Bonobos, a New York-based brand specializing in perfect pants for men, has taken giant strides since its inception only two years ago. The web-only business racked up sales north of $4m last year alone and men are beginning to define a winning construction by Bonobos standard. For the fourth part of our New Fashion Empire Builders series, we interview Dave Eisenberg, Bonobos’ first employee and chief of staff, to find out about the new designs on pants, the power of the web and how to avoid losing your shirt.
JC Report: We’re referring to you and your brand as empire building, tell us about the ownership structure of the company.
Dave Eisenberg: The company was founded in 2007 by Brian Spaly and Andy Dunn—the emperors, if you will. We believe strongly, however, that the best empires are one in which its citizens (our employees) are all owners of the enterprise. As such, every employee at Bonobos shares in the potential upside of building a great business.
JCR: You’re building an empire on a single product category—pants—is this the re-focused new model for empire building?
DE: I think part of what you sometimes see is a lack of focus on core competencies and a desire to try to be everything for everyone. With us, we’re focusing on awesome fitting pants, shorts and swimsuits, delivered with ninja customer service. If we can nail the high quality products and the best-in-class customer service, we think we’ll be in a good position to build our men’s apparel empire.
JCR: How do the new emerging empires differ from existing fashion empires?
DE: First and foremost, we don’t think that our target customer likes to spend that much time in stores. We think he’d rather be doing hundreds of other activities on the weekend than hanging out in stores that are really more designed for women than men. So with Bonobos, all of our business is done online at www.bonobos.com. We ship our products out for free the same day that you order them, and we pay for all return shipping. We think this is a more evolved way for men to shop: fast, quickly, with great customer service policies. The existing fashion empires were built with runway shows, models, strange advertisements, etc. We’re going to shun all of that and exclusively invest resources into our product, our team, our technology and our ninja customer service. We think new emerging empires should be smart about where they spend their money. And to the extent that we can change the game with regard to how to build a clothing company, we’re going to try and do it.
JCR: Do you have a business role model?
DE: We have a few different role models. For product quality, we look to Theory and Polo (just not always a great value at their retail prices). For customer service we look to Land’s End, L.L. Bean and the Ritz-Carlton for exceptional customer-friendly policies. For technology, we admire Zappos for building a game changing platform exclusively on the web. No one thought that people would buy shoes on the web when Zappos got started. People said the same thing about pants—we’re trying to change all of that.
JCR: What regions are you focusing your business development efforts on, and why?
DE: The beauty of doing business online is that we don’t have to plant down a store in one part of the country and focus on growing our brand there. With our online model we can reach customers in all 50 states and over 40 countries, and we’ve been able to grow our brand awareness nationally with our marketing.
JCR: How is the economy impacting your business?
DE: It’s hard to know how much faster we’d be growing if we launched Bonobos in a period of economic growth, rather than the recession. That being said, we’ve been fortunate to experience positive month to month growth for the past year and a half. I think with a tough economy customers tend to focus on value and we like to think that we offer one of the best value combinations out there: pants that you would purchase for 2-3x as much in a retail environment and customer service policies that put the customer above all else.
JCR: How do you plan to stay the course?
DE: Investing in awesome new products like our better fitting shorts and swimsuits, and continuing to make improvements on our technology.
JCR: Are you methodical in your business development planning? Or is the new empire building method about seizing opportunities as they come?
DE: I think it’s always a combination of both. We have a clear roadmap that we are moving forward on with regards to technology: a new loyalty and referral program, a redesigned checkout experience and a brand new look and feel. On marketing, we are always looking for new opportunities that provide us with a great value. We measure every initiative we take to what it has cost us to acquire a new customer and anyone who can continue to drive that CPA down is interesting for me to speak with.
JCR: How are you innovating in order to reach new customers?
DE: We are helping our customers spread the word about Bonobos and earn store credit for their actions, coming up with innovative marketing campaigns, like our “evolution of pants” video on youtube, and creating products that look great, so that people naturally want to talk about them when they are out and about.
JCR: How is the face of consumption changing?
DE: Like I mentioned earlier, I think customers are more interested in developing a partnership with the brands that they choose to shop with. I’ve heard many of our customers exclaim: “Bonobos feels like a bunch of my friends just decided to launch a pants company.” We want our customers to feel differently about shopping with us than anywhere else.
JCR: What are the core aesthetic values of your brand that will stay the course as it develops?
DE: Making fun, interesting products that are ultra high quality and innovative in their fit and design. We also aim for our products to be classic. Whatever you buy this season will work for you for years to come. We’re not into the whole fast fashion trend, we’re more about quality in our designs and our fabrics.
JCR: What role does the celebrity factor currently play in exposing your brand? And in the future?
DE: Not much of a role at all. The only thing we do with celebrities is serve them well when they would like to shop with us. Our customers don’t really care what celebrities are wearing and neither do we. We’re more focused on serving our customer well than we are about trying to make products that are likely to appear in a weekly magazine. It’s just not who we are.
JCR: Is your idea of building an empire envisioning your brand in existence 50 years from now?
DE: Absolutely. I would love nothing more than for our customers’ kids and grand-kids be able to buy Bonobos products directly from us at www.bonobos.com or bonobos.outerspace or to visually imagine Bonobos in their apartment and have that become a reality in just a few seconds. That would be truly empire defining.
JCR: How does new media figure into your empire building efforts?
DE: We like new media because it is about people sharing with each other bidirectionally, rather than corporations dictating to their customers what type of media they consume. To that extent, we’re excited about Facebook, Twitter, Delicious and others. Without being too invasive, we try to participate in the conversation with customers whenever Bonobos emerges as a topic on any of these channels.
This interview was conducted by Jason Campbell.