Bluffworks is now (8) years old, and been through a few phases of business and funding. I’ve shared my stories on becoming an entrepreneur before, and now that I’m in the middle of a round of investment, it seemed like a good time to talk about the ways I’ve funded Bluffworks over the years.
Apparel is known for being a capital intensive business. The faster we grow, the more inventory we have to purchase in anticipation of sales.
Over the years, we have drawn from a variety of sources: my funds, Kickstarter, friends and family, etc.
But I have heard from you: we’re still too slow. You guys are looking for more products; and to meet that demand, we need more capital.
So here’s a reflection of all the techniques we’ve used, where we are today, and what’s next.
Phase 1: Start with Personal Capital
There are startups that raise a lot of money on day zero with nothing but an idea, but it’s rare.
Most companies start out with some amount of personal capital. Bluffworks did too - drawing on my own personal resources - and keeping my day job for the first two years to help get the company off the ground. (Shout-out to my amazing wife for supporting this adventure).
With my own funds, I was able to source our first fabrics and an initial design, so I could launch on Kickstarter and fund actual production of our first products.
The drawback of personal capital is that $10K turns in to needing $50K pretty fast. When you’re starting a business and it needs something, what’s a founder to do? Say no, and close the doors? It's more likely you'll pull out the checkbook. That’s why it’s important to get past this stage and find help as soon as possible.
What I did: I kept my day job for two years to fund the company — the hardest thing I ever did — and plowed personal capital into my company before finally quitting the 9–5 (see the story of that day below).
Phase 2: Proof of Concept with Kickstarter
Our goal was always to use Kickstarter to help finance our first production run. But we got lucky - it took off.
We raised far more money than anticipated, gained legitimacy for our company, and gathered critical customer feedback. For example, we didn’t launch with a charcoal pant option, but our customers told us we should, and that color remains our best seller today.
Kickstarter backers receive product at a discount, instead of equity, which is a benefit to a company. (As a note, most Kickstarters end up losing money. In fact, it’s often worse the more money you raise.)
What I did: Kickstarter helped us fund our first production run, which we would not have been able to do alone. Our first video was of basic production quality, but it had heart and told our story. I know people credit my passion and product vision for making Kickstarter so successful. But, frankly there was a lot of luck, too, that I touched a nerve at the right time.
Phase 3: Growth with Friends and Family (Small Equity)
With the success of our first Kickstarter, everyone got excited. We were ready to approach friends and family to help fund an idea that we had demonstrated had legs.
It's not uncommon for small equity investments to be made early in the life of a business by friends and family who like the idea. Only now can I look back and see how tremendous the risk was for them. The company could have closed so many times, and their investment would have gone — POOF.
People who invest at this stage do so in the interest of helping and because they are inspired, or captured by the dream. They aren’t investing with the sole vision of making profits, and hopefully they understand the risk. But they do receive equity in exchange for their capital.
What I did: Raised money from my parents to build the business apart from production — in terms of staffing, marketing, and all the other moving parts. Now you can imagine how focused I was in making this a successful venture.
(Check out this snapshot below of our website circa 2014 compared to where we’re at today.)
Phase 4: Scaling with Equity Investment via Angels
This is where we are today.
Once we were ready to really grow, it was time to approach investors of a greater magnitude.
At our size, the type of investor we’re talking about are “Angels.” These are investors who understand that early companies are still the most risky, and while they invest in pursuit of a return, they are willing to weather the bumps that are part of getting a startup off the ground.
The best people to have involved in this phase are investors who have done it before and can add value. I am pleased that we have built a team of angels, some of whom have deep experience in apparel, who have been a part of small companies that have grown rapidly. Like anything in life, being able to learn from someone who has already walked the path is invaluable.
There are other ways to raise investment, besides individual angel investors:
A portion of our current fundraising is being conducted on the AngelList platform, which connects investors with startups, and allows accredited investors to invest in startups on a smaller scale.
