The Turqs — the first pair of Bonobos pants I fell in love with

Get One Thing Right

How Bonobos Got Started

A lot of companies don’t make it because in the process of trying to get many things right, they don’t get anything right.

Why are they in such a hurry?

A great company is a privilege, and it’s a privilege best earned through a singular product, not a collection of products. Entrepreneurs and creatives think about batches of products —creating an empire, or designing a collection. Consumers think about something they want or need right now — a singular product or item. Founders have dreams of a one-stop shop. That kind of thinking, applied out the gates at least, will often lead to a no-stop shop.

Consumers don’t need many things from your company —they just need one thing from your company. You may want them to need everything from your company, but guess what: consumers don’t care what you want. Your job is to care about what they want, not what you want them to want.

The difference between the two is the distance between a customer-centric company and an ego-centric company. If you’re not careful, the mentality of you wanting them to buy everything from you could lead to them buying nothing from you.

Make one thing great. Get one thing right.

That earns you the right to go from product one to product two. Take as much time as you need to get product one right, and to prove it—because if you don’t, no one is going to be waiting on pins and needles for product two.

The stories about the singular products that started many great companies crowd out the stories about the singular brands that started with many great products. You know where I’m going: Instagram and a simple photo interface, Ralph Lauren and a tie, Diane Von Furstenberg and a wrap dress, Potbelly and a heated sandwich, Facebook and a “hot or not” for Harvard kids, Google and an “I’m feeling lucky” button, Warby Parker and a pair of glasses…

You want your inaugural product to be wanted badly by your inaugural users, ideally 10x as good as the next available option. That is impossible to do with multiple products out the gates. It’s hard enough to do with one product. Paul Graham has written expertly on this in How to Get Startup Ideas, and the must-read section entitled “Well” begins:

When a startup launches, there have to be at least some users who really need what they’re making—not just people who could see themselves using it one day, but who want it urgently. Usually this initial group of users is small, for the simple reason that if there were something that large numbers of people urgently needed and that could be built with the amount of effort a startup usually puts into a version one, it would probably already exist. Which means you have to compromise on one dimension: you can either build something a large number of people want a small amount, or something a small number of people want a large amount. Choose the latter. Not all ideas of that type are good startup ideas, but nearly all good startup ideas are of that type.

It can take focus on a single product for years to build a brand or a company, which makes the logic of launching with all kinds of products even more confounding.

As we gradually evolve from a wholesale-driven world to a vertical retail-driven digitally-native world, as e-commerce proliferates and it becomes increasingly easier to get the best price on the best product, as the app store gets even more full, my belief is it becomes even more important to be focused on singular product-driven excellence from launch.

If you don’t start with a relentless focus on an amazing first product, odds are you won’t even get a seat at the table.

You don’t start with the right to do product two.

You earn it.

The Bonobos Story

At Bonobos, it has taken years to perfect our first product: men’s pants—and we’re still doing work every day to make them better. My cofounder Brian Spaly, who is my role model on entrepreneurial tinkering, began developing the idea for better pants in 2005 when we were Schwab roommates at Stanford business school. He conducted lean consumer research in 2006 on our classmates, including me. He wanted to know what kinds of pants we wore, what we thought about them, and where we bought them.

What he discovered is no one really liked their pants. It’s been ten years, and we still have work to do.

Brian developed the first prototypes to solve this problem, “Spaly-pants,” in 2007. The Spaly-pants really did fit better—with an innovative contoured waistband, and a tailored fit through the seat and thigh which threaded the needle on the “American pants are too boxy, European pants are too tight” conundrum. He made them in pliable fabrics, some in bright colors, and all with aesthetically-exciting contrast pocket liners that attracted a lot of attention to the joy put into the product. You know you have a hit product when you have $10,000 of cash in your hands from your first production run, which Brian soon did.

When I realized Brian’s hobby could become a company, I began helping him. Eventually, at his invitation, I became the founding CEO. We teamed up and sold pants like crazy for the next six months to everyone we knew. We did trunk shows. We did pants parties. I took a duffel bag of pants wherever I went, including to weddings in LA and in Hawaii where I still get grief for being the guy hawking pants, at brunch at first and poolside later.

