It was 2010, and Shane Vitaly Foran wasn’t looking to launch a brand. He was just looking to fund his next backpacking trip.
But launch a brand he did - and then another, and another.
Today, Shane is the CEO at Compound Studio, the parent company that oversees Vitaly, his flagship accessories brand, and the rock-and-roll jewelry lines Clocks and Colours and Etah Love that spun up afterward.
When he started Vitaly, Shane had the target hipster customer pictured in his head - in some ways, this was an image of himself. But that’s not who ended up buying his products. Accepting this fact was the company’s first step to success - and for the universe of brands that followed.
Bootstrapping all the way
Today, Shane has a valued mentor and is pursuing Series A funding to grow his brands. But when everything started, he and his partner were flying blind through each new hurdle and milestone.
In some ways, Shane thinks the road would have been smoother if they’d had someone to hold their hand from the get-go. But in other ways, the path of self-discovery that they traveled let to a clarity of confidence and vision that is otherwise impossible to come by.
“When we started this company, I had no background in fashion. I had no business being in, if at all. You know, I had some marketing background from university and from working at Red Bull, and my business partner was a professional poker player and a helicopter pilot. Like, neither of us had any clue what the hell we were doing. And that's just kind of been the case all the way through.
And you know, I do have a really amazing mentor now and I have for a handful of years now. But we never took investors. I put in $3,000 and then Jason put in $10,000, and we've bootstrapped to this year is probably about $50 million.”
And we never raised money, so we never really had anybody to hold our hand. We never really had anybody to tell us this is the right way. So we've just been making it up as we go the whole time. And we've probably suffered a lot because of that, but we probably have way thicker skin and we probably have unique strategies that have worked for us because of it.
From pop up parties to brick and mortar
Vitaly’s foray into retail started almost by accident. The company had been experimenting with apparel and had sample product to purge. The hard partying team figured that throwing a warehouse rager would allow them to have fun and sell leftover product at the same time. What started as a fun convenience soon turned into a booming business that took on a life of its own.
“So I wouldn't say we went right away [into retail]. We started in wholesale and online kind of in tandem, and those were growing. We never really thought about doing retail. We thought about doing pop-ups. So we started doing pop-ups probably in year three or four, just out of necessity. We needed to clear out our samples.
And we were like, okay, well, let's just throw these sample sale parties. And we loved throwing parties, still love throwing parties, but especially back then we were animals and it was just an excuse to throw these raging parties in a really cool space and make money while we did it.”
“So we did our first pop-up. It was super fun, in this crappy little space and it did well. So, you know, as we scaled we had more samples. We were like, well, why don't we do this bigger, but let's bring in some other brands and we can fill up the space better. We can benefit by the foot traffic they’ll bring.”
“And we kept doing that and we got to the point where our sample sales were doing so much business that we thought, if we did even half these numbers month over month, it would more than support brick and mortar locations. So there's probably something here.”
When focusing in leads to growing up
While the apparel pos side of Vitaly quickly gained momentum and popularity, Shane ultimately realized that it was holding them back. Requiring an excess of time, energy, and retail square footage, the team eventually reached the controversial conclusion that eliminating the apparel line was necessary. The tough call paid off in the form of a renewed vision.
“While we were building Vitaly we did a lot of different things, tried a lot of different things. Everything from, you know, we started in jewelry and that's still our core focus, but we ended up trying things like watches. We had a full apparel line for about four years, which actually was doing pretty well. But you know, it was that classic kind of 80-20 rule where it was taking up so much time and energy and the jewelry was still kind of what was really building us, what we were known for, etc.
So after I made the decision to pull the plug on apparel, which was a pretty contested decision, but you know, in the end was the right decision. And after I decided to pull the plug on wholesale, another big decision that people thought I was crazy for—although you know, there's for sure people internally on the team that were like, yeah, let's do this—but you know, after I made those two major, major decisions, the business started to really kind of skyrocket.”
“And all the wheels kind of started, you know, all the engines started firing properly. All the wheels were spinning fast. And what we found was even though we were doing so well and growing so quickly, we had a lot of extra bandwidth. And so we started thinking, what do we do with this bandwidth? And we realized that we had built a formula for really just building up brands in totally different universes.”
Breaking up is easy to do
The decision to phase apparel out was a difficult one, but the process of executing that phase out was surprisingly smooth. Shane and the Compound team landed on the brilliant strategy of negotiating temporary mall space when one of the retailers carrying the Vitaly line went bankrupt - leaving prime real estate available for short-term use. The temporary leases and support staff essentially let Vitaly hold a collection of simultaneous “pop ups,” purging all of their apparel so that they could start with a fresh slate.
