Tori and Tyler Farley are siblings and co-founders of Boston-based company, Better Than Belts. They manufacture unisex suspenders that suit both men over 50 and fashion-conscious individuals aged between 20-35. Unfortunately, like many other companies, COVID-19 has put a bit of a spanner in the works regarding in-store sales. So they’ve had to pivot, focusing on their e-commerce offering, email marketing, and social presence to gain new customers.
The company began with a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $11,400 from 225 backers and was 64% funded the day they launched, surpassing their goal. And amazingly, their suspenders have a <1% return rate. While monthly revenue is currently relatively modest, growth is the aim. So how are they doing it?
Who are you and what brand did you start?
We're Tori and Tyler Farley, siblings and co-founders of Better Than Belts. We're based in Boston and manufacture our good looking, unisex suspenders in New York. As a sibling-run brand, we have high standards and a competitive streak. We don't compromise on quality or comfort. We believe the most sustainable goods are the ones you don't have to replace.
We have two main market segments. Our primary group of customers is male, over the age of 50 who have worn suspenders before. Our secondary market is fashion-forward men and women aged 20-35. They have connected to our founding story and enjoy supporting small local brands.
How did you come up with the idea, brand name and logo for Better than Belts?
Tyler and I have always been interested in starting our own businesses. Four years apart, we both studied entrepreneurship at Northeastern University in Boston. We've worked at various start-ups in health, wellness, technology, fashion, and consulting.
During Tyler's senior year, he became frustrated with his belts. He was dealing with an extreme case of mono (or glandular fever as it’s more commonly known), and the resulting weight fluctuation made the restriction around his waist extra uncomfortable. Looking for an alternative, he started considering suspenders.
Any old suspenders were not going to work for him. He is a huge sneakerhead, passionate about fashion, and an above-average height at 6'3". He needed stylish, durable suspenders that he could wear with his existing wardrobe. His preliminary search revealed that the US had two main suspenders markets. The first was formal wear, and the second was cheaper costume goods (Halloween). Tyler was not looking to get married, nor was he looking for a Halloween costume.
He needed suspenders that could sustain daily wear and look good with jeans or chinos. Never discouraged, he was excited by the potential gap in the market. It was an opportunity to create something new. So, he started researching manufacturing partners here in the US. Samples were made to his specifications, and he started wearing them. The response from friends and family was overwhelmingly positive.
Four months later, when Tyler graduated, he approached me to be his co-founder. I enjoy the work that comes with being on a founding team, and I've never felt that I needed to 'have the idea' for my start-up. Seeing a unique opportunity, I left my position at a prominent Boston healthcare start-up to work on Better Than Belts full-time. We launched our first suspenders on Kickstarter at the end of August 2019.
I think young brands often get hung up on naming their business. They want something with multiple levels of meaning and aren't thinking about SEO or Trademarks. I've always been pragmatic and came up with the name "Better Than Belts' one day in our parents' kitchen. It was simple and intuitive. We thought suspenders were better than belts. After a few quick searches, we found that it was 'ownable.' It was important to me that we could get the exact URL and social media handles @betterthanbelts. Our Google searches also led us to believe our name wasn't so common that SEO would be difficult.
Better Than Belts' original logo was the word "Better" as a digitized version of Tyler's handwriting. A few months after we launched, we were selected to work with Scout, a Northeastern student design program. They worked with us to upgrade our logo and brand assets. The new logo resembles a lowercase "b" and our original triple stripe suspenders. Their designs have made it much easier for us to use consistent branding on our website, stickers, mailers, tags, and advertising.
Describe the process of launching Better Than Belts?
When Tyler first tried existing suspenders, he found they fell short in a few key areas. First, most casual suspenders used cheap thumbnail clips that wouldn't stay on all day. Larger men usually had to use an X-back style to get the support needed when Y-backs are easier to put on. X-backs have two straps in the back. Y-backs have one.
Second, the straps were uncomfortable. 'Stylish' options were too narrow and dug into his shoulders. The material was an issue, too. The better-looking designs used fabric tubes as the front straps. You only got your comfort 'stretch' from the back straps that were made from elastic.
After plenty of online research and phone calls, Tyler found a US-based manufacturer that would work with smaller companies. A few rounds of prototyping with Tyler's pain points in mind, we found our suspenders; big sturdy clips, the perfect strap width, all elastic straps in the Y-back style.
