Categories
Socially Conscious Brands

Why Tommy Flaim Left Wall Street To Start Fox & Robin

Leaving a career on Wall Street to start an ethical fashion brand is a story you don’t hear every day, but Tommy Flaim is a man on a mission. With his activewear brand called Fox & Robin, Tommy is putting his mark on the world and creating his own job – one that he loves.

Read our interview with Tommy to see why he started the brand, how the company makes a positive social impact, and his vision for the future.


Introduce us to Tommy as a kid.
I grew up in upstate New York. I was a very curious kid. I really did love school, and I played soccer and tennis most of my life. I was outgoing – loved being around people.

Tommy celebrating the success of his Kickstarter for Fox & Robin.

I have what I’ll call an “all or nothing” attention span. If I’m not interested in the subject, I have a very difficult time motivating myself to learn about it (like many of the books we had to read in English class). Conversely, if I am curious about something, I get fascinated/obsessed with the subject and really dive into it. As a kid, I loved nature and animals. I used to read books on animals and do research reports on them for fun. I wanted to be a vet my whole life, actually. In 2008, the financial crisis caused me to start learning about the economy and how it all happened. That’s how I became interested in wall street and pivoted from wanting to be a vet to wanting to work on Wall Street.


So you went off to Notre Dame for college, then started your career on Wall Street as an Investment Banker.
I chose Notre Dame for their great business school, and because I’m Irish-Catholic and love sports, so it checked all the boxes. I majored in Finance and Education, Schooling, and Society. Education is another topic I’m super passionate about.

Early mockup of the Fox & Robin name and logo.

After 4 years in corporate America, you decide to leave and start a new activewear brand called Fox & Robin. Why?
I think I was interested in potentially starting my own thing since High School. I always liked doing my own thing, which my mom can attest to.

During an internship, I got introduced to impact investing, which lead me to get involved in a social entrepreneurship club at Notre Dame. Through that, I went to a conference in Colorado where I watched the founders of Nisolo, an ethical fashion brand, pitch to investors. In their pitch, they outlined the social and environmental ailments typically associated with fashion brands’ supply chains. That piqued my initial interest in fashion. Although my friends would definitely not consider me fashionable, the room for impact in fashion is enormous – 1 in 6 people in the world works in a fashion-related job, and 80 percent of the labor force throughout the supply chain are women.

I started researching supply chain issues in fashion and knew I wanted to create a clothing business that addressed these issues. I also saw a lack of ethical brands in activewear. I’m into sports and being active, so an ethical activewear brand really aligns with my interests.

Early design session for Fox & Robin.

Leaving a job and taking a leap to start a company can be really scary. How did you feel about doing it?
I was working through this idea for years while I kept my corporate job. It just got to a point where I had plenty to do for Fox & Robin and was overwhelmed with balancing both. Honestly, one morning I woke up to a billion work emails and decided then and there that I would give my full attention to Fox & Robin. It didn’t feel too risky because I’m confident in the success of Fox & Robin.

You didn’t just create any old activewear brand, you created an ethical brand. You make public the wages of all your factory workers, something you say no other activewear brand does, and your goal is to ensure 100% of your factory workers are paid a livable wage. Talk about what inspired you to be conscious of your company’s effect on workers. 
At the end of the day, I’m trying to create a job that I love and build something that I’m proud of. I’m aware of the issues in the fashion industry, so turning a blind eye to it would make my work less fulfilling. Also, I’m just empathetic towards the people in other countries who are working hard to produce our clothes and play such an important part in the success of the company. I just want to do the right thing, and I want customers to trust that this brand will do the right thing behind closed doors. Some companies do good because it’s a market opportunity. Others do good just because it’s the right thing to do. I want Fox & Robin to belong to the latter group. I think it’s an important distinction. 

Early samples of potential joggers.

Fox & Robin donates 2% of sales to causes you’re passionate about: education and the environment.
Yep. We will give money directly to individual teachers in low-income districts. Awarded teachers will be able to choose how to spend the money, whether that’s on school supplies, winter coats for their students, or whatever else is deemed most necessary. For the environment, we give money to a rotating list of NGOs to help replace the resources we have spent and to help preserve the environment. As I mentioned, these causes are important to me.


You had a successful Kickstarter and you’re now selling men’s athletic shorts in multiple different styles. What do you look forward to in the coming months?
We’re launching publicly this February! We’ll launch with our men’s shorts, joggers, hoodies, and athletic shirts. In the background, we’re also developing 12 women’s products and 8 new men’s products. I very much want to be a brand for both men and women. Look for our launch in February and a Kickstarter for the women’s line around March!

What’s your ultimate vision for Fox & Robin? 
I want to be the first apparel benefit corporation to IPO. I want to show people that you can have a triple bottom line. Profitability is very important, but I also want to prove that a business can maximize for more than just profits.

