Of all the questions I get asked (“How do you get your hair like that?” “Is Ben mad at me?” “Will you stop shaking your leg?“), none is more frequent than, “Bobby, do you have any advice on building a brand?”
I get it. Everyone wants a brand these days. Kids used to wanna be musicians or athletes when they grew up (If Rick Rubin went to college today, he’d have started Def Jam Streetwear out of his dorm room, not a record label). Now you plant your identity in a T-shirt brand, advertise it in your Instagram bio, and strive to be… well… us. So you want to know how we did what we did, to get where we got.
Well, the truth of the matter is that I can’t teach you how to do that. And neither can anyone else. I can tell you how we did it, but I can’t tell you how you can do it. Every story is different. Sorry, there is no formula. You only have yourself, your circumstances, your determination, your creativity, and your assets. (And that should be encouraging and exciting, because it’s all up to you.)
I can, however, share with you some of the biggest lessons we’ve learned in building The Hundreds. Important reminders. Steadfast rules. Excerpted from my past two Agenda Emerge talks and my Tumblr Q&A, here are just some of the tenets we live by. I hope they help.
1. Put up or shut up: If you don’t have something to say, don’t say anything at all.
Have something to say. Communicate that through every thing that you do, as a brand and as a business. It is your human fingerprint. It is what makes your product unique and interesting.
The best design has an opinion. Not just in terms of a graphic T-shirt message, but also in how you cut n’ sew; it’s in the wale count of corduroy, the wash of a denim. It’s in your website’s layout, the color scheme of your retail buildout. Make a point. All of these things say something about yourself and are ultimately, a reflection of your brand. They are all a platform for you to be heard and change someone’s mind.
2. The best selfie is an otherie* (*not a word): The best way to define what you are, is by what you’re not.
Our legacy has been built on response and change: Responding to the status quo or what’s popular. Responding to what everyone else in our category is doing or following. Responding to what Streetwear says is right and Skateboarding says is cool. And fighting against it to create change, set our own standards, traditions and paradigms.
At the end of that battle, we get to plant our flag.
[Ben and I, Carlsbad, photograph by Zach Cordner for Complex Magazine]
Look at us, circa 2004. A Korean and a Persian. In an industry traditionally dominated by old white men and old white men thinking. At our first tradeshow, every buyer asked whether we were a skate brand (for white kids) or an urban brand (for black kids). Meanwhile, they’re looking at a white-washed Asian kid with bleached hair and a Middle Eastern Ice Cube. We happened because we didn’t exist up until that point. This world didn’t give us a space so we carved one out.
So we made a brand that was for everyone. For skateboarders and hardcore kids, for foodies and gangsters.
Look at our stores. In 2003, the traditional streetwear boutique was fashioned after Japanese minimal architecture design. So, not only was the product limited, so were the shops’ detailing and structure. Cold cement, glass, metals. This also transferred onto the staff and service. The asshole streetwear retail clerk was born, as chilly and dispassionate as the sterile white manicured t-shirt display. So when it came time to design our stores, we responded. Warm woods, colors, and a staff that is friendly, engaging, and familiar.
We reinforced who we were by delineating who we were not.
3. Jae’s Rule: Consistency consistently.
This is my friend, the great photographer and cultural documentarian Jae Bueno. As many of you know, Jae succumbed to cancer last year. Before he passed, I asked him his advice on being a good dad and husband. Between labored breaths, he quietly but sternly replied with, “Consistency.”
Consistency is not only the practice that made Jae a great father and partner, but also what established him as a dependable photographer with a refined, signature aesthetic.
The author Malcolm Gladwell alludes to consistency under his 10,000-Hour rule. You can pretty much become an expert at something if you do it for 10,000 hours (or until you go blind!).
Consistency is demonstrative of discipline and it isn’t something you’re born with or something you can learn, especially in the Internet age of finicky job-jumping and trend-hopping. There’s no shortcut to this. You either fight tooth and nail to do it every second of every hour of every day, or you lose.
Consistency is what separates the Right Nows from the Forevers. Look at this website. For 10 years, I have updated this WordPress once a day, oftentimes more. I’ve posted from the hospital, airport lounges, from the backs of nightclubs. I’ve blogged when I’ve been sick, jetlagged, on a beach. In 10 years’ time, I’ve amassed 5,000 blog entries, garnered monthly traffic in the millions; the world has come to expect fresh content from us daily and understand us as a consistent voice in street culture.
Impactful branding comes down to a sense of security, which makes it easier for a customer to hand over his paycheck for your product. By staying on-brand and on-calendar every season, what you’re really doing is creating that trust and familiarity with the consumer. Like a friend (A friend who gives you lots of money over and over again).
4. Stay hungry, not thirsty.: Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
This is my favorite rule. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Greed is good. It’s what got us to this point. You can’t achieve success without having an inflated ego and a little bit of megalomania and the delusion that you have something that the world needs. But that greed is most efficient and effective if harnessed by discipline. Superior branding and business, to me, can be whittled down to 2 words: PASSION. PATIENCE.
Have heart. But use your brain.
Know the difference between Love and Lust.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Great brands are built not by what they do, but what they choose not to do: You alone are in control of your brand, it is not left to the discretion of the marketplace, industry, or the dollar.
Some of the best things we did for The Hundreds never were. They promised profitability, fame, and the mirage of fast success, but by our own volition, we chose to decline. We never sold to Karmaloop. We never made women’s clothes. We never made a sex tape.
5. Be the best at being You.
This is my least favorite lesson. Because it’s the easiest, most basic, rule, but only after years of trial and tribulation, did we finally learn it.
