I remember it vividly. I was young and had a world of opportunities behind me. It all really started in 2011. Before I discuss my business ventures, there were a series of events that lead me to this that will better help shape the story.
Boston, MA 2011 –
My military service ended and I fell back into Engineering. A career field that was open to me all because I went to a Vocational Technical school and took Machine Technology. I started in the workforce as a CNC programmer, a role where we using Numerical Code to tell a machine how to cut a part that at the time, was used in the aerospace industry.
I worked for a manufacturer outside of Boston, MA who specialized in designing chrome prosthetic knees / orthopedic implants for patients. 2nd shift was interesting, and when clocked out of work, I spend a majority of my time in front of a computer.
Over the previous years 2009-2010, I collected 30GB worth of images scouring the internet that were intriguing, inspiring, and displayed a lifestyle that I was interested in obtaining. Images of vintage goods, motorcycles, Military inspired clothing, interiors, trinkets, and landmarks.
This was at the height of Tumblr. The social network that can be comparable to the usage of Instagram today. And with a mixture of insomnia – I decided to upload every bit of those images over the next few days.
My content went viral – my follower count went from 5 (probably friends) to 55,000 in a week! All of the Re-tumbling of my content branched out and it became a recognizable blog.
A couple things snowballed from this. I developed a close relationship with a few key influential people and brands reached out to get their content on my blog. I saw value in this.
Here was an interview put together by Rye & Rivet and The American Classic during those stages:
Transition into an editorial Website
The advantages I had were the ability to make money on a day job and focus the evenings on my blog.
Everlane contacted me..
I wasn’t the only one who saw value in this. Michael Preysman, Everlane’s founder saw it too.
He reached out to me and wanted to see if I was interested in working with a small startup. Of course, I said “yes” to this opportunity. Anything to get me moving forward in a relatable field that I was seeing myself more and more in. Everlane at the beginning was not an e-commerce like it is today though. It was very similar to Pinterest or Fancy in the sense that they curated products with affiliate links. I was one of the curators.
Time to move from the Tumblr Platform and the birth of Anchor Division
Again, after seeing the value and the number of connections and following I was achieving, I decided to leave the platform and go to WordPress to start my own editorial website. This was a painful process for me as it was my first time. I chose a theme I loved somewhere on the internet and finally launched. Anchor Division was born!
I used Tumblr to direct traffic to my website and every photo that I posted on Tumblr going forward, I direct linked it to the website. I saw a spike in traffic and I was on my way.
So why did I move to WordPress? For two reasons only:
1. I always questioned what would happen if the social media platform fizzled out. I saw it on MySpace / LiveJournal and countless others.
2. I knew I was able to start monetizing off of brands that were interested in placing their ads on my website for exposure. Not to be confused with Google ads. Their own designed and placed ads.
After the site was moving, brands would reach out and have me review their products. Brands from all over the world. It became a visual way of telling my followers how I felt about the products and in a small way, becoming a quality control and transparent voice for consumers interested in these products.
Trade shows, Two Inch Cuffs & Consignd
I was given the opportunity by someone from PROJECT; the fashion trade shows that takes place in NYC, Italy, and Las Vegas to be a part of their new ‘Blogger Project’ initiative. My job was to explor the show, network with brands, pull in products, and create content for the trade show.
It was my first real-world experience chatting with brands in person and very exciting.
Back to Everlane for a second — I connected with Ruben Hughes, the now super multi-talented dude from NYC and I worked with him briefly at his site, Two Inch Cuffs, another well-curated journal.
Consignd was a platform that allowed brands to sign up for this marketplace and sell their goods on, cutting out the middle man / being their e-commerce platform. Luke Shermin was the founder but the whole project ended up being scrapped so he could start Casper; the bedding company. That company ended up becoming very successful so good for him!
All of these I was able to do all while working my manufacturing job. At the time, this was my job security and I didn’t see all of these as anything more than just a hobby.
2012-2013 – Unfortunate Events
This year was a series of rollercoasters. One night while working, I received a call from my girlfriend at the time, and she was hysterical “the apartment is on fire!”. I raced over from work (5 minutes down the road) with my works fire extinguisher only to see the 5 story historical brick building was completely engulfed in flames. I ended up with nowhere to live and losing all of my personal belongs and mementos from growing up.
