No one was talking to the dudes in the middle.
At least, that’s how Andy Forch and Richard Greiner felt about the online retail offerings geared toward men: You could find plenty of high-end designer products hardly anyone can afford, and plenty of hardcore performance gear that’ll help you summit Everest. But the options in between — the options for regular, active guys like them, who bike to work in the city and hit the trails on the weekend — were hardly anywhere to be found.
Richard Greiner and Andy Forch
“We don’t need Mount Everest tents,” Greiner explains. “We need a tent where we can go on a little backpacking or car camping trip, something functional and well-designed. ... There’s no resource out there for ‘guys’ guys.’ Nobody’s talking to us in a way that is more conversational or more relaxed.”
“It was sort of the perfect storm of scratching our own itch and knowing there was a void to be filled because we were the target market,” says Forch. “We both knew we wanted to get our hands dirty with starting a business.”
The two were working in investment banking in San Francisco when they hatched the idea for Huckberry — a members-only, bi-weekly web magazine featuring curated apparel and gear, along with the stories behind the products.
The guys quit their jobs and used the coffee shop between their apartments as their office. Forch learned Photoshop and designed the website; Greiner called up brands and set up suppliers. Inventory started arriving at their home addresses.
“My girlfriend at the time wouldn’t come over to my house, because there were just boxes everywhere,” recalls Greiner.
‘A big dirty warehouse’
Huckberry launched in summer 2011, about five months after its cofounders quit their jobs. They invested $20,000 each at the beginning, from their personal savings. Taking VC was never much of a consideration.
“We took a few calls,” says Greiner, but “coming from the investment banking world, the thought of taking money was unattractive. ... I wanted to see if we could bootstrap it and see where we could get to. The one thing we sought more than money was advice, and we didn’t find anyone who we thought offered a lot of insight.”
Their expenses were minimal at the outset, since they weren’t paying themselves and didn’t have an office. They started turning a profit within three months.
Huckberry’s business model helped leverage the company in the beginning as well — as opposed to traditional retail, where the retailer pays the vendor and the vendor sells to the customer, Huckberry’s customers pay them first and then Huckberry pays their vendors. “Our business model is fixed cost-light and variable cost-heavy,” Greiner says. “Once you get going, you have tons of costs! But a lot of those are the result of doing business.”
They began hiring, slowly at first. “It was a big day when we got our first office,” Greiner recalls. “It’s a big moment when you realize, ‘we have a little business here!’” The reality of a dedicated space — though only 350 square feet — inspired a growth spurt, and Huckberry brought on more people. “Next thing you know, the office space is more like a closet. By the time there were five of us in this teeny office — we do all the fulfillment ourselves — this place was a zoo. It was insane with all the inventory.”
They moved to what Greiner calls “a big dirty warehouse,” which they’re also in the process of outgrowing—it’ll be time for Huckberry to move again soon. But at least the current space is big enough for a rock wall.
‘We are what we’re selling’
“Everyone here is active,” Greiner says. “We are what we’re selling. We’re weekend warriors. Everyone just kind of fits our vibe.”
“The funny thing is,” says Forch, “Rich and I came from very formal worlds, where it’s all about pedigree — ‘where’d you go to school?’ Now I’m never asked where I went to school. Here it’s like, ‘hey, you pass the airplane beer test.’ Would I wanna get stuck with you in a snowstorm? Are you gonna tell a good story?”
“We make decisions all the time that if you were an e-commerce guru, you’d hate Huckberry,” laughs Greiner. Huckberry’s twice-weekly email edition, for example, features four to six brands and their respective stories, blog posts, and a section called “Diversions” — links to interesting stories elsewhere on the web. Traditional e-commerce “rules” stress always sending readers to your site. But, says Forch, customers open Huckberry’s emails at 5-10 times the rate they do competitors’ emails.
The idea is that even if customers aren’t interested in anything Huckberry is selling, they’ll still find value in the email, and the company. “All these little tricks that e-commerce guys do, we pretty much say no to all of them,” Greiner says. “We’re trying to get people’s mind share instead of wallet share. You’re building a relationship with these people. ... Our mentality, that we are what we’re selling — people can really feel that and identify with that.”
“We try to have fun,” Forch adds. “We’re trying to build a lifestyle brand, and authenticity is a big part of that. How do you try out a new product? You take the team camping in the Sierras. We hire people to work with us, not for us — people who are doers, who go out there and get after it. It’s a fun environment.”
‘Fighting with our hands tied behind our backs’
Doers don’t come cheap, though — especially in the Bay Area.
“Bootstrapping a company is hard,” Forch says. “Bootstrapping a company in San Francisco is really hard.” Silicon Valley money raises salaries for everyone in the region, making it a tough place to compete for quality employees who’ll stick around. “Getting that talent and culture to your company is a big challenge for us.”
Being the little guy is always an obstacle as well. As a young bootstrapped company, Greiner says, “sometimes it feels like we’re fighting with our hands tied behind our backs.” Many of Huckberry’s competitors — men’s magazines, other “flash sale” sites like Fab.com — are better funded, and Huckberry doesn’t have millions to put toward advertising.
Instead, they’re focused on growing in a “natural and organic” way, says Greiner: “finding and establishing partnerships with like-minded people who have the same values. We don’t take the buckshot approach. We go out and find people that we really believe in, that we really trust, and we partner with them on an intimate basis.”
The next eight innings
At this point, the cofounders have no plans to sell — they make all decisions as though they’ll be running Huckberry indefinitely. The company employs 12 people and enjoys a run rate of mid- to high-seven figures in revenue, just a couple years after launching. Forch and Greiner are pleased with that kind of progress, but they operate as though they’re in the first inning of a nine-inning ball game.
Next steps include expanding the content side of the business, and exploring other initiatives like a brick-and-mortar presence, a private label, and event hosting — whiskey tastings, a concert series, fly fishing demos — “all these touch points that people can really identify with,” Forch says. “We’d like to go into something knowing we could be one of the best at it.”
‘You always throw out your first pancake’
“The great thing about being small and nimble,” says Forch, is “if you try something and it doesn’t work — OK!” Huckberry’s size allows for experimentation and gives the company a certain level of agility. A few months after launching, for example, they tried out a different sales model — and caught hell from their customers. They went back to their original plan right away. “You sort of know that when you find something that works, do more of it, and when you find something that doesn’t work, don’t do more of that.
“You always throw out your first pancake,” Greiner says, echoing advice he received earlier in his career. “Point is, just go out and do it. Start it. Don’t worry about problems that you don’t have. Don’t overthink and overplan. Your first business plan, your first design, is gonna be thrown out. You learn so much by doing, so get out there and do it.”
“Bootstrapped, Profitable & Proud” is a Signal Vs. Noise series highlighting profitable companies with $1 million+ in revenues that didn’t take VC.