Chris Echevarria is a trend spotter, trained menswear designer, and cultural savant well-equipped to outfit a new generation of men.
“Whenever I acted out in school—and this goes back to when I was very little, like three or four—my mom would tell me, Chris, if you don’t behave, I’m going to take you shopping at Walmart. I would scream and cry: No, not Walmart!” Chris laughed a little telling that story.
This is a man who learned to read in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. As he said, shaking his head, “Fashion is a huge part of who I am, and my mother is pretty much the reason.” Chris has always known what he liked, and possessed a distinct level of taste. He’s a graduate of the prestigious menswear design program at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In some ways, his journey to founding Blackstock & Weber, a company that designs premium, handcrafted footwear for the modern man, looks like a straight line.
Except that Chris is a person of color, and percentage-wise, there are not a lot of entrepreneurs who look like him—especially in fashion and tech.
“We Don’t Need a Bone, We Just Need Real Opportunity”
Chris is no stranger to the struggles of being a black male within corporate America. He sees a trend toward inclusion and diversity in tech right now, and he sees both good and bad in it. “The good is that people are aware of the lack of color in the room. The bad is that individuals on both sides of the fence perceive this as throwing people of color the proverbial ‘bone’.”
“We don’t need a ‘bone,’ we just need real opportunity.”
Chris has advice for both other aspiring entrepreneurs of color and for companies who want to be more inclusive. For the POC who dreams of starting their own company, his main advice is to keep showing up, and to own the fact that you’re unapologetically you.
As for how entrepreneurship and tech can be more inclusive, Chris’s solution requires digging deeper. “Foster the talent where the reserves haven’t been tapped,” Chris says. “If you keep looking in the same places, the faces and types of people you attract will naturally repeat themselves.”
A Lifelong Entrepreneur
Chris has been an entrepreneur, or at least had a side hustle going, all his life. In college, he and his roommate ran a substantial sneaker resale business in their dorm room prior to the existence of marketplaces like GOAT or StockX.
He can tell you the exact day he quit his day job: December 28, 2017. “I went full on doing this, and I haven’t looked back.” But still, that momentum doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had his doubts. “I always, in the back of my head, feared taking that leap. Can I do it on my own? Am I good enough? Entrepreneurship is hard, especially starting out as a solo founder.”
Yes, it is.
For Chris, Techstars was a huge help in making something hard just a bit easier. Before Techstars, he’d met many entrepreneurs, but met very few that exhibited the same level of passion he did for his fledgling idea. He went through the Techstars LA program in 2018, and for him, it was all about the people. “Techstars has a rigorous process of finding founders that are of a certain caliber. Everybody is very serious about what they’re doing and seeing their dreams through to completion. It’s great to have a network of people around you that are just as driven as you are.”
The Next Generation-Defining Menswear Brand
Blackstock and Weber has been selling beautiful, well designed, handmade shoes for a year and a half now, and Chris is excited to build on that success by growing into a full scale lifestyle brand. “We want to be the next generation-defining menswear brand,” Chris said. “This is how I envisioned the brand evolving from the beginning.”
What does that look like? To Chris, “A tee shirt and jeans can be just as classic as a tuxedo. It’s about creating the scene. Our ideology is rooted in and influenced by film. We want to give guys the tools to create their own scenes in their lives via staple pieces that every man needs in his wardrobe and an assortment of other curated goods from around the world.”
Chris isn’t one to dream small: “We want to put our spin on how men present themselves. We believe it’s deeper than just shoes and clothes. Our goal is to be a source of inspiration and a trusted voice. We need our place. We believe this is something men across the globe are searching for.”
Then again, if he did dream small, Chris never would have gotten this far. He’s a long way from sounding out the words in Vogue, and he’s been driven by his passion, tenacity, and discerning taste every step of the way.
It’s a dog eat dog world. The animal world provides insights and advice for new entrepreneurs. Some examples below:
- Free as a bird – New founders should allow their creativity to fly freely and unencumbered.
- Hard working as an ant – Remember this little critter works hard all winter to ensure the future.
- Playful as a kitten – Entrepreneurs should have fun creating their business.
- Brave as a lion – Startup owners must bravely enter new territories, and compete head to head with other companies.
- Quiet as a mouse – Although it is important to get noticed, being too boisterous is counterproductive for new entrepreneurs.
- Fast as a rabbit – Before you’re done reading this post, another business has gone obsolete. Founders must be nimble and quick.
Fear is a familiar and powerful co-founder in startups. We do our best to quiet it, shut it down, deny it, but perhaps our biggest struggle is simply acknowledging it.
What happens when you let go of your own hope to control things, and go back to building and leading from a place of love?
Jules Pierri, Co-Founder and CEO of the product launch platform, The Grommet, has done just that. In episode 18 of the Reboot podcast, Jules and Jerry Colonna discuss what it was like to face head on the fears of being a non-prototypical entrepreneur and build a new kind of company in one of the scariest economic times in recent memory. Through it all, Jules has been able to move forward with courage to build an organization where her 55 employees can feel loved and do great work in the process.