For an angel to invest in a startup in the U.S., they have to be an accredited investor, and meet specific requirements for their income.
On AngelList, we are working with Forefront Venture Partners, a syndicate that spent a lot of time reviewing our company. In fact, I met Phil Nadel more than two years ago, and over time impressed him that Bluffworks has potential. And I was touched when he was the first investor to come in.
Currently on AngelList, we have 47 participating investors, with a target of attracting 75.
I'm far from being an accredited investor myself… though I hope someday I can become an angel and support other entrepreneurs. I’ve done this on a smaller scale with Kickstarter, by backing 259 projects and becoming a Superbacker on the platform. Huh, I never really thought about it until now, that what I've done on Kickstarter is a step in the angel direction. That makes me proud.
I recently was talking to a friend who has come in as an investor, and I shared how I’ve been keeping him out of it as respect for our friendship. He replied, “But I always wanted to be in the deal!”
With the rise of equity crowdfunding on platforms like CrowdRise and SeedInvest, the SEC has now opened up the right of individual, non-accredited investors to participate in a crowdfunding investment round. Another way to say this: these platforms allow regular people like you and me to make small investments in a company.
I am starting to wonder the same thing about you, our biggest fans. Have I let you down by not allowing you to get involved?
We haven’t gone that route (yet). Am I making a mistake - do you guys want a way to invest in Bluffworks? If we did, it would include something like becoming part of an Insiders Club, which would have preferred perks. Let me know in the comments or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with subject line “Investment”. (Under the SEC, this is not an offer. I'm just curious to know if I left you out.)
Traditional Venture Capital
Here’s the thing: the most important part of partnering with investors is to have our values aligned.
One of my most influential investors always says, “How are they going to react when things go bad?” His point is that success is not a straight line. There will be bumps along the way, and we need investors that will stand by us. Which often means putting in more money down the road.
I have met with a few VCs who had very expensive offices, covered in glass and soaked in light, taking up large amounts of prime real estate, and it took my breath away. But it wasn’t the place for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I intend to grow Bluffworks to be a significant company and create real value. But probably not via that route.
What We're Planning
So what do we plan to do with this funding we’re raising?
As I mentioned above, we consistently get feedback that you want more products faster, so we’re planning some big things over the next couple of years.
Our plans include:
- We are coming out with an ultra lightweight travel blazer and travel jeans at the end of the summer. We recently wrote a blog post and closed a survey on what our customers want in a pair of jeans, and received almost 1,400 responses. Wow! Then, more products for holiday, and an expanded collection for next year.
- You may have noticed the rise of wardrobe kits, stylist based outfitting, and subscription services. This summer, we’ll be launching the Bluff Kit, which will be an opportunity for our customers to put together a wardrobe. We’ll show you, for example, how a certain belt, shirt, pant, and blazer make a smash hit, and offer the combination at a discount when purchased together. The key is still giving our customers flexibility (yes, you can choose the color of our products) within boundaries (the same accessory ties it all together). We’ve learned that our guys want guidance, and I know that every time a stylist chooses a shirt and tie combination for me, I’m like “damn, how did they do that??”
- OK, so this is a big one… from the beginning, we’ve had requests to make pants and, more recently, blazers for women. We know the same problems guys face with their apparel extends to women (they work, travel, play, and want to look good). And when I look at travel clothes for women available today, they are very plain and not well designed. Women want pockets too! So we’re excited to begin working on a women’s line for release in Fall 2019. If you have input, let me know and join our dedicated list. We’re all ears.
Capital. Cash flow. Proformas. Oh boy!
There I was in 2012, with a dream to make the best possible products for the lifestyle you and I share, with newfound freedom to go on inspired adventures... I ended up building an e-commerce business, learning about financial statements, and pitching to investors.
I am committed to making it grow, for all of the people who believed in me early on and for our customers looking for more.
My ideas know few bounds. There are so many products we’d like to add to our line. And we’re doing what it takes to get those products into your hands.
Thanks for being along with me on this journey thus far.