I have been thinking a lot lately about trust. Specifically trust in business.
The headlines on the assault of capitalism make out the world to be a vicious lion vs. lamb mentality where only the strong survive. If you don’t have the resources, the money, the leverage, you will get eaten.
In some ways, I’ve seen that. I started Buffalo Jackson with a few hundred bucks and absolutely no experience in clothing. I put up a website and started selling t-shirts and hats with our vision of what we thought a clothing company should represent for men.
It felt so many times like there was not a chance in the world we could survive against the well funded, experienced businesses, with more marketing dollars, and dozens of employees. I would argue all that I had starting it was a vision.
No experience. No money. No resources. But dreams… I had that.
I couldn’t afford to pay anyone, let alone myself the first few years. So I did what I could… I went to work and hustled.
Clothing is not a great business to get in if you don’t have much cash, because clothing is made in bulk. It gets cheaper the more you make. So you need money, to leverage that to get better margins.
You see the impact of big production as the largest clothing holding companies like Vanity Fair have acquired some of the world’s largest brands… North Face, Levi’s , Natuica, Smartwool, and Timberland to name a few. The more you make, and bundle together, the better prices you get.
It can be depressing at times trying to fight that system.
But here is where I believe goes missing in this equation… the power of human relationships, and all of us working to achieve our goals and dreams. And the room for the little guys… like me… and maybe you?
Let me explain…
I was at a manufacturing tradeshow a year ago to look for some apparel manufactures. It was my first manufacturing tradeshow. We had struck up a friendly discussion with one supplier overseas named Gary. I was hoping to work with him on some flannel shirts.
And then we came to the part of the conversation where we started discussing how many shirts I could make. 10,000? 20,000? 50,000?
Most people at this tradeshow were large clothing companies. I was about to get exposed. Quite frankly, I didn’t have in my bank account the quantity in dollars. Let alone to put in an order that size.
“How about 100?, “ I said.
He looked at me perplexed. He had reason to be offended.
This show was for folks looking to do big business. And I was there because of the future of where I believed our company was going to be one day. I had been turned down by plenty of booths the last few minutes.
But he thought about it.
Then he gave me a price, a high price… and then said, can you at least do 200?
We negotiated, then I agreed, and then we sat down to get into the details of it.
We were in the middle of the conversation of my 200 piece order when another gentleman came into his booth. My new business friend rose up from the table and immediately started talking with him.
This other guy was all business.
He wanted 100,000 shirts of a certain style he had on display and for 3x less the price I had down. He laid out his demands, and the deal was done in 5 minutes. I sat and watched it all.
The flannel shirt supplier looked at me after that deal and said, I want you to know that even at this price I just gave you, I am not going to be making any money on this deal. But I want to build a relationship with you.
I am humbled by many things in this business… being small... having fewer resources, options, and leverage then most. But one thing I have found that has humbled me the most is that relationships matter and people are willing to risk on the short term.
The same happened when we got a call from a fulfillment center in Charlotte, NC. The two owners, Quancy and Brady, said they’d like to ship our products and take me out of the shipping business and boxing things out of my garage to focus on my business. It sounded like a great plan. I was literally getting kicked out of my condo garage that week for having a “fulfillment center” in a condo complex.
It began when I boxed up a bunch of boxes with no skus, tags, or labels and shipped them from Colorado to North Carolina to their operation.
I didn’t know how to code them, or bundle them. But they said, “ship them. We will sort it out.“
They arrived in two pallets, pathetically boxed up and they helped bring order to it all over the coming months. I can’t even believe they accepted such a mangled shipment.
I don’t know if they would say it has been worth it, (we sure have given them plenty of headaches being a young company), but our monthly services with them have grown every month. 20X our first month.
Truth is, most folks have turned us down as we have reached out. I have had more manufactures laugh at us when I tell them our manufacturing requirements. A bank wasn’t interested in giving us a loan when I brought in my 36 page business plan.
And I’ve had to learn how to get near the back of the line.
A factory in GA who has explained to me that our production runs have to come in between the bigger accounts that pay the bills. Hard to swallow, but honestly…the fact they work with us… well… that is a gift in itself.
A friend named Jamie has been developing some shirts that we are still perfecting and still hasn’t seen us put in an order yet. That’s trust too.
There is a friend in Austria named Tobias who has a conviction for details in jackets and has agreed to work with us under that same banner. We have some amazing products coming out for our wholesale plans. But in being honest about smaller orders for a while… he said that he sees our relationship as a long term one.
It’s risky for them and us. And it’s often about trust.
And now I am seeing the other side of that.
We recently created a few prototypes with a camel leather supplier in India. He speaks great English, works late nights to communicate with us in the US. And you can see is in the hustle season of his life.
We took a chance on him.
I explained our need for great quality especially in the hardware. He has continually impressed me with his samples, and desire to meet our expectations and quality needs. In fact, he took a train last week 1,100 miles to Delhi to get better antique brass hardware.
I was shocked when I heard it. “Delhi? To purchase hardware, for us? 1,100 miles! What?”
And then it hit me.
I was on the other end of this with him. He saw our orders and was ready to hustle to get the business. He is trying to grow his business with us as well. We are risking on him.
That is why I believe in capitalism and the free market system.
It is this beautiful web of risk and reward, hope, and trust. And this invisible hand, this web, of commerce and transactions linking us all together. Is it perfect? No way. But it offers in it opportunity. For those with a lot, and those with a little, but dreams.
As our businesses looks to the future, and plan for our 2014, with some great things ahead, I am grateful for Tobias, Charles, Chuck, Jamie, Dave, Gary, Sam, Brady, Quancy, Pat, Mark, Narayan, and so many more.
We mostly certainly stand on their shoulders for any success today and the future.
- Xan Hood