Companies are made up of people at the end of the day, and as established entrepreneurs will tell you about the early days, every new hire counts.
But as you add more heads to your team, maintaining your company culture becomes harder.
On this episode of Shopify Masters, you'll hear from Kevin Lavelle of Mizzen+Main, a brand that offers the best of advanced performance fabrics with the refined look of traditional menswear.
Find out how he created a solid company culture from the ground up while building a 20-person team.
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If you only hire people that you or your network know, you're going to be constrained by a somewhat similar thought process.
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- When to hire generalists and when to hire specialists.
- Why you should hold a daily all-hands meeting.
- How they exploded onto the scene through podcast sponsorships.
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Felix: Today I’m joined by Kevin Lavelle from Mizzen+Main. Mizzen+Main sells the best of advanced performance fabrics with the refined look of traditional menswear, and was started in 2012 and based out of Dallas, Texas. Welcome, Kevin.
Kevin: Thanks, Felix.
Felix: Yes. Tell us a bit more about Mizzen+Main, and what are some of your more popular products?
Kevin: Yeah. Thanks so much for the opportunity to share our story. We started just about five years ago, and we have the world’s most comfortable dress shirt. The idea came to me after watching a guy run into a building soaked in sweat, and it was right around the time that performance fabrics had started to become kind of acceptable and mainstream on the golf course. So I thought, “Why not make a dress shirt out of this?” Several years later I thought about it for a long time. I was young and was in school. Didn’t really feel like I could go start a business. After working for a few years I decided, “I gotta give this a shot.”
So I spent about a year in product development, and then launched with that first dress shirt in July of 2012. So all of our dress shirts are moisture-wicking and wrinkle free. You don’t have to iron them or dry clean them. Take them right out of the washing machine and put them on a hanger, they’re ready to wear in about 20 or 30 minutes, and they tend to fit guys unlike anything else off the rack because of the stretch of the shirt. So we’ve seen just explosive growth, because people just absolutely love the product. Coming on [inaudible 00:02:04] business we were growing at about four racks every year, and last year we grew at about 2.2 racks, which on top of that base is something we’re pretty proud of.
Have an amazing team base in Dallas. The dress shirt, the most comfortable dress shirt in the world, that’s our core product. That’s what put us on the map. But we have some other products as well. We’ve got chinos and Henleys and Polos and sweaters and some nice other complimentary things, but our core focus is that dress shirt.
Felix: Awesome. So you had this idea brewing for a bit, but waited around for a little bit to take action on it. What spurred that action taking? Like what realization did you come across that made you realize as you get started executing on this idea?
Kevin: Yeah, so I had thought about it again and again and again, and it was actually a professor of mine from school who was a very successful entrepreneur. He just kind of sparked this entrepreneurial bug in me, and we talked about it a lot and ultimately I just said, “You know what? I gotta give this a shot.” At the time I was 25. You know, if it doesn’t work out what’s the worse that’s gonna happen is I’m gonna learn a whole lot along the way. Maybe my own equivalent of going to get my MBA, starting my own business. It was a slow build. It wasn’t like I said, “I’m gonna do this,” and I quit my job and walked out and said, “Okay, now what do I do?”
I think in the startup culture today there’s this notion that you should quit your job and start something. Take your time. Make sure that you’re doing it right. Don’t wait years and years and years for the perfect time, because there is no perfect time. I have spent a lot of time in R and B and making sure that we had the right product, the right concept, the right branding. We were ready to go when we launched. The lean startup we talked about if your first product is perfect, you waited too long to launch and looking back, our first product definitely was not perfect, but at least we had spent a lot of time getting a lot of things in the right place and ready to go. It was a spark from a colleague, from a mentor, and then it was ultimately felt like after a lot of product development and research it was the right time.
Felix: So five years now in business and you mentioned that it was a slow build. It wasn’t like some big explosion onto the market and all of a sudden you have this success. So during that period of time before the success that you have today, were there points along the way where you felt like giving up or you felt like going back and just getting a day job again or sticking with the day job?
Kevin: I can honestly say I never felt like giving up. I can also honestly say it’s been, outside of losing family members, it’s been the hardest experience of my life, just the daily grind, the responsibility. As we’ve gotten more success it doesn’t get easier. The challenges just get greater, and the responsibilities are heavier. In those early days I have a friend who just started a small business, and he was asking me, "Once your family and friends have bought from you, was there a [inaudible 00:05:17] before you started to get other people. I went back and looked at my Shopify dashboard, two months and even years. Even several years into it, there were still days where we had no sales.