One of Tommy’s friends helping him get Fox & Robin off the ground.

I want to be an advocate for those on the outskirts of society and empower them in any way I can. I’d love to have some factory workers and teachers on our Board of Directors. Just to give a voice to those who typically don’t get represented in the room.

Finally, reflecting on your pretty big change, from working in banking to taking on ethical business practices, how do you feel about your day-to-day work now?

I learned some useful skillsets in banking – making pitch decks, building financial projections, staying organized – that help me with Fox & Robin. For many reasons, I’m grateful for my banking experience. However, this is just much more fulfilling. Even when I’m working late on Fox & Robin, it doesn’t feel like work. The feeling of the work is drastically different, and I’m excited about the future of this company!

Shop Fox & Robin on Choobs today! Also, follow them on Instagram to keep up with their public launch.

Categories
Marketplaces

How To Start An Online Marketplace, From Experience

Starting a company is hard. The market is like a river, you’re trying to jump in and lead the river in a new direction. Out of all companies, marketplaces are the toughest to start. Most companies have one customer to focus on – the consumer. They make a product or service and sell it to the consumer. Marketplaces, on the other hand, have two customers to focus on, the consumer and the supplier. A hotel sells its service to the guest, while Airbnb must sell its service to the guest and the host. It has to create a solution that will make both sides of the marketplace happy.

This is what makes a marketplace business more difficult to get off the ground, which I’ve learned first-hand. To save you time and trouble, here’s some insight into what it takes to start an online marketplace. My marketplace is not ultra-successful yet, but it’s creating transactions, so it’s a working marketplace at the very least.

Idea

Before diving into starting a business, your idea must be refined. How do you know a marketplace is the right solution? Can you just create a marketplace for any issue?

A marketplace is a great solution for a broken market. A broken market is when supply and demand cannot easily find each other to create a transaction. A clear example of a company that seized a broken market is Uber/Lyft. It used to be difficult for taxi drivers (supply) and riders (demand) to find each other, so Uber/Lyft created an online marketplace where these two sides could come together and easily make a transaction.

Perhaps a market isn’t fully broken, so it’s not that difficult for the supplier and consumer to find each other, but you could still make it even easier. Strengthening a market could also be a good reason to create a marketplace. For example, shopping wasn’t that hard before Amazon, you could just go to a store. However, Amazon made it even easier by giving you the ability to buy and receive products without ever leaving your home.

Before starting a marketplace, ask yourself if your market is truly broken. If it is, a marketplace is a good solution. If the market is not fully broken but can be significantly improved, a marketplace can work there too.

An important piece to remember is how your marketplace will capture value, or make money. If a transaction happens between the supplier and consumer on your marketplace, that’s best because you can easily capture value by taking a commission. If no transaction takes place on your marketplace, you will have to think of a different way to monetize, like selling ads or taking fees. For example, Etsy is a marketplace that makes money by taking a commission on sales. OpenTable is a marketplace helping people reserve a table at restaurants, which is free, so it makes money by charging restaurants a fee.

Build

Once you find the right idea for a marketplace, you will need to build it. The challenge with building a marketplace is keeping in mind both your customers. The suppliers and consumers both should be happy with the experience you build. As a non-technical founder, I made some mistakes with building that you can avoid.

The most important advice I have for non-technical founders of marketplace businesses is…find a technical cofounder. My first move when starting my company, Choobs, was to license a marketplace from an Indian company. I basically paid a fee and was handed a blank marketplace which I could customize with my logo, add vendors, etc. It took about 3 weeks for me to realize it was a terrible idea. It lacked a bunch of features I needed, and since I couldn’t code, I would have to pay the company more cash to make any changes.

I needed to build Choobs from scratch. I looked at development agencies, which have great talent and can build exactly what you need. But as a guy on a small budget, I couldn’t afford to pay them cash to make the product, much less the additional payments whenever I needed a fix or change.

With licensing a marketplace and hiring an agency out of the question, I decided to seek a technical cofounder who could work for equity instead of cash and would be invested in the long-term success of Choobs. This partner would build the best product and would make changes/fixes without needing more cash. Looking back, we’ve done so many changes to the product, I would be completely broke if I had worked with an agency. Unless you’re well funded, don’t waste your time with the other two options, go straight to finding a technical cofounder! (Finding a cofounder is the hardest part of a startup and deserves its own article, but if I had one piece of advice it is to put your idea out in the world and see who comes to you.)

One good thing came out of my mistake of licensing the marketplace from the Indian company. I quickly had a prototype of a product to email to suppliers and gauge their interest. I found out what they thought of the idea and what features they needed to join my marketplace, which helped me know what to actually build once I found a cofounder. You should do this too by creating a quick prototype of your marketplace and trying to sell it to customers. They’ll likely deny you, but then you can ask them for feedback.

