By Christopher Cason
If you tuned in to this year’s NFL Scouting Combine back in early March, you couldn’t miss Nobull. From the athletes’ apparel to the press conference backdrops, the bold, all-caps branding of the Boston-based training apparel and footwear company took center stage. It was the first of a multiyear partnership with the combine, where Nobull also introduced the first-ever athlete training and recovery center for prospects and their trainers.
It’s not the first high-profile partnership for Nobull: It’s also the title sponsor of the CrossFit Games and the official training apparel and footwear brand of the PGA Tour. Cofounders Marcus Wilson and Michael Schaeffer met in the early 2000s while working at Reebok. Wilson was the head of brand strategy, and Schaffer was the global creative director. They shared an entrepreneurial spirit along with a passion for sports.
In 2012, they stepped away from their jobs and cofounded a Boston-based marketing and design agency called Bold & Co. “Michael and his wife, Amy, and my wife, Anisha, we bootstrapped the business,” Wilson says. “When you’re transferring money out of investment accounts and wiring it to factories, it’s real. These are sacrifices that entrepreneurs make all of the time that are often taken for granted. Michael and I were ultimately on the hook, and we took that seriously.”
In addition to a tolerance for financial risk, the cofounders shared a passion for cross-training. During their workouts, they noticed that most people who walked into CrossFit gyms were wearing running shoes that weren’t designed for the dynamic movements of cross-training. Schaeffer and Wilson decided they wanted to create a shoe that could handle that demand and provide something for the community.
They wanted to steer clear of the expensive tech and loud marketing that made customers feel they could run faster or jump higher simply by slipping their feet into a new pair of shoes. They wanted to create a mindset and culture around their brand. “We didn’t want to sell a gimmick,” Schaeffer says. “We didn’t want to promise the product was going to make them fitter in any way because we think that is all BS.”
All of their conversations around the concept had a central theme of being honest and transparent. “Why don’t we call it Nobull and drop the ‘shit’ part?” Schaeffer remembers asking Wilson.
With a background in mechanical engineering and traditional design, and heavily influenced by his European roots, Schaeffer set about creating a product that was clean, simple, and functional. Nobull debuted its first training shoe (and Duffleback backpack) at the 2015 East Coast CrossFit Championships. Four months later, on Thanksgiving, Nobull launched more broadly when its website went live.
“Everything sold out within 10 minutes,” Wilson says. “That moment was so liberating.” On Cyber Monday, he and Schaeffer made calls to all the clients they were still working with at Bold & Co. to let them know that the agency would be closing—and it was all Nobull from that point on.
To the many hats they were already wearing, Wilson and Schaeffer added the role of customer service representatives. If there were issues with fit or shipping or even general questions, customers would tag the founders on social, and the pair would respond to each inquiry. Even now, with more than 100 employees and a dedicated customer service department, the pair still receive messages from some of those early customers.
In 2016 Nobull became the title sponsor of the CrossFit Games. Meanwhile, its partnership deal with the PGA Tour runs through 2027, and the pro football scouting combine partnership included a nine-figure investment in Nobull. The company’s athlete roster includes eight-time CrossFit Games athlete Brooke Wells, golf pro Scott Stallings, Olympic swimmer Caeleb Dressel, and NFL quarterback Mac Jones. Each athlete provides insight on product and performance and helps promote the brand through social media.
This summer, Nobull is moving into new digs: the old Boston Globe building in Dorchester. The facilities will include top-of-the-line training and recovery amenities in addition to in-house content studios, plus design and wear-testing spaces. With successful pop-ups at events and a Miami store trial run, the brand is preparing to open a retail store in London this fall.
“We want to be a catalyst for the broader training community and help it grow,” Wilson says. “Our goal is to do that region by region, city by city, and interaction by interaction. When we talk about 5 to 10 years from now, it’s Nobull being global, having locations—whether through partners or our own—where we can interact with the training community in positive ways to help celebrate their success and hard work, because it’s the hard work that is the success.”