Our society is bombarded with so much noise from social networking, marketers and the day-to-day grind, that sometimes the best way to be heard is to let your image speak for you.
Brian Lipstein, founder and CEO of Henry A. Davidsen Master Tailors and Image Consultants, is well aware of the power of image and style. He launched his company in 2006 and grew it from $46,000 in revenue to over $500K in revenue last year. He has perfected his craft along the way to become the only AICI-certified consultants in Pennsylvania.
In the interview below, Brian talks about how he grew Henry A. Davidsen through the recession and how you can create a brand image that speaks loud and clear.
Can you please explain how you started Henry A. Davidsen?
It’s a company that I started as a senior at the University of Penn after going through an experience with a tailor and learning the intricate details of how a garment is put together. I was left wanting more in terms of the guidance on how to style it, what fabrics to pick, and how it should fit. So I did some research on my own and found that you can go to a tailor, they can make a great suit but they’re not really going to help pick what’s right for you. And you can go to an image consultant that can tell you what’s right for you but then they’ll have to take you to a tailor. So I thought that since you’re paying a lot for a custom-tailored garment, you should get this top-of-the-line experience with it.
I took the concept and applied to the Wharton Venture Program, got accepted, and from there spent about 18 months developing the business with the guidance of Wharton professors on a month-to-month basis. I also got access to seed funding for basic needs and we launched in 2006.
What are some of the practical things you learned from working with an incubator program?
I learned more about the business plan, its purpose and the process of writing a business plan. For a business like mine, since I’m not going after big funding or corporate dollars, I used it as more of a working plan. Also, I learned ways to approach the market. How do you differentiate yourself? I didn’t know any of this going into the program. We were also asked about our competition and told to go check them out. So I went to Boyd’s, Ernesto’s and a couple of other shops that were in existence back then. I identified what I liked from them and what I didn’t like and started using that information to form our experience at Henry A. Davidsen. We also got help with accountability—making sure we accomplish what we’re supposed to. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re alone. You don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of, so in the incubation program, I was working with other entrepreneurs and faculty.
I would consider your company’s offerings a luxury instead of a necessity. Since you launched in 2006, right before the onset of the financial crisis, how were you able to grow your business through the recession?
With luxury, it’s interesting because you often serve a percentage of the population who are considered to be recession proof. We certainly are going after a fair amount of those people. We were also small enough that we could gain a small market share of that demographic and still grow. The other interesting part of our position as opposed to other luxury goods, is that when people start losing their jobs, their image becomes much more important. All of a sudden they start wearing nice suits again because they’re out competing with other people and they have to make a positive first impression.
We open our customers’ eyes to the importance of image, which is a challenge we face everyday. What messages are you sending before you even open your mouth? Do you understand them? Most people don’t. And that’s our job—to help you understand and control the messages you’re sending when you put your clothes on in the morning.
And again, we were small enough that there was still a lot to gain so we actually grew through the recession. From 2009 to 2010 we doubled in size. From 2010 to 2011 we doubled in size. And from 2011 to 2012 I think we were up about 35%. We made the Philly 100 Fastest Growing Businesses list 3 years in a row. It’s getting harder and harder but it’s been interesting to take it from our first year with $42,000 in sales to now over $500K in sales annually and continuing to grow.
Sometimes it can be difficult for a company to target that “recession proof” consumer. How were you able to do so, so effectively?
It starts with me. I have to look the part. Know who you’re going to be in front of, know the message you’re sending and represent exactly what you do. If I don’t represent what I’m doing, people aren’t going to believe that I can do what I do. A lot of it is word-of-mouth relationship marketing. You form a relationship with someone, you gain their trust, you get to know each other, then you find out how you can help them with their wardrobe or a friend of theirs. And once they actually turn into a client, they become a walking advertisement as well. My clients get stopped on the street often and like-minded people like to shop at the same place.
You’ve had a lot of early success. What have been some of your challenges? And how have you been able to overcome them?
One of the challenges has been cloning myself. How do you find somebody that cares as much about the business as I do, has the same depth of knowledge that I have on both image consulting and tailoring, and has the ability to form client relationships the way I do.? And it doesn’t have to be the same as me, but finding good quality help has been probably the biggest challenge that we’re still working on.
What are 5 important things to consider in regards to your personal image?
With image, it’s all about fit. Make sure your suit fits. If you buy it off the rack, take it to a tailor. Understand how to mix-and-match patterns and understand the message behind that. Understand colors and what colors work with your skin-tone and which don’t and learn the messaging behind the colors as well. Also, always make sure your shoes are shined. There’s a saying, “To tell if a man’s well-dressed, look down.” Someone who really knows what they’re looking at is going to look at your shoes first to see style and attention to detail. And have fun—don’t hate putting a suit on. It’s not always about putting on a suit but just make sure you’re dressing appropriately. Make sure it represents you.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
Stay focused and have a good plan. Don’t just jump into something blindly. One of the things that always stuck in my mind was the phrase, “I think this is a good idea.” You should do your research and let the data tell you that this is a good idea. You can go by your gut a little bit but don’t go too fast, don’t be afraid to fail, and don’t fail at the same thing twice. Also, know who you are. Know what you’re trying to do. Create your identity and stick to it. Don’t change just because someone says this isn’t for me. Stay true to who you are so you can create an identity that people can relate to.