Ep. 054: On Launching a Snowboard Outerwear Company — The Mike West Interview

Hear how Mike West, the founder of 686 Outerwear, launched his snowboard brand just out of college, with no formal design experience.  Listen as Mike describes his past mistakes as a “blessing in disguise.” Hear him express the importance of curiosity, listening, and remaining humble, as an entrepreneur.  Additionally, Mike encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to not wait for the perfect time to start a business.

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Top Takeaways from this Episode:

(1)  To become an entrepreneur, put yourself out there and take a chance; be prepared but don’t aim for perfection.

(2)  It helps to be a regular customer for the types of products that you’ll sell as an entrepreneur.  This helps you understand the needs and desires of your customer base.

(3)  Starting out, you can do a lot with a little. You don’t need much staff to start a clothing business.  Much of what you do can be outsourced to other suppliers and freelancers.

(4)  Counterintuitively, business challenges and mistakes can be blessings in disguise.

Transcript:

John Benzick:  Oh man, in this terrific episode I interview Mike West, the founder of 686, The Technical Snowboard Outerwear Company. And one of my favorite parts in the interview was when Mike emphasized a key decision point of entrepreneurship, which is the importance of not waiting for the perfect time to start a business, and learning to be comfortable, or courageous enough, to just get started and to take the leap.

Mike West:  Putting yourself out there, and maybe going out and learning it firsthand is okay. You will never be ready and everything set to go. You have to be ready but you won’t have everything perfect. I would have never been able to be where I’m at without taking a chance. And you will give excuses to yourself about why you can’t do it, but if you want to try it, try it. And if you don’t, it’s fine. It’s not for everyone, believe me. There’s so much pressure right now to be that guy. You don’t need to. But give it a try if you want to.

John Benzick:  Greetings product launch rebels and welcome to the Product Launch Rebel Podcast, brought to you by venturesuperfly.com, where we help double your entrepreneurial courage, even if you’re in a sea of self-doubt. Please visit the Venture Superfly website and check out the contact page to join our mailing list.

John Benzick:  Today I’m stoked to interview Mike West, the founder and CEO of 686 Outerwear for snowboarders. He started the brand just out of college with no formal design experience. When you go into many outdoor retailers across the country, you’ll see 686 prominently displayed. In fact, our family is a happy customer of 686. All of my three step kids, even Nadia and Pierce, wear 686 when they’re riding on the slopes, keeping them warm and dry and stylish to boot.

John Benzick: Mike also launched Matix Clothing, which is a lifestyle apparel brand stemming from the skateboard and surf culture of Southern California. Mike is a partner in North America’s largest action sports and outdoor warehouse fulfillment center called NRI Distriubtion, where they help distribute leading brands like Electric Eyewear, SurfTech, Outdoor Research, Black Diamond and many others.

John Benzick:  And finally, later this year, Mike is planning to launch a new direct to consumer apparel brand called Westwell, which will play in the larger menswear and soon womenswear markets. Stay tuned for that. Mike’s a really creative force, that’s for sure.

John Benzick:  Without further ado, let’s say high to Mike West. Mike, thanks for being here and welcome to the Product Launch Rebel Podcast.

Mike West:  Thanks, John. Thanks for having me. When you list all those things up, I don’t really realize that things are on my plate, but it’s been a great ride. Whatever I can do to kind of tell my story, I’m pretty stoked to do that.

John Benzick:   And I listed the abridged version. You’ve got a lot more things going on, I know that. That’s for sure.

John Benzick:  So Mike, there are three segments in this podcast. The first is called Give Me The Basics, which helps set the context about your companies for our listeners. The second segment is called Let’s Get Personal, where we get into some of the more personal topics about what it’s like to start a business. And the final part is what I call Tell Me How, where we’ll get to the heart of the matter, on issues that aspiring entrepreneurs want to know now, to help move them forward.

John Benzick:  Mike, what do you think? Are you ready for some questions?

Mike West:  Let’s do it.

John Benzick:  Fantastic. All right, here we go.

The Back-story of Mike’s Entrepreneurial Journey

John Benzick:  Mike, let’s start at the beginning. Tell us the story. How did you originally come up with the idea to start 686?

Mike West:  I think a lot of my ventures and just what I do is really based upon the feeling, the gut feeling, and kind of being the customer myself, right? Back in the day, I grew up in Southern California, my whole culture was based upon skateboarding. Street skateboarding, it was this kind of movement close to Southern California and Venice Beach particularly, where just this uprising like angst and kind of all the things about what we couldn’t do, into just this form of expression in the skateboard.

Mike West:  I grew up kind of as a sponsored skateboarder. You know, back then, you weren’t looked in the way that you were looked today. People were like, “All those guys on the side, what are they doing? They’re creating trouble.” For me, I was a shy kid. That was my way of actually getting my expression out, so that eventually led me to meeting people, and being in this kind of artist kind of creative culture. That was a part of the mid ’80s, and I transferred that to snowboarding in the local mountains, and became instructor there. Just did that while going to school at the same time.

Mike West:  That was my foundation of just finding myself, and my hobbies, and things I was just really passionate about. That’s how it all started before I actually started quote unquote business, which I do today.

John Benzick:  Right. And you started with the outerwear component pretty quickly, right? You didn’t just start with T-shirts or things like that.

Mike West:  Yeah, more or less, initially I just spoke about it is I didn’t initially have any design experience. I hadn’t gone to school, I learned from someone. What I did, I guess understood, and when you’re young, you really didn’t understand exactly those sets because you didn’t have the tools you have today. You know how to assert eyeing something. When you have an eye like, “I like that, I don’t like that,” and I learned how to maybe communicate that on more of a formatted process.

Mike West:  When I was going to school, the few things changed me in terms of hey, the instructor told me, “You could actually do something for a career and in aspects you like to do.” It’s something as simple as that today is really hard to understand. You go to a prestigious school back then, you pay a lot of money, and you have to essentially do what maybe your parents were expecting you to do, which is become a professional. That was not necessarily my mindset back then.

