Blank Label: How Opening a Brick-And-Mortar Store Changed an Online Business
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Although he always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, Fan Bi founded his business after a chance encounter with a tailor in Shanghai, China.
On a business trip there in the summer of 2008, he visited a local tailor and had some clothes made. When he got back home to Boston, "People would say, 'Oh, wow, nice suit,' and I'd tell them it was custom-made," he says. But their reaction was unexpected—people didn't believe him because they associated tailor-made clothing with being unaffordable and intimidating.
Blank Label's founder and CEO Fan Bi.
But because they were comfortable and fit well, Bi found himself gravitating toward his new outfits, and the idea for his business, tailor-made clothing company Blank Label, was born.
From E-Commerce to Brick-and-Mortar
Officially founded in 2010, Blank Label started out as an online-only business that sold men's shirts, which Bi soon realized had limited appeal. When he would tell people about his business, once he mentioned it was online, “you would lose them immediately," he says. “You could see it in their eyes."
Nevertheless, after jumping in to entrepreneurship full time from finance, Bi had given himself a year to make it work. At first, business was decent: “Back then, we were shipping around a couple of hundred shirts a month. A nice low-six figure in sales a year," Bi says.
Bi talks to Blank Label menswear specialist Clare Murrell.
But the big evolution came with the backing of angel investors, who invested $1 million to finance the opening of Blank Label's first store in Boston in 2013. “The plan was definitely to use the angel money to open a store," Bi says. “Most investors are looking for a big turning point or new strategy to invest in, and our pitch was this online thing was working but we thought the business would work a lot better if we had brick-and-mortar. We got lucky because it was really a couple of angel investors we had got to know over the years, locally in Boston, who really encouraged us to raise a round and were a large part in helping us do it."
An Entrepreneurial Start
Bi's journey from regular employment in finance to being his own boss seems almost destined to happen. His parents emigrated from China to Sydney, Australia, when he was four. “I grew up in a small family business," he says. His parents ran a produce store and as a young child he'd listen in to conversations about the business. “The dinner table conversation was, 'How are we going to offload this inventory that's going to go bad in three days?'" he says. “Part of me always knew I wanted to go in to business some day."
Bi and menswear specialist Christina Pham.
At age 18, Bi took off for another country: America. He studied business at Babson College in Massachusetts and, after graduating, got a finance job in Boston in funds management for an investment bank.
—Fan Bi, CEO, Blank Label
It was during a business trip to Shanghai for this bank that Bi got his tailor-made suit, and when he founded Blank Label a few years later, he went back to that very same tailor. “I literally went back to that store and said, 'Could you make suits for me?'" Even today, customer measurements are still sent back to China. However, Blank Label is now working with new partners there: “We've changed our manufacturing process in Shanghai quite a bit over the last six years. We've partnered up with new manufacturers who better understand our business, and more importantly our expectations. We work with four different manufacturers who make our different product lines," Bi says. This is what lets Blank Label keep its clothes affordable.
Bi was inspired to start Blank Label when he bought a custom-made suit while on a business trip.
During the company's first year of operation, Bi found himself in Shanghai for 11 months “deep in the learning curve of the clothing business." The custom clothing business, he found, was more technical than he had anticipated—garment making is a craft and it wasn't easy coming in without a previous textiles background. “When a client tells us his shoulder isn't sitting comfortably in his jacket, we have to understand how to technically fix it," Bi explains.
However, the end result was worth it, he says: “I'm really glad I made that investment of being there for the first year."
Blank Label now has stores in Boston and Washington, D.C.
Today, Blank Label employs 17. The company's Boston headquarters is located downtown, easily accessible to its customer base of lawyers, financiers and other professionals. And its locations are growing: A storefront in Washington, D.C. opened in 2015 and another will be opening in Chicago this year.
Boston and Beyond
As the business expands, according to Bi, he has three main challenges: money, people and complexity. Financing and managing cash flow are ongoing issues. Opening stores takes a lot of time, and it takes more time for them to break even. However, the $1 million in funding they received has helped to fuel growth, and Blank Label is now growing off its own cash flow.
Aoife O’Flaherty measures client Thomas Fadoul.
There are also employees to look after: Bi is responsible for “making sure that people are staying engaged and excited about the direction of the company." Finally, “complexity is creeping in," Bi says. The product line started with shirts only and has since expanded. Blank Label now carries foundational, seasonal and four-season suits. It also sells sports coats, trousers, chinos, tuxedos and overcoats.
With the new location opening in Chicago in 2016, Bi has ambitions to open more stores where his approach of offering affordable, personal and repeatable custom clothes will win customers. “I definitely have ambitions of building a big ship," he says. According to industry research, says Bi, custom clothing is only a small part of the men's market—and he feels he is pushing an open door. People care about the way they look and how their clothes feel, he says. When people think of custom-fits, Bi said he wants them to think Brooks Brothers, Nordstrom—and Blank Label.