“What kind of company do you want to work for? What kind of company would you like your child to come to work for?” – Jerry Colonna
We all want our work to be a commercial success. However, there is far more that we can expect from business. As Jules shares with Jerry, she believes that business is the most powerful entity on earth. In every business there is the potential for an impact greater than the bottom line. Business can be a force for good. We can expect more from business.
Stonyfield Farms and Etsy are two successful businesses who have exemplify this mindset. In his book, “Stirring it Up”, Stonyfield Farms founder Gary Hirshberg discusses the idea of an additive rather than subtractive business. He believes that businesses can embrace their power to make a difference in the marketplace by doing business in ways that consider more than the finance bottom line. Etsy is guided by the principles found in the book, A More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. Etsy conducts business imagining that a better world is possible.
At The Grommet they spend their time together building a “good” company regardless if it is the one that wins because they already did win by living their lives together in a way that is healthy. Jules shares, “We can expect more from business by supporting the companies that represent what we want the world to be.”
“We should have the idea of not imaging work as a dreadful obligation, but work as a means to creating something more in ourselves.” – Jerry Colonna
Our work is where we form some of our most meaningful relationships, sense of self, capabilities, possibilities, and learning. Work does not have to be a dreadful obligation. It can be a means to creating something more in ourselves. It is possible for everyone to reach their full actualization at work.
When founding The Grommet, Jules couldn’t afford to pay the team what they deserve, nor give them visible promotions or opportunities. What she could do was small behaviors like getting flowers for team members birthdays and snacks for people or hosting guest speakers for the group. These behaviors express to employees, “you matter.”
Today each employee at the Grommet owns a piece of the behaviors they agree matters. Every employee is a VP of something that is part of their shared values. Jules is the VP of the Garden.
“Claim the wholeness of who you are and step into that as a leader.” – Jerry Colonna
Jules initially felt uneasy about not being the typical pattern recognized founder. It took time and work for Jules to acknowledge the inner strength and grit she had demonstrated in her entire life.
The things that we are so scared of will not knock us down forever. If we respond to them with grace, openness, heart and remembering core purpose, we can grow. Successful leaders possess the ability to claim the totality of who they are regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual orientation.
You can listen to this full episode of the Reboot podcast here.
This is was not on the agenda but our ever dynamic team lead, Tracy Keogh, quickly put together a line-up of mentors to share their failure stories with #SWDub participants.
Perhaps inspired by a previous event – StartupWake (formerly known as Flounders), the #SWDub saw 5 now-successful entrepreneurs share their failure stories and here are the punchlines from each:
1. Actively try to succeed instead of actively trying not to fail – Alia Lamaadar, Tapir.me
2. Obey your gut feeling and avoid easy money – Luca Boschin, Logo Grab
3. Avoid bluffing your way into leaving the table empty handed – Jason Hassett, We Develop
4. Don’t be fooled by results from test environments – Jason Ruane, Cirkit.io
5. Giving away equity for quick wins is a very bad idea – Nubi Kay, Travel Bay
That said, don’t be afraid to fail, embrace it but hate it enough to want to succeed.
Have any failure lessons you’d like to share or anything to add to this, go ahead and add it in the comment box.
I’m currently working on my own Startup, Gymbooth. When I wrote the poem, ‘Thoughts of a Creator’ (featured below) I was still in the Early Stage phase. Basically, still working on the idea and trying to validate it.
Now, several months later, we’re testing a first prototype with our first users! To be a founder is like being an artist. I’ve written many songs starting from the age of 16 and preformed them live. Just like in a band, a startup’s team is composed of great individuals who play in harmony and with “soul” together.
I wrote “Startup Poems” (a series of 6 poems) from the perspective of a founder and I hope that these poems will help your team create the harmony and the “soul” that is needed to build beautiful products.
Enjoy and let me know what you think by simply sending an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org – Thank you!
Below is poem #1 of 6 – ‘Thoughts of a Creator’. Check back next Friday to read #2, ‘Great Ideas’
Today is the day. There is no tomorrow.
I’d rather take the pain today and run away with it.
Away from habits, free of rules – guideless.
Lost in thoughts of beauty where I create, combine,
restructure and form greatness.
Out of nothing – Making it, slowly and steadily.
With the sum of all my experiences – intuition.
It is what I do – create.
Photography by Marina Negele. Follow her photos on instagram.
Elisa: It’s lovely to see you here in London, Anabel! What brings you here from Munich?
Anabel: This Friday (27th June 2014) is the TED Conference on the theme of Democracy, so I have come out of personal interest as there are always interesting contacts to meet there. I am very interested in social change and innovative strategies that can lead to this, for example, through technology, as new approaches to continuing problems are always interesting.
Elisa: Is this philosophy what informs and drives you in your start-up work at 52masterworks?
Anabel: Absolutely! 52masterworks is a new crowd-funding platform with the aim of building a collection of contemporary art with the community. There are several motivations that inform our model:
- the establishment of a well renowned, high quality collection;
- the aspect of art investment: the collection is dynamic, so within a time-frame of up to 5 years art pieces can be sold. If there is a price increase, the shareholders of the specific piece receive the benefit;
- to democratise access to an art collection for a wider audience;
- the organisation of art related events for our community members.
