Maveriq Profile: Ryan Williams, Industry Threadworks
Not long ago, before we had even published our first article on Maveriqs, I had a chance meeting with someone who I now consider a great friend and mentor. While having a drink at a bar in Pacific Beach, San Diego, I struck up a conversation with another young entrepreneur who struck me as someone who's clearly doing the right things in his enterprise. His name is Ryan Williams, a former Navy SEAL, and serial entrepreneur. With his latest business, Industry Threadworks, he demonstrates how life lessons, focus on quality, and a reputable personal brand translate into rapid company growth. We met up in Pacific Beach recently so he could tell me his story. Here's what he had to say:
How did you get your start with entrepreneurship, and what were you doing prior to running your own company?
I was a Navy SEAL for 10 years which, like a number of other professions, seems like a really cool job, and it is. However, at a certain point it becomes "work" just like any other job. I wanted to branch out and do something different. I wanted to squeeze all of the experiences I could from life, and for that I needed money. I knew I was never going to get rich in the teams. It was a great experience. I learned a lot about the world and myself, but at the end of the day money is freedom to me, and I wanted to have more freedom in my life.
I was roommates with another Team-guy, and buddy of mine at the time. After a many nights of rinking and talking about the future we decided that we were going to start a business together. We came up with a dozen different business plans. Everything from party planners to the normal tactical types of things that team guys do when they get out. The very last thing we thought of was an apparel brand.
We started the clothing company knowing nothing about the apparel world,or even business in general at that point. That was in 2007. I sold my half of that company in 2012, it's still going strong, and my old business partner and I are still buddies. It was a really big learning experience for me, and opened my eyes to how the business world works. After that, I started a kettlebell company in 2010, which I sold four years later. I built up another apparel line in 2013 that I sold a couple years later. Now, at Industry Threadworks, I use what I've learned with my previous businesses to help other companies grow their brand, and make more money with their apparel products.
Having been involved in multiple other ventures, what has your approach been in shaping Industry Threadworks?
Building a brand is much more difficult than most people initially think. Especially an apparel brand. One of the things I explain to my clients is that as an apparel brand you’re not really selling apparel, you’re selling a lifestyle. The apparel is just the way for people to buy into that lifestyle. Along with providing the apparel you have to do a ton of branding, marketing, and massive amounts of content creation. Not only that, but you have to constantly push the brand out so it’s in the public eye through advertising, either paid or organic. It’s fun and interesting, but after a while it feels like you’re constantly pushing a rock up a hill. As soon as you slow down, or stop pushing content, your brand loses momentum and the rock starts to roll back down the hill.
That’s the grind of it, and also why most apparel lines aren’t successful; pushing a brand is just much more work than most people think it is. I always tell my clients, it’s very easy to start an apparel line, it’s much more difficult to make it successful.
I sold my three previous companies to focus on growing Industry Threadworks. It’s a mix of a service based company (primarily consulting), with its compensation attached to volume...an inherently easier business model to scale.
With Industry, I’ve transferred into working behind the scenes of these apparel lines, using what I've learned to help other brands build their businesses. Since our payment is tied to volume, it’s in my best interest for our clients to grow as big as possible, so they sell more volume. At the end of the day, they make more money through higher sales, their customers get quality gear that represents their favorite brands, and we make more money through increased volume. It really is a win, win, win scenario.
Speaking of clients, how do you qualify clients and help them achieve success?
One of the biggest obstacles that we’ve faced is finding the right clients to work with. The main reason we’re successful is that we’re efficient at what we do, but to maintain that, we have to be very careful with who we take on as clients. We’re open to talking with anyone, but selective about who we finally engage with.
If we’re a good fit for a brand, see potential in what they’re doing, and know we can provide them with great value as they scale up, then we’ll work with them. Even most large companies I’ve examined have massive holes in their apparel game and are leaking money in a lot of ways, whether overshooting or undershooting their market, inaccurate sizing ratios that leave product sitting on the shelf, or simply not having product in stock to ship. Our job is to match their apparel product to their market, and then consistently deliver quality product. Basically to feed the machine as they scale up the sales side.
There are certain times that a client will come to us and we recognize that we’re not the best fit for what they’re looking for. In those cases we’ll make a different recommendation and set them on a course that better fits their goals and market. We always try to point people in the right direction, because at the end of the day we’re building a reputation as a company, and the only reason I have a business now is due to a reputation I’ve built in the past for providing a quality product and reliable service. So, even if we come across a potential client that isn’t the best fit now, if we can help them out, it’s likely they’ll come back to us when they need us later. Or they’ll recommend us to someone else who may be a good fit.
