For the Miami-based company Zensah, it only took the approval of one Heat star to score its first official customer.
By late 2003, Ze’ev Feig, a Cuban American born and raised in Miami, had found a way to combine seamless stitching to tight shorts and shirts made out of nylon. The resulting “seamless compression-wear” was designed to increase blood circulation and oxygen in the muscles, lessening muscle fatigue and enhancing recovery.
“I gave it [compression shorts prototype] to the assistant athletic trainer of the Miami Heat, and he gave it to a then-unknown rookie player, Dwyane Wade,” said Feig, 40, the company’s founder and CEO. “He liked it, and they wanted more for the team.”
That was the beginning of Zensah. The company, whose name derives from the Italian word senza, meaning to be “without” — a reference to its near-seamless technology — now has 15 employees at its Miami center of operations.
The company sells its apparel worldwide as well as throughout Florida; most of it is made inNorth Carolina, although about a fifth of it is made in Italy. And it’s not just pro basketball players who are customers: Cyclists, ballet dancers, tennis and baseball players — athletes of all types and abilities — are among those buying Zensah’s tops, bottoms, socks and sleeves for the leg, calf, arm, thigh and knee. The Zensah leg sleeve, for instance, has become popular with runners. According to Leisure Trends Group, a national consumer research firm, Zensah has had the No. 1-selling leg sleeve in the U.S. running industry since 2010; the item retails for around $40.
Emilio Adatto, 61, of Miami is an active marathoner and ultrarunner who has owned his pair of Zensah leg sleeves since 2008.
“I use it mainly after a race because it helps me restore and heal if I have muscle damage,” said Adatto, who can run up to 50 miles in one day. “I go to sleep with it, and I wake up feeling great.”
Feig was training for a marathon, unemployed and looking for job in sales in 2003. During a visit to Israel, he came across a factory in Misgav using the seamless technology he would later adapt for his own company.
“They were using it for hosiery and women’s underwear,” said Feig. “I realized, wow, this technology could be great for runners; it’s more comfortable and it fits better.” At the time, seamless technology was only being used for intimates in various countries like Israel and the United States.
Feig, who had recently received his master’s in business administration at Babson College in Massachusetts, was inspired to bring the concept back to Miami. At this point, he refined the method he saw in the Israeli factory and combined it with compression technology to develop sports apparel. With samples, he was able to convince an Italian factory to make his nylon-and-spandex product: It creates compression where the user needs it, and because it uses only a single seam, it’s also more comfortable than a multi-seamed garment. “We are able to manipulate the yarns and fabric to make it very comfortable, so it doesn’t feel tight, even though it is tight,” said Feig.
The first products attracted several NBA teams including the Cleveland Cavaliers within nine months. But selling to pro teams wasn’t enough to keep his business going.
“I knew I had a phenomenal product and thought people would beg me for it, said Feig. “I also thought that once we got a few NBA teams as customers, I could retire, but it’s not that simple. You have to have sales and distribution.”
The business was not turning a profit, and it struggled. The one-man operation was being funded with a personal credit cards, and most sales were one-time deals.
“When I founded the company, if I knew that the first three years our sales would be what they were, I would have said, ‘no way,’ ” said Feig.
Then, at a trade show in Austin, Texas, he sold his products to a store owner. Gary Gribble, who owns Gary Gribble’s Running Sports, was his only customer there. But that was enough for Feig’s luck to turn.
Gribble, whose company has five locations in the Midwest, immediately saw the value of the Zensah items. “I was taking a risk and wasn’t sure if they were really going to work, so I placed a small order of $2,000 worth of compression products, and it sold really well,” said Gribble. Today, he places $10,000 orders every two months.
Through Gribble, Feig made other contacts, but he wasn’t yet making money on his products. That didn’t happen until 2007, when Zensah came out with its leg sleeve.
“I realized people were using compression socks for circulation, so I thought, why don’t we make a compression leg sleeve and you can wear your own sock?”said Feig.
Feig knew he had a good thing; so did people who wanted to buy it. “Once we started to get emails and phone calls about it and how to open up an account, I knew that Zensah had legs, and we were going to make it,” he said.
And so, to expand to the business, Feig applied for a $20,000 bank loan — numerous times. Every bank turned him down. But just before his credit cards shut him off and the market crashed, he was approved for a $150,000 loan. The credit made it possible to create new products and increase his Miami staff, eventually to 15. Zensah has increased its revenue by 60 percent each year while keeping expenses in line since 2009, Feig said.
Among those who have become fans of the compression products is Rebekah Bradford, 30, a speed skater and 2010 U.S. Olympian. Bradford, who suffered from pulmonary embolism in 2012 that caused blood clots in her legs, uses Zensah calf and arm sleeves as a preventative measure.
“Zensah has been a vital supporter of my recovery and has made significant difference in my training,” said Bradford, a Zensah-sponsored athlete who is training to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics. “The sleeves are incredible because I can wear them underneath my skin-suit. It’s tight at first, but then you forget you have them on.”
Dr. Moises Irizarry-Roman, director of sports medicine at No Mercy Sports Medicine, 1717 N. Bayshore Dr. in Miami, recommends users have a medical checkup done before the use of any compression-wear in case a blood clot exists. But he does believe Zensah’s product can be effective in enhancing performance and aiding post-exercise fatigue.
“Athletes constantly complain that their lower legs swell a lot, and this type of technology allows to reduce that swelling because the blood is circulating a lot better and faster,” said Irizarry-Roman. “This immediately translates into less injury.”
Feig said he wants Zensah to be at the forefront of technology across all sports. For example, the company now makes “sneaker swag,” tiny plastic shoelace accessories that can be personalized. Wearable technology is also in the works: “We want to combine technologies to be able to take our apparel and get it to measure heart rate, perspiration, temperature and motion for sports like running or tennis,” he said.
Feig’s business strategy is to innovate continuously. “You need to always look for new products because if you don’t, someone else will,” he said.