Meet Up Mondays: Huckberry

People can’t stop talking about San Francisco-based retailer Huckberry, but that’s not just because the online shop looks easy on the eyes. It’s outdoor lifestyle focus, storytelling approach and unique goods make it a pioneer in the both the retail and men’s lifestyle field. After all, who doesn’t like the thrill of finding product they didn’t even know existed? Adventure, of course, goes to the core of the company, which was founded in 2011 by Andy Forch and Richard Greiner, two former investment banking analysts, who saw a void in the market for gear heads like themselves. With a little help from friends and self-financing, the duo bootstrapped it at first, relying on what customers paid them to grow the biz. Here, our recent conversation with Andy (above right) on how they made it all happen and how they continue to blend authenticity, real-life explorers and social media savvy to create the retailer of the moment.

huckberry_shop_eCongrats on the success of the website. So tell us, is Huckberry by far your wildest adventure?

Haha, it’s definitely up there, though my co-founder Richard and I are headed to New Zealand and Australia later this week for both business and pleasure, so if you check in with us later this month, we’ll hopefully have some wild tales for you.

So just how did the retail concept come about?

We’ve always been gear heads and loved discovering cool, new brands. We also both started our careers in New York City (which we only realized after meeting in SF), where we got turned on to new emerging brands like Outlier and Todd Snyder. When we got to the West Coast, our friends introduced us to brands like Mission Workshop and Taylor Stitch, and we introduced them to our favorite East Coast brands. We put two and two together and realized that there really wasn’t anyone in retail who was helping readers discover “the next Patagonia” type brands across the U.S., and speaking to the guy who has one foot in the city and one foot in the outdoors. We decided to jump right in instead of dipping a toe in the water and quit our jobs. I picked up a Photoshop For Dummies book and designed the initial logo and site—all those hours in Powerpoint finally paid off—and we brought on a buddy who was taking programming classes at UC-Berkeley to program the site. Once we had a (very rough) website, we called up a bunch of brands and told them we wanted to tell their story and sell their products, got a few commitments, and were off to the races.

How difficult was it to go from investment banking to retail? Ultimately, how did you make it happen?

At that point we were 25, had a little bit of money saved up, cheap rent, and believed that the market needed a company like Huckberry because we were ultimately scratching our own itch. I suppose it was a clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose time in our lives. Once we quit our jobs, we were all in and, since we didn’t have any funding, had to create a business that would be profitable early on and funded by our customers. I see a lot of potential entrepreneurs make the mistake of continually putting off the all-in decision and rationalizing it with “I’m not ready yet” or “I need to make this one marketing class before I write my business plan.” The reality is that, as Mike Tyson so eloquently put it, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

Let’s talk about the shop. Your featured sales are divided into “Brand Spotlights” and “Curated Shops.” Do you rotate, say, a maximum of 12 brands every season or are you continuously adding brands?

We send out two mailers a week through which we’ll typically introduce anywhere from five to 10 new brands (i.e. Brand Spotlights), along with two to four curated lifestyle shops. Within a season, we’ll often introduce between 50-100 new brands. I should clarify that when I say new brands, I’m including both Kickstarter-type brands and more (relatively speaking) established brands.

How effective are your curated shops?

We always say that the customer votes with his/her wallet, and the curated shops are consistently some of our strongest performers. It allows us to merchandise around a specific viewpoint or activity and fill a void in the market that no single brand can fulfill.

huckberry_nomadYou also merchandise product by name v. the brand. That was strategic, yes? I’m guessing the Huckberry customer isn’t so much into brand names as appearance.  

Haha, that’s something that’s bothered me for way too long, and something that should be addressed by the time this interview goes live! I think consumers care about brands, which is why we’re adding it to our shop pages.

It must be daunting to be constantly sourcing great looking, one-of-a-kind products. The expectations are high now! How do you manage it?

At this point, we’re fortunate to have built up a strong enough reputation in the industry that we get more inbounds than we could ever feature. So we’re often turned onto new brands before they launch which makes our job a whole lot easier. We also have a great team that hits all of the trade shows and reads all of the blogs, spanning outdoor to style, to stay dialed into the coolest emerging brands. At the end of the day, it all boils down to whether we think a brand is authentic and a “Huckberry brand.”

