Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Brian McEuen, and I'm the founder of On Brand. We help guys shop for clothes online by curating personalized selections as if they were walking into their very own store. We're like Spotify for clothes! Another way to put it: imagine those “Top 25 T-Shirts for this Summer” lists curated just for you down to the right size, fit, style, and color!
Before this, I was a Global Director of Merchandising at the Banana Republic, overseeing a few men's categories, including pants, denim, knits, and accessories. I also recently graduated with my MBA from The Kellogg School of Management.
I recently launched our MVP with On Brand. As of now, I curate highly personalized emails with links to products and information on how to wear clothes and build your wardrobe. I curate these for each user individually so no two users receive the same email. And of course, I only send products that are in stock in your size and fit!
I currently have about 75 users and an annualized revenue run rate of $1800.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in the Bay Area before it was the hotbed of the software tech world, but I spent my time playing volleyball and got to be a recruited walk-on at UCSD. Unfortunately, I was cut from the team about a month into the school year.
Looking for ways to use my newfound free time, I got involved with the student government. For the first couple of years, I was a student leader and activist, but for the last few years (yes, I stayed for 5) I got involved with some of the businesses that our student government owned on campus. Through that experience, I got to launch a new business called Triton Outfitters which was a student store that sold t-shirts and apparel related to student life. That was my first foray into entrepreneurship, and I was hooked.
I wasn’t quite sure about the next steps to take in that pursuit, so after I graduated, I went back up north and joined The Gap, where I spent just over 5 years in merchandising at the Banana Republic, helping to lead the launch of category-defining products.
But I always knew that I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship again, and I thought my pathway to do that would be by going back to business school (counterintuitive, I know). I was inspired by some of the folks who launched CPG and apparel companies out of business schools like Andy Dunn with Bonobos or the Warby Parker team, and I thought that could be me!
So, I went to Kellogg for their full-time 2-year MBA program, and unfortunately was a part of the pandemic class. But, I took the extra time I had in front of my computer to work on a business idea that had been percolating in my mind since my time at the Banana Republic.
Over my time at BR, I noticed that guys were shopping differently. Instead of walking into a physical store and completing their wardrobe in one fell swoop, they were instead buying the best of products from the plethora of new digitally native brands.
I figured there’s got to be a better way to discover the products and shop from these brands, so I started building On Brand to help solve the problem of curation and product discovery that now exists online!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Well, my product is a software product so the designing and prototyping don’t stop. But I did get started in all the wrong ways.
With no technical background, I thought at the beginning that I could come in with an idea, hire a developer to build it, and voila, I would have a company. I learned that’s not really how it works.
Even without no-code tools, there is likely some sort of validation you should be able to do with the skills you already have, even if it’s just talking to people at a coffee shop, building out an email list, or posting videos on Instagram or Tiktok.
After getting my marketing site up and determining I could get people to sign-up and give me their email against a few different value propositions, I needed to get some sort of product launch.
So, I hired someone through UpWork to write some code for me to put on my web pages. It was so incredibly manual to the point where I was copying and pasting in HTML to change the products on someone’s page. Of course, it looked amateurish:
After trying this for a bit and realizing I wasn’t solving any of my users’ problems, I started to talk to an undergrad student who was offering his web development services. I mocked a wireframe up (I didn’t know what that was at the time) and he got started working. It turned out, well not great. It was very clunky, and slow, and it didn’t look great:
Frustrated, I kept doing some research and eventually found the world of no-code/low-code and started working on building an app in Adalo (more detail below). This was perfect for me. It’s a super easy-to-use drag-and-drop builder where you can visually design and even publish your app. I got started with a web app as I thought that would require a bit less commitment from my users.
I’m constantly making updates to the interface today based on the feedback that my users give me and as someone non-technical, no-code provides the perfect solution to be able to do that.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I don’t think I ever really had a “launch” as in a single moment where the lights were turned on and the doors were opened. Instead, I’ve just iterated and iterated the whole time.
I guess if I had to point to a launch moment it was when I got my marketing site live on Squarespace, a landing page that would help me determine if other people were looking for a solution to the problem I was trying to solve.
It’s hard to think of this as a launch, though, because, of course, no one came to my website for a long time. And rightfully so, it was a pretty crappy-looking website!
My goal was just to get something up so that I could start driving Facebook ad traffic to it and see if people would sign-up and give me their email. I had very little success.
So, I iterated. I made a better-looking website, started to work on developing blog content for SEO purposes, and even started working on building a personal audience in social channels to help drive traffic.
