Our Journey From Being Childhood Classmates To Building A $25K/Month Sustainable Winter Clothing Business

Published: May 5th, 2023
Slater McLean
Founder, Oliver Charles
Oliver Charles
from San Francisco, CA, USA
started January 2020
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Slater McLean. I’m the Co-founder of Oliver Charles and I'm thrilled to share our eco-friendly sweaters with you, made from seaweed and Yak Wool - the ultimate sustainable materials.

Growing up in the mountains of Colorado, outdoor adventure had a major influence on us. Throughout our lives, we've always preferred wearing durable, high-performing clothes versus wearing the latest trend. The truth is, the relationship we have with our clothes is personal, and whether we're cycling through exhausting work weeks, cooking with our partners, or lounging on Sundays, we want to look and feel our best.

There's even a science behind the relationship we share with our clothes called "Enclothed Cognition" - the study of how clothes impact our well-being and determine our creativity, productivity, and happiness throughout the day.

Whether you're juggling big life decisions, powering through Zoom calls, exploring the mountains, or going out to dinner, your Oliver Charles sweater will always be there for you. They are the most versatile pieces in your closet and let you quickly and elegantly shift between work and life, which is increasingly important as we blur the lines between the two.

Every Oliver Charles sweater is made in Brooklyn, NY, on advanced 3D-knitting machines that seamlessly "print" each sweater in a single piece, making them lighter and stronger while reducing waste. Made from world-renowned materials, Kullu ("coo-loo"), a super fiber from high elevation Tibetan Yak, and merino wool. They are known for being temperature-regulating and odor-resistant, ideal for repeat wear, and simplifying life. It's not just a sweater; it's a single item for all of life.

Since launching our first sweater on Indiegogo in the fall of 2020, we’ve doubled the size of our business each year with no outside investment.


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

My story begins in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado when two eight-year-old kids found themselves sitting next to each other in class learning things like how to spell giraffe and write in cursive...

While writing this nearly 20 years later, my co-founder Jack and I are still getting caught by spell check on words like “giraffe” and I’m not fooling anyone with my cursive.

As years flipped by, we eventually found ourselves as roommates in the Bay Area working for the man and dreaming of starting a business together… oh how time flies.

Luckily, not much has changed we still play hooky from the rat race to explore the natural beauty of the state, and whether it’s camping along the epic coastline of Big Sur, or backpacking in the Sierra Mountains, we’re constantly testing the comfort and versatility of the clothes we travel with.

As much as we thought about our clothing, we always felt we were somewhat left behind when. Everything was either overly trendy, poorly made, or athletic gear. We just wanted something simple, high quality, and easy to care for that we could wear to work every day.

Since the beginning, we've been committed to building a sustainable company from both an environmental and financial perspective.

When we couldn’t find anything that fit the bill, we started thinking about creating something for ourselves. That’s when we started researching materials and eventually stumbled across yak wool (Kullu). It was a light bulb moment. Here’s this underutilized fiber with extraordinary properties that directly solves a pain point we are currently experiencing.

The rest is history…

Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.

When we first started Oliver Charles, we had zero experience in fashion. Neither my co-founder nor I had gone to design school, we'd never worked in fashion, and to be perfectly honest, we weren't that fashionable. So when it came time to design our first product, a crew neck sweater, we decided the best path forward was to ask people what they wanted.

The next day we added a page to our website that said, "Help us design the perfect sweater,” and our customer advisory board was born.


When you're developing something from scratch, whether it's a new business, a new product, or even a new feature, there's a chicken and egg sort of moment. What comes first, the product or the user? How do you get users without a product, and how do you know the product is worth developing without users?

That's where a customer advisory board comes in handy. Simply put, it's a way to get people interested in your product before it exists while validating its existence. A good customer advisory board is one part community and one part feedback loop.

As with most things, the first step to creating a customer advisory board was figuring out why people should care. How will they benefit from being a member? It can be any number of reasons, both tangible and intangible.

We promised members of our customer advisory board exclusive discounts and early access to new products. Additionally, our messaging centered around helping design a product they'd want. This encouraged members to continue to engage with us as we worked towards the same goal, designing the perfect sweater.

For folks to join the Customer Advisory Board, all they had to do was complete a simple application. Just enough friction to get committed to helping us but not enough to scare them away.

