To buy better, buy less

6 questions for Mac Bishop, founder of Wool & Prince

Photo by brush

Despite how many articles of clothing they own, every guy has a couple of t-shirts and button downs that they consistently wear. The problem is, though, these are usually 100% cotton garments that, thanks to wrinkles and odours, need to be washed or drycleaned after just a couple of wears. Not only that, but these garments usually aren’t very durable, and the fabric degrades with every wash.

The rise of fast fashion has only made things worse—brands like H&M and Zara frenetically bring new, cheap, poorer quality clothes to market, and their success depends on their clothes falling apart sooner rather than later, so consumers can come back to buy what’s new.

In 2013, American entrepreneur Mac Bishop set out to fix this.

He had a simple solution: wool.

Wool is naturally resistant to odours and wrinkles, and it’s way more durable than cotton. So, Mac decided to start testing a wool button down. He wore the shirt 100 days straight without washing or ironing it, and it still looked (and smelled) great. Wool & Prince was born after a viral Kickstarter campaign.

I recently had a chance to catch up with Mac to talk about Wool & Prince, the trials and tribulations of running an Ecommerce business, how content can help build brands, and how minimalism and sustainability play a central role in the Wool & Prince mission.

1. Your website is your primary sales channel. What has been the best part — and the hardest part — of running an Ecommerce business?

Having focus is one of the most important things for startups. There’s so many opportunities and things you can be doing, but most of those will be distractions. So, focusing on one channel has been an absolute godsend for us — we know what our margin is going to be with every single online sale, and we don’t have to deal with large, wholesale customers demanding special packaging and have special requirements. It’s great because the customer is the boss, instead of a big retail shop. I love that direct connection with our customers.

The biggest disadvantage would be scale — it’s easier to get attention when you’re in wholesale. You get additional brand exposure at the retail level. So, I think the next move would probably be to open up a shop at some point. There have been a lot of direct-to-consumer brands who have had success doing that, and it’s definitely something I’m excited about — I don’t think our line is large enough yet, but maybe down the road, maybe in a couple years. Having a store is a lot of responsibility. Right now I can pick up and travel, and do all sorts of things because our operation is super lean and 100% online.

2. I’m interested in how great content can help build brands and drive growth. With that in mind, tell me about how the Field Tester series came about — what’s the driving idea behind it? Are you happy with how it has worked out?

How the Field Tester series has come together is probably one of the things about Wool & Prince that I’m most proud of. There has been a number of people involved with developing and building the idea, and it’s really exciting to see the creative vision come to life through words and images.

The initial idea developed just before the Kickstarter launched. I had about 15 guys, mostly just friends my age, and I basically sent out sample shirts to them. That was our first “tester” experience, because most guys have never tried a wool button down and it was a totally new experience for them. I found that most guys were blown away by the functional properties of wool, especially the wrinkle- and odour- resistance. That was essentially the first Field Tester, but there wasn’t really a strong branding element to it.

After our Kickstarter campaign, we were asking ourselves: what does our brand stand for? For the Kickstarter video, I wore this shirt for 100 days in a row, and we were on nearly every news site around the world as one of the more viral stories at that time. But, it was kind of a gimmicky story being told — it was, “this guy wore this shirt for 100 days in a row, it didn’t smell, he didn’t wash it!” Some people were calling me an inventor of a new material, and I’m like, “this is 100% wool, it’s super soft, and we’re just using it in a new way.”

So, we could have continued with the aggressive 100 day type-marketing and branding, and I think it would have been fine and that the business would still be doing well, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to put my stamp on. So, I started brainstorming ideas and the Field Testers developed, and initially it was just about interviewing guys who were doing cool stuff, sending them samples and shirts to wear to get feedback on. It’s almost like how Nike sponsors athletes — these are our sponsored athletes. They can speak about our brand, and some of the guys are really excited about the feature — they share it with their network and tell everyone what they’re doing.

The ultimate goal is that it becomes a user-generated blog, and that customers will essentially be able to fill out Field Tester profiles — I’m not exactly sure how that looks, but it could be like a Wool & Prince community of customers who do interesting things and give each other advice on travelling or minimalist living. There’s a lot of potential to develop it into a larger community.

