Brian Spaly talks failures, startups and trousers at Founders’ Stories at 1871

Brian Spaly had a problem: “I couldn’t find pants that fit so I started selling my own trousers,” he says. “Being a hockey player I had that big butt, big thigh problem…”

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The difficulty of finding pants that fit shaped Spaly into the CEO he is today.
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While he first started as the co-founder of New York-based Bonobos, Spaly shared the failures and successes that brought him to Chicago to launch Trunk Club. His company, which curates clothing for men based on their buying history, offers a more inviting shopping experience than department stores.

If you sit a guy down and you say ‘you’re gonna get new clothes’ and for the first five minutes he sits on a comfortable leather couch and kinda gets to see what’s going on on the floor at this cool startup and has a beer or a scotch or a glass of wine… it’s a really different experience than trying to find the men’s department at Nordstrom and smelling like nail polish remover and dodging strange-looking people at a makeup counter that are spraying stuff at you …that sucks. Trunk Club does not suck.

Trunk Club started in Oregon with one employee – the founder. Spaly was brought on as CEO in order to help the business grow. At the time, there were some inconsistencies in the records that Spaly says he didn’t notice right away. Three days after he was named CEO, the original founder resigned. From that, the company rebounded and continues to increase their revenue. When Trunk Club launched in Chicago in 2010, they made a little more than $1 million in revenue.  In 2011, they made more than $5 million, and last year around $17 million. “This year I think we have a fighting chance at $50 (million),” Spaly says.

Spaly wants Trunk Club to be the place where you come to in Chicago for great clothes. “Let’s rekindle some of the pride that this city has had for the century as a place where people can get open, warm, Midwestern values and solve problems for you,” he says. While Trunk Club still has a long way to go, Spaly says, that is what he strives for the company to be. Even though the company is still growing, Spaly says its biggest competitor in the area is Nordstrom.

“Nordstrom is the gorilla in our space and we really want to just punch them in the nuts here,” Spaly says. “We want guys to no longer turn right when they’re coming home from the Loop. We want them to turn left and come to Trunk Club.”
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Spaly’s trouser tale started years ago when he complained to his girlfriend about paying $15 to have his pants altered.

“I was too cheap to get my pants altered,” he says.

One day his girlfriend came over with a sewing machine and suggested he sew his own.
This started the trouser obsession, which led to Spaly selling corduroy pants to classmates at Stanford out of the trunk of his car.

“That’s when I really learned the poetry of product-market fit. Make something without spending that much money, make it yourself, learn how to do it, be authentic and get it out on the market and sell it yourself,” Spaly says.

In a class, Spaly started a research project on men and how they interact with their pants. His group found that men need better fitting pants. While his classmates weren’t as passionate about the pants project, Spaly joined forces with his friend Andy Dunn and started Bonobos, a menswear brand.

After some time, Dunn confronted Spaly and informed him they should no longer work together since their visions for the company were not the same.

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Spaly says he’s not embarrassed to tell about his terrible decisions and why he “sucked at Bonobos.” For him, the failures from his first startup helped him become the success he is today.

It’s noble, I think, to try and fail.

If Spaly never failed, he never would have become the CEO of Trunk Club. From his journey he lends these tips:

1.) “Competition means nothing. In a startup, execution is everything.”

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2.) “Be humble about what people really want from you.” (unless you’re just starting and need to gain confidence from venture capitalists.)

3.) “If you’re not capable of making an important decision at your startup, try to hire someone who is.”

Whats next for Trunk Club? A new shop in Houston, Texas, Spaly says.

Filed in: Startup Community