We took our first product, a product we knew a very small group of people loved, and we sought to expand that number of people as fast as we could. After a successful trunk show at the loft of Michael Spirito, I pitched The Oracle and the Jedi in July of 2007. Joel Peterson and Andy Rachleff each committed to investing. Soon our classmate-customers began asking if they could invest; the first of those to invest was our first customer and our former CFO Bryan Wolff. We decided it would be great to take on angel investors who were brand evangelists, even if they could only invest $10,000 or so. Over the next six months we raised what had started as a $300,000 round and eventually became a $750,000 round, with over forty investors and early customers contributing. It was a “long cap table”, but we thought it was worth it to have our early adopters spreading the word with skin in the game.

We didn’t begin angel investor conversations until we had tens of thousands of dollars of sales: until we knew “the dogs were eating the dog food,” as Andy Rachleff likes to say. This is the opposite of the model where you raise seed money before you know if your product even works. We were lucky to be able to do this because Brian had saved money to invest in the working capital to start the company, and I cashed in a 401k to be salary free as our CEO for the first several months.

We never thought about a second product. In fact I had one slide in the appendix of our initial angel investor deck which showed the progression of products we might make years down the road in the event that we were successful, and I’ll never forget what Andy Rachleff told me: “I don’t want you even thinking about this stuff until you have proven you can sell pants.”

While many angel investors were classmates from Stanford or mentors, another dozen or so were new customers I met in New York. They were the early adopters of the brand when I moved the company to NYC in the fall of 2007—guys who came over to try on pants at an apartment I shared with a friend and angel investor at 17th and Irving in Manhattan. The new NYC “customer-investors” were guys who loved the product and the business model, and many of them offered to invest on the spot.

Investomers, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

We captured sales in an excel file, and we collected money the old school way: cash and checks. 90% of customers who tried on the pants purchased. We had sold 475 pairs of pants that summer. 25% of customers purchased three or more pairs. We hadn’t even launched e-commerce yet, but we had $50,000 in trailing revenue from selling in-person and through the mail:

original revenue ramp of Bonobos, Inc. during the in-person and mail-order selling era — summer of 2007

We were now ready for a more scalable selling model—e-commerce. That summer, we recruited another Stanford GSB classmate, Erik Allebest, to become our e-commerce advisor. He had built the largest chess e-commerce site in the US prior to Stanford. Prior to my move to NYC, we spent the summer of 2007 in a yurt behind his house in Menlo Park building what would become

The site cost roughly $20,000 to make, and as I did investor calls from his driveway, he built a site with just one outsourced web developer that looked like this:

the original with e-commerce capabilities

Once we launched the site in October of 2007 we re-doubled our in-person selling efforts. We sold more, not less, to feed our new automated selling engine with demand. Trunk shows expanded, to Chicago, Philadelphia, D.C., and Boston. We brought on early brand enthusiast, and another friend from Stanford GSB, Michael Spirito, as an off-hours advisor who “prototyped” selling pants out of his apartment on 14th street. His loft was—in a way—the first Bonobos Guideshop. He was such an enthusiast that he proactively wanted to sell pants in his free time to friends and colleagues.

We began to get great editorial PR without asking for it. I was sitting at the Heartland Brewery in Union Square that November talking to a potential vendor, when I had a number of angel investors text me that our site was down. UrbanDaddy had run a story on us called Monkey Business: Towards a Better Fitting Pant and it crashed our site. It was also our first $2,000 day. Soon we hired the wife of another Stanford GSB classmate-customer-investor, Polly Ryerson, to drive our PR strategy. With great PR, word-of-mouth, continued in-person selling, and some very limited experimentation with online marketing, this happened:

revenue ramp of our company Bonobos, Inc. from October 2007 through August of 2008

Six months after our e-commerce launch, we were at $1 million revenue run rate. Less than twelve months in, we were at $2 million revenue run rate. I marvel when I reflect on this: We didn’t have straight leg fit, let alone our now slim or tailored fits—just a super exaggerated boot-cut. We didn’t offer inseams yet, so most likely you had to get the pants hemmed. We had just a couple of fabric choices, in a about a dozen colors; a minisucle fraction of what we now offer, and in a single category when there are now more than a handful. We didn’t have denim. We had only just launched khaki color chinos. There was no way to try them on before you buy, like our Guideshops.

