Happy New Year, everyone! Hope you had a wonderful holiday and Christmas break and you’re gearing up for what’s going to be a good year for your business in 2016.
This week we’ve got another favorite episode from the archives: Andy Dunn of Bonobos.com.
Apart from being a great eCommerce writer on Medium.com, Andy is the founder of Bonobos.com, a menswear clothing online store that he’s grown into a highly-respected company over the past few years. We chat about how Andy got started and has since created a men’s clothing empire.
Andrew: Hey, hey, hey, guys, it’s Andrew here, and welcome to the eCommerceFuel podcast. Thank you so much for tuning in, here on this first day of 2016, January 1, if you’re tuning in live when this episode airs. I hope you had a wonderful holiday and Christmas break and are gearing up for what’s going to be hopefully a great year with your business in 2016. And this will be the last episode that we revive something from the archives, taking one last week break, given the holiday break. I’ll be back next week with fresh, new content again.
Andrew: But I wanted to bring you another interview, another one of my favorites from the archives, this one with Andy Dunn from Bonobos. Apart from being a great eCommerce writer and he frequently writes some great stuff on Medium about eCommerce, in general, he is the founder of Bonobos.com, which is a menswear clothing that he’s grown into a highly respected company over the last number of years. And so, we talk about how he got started, his experience in the space, and he shares some stories from his own experience. Great discussion. So I hope you enjoy, I hope you have a fantastic first week of 2016, and looking forward to joining you again with all fresh content for the podcast next Friday. I’ll talk to you then.
Today, I have with me Andy Dunn, who’s the co-founder and CEO of Bonobos.com. Andy, thanks so much for coming on.
Andy: Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be with you.
What Bonobos Does Best
Andrew: So I think most people who are listening probably have a good sense of your company of what Bonobos is. But for those that might not, can you give us a rough idea of what Bonobos is and what you guys do better than anyone else out there?
Andy: Our company mission is “To be the most loved clothing company of all time. No, seriously.” And the most provocative words in there are “most loved,” probably the first most provocative. “Of all time” is the second most. And then I think the “No, seriously” is both the fun part and speaks to our intent at doing this. And so, in terms of “most loved,” our belief is that the internet has created a new way of building and distributing clothing, a clothing brand, where you can be, not only responsible for amazing clothing, but also for amazing service, and as a result, have a much higher level of customer affinity for what you’re doing. And we started about seven years ago with the best fitting pants that men have ever known. And the way that we did it was we had an incredibly imaginative cut of pants, designed by my co-founder Brian Spaly. And then on the surface side, we built this human team called the Ninjas, who are like our internal Zappos-like identity. Amazing, energetic, empathetic human service, whenever you interact with us, really favorable shipping and return policies. And we bundle that together to build a great online driven brand.
Over the course of the last two years, we’ve added stores, and we’ve invented a personalized store, where you have a one-to-one experience, great human service experience. You still have access to the full range of clothes to try on, and you can see all of the colors. And then we actually fulfill your order through eCommerce, so we call this the Guideshop. We have eight of them that we’ve opened over the course of the past two years. And we’re taking this bundle of great clothing and great service together to try to create what I described as the “most loved clothing company” imaginable. And now, the next frontier for us is our women’s brand Ayr, which we launched last week.
The Ninja Effect
Andrew: And Ninjas are kind of your customers, so you guys were using Ninja before it became very en vogue and just pretty much spread like wildfire throughout the whole Internet.
Andy: Yeah, it’s funny. I was sitting at my kitchen table in 2007, trying to build the company out of my apartment and was trying to think through, “How do I attract people’s attention to a customer service rep job?” And just had this idea of, “We’ll call it Customer Service Ninja,” uploaded the job description to Craigslist, and got a huge number of applications. And that was the beginning of realizing that, if you wanna hire great people, you have to make the job heroic. At most companies, customer service rep is a bad word or an unimportant job. At our company, it’s arguably the most important job because these are the people who are interacting every day with our customer. And our belief is that this is part of what makes the digital era so exciting and so paradoxical in nature, which is that you can now use the internet to build a brand that feels more personal than the traditional store-driven model. We feel so lucky that we now have invented a store model, which is radically different than any other clothing store ever built, in terms of ever being an eCommerce show room and continue to extend on that promise of great service.
Andrew: Yeah, and I want to get into talking about the Guideshops and dive a little bit deeper into the brand. But I want to take us back just a moment and go back to the beginning of the company. You wrote a great article called “The Risk Not Taken.” I have to compliment you on your writing. It’s really good.
Andy: Thank you.
