Rise above arrogance and ignorance

In running a men’s clothing company, Hil Davis admits that his attitude initially got in the way. He says that his arrogance and ignorance led him to make a series of poor decisions during the firm’s early years.

Davis co-founded J. Hilburn in 2007. In 2012, the fast-growing firm generated about $35 million in revenue.

But it’s been a bumpy road for Davis. With his background as a Wall Street equity research analyst, he likes to focus on numbers. After launching his business, however, he learned that “when you actually have to do it and go beyond the numbers, it’s so much harder.”

His goal was to sell custom-made dress shirts (through direct sales or multilevel marketing like Mary Kay or Tupperware models) at lower cost. That meant finding a factory that could do the work cheaply but still use good fabrics. He enlisted a Chinese manufacturer that seemed to fit the bill, but the first batch of shirts was inferior. Davis discovered that the Chinese mill used lower-quality material.

After fixing that problem, Davis shipped shirts to customers only to get hit with a wave of complaints. The shirts didn’t fit well because Davis had used a supplier that failed to follow instructions.

What’s worse, Davis overpromised what he could deliver. He told customers that their shirts were free if they took more than four weeks to arrive.

Yet glitches with the new factory led to shipping delays. Davis lost $75,000 in honoring his free-shirt commitment.

It took more than 18 months to iron out all the problems. By that time, Davis estimates that he lost about half of his customers.

By persevering, Davis overcame manufacturing challenges and developed sales and marketing tools to differentiate his company from competitors. His key to success in the MLM market:

  • Limit recruiting
  • Eliminate market saturation
  • Don’t make reps pay up front
  • Control the customer experience

Esquire named J. Hilburn best custom shirtmaker in 2012, and the firm has successfully expanded into other product lines.

— Adapted from “Made to Measure,” Tom Foster, Inc.