June 2024 heralds the start of another summer for most of us – but for Gaidama founder and CEO Kendall Vernon, the month holds an additional special meaning. This June marks the groundbreaking jiu-jitsu gear brand’s four-year anniversary. While Gaidama was technically founded in 2018, Vernon officially launched the company back in June 2020 – and it’s been attracting loyal customers in swathes ever since.


Four years have flown by,” Kendall tells me. Never one to rest on her laurels, Gaidama’s CEO constantly strives to innovate and improve on the company’s products, and to seek out new opportunities to connect with its community and customer base.


One of Vernon’s masterstrokes was teaming up with public outreach wizard – and now Gaidama co-owner and all-around partner in crime – Karla Shelhammer. Shelhammer, like Vernon, remains floored by the evolution of the once humble little company.


As Gaidama’s social media director, Shelhammer has spent the past few years spearheading the development of a full social media team. Together, Shelhammer and her cohorts have since masterminded a vibrant presence on a full suite of online platforms, including Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.


In the last three years, I went from a one-woman band to now a whole team of more than a dozen people that keep this machine running,” Karla shares with me. “Being able to create opportunities for creatives within our community is something that really resonates with what I personally needed three years ago. Just like Kendall, I felt like I had the responsibility to create something that was missing – and that was a social media space to enable and support the creativity of the diverse array of athletes and practitioners that make up the jiu-jitsu community. This is something that inspires me deeply and on a daily basis, so I truly feel endless gratitude to be a part of the whole thing.”


Prior to her work with Gaidama, Karla had little formal training in social media management or marketing, but her educational background and related professional experience gave her a head start. “I had zero experience in social media [and] marketing prior to Gaidama, but I had a film degree and a lot of years of video production and editing,” she explains. “I learned a lot from what Kendall was doing initially with the marketing, but she really allowed me to have free range on what I wanted to bring to the table, which was to create a container for self-expression in which people felt safe to be themselves through our gear.”


While both Kendall and Karla thrive on keeping busy, Gaidama’s rapid growth doesn’t exactly leave either of them with tons of spare time to relax – much less enjoy extended periods of quiet reflection. Remembering and honoring Gaidama’s humble origins, however, remains deeply important to both of Gaidama’s leading ladies.


It’s wild to think about how far we’ve come in just four short years,” marvels Vernon. “Four years ago, I was shipping five sizes of black spats out of a single clear tote in my living room. It wasn’t until almost a year later that we even sold rashguards. Black rashguards weren’t introduced until about ten months in from our launch date.”


Today, Gaidama is rapidly approaching the one million dollar mark in revenue. Moreover, the company sponsors some of jiu-jitsu’s most celebrated female athletes, including multiple IBJJF World champions, three ADCC Trials winners, and several successful MMA fighters and wrestlers.


That level of success didn’t happen overnight, though.


I still remember our first sale,” says Kendall. “It happened right after I announced on social media that the website was live and products were available for purchase. I will never forget the feelings of excitement, responsibility, and commitment that I felt in that moment.”


That first sale was a turning point for Kendall. A moment in which she truly felt the weight of what she’d taken on. “We’re doing this,” she told herself.


Currently a competitive black belt and dedicated jiu-jitsu practitioner in her own right, Vernon will never forget the painstaking efforts that went into hand-sewing her very first commercial product: a pair of jiu-jitsu spats designed specially for women’s bodies. In fact, much of Vernon’s early work – clothing that would eventually become part of Gaidama’s inaugural line of women’s gear – was originally inspired by her own needs on the mat.


I was only a blue belt when I decided I was fed up with the women’s jiu-jitsu gear that the industry had to offer,” she shares frankly. “I had a couple cute pairs of jiu-jtisu spats that were fun to wear, but the aesthetic was always ruined because I wasn’t comfortable wearing them without wearing shorts over or under them too. They were too see-through, they didn’t stay up right, they didn’t fit right, and so on.”