This isn’t an overnight strategy like spending money on ads can be. It takes time, and if I could go back and do it again, I would have started this process much sooner!
I also think I have reduced the complexity of what I was trying to build/test when I first “launched.” If you asked me back then, a launch would have looked like a functioning app that you could download in the app store, etc.
Now, I have a much more manual, labor-intensive process of hand-curating products for people, and this shift in strategy came about from the fact that I wasn’t getting usable feedback from people, so I needed to reduce my scope and simplify the value proposition I was testing.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
At my stage, which is incredibly early, the best way I’ve found to attract and retain customers is through a way that doesn’t scale. I recruit them all by hand! I spend countless hours in online forums where my ideal customer also spends time. I try to provide value publicly to the forum while also recruiting (DMing) the users who I think would benefit most from the solution I offer.
So far, my success rate is pretty high! This method also allows me to build a relationship with each user, so I can continually gather feedback from them and use that feedback to try to improve my product. I think that’s harder when you don’t know who is using your product.
I’ve also invested a lot of time into long-term growth channels like SEO and organic social media. Of course, these aren’t free channels, they take a considerable time investment, but they do have a decreasing marginal customer acquisition cost.
They also help you talk to and learn from your users in ways that paid advertising doesn’t. I think once you start on the paid advertising train, it just becomes an exercise in funnel optimization and you lose any 1 on 1 contact or rapport with your users.
These aren’t necessarily my long-term plans for growth. I will eventually have to prove against a growth hypothesis that there is a profitable way to bring new customers onto my platform, but right now I’m still testing my value hypothesis (i.e. that I can create value for a user and capture some percentage of that value). These are distinct concepts, I think, and should be tested separately.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
While I am still in value proposition testing mode, it’s difficult to think about profitability holistically. Of course, I don’t pay myself a salary or anything, and I invest a lot of time into working on my business so on that dimension, of course, I’m not profitable, yet.
I do think about unit economics quite a bit in terms of what lifetime value I can derive from a customer and how much it might cost to attain them (at scale). As the process of both customer recruitment and retention is very manual, CAC doesn’t make a lot of sense at this stage.
Right now, my product is essentially a highly personalized and curated weekly email of products and brands I think you might like. It’s pretty simple. In the future, I hope to build out more of a marketplace where a user can fully transact through the platform, similar to how you might buy something through Instagram today. And I do think there is room/requirement for AI and ML to help enable this. Again, not there yet, but I hope to be soon.
I think there will be quite a bit of firepower in the combination of a media company on the front end, helping to recruit and retain customers with a software-enabled “back end” for transacting. That’s what I’m looking to build with an emphasis on building and creating the media first.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
As I mentioned before, I would have started the process of building a personal audience much earlier. There is no downside to it. Of course, it takes time, persistence, and consistency, but a personal audience can be a huge asset for any future business you build as well.
And even if you don’t pursue entrepreneurship, I don’t think there is any downside to building a community of people who want to hear what you have to say and engage with you on important topics.
Just get started. Create a website, get active on social media to build an audience, and talk to people to see if they have the problem you are trying to solve.
The other big mistake I’ve made (read: ‘lesson I’ve learned’) is to do it all yourself first. I tried to outsource too many things in the beginning and in so doing, didn’t know what I was asking for.
Without any technical knowledge, I tried to contract a developer to help build my solution. Of course, I didn’t get anything I wanted because I didn’t know what I wanted in the first place. With modern tools like no-code/low-code, there is no excuse for the non-technical founders to try and build something to test your value hypothesis.
Even without no-code tools, there is likely some sort of validation you should be able to do with the skills you already have, even if it’s just talking to people at a coffee shop, building out an email list, or posting videos on Instagram or Tiktok. I guarantee there is some low-code/no-code way to test the business you want to build.
Lastly, I think I have to learn this every day, but this whole entrepreneurship thing is a process. There is no finish line, I don’t think, just a long, hard journey. Set goals for yourself, achieve them, and then set harder goals. At least, that’s what has worked for me so far.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As a non-technical founder of what is and will continue to be a technical business, I’ve had to leverage quite a few online tools (mostly SaaS) to help get my business off the ground. This list isn’t necessarily complete, but these are my favorite in order of importance
Getting a website launched these days is super easy. There are a ton of out-of-the-box website builders you can use and probably a ton of blog posts on how to pick the best one. My website is just a marketing website that pushes users down the funnel to sign-up for my web app (hopefully a mobile app in the future). I used Squarespace to build this as it’s easy to get started with. It has a ton of templates to use for those who are less design-inclined.