Mike West:  I learned the things I liked to do, which is basically back then was moving, being in the mountains, and thought about how I can center myself around that, and I thought about creating something, and I just did it by a speaker, and he told me to do this and do that. I got into … I actually did create a hat, a beanie, a T-shirt and a pair of jeans first. The second year I went to creating technical apparel because I realized that you can only get so far in protecting yourself from a T-shirt and a hat when you’re in the mountains.

How 686 Clothing Got Early Traction

John Benzick:  Mike, talk a little bit about what was so unique about 686 when you started it. Apparel is such a tough industry. How did you cut through the clutter early on amongst so many outerwear and clothing brands that were out there?

Mike West:  The interesting thing is we have so much transparency nowadays. Back then, you only knew what was in your little proximity of not even watching your phone, and handling phone. It’s more what you knew locally. I think that’s something that I knew really first-hand because I was the customer. I was really passionate about doing this, and I wanted to hear what people wanted. The first step is let me make something let me get the response directly right then and there and it kind of steamrolled.

Mike West:   Back then it’s like, “Okay, wow you made something. I like it. Where did you get I?” and you kind of grassroots kind of grow a marketing that way. Then it kind of builts. Back then, the competitive landscape was different. The technical landscape was different. I think when I speak to some people, it’s the right place and the right time, it was the right time in terms of the industry was growing, which I didn’t know. It was mainly by larger companies, but they all started in a similar way. I came from a authentic point of view from where I was, what I was about meaning the city meets the mountain point of view where my initially concept was you can actually use this here and there, meaning you can use it in the streets and in the mountains. It’s very versatile where people kind of appreciate that. It was more this street style. Not high tech, very low tech, but very street oriented. That was kind of my point of view that continued throughout.

Mike West:  Was that one of my successful points? I think it was one of them, but it was really the right time and the right place with a point of view that made the difference.

John Benzick:  Just for some context to our listeners, how many products did you have on the outerwear side when you started producing outerwear, meaning that second or third year, did you have two or three jackets and a pair of pants? Did you have more than that? Did you start with less than that?

Mike West:  Yeah, it was really specific, meaning I made it for myself and my friends. I had a T-shirt, a hat, a beanie, a pair of jeans, and then the outerwear was only an anorak jacket which was really a poor cut boxy 90s cut, which is actually back in today, and this wide pair of shell pants that you just really back then, you just protect yourself from getting wet. It didn’t really protect yourself from being cold. That was the first step.

Mike West:  Then the next one really was the game changer, I could say, in the brand over the 26+ years is…you know I took a trip outside Southern California to Banff in British Columbia. It was a realism factor that I realized it’s not 40 degrees out and sunny all the time, it was really, really frigid in all aspects. I go, “Wow, you really need to actually have some sort of insulation than pure shell.” I actually got a pair of sweats, put in my pants, and I put my shell over it. I put some Velcro on it and sewed Velcro on my waist pant.

Mike West:  And they go, “Wow, I can actually wear a pair of sweats and keeps me warm. And then after that, I can actually take my sweatpants and then wear my sweatpants as I’m lounger.” And that really created the next concept which is known today, which is our smarty collection is it’s a convertible three in one system here. And we were really the first ones to create this kind of branded three in one experience. There was another company, Columbia, you know that had that. But it was totally not in my realm. I didn’t know about them back in the day. So I we created this new feature called Smarty which is zip out zip in technology of interchangeable liners, which people related that to all that was a Kleenex or coke moment where like, if you take your liner out, they referred to us as Smarty, which was, you know, very learned later on, it’s a very powerful thing when people can associate not your brand, but other people’s products to what your name is.

John Benzick:   And with that three in one concept, did that really differentiate you among retail buyers at the time? Did that really sort of get you the traction that you needed?

Mike West:  Absolutely. I think that you know, like, if anyone starts something, you know that when they asking, “Hey, you know, what do you want to do?” Well, I want to make clothing, “What do you want to sell to?” I want to sell to everyone. You really need to really have a point of view and really have a certain niche in terms of who you want. And that’s what we did is we go, “Hey, this came from a really first person point of view in terms how we discovered this, why related to it.” and then this perceived value of going well, you can actually do more, more than one specific thing, was really powerful.

Mike West:  And then also we concentrated strictly on pants, not jackets, we didn’t do jackets so many, many years later. So and today, you know, quarter of a century plus later, we’re the leader and no one else does in pants, you know. So that really kind of blossom our company to do other things while we really own one thing.

John Benzick:  That is really a great little piece to the story. How many employees did you have perhaps in that first year or two? And how many do you have now just for context?

Mike West:  You know, when people ask that, they kind of have an assumption towards that is, but back in the day, I mean, you had me and a friend, right? And then my first employee but those… when you do that you’re really searching for people you feel like you can trust. not really have the best biggest skill set back then. And then you do everything right? And today, they’re still here. The one that’s been made for almost the same time and he’s still here, he’s the president and I have a couple others been here for over 20 years. And, you know, we all kind of grew up in this realm, and we all really hone our skill set. We have about 20 something people right now. But we’re really tight meaning, you know, we were really efficient. And we do quite a bit for the assumption of people how big we are, but we’re not that big at all.

John Benzick:    Sure, you can outsource a lot of that stuff nowadays, everything’s so fluid and, and that really helps out as well. And when I started my outerwear company, I was the one employee for a good few years, and we were getting into REI and a lot of semi large retail chains regionally across the US and you can do a lot with a little, especially the more efficient and effective you can get over time over each season.

Mike West:   Absolutely.

Being Honest, Showing Humility and Being Forgiven

John Benzick:   Mike, most entrepreneurs go into business with a set of assumptions. And many of those assumptions proved to be different from what they expected, thereby making them scramble to make changes in order to survive. If you can think back to the early days, regarding your company’s uniqueness in those early days, did your original assumption about that uniqueness prove motivating to consumers? Or did you discover a different product selling proposition after being in business for a while and getting some customer feedback?

