Fan Bi and Danny Wong set out to create an edgy, artistic fashion company. But the market had other plans. It was 2009, and Bi was 22. He had recently dropped out of college, and Wong, his co-founder, was just 19.
"There was an internal rebelliousness within Danny and I," Bi recalls. "And we were guided by our surroundings. We wanted to lead this revolution against designers telling us what to wear."
The pair launched Blank Label in 2009, an online men's apparel company targeted towards the urban hipster set. The idea was that custom-made apparel would appeal to an artistic demographic tired of buying the same, off-the-rack clothing as their peers. And by contracting with a manufacturer in China, Blank Label was able to keep prices low; a custom shirt that offered buyers their choice of fabric, style, and buttons cost anywhere from $70 to $140.
By 2010, the site, which is self-funded, was making six figures in revenue and was nearing profitably. Bi and Wong were encouraged by the company's success, but wanted to learn more about their customers. For two weeks in 2010, the pair combed through user data and sent out customer surveys. The results were startling.
"It was like, 'Holy crap, our customers aren't 22-year-olds who are rebellious and against 'The Man,'" Bi says. "Our customers are The Man."
Although Blank Label was targeted towards hipsters, artists, and other creative types, Bi explains that the majority of Blank Label's customers were actually well-off white collar workers in their late 30s. Many were attorneys. They were the type of consumers who had previously been shopping at Brooks Brothers, not Urban Outfitters.
"We had a hard decision to make," Bi recalls. "Do we try to still be this fun, rebellious brand? Or do we serve the customers who are letting us run our business?"
They chose the latter. For the next six months, Bi and Wong entered into marketing limbo. They revamped the site, and reworked its messaging. Since 89 percent of their customers bought shirts based on fit—not style—the founders re-focused their offerings to focus less on flashy design, and more on comfort.
While traditional retailers offer two sizing options (neck and arm length), Blank Label offered nine. And by remaining an e-commerce shop with a direct-to-consumer shipping model, Blank Label was able to reinvest its proceeds back into the product, hire five employees for its Chinese office, and continue to scale. At the end of 2011, Blank Label was operating at a $1.1 million run rate, despite taking on zero funding. It now has more than 20,000 customers.
Bi says letting go of his original idea was difficult, but the experience has made him a better entrepreneur.
"Danny and I had a lot of trouble around this," he says. "There were many long nights. But over time we became incredibly empathetic to our customers. After all, you are what you wear."
How We Market to 'The Man'
One morning the young founders of Blank Label woke up and realized everything had to change. The strategy paid off--to the tune of $1 million in revenue.
2011 Read about Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger of Instagram, Matt Mickiewicz of 99designs, and Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox. Plus the start-up stories of Quora, Onswipe, Dropbox, Foodspotting, and Gemvara.
2010 Meet Alexa von Tobel of Learnvest, Naveen Selvadurai of Foursquare, Jack Abraham of Mint.com, plus the founders of Rent the Runway, Airbnb, Crowdflower, Posterous, LivingSocial, and Urban Escapes (now part of Living Social).
2009 Pete Cashmore of Mashable, Elliott Bisnow of Summit Series, Danielle and Jodie Snyder of Dannijo, Jamail Larkins of Larkins Enterprises were included on our 2009 list, as were the teams behind ModCloth, Thrillist, IdeaPaint, Foodzie, and Justin.TV.