Bootstrapping a business can be scary. You're playing with your own money after all. But many successful businesses are born this way without any help from external capital.
Take Hunter Molzen for example, the founder of Barbell Apparel, a store that sells premium denim, chinos, and shorts engineered for performance with a tailored athletic fit.
On this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn how he completely bootstrapped a business that has now sold 40,000 pairs of pants.
- Why you should manufacture locally first and then outsource overseas.
- The foundations companies should build when you’re just starting out.
- How to keep in contact with your customers after your Kickstarter campaign ends.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
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Felix: Today I’m joined by Hunter Molzen from BarbellApparel.com as B-A-R-B-E-L-L A-P-P-A-R-E-L.com. Barbell Apparel sells premium denim chinos and shorts engineered for performers with a tailored athletic fit and their redefining clothing for athletic body types. It was started in 2014 and based out of Las Vegas, Nevada. Welcome Hunter.
Hunter: Thanks for having us on Felix.
Felix: Yeah, excited to have you on. Tell us a little bit more about your business, and I know you sell a bunch of different products, but give us an idea of some of the more popular lines that you carry.
Hunter: We launched with our flagship denim and that’s still our most popular skew. After that we branched out into some chinos, shorts, performance tee’s and some other stuff. It all revolves around the same basic idea of premium casual wear built to fit athletic body types and perform to the standard people who have outdoor hobbies or workout a lot, the standard they’ve come to expect from athletic gear.
Felix: Cool, did you have a background in apparel? What were you doing before starting this business?
Hunter: I actually didn’t have a background in apparel. It was just an idea we had working out in the gym one day. We all do a lot of weight lifting and cycling and other stuff that’s made our legs pretty big. We could never find anything that fit so we decided, “Hey, I bet you there’s a lot of people that have this problem.” We decided just to start with the biggest offender which is denim and make a product that was tailored to fit athletically built legs. It just went from there. Through several rounds of prototyping we figured out the ropes of apparel design and just continued the learning process since then.
Felix: Very cool. What were you doing at that time? Did you have a job at the time? What was your life like while you were launching this business?
Hunter: Yeah, this isn’t my first venture into e-commerce. Before Barbell Apparel we sold weight lifting equipment via e-commerce. It was a really interesting thing to cut our teeth on because it’s one of the heaviest and most difficult things to ship around the country. It was a great learning experience.
Felix: Very cool. What happened to that business? Were you still running it at the time that you were launching Barbell Apparel or did you close it down in between?
Hunter: Yeah, we were still running that full time as we launched Barbell Apparel. Originally we didn’t know exactly how big the Barbell Apparel idea would be, so we launched it on the side just to see what market reception and stuff would be. During the first Kickstarter we made the decision to shut down the former company because demand was so high for the new products we were releasing through Barbell Apparel.
Felix: Interesting yeah. This is a common theme with entrepreneurs where it’s always idea, idea, idea, and always being dragged or being, I guess, taunted into a specific direction to try new businesses, try and launch new businesses. Were you ever worried about spreading yourself too thin by launching this other business? Why not double down on a business that was already running rather than starting something brand new?
Hunter: That’s definitely a great point. I think with a measured approach there’s always enough time to try something new and ours is probably a rare case because our launch was so massively successful. In 40 days on Kickstarter we made money than our previous business had done in the last year and a half. We decided to just run with it. I think for other people it never hurts to launch something small on the side and then as it either gains traction or your previous business slows down or whatever, readjust your priorities and take it from there.
Felix: Yeah, I think this is a similar approach that you can take too if you don’t have a separate business but you have a day job for example, is to start something on the side and see what happens, see what takes off. I guess to a point where it makes sense for you to close down company or quit your day job then definitely it’s a much safer, I guess, route to starting a business.
This process though of shutting down a business, I think it’s a really hard decision for a lot of people. I’m sure it was a hard decision for you too even though you had a much bigger opportunity ahead of you. Something that you spent, it sounded like a year and a half on and it was … I’m not sure the actual numbers behind all of it but it sounded like it was an actual business that was humming, what was that process like to shut down a business?
Hunter: To be fair the landscape in that business was becoming increasingly competitive and exercise equipment’s pretty much a straight commodity. With the chance to do something branded and unique, we were all a lot more excited about that. We just continued to sell off our existing inventory and just not replenish it. That’s how we phased out of the previous business.
Felix: Okay, makes sense. You said before that you had no apparel experience previously and I think this is another common, not necessarily a issue but a fear that other entrepreneurs have, which is that they want to get into a specific industry but they have zero experience in it. What was your experience like to learn and I guess to understand an industry that you had no prior experience in?
