Career & Success

Brian Spaly: “Don't Chase Waterfalls or Unicorns.”

The founder of Trunk Club discusses shopping for men, on-the-job challenges, and his greatest achievement.

April 11, 2014

| by Erika Brown Ekiel



Brian Spaly, MBA ‘07 (Photo courtesy of Trunk Club)

Brian Spaly is a serial entrepreneur who has founded two companies that sell clothing to men. With Andy Dunn in 2007, he co-founded Bonobos, a New York-based men’s apparel company that is best known for the flattering fit of its pants. Company lore says he sewed the prototype pants in his dorm room at Stanford Graduate School of Business. (He is a 2007 graduate.) In 2009, Spaly founded Trunk Club, a Chicago-based personalized clothing service for men, offering designer clothing to members without the hassles of shopping in stores or online. Trunk Club currently counts more than 400 employees. He shares his thoughts on how to get to the “no-look pass” and advises entrepreneurs not to chase waterfalls.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Guys hate shopping but love to look good.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

After I left Bonobos, Joel Peterson at Stanford told me: “Go somewhere else and put some points on the board, and you’ll feel better.”

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

One mistake I’ve made is thinking I could just hire someone and let them do their thing.

At Stanford, advisers and teachers tell you to delegate, that your job as CEO is to recruit and fundraise. But it is imperative to lean in and do more work up front with new hires, including frequent reviews and one-on-ones. You need to watch closely. If you’re not sure, keep watching. And if you realize you made a mistake, move quickly. If you wait 12 months to let go of a bad fit, you have new problems: They start to hire and coach new people and build their own culture. They bring in people with the same shortcomings.

My goal is to get to the “no-look pass.” In the beginning, you need to be on your guard and do everything you can to assess and rapidly correct. Once you are confident you have the right person in the role, you back off and delegate. You let the person hire and build autonomously. That’s the no-look pass.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?

Ask yourself, “If I built this company five years from today, would I still be motivated and excited about it?” This will prevent you from chasing faddish notions. Don’t become an entrepreneur because you want to become rich; do it because you want to solve a problem. Don’t clone other businesses; come up with your own ideas. I make pants. But I love making pants! Don’t chase waterfalls or unicorns.

How do you come up with your best ideas?

Think of 10 things about the world that bother you, and ask yourself if there is a way to solve one of those things with a company. Is there a better place to park at the airport, or a healthier snack? When I couldn’t find pants that fit, I started making pants myself.

What is your greatest achievement?

I’m very proud of Bonobos and Trunk Club, and super-excited about momentum of both companies and their teams.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

Not building a Trunk Club for women.

What values are important to you in business?

The same ones I think are important in life: honesty, integrity, and compassion. Treating employees well. Bad things happen to good people sometimes. You need to stick with people and care for them when they are having a tough time.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

I try to create jobs people want to have.

Why are you an entrepreneur?

I tried it once and got hooked on building things. It’s the most fun part of my job. You get the most chances to build things as an entrepreneur, versus inside a larger company. Most people are terrified by the idea of building something themselves, but that’s not me.

What was your first paying job?

I worked in a produce store and stocked vegetables and fruit. I was 14 and made $4.35 an hour. I really liked being able to improve sales by making thoughtful suggestions. It also helped me develop empathy for the people who do “pick, pack, and ship” at my company.

Do you think there is such a thing as balance? How do you achieve balance in your life?

The idea of balance for rapid-growth founders is more myth than reality. If you want balance, you may be in the wrong field. Don’t expect to find balance if you raise a lot of money. If you raise venture capital, you have an imperative to move faster.

What is the best business book you have read?

The Black Swan.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Steve Case. He was a great entrepreneur and long-term leader and is a superb capitalist. The thing I admire the most is the way he is spending his time now, investing his own money to foster entrepreneurship. I deeply respect billionaires who try to make our country a great place versus spending all their time at a country club or skiing 100 days a year.

What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?

The entrepreneurial curriculum was incredibly valuable to me. Formation of New Ventures, Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital, and Product Market Fit. All are comically relevant to what I’ve done in the last handful of years.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

Wireless Internet. Productivity apps that let me stay connected via my smartphone or iPad enable me to live my life despite the fact that I run a company. I don’t have to be stuck in my office every day even though I’m working all the time.

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