Technology and passion help Red Ants Pants founder Sarah Calhoun run her small business from a rural outpost under Montana’s big sky.
Black angus cows graze in the open fields in sprawling Meagher County, Montana, where the cattle by far outnumber the people. In the county seat of White Sulphur Springs, named for the mineralized springs that boil underground, Sarah Calhoun runs a global business out of an old saddle shop on the town’s quiet main drag. Standing in front of the building, one can look both ways and see the entire town.
This place, a hundred miles from anywhere, seems an unlikely international headquarters for anything.
But nothing about Calhoun is stereotypical.
She chops wood, brands cattle, hunts and fishes, drives around in an old red pickup, and runs a chainsaw camp for women. She doesn’t have an MBA or a background in business, but she has passion and vision. She saw a gap in the marketplace, and filled it: a real need for stylish, sturdy work clothes designed specifically for women.
“After college, I spent a lot of time working in the backcountry — leading trail crews and instructing for Outward Bound,” said Calhoun, CEO and founder of Red Ants Pants. “I really needed a pair of work pants that fit, and no one was making work pants for women.”
She saw other outdoorsy women squeezing their curves into men’s Carhartts and Dickies. She tried to get other apparel companies to make work pants for women, but no one jumped at it.
“I thought I might as well just start a business because no one else was doing it,” she said. “I had no business background whatsoever. I didn’t even know what a business plan was.”
So she picked up a copy of Small Business for Dummies and started following her dreams.
This House of Sky
Calhoun was 25 when she landed in White Sulphur Springs, pulled there after reading the novel This House of Sky by Ivan Doig. The book describes the author’s life growing up in the tiny town.
“I came for a visit and this old saddle shop was for sale and it just felt right, so I went for it,” Calhoun said.
She moved with her dog into the back room and set up shop in the front.
“In this place, I felt like I could live the kind of life I wanted to live.”
Calhoun admits that being a young, single East Coaster coming to this small tight-knit town to open a business was an unusual occurrence. To integrate into the community, she coached volleyball, volunteered as an EMT, worked with the arts council and chamber of commerce, and helped out on cattle drives.
Inherited Work Ethic
Calhoun grew up on a farm in Connecticut, where her parents raised llamas. She and her sister learned how to work hard and developed an entrepreneurial belief that they could do whatever they set their minds on.
“When you live out in the country, you figure out how to do things,” she said. ”You figure out how to make finances work when they’re tight. Problem solving and thinking strategically is always a big part of it.”
When it came time to build Red Ants Pants — named for the fact that, in an ant colony, female ants do all the work — Calhoun pushed aside any doubts by learning new skills. She got a job sewing backpacks so she could learn about production.
“I literally just started sketching the features that I wanted in a pair of pants,” she said, adding that she worked with a pattern maker who designed in 3D using CAD. “We kept making adjustments until we finally got the fit that I was looking for.”
Calhoun learned how to source and import fabric, how to set up a website, find manufacturers and set up a point-of-sale purchase system that would allow her to sell pants to women anywhere in the world.
“There’s no way I could be in business here in White Sulphur Springs without technology,” she said. Among other tech, Calhoun uses an HP Pavilion Notebook loaded with an 7th Gen Intel Core i7 processor, which helps her keep up with her business whether she’s at home or traveling the world.
Today, about 70 percent of sales are online, and the bulk of Red Ants Pants marketing is done through social media.
Tour de Pants
When the female ants work together in a colony they do so collaboratively, something Calhoun puts into practice.
“I just love the idea of ants all working super hard and working all together,” said Calhoun, and this notion of connection has been a driving force behind the brand.
It’s what gave her the idea for Tour de Pants, a grassroots marketing campaign that took her around the country in an airstream trailer loaded with pants in many sizes. She got beer sponsors and held “pants parties” throughout the U.S. and Canada.
“I think Tour de Pants was a great key to our success in that it really set the foundation for the culture of who we are,” she said. “We’re a long way from most places, so I knew that I had to get to our customers. What better way to do that go to their farms and their homes and their barns, and have a party?”
She took getting to know her customers a step further when she started the Red Ants Pants Music Festival in 2011. Lyle Lovett and other A-listers, including Guy Clark and Rodney Crowell, headlined the first event. Some six thousand fans rolled into the small town to listen to music in a cow pasture.
“We had no idea what to expect that first year,” Calhoun said. “The campers and RVs and sheep wagons were just backed up as far as you could see down the valley waiting to get in. It was crazy.”
“The first thing I thought was ‘Do we have enough port-o-potties?’” she said. “We actually ended up buying out all of the toilet paper across three counties that first year.”
Now in its seventh year, the festival sells out to some 16,000 fans.
Thanks to the festival’s success, Calhoun was able to start a nonprofit foundation that supports women working family farms and ranches in rural communities. To date, the foundation has given $85,000 to individuals and organizations across Montana. True to its pioneering spirit, the foundation also offers a four-day chainsaw training class for women.
Looking to the Future
Scripted on the wall in the old saddle shop that Red Ants Pants calls home is the mission statement and driving force behind Calhoun’s passion: “We provide work wear for women: For the makers and the growers, the builders and the doers. We support them with humor and heart, quality and class, integrity and courage — always.”
Calhoun said it took nine years of being in business to nail that statement. “It would’ve felt fluffy if we’d written it in the first year,” she said. “Now, I feel like we’ve lived it.”
Editor’s note: Sarah Calhoun’s story is one of four stories in our #SHEOWNSIT campaign, which supports women small business owners and their journeys of success.