Mass Customization, Mystery Developers, and Men’s Shirts: Blank Label Returns to Boston
Think you know what a virtual company is? Try having never seen your chief technology officer’s face. Now that’s a virtual company.
It’s just one of the quirky things about Blank Label, a “mass customization” startup focused on letting consumers design their own dress shirts from a variety of fabrics and styles. In December 2009, my colleague Wade wrote an in-depth story about Blank Label, which has Boston roots, and the plight of its founder, Fan Bi, who was forced to leave the U.S. shortly thereafter because his student visa expired. Well, guess what—he’s back now and living in Cambridge (not far from Xconomy’s Kendall Square office, in fact). And you could say Blank Label is too.
Just to complicate matters, this week I met not with Bi, but with his co-founder, Danny Wong, who’s now based in Shanghai but was rolling through Boston for a few days. (Neither Bi nor Wong is the mysterious CTO—more on him in a minute.) Wong’s story is that he took a leave of absence from his undergraduate studies at Bentley University to work on Blank Label for the past year and a half. That was after answering an ad from Bi, an Australian citizen who was doing a study-abroad year at Babson College, in the summer of 2009.
Bi started the custom-shirt business in late 2008 and was looking to hire local salespeople and expand the company. In true Bostonian fashion, Wong had to set aside what is apparently a strong Babson-Bentley rivalry to work with Bi—which he could do because the latter was merely an exchange student there.
“The combination of that and his Australian accent sold me,” says Wong, who is lead evangelist and handles marketing and PR for Blank Label.
The two worked feverishly through the summer, burning through 14 other workers (mostly unpaid interns) before bringing on a graphic designer, Alec Harrison (from Boston), and then a CTO—the enigmatic Zeeshan Muhammad, a software guy with a day job in Southern California, who built Blank Label’s site in six weeks in exchange for equity in the startup.
“He’s a mystery,” Wong says of his CTO. “We go on Skype, and he’s never there. We just see his wall.” The rest of the team apparently has never met him in person or even seen his face, except for a couple of old pictures.
After Bi’s U.S. visa expired in January 2010, he relocated to Shanghai to work with Blank Label’s suppliers. Wong and Harrison followed suit, moving to Shanghai last June—and essentially moving the company out of Boston. These guys are all in their early 20s (Wong is just 20) and have been living the frantic startup and expat lifestyle, with the added wrinkle of building a company with remote people around the world.
“We were all on really wacky schedules, but were still able to catch each other when we needed to talk,” Wong says.
Fast forward to 2011, and the business is still a work in progress—but it is making progress. Over the past year, the company has had weekly revenues between $1,000 or less and $100,000, depending on the week (I’m guessing a lot more of the former than the latter). Blank Label has nine employees worldwide—four in Shanghai, two in Pakistan, and three in the U.S., including Bi, the CEO, who’s back in Boston. He is currently on a one-year U.S. visa, and is waiting to see if the proposed Startup Visa Act gets signed into law—though the controversial bill requires foreign-born entrepreneurs to raise a certain amount of venture capital or angel investment in order to stay in the country.
On that front, Blank Label is looking to raise a seed financing round from U.S. investors over the next few months, Wong says, but the company is “not pushing aggressively” yet. More important, he says, is to “build out the product experience, both physical and online” and to acquire more customers through word of mouth and marketing.
This month the company rolled out a luxury brand called Thread Tradition, which is geared toward corporate businessmen who are willing to pay more than the $50 or $60 per shirt typically spent on the site. Blank Label is also looking at future directions such as branching out into selling suits, pants, ties, and possibly women’s dress shirts; up to this point, the site has been geared to men only. But for now, Wong acknowledges, “We need to find a way to make the [core] business really work.”
So what will become of this plucky startup? If nothing else, there will be some important lessons learned by a team of young, ambitious entrepreneurs who have a truly global perspective—and who think the Boston area is worth coming back to if you want to build a successful company. You can hear more from Fan Bi tonight when he speaks at an MIT Enterprise Forum event on mass customization—a cluster that is well represented in Boston.