Bonobos first hit my radar in 2009, when a friend participated in one of their early angel rounds. I remember him telling me that they were “solving for khaki diaper butt”. This is a problem I could not identify with as I had not worn or owned a pair of khakis since Spring 1994. They were Bugle Boy. My mom bought them, probably at Boscovs’.
The business, however, became an instant follow for me (along with Zappos at the time) as Bonobos was and still seems to be all about elevating service and customer experience. Their self-described “Ninjas” handled the customer service and experience aspect which contributed to my early thoughts on RevZilla’s “Gear Geeks”. I appreciated what their namesake primates were contributing to brand positioning, but we did choose to not fully follow down that path.
I kept an eye on them for the next few years and I even think we spent cycles working with StellaService 1.0 (Yeah, Jon and Jordy!) trying to understand more about where Bonobos placed the bar for customer interactions. I didn’t, however, know a ton about any of the founders until Andy Dunn’s blog post, “eCommerce is a Bear”, hit my radar in 2013.
The post is a bear in its own right and reads like a eulogy for the multi-brand ecom model while further crystalizing what became the Digitally Native Vertical Brand (DNVB) strategy that Bonobos was built upon.
The post opened our eyes a bit wider and is still quite relevant today. It’s worth noting that today the catch-all people use to describe businesses like this is DTC or direct-to-consumer, assuming many brands are vertical with proprietary products. Pre-2010 was not usually the case with the multi-brand non-marketplace model still humming. (For frame of reference, I think UPENN launched 400+ DNVBs in the last five years. The times, they have a-changed)
Now I’ve never met Andy, but I have continued to follow him and the brand over the last decade. I ended up with some chinos along the way (none of them are khaki) and have bought online and from their physical guide shops numerous times. I used to benchmark my perceived experiences to what we were trying to accomplish at RevZilla, online, over the phone and eventually in-store. I also developed an affinity for the brand, but I’m not sure if I loved the clothes or loved that I felt I knew the story and was part of the tribe. The clothes are nice, but not blow you away amazing so it’s probably the tribal “latter” – and that means they did their job.
Over time, I watched Bonobos grow its line, online presence and its physical footprint. They took multiple rounds of investment from Nordstrom and ultimately exited to Walmart in 2017 as part of the ongoing Jet / Lore / Milennial brands experiment. The exit was a sizeable figure (~$300m), but based on total capital raises, I’m not sure it is considered a home run for this early pioneer of DTC. I think many people, including myself, expected it to grow larger, faster. (Side note – sadly this has been the case with so many venture-backed eCom and DTC stories. They all just run out of growth eventually. Usually shy of expectations.)
As the brand and the lore (no pun intended) continued to unfold more broadly beyond the startup press, it seemed like there was a mercurial aspect to Andy’s approach that continued to be highlighted. I can’t comment on the fairness or unfairness of that positioning, but I do know a lot of founders. Being crazy enough to sign up for the job usually means that you’re used to ruffling feathers or having your “mercurial” moments. I did.
About six months ago, I happened to discover NPR’s How I Built This podcast covering Andy and Bonobos. Based on my then-current perception of who Andy may be, I was not expecting it to be as interesting as it was. I was surprised to find his take on the Bonobos journey thoughtful, introspective, grateful and notably regretful at times. The episode covered the company journey, of course, but more interestingly it dove into inner struggle, co-founder dynamics and the ultimate cost of fallout. All parts of the leadership journey, going from start-up to grownup.
The arc is often glamorized, but is more universally a humbling one. He told more of the humbling story, along with what he learned and what he got wrong, and what he could have done differently.
I appreciated that.
It’s useful for the community at large and it made me respect him enough to write about him and Bonobos today.
Happy new year, folks.