As I said, you have to focus on creating a good experience for both sides of your marketplace. For my marketplace, I decided to focus more on the suppliers’ experience than the consumers’ experience. I thought we needed suppliers to join before consumers would, so I wanted to create a great experience for suppliers that would entice them to join. This turned out to be correct, and now we’re focusing more on enhancing the consumers’ experience. In a marketplace business, you must carefully balance your focus on the two customers.

Go To Market

Once you build your product, you “go to market,” or sell it to customers. This is very challenging, but it can be carefully navigated. (Tip: It’s important to have a go to market plan early because it helps you build the product.)

Picture you’re starting a brand new outdoor market, like a farmer’s market or a christkindl market, in your hometown next weekend. You want vendors to set up booths at your market and sell their goods. You also want lots of people to come by and buy these goods.

So you pitch your market idea to your first vendor, a candlemaker, and the first question she asks you is, “How many people will come to the market?” This is the most important factor in her decision to spend her time and money on a booth at your market. You need to figure out how many people will show up, so you go to people and tell them to sign your list if they plan on coming to your awesome market. They say, “Cool! Which vendors will be there?” Uh oh…

Now both the vendor and the customer want to know who else is coming to your market, and you can’t get one side to show without proof that the other side is coming. You’re stuck! This resembles what it’s like to bring an online marketplace to market. It’s called the “Chicken or Egg problem”… which comes first?

I navigated this problem by focusing on getting some suppliers on my marketplace first. In order to do this with no consumers and no traffic to show, I had to completely de-risk the supplier’s decision to join. Picture you went back to that candlemaker for your market and said “I want to help you sell more products next weekend! I’ll set up a booth for you at my market and also get someone to work the booth, so you don’t have to worry about coming. Just give me the products to sell and I’ll return any stock we don’t sell. Oh and it’s free, I’ll just take a small commission on any sale I get you!” Now you’ve de-risked her decision. For her, zero sales is fine and even one sale is great! This is what I did with Choobs to entice my first suppliers to join.

Once I got a few suppliers to join because it was risk-free, I looked for consumers to come buy from them. Since consumers came, I could show traffic and sales, and get even more suppliers. This was how I got my first customers, or how I went to market.

Starting an online marketplace requires careful planning. Now you know a little more about verifying your idea, building your product, and going to market. Having a plan will save you time, but don’t overthink too much, go get started!

Email me at alex.mueller@choobs.co with any feedback or questions.

Categories
Living Intentionally

Why Switching Careers Made this 24-Year-Old the Captain of Her Own Ship

Many people lack fulfillment in their careers but do nothing to change. Alexandra Grochowski realized that her passion lied outside of finance, so she left her job to enroll in a design boot camp and redefine her career. This 180ยบ move to become a designer has set her on a new, exciting path, and she shares her story in this interview. It is inspiring to see Alexandra be conscious of her life path and take action to align it!


Introduce us to Alexandra as a kid.
I grew up in a Polish household in Glenview, a suburb northwest of Chicago. I was a very independent kid, so I was really good at keeping myself busy. I loved drawing, coloring, and arts and crafts. Even at a young age, I wanted to do everything by myself and didn’t like when others tried to help me! I wouldn’t even let my mom put on my shoes. I was also highly curious: there was no subject or topic I didn’t want to learn more about. I stuck with creative hobbies all through high school, including painting, illustration, and even playing piano, but eventually became curious about business and finance which I knew nothing about.

As a kid and teenager, what did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
To be honest, my many different interests as a child made me incredibly indecisive when it came to a career path. My insatiable curiosity drove me to both enjoy and excel in most subjects, which didn’t make it easy for me in narrowing down options. I would change my plan every week, from medicine to graphic design to business. All I knew was that whatever I chose, I wanted to be really great at it.

Alexandra working on affinity mapping.

You studied Supply Chain Management & Finance at a great business school, then started your career as a Financial Analyst at a big bank. Why did you originally choose to pursue business and specifically finance?
I pursued business because I loved the impact businesses had on the world: employing others, creating new products, and giving back to charity. As somebody with various interests, I also saw an endless stream of opportunity in business, since it’s relevant in every industry. Finance specifically has always interested me because money is an incredibly powerful tool to achieve your personal or business goals. Some people see money as evil, but I just never saw it that way. I believe money is just the key to freedom. 

After a year and a half, you decided to leave finance and pursue design instead. Talk about what inspired you to do this!
I was flirting with the idea of leaving and pursuing a new career for about 6 months before I finally did. While I loved the finance industry, I didn’t like being a Credit Analyst. I needed room to be curious, to grow, and to be creative which I just wasn’t getting through writing memos all day long. I knew that if I was going to leave, I wanted to set myself up for success in my new career and be sure it was something that would inspire me. I spent a lot of really long nights just taking a really hard and honest look at myself and who I REALLY wanted to be. I researched a lot of different career paths, but the first one I got excited about was UX/UI design. The “A-HA” was that it combined the need for creativity and practicality, which I always thought was contradictory. Not only that, but it combined ALL of my interests: psychology, graphic design, branding, strategy, and research.

