Breaking into a competitive market can be difficult for any startup. Offering a diversified product/service and having perseverance can help your company succeed in its respective market. By turning to industry professionals who have experienced their own successes and failures we can see first hand what makes a particular brand stand out.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tom Patterson, CEO of underwear brand Tommy John, where we had an in-depth look at how he built the innovative company we’ve come to know today. He shares with us his experiences and advice for startups on entrepreneurship and branding.
Disruptors are innovators in a respective industry, often times offering a new value network or even creating a new market. Do you consider Tommy John a disruptor? If so, what makes you different?
Back in 2008, I was a medical device salesman frustrated with the the fabric, fit and functionality of my undershirts. I wanted to find a better solution, so I created one. I designed an undershirt with a longer, tapered design and submitted it for a patent. We have the only undershirt on the market with a patent for a stay-tucked undershirt. And that’s just the undershirt, all of products are designed to uniquely solve problems. Our underwear has a no-wedgie guarantee, our socks will keep your feet cool and dry and are designed to never fall down, and our essential tees are unshrinkable, wrinkle free and never pill. So yes, in short, I do consider Tommy John to be a disrupter in that we are committed to solving the problems men face with their underwear and apparel and using humor and relatability to tell our story.
Studies have shown that 50% of new businesses fail to last longer than 5 years. What allows for longevity in a competitive market?
One reason for our longevity in this competitive market is our approach to slow and steady growth and following your gut. Your gut never lies. We made the decision not be reliant on VC funding because we wanted to grow at our own pace and maintain control of the business. Too often people get caught up in evaluating the business by its valuation and allowing things to distract their focus. Large funding rounds can’t secure longevity in the business. Instead, it’s important to perfect your product and understand your customers first.
What’s the largest challenge for a startup and how do challenges change as you grow?
I believe the biggest challenge is to stay true to your vision despite the consistent pressure otherwise. As you grow, you get presented with more and more opportunities. Partnerships, funding, expansion into other categories, etc. People will always be pulling you in a million different directions, but as the founder you are the gatekeeper and need to be incredibly selective in what makes sense for your business in the long run.
Marketing in today’s world needs to be purposeful and direct. How important is having a unique brand voice?
It’s incredibly important to have a unique brand voice. Men’s underwear is a very crowded space with both heritage and up-and-coming brands. That said, we believe the other brands in the category have a tendency to come off as unapproachable and non-relatable. At Tommy John, we strive to be as authentic and relatable as possible. We say it like it is and talk about real life struggles guys have with their underwear like bat wings, wedgies and adjusting.
How do you maintain consumer appeal, while also working toward appealing to a wider consumer base?
We maintain consumer appeal by producing quality products. From inception, that has been our primary focus. Every guy should wear underwear… so it’s about making the best product available, making it accessible to the masses, and continually innovating. As we grow, we are maniacally focused on maintaining that same level of quality in every product we produce. We also listen to our customers and learn about what they are and are not looking for.
What’s one thing you learned during the process of creating a name for yourself, brand image, and persona?
I learned the importance of being authentic and creating a product that solves an unmet need. That’s really what we do at the end of the day. All our products originate from solving problems I’ve had personally with my clothing. We find that consumers desire credibility from brands. They want the product to live up to their claims.
How would an entrepreneur go about finding an industry to disrupt and what actions are crucial starting out?
Find something that you can make better, something you’re passionate about, and just do it. Don’t conform to industry standards. I had no background or connections in clothing design nor manufacturing, and to this day I believe that was my greatest asset. I was able to find new, more efficient ways to get things done. I asked questions and challenged processes that most people in the industry follow on autopilot. There will always be a million reasons not to get started. Ignore them. I didn’t want to be the coulda, shoulda, woulda guy. I never wanted to wake up one day and wonder “what if?” It’s important to take that first step forward and just do it.
How do brands get consumers to care about a product, or even perceive the need for that product?
Make a product that solves a problem or an unfulfilled need in the market and get people to try it. Before I took my first meeting with a retail buyer in 2009 I made her gift her husband and all male colleagues Tommy John. When I arrived, she had already received resoundingly positive feedback and was ready to put us in 3x more doors than initially discussed.
It’s also important to educate your consumer in authentic and relatable ways. Our first commercial, The Big Adjustment, went viral with over a million views within the first 5 days of its release. The commercial spoke of the uncomfortable truths about male adjustment – something all guys can relate to, and all women have witnessed. We showed them that there was a solution in a funny and entertaining way.
Once you have a product or service, branding, and a business plan, what are some tips for successfully coming to market?
That’s when the real work begins. Commitment and resilience will be your most important assets. Stick with it, work hard and do whatever it takes to secure that meeting, or to hit that goal. It will be worth it in the end.
Does every successful brand need a spokesperson? Are advocates the way of the future in terms of marketing?
Absolutely not! Each brand just needs to have an established and authentic vision. To be honest, I was very hesitant to bring Kevin Hart on as an investor in the company when he first reached out. I was worried that his celebrity would dominate the branding we’ve spent years cultivating. It wasn’t until Kevin sat me down and said “I don’t want this to be Kevin Hart’s brand. You’ve already built a big, respectable, and credible brand… I just want to be part of it. I want to help you grow.” He explained how much he loved the product and respected the brand as it is. His hustle, determination, understanding and genuine love for the product and brand made me reconsider.
Tom has made a name for his company by listening to what his customers needed and wanted out of their undergarments. This helped him to develop a product that stood out from its competitors and sustain changes in the market. The company has continued to put their customers before anything else. This strategy is important for customer retention and growth. By building this innovative brand they have made a name for themselves that puts value behind their brand’s voice.