How did an uncool, chubby kid grow up to build one of the hottest fashion brands in the world?
Andrew: This interview is sponsored by Walker Corporate Law. Do you need a lawyer that’s not the local guy who doesn’t really get start-up’s, not the really expensive guys that want a piece of your business, but one who really understands the start-up community and is there to help you? If you do, go to Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law.
It’s also sponsored by Grasshopper. Do you need a phone number where your customers can dial in, ‘Press 1 to go to sales, press 2 to go to customer service, etcetera, and maybe even all those numbers actually lead to your cell phone but it makes you look big? Do you need that kind of feature and so many others? Go to Grasshopper.com. All right, let’s get started.
Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters, my name is Andrew Warner. I am the founder of Mixergy.com. Home of the ambitious up-start and home, currently, to over 800 interviews with proven entrepreneurs who come here to tell you the stories of how they built their businesses. In this interview I want to find out how did an un-cool, chubby kid grow up to build one of the hottest fashion brands in the world?
Marc Ecko is the founder of Ecko Unlimited, a lifestyle and fashion brand. He’s also the founder of Complex Media and Complex.com, a young man’s media portal. And he has a new autobiography out that is wonderful that I’ve been loving, it’s called, “UNlabel: Selling You without Selling Out.” Hey, Mark, welcome.
Marc: Thank you. What’s up? [laughs] Good to be here.
Andrew: You were so un-cool that when you were a kid you were beaten up and, how would you say what happened to you in, you, you crapped your pants?
Marc: Whoops, I crapped by pants. You know that old saying, live bit, uh, yeah, um, uh, that’s a interesting first, uh, question, uh, and framework for a conversation around a, uh, entrepreneurship. It’s quite the metaphor and it paints quite the visual. If, uh, but, you know, often I’ve, I’ve often said, like, “Don’t s*** the bed,” as, like, an expression to, like, you know, screwing up or, uh, making big messes. But then this instance, I was in high school and, um, I just got my a** whooped pretty good and I threw a left hook, when I’m a righty, and, um, that left hook proceeded to miss about this much, by [laughs] a lot.
Uh, and, um, managed to pu-, all my own force of my thrown punch, uh, dislocate my shoulder. Like, [makes whooshing sound] and it just totally popped out and at that very instance, um, something didn’t feel right. And about an hour later, I, I found out that something that didn’t feel right was my bowels being, uh, dislocated as well. So, yeah, not pleasant.
Andrew: Ted Turner in his autobiography said, I think it was in his autobiography where he said, that he called up someone when he became a billionaire to basically rub his nose in the fact that he’s a billionaire. When you did a billion dollars in sales at Ecko Unlimited did you feel like, ‘I’ve got to call this kid who got into a fight with me and just tell him’?
Marc: [laughs] Um, you know, revenge is an interesting motivator. Uh, I’m not the kind of guy that’s like a rub it in your nose kind of guy. Um, I think that maybe in my quiet moments, you know, I’ve, I’ve learned that, uh, um, when I kind of sit there and try to reflect on those parts of your history that you’re kind of like didn’t go out down as great as, as it would of or those, you know, for the folks that maybe were cynical, um, I’ve learned to not begrudge them. I’ve learned that this game is much more like swimming or golf, it’s, it’s really you verses you. And that those folks in your life are doubtful or are gatekeepers, if you will, uh, often really don’t have as much material impact as we emotional give them. We grant them more emotional than they are actually worthy of. Uh . . .
Andrew: And did you at the time? You did?
Marc: Oh, sure, I mean, as a young person it, uh, especially as a kid coming up in the 80′s in a really diverse ecosystem, you know, so close to the, woven into a hip-hop culture in a town that was really ethnically diverse and you’re just, like, you’re trying to fit in. I mean, uh, and for, as that white Jewish chubby kid in a town with a really large population of folks that were into hip-hop and a big population of African Americans and Latinos. I wasn’t able to breakdance, I didn’t have enough flow to rhyme, but I could draw, and I could paint.
So my way that I connected culturally to them was kind of adopting the extreme sport of graffiti, if you will, at a very young, naive age and that helped kind of give me the ability to kind of fit in. But I definitely, in the first ten years of those adolescent years kind of finding your voice, your unique voice. I often would get caught in the trappings of not being selfish enough and confident enough . . .
Marc: . . . to not have to depend on their certification or these other forces certification or compliance standard to kind of, quote, ‘Fit in.’ And I think this is nature. It’s anthropology. I think as young folks and . . .
Andrew: Even when it’s just fitting in, Marc, I know the bands, the hip-hop artists who you mention in your book, they talk about, they boast. Run DMC who was very influential for you, they say, “I’m the king of rock, there is none higher. Sucker MC’s better call me sire,” not just, “I’m going to have a good life.” When you were a kid being beaten up, being called chubby and all kinds of other names, did you say to yourself, “I am listening to these guys, I aspire to be great. I aspire to leave my mark on the world?”
Marc: I think you get caught in the trappings of aspiring to maybe parrot because . . .
Andrew: Parrot these people who you admire.
Marc: To parrot the people who you admire.
Marc: Rather than just being yourself. And I talk about it in my upcoming book, UNlabel, I talk about this notion of Ralph-Lauren-itis which, in my case, I definite Ralph-Lauren-itis when designers try to parrot the best in class rather than just kind of authentically stay into their own native true voice. And I think what culturally we do in parroting or trying to emulate we lose sight of kind of finding what makes your point of view, your voice unique. However big, small, modest, square, round, rectangular, triangular, whatever. And I think culturally, for sure, I was susceptible in those adolescent years going pretty much through to probably turning to my mid-thirties.
Well, I finally got comfortable enough in my own skin. Where I finally was contented by being in my own skin and it took to being a full adult to kind of get to that place and much of it, definitely, was this pressure of expectation that you put on yourselves. We all do it. If it can’t . . .
Andrew: Didn’t that help you get there? I feel like, I see the things that you were doing early on and I want to talk about them, but could they have happened if you weren’t being beat up? If you didn’t feel like you needed to match the success of the people who you idolized would you still have worked as hard? Would you have taken on the credit card debt? Would you have risked everything?
