Creating A New Type of Dress Shirt And Launching From Amsterdam

Published: April 10th, 2018
Julian Samarjiev
Founder, DULO
from Amsterdam, North Holland, The Netherlands
started November 2017
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Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Oh, hey there! My name is Julian and I am one half of the team behind DULO, where we make dress shirts from performance fabrics. Both me and my co-founder - Marin, are originally from Bulgaria, but currently based in Amsterdam.

The company is a 50/50 partnership, completely bootstrapped and self-funded. Both of us still work full-time as programmers, while dedicating time to DULO in the mornings, evenings and weekends.

We believe advances in fabric manufacturing have given us opportunities to redefine the dress shirt category, making it a carefree item, while keeping its classical and stylish look.

After one year in product development mode, we opened our webshop - on the 1st of November, 2017.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

We were aware of some companies in the US that have started to create formal wear from performance fabrics and were super interested in the product, but shipping costs and import duties stopped us from purchasing.

Both for me and Marin that idea somehow stayed in our minds as a product that we want to have and use, being fans of dress shirts, but not big fans of the hassle involved in caring for one.

There is no replacement for doing. I've been in Tim Ferriss binge listen mode, but at some point, the rubber needs to hit the road and you need to get your hands dirty. Otherwise, it's just productive procrastination.

So, during a trip back to Bulgaria, Marin ended up at a presentation about apparel manufacturing and decided to share the idea of using our home turf and all of its traditions and expertise in tailoring and create the product we wanted, AKA scratching your own itch :)

As soon as he shared it with me, it immediately resonated and we started planning how to approach it and see whether we could make those type of garments in Bulgaria.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

The next step was to look for manufacturing partners, but funnily enough, we didn’t even know what we were looking for. Are we looking for the fabric itself, or a company that produces dress shirts?

We knew the properties that we wanted, so looking through online directories we set up a spreadsheet with possible companies and started emailing them with our requests to "make dress shirts from sports materials".

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At the end, we emailed all the companies that had a website, as well as an email address (you’d be surprised how many didn’t) and started setting up meetings in a span of a week that we can take off from our jobs and travel back to Bulgaria to meet with all of them.

At first, most of them didn’t know what we were talking about and looked a bit confused, but after a week of meetings and discussions, there was one company that said they could be able to create such a product, so we decided to shake hands and proceed to make samples.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

After one year in product development and three rounds of iterations on the samples, we created our first collection in six colors, both for men and women.

Being programmers we left the creation of the website for last (small mistake, should’ve made a landing page at least to start collecting emails) and chose Shopify as the platform for our e-commerce shop.

Given that we’ve been documenting our journey from day 1, we had a small base of people expecting the product. We were also sending samples around during the prototyping phase, so thankfully immediately after launch people that interacted with the samples, or followed our journey became our first customers, giving us a confidence boost, as well as validation that the product had demand for it.

Deciding to document our process in a text, audio, and video form, turned out to be a great decision that we still stick to, in order to create content, transparency, and authenticity around what we are doing.

Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?

Since launch, our biggest driver of sales has been personal interactions and word of mouth. I know it doesn’t sound as scalable as throwing money at FB ads, BUT it has been our first phase, while we spend small budgets on digital advertising to test, as well as optimize our website for the eventual inflow of traffic, once we increase budgets.

We’ve set up an email drip campaign, consisting of 5 emails that each new subscriber will get on a weekly basis, providing more context about us, the product and our process.

Being active on communities such as Medium and Indie Hackers has been great in driving some eyeballs to the website, as well as create awareness in the entrepreneurial target group.

In the long-term, we want to be mainly an e-commerce direct to consumer brand, but we’ve been approaching concept stores around Amsterdam to connect fashion with technology and hopefully find a fit for our product.

