Scott Kuhlman and Drew Pearson, co-founders of men’s apparel subscription startup Lewk, were nice enough to let me visit them in their awesome Northeast Minneapolis headquarters. Naturally, we talked about Lewk — how the idea formed, how it was realized, and where it’s going. Read on for the full interview.
Luke: To start off, can you give a little background on Lewk? How did the idea start, and how did you get to the point of it being something that you wanted to go all in on?
Scott: My background has been in men’s apparel design sourcing and brand building for nearly 30 years now. I met Drew two years ago and we had an idea. It wasn’t exactly what it is today, but what happened was that this idea of subscription kind of fell into our lap. Brands like Birchbox and Dollar Shave Club — some of today’s bigger brands — were just starting two years ago. So what we had initially planned out became even better because of the advent of the subscription model.
Lewk is basically taking my background in apparel design sourcing and manufacturing along with Drew’s background in marketing, combining the two of them together, and then along with lots of people we’ve drug into this — including Echidna — developing the platform and seeing what we can do with it. And the good news is that we have a great team of people that have put it together. That’s really how it got started, and here we are today.
Luke: It’s interesting to see the process from conception to realization of that idea. And obviously, you’re not done yet. You still have a lot of ideas, I’m guessing?
Scott: Yeah, there’s a lot of development to be done. What you see today is probably 20% of what we hope it is a year from now. Not only on the capabilities side, but also on the backend. Along with Echidna’s team, we’ve laid out the vision. But like everything, it’s step-by-step and phase-by-phase. The cool thing is that Echidna was able to get us turned on so that we could begin testing and learning. We didn’t have to go to 100% immediately; we can do this in tranches. That’s what’s so cool about it. We had the premise for two years, and we knew there was something to it. We just didn’t have the tools or the technology — the space didn’t exist, quite frankly.
So I think that’s why it took some time to develop. The market had to catch up with the idea. I think that’s even true of some of the things that we have planned for future developments. If we had them developed today, people in the market might not quite understand them or be ready for it yet. And honestly, two years is the speed of light. And then there’s the fact that Echidna built this thing in 90 days after we said start. It’s crazy that something like that can be done today. In the old days — when I developed my first website — this would’ve taken a year or more. And now it doesn’t even take 90 days.
Luke: So what would you say your biggest challenge has been, outside of technology?
Scott: Apparel is a very antiquated industry. Typically, when a country is trying to develop, apparel is what they get into immediately. Apparel is low-cost to get into, and it takes people to do it, which is what they need — employment. It’s not like you’re assembling electronic parts, so it doesn’t require highly technical skills. Getting suppliers to understand the business model — how we’re doing things and how we’re growing and need to build flexibility into the system — has been a painful process. They’re used to this very old process, while we’re trying to move very quickly into the 21st century. Some suppliers just don’t want to move. So that’s been frustrating.
Another thing that’s been interesting is trying to market and explain this to people outside of our target market. When we sit down and talk about subscription with somebody in their 50s, they’re like a deer in headlines. But if you talk to somebody in their 20s and you say “subscription,” there’s no explanation needed. That’s mostly a good thing, because that’s who we’re targeting. But at the same time, it’s frustrating because you like to have outliers outside of your demographic, and a lot of them just don’t get it in our case.
Other than that, the partnerships we’ve formed — with Echidna and others — have been fascinating to watch. Everybody’s eyes are open, and everyone wants to build it and see what happens. In the past, that wasn’t always the case. Everybody who’s gotten involved with this is willing to build and prove out something that hasn’t exactly existed before. That’s cool, and it gives hope to just about anybody if they want to start a business with a good idea. In the past, you’d throw out this big, bold idea, and everybody would say good luck. I was having a conversation the other day with an entrepreneur who’s invested with four or five new businesses, and he was talking about how frustrating it is because you have to get the money, but I think that there’s this partnership idea today of preserving the cash as much as possible. That’s something that wasn’t available even two, three, four years ago — that’s a neat thing to see happening today.
Luke: You’ve mentioned incrementally growing and adding new things — so what’s your vision for Lewk long-term?
Scott: For me, the vision that we see for this is that it’s the new platform for getting goods to the consumer in a way that’s never been done before. The vision that we have is that it almost becomes this curated site of all things guys. Everything you could possibly think of — almost the general store for guys. Because the demographic understands that our business model is completely different, the economics also become very different.
So I think again, the demographic that we’re targeting is going to champion this for us. They know that there are a lot of advantages for them if they buy in and become a member. And we see it moving way beyond just apparel. We don’t want to dilute it, and we want to keep it very curated, but we see it as the go-to platform for anybody in this 20-40-year-old demographic. Lewk basically takes care of your needs. That’s the long range vision.
But the cool thing is, because it’s technology we’re using — algorithms, tools, etc. — we can move at the speed we can develop. We think the consumer is ready for that — they’re demanding it. They know it exists. It’s just putting it all together, much like the general store of a hundred years ago was developed. It was just the central place to meet and get everything you needed. That’s what I think we’re aiming toward.
