Sometimes rules are meant to be broken.
Aaron Sanandres, cofounder and chief executive officer of Untuckit, spoke about building a start-up apparel business in ways that went against conventional wisdom. The brand, initially focused on men’s, now includes women’s wear.
Sanandres was really looking to solve a problem — “I couldn’t find a casual shirt that looked good untucked” — when he and a classmate, Chris Riccobono, decided to start their own company. That was in 2011, with just $150,000 in friends and family funding.
As Sanandres puts it, there were a couple of “truisms” that he and his partner never followed. One is how building a retail brand required a lot of capital. Another is about how going into retail is a bad idea given the current “retail apocalypse” backdrop.
“Chris and I did things differently because neither of us did anything in retail,” the ceo said.
The two had to figure out how to survive and grow, but were also aware that they didn’t want to get into the same traps that had befallen other start-ups, Sanandres said. While the company was “lucky” because it benefited from the “tectonic shift to casual,” one big problem after launch was that the web site was getting just 15 guys to its site daily, according to the ceo.
During that period, Sanandres said he received an e-mail that said, “Worst idea ever. I give you guys six months.”
Even though the ceo refers to the e-mail as “cruel” because it attacked the company’s reason for its existence, it did have the effect of getting the cofounders to rethink their marketing strategy, as well as what channels to use for their messaging.
According to Sanandres, he and Riccobono decided they weren’t marketing a fashion company, but rather marketing a function. And the company at that point eschewed the digital channel. The company even trademarked its descriptive slogan “Shirts Designed to Be Worn Untucked.”
The first “off-channel” it sought to deliver its message was sports radio. Radio was ideal because “rates are low and we were able to get the word out in places that were nontraditional,” the ceo said, adding that the company also benefited from how one didn’t have to “see our product to know what it was all about.”
At a spend of $7,000 for three weeks worth of advertising, the company finally began to see some traction from consumers who headed to the site. Next up was a series of ads in airline magazines, which also helped to get the word out on the brand. “Our marketing budget was $7,000 a month. There’s not a lot of mistakes you can make,” he said, adding that every decision was “highly deliberated.”
Sanandres said Untuckit also went against the prevalent model of “go big or go home.” The company was operational for six years before it took a $30 million Series A round from venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins in 2017. And while other VC firms liked the Untuckit concept, they also said they hated the company’s plan to build up its retail presence.
According to Sanandres, “For us, it was always a matter of having stores.” He added that while stores are being shut in B malls, there are “at least 100 Grade A malls and street locations that are like Grade A malls, so we feel we have a long runway.”