Let us tell you the legend of Robert Redd, a media and clothing brand started by Robert Matheson. Originally founded in 2002, Robert closed the company in 2013 and has just relaunched it as a direct to consumer subscription service. The brand is aimed around “storyselling” the tale of the adventurous Robert Redd through an assortment of high quality products. Every year around 50 million new businesses are founded, but only about 10% will survive the first five years. Listen to Matheson discuss his process of relaunching his business and the unique changes he has made to become one of the top 10%.
Robert Matheson: [00:00:01] Generally speaking, I get the most traction out of the relationships where I feel like I’m working with the other person …
Sam: [00:00:10] 137,000 businesses get started every day. That equates to 50 million new businesses a year. But 90 percent of them fail, which equates to about 123,000 businesses every day. Robert Matheson is a serial entrepreneur and businessman on a journey of self discovery. Through his dedication to Robert Redd, a clothing and accessories brand he created, complete with a narrative legend which has strongly appealed to a loyal customer base in love with the products. Robert started Robert Redd in 2004, shut it down in 2013 and on discovering customers and his own persistent passion for the brand, he recently decided to relaunch it. Robert, welcome to the show. We’re delighted to have you here.
Robert Matheson: [00:01:23] Great. Thanks for having me.
Sam: [00:01:25] So let’s start at the beginning. This has been a feature of your life for so long. What was the kernel that started you wanting to launch the brand?
Robert Matheson: [00:01:37] The kernel started when I was young, growing up in Virginia, I had a very fun life with my family and travel and horses and tennis and would summer in Newport, Rhode Island.
Sam: [00:01:55] Perfect country lifestyle.
Robert Matheson: [00:01:57] It was darn close to perfect. But like in every family, you always have challenges and you have people coming in out of your lives. One of the most interesting things about the back part of my family, I think, is that I come from a long line of different entrepreneurs or business people from the chemical industry to building and construction. Almost all of them are entrepreneurial. But there’s also a strong artistic thread that runs through the family on both sides, painting gardens, writing and things like dancing and riding, horses, carriages, that kind of thing. So it’s pretty glamorous.
Sam: [00:02:40] So was it almost predetermined that you would be an entrepreneur?
Robert Matheson: [00:02:43] In my case, I always wanted to run my own show. I always wanted to have my own business. I always wanted to become the boss, if you will. And I really liked the idea of creating my own company that I could do two things with one, grow my vision with, but also to use that to support people. I really believed in giving back to people.
Sam: [00:03:09] So lots of people decide to start a brand and feel incredibly passionately about it. But very few of them write a narrative legend around that brand. Tell us a little bit about that.
Robert Matheson: [00:03:21] This started pretty much when I went away to boarding school, although even before that in social studies, I would learn about different things in history, the Bible, whatever. And so I always enjoyed storytelling as conveying not only a message, but a sort of morality or some sort of a tale that brought you through a process. And so in boarding school, I started to read more and more about history and more and more about the interaction of historians and business and business people, commerce, captains of industry, the whole thing. And then I started reading some books that–
Sam: [00:03:58] Flashman as I recall.
Robert Matheson: [00:04:00] Flashman is one, but I also read a lot of spiritual books. I started reading things like Thich Nhat Hanh, I started reading A Course in Miracles and I started reading Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. There’s a lot of different historical things in the modern era, then you go further back, that influenced me in living in the moment. But the way you live in the moment is you look towards the future as if it’s done, like a manifestation almost. And so I caught myself manifesting these ideas. Almost, maybe, as you say, like predetermined. But I wasn’t aware of it necessarily, although as time has gone on and what’s transpired in the last years, clearly that. So the kernel for the literary product brand, as I called it at the time, which is now evolved into a media product brand, is this narrative idea behind the brand where we tell the story that basically attaches the legend of Robert Redd to product creation, and that is a hook for the consumer.
Sam: [00:05:05] So you decide to launch this brand. Looking back, what were the most important elements that allowed you to get started? Were there people that helped, particularly in collaborating with you or acting as mentors or guiding you in some way?