Mike West:   You know, it’s a little bit of both. We like I said before, we have our point of view, which, you know, in our space, it’s people love this kind of like authentic storytelling, you know process. And I think that, you know, when you’re doing in the early 90s, not knowing what people are really thinking and having this long lead time, you just did it really honest, you know, and I had a lot of humility going, “It’s okay, you can tell your story, you can tell people what you’re doing.” So it was this how it was, I think people began to trust us, by the way of just going, you know, I were at the same level, you’re not coming to me, somewhere else, you’re coming to me just like anyone wanted. And I think that’s a big part of how we were relative to a lot of our customers.

Mike West:   And, and as we are today, you know, I think we didn’t have any like, we shouldn’t do that, because that’s going to happen. We kind of just did it and in another day, we were forgiven a lot. I had some really great products. And I see that products are actually still used today. But we made a lot of mistakes, too. So that process was forgiven because it was somewhat accepted back then because it wasn’t an quick, you know, the aspect of today and yesterday completely different. Right? It’s completely different.

The Personal Side of Entrepreneurship

John Benzick:   Sure. Mike, let’s get personal on a few topics. Many aspiring entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know. I certainly didn’t. Before starting a business, there’s sort of unconsciously incompetent in certain areas not as fully prepared as they thought they should be in starting a business. Before you started 686, to what extent were your previous skills and knowledge aligned with your task of launching an apparel brand? Let’s say on a scale of 1-10. 10 being very aligned. How did your previous skills and knowledge fit with your new startup?

Mike West:  That’s a good question. Because if I could say that it was very low, meaning I would say my skill set design wise, was probably in the like the two two range. You know, I got an idea, but I didn’t know how to sketch. I can write a napkin. I didn’t really know how to use a computer where I learned, business wise, leave alone that right? I mean, I was going to business school I learned but you know, there’s a different aspect of actually doing it… learning about it and then doing it.

Mike West:  As you know, as I grew meaning a year into it, you know, speaking with people finding, making mistakes, doing yourself, and that’s one of the things I really, really, really cherish when people actually get out there, there get their hands dirty. And because we’re in Los Angeles was really easy to go to the garment district and find out myself, I actually had to get pattern maker, I found and got the fabrics, got a phone, I learned it from a really a product perspective. And I learned where my strengths were and where my weaknesses were as well. So I really sought help for the ones I feel like I couldn’t do, even though I was doing it, I needed to really have assistance in those realms.

Key Lessons Learned as an Entrepreneur

John Benzick:   Yeah. And it’s been 26 years since you started the company. And this is sort of a big question, given the long history there. But what’s the number one lesson you’ve learned since starting 686?

Mike West:  That’s a tough question.

John Benzick:  I imagine it is.

Mike West:   You know, one of the lessons, I think that it’s something I still kind of learn today is you know, you don’t take things for face value. What that means is that everything that comes your way, a mistake, a challenge, it is a blessing in disguise. And back then, you know, sometimes you feel like you have this one major mistake, it’s over. And I think that we’ve really utilized those mistakes to our benefit. And that’s how case study is really the opportunity to do these other businesses.

Mike West:  When people say like, “Hey, why are you doing this for 26, almost 27 years?” I don’t look at that. I feel like it’s a great aspect. But I don’t want to go, “Well, I’ve been here for that long. And I deserve to be here.” And that’s not a right. That’s basically something that you will work on continue to build off and you have to. We come today, we feel like this is our first day in business. But I think that, you know, don’t take things for face value. There’s so many aspects that life leads you into this one realm to the next realm to something else. And as you grow older, you grow wiser to really somewhat understand what that means and how you can control that. It’s not totally controllable. But you realize that you use it towards your advantage. So hopefully that makes sense.

John Benzick:  Yeah, it does make sense. And I’m curious, because I was in the Snowsports Industries for about five years, what were your toughest times? And how did you deal with those?

Mike West:   Well, they’re all mixed together, because every year is somewhat difficult, you know, you know it too, since you’ve been involved in yourself, you understand that. If someone goes, “Hey, you know what, you want to actually start a company, which is hard enough, you want to actually do something in the seasonal business, which you really can’t control, you know, weather, and you want to do something that actually only happens once a year, and people actually, hopefully presented , and they hopefully pay you because it’s it, they’re going to sell through your products, and it’s hopefully going to snow and all that kind of stuff. And then top of that going to have an issue with pricing online.” All that’s all that’s difficult, you know.”

Mike West:   But I think that for us, like from 92 to 2000, we did not make money. I mean-

John Benzick:  Sure.

Mike West:  It was that grind of eight years to kind of just grind and borrow money, credit cards, doing whatever we can to scrape through to get that. So I would say it was difficult, but it was probably the best times because I had no… I didn’t have the responsibilities they had meaning, you know, I didn’t have the mortgage or the being married and all that kind of stuff. And I compare that to the difficult times of you know, last x many years of the drought, you know and the weather issues. You know, the over inventory and you know, everything going on retail, it’s a totally different type of challenge, you know.

Mike West:   But at the same time, when I look at our financial downturn, 2008 you know, that time, we had our best financial years, surprisingly, the reason for that is because of really our partnerships in terms of who we were partner with. Not everywhere, the best one, you know, and really actually the best better snow seasons during that time, and being really diligent on how we extend our terms and not going out there and growing for the sake of growing. Which blows people’s away, you know, it was really great for us from 2008 to 2012.

John Benzick:  That’s not… I would not have expected that. I think a lot of people going into a new business, a consumer business don’t realize, particularly the challenge of a seasonal business, even the most neutral of business ideas tend to be seasonal. And certainly a business like Snow Sports or Outerwear is definitely seasonal. It was a challenge that I had, you know, you have half of the retailers not paying you on time, and you’re spending nine months with money going out and very little time with money coming in. It’s a real delicate situation.

