The Fourth Annual Inc Web Awards: Start-up Strategies

Company: Dirtbag Clothing, in San Francisco
What we liked: Douglas Canning has shrewdly leveraged every aspect of the Internet to market his clothing brand

Douglas Canning knew that starting a company would require leadership and salesmanship. He didn't realize it would require quite so much typing. "At first I probably spent 90% of my time doing E-mail," he says.

Canning and partner John Alves launched Dirtbag Clothing, a maker of alternative street wear, during their final year as film majors at San Francisco State University. Canning thought there might be a couple thousand skate, surf, and boutique stores that would make good conduits for their wares. Creating a catalog for that audience would set them back $6,000. Instead he threw up a Web site for $350.

A site launched in the Internet forest rarely makes a sound unless it's promoted. And Canning had in mind some very targeted promotion. The entrepreneur set out on a quest for high-level contacts at prospective distributors. He began by visiting the Web sites of competing apparel companies and harvesting store names from their retail-locator sections. He then looked on those retailers' Web sites for the E-mail addresses of their buyers. He also accumulated buyers' names and E-mail addresses from attendee lists passed out at trade shows. All told, Canning amassed a list of buyers for 1,800 retailers and then E-mailed them invitations to visit About 50% of the targeted companies did so, and 20 of those visits resulted in accounts.

Next Canning hit the sites of independent record labels, culled E-mail contacts for bands he thought would appeal to the Dirtbag demographic, and sent out a missive offering a 40% discount to any band willing to wear Dirtbag products. Again the response rate was 50%, and Dirtbag is now sponsoring the ska/punk band Fishbone and Sev, among others. Also, says Canning, "the E-mail campaign got us a call from Gene Simmons of Kiss and a product review in the new magazine Gene Simmons Tongue."

Dirtbag also benefited from being early to the search engines, securing prime placements in response to several keywords after flinging some Dirtbag items at a Yahoo programmer. "That positioning resulted in 99% of our traffic when we started," says Canning, "and it's still working for us."

The traffic includes more than just curiosity seekers. The site, which Canning maintains for $120 a month, continues to promote not just the brand but also direct sales: about half of Dirtbag's $1 million in revenues are from the Web. "We've built an entire company with what one of our bigger competitors would spend on an ad in Rolling Stone," says Canning.

Leigh Buchanan is a senior editor at Inc.

The Fourth Annual Inc Web Awards

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