Hunter: Yeah, definitely. With anything, if you have a great idea there’s experts out there that are already vastly versed in the industry you’re trying to break into. Quite often connecting with them is as simple as Googling or searching expert in X industry. For us we looked for an expert in fashion, an expert in patterning, or clothing manufacturing. Through that we were able to connect with quite a few people that really took us under their wing and showed us the ropes in those early days. I like to think since then we’ve become pretty well versed in our own right. We still have experts that we outsource more technical things to that help us develop new and exciting stuff.
Felix: Yeah, I think when you do take this approach of hiring someone that’s essentially smarter than you in a specific area because they have that industry experience, it can certainly cut down the learning curve. The issue I think early on is that because you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know who’s actually an expert and who’s not. How do you work through that? How do you figure out that this person’s legit versus someone that’s just trying to take my money and not give me enough, same value in return?
Hunter: Yeah, definitely. I think there’s no harm in asking for references and viewing their previous body of work within the industry you’re going after and seeing if it’s stuff you resonate with or stuff of high quality. Then it’s always good to go with your instincts, meet with a person, talk with them. If you can meet face to face that’s a great way to do it but a phone call is suffice if you can’t, and just see what their all about and if it’s someone you’d enjoy working with. Quite honestly anyone that’s really knowledgeable or even kind of deep into an industry isn’t going to try to grab your money and run.
We started off manufacturing locally. That gave us a great opportunity to make sure who we were working with was legit. Even if you were going to go overseas, there’s third party firms you can hire to audit a manufacturer or any sort of thing like that to where you can really do your homework and make sure you’re not going to get yourself into a bad situation with your manufacturer.
Felix: Was the goal to start locally just so that you can get a feel for, I guess take a safer route in even though the margins were not going to be as good? To start locally so you can learn and actually be able to be face to face, maybe walk into the factories and then eventually go overseas or find places with better margins?
Hunter: Yeah I think for us it was really important. We hadn’t done anything as hands on and technical as denim and chinos and selecting these premium fabrics. For us it was a really cool exciting time to be able to go to the factory and touch the fabrics and figure out new ways to do things and really make a product that was a bar above the rest. Through those experiences I think we’ve been able to take a lot of that and just amplify it into our new products.
Felix: What was the design process like when you were going through this? What kind of experts did you have to hire? I know you said that you went through several rounds of prototypes, tell us a little bit about the process of designing apparel?
Hunter: The proper way to do it is to have a pattern maker who’ll make you a pattern and tech packs and all sorts of things that she’ll send off to your manufacturer and they’ll make things exactly to specification. We definitely didn’t start that glamorously. I think we all spend a lot of time in various [inaudible 00:10:04] gyms, crossfit, normal gyms, and be cycling all sorts of things like that. We would just take our friends and the guys that had the problem, they were like the case study for our customer. We just measured them ourselves, wrote them down on paper, threw it into a spreadsheet, and then sent it off to our original manufacturer. He was willing to work the magic on his end and make it work for however his guys needed it to.
I think you’ll find a lot of grace with manufacturers and sorts of thing and being willing to work with someone new and being able to step outside their normal process to give you a hand in getting involved.
Felix: How many iterations did you have to go through during this process?
Hunter: Quite a few. I think we started iterating in summer of 2013. We iterated all the way up until our launch in March of 2014. We probably did a couple dozen iterations. We kept it all to a few sizes so we didn’t have huge sample fees or anything like that. We were not starting this company with large amounts of investment or anything. I think we bootstrapped it all out of our own paychecks and then let Kickstarter do the rest. I think you could definitely get it down with a dozen or less samples as long as your diligent and noting what’s wrong and what you need to change and making sure the next sample you get is significantly closer to your vision.
Felix: Yeah, I think it’s sometimes when we look at these [assestors 00:11:38] we don’t look at all of the … I want to call these failures but we don’t look at all of the rejections along the way when you get back a sample from the manufacturer. You get it out to your beta testers and it’s not exactly what you’re looking for. You go through all these iterations, what was that like to you? Did you ever in some way feel after then tenth iteration, you’re like, “This is not getting us any closer, we’ve done ten of these already.” Did you ever feel discourage along the way?
Hunter: Oh man, definitely yeah. We knew we had a great base product but certain things were just not right. I think at a certain point you just have to make sure it is good enough to get started and make sure that you have a plan for taking care of the customers that put faith in you while you’re starting out. Even up to the Kickstarter, the samples we used in our videos and materials ended up being quite a bit different from the samples we delivered. There’s always time to make adjustments and change things.
Even with Kickstarter, your backers will tend to be very understanding if you’re like, “Hey, there’s a delay. We’re tweaking something, we want to make sure it’s just right for you guys.” As long as you stay all [inaudible 00:12:52] and true to the original idea, there’s no need to let fear of the actual end product paralyze you.
Felix: Yeah. This thing you said about how it just needs to be good enough to get started, can you say a little bit more about that? How did you know when … Obviously after six, ten, I think you said about a dozen iterations you hit something where you’re like, “Okay, this is good enough to go with,” what were you looking for to make that determination that the twelfth iteration is better than the sixth or eighth?