Marc: I think a lot of the mechanical and tactical things of taking on debt have more to do with just being naive and young and having . . .
Andrew: It wasn’t this determination to succeed no matter what?
Marc: I think it was more of a higher threshold for pain and like a pretty encyclopedic understanding of being naive and young. I think in having some hubris there and not thinking about the consequence of those actions, but certainly the compression that came from those outside forces, however real or imagined, were motivators. But ultimately, I found the pivot for myself was being confident enough in my own kind of selfishness, my own degree of selfishness relative to establishing my own unique voice in the world and in design and as a marketeer . . .
Andrew: I want to go on with the narrative and tell the story of how you built up this phenomenal company but just explain that to me if you could. Embracing your selfishness is a good thing? What do you mean by that?
Marc: Well, in my book, I use as a framework, kind of taking the piss out of all these kind of classic management speak books that try to be prescripted in a very kind of clear way. 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. And I myself have been fans often of those books, coming up by certainly prescribed too much of those, but I think as you’re in practice and you’re in the messy kitchen of entrepreneurship nothing is really that ‘X+Y=Z.’ It’s not that quantitative in the way that it’s often prescribed to us to be. So, in my book, I use this notion of an authenticity formula as a framework to drive the narrative, the chronological narrative of my life. In the opening section of the book we talk about unique voice, and I define unique voice as action minus fear divided by self.
And I try to quantify the role of establishing a quality unique voice and the role of selfishness. Now you could be overly selfish, overly hubristic; you could be, you know, Hitler selfish, or (? jabathe hut) selfish where you will not listen to anyone’s outside voices, right. You only hear your inner voice. Or you could be totally selfless and your quotient of self is completely selfless, say like a Gandhi, right, who’s just you know, they come once in a generation. Right? And even a Gandhi is like a .1, because unless you’re dead you’re really not really entirely selfless. Right?
So, the point is often people you know, when establishing their unique voice in the world they get stuck on trying to serve the group think, comply to what the temperature in the room is, and when you step outside of that herd of what the group is thinking, you know, you start to ask for enemies, or certainly people who are going to scratch their head, look at you in a peculiar way. You’re not complying to a certain standard.
But it’s having enough confidence in yourself, good, bad, or indifferent, to establish enough of an understanding of your kind of actualized selfish voice, self that drives and kind of shapes who you are and shapes your personal brand. And it’s a skill set that we really don’t encourage. Our school systems and our . . .
Andrew: I’m sorry, Mark, I’m not fully following that. I want to make sure that I understand. When you say that I should be a little bit selfish, what do you mean? Give me an example of how you became a little bit selfish in a good way; give us an example.
Marc: I think there’s a ton of examples. I could use an example of a framework that we could all kind of get around, and before I go into my own personal ones, but let’s use Steve Jobs versus Bill Gates. Okay? Now both two very unique voices in the world, okay? It’s an undeniable fact that they’ve had the capacity to shape our consumption, and the way we consume our media, everything, right?
Marc: But to what degree did selfishness versus selflessness serve their individual companies? Right?
Marc: I would argue that Steve Jobs had a higher degree of selfishness, you know, a closed software and hardware ecosystem. They made it all about Apple, where Microsoft was kind of Cumbia, open OS for the developer community. We are a platform that’s flexible, you could shape us. Right? Now one might say, well yeah, from a pure revenue and value creation and the kind of transactional way that we measure success. Unique voices isn’t about measuring money; it’s about establishing who had a better degree of a higher unique voice.
Andrew: Forgive me, but I can see that they were both a little bit selfish, but what I’m trying to understand is you and your selfishness. Frankly, I like those companies, but I hear about them a lot. Your company I admire even more, because I feel like your success is more relatable. Your success is more . . .
Marc: Sure. Yeah.
Andrew: How are you selfish?
Marc: Oh, my goodness, I think when I came to terms at a time in 1993, you know, coming up it was all about keep it real. Everyone was, keep it real. This notion of authenticity, especially in hip hop, where you are only real ironically if you kind of measured or complied to a certain set of standards. Right? Now everything about hip hop should be about us smashing standards, okay. So everything that I thought about hip hop and like punk rock would say, is there are no rules. But the reality is among social circles there are rules. And when I would go to trade shows and deal with my peers they would say, Mark, you’re too late for the hip hop stores. Mark, you’re too black for the skate shops. Mark, air brushing is not aerosol and graffiti. You are not a real graffiti artist.
Andrew: I see.
Marc: Meanwhile I was air brushing my art onto T-shirts, right, and I was commercializing a unique and kind of somewhat selfish point of view that was shaped in Lakewood, New Jersey. I wasn’t going to be inauthentic and try to pretend like this perspective of my aesthetic was shaped in the Bronx or Jamaica Queens. I’m from Lakewood fuckin’ New Jersey. So, rather than listening to those voices, those cynics that look down their nose. The gatekeepers they begrudge you, right? I selfishly said, despite the fact that at made me at times, I was 21 years old, it’s a little lonely when your friends are like, “You’re whack man, fuck you, I don’t understand what you’re trying to do with these t-shirts. Fuck that it’s not cool, it’s not real. Let’s go bomb tonight, the streets, let’s go hit up Rucker’s, by the river, where everyone would go write graffiti.” I was so driven to want to build a business and my peers, at that time, that didn’t comply with the what was in the air.
Andrew: I see. Now starting a business was not cool. And for you, you were using an airbrush kit, air compressor that your parents got you, or that your parents gave you permission to buy. And it all started with that.
Marc: It all started 13 with that. And I was skilled at that medium.
Andrew: They got it for you, because you told them that you were going to start designing and selling t-shirts. You finally got it, and you didn’t start selling t-shirts. What did you do instead?
Marc: I gave a lot of shit away.
I took years. It started, I guess the cliche, 10,000 years of mastery at 13, and it became my deep vocation and passion.
Andrew: To just paint, to just create your art, and practice and give it away until you could sell it.