Kendall’s frustrations soon fostered an obsession – a very productive one. “I started spending every spare minute thinking about a new approach to women’s spats, playing with fabrics, sewing pieces together here and there, experimenting with designs, etcetera,” she remembers. “Finally, it all came together.”


She would go on to sew Gaidama’s very first pair of women’s spats right there in her own living room.


After test driving her own creation on the mats, her experience in the sport changed for good. “Nothing else even came close to giving me the confidence and coverage that I experienced with these spats,” says Vernon. “At that point, I knew I had a product that was going to be big. No one else was even thinking about doing anything like this for women’s jiu-jitsu.”


Creating a great product is one thing. Building a successful business around it, however, is another skillset entirely – one that Kendall had to learn from scratch.


When I decided to launch a company selling my new creation, I had absolutely no context for how to run a business,” she tells me, full of characteristic candor. “I had some experience building websites, so that part I did by myself without too much trouble. I knew I needed a social media account, so [our Instagram account] was born, although my husband Matt Vernon was the first one to run it. He would repost news on women’s wrestling or jiu-jitsu to our feed here and there to create something that felt like a women’s jiu-jitsu page. Eventually I took it over, after I got more comfortable with it.”


What was it like, picking up Entrepreneurship 101 on the go? “Like drinking from a firehose,” says Kendall, who can still recount the myriad skills she had to develop within the general umbrella of business operations – including marketing strategies and platforms, website optimizations, tech stack integrations, building and managing a team, and even simple things like knowing when to say yes or no. And that list still doesn’t include the industry-specific knowledge Vernon developed regarding yarns, weaves, fabrics, textile printing, dyeing, cut and sew processes, and general manufacturing.


What’s her secret?


I mostly learn from Google,” admits Vernon, “although I’ve been to a few sewn goods workshops and listened to a couple marketing master classes for in-depth studies. I am also a very conscious consumer, always studying other businesses that I like to shop from, trying to understand what I appreciate about their approach to business, or how they are getting my attention with their marketing [and such]. I then work towards implementing something similar with Gaidama.”


Kendall’s hard work – and skill for autodidacticism in multiple fields – has paid off in droves. “Every year we’ve been in business, we’ve at least doubled our revenue from the previous year, and now we’ll be a 1MM company before the end of summer,” she shares. “It almost feels unreal. People asked me how I felt after I won a no-gi Worlds title last year, and the only thing I could think to say was ‘If I can do it, anyone can do it.’ I feel the same way about Gaidama.”


Not only has Kendall had to balance running a business with maintaining her own jiu-jitsu practice – she also became a mom twice over during the same years that she was growing the Gaidama brand.


In the later stages of development for the Avant Garde spats, shortly before I launched Gaidama, my belly was starting to get round with [my first baby],” she tells me. As a result, Kendall was unable to wear her own spats comfortably.


It was the perfect moment, in other words, for one Karla Shelhammer to enter the story. Originally flown in to model Gaidama spats during Kendall’s pregnancy, Karla – already a close, trusted friend of Kendall’s – quickly proved herself an invaluable part of Gaidama’s business.


Without asking for anything in return, [Karla] eagerly and earnestly helped me promote and market Gaidama using her personal social media platform,” recalls Kendall. “She was well connected in the jiu-jitsu community, and I was not, so her help was key in Gaidama’s online presence gaining any real social traction. For this reason, I call her Gaidama’s ‘little big bang.’”


A year later, Kendall was pregnant again, this time with baby number two – all while working full-time as a software engineer, still nursing her first child, training five times a week, and running Gaidama alone.


Knowing that she couldn’t continue handling the company’s day to day operations completely alone, Kendall once more reached out to Karla, offering her a position as social media director, along with a percentage of the company.


Karla was thrilled. For her, Gaidama offered something far more meaningful than a mere business opportunity; it presented her with a canvas where she could finally entwine two of her life’s greatest passions. “My favorite part about [joining Gaidama] was the excitement of a blank slate and the opportunity to bring a vision to life – while also juxtaposing two things I am deeply passionate about: storytelling and grappling,” she shares.


