Invent a Cool Clothing Site, Now Leave the Country—Fan Bi, Blank Label, and The Case for the “Founders Visa”
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send information to a supplier in China and have them hit me back with some products,” Bi says. “So my parents spent a couple of days there exploring and testing out different suppliers.”
Bi had spent some time doing investment research for a firm in London, a hub of “bespoke” (Brit for custom) clothing design, and he says “I couldn’t get the idea of custom clothing out of my mind.” His parents’ tests had shown that it was possible to buy custom men’s shirts from individual tailors in Shanghai at prices far below what customers might pay in shops on Newbury Street or Madison Avenue. The problem—and the opportunity—was that there was no easy way for men to order custom shirts online, and no easy way to get these orders to the right people in China. By mid-2009, Bi says, “I’d felt the Boston environment of high-energy, super-passionate companies, and entrepreneurship as a lifestyle really started to energize me. I said, ‘This is what I want to pursue.’”
To build a real business around the idea, Bi realized he’d need a Web 2.0-style website with some pretty sophisticated graphical tools. So he recruited a technical co-founder, a Web strategist, and a designer, and funded the development of the site out of his savings from a brief stint at an investment bank in Sydney. The four entrepreneurs worked through the summer and fall, and turned on their beta website the day after Halloween.
Bi says the Blank Label site is aimed at “young, independent, fashion-sensitive guys who are generationally unique in the sense that they use individual style as a currency.” (The “young” part is confirmed by the site’s decidedly un-PC cartoons of minimally clad women, with captions such as “I like the creative types.”) Blank Label’s configurator walks the customer through a four-step process that starts with choosing a fabric, then a particular style of collar, cuff, placket, back, shoulder, and pocket.
A placket, in case you’re as clueless about fashion as I am, is the double layer of cloth that holds a dress shirt’s buttons or button holes; like collars or cuffs, plackets can be made from a custom fabric that might be of a different color from the base fabric. Each such choice—Bi calls them “upsells”—adds a few dollars to a shirt’s base cost of $45. As the user chooses various styles, the configurator updates a computer-generated image of the custom shirt, as well as its cumulative price. Want a monogrammed inside collar? That’s $15. Want a shirt that’s green on the left side and blue on the right? Rock out—but it will cost you an extra $35.
The Blank Label home page shows a few models wearing their custom creations, and if you like their style, you can simply order their shirts. When I spoke with Bi before the site launched, he had no idea whether visitors would cotton to the configurator, or just go window-shopping. “One of our big business-model questions is, are our customers going to be leaders or followers?” he said at the time. “Are they going go through the six-minute process of designing their own shirt, or do they just want to see something designed by the community, more of a Threadless model, and maybe make a couple of tweaks?”
I asked him yesterday what he’s learning about that question, now that the site’s been online for six or seven weeks. The company is selling about two shirts a day so far, so “the sample size is still fairly limited,” Bi says. But already, the team has observed something very interesting: that it can turn followers into leaders just by tweaking its user interface. “For the first two weeks, our orders averaged about $52 per shirt. Then we pushed a new release of the site where instead of putting the free options at the top of the configurator, we put the upsells at the top and the free ones at the bottom. Just from that little tweak, people started designing their own products, and our average went up to $67 per shirt.”
You can bet that if some e-commerce developer at Amazon or L.L. Bean or came up with a design change that induced a 28 percent spending increase, they’d get a year’s salary in bonuses. But it’s all in a day’s work for Bi and his peers—who actually aren’t drawing salaries at all.
After an abortive attempt to raise venture capital last summer, Bi says the company is going to stay lean and self-funded for a while. “We wanted to raise money more for the … Next Page »