Marc: By the time I was a sophomore, so that was, let’s say, 8th grade, a sophomore in high school, two years under my belt, I’d established confidence. I’d actually shook off some of my youthful chubbiness and grew out of that a little bit, and I kind of got my confidence. And I started to market myself and my art. From sophomore to freshman year of college it was quite lucrative, relative to what a gig would be for the average 16 or 17 year old kid, that might be at the pizza shop or hustling at the super market, or some other gig.
Andrew: Why didn’t you start selling it earlier? You have your work in your book, it looks beautiful, was there any fear of selling to other people?
Marc: Sure, it was that self-thing.
Andrew: You wanted to sell, but you were afraid of what they would think of you?
Marc: I was fearful of being able to act. And my fear was greater than my capacity to act. It consumed me, it enabled me. And no matter what degree of selfishness that I had, with, like, me saying, “This is fucking good.” I knew this was good but I was like, “Eh, I’m not ready. Am I ready?” And that’s still, I got to tell you, as a disposition for me personally, professionally, it’s until a thing that dogs me.
Andrew: Are you nervous about doing this interview at all?
Andrew: No, this feels comfortable.
Marc: Yeah, I definitely have anxiety issues that inform my composition, but I am sufficiently competent and confident. And I’m not unusually nervous, no. But I’d be intellectually dishonest to say that there aren’t instances every day, every day where I’m like, “Fuck,” you know, the anxiety. And it’s funny now as a father, I’ve got three beautiful kids and I see how you just produce miniature versions of them. And I’ve realized that that nature, that tendency, the anxiety, the kind of push-pull, the way that the knife cuts both ways, actually makes me a stronger creative director. It make me more measured in my decisions. There’s some good that comes with it, but I’ve learned, ultimately, that my medicine isn’t a pill to get over that, it’s to crash myself through the wall of that anxiety, and that fear, and just fucking get it done and take action.
Andrew: One of the cool things that you talk about in the book, was the swag bomb, that helped you get your name out there. Can you tell the audience what that is, what’s a swag bomb?
Marc: A swag bomb is a good old fashioned way of make a more relevant first impression on someone you want to potentially associate with or to. I would create these packages where I would airbrush every lustrative detail, custom, one of one pieces of fashion product, either denim, a sweatshirt, a t-shirt. And I would send them with a longhand written note, in a way, to different celebrities or luminaries, or people that are admired. And I have found that as long as you do it in a way where you don’t come off like a stalker and your expectations for what their reply is going to be is managed in a way where it’s like, “Dude, they might not reply and that’s OK,” I have had a tremendous return on investment.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of someone you sent it to . . .
Marc: Oh, goodness.
Andrew: . . . who reacted positively?
Marc: Sometimes those reactions and swag bombs take years to incubate. But it’s that impression, that emotional impact that you have the instant that they open that package. Coming up, one of the first kind of feedback mechanisms, like this method, could work is there’s this DJ that used to be on 98.7 KISS FM in New York City and WKRS. WKRS had a DJ every Friday night named DJ Red Alert. Red Alert kind of was a godfather of the whole New York City Hip Hop scene, incubating a lot of talent, namely Tribe Called Quest and all that native tongues crew. He had that show, and as part of that show, he would shout people out.
I was curious, “How does a guy in Lakewood, New Jersey, get shouted out all the way from Manhattan, from WKRS?” So I painted up a T-shirt and it was a very, very detailed painting of all the artists that he was ever associated with. It was like a collage, very photo real. I hand drew a ten-page letter just gushing. Then I said, “Don’t be surprised if I don’t fax you asking you for a shout out.” I sent it. I waited. I sent it return receipt, where he or someone at the office . . .
Andrew: So you’d know that someone got it.
Marc: Then I would call and say, “Did Red receive it?” “We think his assistant has it.” “OK, cool.” So I had a confirmation and I would listen attentively at the Kinkos at Rutgers to the show, and I would fax him like a mental patient. But they were kind of gushing shout outs. There was no begging. I wasn’t begging like, “Red, shout me out.” It was just like, “Red Alert is the coolest,” and I would just big him up, and it was kind of an affirmation. And sure enough, he started to shout me out. Years later, you got to kind [??] nostalgic on that impact. I’ve had others say that to me, if it’s Spike Lee or other guys that I came up with that I sent “swag bombs” to. As I’ve gotten older, the sophistication level of those swag bombs has stepped up. I still find that people really react to something handmade, something that’s hand cared for.
As long as you don’t look like the dude from A Beautiful Mind or a serial killer, people appreciate the analog of seeing that someone cared for . . . if it’s a photo in a frame, there’s something about that as an entry with no strings attached to assert who you are and what your brand is to a new user that’s really, really valuable. I’ve met amazing folks in that manner; making these kind of emotional, explosive first impressions. If it was George Lucas and the action figure that he met who later on became a real mentor and a friend or . . . there’s just been so many countless guys over the years that I prescribed to do it.
Andrew: Would you tilt your camera or the lid of your laptop just a little up? Yeah. I want to get full head in so we can see you.
Marc: Sorry. I apologize for that.
Andrew: And in your book, On Label, you go into details about how to do it and you talk about things like making it so cool that even if they don’t get it and someone else on their crew gets it and they wear your shirt, the person who you’re aiming at is going to be impressed and ask them about it.
Marc: Right. And it can apply to any service or product. I’ve got to tell you in a market and an industry and entrepreneurial ecosystem that so driven about, “Oh, how do we create digitally efficient, capital efficient products and services?” Don’t sleep on the physical representation of your brand.
Marc: That doesn’t mean going to Zazzle and printing a T-shirt. People have enough T-shirts. They could wipe their asses with T-Shirts they have so many of them. What is that analog thing that could be emotionally explosive and make an impression? It’s bigger than just, “Oh, look at my card. It’s novel. It’s made out of metal.” Those things help, yes, but more of a thoughtful representation of that.
Andrew: One of the important people in your life is Seth. Who’s Seth?
Marc: Seth Gertzberg [SP] was my first business partner. Helped me. He was my first capital investor in Eck? in the [??]. He handed me a bag of $5,000 in cash. We later on partnered with my twin sister Marci, and we were the operational partners that built the Eck? Unltd. and Zoo York.
Andrew: You put how much money into it?