Robert Matheson: [00:05:24] So I had several people that I selected as mentors. Almost demanded them to help me. And they’re usually short lived, partly because I think I’m a little challenging in that I’m very certain of what I want to do. So if a mentor is giving me advice and I’m not really taking it, the mentor tends to, you know, unless they are a glutton for punishment, they tend to run away from that situation. On the other hand, I’ve had other people that have helped me that have been, you know, on level with me, not so much a mentor, but worked with me. Or you could even say they worked for me. But generally speaking, I get the most traction out of the relationships where I feel like I’m working with the other person. So there’s been in my Robert Redd career, there have been at least four that have really stood out, which I’m not sure I should go name them all, but because I don’t want to isolate somebody that was involved but that was involved but thought they were more involved than they were. And ultimately that that’s been huge because he’s building a team and building a team is I mean, you can’t– there’s no other way to do it. So in the end, I think, you know, as far as the beginning, my whole agenda was to get people on board that would really buy into the vision.
Sam: [00:06:51] Yeah, so you build the vision. You create the narrative. You hire a good team. And how do you go about finding your first customers that are sort of beyond friends and family?
Robert Matheson: [00:07:06] So the first customer actually was not technically a friend or family customer and ended up being a woman that owns several stores. And we did a trunk show in her store. In that first event we did have a bunch of friends and family buy products, but it did prove our concept. After that, we tried everything. We did wholesale, we did retail, we did trunk shows, we did events and all those kinds of things. And what I learned from that is it’s very top heavy, very expensive. The overhead is that it was a killer. And you’re holding all this inventory because you’re going to all these different events and you’re trying to provide products for all these different channels. And so cash flow becomes a super, super big problem. And in our industry, if you’re holding inventory for like longer than three months, you’re really in trouble. So ultimately, when we got that when we grew the new customer base, we basically went in three different directions. We went wholesale, we went retail and we went online. And today people call that omni channel. And that’s supposed to really work. But when you’re doing it, when you’re sort of digging yourself out of a hole all the time, it’s hard to actually keep up with that.
Sam: [00:08:16] Yeah, absolutely. So you’re effectively having two bites at this apple. So tell us about what you’re gonna do differently this time as you relaunch the brand. You’ve learned so much from that first experience.
Robert Matheson: [00:08:33] Yeah. So essentially, the first thing is I’m completely reverse engineering my entire process. And that kind of goes in alignment with this idea of reverse engineering, my brand, which is what I call the media product brand. And I’ll just quickly say what typically happens is somebody creates a story or a movie, then they align themselves with Mattel or Hasbro or Disney consumer products or whatever, and then they go out and they create a product associated with that movie. And that’s a six month sales cycle on both sides. So it’s a full year for that one entity or that one media asset. What I’m doing is the reverse of that, which is I’m actually creating products that tell another chapter of the story, and we’re doing it on a monthly basis. And so if we do it correctly, it’s not a six month sales cycle on either side of the equation. It’s just trajectory.
Sam: [00:09:29] It’s a continuous sales cycle.
Robert Matheson: [00:09:30] It’s a continuous sales cycle because we’re continuing to unveil the story. It’d be like if somebody took Star Wars from 1977 and just unveiled a new chapter, the story every month from 1977 until today, which they theoretically could have done. And Marvel Comics is basically doing that now. Yeah, and that’s what they’re doing. But they’re doing it. It’s such a heavy look at a high level that nobody really even sees it as a media product brand. Although the Robert Redd legend is that. So that’s a huge difference in how we market the brand as far as how we run the business. The business is completely reverse engineered, too. I’m basically asking everybody to come on to RobertRedd.com to become a subscriber. They can buy a shirt at full price, which is $125+, or they can become a subscriber, get a couple of premium gifts for free for doing that, including maybe a shirt or two. And then after their subscriber, their price point is considerably lower. I’m not going to say where it is right now because I’m not 100% sure we’re committed to this price. But it’s well under 50% or less.
Sam: [00:10:36] Okay.
Robert Matheson: [00:10:36] So it’s a significant hook to get consumers to come in. It also undercuts our competition significantly. But the nice thing about it for us is that in terms of the medium of wholesale or retail price, we’re basically in that range. It doesn’t change our business model at all. Plus, we have the recurring revenue. Plus we have all the data, direct data from the end consumer makes it a completely different business opportunity.
Sam: [00:11:07] So two questions, Robert. I want to pick up on your remarks on the first reverse engineering element, which is taking this product and sort of weaving it back into this narrative that you developed. With most, you know, kind of movie franchises, there is a media asset that’s sort of the primary asset. And then there’s, you know, all the product merchandise that comes from that secondary. And here, is there a primary asset? Are they both sort of primary assets? How do you think about that?
Robert Matheson: [00:11:45] I do think of the legend probably as a primary asset, the way you would think of a media asset as a primary asset. But the big difference is I feel like the chapter, the next chapter of that story can’t be told without the next launch of the next product category.
Sam: [00:12:03] Right.