Mike West:  Absolutely.

Entrepreneurial Regrets

John Benzick:  Mike many entrepreneurs, including very successful ones, if you read biographies and successful business people, even they have regrets in the behaviors that they’ve done, or certain decisions they’ve made early in their entrepreneurial journey. And I think many of those regrets reveal valuable lessons to aspiring entrepreneurs, I know how I have my set of regrets. Since you started 686, would you have approached the business differently, if you could go back and do it over again?

Mike West:  There’s certain… you know, you look at that and I learned to kind of get past those things, because, you know, it’s kind of what we are today. But there’s a few things that kind of pop out to me where, you know, I didn’t really have proper mentorship in a way that I didn’t know what a mentor meant. You know I was like, “What is that?” So, you know, I didn’t really have anyone to take me in their wings and realm till later.

Mike West:  I mean, I had someone basically show me a few things, but I really wish that I would have had more guidance in terms of the things I maybe should or should not have done. And that’s why I say is like is probably more for giving back then because you could do that, maybe we could have been different if we had a little bit more, you know. Someone to kind of show us, “Hey, you know, this is the process of how it works.” So we didn’t have to make… you know, we all spent our business many times in the 90s maybe I would have went out of business because of this, I mean that person didn’t give me another favor to take me on because I couldn’t deliver one or two, you know.

Mike West:  So that would a really, really kind of hopefully, kind of made me to something else. But you know that’s something that I realized today, you know. Like I was coming from, you know, when you’re an owner, operator, founder, you’re responsible, and I think that some people just can’t take it or they want to do it but they really can’t take the responsibility to do that stuff. I mean, you know, you’re not only… you have your livelihood, but you have the people that are with you, believing in that. So you owe it to everyone to make that happen.

Mike West:   I think that mentorship one two could we have pivoted towards more of, you know, direct to consumer approach earlier on. I think one of the challenges is we’re in this old school kind of buy sell traditional wholesale, wholesale, meaning you sell to retailers, retailers can sell to the consumers. We were very loyal to our retailers, you know, because the one that’s how we started, that’s the bulk of the business, right? Our product are storytelling. The best… typically through, you know, people that know how to talk about the products, such as, “Hey, that jacket or pant looks cool. It does a falling for you. And it’s made for this and does this.”

Mike West:   We put a lot of time and money and efforts into actually differentiate ourselves in natural product. And could we have actually done it differently? Possibly, you know, we’re still heavily, heavily involved in supporting our retailers, which is a good and bad situation. Right? Good because they’re the ones that have been with you all throughout. They’re the ones that speak the loudest, they’re all the following. But do they all tell the same story? Do they all pay on time? Do they do good business? You know. And that’s obviously happening in retail today. Those that don’t, will regards with me or not, are going to adjust themselves. Right? So maybe those are the two ones too, there’s a lot more too but you don’t use those as something that you just grip on. You go, “Wow, what is that going to do next?” And we that’s what we try to do.

Motivations for Becoming an Entrepreneur

John Benzick:   Yeah. Mike, as you know, starting a business is pretty unusual. And so I’m curious what motivates a person like you, Mike West, to stop just talking about launching a business, thinking back to those early days, and you actually went out and started an outerwear company? Do you think you’re a creator at heart? What do you think has actually driven you to launch a company like yours?

Mike West:  Its interesting. I’m not a big one on labeling, like when you go, “Are you’re an entrepreneur, are you a businessman, are you Creator?” What I like to do is I really, you know, the motivates means it’s not… the monetary is probably the least that motivates me. It’s this aspect of actually adjusting or actually educating people’s point of view, you know. What I’m saying that is, I get off and actually figure out, what excites people and why? And that’s kind of the core of kind of what we do. And what I want to do in the future is really, it’s fashion… in our day, we are a fashion company because you have to work by all these things, it’s really aesthetics.

Mike West:  But what I really get interested in is, what it really does for you, does it protect you? Is there a purpose to the what you make that creates an experience that really, hopefully changes, you know, the way you look at things, the way you experience something to something that you didn’t really know, you really could do in the first place? You know, that’s really for me, that’s like, you know, we all kind of… we do technical apparel that protects you from the cold. But can I do more than that? That’s what really gets me going. And I get inspiration from other people doing it in other industries as well.

Mike West:   Like, one of my biggest interest is learning how people did it their way, right? And it’s when you hear those things, you share a lot of those things like, “Oh, wow, I went through that too.” No matter how big or small they are, you can relate, and how they disrupt certain industries and their way, it all starts with a similar kind of pattern and the differences in terms of how you really take that, and you do something with that, or you bring someone on or you get this right timing, that’s really makes all the difference.

John Benzick:  Do you see yourself as a sort of inherently curious person? And do you think that’s been a part of it as well?

Mike West:   Yeah, I would say so. You know, the curious part is that, is interesting because, you know, curiosity can lead to many different directions, right? And you don’t want to be pinging ponging back and forth, or change your mind. You want to be curious, the boy that, you know, you have, like I said, before, you have this humility, that you go, maybe I don’t know what all, maybe I still need to have an ear to listen, because that is something, honestly, is easier said than done by listening, because some people turn things on because of that person. They’re not interested in that but there is a point to get for anyone that has, you know, their experiences, they’re storytelling and… but you really have to kind of filter that stuff too. Because it could be sometimes too much. You know what I mean?

John Benzick:  Absolutely. Mike did your success surprise you?

Mike West:   I don’t like, here is like what I said before, when people say you’re this or you’re successful, like success is kind of like… success is kind of you in different ways, right? For me, it’s, it’s really this kind of barometer of like, am I happy? Are my people happy? And that is the most successful thing that I can be excited on, you know. So it’s something that we strive to do, because you can be financially good, but everyone can be very, very happy, not feel good. So we don’t want that way. It’s a win win when you’re successful when everyone has that kind of succeeds. And that can be struggle sometimes, right? Because everyone may have a different kind of point of view, a game plan or whatever they want. And that’s what we strive to do, we are Univ actually more people than just what we do than just one type of product or season. It’s the people that really make the difference.