Hunter: For us it was pretty easy. We’re making jeans for guys and girls that could never wear them, myself included. When I got a sample that I was like, “I’m going to wear this everyday because it’s working so well for me,” that’s when I knew we had a product that would resonate with a lot of people.
Felix: Makes sense. When you got the products back during all of these iterations, were you just getting them out to your friends, how did you test this other than just on yourself that the product was in a good state, again like you were saying, good enough to get started?
Hunter: Yeah, our customers are pretty demanding on our products. They’re doing a lot of crazy stuff. We have guys that rock climb in them and do tight rope walking and gymnastics and all sorts of crazy stuff. We really just give them to people like that and said, “Wear these everyday, put them through the ringer so we can make sure they stand up to your demands and that they last.” Once we had our product that was fitting those criteria we felt confident in moving forward. I will say it’s tempting to get caught up on the minute details like, “Oh, this label isn’t right or the stitching color’s a little off,” but those things can all be iterated moving forward.
What you really want is a core product that stands up to your customer’s demand and meets their quality expectations. Little things like the small details like the rivets and buttons or whatever it is in your specific product can get changed all the time but you just want to make sure you’re delivering something that your customer’s going to use and love.
Felix: Yeah, sounds like what you’re getting at is that you have to at least nail the core value of your product. In your case it sounded like just jeans that could fit these athletic people. All the other minute details that you’re saying were not part of, I guess, the initial core value so those could be, not necessarily ignored, but you shouldn’t focused on getting those perfect right off the bat.
Did you have a formal feedback process while you’re doing this? When you’re bootstrapping, like when you guys were bootstrapping, the last thing you want to do is give out a bunch of products for people to try out and then you’re not getting any feedback from them, it’s just [inaudible 00:15:35] silence from them and you have to hunt them down and get feedback. It slows things down and also obviously cost you money because you’re producing all of this, all these samples. How were you able to get the feedback that you needed in order to continue iterating the product to a state where it was good enough to go out?
Hunter: Luckily for us a lot of the people we were able to give our stuff out to were friends and family and people we knew really well. They were never much farther than a phone call away. I just made sure to check with them every one or two weeks while we were sampling and see if they had any feedback or ideas or things they wanted to do to make it better.
Even if you had to go a little further out to find your target customer, you’re giving something for free and people love to be a part of something. Getting a phone number and following up with texts or call, I don’t think anyone’s going to have a problem with that. I think that that’s a great way to get feedback and validate a product early on.
Felix: Do you remember how many beta testers or initial friends and family that you had your product out to? How many did you work with?
Hunter: Between ten and twenty. Some crazy athletes as far away as the east coast that were trying stuff out. No one had any issues leaving me feedback and letting me know how it was living up to their standards and the way they want it to be. At the end of the day if you’re filling a void and creating something for people that are under served and don’t have what they want, people are going to be really hiked about it and going to be stoked about being part of something that’s built for them.
Felix: Did you feel that that ten and twenty number was good, did you feel like you wanted more users initially? Also, how do you find the correct users at first? It sounds like you were going … You at least had some extreme, almost edge case users, people that were rock climbing which I’m assuming is not going to be the majority of your market. How do you get that right balance of types of users of your product to test it at initial phases?
Hunter: Our philosophy was if it works for the fringes it’ll definitely work for the average guys. If I can get a guy that’s scaling hundreds of feet of cliff or a guy that’s squatting 600 pounds and it’s working out for him, the guy that’s just your average gym goer and just wants jeans that fit him, make his body look good, and keep him comfortable throughout the day is going to be more than satisfied. If it’s working for the extremes it’s going to last that much longer for the average guy. That was the crux of our design philosophy. It worked out really well for us.
Felix: I think that makes sense. I’m assuming it will probably carry over well to a lot of the industries too that as long as the most extreme cases can beat it up and still get the value out of it and it’s still durable enough, then it should work for the average person. To the other question, did you feel like ten and twenty was good enough? Did you feel like you could’ve done with less? You feel like you could’ve done with more?
Hunter: I definitely think more would have been better. At a certain point you’re limited by time and capital and things like that. I think it was a good spot for us. You don’t need to validate your product physically with every one of your customers. I think this is a crucial part of founding a new company or a new idea that a lot of people put off or don’t even think about. Social media these days is a great way to meet your customers where their at. For us, we’re like, “Who’s are customers?” People that work out, people that stay active, they run, they’re into action sports, they do crossfit.
We went onto Facebook and Instagram, set up just a launch page website that had a basic mission statement and a picture and started meeting the people where they were at and saying, “Hey, this is what we’re doing. Is this something you’re into? Is this something you need?” People really responded well to that. A lot of that early social media traction is what allowed us to have a successful Kickstarter launch and feel confident in putting our idea forward.