All we had was the idea for a customer service team called the Ninjas and a great fitting pair of pants. And we saw a hockey stick ramp.

How can this be?

We hit a nerve with our product. A lot of men’s pants don’t fit that well in the top block — aka the waist, butt and crotch. We were 100% focused on getting that right, and the fit was better than what most guys are used to. We also hit a nerve with our service model. A lot of men don’t like traditional shopping—we offered a new kind of experience: digital at its core, and more personal as enabled by our team of customer service Ninjas. We were crystal clear about our messaging: come to us because you want great pants, and you want a better way to get them. We put a lot of joy and flamboyance in the product, and that worked for early adopter customers who wanted to show off (“to peacock”), and then we had a line of more neutral customers who wanted the same amazing fit with a lot less of that showing off.

It was a narrow and deep story for the type of narrow and deep well that Paul Graham alludes to: a niche audience of early adopters of great-fitting, colorfully-energetic bootcut men’s pants. We amplified that story through press coverage, more in-person selling, experimentation with ads on a then brand-new advertising platform called Facebook, and most of all, great word-of-mouth.

Bonobos was born.

Bootcut is now less than 2% of our pants business, and has down-trended out of existence. Pants are now less than 40% of our total business. Our online-driven model is now complemented with print catalogs, Nordstrom and select wholesale partners, and our personalized, service-focused e-commerce stores—Guideshops—which are our most valuable customer cohort, and we believe, the future of offline retail.

We’ve come a long way, but we’d never have made it here if it weren’t for that first product.

What I learned from this experience is the best way to get volume is to sell a lot of one thing, not a little of a lot of things. It’s obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily in the moment.

A lot of entrepreneurs want to start with what they’re company might look like in Year 10, and as a result they never even make it to Year 3. Don’t look at what other companies that got through the gauntlet look like, look at what they looked like when they started. The only way to do this is to talk to the entrepreneurs and investors and customers who were there for the story.


So how do you build something?

My belief is you do it with a narrow and deep story about what you are doing, and that what you are doing requires a high net promoter score—a high-level of customer-to-customer recommendation. A high NPS gives you the best kind of marketing there is: word-of-mouth and organic PR. This creates buzz.

Buzz creates brands, and companies.

It’s a paradox: even if you make two great things right out the gates, just by having two you make it harder for the customer to know what job to hire you for.

So why start with two, when it creates more risk to what you’re doing, when it requires more capital, when it dilutes your focus, and when it’s harder to message who you are in those precious early innings? This probably applies to customer segments as well as products.

Remember: you’ll have opportunities to grow revenue and extend the brand later. As our former CFO Byran Wolff loved to remind me: “Money runs out faster than opportunities.”

Make one thing great. Get one thing right.

Next Story — The Emerging V-Commerce Encyclopedia
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The Emerging V-Commerce Encyclopedia

The goal of this encyclopedia is to create a compendium of V-Commerce brands. If you’d like to be added, add your brand in the notes or please comment. For purposes of this list, it might be good to observe a $1m run-rate min.


American Giant



The Bouqs
Brilliant Bicycle


Combatant Gentleman


David Kind
Dollar Shave Club


Ernest Alexander


Frank & Oak




Honest Company
Hungry Root


Interior Define


Jack Erwin


Koio Collective
Kopari Beauty




Mack Weldon
Ministry of Supply
Mizzen & Main
Monica & Andy
MVMT Watches


Noble Brewer


Outdoor Voices


Pact Coffee
Pact Underwear

Paul Evans





Ratio Clothing
Roka Sports


Shoes of Prey
Smart Bedding
Sole Bicycles


Tea Collection
Tommy John
Tuft & Needle


Warby Parker
Whipping Post

Originally, this encyclopedia called these brands Digitally-Native Vertical Brands, aka DNVBs. As this acronym was cumbersome according to a lot of people including Inc. Magazine, I awaited a better idea from the internet, and one came thanks to Dan Scinto. While it has also been used for virtual commerce, that never took off — so hopefully it sticks here. Thanks Dan.