The application consisted of 9 questions and took about 3 minutes to complete. The questions were designed to help us understand what kind of sweater people wanted. We used Typeform to build and collect the data. People accessed it through a button on our website. You can find the original application here.

We took all the info we gathered from those simple surveys, distilled it, and shared it with a knitwear manufacturer based in Brooklyn, NY. In a short two months, we had the very first version of our sweater, which we sent to many, many members of our customer advisory board for feedback. The video below is an example of some of the feedback we received.

By the time we were ready to launch, we had real people giving us real reviews of the product and a final version that we were sure people would want.

Describe the process of launching the business.

While working with our customer advisory board, we realized that we were in a perfect position to run a crowdfunding campaign. We had thousands of people on an email list we’d been engaging with regularly. We’d also spent so much time asking these folks for help that, at this point, they were just as curious to see the final product as we were.

Using some sort of Excel model filled with made-up numbers, we figured that we’d need to raise at least $50k to get the business off the ground. So that became our goal for the campaign. However, we set our public goal much lower to game the system and make it look as if we blew past our goal with minimal effort.

Next, we needed to determine if we had a big enough email list to reach our goal. So we did the math. If the average order value were $150, we’d need to sell 333 sweaters to reach $50k. We figured that we’d safely convert our email list to 5%.

Which is high, but we had a customer advisory board that we thought would convert at a higher rate. So to sell 333 sweaters, our list would need to have roughly 6,650 people on it. As soon as we hit that number, we decided to launch.

This was easily the most exciting moment in the company's history. We had spent over a year preparing for it and surpassed our goal in under 3 hours. I still remember the moment we went live. We sat together at our kitchen table, getting ready to push the Indiegogo page live. We had everything lined up and ready to go.

Then we pressed the button, and the campaign went live. Slowly orders started to trickle in, 1, then another a few minutes later, and so on. It wasn't until we started emailing the customer advisory board we'd tirelessly been building for over 6 months that things began to take off. Before we knew it, orders were flooding in, and we were well on our way to blowing past our goal.

Building a business is all about moving forward. You lose the second you start thinking you can change the past.

In our excitement, I reloaded the front page of Indiegogo, and there we were — right there — trending on the homepage. A whole year of work culminated in seeing Oliver Charles trending on that front page. I think I may have shed a tear at that moment.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Since starting, the marketing landscape has begun to shift, and the Facebook arbitrage that once existed is no longer there. While FB (Meta) ads are still vital to our growth strategy, they are just a piece of the pie, not the whole thing.

Our marketing efforts can be broken into three categories, organic, paid, and in-person.

The organic channel consists of all the obvious things and some not-so-obvious things. We spend time on SEO, we post on all the social media accounts, and we send emails. Additionally, we have a thriving Facebook group built around something we call the 1-week challenge.

The 1-Week Sweater Challenge is the perfect way to test the utility of our sweaters. We simply ask customers to wear their sweaters for seven days straight and document their experience by posting in our Facebook group. If they complete the challenge, we will refund the $50 and give them 20% off their next sweater. It’s a great way to get folks in the mindset of outfit repeating while demonstrating the power of our products.


Our paid strategy is quite simple we spend on both Meta (Facebook & Instagram) and Google ad words. Our Google strategy is to make sure we’re on top of the page for high-intent words like Oliver Charles, yak wool sweater, and summer sweater. Our Meta strategy is to test a new ad set at least once a month, and we let the meta-algorithm do all the work. We just feed it high-quality content.

We have a rule that we have to hit 1.8 ROAS on ads which is our breakeven point (COGS + CAC = AOV). Everything we make beyond that we use to increase the ad budget. So if we spend $1,000 on ads in a month and get $2000 out. Next month, we’ll spend $1,200 ($1,800-$2,000=$200 <> $1,000+$200 = $1,200) on ads and so on. If we don’t hit or exceed the 1.8 ROAS number, then we don’t increase spending the following month.

Our in-person strategy includes lots of markets and popups. Throughout the year, we’ll, on average, participate in 25-30 markets and at least one 3-month holiday popup where we’ll rent a storefront.

Last year about 45% of revenue came from in-person sales, 40% came from organic marketing, and 15% came from paid advertising. This year we expect 20% to come from in-person sales, 50% from organic marketing, and 30% from paid advertising.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Our goal has always been to become THE sweater company. When we launched our customer advisory board, we collected more than 100k data points and spoke to thousands of customers from all over the world.