I had to start over.
Help from the community
Brands like Taylor Stitch, Everlane, and so many others heard the news and created a care package of goods that really helped me get through it. I sort of lost touch with the website. My main focus was getting my feet back on the ground.
Live free or die state and the start of Whiskey Grade.
I scored this position in the state for a pretty serious well-paying Engineer role. This was my solid ground at the time.
It went really steady for a while, doing the day to day and running the website in the evening per usual.
With the start of my new life, I thought a lot about the opportunities, the risks, and rewards that went along with taking a chance and trying to run the website full-time. Completely quitting the job security to hustle 100%.
I started off slow
Before I took this big step, I monetized the website by raising add costs a bit. That all came along with the increase in web traffic, at peak, Anchor Division had around 1 million page views per month. Nothing compared to the bigger blogs, but I had a number to give to brands and make the cost of ads justifiable.
I began charging for sponsored posts and did a few for bigger brands like Dyson, Miller High Life, Gucci. A whole mess of brands and products. Doing product trades and continued working at PROJECT through-out the year.
Full-Time, Whiskey Grade Rebranding, Signing contracts
Complex Media reached out to me…Known for their Magazine ‘Complex’ that focuses on the hip-hop culture. Only they had developed a network of influential blogs under them – Blogs like Selectism, Highsnobiety, and countless others.
They wanted Anchor Division.
Around that time I had spent long nights thinking about where I was going with Anchor Division. I really wanted a stronger focus on something I was passionate about. I was constantly talking about an array of products and brands but off the side, I was really passionate about small businesses and the USA Made movement.
So what made me think of the name ‘Whiskey Grade’. Well first and foremost, Whiskey which I was a huge fan of was symbolic to me in a sense. It was symbolic because it was an iconic drink throughout American History. From the Wild West, the Civil War, and scenes of men coming into bars requesting a glass of whiskey. It was a drink that could tell a story of the lower class, the blue collar, the nitty and gritty workers and could also symbolize the upper class of wealth with their glass mixers at an event with a suit and tie.
It was multi-faceted and it representing the product that I was talking about. Products that were so well made – made with working hands but could stand the test of time. Products that the upper class thought they were getting when they purchased the brand name and not the construction of the garment.
The garments that by themselves, had a history throughout American history. Work wear / hunting, stuff you would see in an early 1900’s Sears & Roebuck Catalogue.
‘Grade’ The mark or quality level of something. And while I spent most of the time reviewing products, I learned a lot about what was better Grade then other products.
Whiskey Grade. And my motto?
“Pride in the classic Americana hand crafted, In the machinery that drove our rebellion and left us with a culture. A culture of grease, denim, metal and leather. Forged from the will to be different. This is Whiskey Grade.”
The first Whiskey Grade Products
My first products were born when a company reached out to me: Stock Mfg Co. Based out of Chicago; they were a fresh startup and chose Whiskey Grade as one of the platforms and brands to launch a collection with. Since our audience was used to seeing the latest and greatest products, it was easy to push some Whiskey Grade products through and generate sales.
Our first pieces consisted of a modified and refined M65 Field Jacket. Made in Chicago. And two officer style shirts. This was the start of our own private label. *see the foreshadowing here*
The Whiskey Grade App
A small tech company reached out and offered us the development of our own Android / iOS app that was essentially the site with a great User Experience and the ability to save articles and view them much faster than the website itself.
I helped design out the UX and wireframes and app went live on the mobile marketplaces.
The app, Flipboard was being promoted in all app stores with the new launch of the iPad and they chose Whiskey Grade as one of the featured publications within the app. So it was really exciting going to an Apple store and seeing your website on their iPads right in front of you.
My meeting in New York City
Ian Pirro, one of my close friends who assisted me in designing and tweaking the website and templates at the start of Whiskey Grade.
I invited him to join me to chat with Complex Media in NYC. We initially thought that this meeting was going to be really laid back and I would just chat and get to know the team at Complex Media.
Boy was I wrong.