What are some of your favorite brand or product discoveries since you started?

One of my favorite Huckberry start-up stories is that my co-founder Rich went to an outdoor trade show back in ’08 where he pitched brands with no website to show and instantly bonded with Benji Wagner, the founder of Poler, who at that time didn’t have product to show and was handing out Poler-branded pocket warmers. It’s fun to see how we both hustled into real businesses, and Poler to this day is one of our favorite brands. Man, favorite brands—there are way too many to list, but since we’re headed to Australia next week to meet with our friends at Bellroy, I should mention that Bellroy is probably soup to nuts, the most impressive brand we’ve ever come across. Even their invoices are so well designed, you don’t want to throw them out.

Tell us about the Explorer’s Grants. How many applicants did you have? What were some of the wildest submissions you received?

Since we’re entirely bootstrapped, we owe our success to the community we’ve built. And as Huckberry has grown, so has our belief that a Jedi draws its strength from the Force—our readers are now Huckberry, we’re just the stewards. We launched the first round of the Explorer’s Grants last spring as a way to say thanks and give back to our readers. We told them to write in with an adventure they’d always wanted to go on and ended up receiving over 1.5K submissions which were unbelievably moving. Huckberry reader Alastair Humphreys, a 2012 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, ended up choosing his three favorite submissions, and we gave them $1,000 and a bundle of gear from some of our favorite brands. Our only ask is that they record their adventures and share them on our Journal to inspire further adventures in one big karmic loop.

Have you thought about the next one?

I guess we’ll announce it here, haha. In October we’re partnering with our buddy and world famous photographer Chris Burkard to launch the next round of the Explorer’s Grants. This one will be more photography focused as the winner will get to choose from six epic adventures drawn up by Chris (e.g. surf Iceland). Chris will lead the adventure while giving them photography tips. They’ll also be fully kitted out in Huckberry gear, of course. I really, really, really wish I was eligible to enter.

You also had your first shoppable home last holiday. How did that go?

We had a blast and the response from our readers and the San Francisco community was awesome. We took over a flat in the Mission and Room & Board provided all of the furniture. We then outfitted the house with some of our favorite Huckberry brands in a natural way so that you felt like you were in the ultimate bachelor pad. We had a 1965 Porsche 356C parked in the living room (a guy can dream after all) and a bunch of unique, one-of-a-kind items interspersed throughout the house, like an Eames splint from WWII, Bertoia chairs, a stack of National Geographic magazines from the ’30s. You could literally buy anything in the house, and we liked to joke with our landlord that even the flat was for sale as everything has a price.

huckberry_holidayBuilding that community’s been key for Huckberry. How are you reaching new fans? Is it all mainly through Instagram, word of mouth? What other plans or big ideas do you hope to initiate to grow your fanbase, e.g. more pop-ups, a standalone store? 

Community is essential to Huckberry’s success. Our friends at GORUCK like to say that they’re building a people company, not a gear company, and that’s also how we look at the world. In addition to continuing the Huckberry Explorer’s Grants and Holiday Home series, we also plan to do more in person events. Our latest initiative is Huckberry On The Road, where we’ve partnered with our friend Jon Gaffney and are having him explore the country while profiling the people behind some of our favorite brands. We threw our first Huckberry On The Road event with Topo Designs in Denver a couple of weeks ago and had a few hundred people show up. Social is another great channel for connecting with our readers, and while we fully embrace it, I’m definitely weary of channels that you don’t own (e.g. Facebook limiting audience reach). At the end of the day, there’s no substitution for meeting your readers in person.

Where do you see the site in three, five years?

Our outward-facing mission is to inspire more active, adventurous, and stylish lives. Our inward-facing mission is to be the most creative, inspiring, and profitable company in e-commerce. Combine the two and that’s what steers the ship. Right now we primarily accomplish that through commerce and content, which I think we can, and will, do a lot better. But other areas that get us excited are creating more in person events, and private label. Regarding the latter, we recently partnered up with our friends at Taylor Stitch to create Myles, an athletic brand we hope will provide a fresh perspective on fitness. The response has been incredible so far, and we look forward to seeing where the company goes.