Putting Customers in Charge of Design
By AMY WALLACE
THE idea was never to try to supplant retail, says Fan Bi, the 22-year-old chief executive of Blank Label. Sometimes you need a dress shirt right now, and at those times, Mr. Bi says approvingly, “you can get it right now at Nordstrom.”
But what about those times when you get a hankering not to wear the same thing that 10,000 other men are wearing? Or when you wish you could have the fabric, collar, pockets and lining you’ve always wanted — not what some fashion buyer has chosen for this season? What if you could design that shirt yourself and hang it in your closet for about the same price as a mass-produced button-down?
“The value proposition of customization at retail prices was a cornerstone of our company from the very start,” Mr. Bi tells me by phone from Shanghai, where Blank Label shirts are sewn to customers’ specifications and delivered anywhere in the world in about four weeks. But Blank Label, his Web start-up based in Boston, offers something else that off-the-rack doesn’t: “the emotional value proposition: how expressive something is.”
“People really like a Blank Label shirt because they can say, ‘I had a part in creating this.’ ”
Since last Halloween, when the company’s dress shirt design application made its debut at www.blank-label.com, Mr. Bi and his three partners — ages 19, 22 and 30 — have joined a small but growing co-creation movement that uses the Internet to let consumers have a hand in making the products they buy. Web ventures have already popped up that allow shoppers to customize granola (MeAndGoji.com), jewelry (gemvara.com), chocolate (CreateMyChocolate.com), handbags (LaudiVidni.com) and clothing for girls ages 6 to 12 (FashionPlaytes.com). There are also online competitors selling design-your-own shirts, while Brooks Brothers is one major retailer that offers the service on its Web site.
The upside for business owners is obvious: low overhead. At Blank Label, for example, the sew-as-you-go business model eliminates the need to produce shirts of every size and style. There’s no need to rent space to store inventory. There’s no storefront, no office other than a borrowed space at Babson College in Boston, where until recently Mr. Bi was an exchange student from the University of New South Wales — he grew up in Australia.
“We’ve focused on being very bootstrap, very lean,” says Mr. Bi, who says the business has sold about 450 shirts. Recently, it has seen a big bump in traffic, with orders of about 10 shirts a day. He says the company makes money on every shirt.
Once, Mr. Bi wanted to be an investment banker. In the summer of 2008, while pursuing his finance degree, he worked as a junior analyst at a Sydney bank. But the experience left him disenchanted. “Probably a product of my generation — I was too entitled,” he acknowledges. “I felt I’m just one very, very small ant in this massive firm. I’m not feeling very engaged. And entrepreneurships and start-ups became interesting.”
On a trip to Shanghai, where his parents grew up, he got an idea: a service offering custom-tailored suits to college students at a bargain price. He wasn’t thinking about an online business. He thought he’d hire a rep at every college in the Boston area and sell suits one at a time.
Then he met Danny Wong, now a 19-year-old communications major at Bentley University. Mr. Wong had applied to be a rep. Excited about “bridging the gap between consumer and manufacturer,” Mr. Wong remembers quizzing Mr. Bi about his marketing strategies, particularly on the Web. They teamed up and, several months later, Blank Label was born.
At first, Mr. Bi and Mr. Wong tried to raise venture capital.
“To be honest, we couldn’t,” Mr. Bi says. “We were two very young guys who had no track record.” So Mr. Bi financed the site with about $10,000 in savings, he says, recruiting a programmer and a Web designer and vowing to make leanness a strength, not a weakness.
One goal was to communicate directly with customers. The Web site commands: “Call us. We like to talk.” Depending on the time of day, Mr. Bi answers the calls himself. When he is awake, he also activates a feature that sends instant messages to customers who have been on the site for more than 90 seconds.
Need help? he asks. For several hours a day, he and his partners chat with customers about what they like and don’t like on the site.
The feedback has led to several site revamps and — I can’t resist — alterations. The company is on its third home page in six months, and the partners say they tweak the site every day.
A FEW weeks ago, before I had decided to write about Blank Label, I sat down and designed a shirt for my 13-year-old son. It was a striped button-down made of “Green With Excitement” — all Blank Label’s fabrics have hyperdescriptive names. I chose the cut, the size, the placket and the collar; I opted for single-button cuffs, no pockets and no epaulets.
For fun, and to test the ordering interface, I added a contrasting inner collar and cuff in a solid fabric called “Masculine Poplin Grey,” and added a monogram of my son’s initials on the cuff. For the inside of the collar, I made up a custom label, “Live Free or Die” — I was reading “Game Change” and had New Hampshire on the brain.
The whole process took 10 minutes. With all the bells and whistles, the shirt cost $72, compared with $45 for Blank Label’s most basic, no-frills model.
The site showed me a mock-up, which looked great. But when I went to check out, the order summary did not list the contrasting inner collar. No matter what I did, the inner collar was green and excited instead of masculine and grey. So I clicked on “Help” and sent a message. Soon, I heard back — from Mr. Bi himself. Notably, this was before he knew he would be in my next column.
On Friday, the shirt arrived. It was just as I’d designed it, just as Mr. Bi assured me it would be. If my son doesn’t like it, Blank Label policy is that I can return it, no questions asked. And here’s the best part: I sort of made it myself.