Most apparel startups don’t generate 6 figures in gross profit within 1 year of launching. But then, most apparel companies aren’t run by a solo entrepreneur who until recently was balancing working on his business with a full time job at Birchbox, pursuing his MBA at NYU, working part-time as a physical trainer at Orange Theory, and playing for the Israeli National LaCrosse team. If that wasn’t enough, he’s also a photographer and videographer on the side and occasionally works with major brands to supplement his income, allowing him to reinvest most of his earnings back into growing his business.
This is the incredible story of Kyle Bergman of The Great Fantastic, who has had multiple successful careers before the age of 30, and how he was able to leverage his experience as a buyer for Bloomingdales and Birchbox to launch a quickly growing brand of sweatpant overalls called Swoveralls. Listeners of this show can get a 15% off when they order on thegreatfantastic.co using the code SWOVIE15.
Kyle attributes his ability to juggle so many projects at once to two main factors. His inability to sit still from the time he was a kid, and the three calendars that he uses to organize his whole life, including his daily walks around East Village to clear his mind. In this episode we walk through how the idea for Swoveralls was born, and the steps that Kyle took to validate the initial demand in the market. We also talk about how he was able to get some early traction through major press exposure with Fatherly, Thrillist, Business Insider, and the SEO traffic that followed.
With each new opportunity Kyle has continued to find incredibly creative ways to grow his brand, attracting celebrities to help market his product and even producing a viral video in the process. This episode has tons of takeaways for anyone interested in launching an online retail product, or even people that are simply interested in learning how to balance multiple careers at once.
1:00 Today on the show we have Kyle Bergman of Swoveralls. He’s just in his first year of business and has hit $230K in sales while holding a full time job at Birchbox and a second side job as a fitness instructor.
1:15 He’s also on the Israeli National LaCrosse team
2:00 How did the LaCross thing come about? Did you want to be an athlete after graduating college, or did you think you were going to be an entrepreneur?
2:02 It started my Junior year. I’m always future oriented, and as a Junior I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Didn’t want to do finance as my friends were and did not’ want to do be a LaCrosse coach. On the advice of my mom I went into a retail buyer role.
2:54 A buyer buys products for retailers to sell on the shelves from suppliers
3:02 I applied to the Bloomingdales executive training program and got in. Around the same time I got asked to try out, and got into the Israeli National LaCrosse team
3:15 How do you get asked to try out for that?
3:23 This guy in LA creates a list of Jewish All-Americans. Since I was named to that listed as a senior, I was invited to play at a friendly match and got in.
4:25 I can live in NYC but play for Israel because I can go back and play for their version of the World Cup whenever needed, but otherwise can stay in my home country.
4:59 What did you study in college that made you positioned to be a buyer for Bloomingdales?
5:01 Started out as a business major since I didn’t quite know what to do. Half way through my undergraduate career I was irritated with the business degree and transferred to become a psychology major. And I’m now interested in behavioral economics and how it impacts marketing.
5:44 Even though I had no retail background, I convinced Bloomingdales that based on my psychology background I would be great and knowing what motivates people to buy.
6:37 When did you decide you were going to try to build your own business?
6:40 When I was at Drexel in Philadelphia, I created a LaCrosse club team and tournament. We got fields for free at High Schools, and we ended up getting 30 teams to join the first year and each netted a profit of $3,000. That was my first entrepreneurial experience.
7:30 Working at Bloomingdales and Birchbox was like a 6 year hedging experience for me. I knew I wasn’t going to be corporate all my life. I was always told to stay in my lane, but I also learned how to conduct myself in business, how to make numbers tell a story.
8:01 By the time I left Birchbox the business was already running.
8:16 I’m still coaching at Orange Theory to help pay rent
8:20 How did the idea of Swoveralls come about?
8:39 I was the only buyer at Birchbox for their grooming product, so it was a pretty entrepreneurial role. Right before I left to go work there, a friend sent me a Buzzfeed article about a novelty pair of sweatpant overalls for women.