Better Than Belts launched on Kickstarter, raising $11,400 from 225 backers. Launching on a crowdfunding site was our first 'promotion.' We hosted a launch party at Pressed Juicery on Boston's infamous Newbury Street. Then we started to pursue PR opportunities. We were covered by our alma maters, News@Northeastern and The Boston Globe. During COVID-19, we have focused on PR, email marketing, organic social media, and paid Facebook ads. For us, everything we can afford to do is worth trying. Some things work and some don't, but we always walk away with learnings.
We made ~$30K between our website and two crowdfunding campaigns in our first year of business. We spent ~$43K across marketing, inventory, and operating costs.
What keeps us going is our 98% five-star ratings and <1% return rate. We know our customers love our product.
Since launch, what has worked best to attract and retain customers?
We chose to launch on Kickstarter because it does a great job of creating superfans. It gave us the space to share our story and is more engaging than a new e-commerce site. It also has a fun transparency where people are invested and follow along with your progress. Facebook works well for retargeting but can be expensive for prospecting.
One thing we think differentiates our marketing is our honest and ‘unfinished’ video ads. We create them in house using each other and other family members as the actors. The videos blend into organic content you might expect to see from friends in your Facebook newsfeed.
We are bootstrapped, and customer acquisition has been a pain point for us. Moving forward, we plan to diversify our acquisition channels with more grassroots marketing efforts. We would also like to leverage our healthy repeat purchase rate into an engaging referral program.
With regards to business growth, how have things changed from a digital, revenue, customer and sales perspective?
We set specific goals and timelines associated with our Kickstarter launch. Only 29% of fashion projects are successfully funded, according to Kickstarter. Many aficionados say if you don't get at least 20% of your funding day one, you're likely to fail. It's also well known that if you don't hit your goal in the first two weeks, you're likely to fail due to the mid-project 'slump' period. Pledges usually pick back up in your campaign's final days due to Kickstarter's algorithm for projects' ending soon'.
Our Kickstarter was 64% funded the day we launched, surpassing our goal. We attribute this success to two things. First, our immediate family had emails ready and we reached out to everyone we knew on day one. Second, we invited all our Boston-local friends to a launch party where we printed ‘menus’ of our offerings and manned an iPad where we took orders. The key was to simplify the pledging process for our backers.
We were able to reach our $10K funding goal within two weeks.
Our Kickstarter closed at the end of September and we launched our e-commerce website. We spent October and November focused on fulfilling our Kickstarter orders as quickly as possible. Customer acquisition was slow, and we were not ready to market for that holiday season. We did get a feature at the end of December in The Boston Globe that gave us a huge bump in sales. This article gave us our first group of customers that were not friends, family, and acquaintances. Sales continued to trickle in until March when COVID-19 hit.
We were planning on pursuing wholesale accounts for brand building but had to pivot when shops closed. March, April, and May were painfully slow. We regrouped, rebranded, and developed an email and Facebook ad strategy. We started advertising at the end of May. It took $1,600 and two weeks of refining our audiences and ad creative to get our first purchase. In June, we made quick success, driving down our costs and achieved a 0.55 return on ad spend (ROAS).
Father’s Day was especially profitable, but we hit more road bumps in July. Stimulus checks ran out, and big advertisers boycotted Facebook, causing the algorithm to go haywire. CPM’s were highly volatile, and our ROAS dropped to 0.35. That, coupled with the summer months and an inherently slow retail period, we decided to press pause.
We reviewed customer feedback and leveraged usertesting.com for additional website research. Then, to improve our site experience and have less friction in the checkout process, we updated our Shopify template. We also doubled our designs to give shoppers more choices. We relaunched Facebook ads at the end of August to support our one-year anniversary sale. Now two days in, it has been incredibly cost-effective with a ROAS of 1.6 across prospecting and retargeting ads.
With regards to managing change through crisis, such as COVID-19, can you talk us through your experience as a business owner ?
We are currently celebrating our first anniversary, so we’ve spent most of our business life in quarantine. As mentioned in previous answers, we had planned to go into wholesale and retail, which was highly impacted by COVID-19. As stores struggled, we saw a slow down in online sales. It really showed us that we needed to hone in on our acquisition strategy and build a sustainable funnel. We’ve also learned from other brands the importance of activating your existing customers.
How is the business doing today and what does the future look like?
We've now positioned ourselves to better accommodate our primary market of men in the 50+ age bracket. We have shifted some of our messaging and imagery to speak directly to them.