John Benzick:   Yeah, and maybe you’ve answered this, in that with that answer. But what have been your biggest joys? Or what are you most proud of along your entrepreneurial journey?

Mike West:  Well, outside the aspect of selfishly actually doing the things we going to do, travel, meet people do things. It’s interesting that you going to see, you know, we all kind of grew up in this like, young mentality, like not knowing a lot. And then really kind of giving it our all and kind of watching people grow, you know, like you don’t have… sometimes you don’t have the opportunity because you’re always moving, you’re seeing things, but I get joy’s going well. We have people here that didn’t have a family now they’ve been family, now they have this and it’s a kind of way of life. Like it’s such a great aspect when you can do it with people that really kind of believe in it and get the same thing out of you. And that’s not an easy thing. You know, when you have people here that don’t want that, you know, and as you run a business, it is just as much, you know, managing the process, the product and the people just more than ever. That makes sense?

Dealing with Self Doubt as a Business Owner

John Benzick:  Absolutely. Mike, many entrepreneurs, even seasoned ones, experience self doubt, as they go along their entrepreneurial journey, how much self doubt Have you had along this journey? If at all? And how have you dealt with it?

Mike West:   It’s interesting thing, because, you know, you’re actually coming from this kind of, like shy, not that confident, little confused, you know when I was young, to being much more, you’re doing something that people actually like, you know they’re getting response. So that helped that kind of self doubt along the way but I think that, you know, you have to have… from my point of view you have to have a slight bit of self doubt, is this the right thing? To kind of have that like, you know, maybe it doesn’t work because there is a human aspect of everything you do. And you feel like if you’re too confident going, this is going to work because of x, y and z or been around this is that I’ve always realized, man, the one, the ones that kind of speak the loudest sometimes really have a lot to hide.

Mike West:  And for us, we speak the way we want to do mean, we’ve been really consistent in the things we’ve done, we’ve been good partners, I would hope so. You know, we don’t say we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. And we do the opposite, we but we do have to actually put our point of view out there so people will believe in us. But the self doubt kind of continues internally a lot, we hopefully can be more honest with that knowledge to everyone else. But ourselves. And that’s the hardest thing is this self doubt, you kind of psych yourself out, if you’re if you don’t admit those things, you’re just not into or not good at.

John Benzick:   Sure. And along the course of your 26 27 years, what have you learned most about yourself as a business owner?

What Mike Learned Most as an Entrepreneur

Mike West:  You know, learning never stops, right? One of the things I just love learning is… I learn something every day. And I really do. And I think putting yourself out there to really, really kind of take that, is not easy. Some people don’t want to do that, some people are really comfortable. And I would say this is your being young is not aspect of just looking in the mirror, it’s really being the young of not knowing a lot and it’s okay for that. As you grow older you feel like you need to graduate. You feel like that I have known more because I’m done this, I’m done that. And I don’t feel like you need to do that as much as you grow older.

Mike West:   And I think that’s… the ones I talked to that feel that way they have a lot more ways to, to maybe make those mistakes and bounce back or actually have a lot more successes and figure that out. I think that you can have this humility, you can always learn. And that leads you to the next thing I mean, all these other ventures that you don’t look for those, it comes to you because of that you’re open to those things, you know, and I think that’s really an opportunity, this way of looking at things and just being close to it.

Mike’s Top Influences

John Benzick:  Now, it sounded like you didn’t have a strong mentor opportunity early in your career or as an entrepreneur. But thinking back who has been most influential to you in your life, either professionally or personally?

Mike West:  Personally is probably my mother just because you know, you have certain people that were there supporting you, no matter what unconditionally, I would not have gotten here. Because of her support, you know, putting everything on the line, that having much to where it is I respect that. I respect, one of my closest friends that started his own business back in the day that really helped kind of show me the ropes a little bit then he went out of business early on. Those are the ones having pushed along the way my teacher, going to undergraduate USE was just monumental and telling me that you can do something that you really, really want to do in life. And then now I’m been blessed to go back to school and help the same students in this in my same position. And man, that’s a blessing. And I was talking to my manufacturer yesterday he was like, “Why are you doing that?” I was like, “Well, I learn as much as they learn from me.” And that’s so inspirational for me.

John Benzick:   Yeah, that is great. Now, I think a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs or people in general don’t realize that a lot of apparel companies are owned by an investment group or by a larger conglomerate or something like that. I imagine being in your business, you’ve had a number of opportunities in the past to sell your company. Did you have those opportunities? And and why did you choose to keep it independent?

Mike West:  We’ve been … we’re very proud to show we’re independent writer, owned and operated. We mean there’s no one else behind us telling us what to do. We’re probably one of the longest standings out there in our industry. But you know, I think that this, you know, you talked about the self doubt, you know, in the turn of the millennium, I had this aspect of, I was like, wow, I needed to you know, as an owner, your name is on everything, right? So you have a black cloud, people think you’re a business owner, you know, you do everything, but you have a black cloud above your head, because you’re leveraged from every single thing if something goes wrong, right?

Mike West:  So I found a partner in 2003, that enabled me to go, “Hey, you know what, we’re going to let you take a little money at the table that allowed me to just strictly pay off my parents for putting their whole life savings there” and allow me to go,” Hey, you can actually do use your skill set to do something else than just winter apparel.” And I took the chance. And I did it. I sold part of my company in 2003. And I got a partner. And it was one of the best experiences we had because we were able to come out of it, learn from them. But really, we cut ties because they are having their own troubles. So I got a partner in 2003 to 2008.

