Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Jay Fuller and my product FLXCUF. It's a solution designed to hold up dress shirt sleeves in one fold. I have just one product design (in two versions), coming in a variety of colors -- black (Bonds), white (Carraways), royal blue (Shmedium Blues), and light blue (Portages). Rather than just call my product the FLXCUF band, I thought it’d be more fun to give each color it’s own name.
Recently, since its launch 3 years ago, FLXCUF is in the green. Sales also continue to improve and I’ve finally gotten over the hump of getting into two boutique retailers this year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I came up with the idea while working behind a bar. My uniform was a dress shirt and given the nature of the business -- I ALWAYS rolled up my sleeves. The problem, they never stayed up or looked good. It was a classier place, so appearance was just as important as functionality. I started using rubber bands behind my cuffs. That worked as a temporary fix, but it also cut off the circulation in my arms.
Go for it. If you have an idea, embrace uncertainty and make it happen.
Fast forward to my first-day job in marketing for a casino, I began doing the exact same thing. I would roll up my dress shirt sleeves throughout the day and continuously run into the same problem. Going back to the rubber band trial, the idea of making the shirt cuff “flexible” (ta-da, flxcuf) and allowing it to expand as it went up one’s arm started to come to life in my mind.
Without any expertise and background in fashion, I had no validation that this idea could work. I just remember seeing a commercial for the Van Heusen shirt with a flex collar that expands for someone’s neck and thought there could be some legs to the idea.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Fun fact: FLXCUF actually started as “Flexcuff Shirts” five years ago. Going off of the Van Heusen flex collar I previously mentioned, I thought a shirt made sense initially. After moving to Chicago from Cincinnati (literally took a leap of faith and moved to Chicago mid-Polar Vortex in February), I took a band-aid job at Trunk Club’s warehouse folding clothes and packing trunks.
I met someone working there who had the ability to cut and stitch. I told him about the idea and sketched it out. A few days later I had a pretty jank prototype (no offense to him and his ability, it’s just funny to think about) of a dress shirt off the rack with detachable elastic bands that made the cuff’s flexible.
I eventually got connected to someone who had his own private label and worked with manufacturers overseas. I learned that my “prototype” wasn’t actually a prototype. I needed to get a sample mold made AND then begin production. I ended up getting five different shirt design prototypes. From there, I launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds with a goal of $15K. I pulled the plug after two weeks because the funding stalled out at $2,700. Looking back, my Kickstarter totally sucked and was rushed (I’ll revisit this later on). The silver lining -- I received A TON of private messages on how good the idea was, but an accessory would be better than a shirt. So, I went back to the drawing board with a separate band design.
Describe the process of launching the business.
After almost two years of prototyping and working with manufacturers overseas, I finally made FLXCUF bands. I had to abbreviate the word “Flexcuff” in order to trademark it. That said, I launched my actual online store and the business itself in June of 2017. Outside of friends and family, it did take a while to get some customers. FLXCUF was a new kind of accessory at the time, so I knew it was going to take some credible validation before I really started seeing some traction.
I was pretty low on cash at the time, as I was self-financing it as much as I could while also juggling my day job and still trying to make a living. The expenses at the time were product, patent, and trademark. Basically, I had no cash left over for marketing so I decided to just pound the pavement and hustle.
At the time, influencer marketing was taking off and subscription boxes were huge -- almost to the point of an oversaturated market. I reached out to every single men’s subscription box that I could find. The more prominent ones weren’t interested. However, I found some newer ones that like me, were looking to grow and collaborate. Sadly, those boxes are no longer in business. However, these boxes at the time were working with influencers so I was able to reach those people through the process and gain some traction.
The first “big moment” for me came during the fall that year when Men’s Health editors selected FLXCUF to be in its subscription box and placed a 1,200 unit order. Easily, one the greatest “highs'' ever had in my life. When I was able to reference that on social with a picture of the box, things really started to pick-up going into 2018.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Working with influencers, cross-promoting, customer service, and just putting myself out there, has really helped grow FLXCUF. Not every influencer has/is interested, as a matter of fact --- quite a few didn’t even bother responding or giving feedback. Those who did I took their interest very seriously and have always tried to support them as well along the way. Especially the micro-influencers who were just getting started when I was. It’s been cool to grow simultaneously.
I also did a lot of cross-promoting with other brands that really helped build awareness. We’d give each the shoutouts on social, newsletters, and conducted giveaways with some influencers. For me, this was and has been a cost-effective way to grow your audience and overall reach. Especially, given my limited budget and lack of success with paid ads.
I’m a huge advocate for customer service. I think it goes a long way and is the difference between losing one customer and gaining five more. I respond quickly to any questions, I replace defective products, and offer discounts to anyone who has had a bad experience. Thankfully, the need to replace any defective product hasn't happened often, but when I have it’s actually led to additional sales and repeat customers. In reference to the latter, this really helped when I launched version 2 of FLXCUF late last year. My initial sales launch was mostly made up of previous customers who bought all four of V2 colors released.
Reaching out and talking to other brands has also really helped me. Picking brains and developing a relationship can open new doors. For example, I was connected to Touch of Modern through a shirt brand founder that I have been fortunate to grow a professional relationship with.