Next Story — What’s V-Commerce? Only the Future
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What’s V-Commerce? Only the Future

Vertical Commerce brands are up next in commerce

A V-Commerce brand, or digitally native vertical brand (DNVB), meets four criteria:

  1. It’s primary means of interacting, transacting, and story-telling to consumers is via the web — desktop and mobile. In almost all cases the V-Commerce brand is born digitally.
  2. It’s a brand, and that brand is vertical. The name of the brand is on both the physical product and on the website. It requires the commercialization of an e-commerce channel, but that channel is an enablement layer, it’s not the core asset. It’s not E-Commerce, it’s V-Commerce.
  3. The V-Commerce brand is usually maniacally focused on customer experience and on customer intimacy. The experience tends to be three-part bundle of physical product, web/mobile experience, and customer service that collectively become the brand in the consumer’s imagination.
  4. While born digitally, the V-Commerce brand rarely ends up digital only. This means the brand can extend offline, eventually. Usually its offline incarnation is through its own experiential physical retail or highly selective partnerships. In nearly all cases of partnerships, the brand controls its external distribution versus being controlled by it.

As an investor community, too often the V-Commerce brand is compared to a typical E-Commerce company. If a typical E-Commerce company is a frog, at birth a V-Commerce brand does look a lot like a tadpole. But it doesn’t end up as a frog. The difference is profound, and it requires an appreciation the role brand plays in inspiring people, speaking to them, and shaping their choices.

It also requires venture investors to look more closely at the downstream math of a V-Commerce company versus an third-party E-Commerce purveyor. That difference in the unit economics is so meaningful that you can hardly compare the businesses. Just because they both have LTV and CAC ratios does not mean they both have the same potential value to the consumer in the medium to long run. The third-party stories are flashier at first on the top-line (more brands!), but the long run winning strategy may well be more focus (building a brand monotheism). The E-Commerce company is a channel; the V-Commerce company is a brand.

Furthermore, while third-party E-Commerce requires you to compete against a grizzly bear called Amazon, creating a V-Commerce brand gives you an opportunity to combine the growth of being an E-Commerce company with the margins of being a brand, and with a proprietary selection of merchandise where you control distribution and your own destiny. Moreover, when done right, aka where there is some differentiation in the core physical product made possible by the V-Commerce nature of the model (and this is the key thing entrepreneurs get wrong in starting V-Commerce brands the world doesn’t need), the model enables a better experiential bundle than consumers have ever seen before. These V-Commerce brands can begin to turn entire industries on their head. This creates a brand loyalty impossible to create in the commoditized world of “channel.”

In the history of V-Commerce brands, it’s incredibly early. We are still in the first decade of a multi-century macro trend where retail is re-organizing from around the automobile to around the smartphone. Vertical brands were a huge part of the last era of retail (Zara, Ikea, Gap), aka the offline one, and now they become the driving story in the future of digital retail. The moving parts in the shifting retail landscape are right in front of us to see. What is not appreciated is that the best opportunities may accrue to entrants rather than existing players. The creation of the V-Commerce brand becomes a profound opportunity for investors, entrepreneurs, and consumers alike.

The $1B acquisition of Dollar Shave Club is just the beginning.

Next up: the encyclopedia of V-Commerce brands.

Originally, this article called these brands Digitally-Native Vertical Brands, aka DNVBs, exclusively. As this acronym was cumbersome according to a lot of people including Inc. Magazine, I awaited a better idea from the internet, and one came thanks to Dan Scinto. While it has also been used for virtual commerce, that never took off — so hopefully it sticks here. Thanks Dan.

Next Story — The Day Badi Mummy Died
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The Day Badi Mummy Died

Parkash Rani Ahuja, 1922–2016

Three years ago for Mother’s Day I wrote this tribute to my grandmother and the women in my family. It begins like this:

My Indian grandmother was born in what is now Pakistan ninety years ago. She was promised to be married at 11, married at 13, had her first miscarriage at 14, her second miscarriage at 15, her first child who passed away at 16, another child who passed away at 17, and then seven children who survived, the middle of whom is my mother.