And that is just so disheartening when you’re watching that dashboard and kind of ready to go. You know, “This is my business. I’m trying to build this.” And no one is spending a dollar with you that day. The nice thing about it is it’s not like a store where you’ve got kind of these fixed costs if you don’t make a certain amount of sales in a day you’re operating in the red for the day, that’s a great thing about starting a business online. There were plenty of days where we had no sales. I think there were some days even after a full year of business where we had two or three days with no sales.
It really tests your commitment. It tests not just your commitment, but your mental fortitude, “Is this really what I want?” I’ve heard a couple of people say, “Entrepreneurs are the new rockstars.” And when you look at Gary V and some of these people who, they are celebrities for their entrepreneurial kind of vision and execution, it’s not for everyone. I’ve listened to a lot of good podcasts and read a lot of great articles about, “It might be your destiny or your path to be the number two or three person at that company and really help get it off the ground, but not be the one that has to do everything.”
And so there’s so much pressure today to be an entrepreneur and go start your own thing, when it might be a great idea to find someone who’s doing something amazing and join up and be a part of the team. For me, in this journey, this was the idea that I’ve had for years, and it was a brutally difficult first few years, but I never felt like this wasn’t what I was supposed to do. If I wasn’t so sure of the idea and the long term potential of the brand that we’re building, I might have felt differently, but I knew what I could do here, and I knew this was it for me.
Felix: So during those days where you’re a year into business and you had multiple days in a row with no sales, what helped you to renew that commitment or to stay committed, to continue to work on even though you had no sales that day?
Kevin: A huge part of it is a very supportive spouse. She worked a quote, unquote real job to keep us afloat. When I would travel for business she would be the one that would take and pack all the orders at home. So she had to know the nuts and bolts of everything that we were doing. Having a supportive group of friends and family who believed in me even though they might’ve thought I was a little crazy, they believe in me and there was always encouragement. I would say outside of the supportive spouse the most important thing for me was finding the small wins and celebrating the hell out of them.
So maybe I hadn’t had any sells for a few days and then we had three people buy three shirts, and we had never had a three pack sold three times in one day, and that’s so small, but you just go, “Ah, man. This is awesome. We’ve never had this before. This is so great.” And it just puts a little bit more wind in your sails. It makes you feel like there is something good here. You know, the first time you see a celebrity or famous person buy your product. The first time one of your old friends or potentially enemies from elementary, middle, or high school buys one of your shirts.
Now, obviously the enemy status has long since passed, but you go, “Man, that’s awesome. He or she just bought something that I made. That’s really cool. Those small wins can really help buoy your spirits and to make you go those next few days in a way that you might’ve felt like, ”Okay, I’m not sure what I’m doing here."
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Like you were saying before, it’s not the entrepreneurship road is not as nearly as glamorous as you see in the media, you see in the movies, and when you were saying that when you were getting more success, it became harder, the challenge became even bigger. I think a lot of times entrepreneurs will think that, "Once I get to this point then I’ll call it success, then everything will make sense to me, everything will essentially work the way it’s supposed to work. Now, when you were first getting started into the business, what surprised you before that you didn’t realize would happen or you didn’t realize that would become a challenge before you got started?
Kevin: I think one of the things that surprised me, and this may not be a direct answer to your question, but it’s a reality. I felt like I had invented something that every guy in the world would want, and slowly but surely we’re doing that, but I really just thought that once we started we were gonna just take off, right? Like we were just gonna sell out of everything that we’d made instantly, and that everybody would want everything that we were selling. The old adage if you [inaudible 00:10:44], it’s just simply not true, and there’s a couple of companies that seem to defy that maxim like Casper or Warby Parker. They managed to just unlock this mysterious growth hack that I don’t think they could even say that they knew was happening.
And they’ll admit it. If you listen to their interviews they’ll say, “We’re absolutely shocked at our growth.” So ultimately there is no such thing as a quick success. There is no such thing as just launch and watch the money come in. It just takes so much longer than you think it will. And, I guess [inaudible 00:11:28] still to this day we’re very public about the fact that we don’t give discounts, and I’ve had a lot of friends that are remarkably supportive and have bought a ton of our products. Still to this day we’ll get people who we’re friendly with or good friends with that have never purchased a shirt from us.