What did we learn from collecting all this data? Everyone is different. When we started, we were searching for a common thread we could craft a product around. We realized that's how every clothing brand does it, and it's not working.

So we decided to stop searching for a common thread and instead embrace the uncommon threads. Rather than forcing customers to conform to our standards, we want to conform to theirs. We should be able to buy clothing the same way we order food at Chipotle... personalized to our liking. So that's where we are headed. To make buying a sweater more like ordering a burrito.

This isn't a new concept; custom suits, t-shirts, and jeans have been around forever. We want to apply these same concepts to sweaters. We envision a future where some level of personalization is table stakes for all apparel brands. The benefits would be vast, not only for the consumer but for the planet. Since the beginning, we've been committed to building a sustainable company from both an environmental and financial perspective.

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

1: Be someone that other people root for, not against. There have been countless times while starting Oliver Charles when the support of friends, family, old colleagues, and strangers has made all the difference. When we launched our crowdfunding campaign, the first $10,000 came from people we knew that wanted to support us. That first influx of money landed us on the front page, and the rest is history. If you go into starting a business with the mindset that it’s you against the world, you’ll never make it.

2: Be adaptable, don’t dwell on issues you can’t solve. Something will always go wrong. When this happens, you can sit around and dwell on it, spend hours analyzing and complaining, or you can move on to solving the next problem. Building a business is all about moving forward. You lose the second you start thinking you can change the past. That’s not to say you shouldn’t learn from the past. You should always try to learn from your mistakes and actions, but sometimes, there’s no lesson to be learned; you just got unlucky. So move on and keep marching forward.

3: Spend time and money on your packaging. I once saw a quote from someone that said, “Your packaging is the only thing with a 100% open rate.” That was a profound realization for us. The package is a customer’s first impression; we all know those are the most important. How they feel after receiving the package will translate to how they feel when they first experience your product. Imagine two scenarios:

Scenario No. 1, someone gets a beat-up box with your logo on it, nothing special, just a box. Then when they open it up and see the product, they already think this isn’t special. Thus any aspect of your product that doesn’t absolutely wow them will be associated with mediocracy.

Scenario No. 2, someone gets a well-designed, beautiful, unique box in pristine condition. They’d never seen anything like it before. When they open that up, they’re already in a good mood. That means as long as your product doesn’t convince them otherwise, they are walking away feeling like they just got something special.

We spend a disproportionate amount of money on our packaging, and I always get questions as to why. My answer is simple; our return rate is less than 2%. I attribute that to our packaging being better than anything else they received in the mail that day. If they think the product is special, they won’t want to return it.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

The business is built on top of Shopify. We use Pageflyfor all the UI/UX and design. It’s a great drag-and-drop tool that lets you visually edit the CS code within a Shopify theme.

For email, we use Klayvio and G Suite. We use Airtable, Zapier, and Typeform to manage and automate customer service, content creation, and analytics. Those are the main tools we use to manage the business. Without them, we’d be in big trouble!

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

The main podcasts I listen to are E-commerce Fuel, Limited Supply, and My First Million. The e-commerce fuel podcast provides the best and most actionable advice for running an ecom business. My First Million and Limited Supply are mostly just entertaining.

I spend most of my educational time on Twitter. I find the most actionable information from people on that platform. I find folks like Jon Matzner (@MatznerJon), Keval Shah (@SEOKeval), Kurt Elster (@kurtinc), Shaan Puri (@ShaanVP), and Michael Girdley (@girdley) to be the most helpful.

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

I would say three things, in particular, I’d suggest someone who’s just starting out keep this in mind. Manage your expectations, work well with external stakeholders, and stay positive.

The one truth to starting a business is that nothing will work out the way you expected it to. No matter what, at some point along the way, something will happen that's completely unexpected, both positively and negatively. It's important not to dwell on these moments and move forward while learning as much as possible.

You'll have to work with external stakeholders. We are often taught that there has to be a winner and a loser in business negotiations. That never works. It's always better to devise a win-win situation. If you're successful, your partners should share in the success.

Finally, you have to believe that what you're doing will work. If you don't believe this, you'll spend all your time looking for assurances that whatever you're doing will work. This analysis paralysis will quickly kill any business, no matter how good the idea is.

Where can we go to learn more?