Here’s something you don’t hear every day: Being naive can help you in business.
Shaun Neff, founder and CEO of Neff Headwear, launched his lifestyle brand in college. This meant he had his own business before he ever had a full-time job. Starting out, he didn’t know a thing about finding manufacturers, setting up contracts with vendors, or doing deals with celebrities.
Today, he has mastered all three, turning his eponymous brand into a business that generates more than $100 million in sales.
“It’s crazy but this is the only job I’ve ever had. Since high school I had dreamed of starting a surf, skate, snow-inspired brand that reached out to youth. So when I was up at college in Utah, snowboarding every day, I thought, ‘Alright it’s go time,’ and just went for it.” - Shaun Neff
These are the words that started Neff on his trajectory from t-shirt peddling sophomore to the respected industry leader he is today. Neff had always known that his future would lie within the realm of branding. During high school, he would silently watch and internally critique the mishmash of street brands or statement pieces his classmates wore. But it wasn’t until he had been hustling t-shirts on campus for six months that Neff started to make some serious inroads.
“After selling a few thousand t-shirts the brand started hitting the right kids and influencers, and it got to a point where I had built a cool buzz in this little college town, but wanted to create it on a bigger scale.”
He lived in Utah, home to the biggest group of professional snowboarders in the world. Neff always tried to get them to take one of his t-shirts to wear when filming promos, but they usually already had apparel deals with other brands.
“One night I stayed up reading some of their contracts until the wee hours and the lightning hit — headwear wasn’t written into contracts back then. So I thought, alright, I’m going to get these snowboard influencers to put Neff hats on their heads.”
On the eve of a major televised snowboarding event in his college town, Neff, unfazed by his lack of official product, went to a dollar store, purchased a stack of 99 cent headbands and beanies, and wrote his surname on them with a Sharpie. It was a bold move, but one that paid off, big time.
“I showed up and handed out these dollar beanies to the biggest snowboarding pros in the world right before a contest. Later, the guys who won first and third were on NBC wearing beanies with a Neff logo. That was really the start of everything.”
Afterwards Shaun Neff had the courage to show up at Milo in Park City ("one of the coolest snowboard shops in the country”), he pitched his story and product, and secured Neff Headwear’s first official account, and one it still holds today. Then came the wave that really brought Neff’s brand vision to life.
Q: When did the brand really start to gain traction?
SN: We started getting written up in magazines within snowboarding and snowboarding culture. Retailers began reaching out to my cell phone and I was able to handpick certain shops and send them product.
But it all triggered because the brand was being rocked by literally the top 20 snowboarders in the world, who were doing it for free because I was young, I was their homie and because headgear didn’t conflict with any of their sponsor contracts. If I had had to pay those guys it would have been 2 or 3 million bucks at that time. Other companies sales reps soon started calling me, like a guy in California who was a sales rep for Burton Snowboards. He put Neff in all the snowboard shops that Burton was in, and that’s how we started to really build. It was all driven by influencers and hype.
Q: What's the most important piece of advice you would give someone when starting a clothing brand?
SN: When you’re young that’s the best time to just roll the dice on an idea. Because you are smart enough to see something that could potentially work, but you’re not entrenched business plans and goals. The failures aren’t in your face. I like the idea of believing in a product that is needed in the market and just saying ‘I’m going to create that.
Structure is important, but you don’t want to lose that entrepreneurial ‘go’ of just making something happen. Business plans are good if you need investors or you are allocating dollars, but I think you can get too caught up in how the world is going to react to your product based on a piece of paper.
Q: What were the main key pillers to building the Neff brand?
1. Identify for what you stand for.
2. Figure out what they key factor driving your consumer is and then break it down so you can figure out what will drive them to buy your product over someone else’s.
3. Nail these three important attributes: A great product, a great marketing story, and brand great ambassadors.
4. Don’t be afraid to start with 90% drive, 10% plan. If you believe in yourself and the idea, you can live and operate on that personal drive every day.