Start-Up Mode: Kevin Hansen on Men’s Style Lab

by Harry Sheff
Kevin Hansen
Kevin Hansen

Late last year, Kevin Hansen left his position running Badowers in Des Moines, Iowa to join the freshly funded online startup Men’s Style Lab as their VP of merchandising. The company, which has a business model similar to Trunk Club, was launched in 2013 by Derian Baugh and secured nearly a nearly $2 million investment from some former Macy’s and Kohl’s execs.

Like Trunk Club, Men’s Style Lab has a team of stylists who consult with guys about their wardrobes. After a phone call with a stylist, Men’s Style Lab will mail a box of 10-12 branded apparel items that the customer can either keep or send back. Men’s Style Lab also offers a way to bypass the phone call and do everything online, which is helpful for the timid or busy guy. Hansen says that initially, Men’s Style Lab was focused on a lower price point, but that it’s edging up for fall as they bring in some new brands. The company is still in start-up mode, but with 175,000 Facebook fans and a database of 100,000 customers, it’s growing fast.

Hansen chatted with us about the thrills and challenges of working for a start-up and how he’s applying what he learned from working in brick-and-mortar.

Who are your customers? Is he a particular type of guy or is it all over the place?

When the service first launched, our tagline was, “Effortless style for everyday guys.” It was broad. And from that, we’ve actually seen a fair amount of big & tall business, which is interesting. I don’t think anyone expected that when we started doing this. I say fair amount relative to what I was used to – it’s not huge, but we’re consistently out of bigger sizes. In general though, I would say no, we don’t have a specific guy right now, and we’re trying to fine-tune this so when we go after a specific guy, we can cater to him better.

Men's Style Lab boxes

How are you reaching consumers?

We’re still in the early stages of this company, so it’s all digital marketing and word of mouth. I would say 80-90% of inbound sales channels are generated through the internet. We have a pretty big marketing budget— it’s a large part of our operating budget because people have to know about you. And the look and feel of Men’s Style Lab will be more sophisticated, more luxurious come fall.

What are your customers buying right now? What do they like?

Much to my surprise, we turn shoes very, very well and we’re looking for new vendors. We also turn our denim very well, and non-denim five-pocket pants too. Brand-wise, we do really well with Jack of Spades and Ben Sherman.

In the short time I’ve been there, it’s been a very basics-driven business. The fashion things are harder to translate. There is that divide when you’re not physically there to walk the customer through it. If he is truly a fashion guy, he’s maybe more educated about what he wants and where to get it — he’ll walk into a specialty or department store in his own neighborhood or just order it online.

Do you do any tailored clothing?

We do have some with Gant Rugger, but again, that’s something that’s harder to translate in this way of delivering to the customer. I have my old biases from working in a specialty store that was heavily tailored, but I think for the customer experience to be right, we’ll have to perfect some things before tailored will work really well. And you have to educate the customer about what they need to do on their end once the box gets there, going to a tailor to make it look great. So we’re easing our way into that, and we definitely want to be there because they are high-ticket items.

How many of your customers do you think are guys who are genuinely looking for style help and how many are coming to you for the convenience of the service?

I would say it’s a fifty/fifty split right now. We want to be able to serve both of those customers, and do it better. We want to be an option for the guy who has a little sophistication and knows about brands and clothing and thinks, wow, this is really easy. And we want to help the guy who has no confidence, no clue, and doesn’t want to do this on his own. That’s where we want to position ourselves.

What does the Men’s Style Lab team look like?

Right now there are 25 to 30 people on staff depending on how busy we are. Ten to 12 of those are full-time stylists and a lot of support staff, who we call “lab assistants.” Derian Baugh is the founder, and we just hired a VP of operations, Justin Presson. He had actually worked at Netflix and had just come from running a bunch of warehouses for other retailers.

What are the challenges for a business like this so far?

Customer acquisition is a huge challenge, and then getting the customers’ preferences down without actually spending time with them in a physical space. And the logistics of it: shipping out, shipping back, unpacking the boxes. And keep rate. I know most of our competitors wouldn’t publicly talk about their keep rate, but it’s a challenge for everyone. The technology we’re putting in place will help with that. It’s expensive to send something out and then get it back a week later and have to restock it, but it is part of the service. We want the customer to try things on for free at home for a couple of days, and send it back if it doesn’t work.

It must be quite a change coming from brick-and-mortar to this.

I’m not going to complain about having every Saturday off! But I do miss customer interaction. It’s fun when people come up to me locally and ask about trying Men’s Style Lab though. I’m still involved with the vendors of course, and I still have a lot of those same relationships. When you’re in a specialty store environment, you definitely get to know people well, and I miss that. But I think our industry is changing a lot, and fast. I don’t know that clothing is going to change — menswear doesn’t move that fast, even though we may want it to. Because everything else moves so fast I think there’s a push for menswear to turn its style over more. But the delivery method, how we get the product to the customer, will continue to change.