If you're a good person, and establish a good reputation for yourself, good things are going to come your way, and people will get to know who you are.
What challenges have you faced along your entrepreneurial journey and how have you overcome them?
This is my favorite question! This is one of the primary areas we focus on. I use my experiences and lessons learned from having made mistakes, by helping our clients avoid stepping in those same potholes. One of my favorite sayings is, “It’s a lot easier, faster, and cheaper to learn from other people’s mistakes than to make your own.”
It's funny to look back to when my business partner and I started our first apparel company. We had no idea how much we didn't know. We had a couple thousands shirts produced. The shirts cost us $15 a piece and we planned to sell them for $25 a piece. We were so sure that we were going to be millionaires making $10 profit per shirt. We didn’t realize was that the markup on apparel, if you’re an efficient apparel company, should be anywhere from 300% to 400%, not a 40% margin like what we were doing at the time.
We ended up losing about $70,000 our first year making a bunch of small mistakes like that. Thankfully we learned from each mistake, and never made the same one twice. Eventually we were able to make that company successful and recover from our mistakes even though it cost us a lot of time and money.
Mistakes like that have allowed us to be more efficient now, because the things that used to take me 10 hours to do, now take me 10 minutes to do. I refer to that in some of my videos as gaining “traction”. You can have all the motivation or horsepower in the world, but if you can’t put that power down to the ground and make efficient forward momentum, you’re wasting energy and will eventually run out of gas before you reach your destination. Trust me, I love cars and burnouts are cool, but they don’t get you anywhere.
As an example of this, one of our clients was able to take the info we gave him and ramp his company up from about $50,000 in annual revenue to over $1M in a single year. Now, we definitely can’t take credit for the execution, he’s extremely talented, very smart and has some amazing content creation abilities, but the proof of concept is there. The ideas and information we put out are solid, proven, and the results are replicable, one just has to be willing to listen, and put in the work. Few people are though, that’s why it’s very rare that a company is able to make that jump to over $1M in such a short timeline.
As someone who both runs a business and provides business consultant services, how important is personal brand for you? How do you maintain your personal brand?
My personal brand is very tied in with my company. I didn’t plan it like that, it just kind of happened as a result of me being the figurehead, or one of them, in the previous brands I’ve built. The primary reason that I was able to work with my clients is my background and who I am as a person. It’s my personal reputation for doing the right thing, making sure that our clients are taken care of, and delivering great customer service as well as product. Our clients trust us because they know me, they know my background, work ethic and drive, and they know my history in business, as well as prior to that.
There have been times when we’ve screwed up, and haven’t delivered product that was up to par with what we, and our clients, normally expect. That kind of stuff happens a very small percentage of the time, but it does happen. The important part is how we take care of it.
In my business, I look at mishaps as an opportunity to showcase how well we can take care of our clients when things don’t go as planned. As any business owner will attest, things pop up where and when you least expect. It’s worth way more to us to eat the cost in certain situations, than to try and save a couple extra dollars at the risk of losing long-term business as well as devaluing our brand.
My business brand is also tied into my personal brand. The reputation I have as a person carries over to the business, and it's a big part of the reason we’re able to continue to grow and gain new clients. It’s a reputation built on high quality, great value, and always doing the right thing. If we damage that, we’ll have nothing.
How do you establish and maintain relationships with other agencies or vendors that can help your own company?
Over nine years in the apparel business, we’ve been able to establish connections with people at the top level of the game. Nowadays if I need something, and I don’t know the person to contact directly, I can usually find out who they are and get their contact information within one degree of separation. It wasn’t always like that though.
In the beginning it was really tough. It’s like any industry. If you don’t know people, it’s very tough to get those first few contacts, but once you do, you’ll begin to get introduced to more and more people. It’s like lunch tables at the school cafeteria. If you’re the new kid like I was after going to 5 different high schools in three states, making friends is tough. But once you’re introduced to someone, they introduce to someone else, they realize you’re not a jerk, and before you know it you know the whole school.
It’s the same in school as it is in life, and in business. If you’re a good person, and you establish a good reputation for yourself, good things are going to come your way and people will get to know who you are. Brand recognition is the same whether it’s on a billboard or on the schoolyard, whether you’re a company or a person. The key factor is that you have to deliver on what you say you’re going to deliver on. For us that happens to be quality product, and valuable, actionable information.
What drives you to continue moving forward as an entrepreneur?
I think this is something that would be different for everybody, but for me it’s pretty simple: it’s money. But not for the reason you might think. I mean money by itself is pretty much useless right? You can’t eat it, it’s just paper...the only useful thing you can do with it is maybe make a fire, but that would be an expensive fire.