Felix: Yeah, I like that idea of meeting people where they’re at, so you don’t have to meet people in person to validate. I think one of the concerns is that what people say isn’t always exactly what they’ll do. They might say they like something but when it comes down to putting their hard earned dollars down for, it’s a big jump still, right? Did you ever experience that? Maybe not necessarily with that but where you hearing things from people on social media that then doesn’t translate to them actually putting their dollars down for a particular feature or for particular product line?
Hunter: Definitely. You’re always going to have price resistance, especially as a niche company. Our products are priced in the mid to high tier [had 00:20:43] it’s just a reflection of the higher level of quality and engineering that goes into the fabrics. The fabrics and the construction and all of that. There’s a certain amount of people that just shop price based. The truth is you’re never going to be able to steal those customers away from the giants in the industry that have just insane pricing because of tons of volume and tons of market penetration.
For us it’s not something we worry about. There’s a lot of people out there that need what we’re serving. For us the important thing is connecting with those people and not just building a product that they resonate with but building a team and a message that connects with them. I think if you do that you’ll find a large amount of carry over from your social media efforts to the actual results on your store or your Kickstarter campaign or whatever venue it is you are selling your products through.
Felix: Makes sense. Let’s talk about the Kickstarter campaign. You’ve had two campaigns, we’ll start with the first one which was for the functional denim Kickstarter campaign. You only had a goal of 15,000 dollars, ended up raising almost three quarters of a million. 735,794 dollars from 5,288. Obviously blew your goal out. Maybe we’ll start with the goal, the 15,000 dollars, what were your plans with that money?
i seaHunter: We honestly just wanted to get enough money to meet our factory minimums and have enough money left over to fulfill it. That’s where the goal amount came from. We felt pretty dang confident that with that goal and the footwork we had done prior to launching the campaign on social media then we would hit that goal. We had no idea that the campaign would be such a big success. To see all that happen in real time was awesome, it blew us away.
Felix: Yeah, obviously you exceeded that goal but if you were to just hit that goal of 15,000 dollars just for the factory minimums, moving forward obviously you did launch a second campaign but when you look back on it, did you feel like that’s a good way to set a goal? Would you feel like you should have gone for more? Is just meeting the factory minimum, and this is for anyone out there that’s thinking about starting a Kickstarter campaign, is just raising enough to reach the minimum order quantity for the factory. Is that a good goal to set?
Hunter: You’re going to have to trust your instincts a little bit. You want enough to buy the inventory you need to fulfill the Kickstarter, ship it to the customer, and then buy enough more to keep running the business and hopefully bootstrap it from there. I do think a pitfall a lot of people can fall into is pricing just enough to send the product that the Kickstarter backers have ordered, ship it to them and boom you’re out of cash. Now how do run a business? You need to make sure that you’re [price 00:23:52] enough leftover to order what you need and have more to continue to run operations. After that it’s just your tolerance for what you want to do.
For us, we were happy to sell a few hundred pairs of jeans to people that were stoked on the idea, get it to them, buy a few more, throw it in the warehouse, and continue to run the business. If only want to do something bigger then you can set your goal higher but I think for a lot of entrepreneurs and inventors that this is the way they’re going to start a company, they really just want to get it off the ground and deliver the product to the customers and start a business and then bootstrap it from there.
Felix: You’re basically saying that you don’t want to use Kickstarter just as a sales channel, just as a store. You really do want to use it as a way to build start up capital to kick off a business, you can’t just raise enough just to ship out products, like you’re saying run out of cash and then you have go back and raise money again, which is going to slow things down a ton.
Hunter: Yeah, definitely. That’ll slow things down a lot. This really only applies if you’re founding your company through Kickstarter. If you’re launching a secondary product line and you already have an established business, you can obviously be quite a bit more flexible.
Felix: Makes sense. Obviously we want to know how you’re able to do this so quickly, raise this kind of money. What kind of preparation did you do before launching the Kickstarter campaign?
Hunter: We started probably in November of 2013, as soon as we had a sample we were moderately happy with. Taking photos, spreading the word, and just, like I said earlier, meeting the customers, where they were at on social media, and drumming up some excitement and some reach to launch our campaign in March. It was several months of legwork beforehand to be able to build that foundation. I think it was probably the biggest reason we were able to have such a successful campaign. There was a few components that went into making the campaign such a huge success but we launched the Kickstarter on March 21st. Our goal was 15,000 dollars. We hit that goal in 45 minutes and I think it as within the first two days we had surpassed 80,000 dollars all on our own. This was before we had any press coverage. This was back when Kickstarter was quite a bit smaller and it’s notoriety too. You didn’t have Kickstarters doing millions and millions of dollars back then.