Mike West:  And they showed me how it was on their way, we expanded more, we doubled our company, but we didn’t double our company’s profit wise, we actually we’re not profitable because or very little profitable because were growing too much. With all these other stresses of growing. So that taught us a lot but and then we got out in 2008 got it all back and a perfect timing with it. Economic downturn happened but that was a great experience. And ever since then we just go you know what, “We’re okay for right now. We were not trying to be the biggest we’re not we’re not we’re just trying to do it our way here and consistently try to create new stories and ideas to really have a better experience.” That’s all we want right now.

Mike West:  We’re not going to go public. We don’t need to do this. We just need to do good business, where I think today, people think you got tp scale you got to do this, you know. What this business has allowed me to do, And hopefully everyone out here is to do what they love to do. And for us, I was able to start other businesses out of this you know, that was a blessing in disguise.

The “Hows” of Launching 686 Clothing

John Benzick:   So Mike, here we are in the tell me how segment the podcast where we aim to get to the heart of the matter, regarding key issues for aspiring entrepreneurs. Mike, let’s talk about raising capital. I think you alluded to maybe your parents supplying some of the capital you needed for your entrepreneurial activities. Did you originally raise capital for 686 and maybe Matix?

Mike West:   Yeah, it’s really hard to compare to what it is because we didn’t go through a sea. What you go through… you can call it Angel, meaning I leveraged my credit cards, and I leveraged my parents only asset, which is their house, to do this seasonal aspect, right? That’s not really the way to do as scrappy entrepreneur way to do it. But we graduated from there to doing… it’s more like loan sharking, because we needed help to bridge this kind of cycle of actually getting your products and then producing and then waiting for the season happen. So that was kind of really a difficult part like in gambling, everything to going, “Hey, here, here you go, will loan you the money you guys got the orders will loan you the money, and you got to pay us back by this date or else, right?”

Mike West:   So we graduated from that to factoring, which is essentially they take your accounts receivable of the orders, and then you loan it off a percentage of that to traditional bank financing. We didn’t need a raise, or we didn’t… I didn’t know the aspect of raising back then. And actually, if I would have had too much money, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. And that’s why, you know, a lot of business back then in the 90s, the business was blooming. So you have people that wanted to give you money as a deposit, to help produce your product, which is insane, you know, they would go, “Hey, I like your stuff.” And they would see a sample and then give you a 50% deposit, you go make the products and they gave 50% when you ship.

Mike West:  What happened back then is a lot of people just took the money and run and the whole business kind of the industry just fell. So we went through all cycles of that. We didn’t have to raise money, we acquired other businesses, we had, you know, acquisition loans, but we did it all internally. My style is I don’t want to be heavily in debt, you know, there’s enough risk of actually purchasing products making products before you have to actually, you know, get paid.

John Benzick:   Right.

Mike West:   That’s was the way.

Finding the Right Apparel Manufacturer

John Benzick:  Let’s switch gears a little bit, Mike, and especially in the apparel industry, how did you find a manufacturer for 686, especially getting into that really technical outerwear stuff? I imagine maybe you started locally there in Southern California, or maybe you went to China right away. Tell us more about that.

Mike West:  That was… that’s the probably the defining moment our business that when you look back, and there’s a few of them, it was really our manufacturer support. In the very beginning, you know, knowing this, so you’re not making a T shirt, you put your logo on it. It’s a really strenuous kind of cutting and sew activity. I learned it firsthand drying it doing an LA getting fabrics, you know from different parts of the country, all US made, then I want to actually take that mentality and take going to Mexico because it’s really close to here, which didn’t work, you know, and to quickly going to offshore, where I found, they found me of all places close to 25 years ago, and we’re still with them today.

Mike West:   If you look at talk to anyone in business for more than 10 years, or even 20 years, there’s these defining moments that really you didn’t know back then but you know now how important they were. And when our manufacturer found us, he showed me basically how it was done in terms of back then you really go well, I’m going to make a product and I’m actually going to create a pattern and design, I’m going to make a pattern, I’m going to buy fabrics, I’m going to win my trims, toggle zippers, put my label on it, go to a manufacturer haven’t cut it, and haven’t sew it, and then hopefully everything comes out and then I get to paid.

Mike West:  And then I hopefully got to ship it on time, and hopefully it’s going to snow, I hopefully that ship it to them and hopefully they’re going to pay me. The process is just too risky, right? It’s done today. But we go, “Hey, want to make technically superior products, you need to fine tune this process, you need to have the best products, the best people the best skill set, and you really need to pay him ideally one price.” So when you pay different parts of that stuff there’s all different parts of risks. So right now, obviously, it’s one price of everything we do, we put it back to her and we have a buying office and in Taiwan. So we have an office there that does all this together. And we purchase it all is one fob from here. So the risk is still there, but it’s all quarantine to one professional site that does all in Asia.

John Benzick:  And did that manufacturer partner, I imagine that they were doing outerwear production for other brands, domestically as well or in Europe?

Mike West:   Yeah, back then there was… they had some crypt and it was interesting, because they are kind of in the same position as us that they were just starting, right? So we came in the same time. And we’re work together, they have definitely more experience than me. But you know, going Asia, it’s are… what we do now, it’s what probably one of the most intense skill sets, precision kind of workmanship you need. Because you know, it’s so many different parts outside the construction process, the fabrications, right? And the lamination and how it works, the chemical process, making sure you’re responsible that way and how it all reacts together.

Mike West:  They do others, but you know, our buying office once they buying us we have… So we have an office in Taiwan, that they purchase all the fabrics, and everything on our behalf. And they have factor relationships that produced the stuff, right? So it’s one central office, they also do other as well. But it’s not in the direct competition is us, but that it’s pretty normal that people do that stuff, too. And everything’s confidential. But we know what we’re doing over there more or less.

John Benzick:   Yeah. And do you have any one key piece of advice for people considering the soft goods industry, on how to find the right manufacturing partner?