Elisa: That’s an incredible mission statement! In practise, is it empowering communities in art appreciation and ownership? Is that essentially the gap you are filling?
Anabel: Yes; the idea behind the project is that contemporary art –prestigious pieces in particular –are usually limited to certain collectors who can afford them. Our platform is a tool to change this, as everyone can become a collector starting with 250€ for a share in a piece via the 52masterworks platform. The percentage of ownership of the specific piece varies, depending on the amount you invest, which can be up to a maximum of 49% of the value. In this way, nobody can own a piece alone, but rather in a community with other members of the platform. This new approach can change the parameters of the art market to a more democratic standard. Basically, everyone can own a great piece of art, independent from their financial background.
But this isn’t the only problem 52masterworks is working to solve: our simultaneous aim is to help establish emerging artists that might not get a platform within the art market due to their origins, the themes of their work or problematics related to its display. In order to guarantee a high profile and quality, we are creating a curatorial board and network from a broad cultural range.
Elisa: So who does the platform principally help and is it making a real difference?
Anabel: The platform serves whoever is interested in art and new strategies within this field. We are tapping into this broad community to build up a democratic art collection, with a model that is, to the best of our knowledge, unique in the world and that differentiates us to similar approaches which aim to create a “stock market in art”. We would like to encourage our participants to engage with art, independent of the value and reputation of the artworks and artists. Thus, 52masterworks serves as an easy entry for anybody who is interested in art but has been confronted with the typical entry barriers of the art world so far. Our concept may further promote the democratization of art, itself a relatively new but inexorable trend.
Elisa: In the UK there is a company called Own Art that essentially enables art enthusiasts who otherwise don’t have the funds, to buy art by giving a ten- month interest free loan, but this is still far from the public, community concept of 52masterworks. Therefore I can really appreciate your model- but how do you make money?
Anabel: That is a great initiative, yet still keeps art in private homes, as you have understood. Our business is based on commission, in that we receive a margin at the sale and resale of the artwork. The final commission is 20 percent of a potential increase in value. Thus, there is a clear incentive to act in the interest of the collectors.
Elisa: Does it require a lot of advertising to get the message out there to these potential co-collectors?
Anabel: At the very beginning we concentrated on event marketing and personal introductions. We are now shifting our focus towards cooperations and collaborations with multipliers. Finally, we are also expanding our online activities. Our model is not comparable to the usual e-commerce businesses. We focus on relevant content and trust in order to build up a strong community: the typical performance marketing approach will not work for us.
Elisa: So what are the top trends you see happening in e-commerce and the art-world right now, and how do you fit in with them?
Anabel: As I mentioned before, the democratization of the art world is an omnipresent development which will definitely continue expanding. But our concept also addresses other major social trends: it fits perfectly into a post-materialistic society which is more and more driven by individual experiences and social collaboration than of ownership and status. The sharing economy has already reached many areas of life, such as transport: Art is overdue.
Elisa: Finally, what advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs
Anabel: Believe in what you are doing and don’t let yourself be discouraged by setbacks. If something doesn’t work, try something else and take it as a learning curve. There will be enough time to moan when you’re older.
Elisa: Strong words. I’ll be visiting you in Munich!
Anabel: Definitely, we must do things here and now!
Inspired? We look forward to seeing you at the Startup Weekend Art London in October!
Oh yes, I’m a self-declared, bona fide non-technical founder.
Despite the fact many years ago, my credentials looked like that of a coder, more recently, I insist on outsourcing or delegating the responsibility of anything that smells remotely technical. This allows me to focus on marketing, product innovation and other aspects of business I truly enjoy. Technical onlookers may be laughing from afar, but I wanted to spend my time and add value only where I enjoyed it the most.
But I soon realized that attitude was an #entrepreneurfail. As I slowly picked up real basic (I mean super-simple) HTML, and hints of CSS, WordPress/Blogger functions, UI and UX concepts and tools, and digital advertising techniques, I realized how empowering they can be – and I could do it all without the help of technical friends/cofounders/vendors. Even the most non-technical cofounders can pick up the basic skills – and the best part is that there are tons of free and low-cost online resources to help get you up to speed. Here are some links you can bookmark to learn the basics:
A friend of mine with an MBA recently taught himself how to code and he considers himself as quite a novelty in the startup world. Very rarely do you find a “business person” that also has the inclination, motivation and tenacity to learn Ruby on Rails on the side. As he scopes out investors, he said each one he meets is pleasantly surprised to find an entrepreneur that can “wipe his own !@#”
The startup world often foolishly scoffs at non-technical founders, but coupled with some basic technical skills, even the most non-technical of them all can add even greater value and efficiency to their businesses.
Are you a non-technical founder? Do you agree with our post? Let us know in the comments below.
This post and comic were originally created on #entrepreneurfail: Startup Success.