Steven Borrelli was working in advertising in southern California when one day he realized all his male co-workers dressed the same: slacks, dress shoes, and high-end, tucked-in T-shirts.
Which made sense, since T-shirts make up a healthy portion of most male wardrobes. (Mine skews almost exclusively T-shirt.) Problem was, some T-shirts were great for work, but not for hanging out. Others were great for casual wear but inappropriate for even the most casual of professional settings. And few managed to look both good tucked in and untucked.
In 2016, Borrelli launched the T-shirt brand Cuts with $40,000 in savings and a successful Kickstarter campaign. While the past three years have naturally included ups and downs -- like the time a manufacturing snafu led to proactively replacing a number of shipped items -- the company is closing in on eight-figure sales results and plans to launch a new line of polo shirts. That's all without a dime of venture funding.
Here's a Q&A look at Borrelli's journey.
It's one thing to complain about a lack of professional dress options. It's another to decide you're the guy to do something about it.
I was working for an ad agency, doing marketing for Fortune 500 companies, and the dress code quickly changed. But brands like Lululemon, etc., hadn't reached the stage where you would wear their T-shirts to work.
So one day, I showed up in an athletic brand T-shirt and one of the partners says, "Hey, where did you get that shirt? If it wasn't a girl's brand, I would wear it to work." [Laughs.]
That's where the idea started to spin. I was two years out of school, had always wanted to start a business ... so I moved back to my parent's basement and spent two years learning three businesses: e-commerce, design, and production.
Was that a hard leap to make, especially when your career was going well?
I was mid-20s, working at my dream job ... so I told almost no one why I was moving home. Back then it wasn't so cool to be the guy giving up a good salary to start a T-shirt brand.
The few people I did tell said, "Are you sure about this? You don't know anything about fashion. It will be a money hole. Don't do it."
That period taught me a lot about having the courage to follow a dream.
Determination is great, but you also needed capital.
When we launched we had $40,000, but we needed $120,000. We had plenty of orders but couldn't finance them.
My partner Carter Shae was a CPA at the time. I ran marketing and product development, he ran financing and operations. That's an important lesson for any partnership: Pick someone who is the opposite of you. He's introverted, I'm extroverted. He made sure the lights stayed on, I made sure we made T-shirts people wanted to buy.
From there we focused on ramping up. It took about a year to get goods in the store after our Kickstarter campaign. A lot of businesses get VC money and are told something like, "I want you to get to $100 million as fast as you can."
We just focused on selling one shirt at a time, doubling our sales each month and really understanding how to make a dollar efficiently.
Letting people see the Kickstarter days, bringing them along as we grew, that built trust and word of mouth. Your marketing is only as good as the people who wear and talk about your product. Try to do too much too soon, and customers don't know what you stand for as a business.
Marketing in a more organic, grass roots fashion takes a lot of patience, though.
For us, getting our first 100 and then 1,000 customers was easy: Friends of friends of friends. Because we had a great product, each customer became our biggest marketing channel.
The stories customers tell about you are worth so much than any Facebook ad. Two guys who got together to start a company and build a great product? That's a lot better than a bunch of ads.
No amount of ads can build a brand. Building a brand takes time and can't be forced.
What about influencer marketing?
Christmas of 2018, [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback] Patrick Mahomes posted a "Merry Christmas" photo with his girlfriend and his dog, and he was wearing one of our shirts. He's worn them on Jimmy Kimmel, worn them before games, but we haven't paid him a dollar. It's completely organic. He just likes our shirts.
That's obviously a huge win for us. Now that our brand is established, we spend millions of dollars on ads, and because some of our customers are famous, the algorithm pushes that exposure to hundreds of thousands more people.
So it's all part of a larger equation. When Patrick wore our shirt, or J.J. Watt wore one court side at an NBA game, those are moments that give our customers a sense of the brand's validity, and reinforce the fact we provide value.
Keep in mind those moments don't make or break the product. If you don't have a great product, then you might be forced to pay influential people to wear it.
Any lessons learned along the way?
Probably the biggest is learning that on the production side you absolutely must be able to scale. Our first manufacturer wasn't capable of producing extremely large orders, so when our order quantity increased the quality suffered. Shirts shipped that didn't hit our standards, and we didn't know it.
Luckily, that happened early on. When we found out we emailed our customers and in effect said, "Hey, we're sending you a new shirt."
The fact we stepped in before people complained built trust with our customers.
That's a huge takeaway. Design, marketing, all that stuff is sexy and fun, but if you don't maintain operational excellence, you'll fail.
Polo shirts are next. Why?
If you're a few years into your career, if you're just getting in to fashion--and of course with Instagram--guys are increasingly cognizant of looking good. We're an intro fashion brand that makes it easy for men to shop.
If you wear only blue jeans and black shirts, we're the brand for you. You can get something different that still fits with what you like to wear.
So where our target customer is concerned, the next need that is still casual and functional is polo shirts: Professional wear that's less formal, but still great for a meeting.
A lot of people tell us we should go wide really quick and make a ton of short-term revenue, but quick short-term revenue rarely leads to long-term growth.
Our goal is to someday dominate the men's upper body category. Do that, and maybe then we'll think wider.