Marc: It was initially about 5K. Then he also knew our… He was working, selling architectural artifacts. He’d go to war torn parts of the world and get pieces of marble. He’d go to pawn shops all up and down the Northeast. He would see these marble pillars. I don’t know he got into houses.
Andrew: What percentage of the business did he get for that $5,000? I know he did more than just put in money.
Marc: We started, principally, and this is as a guidance in how you define and design a cap table. There are two guys at the table. We didn’t really… he was kind of the brute force and I was the swagger. We knew we needed to build deeper bench strength, but the conversation started at 50/50.
Then when he said, “Well, I think I could bring a financial partner to the table,” we had our first financial investors were actually his clients in Austria, these Russia, Austrian guys that were in the architectural industry. They ended up putting in probably about $50,000 or $100,000, but per his connection, that didn’t dilute his position. That diluted the total cap table.
Then when Marci, my twin sister, came to the mix, that diluted me, Marci and Seth as equal partners.
Andrew: Did you end up resenting Seth for taking such a big piece of the business, your creativity? No?
Marc: No. You can’t begrudge. No. I think the way that over 20 years of doing this business and the value creation that’s happened for all of us, good, bad and indifferent, has been pretty amazing, based on our back stories.
I think that too much people make, and I try to make a point of this in the book, in the later part of the book, where we were equity hoarders. You learn in this kind of lemonade stand way of approaching business. “Hey, partners. 50/50.” And people get consumed with that and they’re very territorial about their cap table interest.
I could tell you as someone who’s in an investor in other businesses and someone who built a business where I didn’t equity hoard. On complex, where I distributed the risk. I distributed the upside. I have seen that this notion of “hold it all” or begrudge who has what, it’s not. At the end of the day, the percentages in the cap table are less important as like the classes of stock. Voting controls. Governance issues.
Andrew: Maintain control, but share the upside is what you’re saying.
Marc: Yeah, yeah. I could tell you, like, look. I owned, when Marci sold her interest seven years ago or whatever, five to seven years ago. We talk about it in the book. Me and Seth were on the hook for everything with our banks. Pre-TARP and pre the financial crisis, the way you would fund the kind of explosive growth that we had was with personal guarantees. PGs, right? Personal guarantees.
I have now learned and reflecting. To be a guy that was on the hook for half a billion dollars of a financial line. It’s not pleasant when you’re underwater on that kind of amount of money, OK? So I would reflect at that time on so many deals that came and I balked at or I vomited on or I had hubris about closing those deals. They’re not smarter than us. And fuck them, they’re just money.
Reflecting on that and then using that as a composite. A model where we built it really on our own and our own leverage, versus let’s say, Complex, where it was institutional investors, distributed array of stakeholders, which I own… I own the largest individual stake, but I don’t own the “majority,” right?
From a value proposition, I’ve managed to on a dollars and cents, create as much value. In some instances more, owning something that I technically own less of the cap table. So this is a myth, and when we hear stories, these kind of unicorn stories of Mark Zuckerberg and like how he was so smart and kind of configuring the nature of the board and his class of stock, and this class versus that, and even if he sells this he still can . . . Those kinds of scenarios are for those kinds of for unicorn-like species. And ultimately at the end of the day there’s unintended consequences of that; it creates a very contentious atmosphere of like, well, it doesn’t matter because no matter how much I put in . . . and I’ve seen this, where people put a lot into the table only to own a big part of the cap table, but someone else has the controls.
And they kind of begrudge that person, and they’re in a f*****g minority position. So it’s crazy to see the kind of unintended consequences of that. I think the basis for any good entrepreneurial relationship is fair–fair is fair, it is common sense, it is what we understand at a very young age, we understand it through the sports we’ve learned, through these socialization . . .
Andrew: Help me understand how you built up the business. Right now in the story you’re a guy who was starting to send (? swag bombs). The business was growing. The next big step was getting some way of manufacturing that was bigger than what you could do at home. And is that where you got in with APSCO? Am I pronouncing their name right?
Andrew: ABSCO, you actually . . .
Marc: Yeah, that was the kind of first step towards the commercialization of my product, meaning I had migrated my business from a very small restrictive kind of runs of T-shirt production to a larger ‘mass production’ of T-shirts. That was step one.
Step two is later to start actually importing product from all across the world. I started that out of Hong Kong.
Andrew: With a guy named Woo?
Marc: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew: What happened with Woo?
Marc: Woo, you know, I learned some lessons through Woo. Let’s say I learned some lessons. Woo, I kind of exhaustively talk about this in the book. This could give you insights to some of the kind of how to get things made in a very small world and how at least I approached it. But the deal with Woo was one of those deals like kind of a too-good to be true deal, right. Because here we were kind of playing house, playing make believe. I had the production of T-shirts coming out of Brooklyn, at ABSCO, had that class of business done.
But when I walked the trade shows and I’d see outer wear and snowboard jackets and seam sealing and you know, bad backpacks and you know, I had stretched the sourcing capacity that could be done here in the States and at least with the means that I had, and the relationships that I had. I mean, I tried it. I mean, it was denim production in Kentucky, or in L.A. or parts of Mexico.
Ultimately I looked in the inside of my Gap jack and it was like made in Hong Kong, and I was like, I’ve got to go to Hong Kong. Where the f**k is Hong Kong? I don’t know where it was, right? So you know, long story short, I’m at a trade show and I notice in this trade show they had this one area for these kinds of EOM manufacturers that show their wares, and there was mostly these garmento agents. These are like the New York City kind of garmentos, like the real kind of cliche (? shimata) guys in the industry that are really more (?) and brokers. They’re not the factory level guys. So I see this Taiwanese guy, and he’s not dressed like every other garmento with like the white leather shoes and you know, like the bared plugs in his hair.
He’s wearing cooler shoes and he has (?) more European sense of style, and he’s standing in front of a brand that was kind of a hot s**t snowboard brand at the time called SMP; it stands for Sex, Money, and Power. SMP jackets were all there. And I’m like, you made those? He says, yeah, I made those. And you know, he had snowboard pants with like the gators sticking out, all the seams sealed, and the elastic and the velcro and all that seaming triple needle top stitching like s**t you just couldn’t do, you know, in Newark, New Jersey. Right?
