In our ongoing entrepreneur interview series, we sit down with Fan Bi, Chief Shirt of Blank Label, an online custom apparel site for men. In 2009 Fan was doing a study abroad program at Babson College in Wellesley, MA, when he came up with the idea, and ultimately dropped out of school to pursue the idea.
Where did the idea come from?
After I graduated from high school, I went to London to work for a year before college. There, I had my first custom shirt experience when my boss took me to his tailor. I fell in love with the experience. It is by far my favorite shirt. But of course, it’s prohibitively expensive. 3 years later, I was in Shanghai, and I went to a tailor to have shirts made. It’s not quite the same experience as in London, the end product is very similar. I thought that this experience should be made more affordable and accessible to everyone.
Aspiring entrepreneurs who are thinking about taking the plunge often grapple with the uncertainty of success, especially at a young age. How did you get the confidence to jump in?
Well, though I dropped out of Babson to start Blank Label, I had been working full-time for almost 3 years prior to that, with a year in London, and 2 years in a co-op program in Australia. Combined with a generous scholarship from Babson, I had almost $50K in savings. This gave me the confidence to work on something that wouldn’t pay off right away because I had a little financial stability. Through my work experience with PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Macquarie Bank, I knew I didn’t want to work in a large organization. My parents had run a small family business while I was growing up, and I wanted the autonomy of running my own business.
How did you finance the company?
Early on, we tried to raise venture financing, but we didn’t know the fundraising playbook, and there were concerns about whether the idea was big enough. I put in $10,000 of my own savings, and have taken a small loan from my parents. I’m a big believer in Peter Thiel’s concept of “determinate optimism” It’s not about hedging my bets – I’m pretty much all in on this.
How do you think about your personal finances?
There aren’t any! I have a negligible retirement account in Australia from my years working there. I’m naturally very frugal.
What frugality hacks do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
- We do customer service out of St. Louis – it’s much more affordable than Boston.
- We all worked remotely early on. We didn’t have office space until the 3rd year of business
- We have a part time admin who takes care of a lot of small tasks for us – it saves a huge amount of time for me and the team. It’s important to know what things to be frugal for, and when you’re time is worth more than the savings.
Any advice for Matt, as he thinks about launching is startup?
- Find a network of peers that are doing similar things, or preferably advanced to you. I’ve learned so much from the ecosystem of entrepreneurs in Boston.
- If you are weighing getting more experience vs. diving in now, take a quick gut check. If there’s nothing else you’d rather do, then passion and excitement can take you far.