I think a lot of that just early market validation and building that early community around it was the big crux of getting the campaign successfully funded. A Kickstarter also needs to reach this point of critical mass where people can look at it and say, “I feel comfortable putting my money into this because other people are believing what these guys are doing. It looks like it’s something that’s actually going to be successful.”
Felix: Yeah, that makes sense. That kind of social proof goes a long way that a lot of people will be happy to be early adopters and put in money when the campaign isn’t backed yet. There are a lot of people, I think me included, are hesitant to put money on Kickstarter or any kind of crowd funding until it’s hit it’s goal and we know that this is much more of a guaranteed thing. I think that that’s important that you say that there’s different stages of a Kickstarter campaign that attracts different types of backers. People that are much more, I guess, risky and people that are less risk adverse and want to wait until there’s a little more social proof.
Once the ball got rolling with this traction, how did you bolster it from 80,000 to three quarters of a million? Still a big jump, what helped you go from 80,000 to three quarters of a million? What kind of promotion did you guys do?
Hunter: It was all our own honestly. A lot of people think you need a marketing expert of a PR firm or something like that. I just found journalists in publications I thought would be into what we were doing that covered either crowd funding or fashion, just something at least related to what we were doing. I tracked down an email and I wrote them. I’d wrote hundreds of them. I stayed up all day and all night just writing journalist after journalist after journalist. Out of those hundreds I probably got one or two that actually replied to me. One decided to pick us up and write about us in Fast Company. That was the beginning of all of it. Once that article got published it was a lot easier to get other journalists to get in touch with me. It just snowballed from there.
Felix: Yeah, this whole thing about social proof again. Once someone sticks their neck out there and is ready to [inaudible 00:28:58] what you guys are doing but at least cover then it’s going to be easier for a lot of other press outlets to do the same. How did you pitch these PR publications? Did you just come to them and say, “Hey, this is my Kickstarter campaign,” what really worked for you to get them to pay attention and eventually cover your campaign?
Hunter: Yeah, with any expert or someone of influence you’re trying to get in touch with, you have to keep in mind these guys are getting slammed all day by people saying, “Look at me, cover what I’m doing.” You don’t want to be that guy, whether you’re trying to reach out to someone in manufacturing or journalism or whatever. They’re so often just bombarded with requests that I think just acting like a real person and taking some time to get to know them before you email them and look at what they do, look at what they cover, look at what they’re into. Then relate to them on a level that they understand and sympathize with will give you a lot higher success rate.
For us, I just spent time finding journalists that actually covered what we were about, whether it was fitness or fashion or crowd funding. Then I read articles they had written and said, “What does this guy like? How can I relate to him? What do we have in common?” Then when I reached out to him, I tailored the email around that and tried to establish some common ground and present myself as someone they’d want to talk to.
Felix: That makes sense. The second campaign that you launch which was called, “The Greatest Pants And Shorts Ever Made,” love that title, had a goal of 40,000 dollars and this one raised 179,000 dollars from about 1,000 backers. What was different about this campaign? What was the goal of this particular campaign compared to the first one, where the first one was to launch your entire business but the second one looks like it came about a year or so afterwards? I’m assuming that business was humming along already at that point, why return to Kickstarter?
Hunter: I think a lot of people might not return to Kickstarter for a second time and we didn’t need the capital but we really enjoyed the Kickstarter process the first time of using it as a medium to introducing your product line. It’s something that’s really difficult to replicate on a website where you have a store and a video and people feel comfortable sinking in ten, fifteen minutes to get to know this new product and get to know this new idea. No one is spending that much time on a clothing page on a retail website. We just really were into the process of creating a story behind the new product launch and that’s why it went back to Kickstarter. With that campaign most of the backers were previous customers of ours. We didn’t get a lot of media coverage or anything that time. For us it was just a way to create a cool and new exciting story to the customers we did have. Then bringing a few new customers [inaudible 00:32:03] second hand.
Felix: Yeah, I never thought about that, what you’re saying about how people are much more willing to spend the time, give you their attention on Kickstarter rather than just a storefront. I think it has a lot to do with the, almost the state of mind that people come into a website and there their intentions. You come to Kickstarter not because you’re necessarily shopping around but you’re almost looking for entertainment, something to create. You’re trying to find these new products and it’s interesting when there’s a new product that you haven’t heard of before. When it comes to a store, I don’t know, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure what the magic it is about Kickstarter but now that you mention it, it does make a lot of sense that it’s a lot easier to introduce a product, a lot easier to hold someone’s attention for a long time on Kickstarter versus just a product page like you’re saying. I think that that definitely an interesting angle for using Kickstarter. Not just to fund raise but to introduce a new product.
Now that you’ve had two Kickstarter campaigns under your belt, what did you change between those two campaigns? What did you learn from the first campaign that you said, I guess two part question, that you said, “We definitely have to do this next time,” and what would you say we should remove for the next campaign?