The suspenders market has many high-end options at >$200 and many cheap options at <$20. The market isn't sure what to do with our suspenders, ranging from $49 to $79. We will continue to test the price point and sales to see what works. Lastly, we have always offered free shipping, but people don't seem to value it compared to their focus on the item's direct price. We might see more success with lower prices, or deeper discounts coupled with low shipping charges.
We are also exploring new products and customization options (i.e., a date or initials) as another differentiation point in the suspenders market.
What’s been the biggest learning experience since starting your own brand?
Your most vocal customers are not necessarily an accurate representation of your customer base. Everyone loved our flamingo pattern before we launched, so we ordered many pairs of that design, and it didn't even end up in our top three best sellers.
Be quick to give up something that isn't working. Small pivots come fast and often – embrace them and make changes. Worst case scenario, you change it back after realizing it was a failed test.
What are your top 3 tips on how to setup an Ecom store for success?
1) Build your homepage like a true landing page in the funnel so that a random person can figure out what you’re selling in a matter of 5 seconds. Avoid grammar issues. Use a similar company’s website as inspiration. You can also inspect the code of a website to see if it was built with Shopify, and if so, what theme was used. The free themes work well, but for $180, a new theme offers more customization and looks professional.
3) Use your ESP (we like Klaviyo) to set up a welcome email flow, an abandoned cart flow, and a post-purchase flow. Prompt customers for product reviews a couple of weeks after purchase (easy and free with Judge.me app). Once all of this automation is in place, your potential customers learn more and will better trust the brand.
What are some of your favorite online business tools you use to run Better Than Belts?
Shopify is one of the most friendly and customizable online marketplaces. Combine that with apps like Shogun for page design, and Smile for referrals, and you have a fully-functioning business. There are also times when you need to ship something outside of an order, and PirateShip makes printing labels very easy with the same discounts as Shopify, plus it’s free.
|Analytics||Google Analytics, Facebook Ads Manager, Shopify Analytics|
|Shipping||USPS, Pirate Ship|
|Payments||Paypal, Shopify Payments, Google Pay|
|Social Media Tools||Later|
|Customer Service||Google Voice, Messenger, Ping Chat|
|Design||Adobe Suite, Final Cut Pro|
|Marketing||Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Klaviyo, Gmail|
|Inventory||Excel and Shopify|
See what business tools other founders are using.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts or other educational resources?
Tyler loves to read origin stories of companies (the good and bad). These books feel like you’re reading fiction, but they are all true. You get insight into the behind the scenes of entrepreneurship, which isn’t always as romantic as portrayed in the media.
Shoe Dog - the fantastic story of the founding of Nike. Phil Knight had a long journey, and you can see the noticeable differences between the beginning stages and later on as he built a team around him. Nike also nearly went out of business multiple times. You have to offer a superior product, and communicating that value can be difficult. Customers will realize the value once they have it in their hands.
Bad Blood - Elizabeth Holmes’ story illustrates how much can really go wrong. Read the writing on the wall. She had the greatest scientists and still could not develop a working prototype. It was a great idea with the right market, but the product did not exist.
Let My People Go Surfing - Yvon Chouinard started Patagonia to help save the world, and they’ve remained a private company centered on the same goal. My favorite quote from the book is that he set out to build the best company, not the biggest company.
This Is Not a T-Shirt - Bobby Hundreds has been on the streetwear train through hills and valleys over many years. This book highlights the importance of culture, community, and using your brand’s voice. For a company that sells t-shirts, The Hundreds is much more than that. It is essential to instill this feeling into your customers.
Who have been the most influential people for you during this business journey?
Our family and close friends have been our biggest critics and supporters. They have shaped our product design, web design, and social media presence. We continuously try to connect with other founders in the apparel e-commerce space for great conversations and learnings.
We’ve also learned a ton from our manufacturing partners who have been in the suspenders space for much longer than we have. They have a deep understanding of the domestic and international markets.
Any other advice you’d like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Look to your alma mater for free resources. Tyler and I both attended Northeastern University, and they have an abundance of entrepreneurship resources available to their community. We were able to work with a team of student designers and developers to build out our brand assets and website (free). We had a student lawyer & her advisor do our trademark research, and we only had to pay a few hundred dollars to submit our application. Our local news outlet (News@Northeastern) was the first to cover our story and allowed us to continue using the professional photos from our shoot.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now or open to new investors?
We’re not actively hiring, but have been considering adding interns to our team. We are open to, but not actively, seeking investment.
Where can we go to learn more about your current offers/promotions/programs?
The best offers go to our email list. You can subscribe at the bottom of our homepage. Limited time offers will definitely be available this holiday season.