They know the grind and what we are doing, and how hard it’s been, and they’ll say, “Hey, can I get a discount?” It’s like, even if I already gave you $25.00 off the shirt, is that really what it’s worth? Is it worth asking me that knowing how much we have at stake, how hard we’ve worked? We’ve got a team of 20 employees. There are investors we’re trying to appease and grow the business. Is that really worth it? And so, to me, some people’s reactions who have no idea what it’s like to try and start something, that surprised me as well. I didn’t expect people to be that … I guess I’ll say bluntly, that naïve or that callous to the difficulty of starting your own business.
Felix: Now, what about this, I guess, new stage in your business where you’ve gone from some success to now much more consistent, much larger success, what new responsibilities have come once you’ve kind of stepped up in, I guess the level of success that you’ve had for the business?
Kevin: One of the best parts about growing a business is finding amazing people who can do extraordinary work that believe in what you’re doing and want to be a part of it. At first I was involved with every element of the business. You had to be, and then as we grew to five, six, seven people I was still really engaged in pretty much every phone call, every conversation, every decision, and it wasn’t because I refused to delegate, it was what needed to be done. I’m actually quite happy to delegate now that we have an amazing team of 20 people. But as we added more roles to the business, I’m not on every production call anymore. Generally I touch base in those things from time to time and help where I can.
I’m not at every trade show, but I go to the big ones and try and meet with our biggest clients. We finally landed Nordstrom after almost two years of chasing them, and it’s been an absolutely explosive start, and I’m making sure, I’m not every email of logistics making sure that they’re getting the product to the distribution center, but I’m working with their PR team and our PR firm and their marketing team and our events team to ensure that we absolutely lever up. My job is to make sure that our team is cohesive and functioning towards our common vision, but then also where can I help lever up instead of growing 100% that we grow 200 or 300% in a month because of activities that we do, relationships that I can help facilitate or helping our team just operate at that next level.
Felix: Now, when you first started building out this team, do you remember what you role you hired for first?
Kevin: The first person we hired was Christian Smith. She now runs our entire wholesale business, and I don’t remember what we even called the role, but basically it was an all around just someone who could help me with literally everything. She joined us and started helping out on customer service and started helping out on sales trips to wholesale clients, and just literally everything. And then the next person we hired did literally everything, too. And then the next was pretty much everything, and then slowly we started to get to a point where people started to specialize a little bit more. Once we started to specialize, that’s when we kind of formed, I’ll call them departments although, again, at 20 people we’re not really a business with departments, but focusing into areas where we really hone in on certain activities and kind of let other people focus on others to be more effective in the work that we’re doing.
Felix: You started hiring essentially generalists, people that could do anything and everything first before then getting into hiring specialists. What made you decide to take this approach in hiring?
Kevin: Necessity is the mother of all inventions, and sometimes of all evil. It wasn’t like we needed someone to just do wholesale sales for us, because wholesale sales wasn’t a big enough business, and it wasn’t like we just needed someone to answer customer service tickets, because there was so many other things that needed to be done in a day it wouldn’t have been prudent financially to pay someone full time just to answer customer service tickets. We just found people who wanted to be a part of the business and were able to kind of hone in. I think our hires like six or seven were where they started to get a little bit more technical, where someone was responsible, at the time we did our own fulfillment, for the picking and packing and making sure that all the returns and exchanges were processed.
That was, “This is your specific role. You don’t need to be on marketing calls, and you don’t need to go on sales trips. You’re managing all of the pick and pack and customer service.” That was where we started to get a little bit more specialized. Since then it’s been a fairly specialized path. But those first five or six people were just all hands wherever possible, and we would kind of divide. There was Tony Hsieh’s perfect vision of holacracy where people just kind of go where needed to and execute what needs to be done. I don’t know if that could have sustained itself past five or six people [inaudible 00:17:04].
Felix: Does delegation or just being the, I guess, the manager become more or less difficult when you create a team of specialists versus earlier on when it was a team of generalists?
