I decided to take a break from interviewing for Innovate or Die around two years ago to focus on other projects and enjoy my spare time a little more.
However, at a marketing conference recently I mentioned how I like to hire people who have their own online projects on the side, and the other senior marketers I was with were taken aback.
“How can you hire someone who has a business on the side? Won’t they be distracted all the time?”
On the contrary, I find their entrepreneurship and drive leads them to contribute much more than the typical employee. Hopefully they learn valuable marketing skills from me, and I learn what is on the leading edge from them.
So when one of my team members started online bow tie business Style by Fiction, it ticked all the boxes for an Innovate or Die exclusive interview.
What inspired you to start Style by Fiction?
From a business point of view I really wanted to put my money where my mouth is and try to build something from the ground up. I settled on bow ties because I recognised that they are something that a lot of people, me included, really love.
Google search “bow ties” or look at Pinterest- people who wear bow ties are often passionate about them to the point of being obsessive. I also saw that there was nobody out there doing a good job of servicing them- the price point was either way too high or the quality or range was lacking.
So I came up with a shop that stocked the bow ties I would wear at a price I would pay.
Where did the name come from?
Style by Fiction derives from the idea that fashion is a story, that what you wear and the outfit you put together tells the world a particular narrative. To varying extents, people go to great lengths to dress themselves well, to match colours and layers, to get suits tailored and to accessorise. It goes further than just trying to look professional at work or look sharp on a Saturday night.
A bow tie epitomises that indulgence- it’s an extravagance that serves no practical purpose and is not expected in any context other than a very occasional, very formal event. So wearing one means that you’re making a statement, you’re creating an image for yourself, and that’s the story you’re telling.
I also love fiction. I read a lot and have dabbled in some writing, so it’s fun to get to incorporate those themes into my content. I think that from a philosophical and visual point of view, bow ties and writers just go together so well. Ian Fleming, Hemingway, Mark Twain, they all wore bow ties.
I think that it links in perfectly, the world of academia and the idea of backing yourself, whether it’s through your art or your style.
Why bow ties?
It’s only bow ties for now, but if everything keeps going as well as it is, I’ll look to expand to a full range of similarly dapper men’s accessories! But I started with bow ties because I wear them a lot and I always have. I didn’t feel comfortable selling something I didn’t back my judgement on 100%.
From a market perspective, I’d noticed a gap for a business like Style by Fiction. When looking for bow ties for myself in the past I’d really struggled and had to buy online from the US, which took ages to arrive or cost me in shipping.
The big department stores here only stocked designer labels and the prices were just way too high for something the ordinary guy might only wear a few times a year. Or on the cheaper end of the scale, the quality or range just wasn’t there.
Plus they’re small and light, so storage and shipping isn’t a hassle. Given that Style by Fiction is a side project for now I didn’t want packing and shipping to be some huge burden that took up hours of my day.
I had the guys at Nowhere Famous design and execute an awesome custom bow tie envelope which I can just pop into the ordinary mail for the price of a stamp. It takes a day or two but it means absolutely none of the cost is passed on to the customer.
Who is your target market and why do they choose Style by Fiction?
At its simplest, we’re looking at young guys who aren’t afraid to take a fashion risk and are serious enough about looking good that they’d consider buying a bow tie online. Because in reality, a lot of guys wouldn’t do that.
They might make an impulse buy at General Pants or they might even go shopping for one in the city if they have a special event coming up, but it takes a particular breed of gentleman to go online, browse our range and buy something they haven’t seen in person.
And there’s the women! I hadn’t anticipated selling a single bow tie to a woman, but we’ve done heaps. Sometimes it’s for their partner or sometimes it’s just for themselves. I’ve had to totally reconsider my social media targeting to make sure we’re pushing the products to women as well, because they were buying from me even when I wasn’t advertising to them and I couldn’t work out where and how were finding us!
I try to follow up every sale with a few questions to the customer about why they chose us. The recurring theme seems to be that there just isn’t anything else out there like Style by Fiction- no one has a range like ours for the price we sell at.
Plus we keep things simple- all bow ties are $29 and they all include standard free shipping via the ordinary postal system to anywhere in Australia, no exceptions or variations. People seem to be responding to the fact that our system is so simple and there are no hidden costs or extras.
How are you getting the word out?
At this point I’ve really been focusing on Facebook. I think the average guy will sit up and look at the Facebook page or website of a brand who 5 or 10 of their mates have liked. And they’re far more likely to trust the website when considering buying from it. There is safety and security in the numbers. More so, I think, than Instagram or Twitter, where anyone with an eye for imagery or wit can build a following. They’ll come later, but I see Facebook as the toughest nut to crack and it’s the one I want to get right.
Something I’ve had some real success with is linking up with other brands on Facebook and leveraging their existing communities. Other fashion labels and alcohol companies are the easy matches- it would be great to run cross promotions with a shirt company or a brand of whiskey, but those guys have got a lot of their promotional partners sorted and they’re not always keen to give the new kid on the block a go. It’s understandably a risk for them and at this point I can’t offer them a similar sized community in return. So I’ve tried to think out of the box a bit.
I just ran a competition with Penguin Books, centering around our similar themes of storytelling and asking people to name their favourite character in a bow tie- it got 1,000 actions from their fans, saw our Facebook numbers jump up 1,000 people and it got our brand and website in front of their 140,000 fans.
I’ve found that the Facebook communities with the biggest numbers are often the most receptive because they know the value in rewarding their fans, so long as what you’re offering them is a bit off kilter to what they would ordinarily offer as a prize or reward. And so long as you look after all costs and labour!
I’ve also run a couple of pop-up stalls at some Bondi bars and restaurants to try and get the word out. I approach these as a platform for online growth instead of a means to make some money and I’ve been offering discounts based on how much social media sharing people do about my products- they show me on their iPhone right then and there and I discount them accordingly.
And then I use myself as a platform. I wear one of my bow ties every day, even though this means I’m overdressed 98% of the time. Being overdressed just means people comment on the bow tie and it’s an opportunity to give them my pitch and a business card to go home with.
What’s been the biggest learning since starting Style by Fiction?
I was pretty naïve to how much it would cost from concept to implementation, to be honest. Though I have experience in digital marketing and e-commerce, I’d never gone through the process of setting up a business of my own. There were a lot of little fees and expenses that added up which I hadn’t anticipated. But almost all of them were one-off start-up costs so it just meant a bigger upfront investment.
And the other is the idea of being able to adapt. I came in with a pretty rock solid idea of how I was going to get my bow ties and my website in front of people, but I quickly figured out that a lot of it was wrong or going to cost me more money than I had.
So I’ve had to learn to keep flexible and try lots of different things without committing too much of my budget to an idea until it’s a proven winner.
Finally, what is one piece of advice you’d give to someone wanting to start their own business?
Be ready to adapt. It’s a good thing to plan and to have an idea of how things will develop, but in the end unless you’re throwing a hell of a lot of money at market research from the get go, it’s impossible to predict exactly what will work and what won’t.
Be prepared to stay flexible, to test ideas and stick with what works. It’s the only sure fire way of making sure you put the customer first and providing a business or service that people want, rather than what you think they want.