On a sun-drenched afternoon, the heat of the Australian summer beating down on them, Alex McBride’s grandfather came to him with a proposition.
He was only a boy then, maybe six-years-old, when McBride’s grandparents owned a place on the Mornington Peninsula, a sandy, golden coastline south of Melbourne.
“If you come for a walk with me,” his grandpa told him, “I’ll buy you any chocolate you want.” Off the two went, his grandfather’s plan to get him moving having apparently worked, but McBride held in him a bit of mischief.
When they stepped into the shop, McBride traced his fingers along each piece of candy until they stopped on a family-sized block of chocolate, the largest in the store. His grandfather, a cunning businessman, who with his wife had grown a linen outfit to more than $60 million in annual sales, couldn't help but crack a smile. “I got him back, in a way,” McBride says.
Think of all that has changed since then. McBride, now 27, has crafted a multimillion dollar company of his own as co-founder of The 5TH, an Australian ecommerce fashion brand turned international enterprise.
As McBride’s company expands, reaching more people across more nations and navigating the minefield between popularity and true success, there is no escaping the spirit behind this triumph.
That one man, and the lessons he taught, are at the center of it all.
‘You Never Know When Your Day’s Up’
Today, McBride’s inbox rarely seems to cease. At any time, more than 50 emails sit unread, waiting for him.
Consider it a fortuitous turn. Not long ago, McBride had only a sense of what he might want in life.
It began in 2014, sometime around late spring. McBride was well into a career in property development, and the irony here is that he was a success. His parents were architects, and so the nuances of the business came ready to him. McBride quickly found himself handling Melbourne real-estate projects greater than $120 million in value.
And yet there was a gnaw at him. McBride began a design blog in his free time, a portal of beautiful home renovations that was finally an outlet for some of the creative juices flowing through him. “It fed my passion of showing people the value that design brings,” McBride says.
He sold products through the blog, though the right mix of commerce and inspiration never quite found him. There was more inside McBride he had to explore.
In June, unhappy with his work, he left his job. He gave himself six months to build something new, six months until he would return to another development gig he set up as a security blanket in case this career departure would not bear fruit.
He called up an Aussie friend named Gretta van Riel, who was traveling in New York City. The two discussed their ambitions, the ideals they shared in life. They talked about what they might want reflected in a business and what kind of products might get them there.
Watches, they reasoned. Watches, more than any other consumer item, had the power to stand for something more.
It might not have seemed like it then, but this was the first sign of his grandfather in this new venture. Years earlier, when cancer took him, McBride’s grandpa left him a watch — a beautiful gold TAG Heuer crafted in 1988, the year before McBride was born.
McBride always admired that watch, and when he turned 21 his parents finally gave it to him to wear. Each time he glanced down, it told him something.
His grandfather was only 60 when he died, just as his linen business was really taking off. “That was a reminder to me, to kind of hustle whilst I’m young,” McBride says. “To try to make it and give life my best shot, because you never know when your day’s up. It’s all about appreciating the moment and the now.”
More Than Australian Fashion Accessories
The name came first.
Over the phone with van Riel in New York, McBride offered a few suggestions for what this watch business could be called. None of them took until van Riel, who happened to be on the iconic Manhattan Avenue, wondered, “What about ‘The 5TH’?”
Next came the brand. When McBride was younger, moving third-party products through his home design blog, he found it difficult to truly reach his shopping audience without a brand message to call his own.
But with The 5TH, he and van Riel saw clearly what this company was trying to be and what it was trying to say. Watches to them meant time well spent, about a brand that stood for savoring life and cherishing its slower moments.
It was all about people enjoying their journey, or doing whatever time well spent was to them,” McBride says. “As long as you’re happy doing what you’re doing, then that’s good.
Armed with a core ethos, the pair began to embody it themselves. They decided that The 5TH would not rush to market, no matter that McBride had allowed himself just six months to bring this brand to life.
As they developed and designed a line of statement watches that would be its foundation, the company partnered with Shopify Plus to run its backend and handle ecommerce operations. Then, McBride and van Riel set out to build an online following, finding potential customers first before any products would actually be for sale.