Kevin: Ultimately I think that’s a function of personality and what the CEO or president or leader, whatever of a specific group, it’s what they’re comfortable with. There are certain things that I am intensely focused on when it comes to protecting the brand and the customer service. And so I will get deeply involved in some branding discussions or make sure that when there are difficult customers that I’ll hop in and try and help where possible, but the C-suite that we have, our COO or CMO chief wholesale and chief financial officers, those individuals are so extraordinary at what they do I could walk away for a month and know that when I came back we would be okay.
That’s not really where I am personally or professionally, because we’re just all full steam ahead on trying to just get this business as big as we possibly can while staying true to who we are, and that is so important for me as a CEO to be able to trust implicitly every decision that is made. Something might happen where they make a decision that I disagree with, but it would never be to the severe detriment of the business, and we would just talk about it afterwards as to why I might feel differently. They’ll either convince me of why I was wrong or I’ll come back and say, “I hear ya, but next time we gotta do it this way for these reasons.”
Ultimately when you get to a certain size business no one person can know everything, but to me one of the most important parts of being a good CEO is you’re ear to the ground with your leadership team and staying in touch with the broader team as well and trying to be an aggregator of sentiment and information so that when I have a meeting with my COO and then next with my CMO, they might talk plenty, but I’m hearing different things that they might be saying and try and make sure that we’re all aligned to the same goal on an ongoing basis.
Felix: What have you learned about the hiring process and especially on how to bring on the best team members that will fit in at the company?
Kevin: The absolute best team members that we have have all been referrals from existing team members. I think it’s just incredibly important to have some background reference or check. Now, I say that, and if any of my team is listening certainly there are people that we did not get direct referrals on that are amazing employees that I am incredibly happy that are a part of the team. But as a general rule and a general sentiment when we’ve been able to get a direct referral, it just takes away a lot of the risk factors of unknowns for team members. Now, the challenge there is if you only hire people that you or your network know, you’re gonna be constrained by a somewhat similar thought process.
You’re not opening yourself up. And so it’s arguably the single hardest part of a business is hiring great people and keeping them and training them getting them consistently excited and aligned for the long term vision, but for us at this stage, those referrals have been really important. And then when we haven’t gotten referrals, taking our time, doing lots of reference checks, having them meet with everyone in the company, really just trying to get to know them and the types of decisions that they’ll make and how they interact, and generally it’s going really well. Certainly we have some people that are not still working with us and that’s part of growing a business, but I feel very fortunate it would be caliber and strength of the team that we have.
Felix: Because you delegate out and you have a team of 20 people now, when you do meet with your direct reports, your C suite, what does a successful meeting look like to you?
Kevin: I’m a former management consultant, so I’m a big dashboard, checklist, and kind of bullet point person where I really like concise dashboards to say, for marketing for example we’ve got a table that’s showing our total spend, our return on investment, and traffic from our various sources and our target, our progress month to date, comp to loss month, traffic sources, and then on the backside of the piece of paper there’s four or five buckets with two or three bullet points in each one.
That’s partly for me to be able to digest the information quickly and partly is an exercise for the team to say, “What’s most important? What should we focus on? Where do we need input?” And with a limited amount of time, because I travel a great deal and also need to meet with a lot of people, with a limited amount of time that we’re gonna sit down and go through this together, what should we focus Kevin’s time on and what does he need to know about what’s coming next? So a lot of good dashboard.
Love some bullet points, takeaways and I try to have a really strong open door two-way communication kind of policies as a CEO and as a business leader. What to say, “What do you need from me? What am I not giving you? What am I holding you back from? What needs to change in our approach as a business? Do you need me to interface with other team members or departments to make sure that things are going smoothly?” So we have an all hands team meeting on Monday where we meet for an hour, and each group updates everyone for a short period of time, and then I have an hour long meeting with each of my direct reports once a week, and then also I got this idea from a colleague.
We have a 9:00 a.m. daily huddle, and I’m here more and more companies doing this where the entire company at 9:00 a.m. stands around in a circle and part of it is an empathy builder, part of it is a, we don’t have working hours, but by 9 o’clock everyone should be in and working, and working together as necessary. The other thing is to get people on the same page. So the first question we ask is, “How are you doing today?” Most of the time it’s, “Good.” You know, “Good, tired, a long week.” Whatever it might be. Just kind of standard answers, but sometimes someone will say, “I’m having a really bad day,” and then for the rest of the day you know that that person might need a slightly different approach when you go talk to them.