Hunter: Most of the things we decided to change with the campaign happen on the production side so that fulfillment and production stuff was a lot quicker and a lot smoother. As far as the nuts and bolts of the campaign and the [creatives 00:33:30] and the videos, we kept a lot of that the same. When we were really happy with how it worked both times. There’s definitely a big learning experience in actually fulfilling 9,000 pairs of pants that we did on the first Kickstarter that we were able to carry over to the second one and make the whole delivery and manufacturing process a lot smoother.
Felix: Yeah, when you guys did raise that initial 736,000 dollars, were you guys looking at each other excited or freaking out because now there’s much much bigger business than you guys had probably imagined when you were starting this out?
Hunter: Yeah, definitely. It’s impossible not to be excited when people are that excited about an idea you’re putting forth. We were also pretty terrified. We expected to make a few hundred, maybe 1,000 pairs of jeans. I think by the time it was all said and done between all the different back room levels and stuff we ended up selling somewhere over 9,000. We had no idea how we were going to make all of those jeans and fulfill them within the time frame we had estimated. We didn’t, we missed our time frame by quite a few months.
We just made it a point to stay honest with the backers during the time and just say, “Look, we had no idea that we were going to raise 4,000 more time than our goal or whatever it was. Please excuse the time it takes us to get all this worked out. We’re working on it, because of the funding level you’re going to get a better product that’s more refined and has more detail going into it. When you do get it we know you’re going to love it. Just thank you for your support and thank you for your patience. We’re doing everything we can to get this to you as quickly as possible.”
Felix: Yeah that kind of transparency communication is definitely something I’ve heard time and time again from successful Kickstarter campaigns that have had to deal with delays. Which I think is pretty common with Kickstarter campaigns. You mentioned earlier on the podcast that the end product was a bit different than what was initially on the Kickstarter campaign. I’m assuming this was for the first product. What was different and how did you know that it would be okay to provide a product that was different than what was advertised?
Hunter: We got samples during production to make sure that they looked up to our previous standard and everything. From all the testing we did before, we already had the materials and the metals and the stitching and everything we knew needed to be the nuts and bolts of it. From there with the success of the Kickstarter, it just allowed us to go and really brush up on the finer details, like the stuff I said wasn’t critical before but is nice to have. Like the labels and the details on the rivets and things like that. Just the nice finishing touches that take it from, “Hey, I got this proof of concept on Kickstarter,” to, “I got this finished, polished product on Kickstarter.” We were really excited to be able to do that.
Felix: Yeah, sounds like all kind of enhancements not things that you guys are taking away. I think that helps your cause. With such a big order, you said 9,000, I guess backers essentially and 9,000 customers, I’m assuming you had to learn fulfillment and manufacturing at scale very fast and get it all set up very fast. What was that process like? How did you guys learn? How did you guys get all set up and going? You said you missed the goal day, delivery day by a couple months but I think that’s still very reasonable. I’m assuming you still had to rush and figure out everything very quickly. Tell us about that process, the time right after the Kickstarter campaign?
Hunter: Again, it goes back to what I was saying earlier about finding experts and things that you are not an expert in. We knew we were going to have 5,000 plus packages to send out. We found a third party ware house that was experienced in dealing with volume and could get 9,000 pairs of jeans and pack them into 5,000 packages and send them out within a reasonable time frame. If we had attempted to do that ourselves, it would have been a mess and it would of taken forever. I think it was definitely one of the smarter things we decided to do in getting the help of someone else who was an expert in doing that so that we could, once we got the product, fulfill it within a reasonable time frame.
Felix: We saw that there’s 5,288 backers for that first campaign but you said when it was all said and done with there was 9,000 pairs shipped. Were people ordering this product or pre-ordering it outside of Kickstarter? How was that set up?
Hunter: They were. That wasn’t part of that figure though. A lot of that was just package tiers that were from multiple pairs. To add on what I was saying, after the Kickstarter I think a lot of people will just go dark with their projects and just say, “Okay, we’re working on making everything now,” and they’ll lose all of that momentum that they worked on building through Kickstarter. We decided we didn’t want to do that. As soon as the Kickstarter went down, these days it’s pretty popular to just move over to Indigogo and keep going. For us, we just launched the store front on Shopify.
I signed up for a Shopify account, built a quick storefront and it was nothing super impressive or pretty back then. As soon as the Kickstarter went down we threw up our website and started pushing all the traffic that was still coming in even though the Kickstarter deadline had ended to the website. We continued to take pre-orders on there.
Felix: Very cool. I think that’s an important point about not going dark. It’s also almost trying to catch lightening in a bottle, once you have it don’t just let it go when you have all this buzz and have all this attention on you. Especially through coming to the Kickstarter page and they’re finding out about it, you don’t want them to just hit a dead end and find out that it’s too late for them to order. You want to give them the opportunity to do so. It sounded like you guys did just that.
