing the people she hired from doing their jobs, or firing them when they disagreed with her. Several mid-level and senior employees described multiple instances in which Haney derailed their projects on a whim.
A former director from the creative team recalled meetings in which Haney rebuffed campaigns butting up against deadlines with no explanation.
“I would get chastised over and over again that there were issues [with campaigns], but it was Ty not having a certain taste on a certain day. It was sporadic,” he said. “There would be multiple meetings that she would walk out of in the middle of a presentation or partners producing content and she would dip out of nowhere, like get in her car and drive away and we were like, ‘Um, OK?’”
Meanwhile, the company was burning through cash.
According to a February 2019 internal email, the company was spending about $36,000 a year on Topo Chico water and $22,000 on Maison Louis Marie candles for five stores. Floral arrangements were costing about $45,000 a year, nearly half of which was for one store: OV’s bright, modern, custom-designed Soho location.
“I could basically do whatever with the company card,” one former employee said.
A person familiar with the situation countered that the expenditures were part of a “new retail experience” and could see how they would be in conflict with “traditional retail leads who were brought on and didn’t understand the approach.”
Several executives said a finance director had also been reporting “massaged” sales numbers to the board chair and largest shareholders.
“They were not realistic in accordance with what we were doing in sales,” a former senior director familiar with the situation told BuzzFeed News.
In 2018, the company lost $21 million, $3 million of which came from a write-off of excess fabric that had been rotting in storage, according to two people familiar with the situation. OV had budgeted to lose $12 million that year. A former director said that even with $40 million in annual sales, Outdoor Voices was losing $2 million every month. Citing a profit and loss statement from May 2019, a former VP recalled that Outdoor Voices had lost $11 million year-to-date.
“We’re in Year Five and the company should be breaking even with the sales velocity we were pulling,” a former director said. “But we were hemorrhaging cash.”
In Instagram photos and stories, Outdoor Voices frequently shared its fun, uplifting adventures and extravagant trips, gatherings, dinners, and experiences on the company’s dime, like a cycling trip in Mallorca, and premium seats at baseball games. Photo shoots would cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, a person familiar with the company’s finances said.
In interviews, several former employees pointed to a private, last-minute SoulCycle class that was part of an offsite company meeting in October 2017. They said it cost about $10,000 because Haney made the request the day before and OV had to reserve the entire class. Ten people ended up attending, according to a photo provided to BuzzFeed News.
“We had no budget,” a former VP said. “If you look at the way we were spending money, you would have thought we were a $500 million company.”
Under Haney’s direction, the company signed spontaneous, expensive leases on spaces in high-end areas like Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Los Angeles that sat unopened, according to interviews and emails reviewed by BuzzFeed News. However, a source familiar with the situation said they were directed by the board to not open stores in newly leased spaces, which resulted in “dark rent” and loss of sales.
Still, other locations had to close as operations were scaled back to reduce spending. Executives brought on to stabilize the operation also kept leaving or getting fired.
Former employees also recounted spending countless stressful hours during and outside of work scrambling to complete menial and often costly tasks. In their accounts, people who worked at Outdoor Voices say select managers and leaders mistreated, manipulated, and alienated other team members, perpetuating a culture of fear and mistrust.
“I was crying in the bathroom every day toward the end,” a 27-year-old woman who worked at OV for about a year said. “Everyone operated under fear of being fired at any moment. You never felt safe and there was no support when you noticed people you were reporting to were being fired or leaving relatively quickly and you wondered, ‘How much longer can I stay here?’”
On Halloween last year, the head of finance walked into the company’s New York office off Broadway and fired 15 to 20 employees without warning, according to several people who were there or heard about it from former colleagues.
“It was brutal. It was like the Red Wedding,” said one person who had worked there. “Everyone thought it was a joke at first. It came out of complete nowhere and then there was no email about it. The way it was handled was fucked up.”
On the morning of Feb. 24, the entire headquarters in Austin froze. In a Slack message, Haney suddenly announced she was resigning and leaving the company, days after her team found out in a news article that OV’s board had forced her to step aside as CEO.
“The future is bright and it’s yours for the taking,” she wrote.
“For the people who remained at OV, that was a double-edged sword because it’s one of our sayings internally,” a current employee said. “We would say that for everything.”
That same day, the company fired 15 employees, including a pregnant woman, and gave them three days to review their severance packages, two of the people in this group told BuzzFeed News. Their benefits and health care would expire days later, since it was the last Friday of the month.
“It was surreal” getting to work for your “dream company” and to have it end like this, said one woman who was recently fired.
“I always had hopes it would turn around and justice would be brought and I thought that was going to happen, but it looks like it was the other way around,” she said. “The reality is that it is very difficult to break through those things when they are so deeply embedded.”
When asked why she stayed for two years, she, like most other employees, grappled with how to explain the complicated relationship that was working for Haney at Outdoor Voices.
“You know it’s not good for your mental health, your general well-being, but you believe in it so much, and see so much potential in it, that you almost don't want it to be true,” she said. “You fight every day to make it better.
“I wanted to work for the Outdoor Voices that I signed up to work for, the one that was here to break all these boundaries of what it meant to be successful in many areas of your life, that embraced curiosity and that nostalgic and youthful energy that we all seem to chase. That’s who I wanted to work for.”
It’s painful, she added, to realize that’s never really what it was. ●