Mike West:   Um, so many different ways you can obviously look at online, but I really, really, really recommend you go in there. So you don’t do everything remotely, you go there, and you learn it yourself. Because there’s so many ways that people can say, “Hey, we do this, we do that.” And they’re just a front, they’re a broker, they’re something else, you know, which is fine, you know, because and you have people here that can actually go, “Will do everything for you here, you’re just going to pay for it.” Which is fine, because you can… it’s a learning process toO that’s how we started. And then we just created, you know, efficiencies, and we did it direct. That’s what we do.

The Selling Process

John Benzick:   Sure. Mike, let’s shift gears and talk about selling the product to retailers. Early on, how did you learn to do that? Or what were those first approaches like?

Mike West:   Very archaic, but very homegrown, in a way that we all did ourselves. And I think that our business meaning this quote unquote, outdoor action sports, it’s very first person, very passionate, you know, we don’t wear coat and ties, we do the sports ourselves, whether it’s hiking, camping, skiing, we do that, right? So the retailers themselves are the same, and they appreciate that. So we did a lot of like, we’re on the road a lot. So we’re going to show you our products, not at the trade show, we’re showing you actually, we’re going to your store, we’re traveling with our bags and everything. And we’re showing basically what we did and how we did and we’re speaking that same language. That’s how we started.

Mike West:  Now it’s somewhat done the similar but they they have obviously, showrooms and the retailer comes view, they go to trade shows. But I think that’s what really kind of gets the miles. That’s what people appreciate that you really are out there. The ones that know what’s up are the ones that sit behind the desk. They’re the ones that are out there on the road. And we really had to do that. That made a difference.

John Benzick:   Yeah. And I imagine if you were getting some traction with retail, in Southern California, that could be a key influence to other retailer doors, across the country, whether that be Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, or even New York or Idaho?

Mike West:  Yeah, it couldn’t occur because a lot of there’s a stigma of Southern California, like, especially California in general, you guys are this, you guys are that you know, but most people don’t think we’re actually from Las Vegas, they think we’re from the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, just because of what we’ve been doing. But we’ve been very open that we use this kind of city urban kind of inspiration mixed with the mountain can environments. So there’s influential retailers throughout the nation throughout the world, right? And you really quickly get to know why they’re influential. And I think that and then that’s, you know, because retails challenging, but the ones that do really well, they do it well for a reason. And they’re not just selling products, they’re creating stories

Mike West:   That’s something that you have to realize is retailers is your partner, you want to work with these guys, if they can tell a story, you’re on the same page, and they can pay. Yeah, they’re great and realize the difference from those guys that are good. And those guys may that they’re doing it a different way. I think that’s really, really important. Starting off for sure. And having a point of view. I mean, some people say,” Well, I’ll take your stuff, but put it on wheels.” Meaning I’ll put it on consignment. So you give it to me for free. And whatever I sell, I’ll pay you, I really… for us, we avoid that. Because one, it’s like, I want I the retailer have skin in the game too.

Mike West:   I want them to make sure that they have to sell this, you know, they don’t have not have to sell these out to pay for, let them do that. Some people don’t agree with that, you might need to get in the door that way because you need to prove yourself, we didn’t do it that way.

How to Set the Right Price for Your Products

John Benzick:   Another critical part to making a business succeed is having the right gross margins and profit margins to make enough money and setting the price. How did you go about setting the price for your product early on? And what would you recommend for others getting into the soft goods industry?

Mike West:  Well, I’ll tell you how we did it back then, I’ll tell you how we do it now meaning you know back then it was very simple to the way is, do we have money left over to eat?

John Benzick:   Sure, absolutely.

Mike West:  Which wasn’t that much, we didn’t eat that much. And we didn’t have a lot of areas of… it was really simple. But that quickly kind of disappeared when you have all these other expenses. And what you have to show the bank and all this other stuff. So you know, it’s interesting, because there’s industry norms of your starting margin. And you know, everything else like that, and what looks good on paper may not actually happen at the very end of the day. So you have to take into consideration that industry averages in typical apparel is a 50% start margin, what that means is, you know, it’s going to cost you a certain amount to produce it over there, it’s going to cost you about to bring it in over here. There’s some factors, you got to take in consideration that, say for example, something costs $50 to get at your doorstep. And typically, in the apparel markets and soft goods, not accessories or you know hard goods is you want a keystone that you want to double that margin.

Mike West:  So if it’s $50 on your doorstep, you want to sell for a $100, which the retailers in turn sells it for $200. Now, that’s a typical kind of markup. But what happens is, there’s a lot of factors that come into play that you have to pay from that markdowns that the retailer comes back and tells you that they need discounts, and all that kind of stuff. So it depends, some people have a higher, some people will have a lower, we have traditionally been around there. And I think that’s part of one of the basic importance of any financial responsibility is making sure that your cost of goods are in line, because you can as you grow and scale, you can really influence your cost of goods, not by honestly how much it costs you to make the products but how efficient you are to bring the products in here.

Mike West:   There’s a mistake, there’s insurance, there’s all these other things that happen, you’re airing the stuff instead of shipping by seat, right? No one sees that stuff. But that affects your cost of goods heavily, which affects your margin. So be very, very cautious that you’re direct to consumer, your margins are you should be much better than that, you know, we may get a start margin the very best at 50%, but if we’re selling direct to consumer, our margins are in the 70 80% range. So you know, depends where you want to be. But you also have to play that game of your margin may be 75% through direct consumer, but you’re going to have to also spend to get that. So it’s not necessarily better one way or another. It’s just more what’s right for you.

Lessons in Marketing of 686 Clothing

John Benzick:  Yeah, and let’s broaden the conversation a little bit more into marketing in general, or more specifically, creating awareness for your product and demand for your product. Most startups and small businesses have very small marketing budgets. How did you or how are you now even creating consumer awareness and demand for your product? I always say it’s easy to get the product in the store, but it’s more difficult to create demand for your product, have people go in and buy it off the shelf.