One thing that you mentioned during some of the pre-interview questions was about your experience in foundation building, especially with founding a company, about finding company early on. Tell us a little bit more about that. What does it mean when you say foundation building?
Hunter: I think there’s a few components to that. One of the most important things with turning something like a Kickstarter into a business is at some point you’re going to have to sit down and say, “We launched a product on Kickstarter and it was something people liked. It was something people wanted but very few businesses are just one product.” We sat down and we decided people are resonating with something about this, what is the core value or the essence of what they like about us and how can we turn that into something that’s not just jeans but is a company that serves this need? Building that early foundation and mission statement allowed us to turn in what was a product into a business and is now a line of things for customers to buy and really helped us focus our efforts and our goals on achieving that mission.
Felix: I think there’s an important point to definitely think, like you’re saying, don’t put yourself in a corner and actually be able to set up a runway for you to expand your brand to be able to grow in and get into different markets, different product lines. I think maybe an issue though is that some entrepreneurs will spend too much time thinking about that early on and think about this grand scheme even before initial launch. For your case, did you guys have all this laid out before your first product, before that Kickstarter campaign or is this something that you started to figure out after a successful launch of just one product?
Hunter: Yeah because it wasn’t our first venture as entrepreneurs, we already knew that things never work out in real life as they do in your head. We learned a long time ago that you just got to throw it out there and then roll with the punches and change as your customers demand or as the market demand or whatever. We didn’t have a grand scheme of how this company was going to take shape. We just knew that we had an idea we liked and that people around us liked. We decided to start with that and as it built momentum, we went from there. I think a lot of people would benefit from taking the same approach. You don’t have to have this giant plan for how you’re going to conquer the world and get huge amounts of market share with this idea and build an empire.
All it takes is a spark and something you’re willing to invest in and something that people resonate with. Out of that, a ton of opportunity will com. You’ll find out a lot of things your customers need that you didn’t know and that you can make and that people will love. For us, it was just being able to get in front of those people and being able to talk with them and being able to be in a position where we could get their feedback and get their demands and make something that they were really excited about.
Felix: Yeah I think that’s a really good point, that you have to have a product out there. You have to have customers before you’re actually in the game. Once you’re in the game then you can actually adapt, like you’re saying, and roll with the punches and as you figure out. When you don’t have any customers, you have no one that you are able to contact or that you’re able to get feedback from, you’re still running around blind. It’s not a good idea, I don’t think, to plan too far ahead when you don’t have this kind of feedback system set up that you would have set up when you have customers and have a product out there already.
Are there any early foundational things, foundational elements to the companies that you’ve built that you think back and say, “I wish I spent more time on this,” because now it’s biting you in the butt because you didn’t spend more time on it?
Hunter: There’s a laundry list of things I could go over that I wish I had done differently back when we first started the company and I’m sure that’s going to be the same for almost anyone. A few key things, get ways to stay in touch with your customers from right off the bat. We didn’t start collecting … We collected emails through social media before we launched our Kickstarter campaign by hand and all sorts of crazy ways, just anyway we could do to get them in a data base. After we launched the website, we didn’t invest heavily into technology or software to automate that. We probably missed out on, I don’t even want to think about it, thousands of emails that customers would have happily given us to stay in touch. We just weren’t aggressive enough about giving them a way to provide that to us.
Just little things like that. Things that are easy to automate, email, staying in touch with your customers, setting up emails that say, “Thank you for your order,” and things like that. Just being able to touch base and show your customers you care about them and stuff like that that’s easy and scalable. I definitely recommend everyone do that right away.
Felix: Makes sense. Email marketing, like you’re saying, is something that you wish you had spent more time on. Is that the marketing channel that works best for you today? What kind of marketing channels do you focus on these days?
Hunter: I think our core customer is the athletic guy or girl that’s into whatever their hobby is, being outdoors, lifting weights, and being active. Those kind of people are everywhere. I think it’s reflected in our traffic sources. Direct traffic for us, social media, and search traffic are all pretty close. There’s no stand out magic bullet that’s where we get all our traffic from. We get it from everywhere. We invest a lot of time into all those channels and just being where people are searching for.
Especially for us as the inventors of a new niche, athletic casual wear or whatever you’d call it, there’s not keywords we’re optimizing for. All the keywords that bring us traffic are keywords we invented, athletic fit chinos, athletic fit jeans, barbell jeans, things like that. I think just making sure you take the time to put your company and your idea in the places where people are already spending time and they’re already looking is the best thing you can do to make sure that you’re generating the traffic and the interest you need to create a sustainable business.
Felix: Can you give us an idea of how successful the business is today?
Hunter: We’ve sold over 40,000 pairs of pants at this point. We’re pretty excited about that. We plan on keeping with that trend with a launch of quite a few new exciting products through this holiday season. We’re more than doubling in size every year. We’ve done it all on our own, bootstrapped and we’re really proud of that. I think it shows that with an idea and hard work and a willingness to listen to your customers that you can pretty much do anything which is pretty cool.
