Rafael Soto

Co-Founder of Proto101

Rafael Soto is a veteran designer, holding over twenty-five years’ experience designing clothes for some of the most successful brands in existence. A few industry giants that have used Soto’s designs in their collections are Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, and John Varvatos.

Recently, Soto has utilized his keen design style and consumer insights to co-launch his own brand, called Proto101. Proto101 is an apparel start-up that unites the performance of athletic wear and the comfort of high-end basics – such as t-shirts and denim – all while leading the way for sustainable fashion brands worldwide.

Prior to launching Proto101, Soto assisted in the successful launching of clothing brands like William Rast, Men’s Claiborne, Women’s RocaWear, Couture, and Union. Notably during his career, Soto applied his industry insight to transform Stafford and St. John’s Bay into lucrative Billion-dollar clothing companies. Soto also contributed to J. Hilburn reaching the peak of the Men’s tailoring industry. Most recently, Soto aided the launch of Amazon’s top fashion brands, such as Amazon Essentials, GoodThreads, and Buttoned Down.

While working in the apparel industry, Soto noticed a lack of quality performance clothing. He recognized that consumers typically went with options made from weak materials that lacked performance features, most of which didn’t last beyond a dozen or so washes.

There was also a lack of clothing that accommodated the busy lifestyles of our generation. The need to change outfits for each activity had a lack of efficiency. This led Soto to the idea of a perfect all-around t-shirt: one that could be worn at work, the gym, at the beach, and just about everywhere else. Coupled with great quality that provides unmatched comfort and durability, along with traditional cuts and styles that can suit any wardrobe and style, Proto101 was conceived.

Where did the idea for Proto101 come from?

Proto101 is built off the idea of high-quality, casual wardrobe essentials that simplify our wardrobe choices without compromising quality, design or fit. Each shirt is engineered and designed using versatile, work-horse fabrics that allow you to be ready for anything in your day. Whether it’s work, gym, or going out, or shirts have the versatility and style to do it all.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

We set priorities and operate with weekly ‘sprints’; we use daily standups to understand progress, updates, and blockers. In the pandemic this was all virtual. We have Friday “Walk-ee Coffees”, where the 3 founders go for a 4-mile walk around Seattle to debrief on the past week and set priorities for the coming week. We usually stop for coffee and pastries multiple times along the way.
It was important to us that we build a company that could fit around our real lives (kids, dogs, family, travel), which means lots of flexibility and fluid schedules. We’ve found that flexibility breeds creativity.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We always start with the customer and what problems we’re trying to solve, which means extensive research: developing innovative fabrics from scratch, breaking down the construction of a garment, analyzing fits, comparing price and value, testing materials to meet quality and compliance standards, color and trend, and expected customer uses. We work directly with our long-time manufacturing partners to develop our innovative fabrics and make a prototype. After we have a prototype, we put our products through fit and user testing to stress test and get feedback. That feedback loop continues after we have released a product into the market; we are constantly building and improving to make the perfect basics.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Oversized and wide! We have been in a skinny jean, slim tee cycle for a long time. I am excited for our oversized tees and tanks, and for loose and wide pleated pants and shorts.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I am a designer and creative person by nature, so it’s important for me to schedule time every day to be creative – whether that’s painting, drawing, designing, or interior design. This “down time” helps me focus on big decisions that I’m mulling over.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Listen more, Talk less! I am inspired by what I see, hear, or taste! The less I talk the more I get to experience these things.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Routine! Wake up, take care of dog, take care of me, make bed, meditate, drink water. This routine allows me to make real decisions when needed.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Accept what you know and hire what you do not know. Surround yourself with people who are not only better than you in different skillsets but also challenge what you think.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I have previously launched two namesake brands myself, both of which failed. It did not stifle my dreams, but it taught me that it doesn’t matter how good the design is without the other business expertise needed to succeed. I now surround myself with talent in all other professions.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I have so many big ideas! A few of the ones that stand out are:
1. Desalinization plants – technology that can be duplicated anywhere in the world. Whomever controls fresh water will own the future.
2. Recycle plants – the technology that can be duplicate a plant or two in every state to handle their own waste, no longer moving waste from state to state nor shipping it to other countries.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A rice cooker. My business partners are amazed that I never had one. It is the best invention ever, especially because I love to cook – the last thing I made was kimchi rice.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

Microsoft Teams app. This keeps us connected with video and screen sharing, chats, file management, and task manager, keeping them all in one place.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I prefer nonfiction book or books that have a painful, heavy subject matter. I live in a bubble; I have a very creative view of the world and need to be grounded. I just finished “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. I think this is a must read for everyone! It is emotionally devastating and shed some insight on an unwritten American history.

What is your favorite quote?

“Nothing new has happened before”. I think about this as we develop product. I let data inform me, but not lead me. I look at what has come before me to inspire me to make leaps forward.

Key Learnings:

  • High-quality, casual wardrobe essentials with performance and made to last. Favorite everyday basics done better.
  • Engineered and designed for versatility, everyday life.
  • Sustainable and ethical brand, eco-friendly and plant trees, ethical supply-chain