Clothing and apparel is a cutthroat industry. For small businesses to survive — and thrive – they need to create products that are emotionalized, authentic and, above all, differentiated. These businesses must be able to differentiate themselves from their direct competitors and establish themselves in consumers’ minds.
Though difficult it may be for small businesses (limited resources and all) – success comes to those who are able to communicate that it offers something new, fresh and innovative. Most of all, they must create a brand.
Dirtbag Clothing, Inc,, a maker of alternative street wear, has been successful in establishing itself as a young brand in the sports and skateboarding apparel market. Switch Skateboarding Magazine describes Dirtbag Clothing as the “gear that makes a different statement.”
With its catchphrase – “Wear it ‘till it stinks!” – Dirtbag Clothing is able to successfully target their market and create a clear profile for their clothing line. As one of its young founders Douglas Canning says, “At Dirtbag … we’re selling an attitude. Our philosophy is quite simple, ‘do what you want and don’t feel like you have to conform.”
The Birth of Dirtbag Clothing
Douglas Canning, 32 and partner John Alves, 32, started Dirtbag Clothing in 1996 when they were in their final year as film majors at San Francisco State University. Doug Whitsitt, 36, later joined them as a partner.
The idea for Dirtbag started as a design experiment for Canning. “Since I was 21, I knew I wasn’t cut out to work for anyone else,” Canning says. He stumbled across the original Dirtbag design in 1995. “After seeing it for the first time I knew I could do well with it,” Canning recalls. “It’s the only article of clothing I know of that gets a reaction from people. After 20 or so people asked me where they could buy a shirt, I knew the whole Dirtbag concept had potential.”
Without any business education or prior entrepreneurial experience, Canning characterizes the process of starting Dirtbag Clothing as a “baptism by fire.”
“I had some sales experience in the mountain bike industry but absolutely zero business experience,” Canning says. Nonetheless, he and his partners knew the market well and the “best market research came from the people on the street” reacting to their products.
The Web as the Starting Point Dirtbag Clothing started as an Internet pure play business, selling their products mainly on their Website http://www.dirtbagclothing.com. Canning and his partners junked their initial idea of reaching the skate, surf and boutique stores by printing a catalog, and instead decided to sell primarily on the Web. Their decision saved them thousands of dollars in start-up expenses. The young entrepreneurs’ strategy was to leverage the Web for starting their business. They knew that the Web could offer them distinct advantages over other sales and distribution medium: lower overhead costs, the ability to reach a wide audience and its tremendous marketing potential.
As Canning describes it:
“The Internet has leveled the playing field to the point where pretty much anybody with a solid concept can launch a business and have an internet presence without investing thousands of dollars.”
“A website is a virtual store, and if it’s designed well it can be just as effective as a brick and mortar storefront. Right now we get 2,000 visitors per day to dirtbagclothing.com; how many small boutiques get that kind of foot traffic? In my opinion the Internet is by far the best tool for the modern day Entrepreneur. Another advantage of the Internet is that with a well designed website, small companies can look much bigger than they are. It’s all about trust and perception.”
Dirtbagclothing.com was born online in 1996, and has since gone through several design changes to improve product presentation and overall customer experience. Canning and his buddies were then working on the business part-time while keeping their day jobs to support themselves and their new venture.
As Canning recalls those pivotal decisions of launching a web site once the business idea was hatched: “We launched a basic site in 1996; since then it has gone through 4 or 5 upgrades. The first site was up and running within a few months. Yes, it was a quick decision. We wanted to get our name out there as soon as possible. Fortunately we knew a lot of web savvy designers who helped us with the overall design of the website at a very reasonable price.”
Start-Up Challenges and Setbacks
Like many other businesses, DirtBag.com experienced its own share of setbacks and difficulties. The design and manufacturing of their clothing products proved to be a challenge, but one that they overcame through networking. “We’re not fashion guys,” Canning admits, “so we worked with a lot of designers who helped us expand into different products. Once the designs were done the next challenge was finding the cash to go into production.”
Knowing the right contacts also helped find the manufacturer who will create their products. Canning says, “I had worked with a screen printer while working for a mountain bike company and developed a good relationship with him that carried over into the Dirtbag venture.”
The young entrepreneurs, however, had to endure inefficiencies in their manufacturing process. “In the early days we would just order only what we really needed which was not the most cost effective route to take, “says Canning; “but we didn’t have much of a choice. As sales have increased we have managed to lower our production costs significantly and have increased our margins by 20-25% across the board.”
After four years of trying to make it, the partners found a ray of hope in 2000 when an investor agreed to help them. Plans went overdrive: new products were planned, new marketing approaches were developed, and Canning even quit his day job to work full-time on Dirtbag. Alas, the deal with the investor went south. Dirtbag Clothing ended up holding an empty bag. Undeterred, the young entrepreneurs pushed through with their plans. They borrowed $30,000 from relatives and another $25,000 from credit cards. “Thank God for Visa, MasterCard and American Express,” says Canning. “Without them I’d probably still be working at my old job!”