Go for it. If you have an idea, embrace uncertainty and make it happen. It’s a roller coaster, but aren’t those supposed to be fun?
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
At the end of 2019, I launched FLXCUF V2. After taking feedback from customers, I made the design more aesthetically pleasing. The logo used to be on the band, I used a plastic button, and only carried the product in black and white. V2 is manufactured in the U.S., comes in four total colors, and a branded nickel rivet (jeans button) for a cleaner look. It’s definitely paid dividends as I have since had product placement in two men’s boutiques (Chicago and KC) since. The new V2 design is something I’m extremely proud of and excited about. Additionally, I am doing another go around with Touch of Modern and the first version of FLXCUF is up for sale on The Grommet in addition to my own website.
My overall strategy hasn’t really changed, I’m still trying to maximize collaborative brand and influencer partnerships. I plan to figure out Facebook/Google ads this year. The challenge is I have a lower-priced point item at $19.99, so there’s little to no room for error in capitalizing on paid ads optimization. I’m still doing a lot of pavement pounding (I genuinely enjoy the sale chase) trying to expand on retail opportunities. From a product standpoint, I’d like to launch additional colors. Those being navy, grey, and possibly a brown. I’ll lean on my customer base for those through surveying what they’d like to see next.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve so much over the last few years, I’m not even sure I can talk about it all without going on and on. Going back to my Kickstarter -- it was totally rushed, the product wasn’t ready (please see below), and the results showed. While it ended up being a blessing in disguise, the biggest thing I learned was patience. Something I seriously lacked five years ago. I had the mindset of “this is good enough” to start with. DO NOT have the 25-year-old Jay mindset. Take your time with your product/business before launching.
Nothing will be perfect when you do launch, but don’t rush it if it isn’t ready. I ended up spending a lot more money and time in the long run and I’ll always wonder “what if” I had spent more time on my Kickstarter campaign.
Reach out to other entrepreneurs/brands/companies that have been successful and interest you. It can be intimidating at first, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised how many are willing to connect. They were in your shoes at one point and have more of an understanding of everything you’re feeling than you probably realize. You’ll learn a ton and who knows, the conversation could lead to some collaborative efforts. Which is a great way to expand your reach and also work with like-minded people. For me personally, it has been my favorite part of this whole journey -- learning from so many other entrepreneurs who have had the success that I hope to have.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Like almost all e-commerce brands, I use Shopify. I think it’s amazing from being easy to use, to all the app add-ons you’re able to utilize to create a better experience for yourself and your customers. As a shopper, I used to hate pop-ups. Now that I’m on the other side of the equation, I do like the upsell apps Shopify offers. It’s a great way to increase sales and give customers a better deal over by adding more products to their carts.
From a non-digital standpoint, Shopify’s partnership with shipping services has also allowed me to save a buck by printing my own labels. The best part? Avoiding the post office altogether. It’s legit a dollar cheaper to print at home if you’re willing to make the initial investment in a label printer.
I use MailChimp for emails and newsletters. It’s great because I can sync it up with my Shopify store for easy access to my customer database. The nice thing about MailChimp is there’s a free version if you’re just getting started, with a few upgradeable paying options as well.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Prior to starting FLXCUF, I wasn’t a huge fan of reading. Since then, I’ve read a lot of books and am always seeking a new one to pick up. Some of my favorites -- Spin Selling by Neil Rackman, Way of the Wolf by Jordan Belfort, Rocket Fuel by Geno Wickman, and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson. The first two helped me a lot because prior to FLXCUF, I didn’t have a whole lot of sales experience. I got a better understanding of the sale process, how to persuade, and ultimately close. Plus, reading more about Jordan Belfort’s Straight Line Selling method that eventually launched him into pop culture stardom was pretty cool.
Rocket Fuel was referred to me and really helps you understand what type of entrepreneur or partner you are in business. You’re either the Visionary or the Integrator. I tend to be the Visionary type. That said, since I don’t have a partner, I’ve tried to pick up some Integrator tendencies (reality) to maximize my own success. Entrepreneur or not, everyone should read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. I struggled so much at the beginning of taking everything personally when someone didn’t like my product or had an interest in collaborating with me. The book helped me take a “to each their own” approach moving forward. It is just business and definitely not personal. Unfortunately, not everyone is going to be interested in what you have to offer and that’s just life in general.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Go for it. If you have an idea, embrace uncertainty and make it happen. It’s a roller coaster, but aren’t those supposed to be fun (pending motion sickness)? The lows suck and you will question yourself A LOT. But, the highs, success, knowledge, and confidence gained are life-changing. Even if your idea doesn’t “boom”, you won’t regret taking the chance.
Take your time, do your research, KNOW YOUR COSTS, and talk to everyone you can. Also, know that it takes time to build. So, practice patience, stay the course and look at every small win as a brick to the whole house.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’ve been looking for a marketing intern for a few months. That hasn’t really gone well as internships are now supposed to be paid (I wish that were the case 8 years ago).
However, I’d love to find someone who can help with online ads on a performance basis to start.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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