And so it’s a good level setting that is non-intrusive, and then our next round is, “What’s your main priority for the day? What’s the one thing you have to do? And what’s the biggest challenge that you’re facing.” And so that helps people align on what to focus on, and then also if someone says, “I’m really struggling with X, Y, and Z,” someone else could say, “Oh, well, let me know if you want help with that, because that happened to me two weeks ago.” It really opens up communication across the entire organization. And then for fun we write up a series of goofy or sometimes deep questions, “What’s your favorite movie. If you were an animal, what kind of animal you would be.”
It sounds stupid, but it gives us a chance to all get together and laugh in the morning or start off with a cool conversation. It’s all done in 15 minutes, and it’s a great way to start the day and really kind of build some team cohesiveness.
Felix: I like that approach a lot. Now, you mentioned something while ago I want to get to you, which was about the fallacy that if you build it they will come. Now, for you in your business once you realized that that wasn’t the case, you made great products, you are very proud of your products, but you still had to get it to the right people and not everyone is your customer. What was the next step once you made that realization that you built it, not everyone’s coming in droves. What was the next step for you to take the business?
Kevin: Part of it was mental and it was, “Okay. So time to settle in. This is gonna take a long time.” And then another part of it was [inaudible 00:25:37], “What am I gonna do?” And so I started just trying lots of different things that I felt were consistent with who we were as a company and as a brand. So I started going to marathon expos and felt like that was a great place where we mind find some customers who love performance fabric dress shirts. It cost me $500 to set up a tent at a marathon expo. Usually I’d make my money back.
It was a grueling 18 hour day, but it was a chance to get in front of people and hear feedback and what people liked and what people didn’t like, and then started saying, "Alright. It’s time for me to try and find some wholesale accounts who will carry our products. So I started doing store visits and then made sure that we were brand consistent and engaging and fun on social media anytime anyone mentioned us, try to engage with them get to learn a little bit about them and build some relationships online. I wrote a handwritten note in every single box that went out for the first two years.
That is a lot of work, but it also built a lot of good will and a lot of memories for our customers. And then took some notes from Gary Vanderchuck and Tony Hseih and a couple of other great entrepreneurs who have a lot of good stories to tell. What I would do is one guy announced on social media that he was a customer that he was so excited about the birth of his first child. And so we sent him a note saying congratulations and a Mizzen+Main hat. And still to this day, I guess we’ll say we’re friends, and when we’re in the same city we’ll meet up. Those are things that one to one obviously you can’t maintain that forever, but it makes a big difference early on. It’s the sum of all of those small efforts allows you to start to build bigger and bigger momentum.
Felix: Now, you mentioned earlier about the lean startup, and the quote that you gave that if you try to wait until your product’s perfect or you wait until you’re no longer embarrassed of your product to launch it, then you’ve launched too late. Was that the approach that you took to start the business and is that what you continue to do today, the lean startup methodology?
Kevin: We take inspiration from it. I would say it’s not something that we live and breath everyday. At this point in time our brand is very well established, or at least we like to think it is, and so if we’re going to introduce a new product we really need to get it right. So we probably spend a little bit too long trying to make sure that it’s perfect just so we don’t run into problems. Because at this point our distribution network of over 300 retail stores and Nordstrom and tens and tens and tens of thousands of customers. We’ve sold hundreds of thousands of our products, if we get it wrong there are very serious consequences that can’t just be immediately adjusted.
It’s not like you try and release a new software packet and see kind of what happens with users and they don’t like it, so you just hit, facetiously edit undo. You can’t do that when it comes to a product, because you’ve got months in the supply chain and hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars invested in the product itself that is not something you can just turn if it goes wrong.
Felix: Right. That makes a lot of sense. You have a lot more invested this time, especially once you have a business built out like this with distribution and a long supply chain. Now, when you started getting more success what marketing or sales channels led to that more consistent sales, consistent success?
Kevin: It really was the sum of all parts, and that may not be the best answer for what tactics to do, but we stayed the course when it came to going to trade shows, and we slowly started to pick up more doors and more doors, and after two and a half years we had about 30 retail doors stocking Mizzen+Main and now at four and a half, almost five years, we’ve got 300. Those first 30 took as long as the next 270. And so it just takes a long time to get that initial momentum kind of moving, but we stayed the course. We just kept going to trade shows. We kept visiting. We kept sending things to these wholesale clients. And then online we really didn’t start spending money for the first two years.