“When we got rid of apparel that made things for retail really tricky, because we had these spaces that were four to five times bigger than what we actually needed.”
“What had happened is one of our retailers had gone bankrupt. And we knew that its footprint and store setup made sense for our own store. So we reached out to the malls that they were in and we said to them, look, 'You're going to need time to find somebody to replace them. In the meantime, why don't you give us that space?' And so we negotiated different deals with all of them. So it was temporary across the board. And it ended up being awesome for us. We got tons of exposure and it was super easy to set up and super easy to close down.”
“So those pop-ups ranged for anywhere from like four months to like, probably about 16 or 17 months. And I think people thought they were retail stores cause they looked good and they're set up well, etc., but they really weren't. They were just pop ups. So when we decided to get rid of apparel, we just used those locations to kind of blow out the apparel that we had. And then we just closed the pop-up and it was free because it was easy. There was no like lease we had to break. None of the staff thought they had full-time positions. They all understood it was a popup. It was just a clean breakup, you know?”
The benefits of ditching fashion
One of the most challenging elements of traditional fashion is the pressure to drop large new releases on a set schedule. The pressure cooker feeling can be twofold - not only are brands urged to drop large quantities of new product on a schedule, but consumers can feel forced to shop that way, too. By focusing on jewelry instead of clothing, Shane and his team can now introduce new pieces to consumers when the time is right for everyone, allowing each carefully crafted piece the stage time and consideration it deserves.
“The reason that most people are on that [seasonal fashion] schedule is because of wholesale, or because of apparel. And we're not apparel, you know, so we don't have to come up with a specific ring because it's winter. And in fact with jewelry, you're not really bringing out things seasonally. Like we bring out styles, and if they continue to sell, we continue to sell them. And when they start to scale off, we remove them.”
“So there's a whole bunch of reasons, but basically when we got out of wholesale, we were free in that respect. For our industry, we were able to start rolling out a new piece every week instead of 20 pieces all at once. And we love it. We love it for so many reasons.”
“For one thing, it doesn't put all this pressure on one moment in time. But it does the same thing for our consumer. You know, our customers are able to see each piece, give it a second to think about it, to decide if they like it, instead of all of a sudden seeing 20 pieces and try to quickly find their favorite thing and then forgetting about it for three months, right.
So it increases the engagement and improves our cashflow, and it improves our ability to manage inventory. There's just so many benefits to it. And it's had a huge impact for us.”
Building a storytelling brand
Shane believes that the success of his three brands comes from their ability to connect with consumers on a visceral level. By telling a story that speaks intimately to their target audience, they are able to market to an archetype rather than a buyer persona. For all three brands, this means they have the potential to span age, class, location, and even gender, in the case of Vitaly. Communication to customers is always appropriate, compelling, and authentic.
“I think if I was to teach a Marketing 101 class, I think the easiest way that I would describe starting a brand is forming an archetype. I think that that's kind of how we've always thought about it. And it doesn't have to be one.”
“Eventually you start to see that you may have several archetypes that kind of fit within that world that makes up your brand. And so maybe your brand is actually like a group of friends, for example. And everybody has their own kind of personality traits, but there are some common connection points and some really important ones.”
“So if you look at Clocks and Colours, for example, it's very much a storytelling brand. So we have an audience of videographers and writers, and that kind of world, they really engage with that and they love the storytelling.
But it's still built on simple pillars that have been built up from the get-go, which is the lifestyle around rock and roll, motorcycles, tattoo culture. We don't call ourselves a motorcycle brand or a tattoo brand or a beard culture brand, but we know how to speak to that audience. And it's because I personally identify with that audience. And so I just know that I will continue to speak with that brand in their tone and the language that they speak.
And so that's what we do with all our brands. We make sure that we present them in a way that is authentic, and speaks the language of the archetype that we've kind of set out to speak to.”
Wearing bruises as a badge of honor
When you get knocked down, sometimes you have a choice to give or come back stronger. Shane believes that the heart of resilience lies in the act of getting up again. Even pre-pandemic, the Vitaly team was knocked down plenty of times. This has only served to temper their resolve, resulting in an identity that’s as strong as the stainless steel jewelry they sell.
“I think that it's really simple. It's just getting back up, you know. And I mean, obviously that's what it means, but that's what it is to be a good entrepreneur.”
“You get beat down over and over and over again, and you either choose to give up or you get back up stronger. And I think that's really defined our business. We've been beat down and to the point where we weren't sure if we could get back up so many times, but every time we've come back so much stronger.”
“And I think that runs through our DNA now. And I think that every entrepreneur needs that, and needs to remember that no matter how bad it seems, just get back up. You got to get back up.”