I remember Ian and I sitting at a table eating some lunch they provided when one of their employees walked in and said, “Okay, they are ready for you in the conference room”
“Excuse me?” I thought. I looked at Ian a little puzzled. We slowly entered the room to find 15 executive staff and around 4-5 other executives being broadcasted on screens like a google hangout. This was much more then a chill meet up. We had to pitch Whiskey Grade, talk a bit about the site traffic, figures, our goals, and plans.
I definitely was not ready for this, but I did it. And drove back from NYC a with an agreement ready to be signed over. I remember thinking in the back of my head “okay this is real now, I have to quit my job and dedicate myself to this”
And I did. — it was a scary moment in my life, leaving job security. But it felt damn good going into a corporate environment and saying “never again”.
Whiskey Grade on its way.
Over the next few weeks, I was doing what I was used to doing, but tenfold. Spending my day waking up early and heading to a cafe with internet only to sit there for 8-10 hours working on posts and pitching brands ad space.
Complex Media was connecting me with campaigns from Harley Davidson, Levi’s Made & Crafted, and other great brands that had the capital to pay for these ad placements. It was covering my rent and expenses and it felt great.
Nylon Magazine awarded and presented me with the title “Best Creative Content – Men’s Category” at the Tao Downtown in NYC. That was a night to remember.
My limitations I faced
This all seemed great until I realized how tied down being a part of a media company can be. A week later I was reached out by Condé Nast – them wanting to do the same thing Complex Media was now doing. Advertising Partnership.
I was unable to do this due to conflict of interest of other advertising brands/agencies.
This was so unfortunate because I looked up to many of Condé Nast’s publications and would have taken this opportunity over Complex’s (Sorry Complex)
I also faced the limitation of not being about to provide sponsored posts and side ad revenue which is what I was doing prior to signing. And this really hurt my salary.
All in all, I found myself in a rut. I wasn’t making enough money to support myself, the travels and everything that went along with it.
Talking and getting insight from one of my idols: Dave Morin
One day, I noticed Dave Morin, the successful Angel Investor and Founder of the past platform Path and Slow Ventures follow Whiskey Grade on Twitter. I reached out and we opened a conversation. Chatting about how he came across the brand and how passionate he also was for USA Made brands which is why he saw interest in Whiskey Grade.
He advised me on how going the Media Company route with Whiskey Grade could be a great idea. Helping build up brands and gain them exposure as I was doing.
I wanted badly to work with him and what he had to offer; insight, knowledge, a network of people that were experts in the startup world.
While this conversation was happening, I was also contacted by some old friends from the magazine Iron & Air. They had explained they had a connection that was looking to essentially rebrand his current name, and build out a store. The conversation pretty much went “Do you want to see Whiskey Grade turn into a physical store and see your baby come to life?”
Why wouldn’t I? This went along with my limitation I had and my lack of funds with Complex that made the decision this much easier.
Rather then potentially waiting for an amazing opportunity working with Dave Morin, I chose the more immediate plan. A hasty decision to say the least.
Why was this decision good? Well seeing your brand come to life was an amazing thing. And curating the store with products you were talking about was just as good. I didn’t have to worry about lack of funds from Complex because I had a salary and I was still continuing to do something I loved.
Why this was a terrible decision.
The stipulation was I had to sign over the name ‘Whiskey Grade’ and the existing assets over to this individual. It didn’t seem like a big deal initially because I was still part of the project and had confidence in what it would become. I could not foresee the series of events that would come in the years forward that would turn it into what it is today.
So I did it. I sold the company. – I took some R&R from all the stress and headed to Hawaii.
The two owners were Tom and Sean. Tom was an older gentleman who had the previous brand he was looking to rebrand and Sean was the designer who had a previously failed brand.
I spent the next few weeks getting to know the dynamic of multiple individuals in that had control of your baby, your brand you started and watched grow. We curated the shop, built it up and launched it.
The first brick and mortar was also opened and it was just a surreal thing. To see a physical form of something where the inception was in your room at 3 am with insomnia.
Not too long after the launch of the store, I had received a phone call from another individual that was helping run marketing, that they were “letting me go” — the original intent was to have me come on as a creative director and focus on the content of the brand.