Karla’s acceptance of the offer filled an extremely over-scheduled Kendall with immediate relief.


It was one of the better decisions I ever made, since [Karla] is absolutely a rockstar at what she does,” Kendall enthuses. “We share the same vision, and work really well together, and are very diligent about promptly clearing up the waters whenever we do have a disagreement. We have a very healthy working relationship, and we understand each other.”


Karla speaks equally highly of Vernon. “Partnering with Kendall has been an incredible opportunity in my life,” she tells me. “Like all partnerships go, it is not perfect or always easy, but I do not know anyone more driven or hardworking – or [who has more] capability to make s**t happen than her. So I have always trusted that we are going places because the head of this operation genuinely cares.”


An athletic gear brand launch during 2020 – the notorious year during which the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses all over the world – seems like it should have been doomed to failure. However, Kendall Vernon, ever the problem solver, found ways to help the young brand thrive amidst adversity. She primarily attributes that success to her ability to answer the demand in the market itself.


Gaidama’s spats were so revolutionary, and the women’s jiu-jitsu market was so ready for them, that it was pretty much instant success,” she explains. “We sold out of our first batch within just a few short months and immediately started adding options to our line.”


Originally known for its highly practical but comparatively plain spats, Gaidama took bold strides in marrying fashion to function in its later creations, such as the Art Wear line – which consists of beautiful prints created by successful visual artists.


Our first ever sublimation printed Art Wear – our Kitsune Warrior spats and rashgaurds, which [we] still sell in both adult and youth sizes – were a collaboration with Seymour Yang, AKA Meerkatsu,” Kendall remembers. “I was struggling with finding an artist that I really liked. I had wasted a lot of money on some mediocre artwork that never amounted to much, and I didn’t have time to design any of the graphics myself.


I decided to shoot my shot and send Meerkatsu an Instagram DM. He’d been a legend in the jiu-jitsu community years before I even started grappling, and I’d been admiring his work since I was a white belt. Meanwhile, I was a nobody purple belt, and Gaidama was a nobody brand.


Still, Dad always told me that if you don’t ask the answer is always no, so I wrote my pitch and hit send, fully expecting to never hear back. But Seymour replied with grace and interest, and accepted the project. I freaked out. It was the biggest deal on the planet for me.”


Gaidama’s early collaboration with Meerkatsu is one of many of successful partnerships with well-regarded artists that has firmly cemented the company today as an athleisure and gear brand that can truly do it all – creating looks that are unique in style, yet always on trend.


Vernon has no plans to stop chasing new milestones, though – and in her eyes, Gaidama still has plenty of growing to do. “This year, we hope to launch our Made in America line,” she reveals. “We’re also still working on opening up a hub in Canada, a milestone that will set the precedent for future international expansion. We’d like to continue to grow our men’s and kid’s lines, and introduce a more generalized lifting wear series for men and women. Wrestling, yoga, lifting, and even swimwear are all on the agenda for related markets that we’re working our way into.”


Vernon also believes strongly in using the success of her platform to give back to the same community that has helped her and her family thrive. “The more we grow, the more we are able to give back,” she tells me. “So, a related short term goal we have is to be able to sponsor more athletes and organizations in the grappling community, and maybe even start putting together our own Grappling Getaways jiu-jitsu camp.”


It’s a vision that would have been hard to imagine back when she was still a blue belt hand-sewing spats in her living room – but today, it’s all within reach. Ultimately, Vernon’s secret sauce for Gaidama is no secret at all; it’s made up of tenacity, faith, and good old-fashioned hard work.


If you’re willing to take the leaps, make the sacrifices, give maximum effort, and do it all with your head and your heart in a healthy and positive place,” says Vernon, “then you really can be the architect of your life.”



Stay tuned for more updates on the latest from Gaidama by following @gaidama.usa on Instagram.


June 27, 2024 — Andrea Tang