It was trying to find any press that wanted to write about us. We just spent a lot of time trying to find press that wanted to write about us, and then sharing our experience. We did some blogging. We really engaged with social media. But the game changer for us when it came to advertising, we finally started to spend a little bit of money in digital. We bought a print ad in Esquire, because one of our investors had a lot of success buying remnant rate ads basically the last ads to sell in a magazine, they’re just trying to get any money for them so you buy them for cheap.
We absolutely bombed. It was a disaster. We never should have spent the money. A month later we sponsored Tim Ferriss’ podcast. If you know anything about Tim Ferriss, you will know that his followers are some of the most loyal and just obsessed with all of his recommendations and tools and tips and tricks to live their best possible life, and we sponsored his podcast, and we just absolutely blew up. We did two or three or four times our best day ever in one day when his first podcast dropped, and it was a net positive ROI across all three podcasts within five days or something like that of the first podcast.
We bought three slots and after five days of the first one, and it had already paid for itself. It was just absolutely insane the return that we got on that. And we never reset. You know, sometimes people get a really big press hit, and you get like 10 extra traffic, and then five X and then two X and then by day four you’re back to normal. This was we never reset once we doubled our sales, and just continued to go from there.
Felix: That’s crazy. Do you still do podcast sponsorships today?
Kevin: We do some. Honestly, I love Tim, and I will always be so grateful for what he did for our business. More power to him. I can’t afford his podcasts anymore. He has built this amazing empire where he’s getting huge, huge sponsorships, and that is fantastic for him, but we can’t afford to do those just based on the capital we’ve raised and our return profile, but we dabble in podcast sponsorship from time to time. We have never seen anything like his, and frankly I don’t think we ever will, especially because I think we caught him just as his podcast was really starting to take off. It was already very successful. But at that time it was just starting to take off, so the rates were quite a bit more reasonable for us. At this point in time he’s selling out huge chunks of these by major, major sponsors, and it’s starting to get into the realm where it just doesn’t work for us.
Felix: Do you remember what the call to action was? I think this is a thing that people struggle with when it comes to podcast sponsorships. A lot of the times people will listen to podcasts on the go, of course, when they’re commuting or when they’re working out. It’s not as easy as, say, a display ad that they can click on and buy right away. Something you have to almost remember to go back and check out later. Do you remember what the call to action was that led to such crazy success with his just three podcast sponsorships?
Kevin: Yep. So only on the first podcast, if memory serves, we decided to break a rule. And I told you we never discount. That ends a very important rule for us. We said, “Look. If this is gonna work, we need something compelling for people to enter the code so we know if it works. Right? This is always whether its radio or TV or friends, people always want a way to track it. So we talked to Tim, and he said, ”I know you don’t want to be giving discount, you know like 25% off, so what if you did someone buys a dress shirt and they get a Henley?“ So our dress shirts are $125. Our Henleys at the time were $58. We thought, ”You know what? From a customer acquisition cross perspective, we’ll take that. We will give that a shot."
So it was, “Go to MizzenandMain.com, enter the code 10. Buy a dress shirt and a Henley, enter the code 10, and you’ll get the Henley for free. He said, if you can’t remember Mizzen+Main, go to fourhourworkweek.com/shirts. People didn’t have to remember how to spell our name. They didn’t even have to remember our name. But what Tim told them was, ”This is the best dress shirt in the world. I love them. You will love them, so go check this out. And if you can’t remember their name or don’t know how to spell it, just go to fourhourworkweek.com/shirts. And that succinct nugget was something that was very easy for people to latch onto, and the call to action being, “Get a Henley.”
I don’t think most people listening maybe even knew what a Henley was, but it was get a something. And it didn’t cheapen who we were, because, to me, when you’re first interaction with a brand is something percent off for just a standard purchase then your perception is always, “Well, I can just get 25% off if I just give them a new email address or if I just give them a new something, then I can just get 25% off again.” This was one time for Tim’s listeners, and it only lasted a week, because we wanted to test the success of the use of the code, and it just, indescribable the traffic that we got. On a humorous note, we were sold out of inventory for most of 2015. We’d get inventory in and then we’d be sold out again, because people we really did love the shirts, so they would buy us out, and we were trying to keep up with it.