The blog and content of the site were completely scrapped. That was tough to see. They were only concerned about sales.
My original thought was to house the content on a separate platform other than Shopify. After all, Shopify had a poor blogging platform and in order to maintain SEO and traffic, it was imperative that the content was king.
My thoughts: if you continue to create amazing content that people want to read every day, the products will sell.
The opposite happened: they focused on selling product. And it felt dishonest. It felt dishonest to the reader who opened the site daily to get their “product fix” and it certainly felt dishonest to the individuals who downloaded the app and opened it daily to read about the latest and greatest.
And that was the case: it was dishonest. Websites nowadays rely on the trust and loyalty of visitors to keep them coming back. The unfortunate thing about e-commerce sites is that a majority of them are sites that people who are shopping the web hit once, they shop, and they either like the product or they don’t.
Without content that consumers can relate to, content that they can find their lifestyle through, it feels boring and never re-visited. Of course, I’m just speaking from experience. But I saw more sales through my blogging platform sharing my opinion of that matter than the “hey-buy-this-product” model.
I could compare the first collaborative product with Stock Mfg Co. and the success of sales with the now private label product and the strategy behind it.
So I headed out west
I packed up and headed to Arizona. In a way, it was my second clean slate (after my first due to an apartment fire). This allowed me time to relax my thoughts and figure out my next ventures. I dove into what I had put on the back-burner for so long. Founded USA.
While building out the platform, (roughly 6 months after living out in Phoenix) I received a call from Tom – the individual who bought out Whiskey Grade.
He was no longer in partnership with Sean and needed someone to open up shop in Los Angeles and provide creative to Whiskey Grade again. I took the offer. I packed and headed to Los Angeles.
The end of what once was, Whiskey Grade?
While in Los Angeles, among also running the store, I moved all manufacturing to Los Angeles, which was originally in Tennessee at the L.C. King Factory and Michigan where the shirting was produced.
I re-shaped and re-designed the shirting silhouettes, came up with new patterns for their raw denim, created samples and patterns for tons of outerwear and launched their first premium leather jacket.
Focusing on content again, it all seemed refreshing.
So what went wrong?
I found out that the company was actually signed over to Tom’s wife. No problem there. Until she started pushing women’s products into our existing demographics 75% men and 25% women (who were mostly landing at WG to purchase for their boyfriends or husbands). Again, not a problem.
So then what was it? –
100% of the products weren’t in-line with the men’s products. We were focused on pushing out Heritage and USA Made products that would represent the idea of what Whiskey Grade originally stood for and talked about. HIGH-QUALITY GOODS.
All the women’s pieces were pre-purchased down in the depths of San Pedro Alley based on what celebrities were wearing that week. Mostly the Kardashians.
And when this was brought up, she was offended. You felt like you were walking on eggshells. And in a way, we should have felt that way. She was the full owner of the company and there was nothing we could do. We only looked out for the success of the company though.
I was out. The journey of Whiskey Grade was already enough of a rollercoaster at the beginning to see this. I cleaned the slate. I brought back what WG was originally supposed to be. A platform for brands. Brands that represent quality, the brands that bust their ass off making ends meet. The ones that were focused on their success and were honest with consumers: thus Founded was back.
Sad to watch WG go in a different direction for which me and many people were so fond of, but it is what it is.
What did I learn from this whole journey?
* Never sell out your company. (Unless it’s someone who shares the same vision as you and you can maintain an amount of ownership). Stay in control.
* You are the vision. If you ever do find yourself in the same experience, remember, it is you who carries the vision and you can do it again.
* Content will always be the most effective strategy for a brand. Brand Loyalty is key.
* Develop a mission statement and find your brand identity. This will help you determine your demographic and create well-executed visuals.
* Take the advice from the people who you look up to the most. Never lose sight of where you are heading and where you want to be.
* Starting a brand is extremely challenging. It’s filled with tons of competition. This is why brand identity is so important. Keep pushing forward.
Founded is dedicated to helping tell a brands story to the world. And for brands that are starting fresh and need direction, our passion is building their foundation and story.