2013 Fellows Eric Huang & Steven Mazur are the cofounders of Ash & Erie, a clothing company making shorter guys look and feel good. Starting November 19th, Ash & Erie’s everyday clothes for shorter men will be available online. Read on to find out how they got to where they are.
VFA: Have you always wanted to start a company? What were some of the critical inflection points that got you to actually launch Ash & Erie?
Steven: We’ve both been interested in entrepreneurship for quite a while. Eric actually studied entrepreneurship in college and spent one of his summers interning for SugarCRM, a startup on the West Coast. He also spent a summer with a large consulting company and knew that he preferred the entrepreneurial path.
I got my first taste of entrepreneurship when I was 14. I purchased paintball o-rings in bulk and sold them at a markup to individuals and stores online. After making $50, I stopped after a supplier took my money and never sent a new order! In college, I launched a youth leadership development organization during my freshman year. I credit my interest in entrepreneurship to the time I spent building that organization.
Towards the end of the VFA Fellowship, we both knew we were ready to start a company of our own. One of our mentors suggested we read Paul Graham’s “How to Get Startup Ideas” where he encourages entrepreneurs to solve big problems they face themselves. After thinking about our own problems, I sent a text to my long-term girlfriend asking what I complain about most. She immediately responded that she—and all of his friends and family—hated shopping with me because most clothes my size don’t fit me off the rack. Clothes are almost always too long.
I’m 5’6″, and I shared my frustration with Eric (5’8″), who quickly agreed that he also had trouble finding clothes that fit well. Because we had both experienced this problem our entire adult lives and there weren’t any good clothing options for younger men our size, we decided to launch Ash & Erie.
What lessons learned during your Fellowship still impact the way you work today?
We were fortunate enough to work with incredible people during our time at SocialProof (formerly Stik) and walked away with two major lessons learned: work hard and be adaptable.
We both agree that the SocialProof is the hardest working startup in Detroit. Everyone at the company pulled many late nights and the culture created a high standard for success. This work ethic was coupled with an incredibly positive company culture and truly gave SocialProof an edge.
We also saw firsthand the importance of being adaptable. The mission of SocialProof has stayed the same over the years, but the company went through three major pivots during the two years we worked there. At other companies, the leadership team might have chosen to give up or close down the business. At SocialProof, they were able to adapt to a new set of circumstances and build a product even better than the one before it. Startups are tough and often ambiguous. While it’s important to focus and execute quickly, being able to adapt to new challenges and circumstances is crucial.
What has surprised you the most since beginning to work on Ash & Erie?
Eric and I both worked at a digital advertising startup before launching Ash & Erie. We saw firsthand how software and internet companies are built. But launching Ash & Erie was our first time building a physical product. We didn’t appreciate the vast number of things to consider or the extended timelines that go with building a physical product.
Additionally, we are one of the first companies to design clothes for guys 5’8″ and below from the ground up. We spent months speaking with potential customers and hosting fit sessions to make sure we get the perfect fit. While an internet company can reach thousands of people in a day and iterate on a product in hours, our R&D was much more complex and took longer than we expected.
Did you know anything about clothing manufacturing going in? What misconceptions did you have about building a clothing brand?
To be perfectly honest, not at all! We both had trouble finding clothes that fit well off the rack, but neither of us has worked for anything remotely close to a clothing manufacturer.
We originally wanted to design jeans – the item we hear the most guys 5’8″ and below request from us – but decided against it after learning how tough it is to design and manufacture jeans. We then settled on button downs.
We were also optimistic that we could find the talent to design and manufacture casual button downs in the Detroit area. Without much of a pre-existing fashion industry, we were forced to look outside of Detroit to find design and development partners equally excited about our idea.
It’s been a whirlwind of learning to make our clothes, but we now have real shirts in-hand and are proud to share them with the world.
What’s it like building a company in Detroit?
We’re very happy to be in Detroit! There’s a positive energy here that’s contagious, and the community is extremely supportive and helpful. The Fellow cohort is incredible, and it’s nice to look around and see dozens of our peers building businesses alongside us.
How did you find your earliest customers?
To validate our market and further prove that customers want our product,we launched an Indiegogo campaign pre-selling our first line of Everyday Shirts through the VFA Innovation fund. We raised over $26,000 in pre-sales during our month-long campaign. While many family and friends supported us, we also received interest from hundreds of guys 5’8″ and below from around the world. Some of our earliest customers came from places as far away as Australia and Greenland!
What hacks have you developed to stay focused and productive in your day-to-day?
There isn’t much accountability in the early days of a startup. If one of us doesn’t complete a task, there’s no-one else to jump in. We don’t have any secret hacks, but we try to be very open with each other and stay as organized as possible. With so many moving pieces, there’s no room for isolation.
What popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?
The startup community seems to be hyper-focused on creating tech products and solutions. While tech is important and we will see many more billion dollar apps, it’s still a great idea to build and sell a physical product. As simple as it is, nothing can replace the excitement a shorter guy feels when he tries on a shirt that immediately fits him perfectly off the rack.
Ash & Erie launches Thursday, November 19. Click here to learn more about the brand and to grab a shirt of your own! Rumor has it they look great on women, too.