Marc: You couldn’t source those fabrics. So he said, I could make that; I can make that. And I started showing him drawings of my line work, and he says, I can make that, I can make that. And I go back and I alert my sister and my partner that I found this guy who’s willing to partner notionally on being our supply-side sourcing partner, that he would help cover the funding of the production of those products; we’d be on the hook of the marketing and sales and then we’d split the profit of the landed cost to the wholesale cost.
Marc: And what ended up happening was a very kind of square agreement, like a 50/50 deal, and we were alerted by one of the vendors that he was dealing with that he, who went rogue on him, to alert us that he was marketing it up on both sides. It turns out we had found out during a discovery when we’d gotten a jacket back and the pricing came back so high. The pricing was so much higher; it was higher than the sample I bought it from. Oh, no, you know, it costs to make it, and you always spoke to our guy in Taiwan and he alerts us that no, they’re marking it up on both ends. And that gave us the evidence to go after Woo. So we very brash, in a brash fashion, were like gotcha, m****r f****r, you breeched. We’re taking the s**t in the warehouse.
So one night we go in, seize the s**t out of the warehouse, because he breeched, right? And the next thing we know we’re called to a Federal Court because it turns out he had some deal that was not caught up in the legal nuance of details, here, but he had pledged his inventory to the financier of that inventory, and who had a Federal kind of way his deal was configured, he got first money out. So wasn’t our inventory, despite our having our trademarks.
Andrew: And it wasn’t Woo’s; it was this other guys, and now this other guy had a claim against you.
Marc: His biggest financier, like you know, sweaty upper lip, you know, do not f**k with financiers, like classic, like just shady financier. And there I was in my first kind of legal predicament where my lawyers were kind of (? snacking) the s**t out of me, my lawyer, Larry Marr, who’s still a great friend and advisor, and who I still work with years later, saying like, kid, you don’t got money to pay me, like to even fight. So like we settled there and needless to say that was a really precarious time in our history. A really tough Ivy League education stuff.
Andrew: It stinks, that even if you’re right, if you can’t afford to pay the lawyer you might as well be wrong.
Marc: That’s right. There’s the truth and there’s the law. There are two . . .
Andrew: Manufacturing was a challenge.
Andrew: What about getting customers? You say in the book in Unlabeled that Terence your friend stuffed T-shirts in his knapsack and just started going from store to store to store. I always wondered if that worked. Is that how you got your early customers?
Marc: Old fashioned consignment, you know, it’s the most demasculating form of business; you have no teeth, no leverage. If you’re going to be playing in the consignment game be prepared to never get paid. That said, it did make a dent; it helped. Look, when you take the friction out of the adoption and it’s about cracking the shelf space, so we wanted to make for our future distribution partners we wanted to make that first entry level risk. It’s very capital, exhaustive thing.
Andrew: You actually manufactured it, put it in their store, you don’t get paid until they get paid.
Marc: In the backdrop Woo was doing the manufacturing, so that cash cost, that was kind of an imagined cost; that was his burden. So when we’re placing the product that we’re going to consign that we eventually aren’t allowed to ship because it wasn’t ours, and we got ourselves in such a cluster (?), that said, and reflecting on that period and the roll of consignment, if you could do that in a measured and strategic way, right, where you could strategically align yourself with good distribution partners who are going to be, you could create less friction for, and you do that in a controlled manner to create the evidence, and data for yourself, it’s a very worthy investment.
Andrew: So, how do you go from there . . . how do you break out of the consignment world, where companies like Macy’s puts your stuff, where you dreamed of being?
Marc: Well, it starts to set, right. I mean, it’s one thing to kind of get on the shelf; it’s another thing to have it actually leave the shelf. And there are certainly in those early years, of emerging hip hop, there was like the music scene; they’d like buy the records. So like our street teams we would sometimes send out to like buy the s**t off the shelves. That’s like hard to scale. That’s hard to scale. You have to use that technique very sparingly and cautiously. I did, and I talk about it in the book. We used that technique with Macy’s when we first placed it in Herald Square. But that’s not sustainable.
Ultimately, you’ve got to make relevant stuff. It’s got to be priced right. It’s got to ship before you promised it would. It needs to be of a quality standard that it’s sufficiently commercial. It’s kind of an old-fashioned game of who’s got the better lemonade.
Andrew: Lemonade and publicity for the lemonade. You did a bunch of things that really helped you stand out. Like the Barry Bonds Ball..
Andrew: . . . and the parties that you threw.
Andrew: I imagine that many people in the audience knew the Barry Bonds Ball story, but can you retell that. And then I also want to hear about the parties that you use to help get the word out.
Marc: Okay. Yeah, I mean it’s funny because when I look back, those nascent years; consignment, breaking into this retailer, there was none of that flash, in fact, anything. There was more of a rootsiness to my marketing using stickers and stencils and graffiti on the street to kind of build the awareness. It was a function of not having the cash. Right?
As I went on to another phase in my career when we were kind of commercializing at another level, it’s right after we launched Ecko and then we made a good ten-year run. And I saw a shift in the market, to say that this streetwear thing is going to cycle. And as this user gets older, how are we going to serve my customer as he gets older. I, myself, was getting older. I had just gotten married. I was just about to turn 30, and I launched Marc Ecko Cut and Sew.
And at that time, I started to say, how do I come from behind the rhino and start to market myself. And we were much more thoughtful about how to use our marketing resources to create “splashier events.” None of which I begrudge, but some of which have their, and I talk about this in Building Your Brand, the one that you’re seeing now on the screen. The market for the guy. And then the one that’s on the inside that you have to satisfy when you lay down with your spouse, your loved one, and that needs to have good quality mental health.
And what I share in this story, the Barry Bonds Ball, in the book is that, yes, it was flashy. Yes, it succeeded in a return on investment of approximately, let’s say, $750,000 for the ball and an additional $100 or $150,000 of some wraparound services. So for under a million dollars, you got explosive meta-awareness for the brand, but there were consequences for me and my personal brand in terms of how consuming that can be.