9:39 I loved the concept and couldn’t believe this wasn’t part of a brand, and I couldn’t find any pairs for men online.
10:00 When I was about to launch my product on Amazon, men’s rompers went viral on Kickstarter, which brought a lot of legitimacy to the men’s onesie market.
10:49 I want to point out that even though we say you should always be creating to level up your career, there’s nothing wrong with taking a job because it helps you learn on someone else’s dime. And most first ideas fail anyway.
11:29 So you came across this interesting market opportunity. What was the next step after that?
11:30 I just wanted a pair for myself at first. Having worked at Bloomingdales I knew I could ask for a sample pretty much for free from a supplier.
11:54 I went to Alibaba and went back and forth for months and she quoted me $150. In the US it would cost $500 to get a prototype done.
12:17 I loved the sample when I got it, and that’s when I realized this could be something bigger.
12:20 Also I was just starting business school at NYU, learning about Amazon Warehouse services, and that I could just run the business from my laptop.
12:42 I then went back and forth with the supplier until I felt good about the product. Ordered 500 of them, which is small for an overseas order, but because it was a smaller supplier she agreed.
13:08 I used $10,000 to buy 500 pairs of Swoveralls.
13:12 That sounds like a big risk for most people. How did you have the confidence to make that big purchase.
13:20 I just thought it was a good idea, and thought others would too. So it was a classic entrepreneurs mistake. I used Google’s keyword search planner to see if anyone else was looking for this product on the internet. I saw that 300 people per month were looking for them online and that was enough for me to go into business.
14:20 Now that number has grown 75% monthly, and 5000 people search for them monthly. I’m the only one offering them in a big way.
14:50 Why was 300 searches per month enough for you to jump in?
14:58 Because no one else was offering it
15:00 Did you think about marketing channels ahead of time?
15:30 Initially I thought I would just sell through Amazon because I didn’t have time to build a website. I did make a Squarespace page leading people to Amazon, started an Instagram account, FB page, and started telling friends and family about it.
15:59 First success I had was that a recreational softball league I was part of was connected to the founder of the Fatherly blog, who agreed to feature it.
16:31 Once Fatherly posted it, Thrillist and other press picked it up organically.
17:11 Sometimes when you don’t know the risks going in, you’re more likely to get started. So ignorance can be a good thing.
17:20 Did you have any sales at all before the press coverage?
17:29 A little bit. But the cool thing is that because of the articles, the SEO makes all searches lead to my website or an article about my brand. Almost from day one though people were finding the product organically on Amazon.
18:03 Two weeks after I launched a men’s collection, women started reaching out asking for the product and we launched women’s collection a month after.
18:17 Now about 52% of sales come from women
18:38 A lot of people start off wondering how they’re going to get customers. For you it was friends and family at first, but even the first press mention you got through people you knew.
19:00 You got your first sales through Amazon. How hard was it to get on Amazon. Don’t you have to have fulfillment already set up to sell on it?
19:13 To sell on Amazon’s marketplace as a seller you just have to set up an Amazon account and pay the monthly fee.
19:26 Hedging against just leaping into entrepreneurship, I did what I was trained to do as a buyer. Setting up SKUs, merchandising, copy, pricing etc.
19:50 Amazon has a buying team, but you can also just sell your own product.
20:12 When we start this show we say we interview people who had no experience, money or network. That doesn’t mean you don’t work to get some experience, and build up some kind of network for yourself
20:22 You did extracurriculars and met people. You had never launched a clothing brand but you worked in retail and knew what it takes.
20:50 No one is born a CEO, but you gain expertise in any area and then you have a chance at success in that area
21:05 Given your experience in business and undergraduate degree – why did you decide to get an MBA?
21:19 Going back to this theme of hedging my bets – I listened to a TED talk where someone mentioned a new way of defining intelligence, and it’s all about creating more options for yourself.
21:52 Decided to get an MBA to strengthen my own personal brand. Also didn’t want to be a buyer my whole life.