We had a lot of people write in and complain and say, “Don’t you guys know what you’re doing? How do you not have enough product?” You just have to bite your tongue. It’s like, “Okay. Please. Tell me how I should have prepared to double our business overnight and never go backwards with an inventory-based business and a six month lead time on supply chain. Please tell me how I should do this.”
Felix: Yeah. [inaudible 00:36:37] crazy getting all those trolls. Now, going into something that maybe is more applicable for a lot of listeners, which is the trade shows success that you’ve had, do you remember some of the favorite ones that you’ve been to over the years that have helped you secure the wholesale clients that you have today?
Kevin: Yes. It’s always gonna be industry-specific, right? So if someone’s starting a food business, there are food specific ones. And even within food there’s organic and there’s [inaudible 00:37:06] and blah blah blah blah. With my industry, with apparel, the menswear industry, the primary focus is that MR or Project, and they’re actually now owned by the same entity, so it would be called Projects moving forward, in New York and Las Vegas. Because of Daymond John and Fubu and Shark Tank, a lot of people know about Magic in Las Vegas. Magic is kind of the largest apparel convention in the world.
At Magic there’s men’s, women’s accessories, footwear. There’s just all sorts of different things all under one umbrella, although it’s spread across multiple buildings. So it’s about finding the right trade shows and also the right scale, because if you’re a new brand and you just show up at Project, you’re probably not gonna see any success. It might be better to start at a regional trade show like Chicago Collective or the Southern Men’s Show where it’s a much more intimate environment. There’s a lot fewer brands. There’s a lot fewer stores. It’s a lot easier to get people’s attention, and you can focus on a set of specific potential customers to target. Write all of them notes, give them phone calls. Pay them a visit.
Say, “Hey, I’d love to see you at the next trade show.” [inaudible 00:38:29] come to that if you build it they will come analogy with trade shows that you just buy a trade show booth and you show up and everyone’s gonna buy your product. No, it’s not that way at all. People have almost blinders on, because they don’t want to be bothered. They want to go to the appointments they have. They may look around a little bit, but then especially in Las Vegas they want to go party. So you’re not gonna get their attention just by being there, so you need to build that momentum and that interest ahead of time by spending a fair bit of effort or a lot of effort getting them to be aware of you before they come out there, so that there’s a chance that they’ll actually stop by.
And then also know that with a lot of different industries and businesses at trade shows, it’s almost like you have to pay your dues where businesses want to see you two or three times. They want to know this isn’t some new thing that’s not gonna be here in six months. So if I put in an order, and I’m depending on it, they’re gonna go out of business. But if I see them two or three times it’s like, “Okay. These guys are legitimate. They’ll still be around when it comes time to make my delivery.”
Felix: Now, you mentioned that the key to success at a trade show happens before the show itself. What kind of preparation do you recommend listeners do if they are gearing up for, let’s say, their first trade show?
Kevin: Do as much of your homework as possible to know who you should be reaching out to ahead of time. Understand your positioning with those clients. So don’t just assume that everyone that’s coming would be a potential client for you. Oftentimes many of them won’t and you are wasting your time if you’re trying to hit up customers who would never buy you just based on their demographic or based on their buying profile or based on some other factors. So know who your customer is and make sure that they know who you are. Spend time sending them notes. Spend time getting to know them.
Send them a gift, right? Send them a bottle of wine. Send them a card with a Starbucks gift certificate for $10. I know early on you don’t necessarily have a lot of money to play with, if you as a retailer hear from 15 or 20 new brands [inaudible 00:40:48] from a show saying, “Hey, come by and see me.” And someone sends you a Starbucks gift card or a bottle of wine or something along those lines, you’re going to remember them. And it doesn’t mean that they’re gonna stop by and see you, but if you allowed yourself a small budget, even if its a $5 gift card to Starbucks, it’s one Starbucks drink, and it’s going to make people remember you.
So if you’re one of my competitors don’t use that tip or trick but if you’re anyone else I would say, “Be thoughtful and know that everyone’s busy. Everyone has a million things going on, and usually it’s all about, ”Hi. My name’s Kevin. I’m from Mizzen+Main. I think you should buy our product,“ whereas the approach of, ”Wow, I really love your store a lot. I think you’ve got an amazing collection here. I especially think that your lineup of X, Y, and Z is much better than I’ve seen done at any other store. Next time you’re at Starbucks enjoy this drink on me. I’d love to see you at Projects. We’ll be at booth 347. I think we’ve got a product that you’ll love. Look forward to meeting you in person." That is such a vastly different approach, and it’s so simple yet almost no one does it.