Andrew: You write fantastically well. I really enjoy your articles. We’ll link up over to this article in the show notes.
Andy: Thank you.
The Big Risk That Paid Off
Andrew: In the article “The Risk Not Taken,” you’re very transparent and open. You tell the story how you got out of grad school at Stanford. You turned down a very well-paying, six-figure job, when you had, at the time, a good chunk of debt, six figures of debt, to start Bonobos. What went into that decision? I imagine even really hardcore entrepreneurial types that are very ambitious would have looked at that and said, “Hey, I still want to build this business. But, hey, I’m gonna take this job. I’m gonna get some experience. I’m gonna pay down my debt, and then I’ll start the business.” But you obviously went the other direction. What went into that decision? Because it obviously was not a straightforward one.
Andy: I was lucky. I got to spend six months of my life living in El Salvador, living in a country, where the GDP per capita is around $2,000. And my mom is an immigrant from India. My grandmother, grandfather were born in a place, where it’s effectively smack dab in the middle of the developing world. From those experiences of traveling and from connecting to my roots, I realized that I was thinking about risk the wrong way. I think most people think about risk as financial risk, but their spiritual risk as well. And at the end of the day, we all die poor. You can pass on whatever wealth you created for yourself to your kids in the next generation, to the government, which is one of the, in my opinion, great things about our country, is that we have such a high death tax because it really enables you to give to the broader community as well. De Tocqueville, in his essay on America, talked about what protected America from being aristocratic, like Europe, was this death tax. And so, I think it’s, therefore, funny to fight that because that’s part of what made this country great.
But digressing from that, we all die poor. When you make the recognition that whatever wealth you accumulate is really used to drive experiences for yourself and loved ones and to be able to give back. It reframes, “How do I want to spend my time?” The chance to build something, particularly the opportunity to put something in the world that doesn’t exist, the chance to make something, is one of the great professional joys of any kind. Certainly a great personal joy, as well, which is why I think people have kids. You’re actually making something, making another human, perhaps the greatest endeavor of all. I haven’t tried that, yet. Still working on finding a wife, let alone work on kids. But I think, if you can make something creative with what you do, it’s incredible. At our company, one of our core values is, “Create what’s missing,” which is put something in the world that doesn’t exist. And if you see an opportunity at the company and something’s bothering you that’s missing, it’s your job to make it our equivalent of Gandhi’s “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
And so, I was very lucky, in that I had an extremely visionary and talented friend and co-founder, who endeavored to make a better fitting pair of pants. And so it almost obvious to me, when we started talking about the potential for building an internet-driven brand to get that product out to more people, that that’s what I should do. And I remember having this funny conversation with my parents, right after graduating, and I said, “Hey, I think, in lieu of this job, I’m gonna go take these pants and build an internet-driven pants company.” And my mom was just like, “You’re gonna do what?” But ultimately, they were terrific and incredibly supportive, and so there was a huge amount of financial risk because it was scary to not be earning more, to be so close to the trees, in terms of flying so close to the trees, in terms of how much money I had in the bank. But at the end of the day, I knew that if I was gonna continue to be lucky with good health, that if what I was working on failed, I would be okay.
And I had this friend of mine at school, Pete Harding, who, incidentally, is now starting a company, also from Stanford class of ’07. And I remember describing to him, with some fear, what I was thinking about doing. And he said, “You know what? Don’t worry. We’re not gonna let you starve. You can always stay on my couch.” And I realized, “You know what? I’m fine. This whole specter of risk is a creation of my mind. It’s just giving in to fear.” And the reality is, is that being at a life moment, where you have a chance to build something, it’s a privilege. And my belief is that. if you have that privilege opportunity, you got to take it.
Building a Consumer Brand
Andrew: I love that, when you reflect back on that, you say, one of the biggest driving factors wasn’t, “I loved fashion,” or “I loved pants,” or “I loved the market.” It was you wanted to create something. You wanted to build something. You wanted to put something in the world. It sounds like you didn’t start this business, obviously, because you were in love with pants. And so given that, how much more fashion aware have you become? Obviously, you’ve had to become, I’m guessing, a significantly more in tune with that market. But is something you get into, now? Or is it really, at the core, just a medium for building a business because that’s aspect that you love, building your own company?
Andy: It’s an awesome question, and for me, my love from the beginning has always been the collision of two things, which is amazing consumer brands. I’ve always been obsessed with great brands, whether we’re talking about Patagonia, or Dr. Pepper, or Cirque du Soleil, or the Pita Inn on Dempster, which is my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant in the world in Skokie, Illinois. I love great brands, and that was something that was clear to me, from the time I spent before Stanford, working as a consultant, working as a private equity analyst. Any project that was about a great consumer brand, I gravitated toward.