This Mother’s Day we celebrate her passing on to the next life. This letter is my woefully inadequate tribute to her:

Dear Badi Mummy,

You came here to take care of me and so my mom could go back to work. You were a child bride yourself but you understood that women should have more independence than you did. You raised me like a second mother for some time, and then you went and did it again for our cousins.

Whenever you went to India, I asked you to bring back a gold elephant. You always did. I never connected the dots that the elephants were female. You were our matriarch and we revered you. We touched your feet each time we said goodbye. You must have known.

It’s sad that I didn’t acquire the language skills to understand the parts of your matriarchy that could be more, how do we say this, forceful. Turning over the cups in the pantry to be right side up versus wrong side down after my dad unloaded the dishwasher, admonishing him in Punjabi about the trapped water though he spoke only English.

While I couldn’t really understand you either, we shared an understanding. I always gathered that you loved me and that I should be good, work hard, eat a lot of roti, and know that I was loved. Recently I once asked you through my mom if you could go back in time and do life again if you would do it differently. As a deeply spiritual person I assumed you would say no, nothing different at all. What you said I’ll never forget:

I’d like to have been like my daughters and make some of their own choices. Maybe I would have gotten married at 25.

That’s a long way from 11. I read somewhere they are introducing anti-child bridge legislation in India this week. 88 years after you were born my niece was born, into a world of different choices. You predicted her birth would bring with it great fortune, and it did. She was born the same day as you, providence for all of us. She’s just three generations downstream from you, and yet she seems oceans and a time warp apart in terms of the opportunities in front of her.

In your life I see a vast bridge between a past where women make no choices to a future which looks remarkably brighter. We need only look at the maps of the world to see where this is becoming true and where it’s not yet true. In this look to my niece, I want to believe you mean this: it’s on us now. We will do our best to make you proud. Who would have thought a child bride could teach us so much about feminism.

In that same ‘interview’ I even asked you: what advice do you have for raising Bella? You told me this:

I don’t know. I raised you. Now you figure it out.

Gone at 93, hands clean from lotion every day, showering by yourself to the end, teeth and eyes and ears intact. That we might all live to old age, die of natural causes on our own terms, breathe our last breath with loved ones, and never once have moaned in pain. That we could all have your gratitude and reverence and stoicism and spirituality, through life and death.

I got to touch your feet once last time before you went while you still lived. Tears rolling down my face, I will always be grateful for that.

Indian culture teaches that there is a cycle of life. Your great granddaughter Bella, born on your birthday, is a symbol of just that. She claps when she blows out these birthday candles, but we all know who really did it.

Your five daughters ended up with high-powered jobs: a schoolteacher, two doctors, a physical therapist with her own practice, and a hospital department leader — my mother. You did a lot with the opportunity you were afforded. You taught us the power of spirit, of faith, of infectious positive energy, and of a mixture of daily asceticism, pragmatic routine, and spartan living. It brings to bear the question of who was more ‘educated,’ let alone who is more enlightened.

We love you. Though with you gone now I believe that isn’t exactly the point. I think the point is that you loved us, and taught us what it meant to love and be loved.

We will never forget your incredible laugh.

My only wish is we could go back to that cold Chicago day in the 1980’s, at the Burlington Coat Factory, and that we could find you that purple coat faster. We tried so many on. We didn’t know many years you would still wear it, what good care you would take of it, and of all of us.

Parkash Rani Ahuja

Born: November 22, 1922 in Rawalpindi, Punjab province, what is now Pakistan.

Emigrated to New Delhi, India, moving through many cities, 1947–1952 at the time of partition. Our mom was born in 1949 on the refugee trail.

Came to the US in 1976 to care for my sister and emigrated to the United States in 1985 to live with my family before settling in Valparaiso to care for our cousins.

Died: May 6, 2016 in Valparaiso.

Next Story — We Will Never Be Satisfied
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Renee Elise Goldsberry as the wise older sister Angelica Schuyler

We Will Never Be Satisfied

How ‘Hamilton’ Makes America Great Again

Okay so I am obsessed with Hamilton. It may not be just the best musical I’ve ever seen. It may be the best thing I’ve ever seen. It kind of breaks the genre, like how Jordan broke basketball, Beethoven broke classical music, and Cher broke Twitter.