Robert Matheson: [00:12:03] So they’re in tandem that way. In other words, yes, I could spin off the legend of Robert Redd into a media asset by itself, like a feature film or a serial or some sort of episodic adventure. It could be picked up by Showtime. And we certainly talked about that and looked at that. But what actually gives us some leverage right now is the behind the paywall of our subscription side is that people will get that original content behind the subscription, behind the paywall as a subscriber. So that allows us to do all kinds of things that don’t necessarily work with a larger feature film, but they work with a product creation. It’s a total differentiator.
Sam: [00:12:45] Yeah, that’s fascinating. And so many brands, I think, have struggled to create narrative because of this sort of movement towards experiential commerce. But you have that already. And that’s always been such a foundational element of the brand for you.
Robert Matheson: [00:13:01] This also is borne out of my own personal experience. When I was younger, I really liked certain product categories in clothing like sneakers or shirts or polo shirts or ties or whatever. And when I was growing up, you know, your choices were Brooks Brothers or Polo or maybe J. Crew or the Gap or Banana Republic or something like that. And there were some other cool classics, you know, Orvis or Paretta, that kind of thing. But I did not want to name Robert Redd after myself. I did not want to name my apparel company after myself, like Ralph Lauren or something like that. Or even more to the point, I didn’t want to invent a character of myself. I didn’t want to make it fake. I wanted to make it real. The other thing is, I really what I mean is I didn’t want to invent myself to be fake. I wanted to invent Robert, read the character so that I could carry on.
Sam: [00:13:59] And you wanted a compelling character. It wasn’t sort of an exercise in narcissism to make it about you. Right?
Robert Matheson: [00:14:05] Well, another area is like if you’re a certain brand, if your certain owner of a brand and the brand is named after you, whatever you do, you’re under a microscope. There’s a lot of scrutiny. So if you go out with so-and-so or if you get arrested ever it has an impact on the brand. That’s not the case with Robert Redd. The story is a standalone all by itself. Yeah. And it can’t really be affected by contemporary mischief.
Sam: [00:14:32] Yeah.
Robert Matheson: [00:14:34] The other thing about the brand is it’s a love story. So it really incorporates this notion of self-love, unconditional love, but also romantic love between Robert Redd and Lady Redd. And there’s sort of this saying we have, when Redd is younger before he meets Lady Redd, there are many Lady Redds, but when he meets Lady Redd, it becomes only one Lady Redd.
Sam: [00:14:58] Right.
Robert Matheson: [00:14:58] So he basically becomes this sort of young and he’s roguish and whatever you want to say. Fun, fun-loving and friendly and extending love wherever he goes so to speak. Like Johnny Appleseed. But when he finally meets Lady Redd, that’s it.
Sam: [00:15:16] He grows into that character.
Robert Matheson: [00:15:18] There is no-one else, for him.
Sam: [00:15:19] Yeah. For him. You talked a little bit about the subscription model that you’re going to be using. In many ways that’s sort of the next phase of retail brands, right? Tell us a little bit about the logic behind putting that in place. What does it mean in terms of you having a very loyal customer base and how you’re thinking about that going forward?
Robert Matheson: [00:15:50] So I’ve already been told by some of my loyal customer base fans that they will not become subscribers of our new site. They don’t believe in it. They don’t think that they should have to subscribe. So I’m prepared for that. But I actually believe that most of them will subscribe. I think most people are going to subscribe to most retail sites in the near future because they can customize their experience so much more significantly. There are also perks with subscription, whether it’s getting points or getting free gifts or, you know, premium opportunities, that kind of thing. As for how I think that the transition will occur from the loyal customer base is when in 2012, when Dollar Shave Club came out, they came out exclusively right out the gate as a subscription site service, and they provided razors and so on on a monthly basis. They sold last year, I think it was for a billion dollars. So they were literally like seven years old. And I looked at the model at the time and I thought, this is a time when we could transition. So we actually went to our investors at the time and I said, I’m going to turn this into a subscription model. We’re going to grow the brand and we’re gonna create more of a family brand, but we’re gonna ask everybody become subscribers and nobody got it. Like, they were like, no. Now, Dollar Shave Club admittedly had just come out. So they didn’t have the billion dollar exit yet.
Sam: [00:17:15] Too early in some ways, yeah.
