Editor's note: Don't miss the final installment of TheStreet's Small Business Success Webinar Series, featuring tips and insights from successful entrepreneurs, Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET. Click here to register.
CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Andy Dunn believed in his product. He believed in his business model. All he had to do was convince everyone else it could work.
"People thought we were out of our minds," he says, remembering the response when he pitched a website that sold men's pants over the Internet. "How are you going to sell a brand no one's ever heard of? Men can't even try them on!"
, is no longer an unknown brand. In November, three years after its founding, the site celebrated its first month with more than $1 million in sales, and Dunn expects the company to keep growing in 2011.
The reason for Bonobos' success is simple, says Dunn. It offers a convenient solution to a common problem: men want to look good, but they hate shopping. Finding the right pair of pants can be especially frustrating. "You have a choice of mass-market pants, which tend to be too boxy, or a European cut, which are very expensive, hard to find and often too tight," he says.
The inspiration for Bonobos came when Dunn was at Stanford Business School. His roommate, Brian Spaly, altered a pair of pants to give them a narrower fit in the seat and thighs and added a curved waistband that followed the natural lines of the body. The result was a flattering look that Spaly and Dunn were convinced would sell.
They just had to convince everyone else.
From the beginning, Dunn was determined to sell the pants online. As a consultant with
Bain & Co.
, he had done a stint at
, so he had seen first-hand how selling clothes direct-to-consumer worked. But how could he convince customers to buy pants without trying them on first? "We had to remove all the potential barriers and make the process as risk-free as possible," he says. That meant offering free shipping for all orders and returns, as well as a lifetime return policy.
Dunn also wanted Bonobos to follow the example of Land's End,
by offering stellar customer service. "I knew we had to develop a revolutionary men's customer experience," he says. That's why the employees who interact with customers aren't customer service reps; they're called ninjas. "We wanted people to be excited about the job," says Dunn. It's not only a cool title, but the term assumes a certain perfectionism: "How can you be a ninja if you drop the ball?"
Hiring and training those ninjas has been one of Dunn's biggest challenges as the business grows (co-founder Spaly is no longer with the company). "The hardest thing is creating a winning company culture. If you want the people at your company to transmit positive energy to your customers, they also have to be transmitting positive energy between each other. You can recruit superstars, but how do you get them to enjoy what they do every day?"
Like many fellow entrepreneurs, he has also had to struggle with the uncertainty that comes with being the boss, especially when the way forward isn't clear: "When challenges arrive, do you change direction or remove a roadblock?"
Earlier this year, Dunn was faced with one of those make-it-or-break-it decisions. "We were transitioning our sourcing, our supplies were slowing down, and customers were asking for other things. I realized the pants business wasn't strong enough to sustain the overall experience." He considered broadening the Bonobos product lineup, but it wasn't a popular move. Bonobos was built on pants, people told him. Why would you take the focus off your core product?
"It was a lonely time," says Dunn. "You see your company might not make it if you keep doing what you're doing, but if you don't succeed, all those people who doubted you will be vindicated. You have to have the courage to bet your company on an unpopular decision."
In the end, the decision paid off. Bonobos expanded its offerings over the summer, and business tripled in five months. But part of the reason it worked is that Dunn knew what not to offer. Rather than overwhelm customers with too many new products, Bonobos concentrated on
and jackets -- clothes where fit matters, which is consistent with the Bonobos brand.
Dunn also is gradually adding products from other manufacturers to the Bonobos website, to give customers a more complete shopping experience. "We're moving towards a style advisor role," he says. "We want to be a men's closet solution, making it easier for guys to get into the clothes they want."
From the beginning, it was important to position the company as accessible and helpful, rather than fashion-conscious and trendy. That's part of the reason Dunn chose to name the company after the great apes who are known for their peaceful, loving personalities (he also donates to an ape sanctuary in the Congo). "Bonobos treat everyone they meet like family," says Dunn. "They point the way to a much happier, more optimistic future."
And how does that relate to pants? "I think they're the most evolved animal on the planet, and I want to build the most evolved shopping experience."
Watch Andy Dunn, CEO and co-founder of Bonobos, and SCORE Small Business Counselor Marc Halpert offer their insights and tips for entrepreneurs in part 6 of TheStreet's Small Business Success Webinar Series, Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET. Click here to register.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.