Felix: Awesome. What do you spend your day to day on today when you walk into the office, how do you spend your time?
Hunter: I do everything really. I think that a lot of business founders find themselves in this role where you’re just doing a ton of stuff. I do everything from the marketing to a lot of the management and business development and I even do inventory projections and some customer support. The way we built out our team is that when I found something was taking too much of my time or I was really just not that great at it, we would hire someone to fill that role that was really good at it or that could do it a lot quicker or a lot more efficiently than I could.
Felix: What do you wish you could spend all your time doing at the company?
Hunter: If I could focus on one thing, it would definitely be the business development and just making sure we were staying on the cutting edge of creating new products and creating new content that resonated with our customers and get them excited about what we’re doing. Luckily I have a team of some awesome people that help me with all of that. We’re able to stay on top of it. If I could focus on one thing, it would definitely be that.
Felix: Cool. Earlier you were talking about how you had wished you would spend more time investing in technologies that automate things, that are easy to set up, make your life easier once you have set up. What other apps or tools do you heavily rely on today to keep the business running?
Hunter: Inside of Shopify we don’t run a ton of apps but we definitely run pop ups to make sure that we give people an opportunity to give us their email. We have email direct campaigns that make sure that they stay in touch with the customers and maybe shore up some questions they may have about what our company does or give them new products to look at that they may not have seen. We have a lot of our advertising automated. I think re-marketing, there’s several companies that offer it, we use AdRoll and I love what they do over there. It’s a great component that’s very automated and can do a lot of work that would take you a long time to do on your own. Getting a referral program in place is awesome because it gives your customers something to share with their friends that they’re quite often excited about. It’s a great way to build a loyalty program around that because they can get incentivized to share, which is something they’d be doing anyways quite often. It’s a win win for everyone.
Felix: Which app do you use for that?
Hunter: We use Referral Candy on the Shopify platform. Getting an affiliate program up and running is a great way to do things. For us, we like to use a lot of social media influencers. We find a lot of real people that actually already own our product and like what we do and happen to have a big Instagram following or Facebook following or whatever it is because they’re an athlete or they excel in a specific domain. Then we just say, “Hey, we see you’re already into what we’re about, how would you feel about getting on our affiliate program,” and just incentivizing them to continue doing what they’re doing and giving them a reason to share with their following. We use Refersion for that. We use Zen Desk to help automate a lot of our support.
One of the things we pride ourselves in is that we do free shipping, free exchanges, free returns. If you ever have an issue with your order, when you write in you’re going to talk to a real person. Zen Desk helps us keep all of that really organized so that our customer support dudes can come in and keep track of their conversations and provide people with the service they need. That’s a really helpful one. Outside of that I think the Shopify platform itself is just super awesome. I’ve been involved in e-commerce for quite a while now before Shopify was really what it is today. Back then there was so much to worry about with just making sure your website stayed up and it wasn’t going to crash and staying on top of all your certificates and all these different things that Shopify itself just streamlines and makes it so you don’t even have to think about, so you can focus on the core aspect of running your business well and doing what it is you excel at. What the Shopify platform at it’s core does is invaluable in that regard.
Felix: Awesome. What do you have planned for the next year? What are some goals that you have for Barbell Apparel?
Hunter: We have a ton of new product launches coming through the holiday season that I think people are really going to be excited about. We have a new technical slack type pant that you could dress up and wear to work or wear out or you could go mountain biking in it. It’ll do whatever you throw at it which is awesome. We have some new fits in jeans for guys that even have bigger legs than our typical customer. Some new colors coming out and we’re really exciting with getting that stuff in front of our customers.
Outside of that we’re just going to continue doing the things that have made us successful so far. I think it’s tempting to feel like there’s some magic trick or giant hit that’ll make business successful or an overnight sensation but what I found through more than just this business and even the previous stuff we did is that those things will happen and they’ll come along every once in a while and it’s awesome. Some sort of big hit, like we got shouted out on Joe Rogan’s podcast completely to our surprise. He just happened upon our stuff and really liked it. That was awesome and we saw a big traffic spike and it was cool. It only lasts for a little while.
The truth is a successful business is just coming in everyday and working hard and amplifying the things you do that have brought you to the point you’re at. For us that’s providing the right product, providing great customer service, and building a brand and a product that’s real to the people that we identify with. Even my customer support guys are working out everyday and we have … Their workout time is programmed into their workday so they can make sure to get that done. As a team we go out mountain biking on the weekends and stuff so that when a customer writes in to get athletic gear, we’re our own customer too. I haven’t bought clothes in years. All I wear is our stuff. Just making sure you stay rooted in where you came from, rooted in what you’re