When you get caught up in wanting to brand and market yourself or product or service, you have to careful of not getting caught into the trappings or the seductive part of the work. That in and of itself becomes your job versus your job. Right?
Andrew: You mean the dangers in promoting yourself and not building the business.
Marc: Right. Consignment, testing new retailers, making sure the product’s right.
Andrew: That’s the real business. Where’s the part that you could get carried away with it?
Marc: It’s that splashy piece. You know.
Andrew: The part about Barry Bonds and everyone’s now talking about Mark. And what you did was . . .
Marc: Right. It’s like Marc, Marc, Marc. I checked the box. It’s exceeded towards my goal of how people would perceive me in a few years, or in the future or in the short and immediate term, the perceived brand. But the health of the real brand, in the meantime, was in fact decaying.
Marc: There was no doubt about it. Oh, there was over-extension of growth, the explosive growth in the retail sector where we started at 16 stores to 30 stores to 110 stores at its peak. You can imagine as a capital expense and the financing of that is you really need to have your eye on the ball.
Andrew: And so you were deep in debt as a result of all this expansion?
Marc: Yeah. I mean it was working to a degree when it was creating the revenue, but the rigor it takes to govern that sort of business is not trivial. And being out and that was a wildly successful tactical move in creating more awareness for the guy behind the brand. Now I don’t begrudge it, and I wouldn’t not do something like that again. And I’ve done things like that since, and I’ve done it before that. I think the distinction is, in that scenario, I disproportionately lent my time to that, as if that was my job.
Andrew: How do some entrepreneurs do it? Where I feel like they’re constantly promoting themselves and the business seems to magically run. They could be out at parties promoting themselves. They could take endless meetings promoting the business and finding partnerships. They could put themselves in the media over and over, and the business magically runs. I thought that’s what was going on with you as an outsider. That your business was just being run. And you could . . .
Marc: I think it’s a massive fallacy. And I know guys in the space that do a great Kabuki theater. And the reality, and when that’s the most authentic, is when you’ve got the business delegated and distributed in a way where the risk and the governance is sufficiently covered. It’s one thing to use your perception as a front. It’s another thing to try to portray. Elon Musk is not Tony Stark though we perceive him as such. If you study the rigor of that business, Elon’s brilliance isn’t the sex appeal of the products that he builds, but the rigor that the businesses are built on.
And the guys that do it and do it right, and are not charlatans, or martyrs, but are really authentically hustlers, where they’re square at the top and they’re square at the bottom. There’s an artist named Joey Roth who’s a friend has got a great illustration of visualizing the notion of a martyr, a charlatan and a hustler. And the guys that are really authentically able to kind of pull that s*** off, are masterful delegators. They have sergeants on the ground operating. And they’re often not really CEOs.
They might take that portrayal because the CEO title, that’s the glossy, that’s the kind of, you know, we understand that like we understand pepperoni and cheese, you know, like in pepperoni pizza. CEO equals business leader. But the real world of CEO really, and often, is a lot less sexy and a lot less out in front.
Andrew: And so you’re saying many of the people who we perceive as the leaders of these companies are really just CEOs in name, and they’re out there as . . .
Marc: Yeah, they probably . . .
Andrew: . . . promoters. But if they were called promoters, or VP of PR, no one would pay attention to them if they . . .
Marc: Yeah. They might be chief creative officers, but they’re not the kind of operating CEO that, for instance, in Complex. One of my partners in Complex is a guy named Rich Antoniello. He’s one of my best friends, and I’m very lucky in life and in business to have him. But he’s not an out in front guy. I mean, he can be on a panel with media lead, and he can hold his own. But he knows he’s best served and the organization is best served so that the gravitas is there, tactically on the ground with the front line to not lose the power of that veneer, of gravitas.
I have found in my role is much better served as a kind of a cheap creative officer, a chairman officer. But I’ve learned enough, having played CEO, having played president that there are guys that know how to play those positions. Like there’s a distinction between a first mitt baseman and a shortstop.
Andrew: So who did you get in your company then to do things like put systems in place, to make sure that there were checks and balances on the finances? Who did that?
Marc: For us at Ecko coming up, we had a very kind of loosey goosey infrastructure. We didn’t have the rigor of a board, in the way that I do in my current businesses and in how the businesses at Ecko have evolved. The businesses at Ecko have certainly evolved and are far more mature and rigorous today.
But at those times, it was kind of like the board meetings happened on the elevator and the hallways. And it was really this kind of composition between me, Marcy and Seth. And there was something magical in that composition. That’s the kind of thing that only really happens amongst founders that start very young, or certainly naive, professionally naive times in their lives. And we had the emotional connection and the kind of trust amongst one another as, her being my twin, and said to me . . .
Andrew: Was it her who was doing things like making sure people didn’t rip you off at stores because there was a system in place that would be duplicated through all the stores? Was that . . .
Marc: We had a triangle and it was governance, who was Marcy, brute force, which was the commercialization, the kind of creating unfair advantages, retail was set, and then the swagger which was kind of the branding, the marketing, the product development, the forward stuff which was me. And when Marcy sold her interest is when we saw the dysfunction of that triangle.
Andrew: I see.
Marc: And even though we can put a C.O. in a place, a C.F.O., we still emotionally, the way that me and Seth had come up with this construct in our heads and that 50-50, there was no, I don’t care what the bi-laws of the board was. It didn’t matter how many advisors and lawyers and accountants were around. And I think for us, yes we had rigorous components to the business but we got away with being pretty f***ing dysfunctional for a pretty long time. Pretty, pretty long.
Andrew: How’d it feel on the inside? What did we not see from the outside?
Marc: I think we didn’t see the sloppiness. We didn’t see . . .
Andrew: For example?
Marc: Oh, my goodness, like, renting, signing a twenty-year lease in Times Square for a 30,000 square foot retail store that cost, just to hold that lease before restoration, that’s a couple million dollars a year with no real plan as when we’re going to open it in sight. And millions and millions of dollars into the development are historical business that we, historical building which you can imagine is very expensive to restore, very politically difficult to migrate in . . .
Andrew: I see.