By now you may know the drill: it’s the story of the life of Alexander Hamilton as told by Aaron Burr, the lifelong frenemy of Hamilton who ended up killing Hamilton in a duel. The musical is set to an incredible hip-hop driven score, and it stars a largely black and Latino cast. In so doing, it re-appropriates the story of our country’s founding and makes it less about a history particular to white men and more about a history of the ideas that belong to us all. When separated from its context and placed in ours, Hamilton’s story has a modern day hip-hop narrative arc:

Started from the bottom now we up

Watch for a reference in the opening song to just this sort of Drake-ism. The lyrical genius of Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is not of this world. Well, it is of this world, in the way that Shakespeare and Tupac were of this world. The word and tonal play is unbelievable. It is confounding, it is inspiring — the references and the re-references taking you through back and forth through early American history, through the history of hip-hop and musicals, and back and forth within the musical itself. Your ears are peeled from start to finish, and even after dozens of listens I’m still checking Genius to pick up on things.

February 20th I went on the occasion of my 37th birthday. I came home and checked Lin-Manuel’s Twitter feed, which I creep nightly, and beamed with unmerited pride to discover I share that birthday with Angelica Schuyler, who was Hamilton’s wife’s sister. She would have been 260 this year and she is, for me, the show’s most wonderful surprise of a character. She sings a favorite verse, one star of many on a starry night:

So so so — 
So this is what it feels like to match wits
With someone at your level! What the hell is the catch? It’s
The feeling of freedom, of seein’ the light
It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite! You see it, right?
The conversation lasted two minutes, maybe three minutes
Ev’rything we said in total agreement, it’s
A dream and it’s a bit of a dance
A bit of a posture, it’s a bit of a stance. He’s a
Bit of a flirt, but I’m ‘a give it a chance
I asked about his fam’ly, did you see his answer?
His hands started fidgeting, he looked askance?
He’s penniless, he’s flying by the seat of his pants

This flying by the seat of his pants thing resonated, literally. The real man flying by the seat of his pants is Hamilton as played by Miranda, who is doing anything but. He’s the closest thing I’ve personally seen to a modern day musical and lyrical genius. It is his not his standalone capabilities in each genre he traverses, it is his mixture of talents that is other worldly. He’s at the center of the Venn diagram of two worlds which Stephen Jay Gould would have called ‘non-overlapping magisteria.’ Broadway and hip-hop. Really? Non-consensus and right.

Daveed Diggs, the man who plays both Lafayette and Jefferson, is a budding hip-hop star in his own right, and has more fun on a stage than anyone. The Incredible Oak, who plays Madison in part two, brings a guttural Wu-Tang like vibe to the first half. Leslie Odom Jr. as Burr anchors the whole thing, with a silky smooth ability to sing, rap, or chat as required. He is vocally a mixture of Drake, Nas and a blues singer, and his three tunes Wait For It, The Room Where it Happens, and Dear Theodosia are my top three plays on Spotify other than Satisfied by the indelible Renee Elise Goldsberry and Right Hand Man which introduces George Washington. The traditionalist vocals of Christopher Jackson as George Washington and Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton are stunning in their own right — as much for the wisdom, integrity, soul, and judgment inherent in their performances as for their musical contributions. The comic levity of Groffsauce as King George III grounds the whole experience. He is the oppressor from afar, and provides a safe and slightly ironic home-base for the mostly older white audience to latch onto as recognizable with his old school pop-rock form.

It’s a crazily pricey ticket. For many, Spotify is the only option. That said I’ve heard plenty of people who I know can afford this experience improperly value it. Genius is expensive. It’s also incredibly rare to see a work of art performed by its creators, let alone one that will inspire us again, at a critical time, about what America can be. There won’t be many times in life where we get to see Beethoven perform the 9th. What would we pay to watch Shakespeare star as King Lear, or for one last time see Tupac to do the full end to end of All Eyez on Me?

Whether you go now, later or never, start listening. You’ll hear the voices of our founders. What they’re saying is this: America has always been about a fierce battle of ideas. When it happens, don’t say this isn’t America. Say it is.

Make America great again?

She was. She will be. She still is.

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