The 5TH’s message connected in a way McBride might not have comprehended it would. By early December – the 5th, that is – the company announced to its 70,000 Instagram followers that it was open for business.
All that happened next was total pandemonium.
International Ecommerce: ‘Now What?’
On the very day it began official business, The 5TH sold more than $100,000 worth of its watches – clean, classic timepieces that young shoppers went crazy for. It was a remarkable debut, certainly uncommon for an Australian fashion accessory start-up, and affirmation that what McBride and van Riel believed was striking a chord.
But $100,000 worth of watches also happened to be every watch The 5TH had. The company was completely wiped of inventory in a single day, and it would be another two months before new stock could arrive.
“Honestly, I was very green at that stage. At that point, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. This is awesome.’ But it’s also … ‘Now what am I going to do?’” McBride says. “I thought it was almost over then. I was thinking, ‘Oh, cool. Maybe I’ll just go back into this job that I’ve set up, and I’ve made a bit of money in the meantime.’”
Property development was waiting for him. But in the end, the rush was too great to pass up. McBride doubled down on The 5TH, investing what he’d earned in more inventory to see just what this brand could do.
The stock management crisis, in fact, led to a bit of ingenuity: to appease a rabid customer base that longed for more of its product, The 5TH began accepting pre-sale orders, but only for five days each month (there’s that number again.)
It was a way to stem orders just long enough that supply could catch up, yet in this deployment a funny thing happened. Suddenly, because The 5TH’s watches were so limited and hard to find, they took on the unmistakable air of exclusivity. Consumers clamored for them. They couldn’t believe these things were only $150 USD or less.
“We’re not out to make huge money on every sale,” McBride says. “Everything we do, we want it to look high-end. We want it to feel high-end. We want it to last a long time. We’re exclusive in the sense that it’s been hard to get our products sometimes, but we want the brand to be inclusive. We just want to keep that price point as low and as inclusive as possible.”
Over the following year, no longer selling only five days per month, The 5TH made nearly $10 million in sales. On Dec. 5, 2015, its first anniversary of business, more than $1 million in revenue poured in on that day alone.
‘I Think He’d Be Proud’
McBride had on his hands a hit company, a brand powerhouse that connects now with more than 700,000 followers across Instagram and Facebook. The 5TH has since added sunglasses and bags alongside its signature watch collection.
It has also mastered the art of global ecommerce.
“We ship around the world from Melbourne, but we had to connect better with our international audiences,” McBride says. “Working with Shopify allowed us to do that so seamlessly and so easily. Everything was managed so effectively on the backend that now we have four Shopify stores for each of our regions that we have the most business in.”
What’s next has McBride abuzz.
After pop-up shops in places like New York City, where this breakneck ecommerce brand got to slow down, go offline, and meet its customers IRL, something new is brewing.
So much of The 5TH’s early success stood tall because of scarcity, the feeling of exclusivity that his company’s products brought with them. More limited edition products are coming, and here is where McBride will really stretch his design legs.
The 5TH is considering partnerships with all kinds of creatives and collaborators. What may come could be a chair, as crafted by a handpicked furniture designer, or a homewares pack that might feature also a stool, or maybe a wall clock, McBride says.
It’s all still very hush-hush, and perhaps, if all goes well, you shouldn't expect inventory to last. (More details will come on May 5. That’s the fifth day, of the fifth mon- … You get it now, don’t you?)
The 5TH has become a global company, but at its heart, it is still a family company. It grew outward from McBride and van Riel, brothers and cousins making up most of the business’ in-house staff.
There you’ll find a point of pride for this brand’s co-founder. Family was such a part of McBride’s grandparents’ linen outfit that his uncle now runs the company. There are hallmarks to be found of McBride’s grandfather all over The 5TH.
“I’m told that I have a lot of similar qualities to him that have been passed down,” he says. “It’s kind of nice to hear people say that, because I’ve looked up to him in so many ways.
“I think,” McBride says, “my grandfather would be proud.”
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