Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello fellow entrepreneurs, my name is Marc Debnam and I head the brand Stonemen.
We make ‘Damn fine cotton underwear’ for men and women. What makes our underwear a bit different than the norm is we collaborate with artists globally to create beautiful images which we print on the underwear. And we also have a great range of cotton essentials for everyday.
I run the business with my wife Lenny on logistics, Simon on digital and my good buddy and business partner Johnnie Cass.
We are based in the lovely beachside town of Byron Bay, where we have a great balance of work and lifestyle. Stonemen are sold globally through Stonemen.com and are stocked in over 100 stores.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Before Stonemen I was a fashion Photographer, specializing in swimwear and underwear.
I was inspired to create an underwear brand after briefly watching an elderly man doing stretches in short shorts and no underwear. His testicles were halfway down his thigh.
Write a business plan. Doesn’t have to be fancy. It will evolve but it also will give you the clarity to prioritise.
Apologies for that visual. And I remember thinking ‘that’s gravity for you’. At that stage, I also wore no underwear and saw my calling.
Being a photographer was a skill that has come in very handy having a brand like Stonemen. It also helped influence the concept of putting images on undies. Our first design was of a dark forest that I shot in Australia.
I remember dropping the image into an underwear template on my desktop and thinking ‘this is it’ this is my point of difference.
A year later I had 3000 pairs of underwear sitting in my garage, a very basic ecommerce site and no business experience, but I managed to get a good set of mentors who guided me through the start-up phase.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We had many challenges getting that first sample. I knew nothing about underwear.
And I was adamant that I wanted the image to be unbroken as it went through the seams. They said ‘Can’t be done on cotton - too unstable’.
Cotton was our challenge, I wasn’t going to budge. There are other brands with prints but they have settled for polyesters. Nothing natural about that.
It was just a matter of a few key people: Fabric, Printing and Making gurus and getting them to talk to each other. Once the communication was flowing between departments all the issues were ironed out. Because cotton is an organic fibre it is different in each batch ei: shrinkage, weight.
First, we start with an image concept - we need to decide what colours and what theme will fit in nicely with the other designs. We work 4 months in advance for each design as that gives us plenty of time for approving the colours in the print, any delays we might have, photography for branding & product images and then feeding it to our PR team who then feed it out to press and publications on and offline.
Once we have chosen our artist to collaborate with and they have completed the artwork, we enter into the sampling and manufacturing phase.
Initially, we started doing as much of the manufacturing in Australia as we were able. But quickly realised we needed a manufacturer that was vertically integrated. Everything needed to be done under the one roof. As mentioned earlier communication between departments was so important.
We found a factory in China that made the product beautifully, we worked with them for 3 years perfecting the product. Then we poached their head guy who managed all the stages of our production and helped him start his own business with us as his key client. This is when our business really started to grow.
Anthony manages everything to do with the making of the product. He is a part of the team. We skype every second day. We keep each other accountable because we are in a way partners. He oversees everything from fabric knitting, printing to organising packaging and logistics.
My relationship with Anthony in China has been monumental in the success of our business.
Strong relationships are key when dealing with international suppliers. I make the time to call often and visit the factory. Show them you are in it for the long game and worth investing time and energy in.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We started with the focus of Online only. Built a very expensive basic site back in 2008.
And got ready for the explosion of sales we had anticipated.
I think looking back to my business plan I had worked it out that I would be a half-millionaire by the end of the year. Ha! Not even close.
The best move we did was to switch to the Shopify platform in 2016. Everything became simple.
We launched with just the men’s range. Sales were very slow, one or two a week. At that stage, I thought straight guys would be my main demographic.
It was only when I started selling at the markets to make more cash that I discovered my main buyer was a woman in her 35 -55 buying for the men in her life. With sales peaking at gift times like Valentine’s Day and Christmas.
It appeared that my product was a well priced unique gift more than it was an expensive pair of underwear. Once I understood my USP it all changed. Our message became clearer and we knew how to budget to our particular audiences.
For example in the lead up to Christmas, we focused our marketing spend on women. As we moved into Jan/Feb we started talking to the underwear wearer, who was usually a guy.
In 2013 we launched the women’s range, which now makes up 30% of our sales.
Really understanding who my customer is and why they are buying, on an emotional level saved us so much marketing spend.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The best move we did was to switch to the Shopify platform in 2016. Everything became simple. Shopify is an easy to use software with great add-on apps so you can build your ecommerce business exactly how you like it.
And it intergrates with our accounting and logistics platforms. Xero, Auspost, DHL. As well as most sales and marketing channels.
It freed up so much time working in the business, allowing us time to focus on growth and brand awareness.
With my basic technical skills, I built a great site. The one we still have. I experiment with apps that just plug in and if they add that’s great if they don’t we move on.
We now have a very clear path with marketing although it has taken so long to see what works for underwear and what didn’t.
We focus on Facebook Ads for enticing new customers and then retarget them with Facebook Dynamic product and carousel ads.
We also use Google display and Google Smart shopping. Any platform that shows a picture of our product.
This year will see us bring out new designs monthly. This keeps the brand fresh and gives us loads of content to play with.
The turning point for us and my biggest piece of advice I can give is understanding how your marketing funnel works. Understanding what will grab the attention of your cold customer, what brand messages to create value, trust, and desire and then how to seduce them into purchasing.
And then a consistent retention strategy to turn your new customers into loyal ambassadors.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Stonemen as an online business has been growing around 10% per year.
We turnover between 40k and 200k a month depending on the time of year - Christmas being the big one.
We work on a GP around 70% for online and 40% for wholesale. Because we have put in the time our customer acquisition costs are usually around $8-15 and up to $25 at Christmas with an average lifetime value at $230. We have 22k Instagram followers and 34k in our email database.
We are stepping it up this year by launching into the US with the help of the EMDG (Export Market Development Grant). The EMDG is open to small businesses wanting to grow internationally. We work with Gemma at exportsolutions.com.au who helps us compile all the requirements. The grant can reimburse you up to 50% of your international marketing expenses.
We have just launched a US site and plan on a subscription service mid year.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve made a few costly mistakes believing that this or that marketing company can build your revenue by this much.
They all have the same formula, they all sat the same facebook/google courses, they all have unique algorithms for growth.
They will never have the intuition of USP and customer that you have developed in your gut.
I believe that side of the business should be sitting right beside you on a daily basis.
What we really are is a marketing company that sells underwear.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Shopify. So easy. So many great plugin apps.
And my favourite app: Data Export ‑ Reports by Estore Automate. This app can pull a report on anything you need. Can’t rate it enough.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
We are very lucky to have a team member with the skills and knowledge that Johnnie has.
He comes from a personal and business development background and has been a leading light through all the business/ life/ children drama. A great inhouse coach and mentor.
Another favourite is Alina Berdichevsky, at www.alinabcoaching.com a close friend at Stonemen and super sharp.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Write a business plan. Doesn’t have to be fancy. You just need to put down your thoughts, challenges, SWOT, finances, timelines with focus on the USP. It will evolve but it will give you clarity to prioritise.
Try to write it as though you are looking for finance from someone who cares nothing about the product and only about making money. I found when I did this, it was brutally honest. Then you can make the decision - Is this a good idea or not.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes we are looking for a Brand Guru - must be a great copywriter and have big ideas.
And be based in beautiful Byron Bay
Where can we go to learn more?
- You can see what we do at stonemen.com
- If you’d like to see how great the undies are, here is a code to get 25% off - code: starterstory
- Any other info I can be reached at [email protected]
- +61 6685 3500
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!