22:16 More importantly the networking opportunity from a top MBA school like NYU is invaluable.
22:32 Before Bloomingdales my network was very limited. Even the Fatherly blog connection was from Bloomingdales.
22:48 I had a Facebook video recently get 9 million views, and that was through a relationship I made at NYU.
23:00 How did that video get 9 million views?
23:26 A friend in business school introduced me to a guy who started a media company specializing in making videos go viral. They know the style that works.
23:39 I have some videography background too. They took my assets and repurposed them to make a viral-esque video.
23:58 They also had relationships with huge Facebook pages. Only had to post it on one page and in 3 days I had 9 million views and had $60,000 in sales.
24:18 Did you have to pay for them to do this for you? And how much?
24:25 Yes, I was able to get a friends and family discount but can’t say how much.
24:29 But you made more back in revenue so it was worthwhile the investment
24:35 You also got some celebrities like Amy Schumer and Jeff Ross to wear your product. How did you do that?
24:48 One of my LaCrosse teammates has an older brother who is a successful comedian in NYC, and I’ve been partnering with them on different marketing initiatives.
25:10 I approached them since I knew his brother was an up and coming personality and said we can grow our brands together
25:20 I went to the Comedy Cellar to take some fake photos of him performing in the Swoveralls, for extra Instagram content, and Amy Schumer and Jeff Ross happened to be there that night.
25:44 I was able to tell them about the brand that night
25:54 We talk a lot on this show about showing up. You deliberately made the ask to be there that day and collaborate. Seems accidental but you were proactive about making this happen, and some luck played a role.
26:30 Since you’re a solo founder, how do you manage your time, because you do so much?
26:40 I really just use my calendar. I have 3 separate calendars and I live and die by it.
26:54 I’m also an introvert and like spending time and working on something on my own. I always need to be doing something and don’t really know how to relax.
27:29 I coach at Orange Theory a few days a week for a few hours. Initially while having my 9-5 job, I was working on the business on the weekends and during class at NYU. I’m just constantly moving.
27:59 Now that you’re full time, how do you decide what to work on and when?
28:23 I have so much to do now that I just have so much fun with it. I have to put time on my calendar to just even walk around the block and take a break.
28:56 I’m really anti-process for some reason and don’t like the idea of having an agenda for the week. I have tons of notes, post its etc. I use my lists a lot and I don’t really like having structure yet.
29:32 What about things like marketing activities, having to be consistent with that, how do you manage it?
29:39 I don’t think anyone is able to figure out Instagram. So I just post when I like to, 2-3 times per week. I have a library of 20 different photoshoots so I pull images from that. I also take inspiration from brands on Instagram that I like.
30:30 It sounds like you have some core skills necessary for this business. You understand branding, and you understand supply chain.
30:47 A lot of people who end up being successful entrepreneurs are often not the planners, but those who get ideas and just jump into them
31:29 What’s next for Swoveralls?
31:35 I can’t even believe that I started an apparel business. I used to think that people who started small apparel businesses were crazy.
31:55 You always have to produce new styles, new SKUs, and apparel companies are very cash heavy.
32:10 The business has been profitable – $230,000 in sales with $124,000 in gross profit, and net profit in the $60K but all reinvested in the business. I don’t pay myself now. Rely on the fitness training for that.
32:40 I may have to raise money from strategic investors, but in the short term there’s an opportunity to diversify the product line
32:50 Sizes for infants, plus sizes etc.
34:01 My vision for my brand The Great Fantastic is to be more than just Swoveralls. We want to make thoughtfully designed products that are cool, functional and extremely comfortable
34:38 People want clothes that can do more than one thing
35:03 Kyle Bergman, thank you for coming on the show. How can people find you online, and I think you have a discount code for our listeners?
35:07 My website is www.thegreatfantastic.co, and on my website and Amazon you can use the code SWOVIE15 for 15% off, and additionally you can preorder a pair of new sizes and designs on Indiegogo and get over 30% off at $65 a piece.