Jeff Kearl

“I walked up and down the aisles of Target and Walmart and Nordstrom,” said the cofounder and chief executive officer of Stance, Jeff Kearl. “I would just stand in front of each category, and I would size it up.”

The entrepreneur was doing his homework. After selling a tech business to Hewlett-Packard, he had decided to start a brand.

“Why?” he asked. “I liked that it could be a container for all the things I love.”

To decide on a product, he studied brands and how they were positioned: “What’s the value proposition? I would really look for the homogenization.

“I eventually got to the sock category,” he continued. “It was black and white, navy, blue, gray, really basic and in plastic bags. Even when I went to Nordstrom, which theoretically it would be more premium, it was still multipacks, poorly merchandised, tired design.”

He created Stance in 2009. What began as an e-commerce brand offering socks is now a company with several categories in men’s, women’s and kids, including undergarments and T-shirts, with more than 20 brick-and-mortars in the U.S. and Europe.

A few years ago, they had their first $100 million year. “We’ve now grown way past that,” shared Kearl, who started the brand with John Wilson, Ryan Kingman, Taylor Shupe and Aaron Hennings. “What I liked about socks is I thought it could be an entry point into something bigger.”

And it has. The brand counts investors including Jay-Z, Will Smith and basketball player James Harden. They even count Rihanna as one of their collaborators.

“How do you make that transition from a single category that’s maybe one or two hundred million dollars to this big multibillion-dollar business?” he asked himself in the early stages of the business. He studied brands like Lululemon and Under Armour.

“How do you take the first layer for football players and turn that into a five-billion-dollar business today?” said Kearl. “How does Lululemon take pants and turn that into a global brand? It starts with a hero product. What was the sequence scene? How did the revenues do? How many stores drove that?”

In the end, he also chose socks, because “it was a big market” — at $25 billion. It was a product that was easy to ship, with no sizing issues, low returns, had high gross margins and high repeat purchase rates. What was most important, however, was having a sustainable competitive advantage.

“In other words, how easy or difficult is it for someone to do what you do?” said Kearl. “I wrecked my brain over this for a long time.”

What it came down to was brand, he continued. “It’s the only thing that distinguishes a commodity company from any other commodity company. So then, the question is really, ‘What’s a brand?’ There’s no one clear definition.”

He created his own: “My definition for a good brand is a brand that knows who it is, why it exists, what excites it, how it thinks, what its principles are, how it would order its coffee. Once it knows who it is, then it unapologetically expresses itself with the utmost discipline and attention to detail.”

The essence of a brand is its purpose, he shared, its values.

Even at this stage in the business, when hiring, hopeful employees meet with a hiring manager to determine skills and experience, before then being interviewed by one of the five original employees of the company, including Kearl himself.

“That second interview is all about values,” he said. “I’m trying to understand if their values overlap with our values. I never look at their résumés, because it biases me. I don’t want to know if you went to Stanford or a community college. I don’t care. I want to understand your values.”

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