"Turns out building businesses is really, really hard ." So says Kevin Lavelle, CEO and founder of the high-growth menswear company Mizzen+Main.
Just as with any young company, it's true Mizzen+Main has faced its share of trials and tribulations . But for the most part, the company has made success look easy. And those successes haven't gone unnoticed.
Mizzen+Main announced on Wednesday a significant investment from the Growth Fund of L Catterton, the largest consumer-focused private equity firm in the world. The funds will be used to expand the brand's R&D and product offerings and amplify its storytelling capabilities.
What does it take to get noticed by a massive global private equity firm? Here are six keys to Mizzen+Main's remarkable success.
1. Maintain the ability to pivot
"The broader retail world is generally kind of hemorrhaging right now," says Lavelle. "[But] there's a few of us that seem to be in a really exciting position in that we're not so established that we can't pivot." As big-name brands such as Lululemon and Under Armour struggle, "there's an opportunity for brands like Mizzen+Main to be an alternative option for people who want something more specialized or that provides more character than big-box brands," says Lavelle. Shifting quickly enough to capture that demand has been key to the company's success.
2. Make great products
"The single biggest thing [separating us from big brands] would be our products," says Lavelle. "We create the most comfortable dress shirt in the world, and people just absolutely love it." As evidence, Lavelle points to the fact that Mizzen+Main products have rolled out to 11 Nordstrom stores already this year, with aggressive expansion expected through 2017. "This is because people love the products," he says. "[They're] so different and so unique to anything else that's out there."
3. Be a brand customers can love
"You can love a product and not love the company," points out Lavelle. If you want deeply loyal customers, it's critical that they love your brand in addition to your products.
Mizzen+Main has inspired love amongst its customers by, first and foremost, "committing to doing the brand the right way," says Lavelle. That means making the products in the U.S., giving back to the veteran community, and otherwise conducting business in ethical ways. "That resonates," says Lavelle. And it means that if and when the brand does stumble, customers are more willing to be understanding instead of shifting their allegiances.
It's also critical to utilize authentic storytelling to connect with customers. "Relationships are being forged with brands in ways they never have before," says Lavelle. "Authentic brands are doing an increasingly sophisticated job of telling their stories and heritage, and they're challenging other brands to do the same. It's less 'billboard in Times Square' and more 'connecting with people in a real way'."
By all accounts, Mizzen+Main has already figured out how to connect with its customers in authentic ways. Its primary marketing vehicle to date has been the use of storytelling through social media, trunk shows, and partnerships with retail outlets. The investment from L Catterton will further amplify these efforts both on- and off-line.
4. Expand your concept of influencer marketing
One of Mizzen+Main's primary growth vehicles is the brand's relationships with professional athletes, like 2008 CrossFit Games Champion Jason Khalipa . The company has clinched a variety of minor endorsement deals, and NFL defensive end JJ Watt is a face of the brand. But for the most part, they haven't gone about influencer marketing in the traditional way. Instead, they have a couple hundred professional athlete customers who buy the product simply because they like it.
The brand doesn't ask for anything from these athletes, but customers who follow them on social media will tag their friends when they notice athletes wearing Mizzen+Main apparel. It's a slow-moving but incredibly effective blend of influencer and word-of-mouth marketing.
5. Be willing to hold off on doing something new
Mizzen+Main hasn't made any catastrophic mistakes since its founding in 2012. But it did stumble when it produced a pullover without taking the time to fully differentiate why anyone should buy that product over others on the market.
Lavelle attributes this relatively minor misstep to succumbing to the generalized pressure to keep doing something new. What he learned in the process is it's unwise to invest in newness for newness' sake. Instead, brands should wait for demand from their customers or the certainty that they're creating something demonstrably unique.
6. Partner with the right investors
Investment capital isn't inherently a good thing (too often, it can result in the dilution of a brand's core)--but receiving capital from the right investment firm definitely is. That's why Lavelle is so thrilled about his brand's new partnership with L Catterton. "These are the most experienced and sophisticated investors in the world," says Lavelle, citing the firm's in-depth knowledge of everything from brand building to product testing, distribution, company architecture, and so on. "The level of legitimacy... that they afford us is really exciting. I welcome the credibility with open arms."
But it's not just the firm's expertise that excites Lavelle. It's that they're truly invested in what Mizzen+Main is already doing. "They're coming to help us be better versions of ourselves as a company. They're not providing a prescription to follow. They want us to do what we're doing, and they want to help." And that is the kind of investor relationship worth holding out for.
The validation from a major global investment firm is the icing on the cake of a year that's already generated some major accomplishments for Mizzen+Main. "It's been an amazing couple of months and a great year already," says Lavelle. "These [new partnerships] will help put fuel on the fire to really grow and tackle what's next."