And then, while I was at Stanford, I fell in love with the internet, what was happening with 2005 to 2007 with the development of this social web, which was one of the most exciting times. Facebook had just launched, and new companies, like Twitter and Yelp and LinkedIn were popping up. What I realized was, as I watched Brian selling pants out of the back of his car, was, “Wow, this is the chance to put the two things I love, the internet and amazing brand together.” And the vision from the beginning was that we were gonna build an entirely new consumer kind of experience as a function of the fact that we were internet-driven. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve been very lucky. I never envisioned an offline component to it. To discover what a store should look like and be like in the Internet era, the invention of the Guideshop, I would say, in some ways, is the second coolest thing we done since we actually started the company.
Beyond that, extending the assortment and figuring out how to take this promise of great fit to other categories. And so, building a great shirt, to your question about clothing, has lead me to really learn our industry, frankly not due to any of my own superior mental powers, the flip of that, which is hiring people from the industry, who have been phenomenal. And so bringing in great merchants and great designers and working on this problem of shirts having too much fabric around the waist, developing a standard-fit shirt that actually has slimming properties to it. And then being able to leverage this internet-driven model to have a great slim fit and soon a great tailored fit across 18 neck and sleeve combinations and three different collars. No one has the fit assortment fit we do, not because we’re any smarter, but because we’re leveraging a new model, where you can aggregate all your demand in one place. And then finding amazing designers, who have a real sense for fabric and a real eye for color and a real sense for print. That’s something that I certainly have come to learn and appreciate more, as we’ve built the company.
And now, the fun really begins because we’re extending this idea that the internet can be used to build better clothing into the women’s space with Ayr, our women’s brand, A-Y-R.com. And this really gets to the heart and the core of why I co-founded the company, which was the belief that we could build, not just a great Bonobos experience, but that, perhaps, this collision of technology and retail made all kinds of new ideas possible. And so, I view what we’re doing as a company potentially as somewhere between a vertically-integrated retailer, like Gap. But whereas Gap is architected to the brick-and-mortar era, we’re architected to the eCommerce era. Or perhaps, if a different analogy is more useful, like a digital keyring or a digital LVMH, where there’s this whole family of great brands that we can create and, potentially, other third-party brands, who we can enable to be more digital in nature. I think that’s what we’re pursuing, and that’s why we have such a broad mission around building this “most loved clothing company of all time.”
Do One Thing Better Than Anyone Else
Andrew: You talk about your love for just brands, in general, and well-known brands in the world. And you argue, in some of your pieces, that one of the biggest mistakes that brands make early on is they try to do too many things, when really what they should be doing is focusing on one product and nailing it, just getting it perfect and having that be their signature piece. So can you talk about how you did that with Bonobos? Obviously, it was the pants. That’s where you started with the perfect of pants. But can you talk a little bit about that process, how long you stayed focused just on the pants and how long it took to iterate to get to the level, where that was just the thing that you did better than anyone else?
Andy: This is one of the humbling things about building a great brand, is that it takes a long time. We had a great week last week with Ayr. It was our first week. And I told our founder of Ayr, a woman named Maggie Winter, a remarkably talented merchant and leader, “Awesome job. One week down, 519 to go.” And what I meant by that was I think it takes 10 years to build a great brand. And so if you think about building a great brand as a 10-year process, that really frees you up to spend the first year, two years, three years, four years, whatever’s authentic and whatever’s merited, really perfecting your first product. And at Bonobos, it really was four years of focusing on building out an amazing collection of pants, starting with this original fit, developing into what are now three other fit silhouettes.
We started with a boot cut, which was crazy anti-trend to what was happening in ’07. Then we added a straight leg, two years in, really. Then we added a slim straight leg, which is what I now wear, which is a fit that I didn’t even understand the potential of, because I tend to think of slim pants as not-gonna-fit-me, average build from the Midwest. But the reality is, is more men than realize can actually wear a slim straight pant because it’s a hybrid between a true slim and a standard fit. The average standard fit, unless you’re really well-built from a musculature standpoint, you may not need. And now, this fourth fit we’re developing this year, which is a slim tailored, which is a truly tailored fit for a very fashion-forward guy or a very ectomorphic build, entirely made in the USA, color denim, milled in North Carolina, made in Los Angeles. It took a while to build that out, and I think that’s okay, because we built real trust with guys and men in a category, where it’s hard to earn trust, which is bottoms. And then extending that franchise into shirts, with woven shirts over the last three years, which is our fastest-growing business now. This year, we’re really focused on suits. And I think those extensions make sense, as you get into year seven.