Robert Matheson: [00:17:16] Too too early for us. Perfect for them. And so it’s always stuck on like a burn or my saddle that I wanted to do that subscription model. And I now I’ve seen their success. I know that we can do it. The other thing that we’re doing that’s a little different than what they did, which is even more exciting, is we’re doing a bit of a hybrid approach. So we’re gonna have multiple layers of subscribers. We’re gonna have a VIP like where you get a box on a monthly basis or a quarterly basis. We’re gonna have a regular subscription service where you get a free gift or a premium gift. Plus you get discounted prices, plus you get unique experiences offered to you. Plus, you go in and buy whatever you want at that discounted price. So you’re not just waiting for something to show up on your doorstep, but if you want to take a membership at that level, you can do that in the future. But the hybrid part, I think, differentiates us significantly because somebody could come right off the street onto the website without knowing anything about Robert Redd and buy a shirt full price and never be a subscriber. But if they love the shirt and they’re like, well, I want to actually have more of those, they can become a subscriber and they’re getting that shirt at a considerably different price.
Sam: [00:18:35] Makes sense.
Robert Matheson: [00:18:36] It’s just a different model.
Sam: [00:18:39] Who do you view now in this next iteration of the business, who do you view as the competition? And, you know, kind of how the narrative will continue to differentiate the brand. Are there other things that you view as key differentiators from either existing or sort of relatively new brands in this space?
Robert Matheson: [00:19:04] I think there’s some of the key differentiators besides the legend itself, will just be having an eye for a particular color. And there’s a low barrier to entry on apparel anyway. So you really have to go with your strengths. And my strengths are picking certain colors, picking certain styles. And styles like in fashion, in real fashion, they come and go, but there’s always kind of a classic look that is consistent. It never goes away. And I’d say that I just have an eye for that. For better or for worse. So that’s it’s not really a competitive advantage as much as is just saying, sort of staying true to who we are. So I think that’s an advantage in itself.
Sam: [00:19:41] And a very distinctive aesthetic.
Robert Matheson: [00:19:43] It’s a distinctive aesthetic. The true competition for us will be other subscription companies because we’ll be vying for people’s monthly recurring revenue. Then the second area that will be a direct competitor will be some that makes the identical item and whether they sell it through a subscription service or whether they sell it direct to consumer without subscription. When I started Robert Redd, there were three direct competitors. Today there’s about 25.
Sam: [00:20:13] Wow.
Robert Matheson: [00:20:14] So what’s interesting about that is when I started the company people said why would you start a golf shirt company? That’s what they called it. I said, well I call it a gentleman’s knit shirt anyway, it’s like a club shirt, not really a golf shirt. And they said, so what’s the difference? I said well a golf shirt’s kind of baggy, our shirt’s like a little trimmer, a little bit more stylistic, better colors. And they’d say, well, that market’s really small. You know, fairway green’s going away or whatever. I see. Well, it’s fairly big. Golf market’s fairly big. But you’re right. I mean, for what I’m talking about, it’s a little bit more exclusive. Well, today and I don’t know what the market was at the time. I mean, it might have been 20, 40 million dollars market or something. With twenty five competitors today that market is almost a half a billion dollars just in the knit shirt sort of category that we sell. So, you know, it’s probably going to be a billion dollar market very soon. And I think a lot of the reasons for that is that fashion has changed. People are wearing basically more short sleeves. I mean, I guess they’re saying that the weather is getting warmer. So they’re wearing, you know, fewer clothes. But regardless of whether that’s true or not, the fact is, is people are wearing more short sleeves and people want to wear more fashionable short sleeves. So I think that market has grown and it probably will continue to grow.
Sam: [00:21:31] I mean, it’s fascinating because in most consumer product categories, there is a narrative about a brand that really expanded the size of the market, not because, you know, necessarily they were creating a radically new SKU category, but because they were doing it differently. I mean, in alcohol, there are a ton of brands that have done this. And in clothing, it’s the same. And yeah, I mean, I totally agree with you that this increased trend towards people wanting more differentiated brands that are not mass brands but that represent a very specific identity is here to stay. Robert, as you look back, tell us about some lessons that you’ve learned from your own journey, observations of others that you feel are useful to entrepreneurs.
Robert Matheson: [00:22:30] Well, I’ve mentioned this to you before, to some extent. I’ve honed this idea a little bit. One is don’t assume I mean, I’m I’m very guilty that I assume a lot of things and it always comes back to bite me. And it’s just if you don’t assume if you don’t attach a meaning to something, if you stay present and don’t attach meaning to something, you have a chance of actually seeing it differently. You also have a chance of not overreacting, which I’m a big overreacter.
Sam: [00:23:03] So give us an example of that.
Robert Matheson: [00:23:07] Every example I can give you is so embarrassing.