Felix: I like that approach a lot. Because like you were saying, most of the time when you go to these trade shows you have blinders up. You’re just looking to meet the people that have gone to these measures that you’re talking about to reach out, put the effort in prior to the show and meet with those people. So the cos become one of those that have done their work so that they come looking for you rather than try to drag them to check out your booth at the show itself. Now, I want to talk about distribution because, like you were saying, you’ve had distribution at a lot of places. You’ve grown a lot. You’ve scaled a lot up there. What’s your, I guess, supply chain look like? How do you have it, you don’t have to get into too many details, but how do you have it set up to handle distribution like this?
Kevin: That is a constantly moving target that changes, it seems like, every six months. We’ve moved through multiple inventory management systems. We now are at a fulfillment center. We have a custom integration from Shopify to our fulfillment center to send information both ways. And then we invested in a retail/wholesale specific platform called NuORDER, and that allows us to better handle our wholesale business. And then we also use a range of other tools. We’re using Slack. We’re using Dropbox. We’re using Pipeline. We’re using just a range of paid-for and I’ll call them freemium platforms to enable us to be as effective as possible.
Coming back to that notion of things don’t get easier, the responsibility and the scope grows, I do look forward to being able to invest in ERP, and when we do, some things will get a lot easier just in terms of forecasting and planning, but then it also gets a lot harder, because those systems are an absolute nightmare to manage. They are hugely expensive to implement, but they exist for a reason, because at a certain scale you can’t just use spreadsheets and try and export information and make sure that it all stays aligned.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What are some of your personal favorite tools and applications to run your business and, I guess, your life?
Kevin: Yeah. That’s a great question. I think Slack is one of the greatest tools created in the last 20 years for business. I think if you’re running a business and you’re not on Slack you are missing out on an extraordinary opportunity to grow company culture and improve company communication. I’m pitching Slack to everyone I know. If anyone is listening to this that works at Slack, give me a call. I’d love to be your pitchman. I use Todoist personally to manage all of my to-dos. I had to abandon my email address, because I was getting so much spam, and I really can’t, from an anxiety perspective, I can’t handle … I used to have 500 to 1,000 emails in my inbox on a daily basis. It’s so unwieldy you really can’t anything done. So I actually gave up my old email address, and really only the people I work with directly have it anymore.
That has given me a lot of sanity. I had to give up my phone number and my email address to get my sanity back, and it’s helped quite a bit. In that vein, I use Google Voice for business. So I have a Google Voice number which forwards to my email and translates into email, which is fantastic. We use Google Apps for business and Gmail and Google Drive, Google Sheets, those types of things. I’m trying to think of the other ones. Dropbox is a big one for us. Obviously, Shopify. Shopify is at the heart of our business. And then there’s some other small ones that we use. A new fun one to reward our best customers and encourage referral business there’s a company called Get Ambassador.
That’s been a great partner for us. We do a ton of referral business, and we’ve seen a lot of success with that. We just implemented at work types. Everyone gets a certain amount of points in a month to distribute to other people to kind of recognize going above and beyond. As it turned out, it’s mostly just funny, and it’s a fun way to keep up team interaction and have some fun together. When you accrue a certain number of points you can redeem them for gift cards, and then the company kind of pays for those gift cards based on the points. Those are some of the ones that we’ve used and have seen a lot of success and had a lot of fun with that.
Felix: Awesome. So MizzenandMain.com is the website. M-I-Z-Z-E-N-A-N-D-M-A-I-N.com. Where do you want to take the business next? Where do you want to see the business be a year from today?
Kevin: Our goal is to continue to more than double in size every year, and be that next great American brand. We want to be a household name. We want to show people you can build a business the right way, and we want to be in everyone’s closet.
Felix: Thank you so much for your time, Kevin.
Kevin: Thank you, Felix.
Felix: Here’s a sneak peak of what’s in store for the next Shopify Masters episode.
Speaker 4: So we have to be careful with our content online marketing. We’ve had a lot of banner ads turned down because of the content. So we really had to draft our marketing so that it was palatable.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the e commerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30 day free trial.