To follow is a lightly-edited transcript of a recent conversation with Sapna Shah, one of two co-founders of Mind the Chap, a New York-based start-up that launched last month aimed at introducing style-conscious men to emerging designers and limited run products.
Their motto is to “Seek individuality. Dress independently,” and suggest of the brands they carry on their website that, they “are not the [ones] your friends are wearing – they are the ones your friends will be asking you about.” Their mission clicks with the purpose of Modern Fellows to highlight entrepreneurs and unique brands, many of which manufacture in America, so it was inspiring to connect and understand from Sapna why she and Lisa took the leap, what brands are on their radar screen, and what’s coming up in 2013 for Mind the Chap.
How did the idea for Mind the Chap come about?
I spent fifteen years in retail and related fields, including some time in strategy and internal consulting groups with Gap, Ann Taylor and finally, Linens ‘n Things, where I met [business partner and Mind the Chap co-founder] Lisa. [In 2005,] Linens ‘n Things was taken private by Apollo, and Lisa and I decided it was the perfect time to try something new.
Lisa and I both had the entrepreneurial bug and had tried out some side projects. After Linens ‘n Things – about six and a half years ago – we came up with the idea for an equity research and consulting firm for Wall Street and founded Retail Eye Partners. We built that into a successful business and recently decided we were ready for a new challenge. Over the past year or so, we went through eight different concepts and finally landed on the ninth in January. We fell in love with this idea of bringing emerging designers to men around 25 to 45 years-old and curating a site that has products that you might not be able to find in chain stores or even your local boutique. We wrote a business plan and launched in November.
That seems like a pretty straight shot from concept to implementation. How did Mind the Chap develop from business plan to launch?
I feel like this world moves at an incredibly fast pace these days, and that business development is actually more difficult and time-consuming than you think it is going to be. We had a different concept before Mind the Chap to create a marketplace focused on emerging designers for women. We went pretty far down that road and even hired an employee. But in the time it took us to develop the concept, many similar companies launched, so we decided to scrap the idea and start over.
The lesson we took for Mind the Chap was to launch as quickly as possible. People are out there with great ideas, and our goal was to get started, get out there, and create that mind share with consumers first. These days, it’s important to be first to market not just with a strong concept but with strong execution. It helped that we are self-funded. We’re our own angel investors.
After a month, how would you assess your launch?
We have had a really positive response from consumers, traditional media, bloggers and vendors, as well as designers who are either currently featured on the site and who hope to be in the future. All of the markers have been trending up: E-mail subscriptions and orders are accelerating into the holiday period.
Our launch turned out to be poorly timed. We went live with the website the week of Hurricane Sandy in New York. All of our marketing and outreach were focused on New York because it’s where we’re based, it is near a number of our vendors, and it’s a great target for potential customers. It was interesting to launch during a period where nobody was doing online shopping because they didn’t have power or were helping family and neighbors. But since then, business has really picked up. This week we started our national marketing and I hope the traction that we have gained in New York spreads around the country.
How are you reaching out to potential customers?
We are now starting to hit marketing in every possible way. As a new company, you don’t know what’s going to reach your customer base the best. Where do guys look for information on new brands? We have a PR agency that is reaching out to traditional media. You’ll see some traditional online advertising through platforms like Inside Hook and New York Magazine. We have also developed a number of relationships with bloggers, who are starting to do a variety of things for us — everything from selecting a couple of gift picks to running giveaways to styling out looks for next season. Social media – Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest in particular – is also important. What we’re trying to do is to take some strategic bets using all of the media channels we can. While not all of our brands are made in America, we do carry a number that are, and those have a definite appeal.
Mind the Chap spotlights up-and-coming designers and entrepreneurial companies. What are some of the brands on the dressier end of the spectrum that you’re excited about?
For the moment, we play mainly on accessories – items like ties, pocket squares, and socks. Two tie brands we love are General Knot and Co. and Stalward. General Knot has a variety of ties, bow ties and pocket squares. People really relate to their made in America story, the quality level and vintage fabric. Stalward is another really interesting brand. They also manufacture limited run ties so you don’t see them all over the place. The fabrics, designs and even their packaging and brand are very American and a little retro.
Our OW socks are great. You can punch up your wardrobe without wearing a ridiculously bold shirt by adding a little more interest on your feet. This whole sock trend with guys is an interesting thing for us to watch, and the Japanese cotton sock trend is not going away anytime soon.
We also have shirts from companies like Jeremy Argyle that would probably be more appropriate for casual Fridays. Right now, while we have a couple of sport coats, we haven’t focused as much on traditional work wear, though that may change as we ramp up.
What can we expect to see from Mind the Chap in 2013?
A week ago we added a living category. Right now it is pretty small, but the idea is to bring together under one roof a collection of a variety of different things that a guy might want to buy. The category currently features things like bikes from Brooklyn-based Worksman Cycles, surfboards by SUPERbrand, boxing gloves from G&S Sporting Goods, and shaving products from Imperial Barber. We will also look to expand more deeply into footwear in 2013. Suiting and more traditionally professional attire may come a little later for us, perhaps the fall of 2013.
Photo credits: Photos courtesy of Mind the Chap