Sam: [00:23:11] It’s okay, we’re all friends here.
Robert Matheson: [00:23:11] And I know that, I know that. You know, it’d be like– this just happened to me the other day. Just I got an email from a group that I’ve been trying to get in touch with, that does a bunch of subscription type packaging and having a ton of success right now, this company is. And so the founder and I’ve been communicating back and forth a lot. And we’ve planned one meeting after another after another, and they keep getting canceled. And finally, we had one on the books for next week. And I told them, I said, I really got to talk to you because we’re launching this company, with or without you. And I got an email yesterday basically saying cancel the meeting, you know, from like the PR person at the company. Like, not even him. And I just, you know, at the bottom, she said, I hope you understand. Or thanks, sorry, thanks for understanding. And I said– I wrote her back and I just said, because I was out of my mind.
Sam: [00:24:10] Yeah.
Robert Matheson: [00:24:10] And I wrote back and I said, no, I don’t understand. I said, this is lousy. You know, what are you doing? Then I woke up this morning and I thought, oh, now I gotta go apologize for all of that and try to get them back on the horn again and get a meeting set up. That’s because I made all kinds of assumptions and put all kinds of meaning to that instead of just saying, okay, you know, because I’m totally invested in having that meeting.
Sam: [00:24:39] Yeah.
Robert Matheson: [00:24:39] You know, all this attachment.
Sam: [00:24:41] I mean, it’s such a fine balance, right? Because in a way, what makes the brand so unique is your emotional attachment to it. And at the same time, the emotions sort of can’t get in the way of the professional running of the business.
Robert Matheson: [00:24:54] So to answer your question on point two is, is to be disciplined and patient. I’ve just described to you what happens when I’m not and why that’s a problem. And so really, really learning and even at my age now to say, okay, I’ve still got to continue to change and evolve and grow up. So, I mean, I’ve really been working on that, especially to get to the second iteration of Robert Redd and having people helping, people are volunteering. They’re not getting paid a lot. We don’t have a big budget to do it. I went around for a year trying to raise money for this thing and basically decided to do it without raising any money completely bootstrapped. So all of this is like a leap and an act of faith. And then the third one, which is one that you and I have talked about it last time we talked about this, is this idea of life as a series of gifts disguised as impossible situations.
Sam: [00:25:52] I love that saying, by the way. I mean, it’s what you’re saying and I love it.
Robert Matheson: [00:25:56] Well, part of the part of that that I sort of miss when I talk about last time, as I said, you know, that you’ve got to look for the signs because they’re always in front of you. If you just pay attention, that’s being present. But the second part of that is when you are dealing with starting a company and other people, including customers, but certainly vendors, people that are helping you and anybody you walk in front of in life, whether it’s your family or friends or loved ones or whatever, life is really about those who temporarily have more for those who temporarily have less, like nobody’s ever a hundred percent on, there’s laws of polarity, laws of attraction, laws of abundance, all these you know, these sort of new agey laws that are really not new agey at all, but where everybody is trying to get in touch with them these days. And when you’re going through life, you just have to acknowledge and accept the fact, have compassion for the fact that not everybody is doing so well. And then other times they’re doing great. And sometimes I’m not doing so well and other times I’m doing great. And when you’re working with people on something sort of personal like this, as you say, it’s a big passion project for me, it has lot energy for me, you know, a tremendous amount of energy trying to be disciplined and focus that energy. Transformative or transmutation or whatever you want to call it, to get the end result or desire. And that’s a whole other thing about manifestation. Doing this project has really been about imagining it done.
Sam: [00:27:36] Visualizing it.
Robert Matheson: [00:27:37] Yeah visualizing it. You’ve asked me before like, what would I do when I start a project? I mean, the first thing I do is I kind of sketch it out at some level, whether I’m writing it out or I’m visualizing it in my mind, I’m creating all the time. And I’m either creating something positive or if I’m in a negative mindset, I’m creating something potentially negative. So it’s always important to stay positive.
Sam: [00:28:01] Absolutely, couldn’t agree more. Here’s a key fact you need to know about entrepreneurship. Many startups fail due to incompetence, lack of experience in terms of goods or industry, and little experience on the team, but equally personal problems. Successful startups have a really well-defined market, have disruptive ideas, and the founders are persistent and take advantage of mentors. Robert, we’re delighted that you joined us today and so many of these lessons so resonate in your story of rebuilding Robert Redd. So we wish you all the best.
Robert Matheson: [00:28:37] Thank you. I enjoyed it.
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