Marc: ‘You can’t paint here,’ or, ‘You can’t remove this.’ Instances like that where the veneer of that billboard on the outside of the store, ‘Coming Soon,’ but really what was coming was a s*** show.
Andrew: You eventually sold your part of the business too. Does Wikipedia have it right? Is this one Wikipedia? Yeah. That 51% of the business was sold to Iconix for 109 million dollars in 2009 and according to, I think it’s a press release from them, another 45 million for the rest?
Marc: Yeah, that’s right.
Andrew: That means that the value of the company went down after the first sale.
Marc: Yes. It definitely went down.
Marc: I was only a party to the first sale and the way that I’ve configured my interest in the brand is not unlike how many designers have in their careers, if it’s Calvin, or Tommy, or Donna Karen, I am incented on the gross sales of the business.
Andrew: I see.
Marc: I kind of get a royalty and . . .
Andrew: Still to this day?
Marc: Yeah. I’m still involved and it’s been great and I’m actually excited about some of the things that are happening right now and off-the-record, not that we could use it here, it’s an . . . [SS] . . .
Andrew: Don’t say anything that you want me to edit out. I can’t edit it out.
Marc: OK. So, I won’t say it.
Marc: But there’s exciting stuff coming to announce.
Marc: And, you know, I . . .
Andrew: What were you going to say? We can say it publicly.
Marc: No we can’t.
Marc: Not yet. I don’t like until the fat lady has sung. I have learned . . . [SS] . . .
Andrew: Do you remember when you got that first big check from when you sold the business?
Marc: Yeah. I do.
Andrew: How did it feel, a wire transfer? How did that day feel?
Marc: It was an amazing. I talk about it in the book. It was both beautiful but painful. It was like having to lose a part of your body because you get so accustomed to it being there and it definitely was a disorienting feeling, but also at the same time, where I was at that particular time, and I felt that at the stage of the business at that time I felt that that was the right move, it was kind of like everything that’s beautiful that you would imagine getting like a massive amount of capital then . . .
Andrew: Millions of dollars, all at once, safety, security.
Marc: . . . and then at the same time everything that’s kind of painful because you know you are losing some of the controls or the governance that you once had. That said, my partners at Iconix who are now the I.P. owners are really good people. And I’ve been very, very lucky and happy with how they’ve been helping to invest and try to grow the business and what’s on the horizon.
Andrew: We talked a lot about this tough part to early life, getting beaten up, being chubby, etcetera. I don’t want to leave this story with just that but not the opposite. What’s the best part of having made it?
Marc: The best part of having made it is, I think, there’s so many good parts to having made it. I don’t know that I qualify myself with being contented for quote, ‘Having made it.’
Andrew: Do you feel like you have made it?
Marc: You never really feel like that. I think . . .
Marc: . . . I’ve learned that when you arrive at the gates of financial success and liberty, you, for an artist and a creator like myself, money does not sate in enough of a way. And I feel so cliche saying that because I could just imagine in social commentary, in comments in Twitter, I see it all the time. People are like, ‘Oh, crying over for the rich guy.’ But there’s something about just doing stuff with your hands that gratifies in a way that shapes who you are. Transactions, the stuff that you collect, isn’t really what defines you, and I talk about it and helping manage peoples’ ability to quote, ‘Unlabel,’ is, if you’re going to create wealth, create wealth that matters. Right? So much of life and in business we’re taught that the things you collect, the things that I could count and quantify in a definitive number has more value than this other esoteric . . .
Andrew: What is it about your wealth that matters then?
Marc: Oh, my goodness, the, what I’ve been able to provide as a knowledge base for my kids. I think, I’m not one that, I don’t really talk about it in the book because I’m kind of like a little bit, I don’t want to be cliche about it but I’ve given a lot of my wealth away to causes that matter to me and I’ve seen impact of that.
Andrew: What’s the biggest cause, biggest impact that you’ve seen?
Marc: Oh, I’ve helped build a whole institution out in the Ukraine called Tikva Children’s Home where we’ve taken on kids and they’re effectively orphans and help them all the way through marriage. Really help, quote, ‘Create an infrastructure,’ for these guys and to the tunes of millions of millions of dollars, and educational organizations and a whole host of things. And I think the impact is the things that, the impact that matters is the transactions that you get from that, that have nothing to do with a financial transactions but kind of an emotional foundational thing that makes you feel good about what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished. I think that counts. I think an awareness of who I am, a comfort in my skin. The book starts and I use the metaphor of anatomy throughout the book and this peeled away skin, that’s the cover art. I think that I am now wildly comfortable in my skin. And that gives me a tremendous amount of . . .
Andrew: What did you do to get yourself comfortable in your skin?
Marc: I think learning to refuse to be packaged by my skin.
Andrew: And then . . .
Marc: You know . . .
Andrew: Uh-huh. And how do you learn to do that?
Marc: I think I learned to refuse to be packaged within the skin that I was born in and perceived in by going through these life experiences, by building these business, by succeeding, by failing a lot. Success is the hangover of failure, right? And I don’t know that if I would have remained a pharmacy student and gone on to count pills that I’d be as comfortable in my skin on the eve of my 41st birthday. I think that I am shaped by the experiences and the wealth of experiences, the travel the . . .
Andrew: Sorry, I don’t understand it. I understand if you’re a pharmacy student and you’re stuck in a pharmacy making a safe living that you’re not fully realizing yourself and that’s the path that you could have taken. You decided to take this path. A lot of other people go through ups and downs in business and they don’t come out feeling comfortable in their skin. What did you do differently that allows you to say, “I’m comfortable here, I’m comfortable with my age, I’m comfortable with my skin color, I’m comfortable with who I am?”
Marc: I stopped counting things measured by finite numbers, right? I stopped counting the money; I stopped counting the wins, the losses, the followers, the friends… I stopped giving a fuck about Wikipedia or…
Andrew: Don’t you know if you stop looking at the numbers of how many people come to your site, how many people buy…
Marc: No. If your business is contingent on that, yes you’ve failed. Complex stuff, doing that, you fail at but that is my business.
Andrew: I see.