The risks paid off: Dirtbag.com has experienced steady but gradual growth since 2000. Brands are not built over night,” says Canning. “When you have limited resources you have to be creative, patient and persistent all at the same time.”
Marketing a Clothing Line
When their products were launched, the market reception was lukewarm at best. Canning recalls those days: “The reaction was not as warm as we expected. We liked the Dirtbag concept (obviously) and we had a lot of avid supporters, but competition in the clothing industry is fierce.”
Even dealers and buyers for clothing boutiques initially shunted them out. Canning recalls, “Dealers for the most part are very conservative when it comes to taking on a new brand. We got a lot of “NO THANKS”. There are a ton of brands and only a limited amount of shelf space.” The rejection did not stop Canning and his partners.
Through dogged persistence and perseverance, he began collecting names and emails of contacts and buyers at prospective distributors. He scoured the web sites of the retailers and collected contact information from trade shows. He then contacted them via email, inviting them to visit the website. Many did, and some even ended in accounts.
Slowly, the market warmed up to Dirtbag.com as the company built a name for itself on the Internet and at San Francisco Bay Area clothing stores. Canning opines, “No matter what business you’re in, it takes time to create and develop brand awareness. If nobody knows about you, they can’t buy your products.”
They worked on carefully reaching their audience using strategies that will not empty out their pockets. “As a small company with very little cash, we relied heavily on band sponsorships, email campaigns, search engine optimization and word of mouth to create brand awareness.” Public relations is also a key element of their marketing strategy, having been featured in magazines such as Entrepreneur and named as one of the awardees of the Annual Inc Magazine Web Awards.
Band sponsorships are a core element of Dirt Bag Clothing marketing strategies, with the company sponsoring and actively promoting a number of musical acts. Canning contacted independent record labels of bands that might appeal to their target audience. In return, members of the sponsored band wear only Dirtbag clothing at its public gigs and verbally mentions the company at every show they perform. Additionally, the band receives discounted clothing. Some of bands they are currently sponsoring as listed in their second website DirtBagMusic.com include Soulfly, Spineshank and others.
When asked how did this strategy come about, Canning explains:
“Very simple. We had no money and plenty of tee shirts. Kids in our target market listen to music. Instead of taking out full page ads in skate/music magazines we decided to bypass that step and go right to the core of the audience we were trying to reach.”
“This strategy has allowed us to reach a greater number of people that are connected to the music scene. If a kid that listens to Punk or Metal, there’s a good chance he skates or is involved in some kind of extreme sport. Music is the common denominator. Why go after a specific market when you can have it all through music?”
Guerilla Marketing and persistence are also key ingredients to Dirtbag’s success. Offline, they market their products by using stickers, postcards, banners and “anything guerilla!” Online, they are big on search engine optimization, email marketing, pay per click, banner exchanges, contests.
Despite their initial setback with regards to dealers, they remain aggressive in getting their products in the shelf of sports shops and clothing boutiques. To ensure that the dealers carry their clothing label, Canning describes their approach as such:
“If a shop were somewhat interested I would give them specific examples of other well-known stores that have been successful with our product. We also offer free shipping on first time orders. I would also let them know that we’re a unique brand that not everyone has, and convince them that sometimes a lack of brand awareness isn’t such a bad thing and that kids today are looking for something new.”
Now, DirtBag Clothing’s products sell itself. Canning says of their success, “The people that wear Dirtbag like the fact that we’re a small company. We don’t take out full-page ads in skate and music magazines or pay people to wear our product. People wear Dirtbag because they want to, not because we tell them they should.”
The Road Ahead
In 2004, DirtBag Clothing is projected to reach $1.4 million in sales.
Canning attributes their success to “gradual growth, managing inventory, product line expansion and keeping customers happy. Growth is a good thing, but if you grow too fast and over extend it can ruin your business.”
“In 2004 we will be working with more than a dozen multi-platinum selling bands, outfitting these bands for their tours will be our primary focus for marketing in 2004. In addition to the bands we will also be launching our brand in Canada, Europe and Japan. We’re in 70 shops in the United States and we hope to add another 50 to that list. On the web front, we’re going to be doing a complete website overhaul with new graphics, shopping cart and back end.”
For other start-up entrepreneurs, Canning shares the following lessons:
- Get everything in writing. Everything!
- If something seems to good to be true, run away immediately.
- Don’t have a business partner as a roommate.
- Don’t get frustrated if you don’t make a million in your first year.
- Prepare to be broke for at least 2 years.
- Date women/men who don’t mind paying for dinner.
- Network with other successful people who have started their own businesses and ask them a lot of questions.
- Never think you can do everything on your own.
Article originally published in March 2004
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