Luke: So lots of lifestyle products, or even outside the product realm?
Scott: We want to bring things to you in a different way than you’re currently getting them. What the demographic is telling us now is that, hey, where I used to have to go to 12 different places to get something, you’re bringing it all together for me. So it’s kind of endless. We’ve got lists of things and ideas of where it could go, from products that we could offer to music we can deliver.
Drew: It’s really about creating an environment where guys feel comfortable. And it’s more of a service, so whether that service costs you something or doesn’t, whether it’s apparel or just content, it’s really a place for guys to go to that’s creating things and experiences for them on a higher level.
Scott: What we’re doing is that we’re consuming data. We’re not shy about it: we’re telling people, “We’ve got an algorithm behind this, and we’re going to collect data.” And it’s to your benefit that we collect it — it gives you a much better experience over time. It’s just like when Netflix gathers data on the movies that you watch. The technology’s available, and we don’t have to go on this super search anymore. It’s more, “This is who I am, now curate it for me.” I don’t know if anybody’s really doing that — they’re curating content, but…
Drew: Just not on a personalized level, so the ability to measure that digital footprint allows us to really curate both our content and what we’re sending people in a box.
Scott: And that can help us determine what the next products are as well. The data will tell us that our demographic and our base is into X, so we’ll go get X.
Drew: It’s intuitive and predictive. Intuitive by nature for what’s applicable to that customer at that point in time, and predictive in that it can help us predict on two different levels. One, on the front end — which is how we market, what we message, what we create for product in terms of content, and so on. And then there’s the back end, which is how we source, how we build, how we design. Even the collaborations that we do with potential partners and emerging designers really allows us to test that.
Dashboards and systems and tools allow us to do all of that stuff in real-time, so we can really reflect what our customers are responding to through our products and our content. And it’s cool. We have our business hats on, so we’re always focusing on the mechanics, the marketing, the brand. But the fun thing about this is that people love the art of discovery. They love finding new stuff, whether that’s emerging designers, the next record — we just had a successful piece on the best-dressed NFL players. Guys want to see that. Not everybody’s necessarily a fashion diva, and most of them aren’t. They want to know what other guys are wearing, what they’re listening to, what they’re eating or drinking — so not only are we curating, but we’re also creating the “what’s what” of content you should engage with and clothing you should wear.
From our end, it’s really fun to see how that resonates with guys. The word we use is ecosystem. We’re creating an ecosystem, and our engine happens to be clothing. Everything that makes up that vehicle is our content. The apparel drives it and the car is everything else. If our users want a Corvette, they can personalize it to have that type of experience. If they want an F-150, they can also personalize it to get that type of experience.
That lends itself to other things that we’re already working on — we’re rolling out at least a dozen collaborations this quarter. That in turn lends itself to some cool stuff, from record labels to travel to leisure. It allows us to collaborate our brand with other well-known brands. Eventually we’ll roll out guest editors as well — they’ll take certain subjects that they’re experts at and write a piece on that. Think a designer or a developer from Apple writing a piece of content, or a business development person from Nest. It could be just about anything, but what we want to continually do with our content is create the best of the best. We recognize that we’re not experts on everything, so in order to drive that relevant experience in the ecosystem, we want to engage other subject matter experts to always deliver that.
Scott: In the old brick-and-mortar retail model, you wanted two things. One, keep customers coming back as often as you could. Two, keep them in the store as long as possible. To us, Lewk is really no different. The more we can keep customers engaged within the brand, the more we can learn.
When you look at classic eCommerce, the idea is to throw up 36 pages of shirts. You might learn a little bit with what people scroll through, what they click on, what they buy — but what a horrible experience to have to sit there and go through all that stuff. The consumer’s going to vote that that’s not how they want it. Just send them stuff — give them a little bit all the time or on-demand. We’re hearing that people like it. That’s how they want it, and that’s their life today.
The other unusual thing is that a lot of times, with things like this, content is just stolen. But we’re curating and writing it all ourselves, which also lends itself to us having guest editors and writers. The experience that Echidna created for this is awesome. Users can just scroll through and start reading seamlessly.
Luke: Thanks for the time guys. Let’s finish it off with a lightning round. Electric or manual toothbrush?
Luke: Cappuccino or latte?
Luke: It’s coming up on the end of the day — anything interesting in your pockets?
Drew: Advil. I broke my finger playing basketball last weekend.
Scott: Interesting… I have money in my pocket. That never happens anymore.
Luke: What do you listen to on your way into the studio?
Scott: I just recently changed. I went back to listening to KFAN. I’m a radio guy.
Drew: Today, I listened to Foals’ exclusive session on Spotify.
Luke: And finally, what’s the last beer that you had to drink?
Drew: Session Lager.