3. Tell me about your overall marketing efforts — what other marketing channels have you used to help build your brand and gain traction?

The most important part is to build a great product, and build a brand that supports that product. Then, once you have those elements, thinking about marketing and how you’re going to bring customers in is the next step. I see too many people starting with “let’s throw money at AdWords or Facebook, or let’s reach out to as many bloggers as possible and tell them what we’re doing”, but they haven’t perfected the brand yet, and it kind of kills their momentum right off the bat. Just as an example, we started experimenting with paid marketing when we were 100% confident in our website design, brand message, and product assortment. That ended up being nearly two years after we launched on Kickstarter.

The basics starts with collecting email addresses and sending engaging content — that’s the lowest hanging fruit. I’ve also started sending out these quarterly updates, and have found that it’s a great way to interact with customers and bring them into the process of building a brand and a business.

For us, the biggest channel is word-of-mouth, which is hardest to measure. Then there’s organic search, which is probably the next best driver to Wool & Prince website. We’re one of the higher ranked sites when it comes to wool products because we specialize in wool and it also helps to have wool in our name. Referrals from bloggers is probably third on the list, then paid advertising, then social media.

4. A key part of Wool & Prince products is their durability, a stark contrast to the “fast fashion” trend of cheap, disposable apparel. I see Wool & Prince as characteristic of the “slow fashion” counter-trend — clothes that are built to last and require less resources to maintain. From a social and environmental sustainability perspective, what do you think the Wool & Prince brand represents?

When I first started Wool & Prince, I was trying to make the best shirt out there. The shirts are amazing relative to cotton shirts and other clothes that you need to dry clean or wash after every wear. Great product is goal number one.

But, we’re also excited about encouraging minimalist practices — I don’t have a lot of stuff, I find that stuff doesn’t tend to make us very happy, it tends to weigh us down and make us more stationary. So, there’s a couple things: there’s the post-production benefit of not requiring as much care or wash, and having a longer lasting product. Then, there’s also the encouraging of minimalism and not buying as much. If somebody buys one of our $128 shirts, that might take up a good portion of their monthly apparel budget. Instead of buying three $30 shirts, they’re buying one $128 shirt. So, that’s another thing I look at: encouraging consumers to use less stuff.

5. There’s a growing concern over supply chain transparency — what’s your next step in ensuring that people know where their Wool & Prince clothes come from? What hurdles have you had to overcome in this area?

The supply chain is always a challenge when you’re a small company and you don’t have much bargaining power over your suppliers. It’s one of our focuses, and I think what Everlane has done with transparency in their supply chain is really impressive. We’re going to be building out a supply chain page on our website to show the factory, show the conditions, talk about where the product comes from, how it’s made, and that’s really just the start. We can send this to our suppliers to say: “Look, this is your factory on our page, how can we improve it, what else can we do?” From a business standpoint, too, our generation basically demands that information. It started in the food industry as people wanted to know where they food came from and how its made, and it’s really crossed over into apparel now as well. People look at clothes and ask “who made this”? “What went into it”?

Everything you buy, for the most part, has an impact on the environment in an adverse way. You can’t buy something and say “yeah, I just helped the environment.” That’s the nature of capitalism and a consumer based society. But there are products that are better relative to others, whether it’s somebody who is taking care of their supply chain, or somebody who plants a tree every time you buy a shirt, or whatever it is, there’s a lot of different routes with that.

6. Considering the success of purpose-driven brands like Warby Parker, what are the values that drive Wool & Prince? What is the difference you are trying to make, and how has that manifested in your business?

The core value of the Wool & Prince brand is minimalism, living with less but living with quality products, and eventually there will be a supply chain component in there about knowing where everything came from. The end goal would be to track wool from a farm, a specific farm, all the way to a shirt. And there are companies that do that, just on a larger scale. That’s the goal down the road, but at the moment the core message of Wool & Prince is to buy quality.

To learn more about Wool & Prince, check out their website here.

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