Mike West:  Absolutely, you know, and I think for us, we’re expectation you knew you have to do multiple levels, you know, you may have that one like, “Yeah they bought it,” but it’s the sell through that really is important because you need to work off great sell through for retail specifically to get that out there. So you’re looking at basically, in point of sale items that really present your product well. We’ve always looked at basically as, hey once the retailer pulls a product out of the box, it’s self explanatory. And we’ve done that ways of actually having you know, hangers, custom hangers, to our hang tags, I really take our hang tags really religiously because I want to show the story of what we’re about why this is superior.

Mike West:  So point of sale items to everything else outside of this from athletes, social media advertising, different types of advertising. But what we really kind of made these other points differences for us is partnerships collaborations, you know, so, you know, our that was an external facing change where, you know, in the early 2000s, we go, Hey, you know, we just don’t want to make stuff that black jacket like like everyone else, we want to tell a story of why our stuff has… what we’re about, why this is different. So initially, how we started was working with artists who are essentially our friends, his creative culture to bring their artwork inside our products. And we worked with world renowned artists that are today that weren’t there back then to go, “Hey, you do your cool artwork in here. I can tell your story it’s like it’s in and it’s like a rotating art show across the world because they can hear, see your stuff.” That was kind of revolutionary back then.

Mike West:  It’s not so much now that transition to working with you know, other companies, brands and personalities to bring their story in our winter round for example, that you know, that’s probably our most successful is we worked with Levi Strauss to go I had this concept of like, and this is understand the market as well as back then premium denim was going off, but the classics like Levi’s was kind of struggling. But I knew after all the shininess and premium kind of embroidery things that was going to go away. So I knew the classics were coming back. I approached Levi’s the godfather of denim to go, ” Hey, I want to I want to take what you guys do in winter rises in a way that makes it unique.”

Mike West:   So I created this waterproof denim. We did it here. And we produced weatherize waterproof denim were 10 years ago, that opened our doors to a lot of people just pull more than image wise, oh my god, you guys are working with Levi’s or expand our customer base, expanding our product knowledge, expand our business knowledge because it was pretty insane. And that kind of led to other quote unquote, collaborations which is not new. But we take this and we get more deeper into the technical functional elements than just purely making it look good.

John Benzick:  Yeah, when you were doing the Levi’s thing I was just blown away. I was really impressed. And it elevated you to a level that really made people look and take notice. So Mike, tell us about Westworld. What’s going on with that?

Mike West:  Yeah, so we had another product that was like defining moments is it’s a thing called the Tool Belt. So it was over 20 years ago, we created this aspect of just we’re writing we’re like, “Hey, why do you have to have all these tools? Why do we have to peel up tools to change your binding?” So we go, “Why don’t you just wear it?” So we created this thing called the Tool Belt. So the whole concept was a belt that had tools in it. But the tools are really reflected to have a traditional belt, so it didn’t look like a tool on your belt. And that whole concept, we got it patented. And it lasted 20 plus years of people saying that this really changed their lives, not only in snowboarding or skiing, it changed our lives actually daily where we have so many testimonies, we go “Hey, we hit a nerve that there’s a functional purpose and having just the right amount of tools, quote unquote, to get you through wherever you are.”

Mike West:  So we took that concept. And we’re spinning it off to something completely different than action outdoor sports, to a more purposeful accessories and our tagline is find your solution. So it’s this modern approach to wearable products, namely belts to start with that have components, tools that do certain things. And it’s not Inspector Gadget. It’s not over the top. It’s really minimal, modern, and somewhat innovative in the way actually you work with the products themselves. And we’re excited that we’re also using that towards more of a digital first perspective, meaning we’re not going to utilize our wholesale retail kind of networks, we’re going to start from scratch and talk to the consumer directly be very transparent This process. I’m excited because one, this is kind of new for us, you know, but I’m excited because we were able to use our experience and our know how to do something kind of completely different, not bound by the weather not bound by all the things that we’re bound by and just winter to do something completely new, we maY fail. But we’re going to give it our best shot and we’re stoked on that newness.

John Benzick:   Yeah. And when can we expect to have access to that as a consumer?

Mike West:  We’re going to officially launch I think, July, early July, we’re going to tell the story, we’re going to have ambassadors, you’re going to see it first digital, and we’re not trying to be everywhere, you know, and it’s taking a little more premium point of view. So it’ll be different and won’t be for everyone. But it’s going to be for men, particularly first. And then we’re going to really pivot towards a women female perspective story, you know, so look out for it.

John Benzick:  Yeah, very exciting. I look forward to that. Finally, Mike, did I miss any questions that you feel like you’d like to provide answers to? Or do you have any closing pieces of advice for our aspiring entrepreneur listeners?

Mike West:  As an entrepreneur, you know, I think that don’t get caught up in the aspects of being the guy or making success happen. You know, I think that putting yourself out there, and maybe going out and learning it firsthand, is okay, you will never be ready, and everything set to go. You have to be ready, but you will not have everything perfect. So I would have never been able to be where I’m at without taking a chance. And you will give excuses to yourself about why you can’t do it. But if you want to try it, try it. And if you don’t, it’s fine. It’s not for everyone. Believe me. There’s so much pressure right now to be that that guy you don’t need to but give it a try if you want to.

John Benzick:  Mike this has been a real joy for me. You’ve been a fantastic guest offering great stories and advice to our aspiring entrepreneur listeners. Congratulations on your success for your entrepreneurial courage and for sharing your experiences with us today.

Mike West:  Good John, I appreciate the time man, and anytime. We’ll talk soon.

About the author, John

John Benzick is an entrepreneurship coach and the founder of Venture Superfly. He is a Tech Partner at the venture-capital fund of Matchstick Ventures, a Mentor with Techstars Retail accelerator, an Entrepreneur-In-Residence and (former CEO-in-Residence) at the University of Minnesota, and founder and owner in two consumer product businesses. Click the button below to learn more.

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