At an industry average return rate of 30%, so far we’ve had 0 returns (about 70 shirts shipped) and great success, once people interact with the product physically. They often become a repeat customer and buy more than one shirt. Having said that, one of our main goals is to figure out a way to communicate that experience in a digital context, where people can’t physically touch the product,

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

Being completely bootstrapped and still working a full-time day job as programmers allows us to reinvest all the profits back into the business and not worry about paying ourselves yet.

We are in this for the long-run and stocked on patience for the next couple of years. We realize that building something substantial takes time, so instead of worrying about profits in the short-term, we are trying to get the product to as many people as possible and ride on top of the successful trend we’ve had with that approach.

The biggest steps for the upcoming months are:

  1. Organise a product reshoot in the next 1-2 months

  2. Optimise our email capturing mechanism on our website

  3. Increase spend in Facebook Ads and especially sequential targeting

  4. Prepare a social media calendar, when we have the above pieces in place

The rest of the ongoing processes continue, such as continue to create content (podcast, blog, vlog), be active on social, both by posting content and engaging with other people’s content and approach any publications/podcasts/platforms that may find what we are doing interesting to share our story.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

  • Try to always be authentic in your content and true to yourself
  • Start capturing emails as early as possible. You don’t want to be vulnerable to any of the bigger platforms changing an algorithm overnight
  • Documenting our journey has been very advantageous, as well as fun to do
  • Don’t be afraid to enter an industry you don’t have experience in. Both of us had no previous experience in apparel production, but we found a partner that has been great in taking care of the manufacturing, while we concentrate on building the business and the brand (once we have the foundations, we will dive deeper into the manufacturing)
  • Patience
  • Create a context in where you are not pressured financially (self-fund/have a job while working on your project as a side hustle), that way you can avoid short-term decision making and increase your chances of succeeding
  • Have a co-founder you can trust 100%

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our webshop is based on Shopify. We use MailChimp for emails.

Some of our creative we do on Canva, some on PhotoShop.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I am very inspired by people and especially founders. Below are some people that I looked up to while building DULO.

  • Jason and David from Basecamp. An exceptional example of running a self-sustaining business with common sense, putting people first and not necessarily pushing only for growth.
  • Ryan Carson and Treehouse. An amazing mission that helped me get my first programming job, and we're especially proud to have Ryan as one of our first customers.
  • Gary Vaynerchuk is a person who we look to for marketing and branding strategies, as well as practical business advice.
  • Yvon Chouinard, CEO of Patagonia, and the way the company thinks about manufacturing and production is a huge inspiration that we want to keep in mind when we produce our products and do it in a responsible manner.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

There is no replacement for doing. I've been in Tim Ferriss binge listen mode, but at some point, the rubber needs to hit the road and you need to get your hands dirty. Otherwise, it's just productive procrastination.

I learned more about Facebook Ads by dedicating a weekend to experiment with it than I had for the previous months reading articles and listening to podcasts about it.

Be very precious about the product, but less so about content. Your product, or service, is the heart of your business. Make it the best it can be. As for content, on the other hand — don't cripple yourself looking for perfection. Ship it, move it, post it. It's all just data points and lessons to help you improve.

Don't be afraid to go into an industry/field you know nothing about. If you have the idea, vision, and discipline to execute it, rely on partners and build relationships with people that compliment your skill set. Bet on your strengths and create an environment where you can trust other people to cover your weaknesses.

We can sometimes get carried away with producing content, but there is as much value, if not more, in engaging with other people's content and creating one-on-one relationships, again to the point of depth vs width.

Trust your co-founder if you have one. Building a business alone is hard. Have complete trust in your teammates. If you are not feeling it, sort it out earlier rather than later.

Where can we go to learn more?

For an audio introduction about how we started DULO, check out our feature on Side Hustle School.

We've been documenting our journey from day one, so check out our Origins series. We post an update every week to share our experiences and learnings while building this business. For our newsletter, you can sign up here.

We have a podcast where we talk to other small business owners. We'd love to have you on. Just drop us a line if you're building a business or a personal brand.

Our vlog is over on YouTube. We will soon start taking it seriously again.

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