Brooklyn Tailors’ Daniel Lewis: “The luxury of being small is that you don’t have anyone to answer to.”
We sat down with Brooklyn Tailors’ CEO for a chat about endless growth and scale, remaining hands-on, and common sense business thinking.
NEW YORK — Booklyn Tailors is a company that rarely gets the respect it deserves. For such a small operation, its regular clientele is impressive, and their suits have landed everywhere from the pages of GQ and Esquire, to the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Having started in 2007, they’re one of the older modern luxury businesses in existence. Husband and wife team, Daniel and Brenna Lewis, first began by selling made-to-measure shirts over the phone. They’ve since graduated to full-on bespoke suiting, and just opened a brand new retail location this spring. They’re also completely self-funded, and today, unlike some of their hype-driven contemporaries, they actually turn a profit.
In April, we caught up with Daniel just a few months before launching Lean Luxe in July. During that conversation, he waxed poetic about avoiding growth for its own sake. That sparked our idea for a stand-alone piece on the subject, and we knew we had to sit down with Daniel again. Here are excerpts from both conversations:
He hates the gold rush mentality:
“You know I think this is actually an official rule that a lot of business people would maintain, that if you’re not growing you’re dying. I’ve heard that before. That’s never really made sense to me. I kind of hate that idea, and I think that’s built around a mentality of the reason you’re creating your business is to one day sell it, or to cash in. That’s extremely prevalent in the tech world right now, and the tech world is really occupied by people my age in their 20s and 30s. That’s really the mentality of young people coming up in this day and age. I think a lot of that gold rush, venture capital mentality about starting the business in the tech world has carried over into our space.”
His goal is to build something stable (not sexy):
“You see a lot of startups that, when I look at it, I can tell there’s no personal story, there’s no soul behind it. These guys are trying to build something, get in and get out. We’re a little bit different. My wife and I started this company to get out of our day jobs, to get out of working in a corporate environment, working for a big company and not having control or a voice. So in that sense, our goal has always been first and foremost to build a healthy company — not a big company. And that’s not to say we’re not interested in growing — growth is not a bad thing to us — but I think growth is secondary to maintaining stability. It’s secondary to maintaining the level of quality and customer service and the personalized experience that we set out to create on day one. That’s how we look at it.”
And yes, they built their new location themselves:
“We did it all ourselves. Literally, I did a lot of the building with my power tools myself. Whether or not that’s the right way to approach it is a question, but that’s sort of the way Brenna and I have always attacked this business. That’s kind of what comes naturally to us. So it feels really good to open our doors. There’s a really deep connection to the place in the sense that we really built it with our own two hands, and we’re really happy with it so far. Every customer that walks in that knew the old space is wowed by the change.”
Not everyone can be a unicorn:
“I think from a business perspective, what makes a lot of sense to me is the idea of letting your business grow organically. To me what that means is not forcing it with injections of money or manpower that it’s not yet ready to sustain. In other words, a lot of businesses take the approach of pumping in resources in hopes that the business with catch up with the scale that you’ve set up. Whereas we’ve always let the business guide us along the way.
I think people come up with business plans saying, ‘Within five years I’m going to be a $20 million dollar business.’ Where does that number come from? A lot of businesses try to grow beyond a reasonable scale for what they’re offering. There’s such a thing as oversaturating the market or just not having enough customers out there to sustain your $20 million mark. Maybe you could be a very healthy $2 million dollar business, and if you just let that organically find itself you would be a happier person and a happier business.”
Why the new store was the right move:
“We knew there was an obvious gigantic bottleneck on our business for a long time, and that was how tiny our retail space was. In a way, our business had grown well beyond the capacity of our old retail space. It really became an issue of doing harm to the business if we didn’t open that bottleneck and give it the space it needed.
Even if opening a new store did not mean any increased business, it was still necessary to service the business we were already doing in the right way. But we also were confident that in opening this new store, we would see the amount of business we were doing increase, and that’s what we’re already seeing.”
On Band of Outsiders’ downfall:
“You read in the news quite a few stories about businesses that have folded. You get the impression that they were unable to meet the rigorous demands of an investment firm to grow at an exponential rate. One example that comes to mind is Band of Outsiders, a company that a lot looked to as a shining success story and a very influential brand for a lot of years. It was a brand that was doing a lot more business than Brooklyn Tailors as a gross figure. But suddenly they’re gone. That’s an example of how an investor can put a level of expectation on your brand may just be unrealistic.
It was a total surprise to me. Then you started reading, and it all connected back to their investor. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but now the brand has been relaunched (without the guy who started) by the investment firm that took over. You look at [founder] Scott Sternberg. The brand and Scott were intertwined. He took on investment and he’s not around anymore. His brand’s still around, but he’s not.”
Why they turn investors down:
“The handful of people that have approached us over the last few years, their question is always, ‘What do you need to make your business goals a reality?’ And what they’re looking for is for you to say, ‘Well here’s what I don’t have that I need.’ We’ve always responded saying, ‘Honestly, we have what we need. We don’t need you. Here’s some of our goals, and here’s our plan for achieving them without you.’ That’s not to say that investment doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases. It’s just never really fit into our game plan.”
On the luxury of being small:
“Every project or move we make we think of it in terms of, ‘Is this something that the two of us are going to be spearheading?’ It’s not like, ‘Oh yea, I’ll just hire some guy to go do that for me.’ There’s good and bad about that, but that’s always been our approach and our philosophy.
I think by nature that’s probably going to keep us small, but again we’re ok with that. I mean, the luxury of being small is that you don’t have anyone to answer to. That allows the business to stay truer to its roots and what it was meant to be in the first place. As a creative person, there’s nothing better than being able to say ‘Yea, I get to make what I want.’”