Selling socks and underwear subscriptions

Bruce
Bruce Firestone
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The story of Manpacks and the tipping point

Anyone who starts a company with the following tagline is bound to be different: "We give men (and the people who love them) more time to build empires, climb mountains (and) slay dragons to achieve the goals they aspire to."

(Stock image)

Andrew Draper, 36, co-founder of Manpacks, didn’t disappoint during a recent visit to the Telfer School of Management. The Kanata/Providence, R.I. company, started by Mr. Draper and Ken Johnson in 2009, introduced the audience to the concept of “product-as-a-service.”

The Holy Grail for tech firms is software-as-a-service, with its promise of committed monthly recurring revenues, and Mr. Draper and Mr. Johnson have managed their underwear and sock subscription service in exactly that way.

Mr. Draper boiled his two-minute elevator pitch down to just two seconds: “We’re the ‘Netflix’ of underwear. But don’t mail it back.”

Finding the essence of your idea by distilling it down to its simplest possible form is key. What Manpacks does is deliver men’s underwear, socks, and other essentials every quarter to subscribers.

It took just one month from idea to launch but, despite the fact that they had some cool code, their website was too complicated and it just didn’t work – they had just one customer in their first three months. Men don’t like to shop either online or in real life, so they had to simplify their site and relaunch it. When they did, they got five clients in their first 24 hours. This taught them to experiment early and often, to iterate and fail or succeed – fast.

It helps that Mr. Draper is both a designer and a self-taught coder. He also has focus, discipline and great timing.

Prior to starting Manpacks, Mr. Draper kicked around for more than 10 years, playing in a band, starting a record label, working for four different agencies in California and then becoming an independent contractor. That last gig paid him $125 per hour but even so, he didn’t want to be a wage slave forever.

Now he wanders around his Kanata home in jeans, a T-shirt and slippers, coding and seemingly doing endless media interviews. Manpacks gets more media coverage than just about any other business its size. Stories about the offbeat nature of the company’s service have appeared in the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and many others.

All the stories cluster around the same time period: March to October 2010. That’s because Manpacks got its key break on March 5, the day that Hacker News did a story on the firm, bringing in 14,000 visitors during the next 24 hours. A tipping point had been reached.

It turned out that the guys had created what author, entrepreneur and Squidoo founder Seth Godin calls a purple cow – something so unique that everyone wants to talk about it.

At the time, their business model consisted of buying underwear and socks from Haines, having the inventory delivered to their homes and repackaging it there before sending the stuff on to their customers. The sudden increase in subscriptions sent them to local Walmart and Target stores to buy product at retail, frantically trying to meet the surge in orders.

With 17,000 unique visits monthly to Manpacks’s site now, the old model was not sustainable. Instead, the guys did a deal with a fulfilment company – Sweetwater Logistics in Charlotte, N.C. – so they could handle current volumes and any additional work that came their way.

All the media attention they received came from their social media and blogosphere strategies – and they never once went to a journalist to ask for a story.

The idea of Manpacks is not unique; a guy had tried it before and failed. Mr. Draper makes the point: “It’s not your idea that counts. It’s EXECUTION of your idea that counts.”

Manpacks was started with $500, plus $10 for its domain name. The company has never taken a dime of VC money.

Mr. Draper looks at starting a business this way: there is a balancing of risks and rewards, but, in his view, the rewards greatly outweigh the risks. He also employed risk mitigation strategies. For example, instead of worrying about being laughed at, Manpacks tries to be funny on purpose.

Mr. Draper was guided by Seth Godin’s comment: “The riskiest thing we can do right now is nothing.”

It didn’t hurt that they nailed the name, “Manpacks,” which has an obvious double entendre.  

I asked Mr. Draper about his exit strategy. He described four scenarios:

- It fails, which is unlikely now;

- It reaches $2 million per year in sales, and is kept a personal

   business for life;

- It reaches $10 million per year in sales, and is sold;

- It reaches $100 million per year in sales, is kept independent

   and the business model evolves.

He says he’s unsure what is next, but that doesn’t bother him one bit. He shrugs and says: “There are two choices in life – you can be a cog or be a wheel. I want to be a wheel.”

Professor Bruce M. Firestone is entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management; founder of the Ottawa Senators; executive director of Exploriem.org; and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc.

Organizations: Telfer School of Management, Huffington Post, Boston Globe New York Times Hacker News Walmart Target University of Ottawa Ottawa Senators Century 21 Explorer Realty

Geographic location: California, Kanata, Providence, R.I. Charlotte, N.C.

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