Marc: I separate myself emotionally from what an orchestrated group of human beings have to do. OK? When an orchestrated group of human beings that I have to kind of play alchemist and kind of, you know, Elmer Fudd orchestra to try to get a bunch of emotional creatures to do something in unison to execute, that’s what you measure success by. That’s the numbers on the outside.
Look, if you’re in the red all the time, you lose, OK? Fact of life is, you can’t keep conducting business, not making revenue, right? That is a fact of life, right, that is a Business 101 but success is something entirely different. Success is something entirely different and being, and taking time to create enough of a, allow yourself the romantic supply, to allow yourself to be, to grant yourself, in order to be self-actualized to the best that you can. To be comfortable in your skin, a lot of people with the most money in the world never let themselves do that and it’s really kind of fucking sad.
I think that’s the point, that’s the point that in B school, they don’t teach that, right? I think that comes from my backstory as a guy who uses his hands who fancies himself as an artist first probably. Then I’m probably very emotionally connected to what makes me tick. Good, bad or indifferent. I have afforded myself, often by design, often by circumstances, OK, the ability to let some of that stuff go.
People don’t allow themselves to let the gatekeeper’s rules stop governing them vs. the goalkeepers who actually count. All right, if you’re shooting through the goals and your scoring, it’s good, you’re doing your job, right, but if you try to kind of get into these gatekeeper’s array and it’s an abstract notion of what’s going to be on the other side, don’t be disappointed from an expotation point of view once you arrive there that it doesn’t sate you. That’s what we culturally; we spend too much time doing, if that makes sense.
Andrew: It absolutely does. I was surprised to hear you say that. Frankly, I don’t know why but I thought, “Maybe because of the brand, maybe because of your early influences that this was going to be much more of a hip-hop interview where we were talking about, you know, having suckered designers.”
Marc: You see because you know my skin to the world brand because you and the viewers perceive me and my brand a certain way.
Andrew: You know what, not only that, I read the book, I saw you talk about this, this struggle. You even have an equation, not just in the book within the chapter but it has its own image. At least in the digital version I saw. I still couldn’t see beyond the expectation that I had which is surprising because my job is to see beyond that.
Marc: I must have done a shit job with the book.
Marc: I must have done a shit job with the book then, I guess.
Andrew: No I loved the book and I love your openness in the book about these struggles in the book. Maybe I was also bringing my own expectations into this thinking, “Now I’m really going to blow people away with the story about how great life can be when you finally make it big.” That’s a problem, isn’t it?
Marc: I think that that’s one of the, life is great but life is really great in the most quiet of moments.
Andrew: That’s my challenge as an interviewer because people don’t want to get excited about the quiet moments, they want to get excited about – Andrew, and then I got a jet, and then I got a million dollars, and then I got, et cetera. Maybe not in that order.
Marc: Right, because you always covet what you wanna want. It’s like grandma said “grass is always greener”, right? I mean, that’s that. And look I’m not going to be intellectually dishonest and say that being able to fly private’s not nice. It certainly is nice. There’s a level of, kind of, self-masturbation that comes with that too. And a little bit of self indulgence-y that I’ve prescribed against personally for who I am as a brand, and for my family and my life on how I conduct business. And I don’t think that reflects well when you’re flossing like that. I went through that period, I went through that period, and what I realize, and I talk about it in the book, that was the inauthentic period. The perceived part to your point is that, “wow, that’s the authentic display of success!”
Marc: Right, and isn’t that the irony?
Marc: Right, so you know, what you see, isn’t always what you get. And I think that there’s something healthy, and more healthy for a younger generation, to when they build their brand, to be sensitive about the role of the spine of authenticity in branding them. And not to get caught in the trappings of trying to paint their brand to appeal to just the gate keepers, right? Because that brand? It fucking stays with you, forever, right? Forever! I could sell my business but my brand is Mark Ecko. And that’s one thing, the iconics [SP] guys, my partners, they know that. They know. It’s like, wow, we need Mark. Right? So there’s something very powerful in you sourcing and honing and defining the formula of what defines your personal brand. And people mis-utilize this notion of brand, personal brand. They use it like the word love. It’s another one of these “buzz ideas”, it’s on every self-help-y list on FastCompany or this one or that [??].
And I don’t begrudge how people frame it, but they have a real lack of understanding for the kind of, philosophical, thoughtfulness it takes to compose a brand. It is a rigorous exercise. And you have to be careful to always be mindful of the degree of how authentic you are being to yourself. The guts to the skin brand is what comes first, right? And what I pride myself on now at this level, at this place in my career, the things I’m doing and the businesses I’m building is that the great gift, the great wealth that matters now is that I’m here, I can say this. I’m not the fashion designer that comes out at the end of a runway show waves at everybody, and actually is fucking deluded to think that I could do that all by myself. I think that’s a different pedigree, that’s a different class. That’s that type-A last century, asshole motherfucker, that’s not who I am, right? So, excuse my language.
Andrew: I like your language. Thank you so much for doing this interview the book is “On Label” and it’s a phenomenal read and it’s because you’re so open, because you’re a great story teller, because you use a lot of dialogue, which keeps things interesting and because you’re open. I think there was one person’s name who in this interview you didn’t want to use, and in the book you use the name. You’re extremely open and I appreciate that. And I know that to the person listening, if you’re looking for an autobiography this is one that I highly recommend. And I say that because I know that if you read it, you’re going to be grateful to me for doing it, and it’s going to increase my credibility with you.
Andrew: Oh, serious, thank you for that. And if they go to UnLabeled.me, we are launching all of our pre-sale [SP] initiatives and we’re going to be doing all kinds of cool things as we gear up for the release on October 1st.
Andrew: Sounds like you’ve talked to Tim Ferriss.
Marc: I have talked to Tim quite a bit. And I’ve been very lucky in meeting guys that have done this once before, or at least a few times before. I don’t know, but we’ll see how it works for me, but again for me, this is about getting it out there, and I appreciate that, you being gracious with me and helping ask really good questions and kind of, pulling it out of me. I appreciate it.
Andrew: Thanks. Alright, well thank you so much for doing this Mark, thank you all for watching. Bye, guys.