Get started with SEO early. This marketing channel takes time to build credibility in the eyes of Google and your searchers. So, if you think that your business is a solution that someone would look for through a search engine, start building SEO through content and link-building. I use ahrefs to help me track my SEO progress (keyword research, competitor search, site audits, a ton more).
Again, as a non-technical founder, I had to build an MVP using no-code tools. There are a ton out there, but I settled on using Adalo (mobile app builder mostly for front-end - what the user sees), Airtable as my database/back-end, Integromat (now Make) as the API builder to link them together (similar to Zapier).
Twilio’s SendGrid. I think Klayvio gets recommended here the most frequently but landed on using SendGrid to help me send my highly curated emails. There is an API that is linked to my web app to give me a good front-end visual to craft the emails. They also offer a Startup service which is essentially 1 year's worth of using their service for free so it’s great when you’re just starting out.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I LOVE podcasts. Over the last 2 years, podcasts have replaced music for me as casual listening when I'm commuting, in the car, or even just doing work at my computer. In terms of entrepreneurship and getting inspired to build On Brand, these are my favorite podcasts:
- This Week in Startups - I’ve become a big fan of all the work that Jason Calacanis does including his podcast with Molly Wood, This Week in Startups. They talk about current news with segments about building startups, thinking about venture capital, etc.
- How I Built This - Guy Raz does an amazing job talking with founders of well-known companies on the stories of how they built their businesses. It’s hard to walk away from this podcast NOT feeling inspired about building your own business.
- Acquired - Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal talk about some of the biggest M&A transactions and public listings in history. They do a great job of talking through the history of these companies which can help you think strategically about your business if you’re innovating in similar spaces.
- All-In - 4 ‘bestie’ VCs/investors David Sacks, Jason Calacanis, Chamath Palihapitiya, and Jason Calacanis talk about current events and interweave stories of their portfolio companies and how current news is affecting them. I’ve also enjoyed the banter the 4 have with their different ideological and political views.
Some of my non-entrepreneurship favorites:
- The Rest is History
- 538 Politics
- Checks and Balances
- The Economist: Money Talks
- Planet Money
Some of the books that have been helpful for me on my entrepreneurial journey include:
- Zero To One - Peter Thiel’s book on why you should build wholly new businesses as opposed to copying current ones that are only incrementally better. Thiel is big on the idea of creating businesses that are not the first entrant but the last (“competition is for losers”).
- The Lean Startup - this book talks about the idea of building an MVP to test certain hypotheses about your business, getting your product in front of users (even a small set0 and using their feedback to iterate and improve on the product. Then repeat this and don’t ever stop.
- The Founder’s Dilemmas - if you’re struggling with the idea of becoming a founder or entrepreneur, this book gives you a lot of great things to think about including how to set up you and your early team for success.
- Venture Deals - this is a more technical read about raising venture capital which most businesses don’t need. If you think you could need venture capital to help scale your business, this book is a good read to help level the playing field when dealing with VCs. You might not need to read this in week 1 of your business.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I guess the advice is what I wish someone had told me early on, and maybe they had, but I just didn’t listen.
My best piece of advice is to stop trying to find advice and just get started - whatever form that takes. Create a website, get active on social media to build an audience, and talk to people to see if they have the problem you are trying to solve or would pay for/use the solution you are trying to build.
It’s very easy to spend a lot of time gathering information, listening to all the entrepreneurially minded podcasts, reading all the right books, etc. I’m guilty of this too. I constantly have to remind myself that the best advice is found from figuring it out yourself.
The other piece of advice I wish I listened to early on is to find ways not to get burned out. I think your entrepreneurial journey only ends when you give up, and you’ll only give up if you are burned out and not seeing the results that you want. Create goals for yourself and manufacture small wins to achieve them.
Of course, your goals need to get bigger and bolder as you go, but I think it helps to see ** ** that you can be successful otherwise your work can feel for naught.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m not specifically hiring for anything right now, but I am always interested in talking to people who are interested in the problem I am trying to solve or at least this space. So, if you are interested in any of the below - shoot me an email, and let’s chat casually and see where it goes:
- Clothes (some folks just like clothes without liking what is often the high-brow nature of ‘fashion’ - this is me by the way)
- Curating the Internet
- Helping people dress better
- Not having to or wanting to buy everything from Amazon
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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