And internally, right now, we’re clamoring to do other things, woven boxer shorts, cold weather accessories. But we’re holding off because it takes focus to win, in my opinion, and I wanna make sure we stage it the right way. So this year, we’re really focused on tailored clothing, on suits and on blazers. And in the history of the great men’s brands, there’s this evolution where at the end of it, you’ve got to be relevant in casual and formal. You’ve got to be relevant in tops and bottoms. And you’ve got to be more relevant, this is more technical, if you think about it from the fabrication standpoint, wovens and knits. So, if you wanna be good at tops and bottoms, and wovens and knits, and casual and formal, or casual and tailored, that can take some time to get right authentically. And so, one of the issues that I see in entrepreneurs early is an issue that I saw in myself, which is, as an entrepreneur, you wanna do everything at once. But as a CEO, you’ve got to learn to do one thing at a time, maybe two things at a time, and that’s what really forms that philosophy.
Launching A Second Brand: AYR
Andrew: You mentioned the new brand for women that are launched last week. Congratulations on that, getting the official launch of that.
Andy: Thank you. We’re super excited.
Andrew: Yeah, I imagine. It’s called Ayr. It’s spelled A-Y-R. Can you talk briefly about that, why you’re starting that? We were just talking about getting that one thing right. What’s the one thing that you guys, out of the gates, are trying to really nail with Ayr?
Andy: So the Ayr team is obsessed with denim, and the basic belief is that there has been a proliferation of great jeans in women’s wear over the course of the last 20 years. And a lot of the great stuff is really expensive, and it’s hard to find in your fit. And then, at the lower end of the market, there’s product that’s less expensive, but where you don’t have the same quality. And so the premise of the brand is that we’re gonna deliver great essentials, and when you think about the workhorse of a woman’s wardrobe, it’s a great pair of jeans. And so, we went to a mill renowned for making some of the best denim in the world. We developed our wash with best wash guy in the country. And then we’re working with a factory in L.A. that makes great Made in the USA product.
And Maggie, who I lieud to our brand founder and merchant, recruited a good friend of hers, her co-founder Jac Cameron, and Jac is just a denim wizard. She’s one of the best denim designers on the planet. And they partnered together and brought in the best fit model in New York City, and iterated and iterated throughout 2013 on making the perfect pair of jeans. They put it together, and it’s a mixture of a 30% stretch fabric that has a ton of give to it, but that actually bounces back reliably and doesn’t stretch out on wear, a really clean set of details, which is really dialing down a lot of the over-logoed product that we see on the market. And then delivering this really magical denim at a price point $165, that is, by no means, inexpensive, but is actually value relative to comparable product on the market, which is priced at $200 to $300.
And then overlayed with all that focus on fit and fabric is the same advantage that we’ve seen in Bonobos, which is just offering more choice from an assortment standpoint. And so we have shorts and longs, we have inseams, in addition to waist sizes. And so the product is made waist, inseam, more like a men’s product than a women’s product, which is often sized 2, 4, 6, 8, and offering a lot of different kinds of wash and a lot of different kinds of color without overwhelming. And so we spent last year making sure that we had great product in ladies’ denim, and then before officially launching the brand last week, we did a 90-day to make sure that people were really excited about it. And once we felt comfortable, we said, “Okay. We’re now ready to go,” and that’s when we did the soft launch that you see this past Monday, where we’ve added some great essential pieces in sweaters and silk tops and blazers to compliment what we hope is our opening hero product, which are the jeans.
Andrew: If you’re not following Andy on Medium, make sure to head over there. We’ll link up to, again, his work over there. Really enjoyable pieces on eCommerce and just in general, so we’ll link up to that. Bonobos.com is the name of the business, of course. Andy, best of luck to you with the new brand, with Ayr, and I really appreciate you coming on. Thank you.
Andy: Great to be with you. Thanks, Andrew.
Andrew: That’s gonna do it for this week. If you enjoyed the episode, make sure to check out the eCommerceFuel private forum, a vetted community exclusively for six and seven-figure store owners. With over 600 experienced members and thousands of monthly comments, it’s the best place online to connect with and learn from other successful store owners to help you grow your business. To learn more and apply, visit eCommerceFuel.com/forum. Thanks so much for listening, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again next Friday.
What Was Mentioned
Photo Courtesy of Andy Dunn