Since the creation of Groupon, a number of new start-ups have been making waves in the Chicago area. One of the most intriguing is Trunk Club, a personal shopping service for men, headquartered in River North. Based on the idea that men hate shopping for themselves, Trunk Club raised $11 million in venture funding in September 2011 and has been profiled everywhere from Forbes to The New York Times. Andrew Bleiman, marketing director for Trunk Club and a part-time MBA student at the Kellogg School of Management, recently took some time away from his busy schedule to chat with the Northwestern Business Review.
NBR: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, from your previous marketing jobs to working at this new startup?
Bleiman: Sure, I graduated from Penn in 2002 and since that time I’ve been working in direct response marketing, customer acquisition, different branding. Afterwards, I ran marketing for a start-up called Nature Technologies in Westchester, NY for a couple years. I moved to and got more involved with online marketing and media strategy. Just prior to Trunk Club, I was running my own business, which I run on the side called Zooborns. Basically all the zoos and aquariums in the country send me their pictures of baby animals and I put them on a popular website and talk about conservation and animal science, but most people come because we have cute pictures of baby animals.
NBR: Could you tell us more about your current company, Trunk Club?
Bleiman: Trunk Club exists because we think traditional retail for men doesn’t work very well but guys need clothes. Clothes have to fit right, but guys don’t really know what they’re looking for, and they don’t want to spend a lot of time learning about new labels or brands. They want to look good, but they don’t enjoy spending their weekend wandering around Nordstrom trying to figure it out. We’re here for guys who don’t like to shop or don’t have the time, or in some cases guys who do like clothes but who want to be introduced to new items. The way it works is customers tell us their style and size, and they get assigned directly to one of our clothing experts who are essentially personal stylists. They hand pick a selection of clothes from our inventory – we stock clothes from about 200 different labels. Based on that guy’s style preferences each stylist puts together five, ten, twenty items in a box and ships it to the person’s door. He then chooses what he wants, and returns whatever he doesn’t want in a prepaid label. He doesn’t get charged until he returns whatever he doesn’t want to keep. No minimum, no service fee. So if we send a guy a box with $1000 of clothes in it and he ships the whole thing back, he never had to pay anything.
NBR: More towards your job, what are the duties of a marketing director in a small start-up company?
Bleiman: Well, like all start-ups it encompasses a lot more than the roles of a marketing director at most organizations. Most of my day is spent trying to figure out ways to share Trunk Club’s value proposition with potential customers. We do a lot on Facebook which is a great tool for us because it allows us to target male professionals, which is our target demographic. We’re a novel business and the clothing industry is intrinsically interesting so we get a lot of bang for our buck.
NBR: What do you think gives the Trunk Club an edge over other websites, say Gilt Groupe, or department stores?
Bleiman: A few things, first and foremost it’s personalization. Everything we do is highly personalized for our customers. Department stores throw a pile of stuff out on their floors, and you walk in there and two-thirds of it is for women, and 90% of the stuff on the men’s floor is stuff you’d never wear. Online sites aren’t that different. You still have to navigate around, you don’t necessarily know the new brands, what’s cool or not cool. Unless you’ve bought that brand before, you probably don’t have a good idea if the shirt runs big or small or baggy or collars run tight or anything. In contrast, someone who first interacts with Trunk Club signs up and answers a few questions and the very first interaction is with the stylist. If the guy wants to communicate over email, phone, or skype, we’ll accommodate whatever works for him. We get to know you better, we get to know your preferences, and we keep sending you clothes you like.
NBR: You guys just got $11 million in venture funding, what are you going to spend the money on and where do you see the company going in the future?
Bleiman: The money is going really to three different areas: first is technology – there are a lot of tools we need to build and are building which will make it even easier for customers to share their style or preferences and provide feedback. There also another feature to see clothes you’ve ordered in the past and how it matches with other clothes you’ve ordered and outfits you could create. Conceivably we could have a little tag on the back of every shirt or pants that you could scan with your smartphone in the morning before work and it would tell you “this short is going to look good with dark slacks and light brown shoes.”
NBR: Wow, that would be the day.
Bleiman: Right? And it’s totally do-able. We already know what permutations of clothes work together. The technology exists everywhere already, it’s just a matter of us building this functionality out of our customer center. Secondly, the money is going into hiring more people, most of those people are stylists. Finally, a lot of that money is going into marketing, getting out in front of people and introducing them to Trunk Club.
NBR: Do you spend most of the marketing budget on online advertising and social media, or do you also put print ads in fashion magazines?
Bleiman: It’s almost all been online, and that’s for a couple reasons. It’s really easy for us to reach exactly who we’re looking for online. You know a lot more about your person online than you do with a billboard or even a magazine ad. You’re paying for the good people and the bad people with the magazine ad, it’s not the same case with online, if you’re doing it right. One interesting thing to keep in mind is that a lot of companies have to try to make their product try to stand out from the pack when the pack is very similar. That’s not the case with Trunk Club. Sure someone could go to a store, but there aren’t many other people that do what we do.
NBR: It’s still a pretty new and small company, why did you choose the start-up life over a larger marketing firm?
Bleiman: Easy, because (the larger marketing firm’s are) really boring. I had my own business, Zooborns, and I was very happy working for myself. I happened to become a Trunk Club customer and I found myself night after night telling my friends about this awesome thing called Trunk Club. It just so happened that I met the CEO at a wedding and he mentioned they were looking for a marketing guy. Here I am, marketing for this company already because I think it’s such a cool idea and model – it seemed to me like it had an incredible amount of potential. Another thing about our company is that it’s a lot of really bright, young people. Most of our senior management are between 30 and 33. It’s a lot of ex-consultants with a lot of experience and that’s really unique and exciting.
NBR: Do you consider yourself a fashionable person and was that part of the reason you were interested in the concept?
Bleiman: No! (laughs) Unfortunately I am not, but that’s part of the reason I was a customer, and part of the reason I think I’m particularly good at understanding who our customer is, and helping the guy who doesn’t know how to shop find fashionable alternatives.
NBR: And as a final question, do you have any advice for Northwestern students looking to get into marketing?
Bleiman: I’d say find internship opportunities and see if it’s for you. There are so many companies that would be excited to have a Northwestern undergrad as a summer intern or a part time intern during the year. I personally worked 20 hours a week as a bartender and also had an internship on top of it working 10 or 12 hours a week doing marketing. It will make a world of difference when you start applying.
NBR: Thanks for speaking to us. We really appreciate your time.
Bleiman: No problem, have a good one!
Photo Source: The Trunk Club.