The life and death of a dress shirt company.

It started on Saturday October 20, 2012 with a conversation over dinner between 3 friends at a restaurant that no longer exists.

Today, Wednesday August 9th, 2017, nearly 5 years later, chapter 1 is ending.

There may not be a chapter 2.

It is Sebastian Ward: the company that makes the best dress shirts I’ve ever owned.

What happened? Why aren’t they selling like gangbusters?

It started with an ambition to combine the best of Italian and English fashion in a shirt dress shirt that wouldn’t restrict your movement.

We were all brand new to the fashion industry. We had no idea what we were doing and didn’t care. We believed in our ability to figure things out.

We were intoxicated by startup culture.

By the success stories of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.

By the rise of Ralph Lauren in the United States and of Zara in Europe.

We were going to build a fashion empire.

Mistake #1: We spent 2 years developing the shirt.

At the beginning it was a side project. I was still at a consulting firm and my two partners had other projects going on as well.

We were slow and methodical. We went to fabric stores and agonized over picking the right high end Egyptian cotton. We spent hours deciding on the right mother of pearl buttons and finding a factory in the United States to take advantage “Made in America” branding.

We made a prototype ourselves.

We built differentiating features into the collar and shirt. Our differentiating features that we had pulled from conversations in Styleforum, the biggest menswear online forum.

We were confident that the forum would love our shirts and help us launch the product.

We never tested this assumption. We never tested any of our assumptions. We took two years to develop the product and only a handful of times did we ask anyone outside of the three of us for feedback.

This was the first and biggest mistake. Much of what we eventually discovered we could have learned much earlier and changes could have been made more quickly.

Mistake #2: We didn’t test our product once we had it.

Once we had the product, we went straight into a full production run.

We did make one sample run of shirts for the 3 of us and wore them around and loved them. But, we never did a beta test. Never distributed them to a larger group for feedback.

In hindsight, we should have selected a group of men in our target market and sent them shirts to wear for feedback.

The unfortunate fact is that we were planning on doing just that. But, we let ourselves be pressured out of doing it. We were excited to launch the product after 2 years and the factory we worked with had a minimum order that we didn’t push back on.

Skipping a bigger test run was a huge missed opportunity. We would have identified the issues that came up later immediately and been able to pivot our product before committing to a large order.

Mistake #3: Holding inventory.

Our third mistake was doing ready to wear instead of made to measure shirting.

If we had done made to measure then all of our shirts would have been produced only when a customer made an order, instead of producing them all up front.

This would have gone a long way toward mitigating mistakes #1 and #2, and reduced our initial expenses significantly. Once we identified flaws in the product we could have quickly updated the designs and sold a brand new shirt without significant additional investment.

Instead we were stuck with tens of thousands of dollars of inventory that we are still slowly selling off to this day.

Mistake #4: Not cutting our losses early.

This mistake is an emotional one.

Of caring too much about a product and being too close to it.

It was clear early on that we couldn’t turn the ship around without redesigning the product at significant cost.

We didn’t accept this reality.

Instead we kept marketing the shirts, kept trying to figure out how we could build more traction.

Whats the point?

You may notice that I didn’t mention any product mistakes. It’s not that we didn’t make any, we made plenty:

  1. Our sizing was designed for one profile, one that fit the three of us but not a lot of other people.
  2. Our pricing was unpalatable to many and didn’t fit into the marketplace.
  3. Our key differentiator, the collar, wasn’t clear enough.
  4. The customers that loved the shirt want it in more fabrics and colors.

Among many others.

But these weren’t the ones that mattered. If we hadn’t made the 4 primary mistakes we could have adjusted quickly and grown faster.

Setting yourself up to be able to make course corrections quickly and cheaply is the key.

What’s next for Sebastian Ward?

We’re finally cutting our losses on our first product: The Shirt.

We are clearing out inventory at up to a 64% discount off original retail price. If you’ve ever been looking for an insane value on a dress shirt now is the time. These are $300 quality shirts that we were originally selling for $175 that you can now get for $65 until they run out. :O

This will officially turn Sebastian Ward into a backburner project.

The next step will be to update the design of the shirt to address the sizing and variety issues that we’ve experienced including making a made to measure product.

To stay informed follow this space or directly at Sebastian Ward.