You know, you start off your brand because you have something to say, you want to fight back against what else is out there, you have the passion for an idea, and once it picks up traction, you’re victorious and Leo on the Titanic and the king of the world thrusting your crotch into the universe. But one day you wake up and you realize that you have a real business on your hands that in many ways is just like any other job, except this time, you’re in charge. And now you have overhead. And now you have a sales rep whose kid needs braces. And now you made way too many snapbacks because all the stores overbought snapbacks and because they flooded the market and all the kids got over snapbacks because Tyler’s wearing a Supreme 5-panel, so now you have to make up for all that money you lost so you’re making a 5-panel but you call it a camper cap. Then, bucket hats.
And then you’ve done it. You’ve lost your way. You went from speaking your mind to ReTweeting another guy. Which is fine for now. Once or twice. The problem is it gets easier and slipperier and greyer every time and you’re playing catch-up. Now you’re chasing someone else’s dream, now you’re living in their shadow. And before you know it, you don’t have a voice, you just sound like everyone else. You’re lost in the crowd.
Be the best at being You. It’s all that you can do. Even if you’re not popular or the cool kid, You are the best you’ve got. And trust me, #1 at being You is a lot better than being second-place to someone else.
6. Have Heart : The passion play
Passion! Good news. We all have it. And we all get rich off that passion. I will repeat: We all have passion, and we all get rich off that passion.
By “rich,” I don’t necessarily mean “financially.” We all claim we are trying to be financially rich, but only a few of us actually mean it. If you are truly passionate about making money, you will spend your life figuring out how to do just that. Maybe you will become a banker or a businessman, a con artist or a thief. You will end your life with money. I promise you.
Let’s say you are passionate about serving people. Your life will find a way to fulfill that. Maybe you’ll be a social worker and not financially rich in the world’s eyes, but your life will be rich with the warmth and fruit that come with helping others.
Some of you say you’re passionate about making millions, but your life proves that you are really passionate about hanging out with friends, doing bong rips and playing GTA. You will be rich with that. You might not be able to afford car insurance, but you will be really good at punching babies in a video game and getting so stoned that you can’t feel your feet.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that! Because you get to spend time with your friends, enjoy a stress-free life on the couch, virtually punch babies in the face! I wish I could do that sometimes, I envy that (not the baby-punching part) - but being able to spend more time with friends and family and enjoying life outside of deadlines and corporate meetings. My life is rich with brand-building, storytelling, and business because that’s where my passions lie.
Your passions will determine your life’s course, whether you like it or not. Make sure your heart is in the right place.
7. Kill ’em all: Here to make ends, not friends.
Okay, that’s a little harsh. Sure, it’s about building relationships and supporting the ecosystem. But at the end of everything, it’s just you and your brand vs. the world. The more you grow, the further you excel, the narrower the path becomes, the lonelier the journey. True friends who support your success will stick around and put up with your selfish dementia. Hold fast to them. But you will make others uncomfortable, insecure in their shortcomings, jealous in their rivalry. Dog eat dog. Brother against brother. It’s like that Facebook movie poster: You don’t get to 500 Million friends without making a few enemies. In our business, it’s more like, You don’t make a few friends without making 500 Million enemies. If you’re not willing to offend and sever, stop now. And choose a platonic, mediocre life.
As for everyone else – your competitors, especially… You shouldn’t be seeking the industry’s respect. On the contrary, you should be doing everything in your power to piss 'em off.
8. Don’t listen to the feedback: Love and Hate in the Time of Internet
For a live musician, acoustic feedback can derail a performance. If anything, feedback can break focus or concentration. By its very nature, it distorts one’s sound to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable to the player.
The web’s greatest strength is that it grants everyone a voice, to be shared and opined. Everyone gets a say and has the right to publish it and be heard. But that doesn’t mean you have to listen to the feedback, whether negative or positive. In fact, my philosophy is that you probably shouldn’t.
As a brand runner and creative, reading or listening to the feedback will undoubtedly affect your work. Every time you accept and absorb the commentary, your process becomes vulnerable and susceptible to detour. It’s a problem I find with Twitter and Instagram and any social media, for that matter, where you share your personal creations. The audience chimes in and includes a little bit of themselves in your project and future works; and by repetition over time, you may find it hard to hear yourself amongst all the noise.
[Cro-Mags at Chain Reaction, 2010]
Turn off the @ replies, sign off of Instagram, log off Facebook. Now you know why my prior blog on thehundreds.com had been closed to comments. It’s not that I don’t appreciate or respect our readers’ opinion, it’s just that I have to stay true and pure to our path – even if what we make is not the most popular or Liked thing to do.
And remember this. Scoring “Likes” and hearts and thumbs-up emojis doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is what’s best for you. It’s what’s best for them. And getting negative comments or hate or thumbs-down emojis doesn’t mean that what you’ve done is wrong. It’s just wrong for them.
Back away from the speakers. Turn away from the noise. Extinguish the feedback. The only thing you should be hearing is yourself.
9. Forever young: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The world belongs to the youth. Why?
[Jay Ughh, RSWD]
Young people are irrational and invincible. With their entire lives before them, they see opportunity for change and revolution, outside the borders of reason, financial sense, or cynics. Grown-ups are chained to responsibilities and doubt. They’ve been told No too many times. Their hearts have been broken. Where once lived courage, now resides apathy or hopelessness.
The youth stoke culture and everything that’s cool. But here’s the rub: “Youth” is an attitude, not a number. Stay young, stay ignorant. Surround yourself with positive people and encourage them. Be childlike in wonder. Be romantic in revolt.
10. Have fun.
Take your work seriously. But take yourself frivolously.
Life isn’t short, but the chapters are. Enjoy every paragraph.