It’s the fact that money provides freedom. Freedom is the most important thing in the world for me, and earning money is a way to provide that freedom. It’s what you’re able to do with the money that is the “why” for me. Exchanging money for the freedom to have those experiences that I want to have, and to live the kind of life that I want to live, is why I do what I do. It’s why I put in the long hours that I do, and why I’ve structured my life around being an entrepreneur
Where do you turn to when you’re seeking advice?
Number one is people who are doing better than me. People who have been through what I’m going through and know the answers to questions that I have. Again, it’s way easier to learn from other people’s mistakes than to make your own. It’s way cheaper, faster, and more efficient. So I’m always trying to learn from more experienced people as much as possible.
Another interesting thing is that people will hit me up on Facebook or other social media platforms and ask for advice about business. I’ve found that by answering those questions I also learn quite a bit on my end. First, I’ll learn about the person who asked the question, that’s good, direct information across a variety of markets. Second, it’s very true that to truly understand something, you have to teach it.
By way of answering those questions and teaching others what I know, it helps me organize the information that I have into a cleaner more effective version. By default, I’m constantly refining my own processes and practices through self reflection, as well as incorporating various ideas I pick up from the variety of people I talk to across different business models.
What advice would you offer to someone who’s looking to get started in the apparel industry?
I’d say that before you step into anything, you need to understand the market that you’re going into and have a way to sell your product. Way too many people get caught up thinking “Oh, I have this great design for a product, and I really like it!” You have to remember, as a designer or the business owner, you are not the customer. You have to make sure that the market likes the product as well.
I always recommend that companies test designs and products in the marketplace first, gauge feedback, and modify the product to fit what the market wants. In the long term it’s way cheaper to modify a product before going into production than it is to go into production with a product that isn’t going to sell.
It’s not as easy as a lot of brands make it look on Facebook or Instagram where it seems like you sit back, do fun stuff, and people will buy your products while you drink margaritas on the beach. It would be awesome if it were like that, but the truth is that there’s a ton of work that goes on behind the scenes. More work than most people are prepared for.
A lot of the clients that I talk to are coming into the first entrepreneurial venture and their experience has only been from the outside looking in at other apparel lines. It’s an unrealistic view of what it’s going to take to be successful. There’s definitely a draw. The margins are great in apparel. It’s a very easy business model to get started in, but it’s also very difficult to be successful as an apparel line. It’s a saturated industry, which makes it tough for brands to stand out. That’s why I try to help my clients focus on sales first. They have to have an edge... some sort of unique differentiator that helps them to stand out in order to generate sales. The worst thing you can do with an apparel brand is to blend in with everything else.
What does the future hold for Ryan Williams and Industry Threadworks?
There are a whole bunch of things that we’re currently working on, and we’re expanding as much as we can. As hard as it is to run an apparel brand, and as much as we like to work behind the scenes supporting other apparel brands, we're going to start channeling more energy into creating our own retail division of Industry Threadworks.
Now that the company is gaining momentum, we’re able to support more time being devoted to “pushing that rock up the hill” again. We’ll be generating a lot more content, doing a lot more marketing, and treating the company as an apparel brand of its own rather than just a supplier for other companies.
Because we don’t advertise who our clients are, we have very little way of showing examples of our work. The retail division will act as our marketing branch, basically an advertising point and sample of what we can produce, as well as provide another revenue stream.
We’ve experienced some explosive growth this year, but we know there’s a lot more room to grow. We’ve only been operational as Industry Threadworks for a about a year. Even though I’ve been in this industry for nine years, everyday I'm trying to learn a better way to do things. I think in a year’s time from now, we could probably be seven to ten times where we are right now. My defined goal is to be five times where we are now. If we break that... awesome, but five times growth is a realistic goal. Then we’ll reevaluate and go from there.
Where can we find and follow you?
Our website is www.industrythreadworks.com, but if you’d really like to follow the journey and see a little more behind the scenes on a day-to-day basis, our Instagram account @industry_threadworks is way more interactive and fun. I also post a lot to my personal account @invictus5326. That personal touch is a big reason why we’re able to make money. Like we talked about before, personal brand and reputation are very tied into my business model. Feel free to reach out and follow!
With a retail division on the way, expansive growth in their first year, and a consulting partner approach it's clear that Industry Threadworks it's going places. Ryan's evident focus on maintaining a reputation of quality service and product is a refreshing reminder that it pays to be a good person. We appreciate him taking the time to teach us how important personal brand can be. Please let us know in the comments if you have any thoughts or questions for Ryan and Industry Threadworks.