Leaving a job and taking a leap to redefine a career can be really scary. It’s easy to think that it could derail your career. How did you feel about doing it and how did you get yourself to do it? 
I think when anyone finds the confidence to make a big change, it’s because the fear to NOT make the change is stronger than the fear of failure. I looked at the people around me at my old job and realized I was afraid of becoming them. I didn’t want to be in Corporate Banking in 20 years and was willing to do anything to stop that from happening. What was really helpful for me was to do a gratitude check of everything I had. I had a supportive family to live with to save money, a strong faith, a resilient personality, a solid work ethic, and health insurance. I also lived in a free country with a great economy, where I had the freedom to pick my career – why wasn’t I exercising it? If I did fail, I could always come back to banking. It began to feel like a waste if I DIDN’T try. Once my resolve was set, I began to tell my family. While they expressed their concerns, they were incredibly supportive of me once they saw my determination.

How do you feel now that you have a new career?
I feel blessed! Every day is exciting. The big change isn’t necessarily from the new career, but from reminding myself of my own choice and what I am capable of once I exercise it. I sleep more peacefully at night, knowing that I am honest to myself every day and am the captain of my own ship. Life didn’t get any easier (turns out, design is hard!), I just got stronger. If I accomplished a drastic career change in a global pandemic, what else can I do?

Can you give any advice to someone who is thinking about realigning their career with something they’re more passionate about?
Yes! Take the time to do a full inventory of yourself. Once you have a strong “WHY?”, the “HOW?” becomes secondary: you won’t give up. What are your values? What does “passion” mean to you? Is it doing what you love for work, having the freedom to control your schedule, or simply having more time at the end of the day to spend with your family? Start being honest with yourself: is there something you are hiding? Chances are, if you aren’t satisfied, there is something you haven’t come to terms with. Take it day by day.

Check out Alexandra’s portfolio and keep up with her on Twitter @alexandragrows.

Categories
Socially Conscious Brands

How 4 College Dropouts Used Quarantine To Start A Viral Clothing Brand

When people remember 2020, it may bring feelings of pain, loneliness, and havoc. It’s true, this year was full of despair. For some, though, quarantine gave them the downtime to reevaluate their path, and maybe even work on the idea that always circled the back of their mind.

One of these ideas that spun up out of quarantine is Happiness Project, a socially conscious clothing brand with the mission to elevate happiness throughout the world. It has grown to 50,000 followers on Instagram so far this year, and I had the chance to interview the four college dropouts who worked tirelessly to make it happen. It’s a story that made 2020 a little brighter for those who have followed along, and for those who haven’t, this will get you caught up!


How did you start Happiness Project?

I (Jake Lavin) had the idea for it in 2017. A classmate had committed suicide and it shook our world, so I wanted to spread happiness and teach people about mental health. I decided to create a clothing brand that would donate a percentage of profits to a mental health organization. I dropped a line of clothing and got some followers, which was cool, but I eventually went off to college at Mizzou and stopped focusing on the company. Then at the end of 2019, I started coming back around to the brand, making new products and posting more on Instagram.

What changed in 2020?

In April of 2020, everything changed! Quarantine hit and my friend, Joey DeFilippo, started making some awesome tie-dye designs for Happiness Project. He was a little ahead of the tie-dye trend that hit this year. We started promoting these new designs with giveaways on Instagram, which really grew our following. Then we dropped the collection of tie-dye apparel in June and our followers and sales skyrocketed! We added another dye collection in July and just kept growing. Influencers were posting about Happiness Project, adding fuel to the fire. We launched a new product in August and another new ‘basics’ collection in September, so we’re always giving our customers new products. During that span, we also added two team members, Mike and Brendan.

What do you attribute to the success of the brand so far?

I think people really resonate with our mission to elevate happiness around the world. Mental illness is such a prevalent issue we face today and there’s a lot of stigma we have to break through to fix it. We educate about mental health and donate 15% of profits to an organization building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. We also hold events to raise money for mental health and spread happiness. Along with our mission, customers love our product designs and giveaways!

Where do you see Happiness Project going in the future?

We want Happiness Project to eventually become more than just a clothing brand.  We hope to one day have our own resources for mental illness in struggling communities and third world countries.  We want to make a community where people have a safe space to come and have fun (hopefully a physical location with fun activities throughout the building open to the public). We want to throw concerts and other events across the world to raise awareness for mental illness.

Happiness Project will continue dropping awesome collections and spreading happiness around the world! We are excited to grow and reach more people with our brand and mission. You can keep up with us by following our Instagram @happinessproject.