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Bonobos co-founder Andy Dunn talks future of DTC

Dec 11, 2023
illustration of Bonobos co-founder Andy Dunn in front of a tablecloth print background

Illustration: Axios Visuals; Photo: Brian McConkey

Bonobos co-founder Andy Dunn is ushering in the next wave of startups with his angel investing firm Red Swan Ventures and his new social app.

Why it matters: Dunn helped pioneer Bonobos before its strategy became a playbook for today's newest e-commerce brands.

As part of our 1 big meal series, we ate at Keens Steakhouse in Manhattan, a local haunt for his Bonobos team in the early days.

What we ate: We both got a steak salad for lunch and a side of creamed spinach and fries.

This interview was edited for clarity, style and length.

What is it like to return to Bonobos as an adviser?

  • "It's amazing to be engaged but to not have to worry so much about being the CEO. It's like you're just worried about the numbers and, like, the stress married to the joy of building a brand. And now I feel like I just get the joy.
  • I'm not trying to sell pants, which I was for a long time, but now be more of a mental health advocate, in part to the Bonobos universe.
  • I have a new app that I've been working on called Pie. The mission is to end the loneliness pandemic. And one of the cool things about Pie is we can kind of quickly make a plan for an in-person thing, and then use social media."

Do you plan to build your new app the same way you did with your first company?

  • "Funny that you raised that because we are at a moment right now, where we're starting to try to get the initial kernels of a movement going. We probably have a few 100 users in each of our key markets focused right now in New York, the Bay Area, and Chicago, where I live now.
  • It feels very similar. There's like an early cohort of true believers who are intrigued by it. It's kind of pounding the pavement. We're doing a lot of events, spending a lot of time in front of people, recruiting what we call Pie ambassadors.
  • It very much is that groundswell that reminds me of having an apartment at 17th and Irving [in New York] and trying to sell pants out of the back."

How important is the strength of your network to a startup's success?

  • "The challenge is that we're all constrained by our friends, the number of friends that we have, how often they're doing stuff, and how many we have where we live. And it's not enough.
  • That was a big part of Bonobos. It was not the person that would reject me for an investment, which was like everyone. But it was the conversation of like well, who should I talk to about this? Like who in your network do you know that you think wouldn't have that challenge with it?"

What are the pandemic-era consumer trends informing the way you advise DTC companies today?

  • "I actually stopped investing in DTC brands even though at Bonobos we helped pioneer it. Unless, the brand was actually not committed to DTC as the primary engine but was instead committed to building a great brand where DTC would be a core business, but not the only business. Which means you've got to have a brick-and-mortar strategy.
  • I actually think that the retail store approach to channel diversification, away from e-commerce, is super hard because you've got to figure out a whole bunch of new stuff now — leases and operations and inventory management.
  • What I love to see now is brands that are focused on wholesale early to build out awareness, to get more leverage in their supply chain.
  • I'm seeing a lot more people who are wired to building profitable businesses sooner and focus on profits."

What are common mistakes you see DTC founders make?

  • "Overbuilding a team is a big one. Trying to build a team that does digital well, that does wholesale well, that does physical retail well, that does horizontal everywhere, from needing a customer service team to data science and technology to needing real estate people.

♟️1 fun thing: Dunn takes two to three lessons a week with a chess grandmaster in Chicago, whom he initially hired for his 3-year-old son, "which is pretty type A, I guess," he quips.

  • His son found it boring, so Dunn stepped in and got hooked.
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