“One of the best things is to be able to do what you love," opened Sean Neff at Startup Grind SoCal, before walking the audience through his journey building Neff Headwear with a refreshingly simple message: dream, believe, hustle.
Neff is the founder & CEO of Neff Headwear, a clothing brand he founded with his brother in 2002 after realising he was “overwhelmed by what a brand did to [him] and what it meant to represent that”. Today the company sells clothing to 55 different countries and is represented by stars like Snoop Dogg and Kate Upton.
Dream. Believe. Hustle.
Neff’s guidebook to success consists of 3 key ingredients, the first of which is ‘the dream’. Using Steve Jobs and Walt Disney as an example, he explained how “we need to dream to break through” today’s busy world, adding that “waking up every day and having the opportunity to dream and think about the unknown” is one of the things he loves about his job.
But dreaming alone is not enough. Neff cautions that “lots of people can dream and have crazy ideas but if you don’t believe in what you’re doing you won’t get there”, reflecting on the fact that very few people who have been successful don’t believe every day that they’re going to win. He even went as far as to say that “this was the most credible asset I had”.
Lastly, every great startup comes with an enormous amount of hustle. In Neff’s own words, “you gotta go get it!” He certainly did that...
The Neff Founding Story
Inspired by Spike’s “dope” shades and his “schwagger”, Neff realised the power of a strong brand and quickly grew to love “being that kid showing up for school with a logo on his chest”.
At college his dream became a reality and armed with no plan, no work experience and just a backpack full of t-shirts he started a clothing business. After creating a bit of buzz, generating some brand engagement, selling 2,000 t-shirts and testing his initial concept it was time for the next step: getting the pro snowboarders in his college town of Utah to wear his clothing.
Not so fast! He quickly learned that they all had contracts with Nike or Quicksilver and couldn’t wear his clothing. Nevertheless, being the archetypal entrepreneur that he is, he still believed his idea was going to work; a belief that he attributes to “being naive and not knowing what [he] should have known”.
The fact he didn’t have a model, a plan, or an analysis of his competitors turned out to be “the biggest blessing”.
It was this naivety that led him to get his hands on a couple of clothing contracts and discover a nifty loophole: headwear. “That night the gamechanger moment happened and I got the world’s largest athletes to wear my head wear”, he explained.
"Waking up every day and having the opportunity to dream and think about the unknown is very important."
A careful analysis of the situation would have suggested this plan was crazy.
Neff “walked into a 99 cent store and bought 29 headbands and beanies, and a sharpie” - with which he wrote his own last name on all 29 pieces of headwear. He then took these makeshift items to a pre-olympic qualifying event and, yet again, started selling clothing from his backpack.
Only this time, the stage was much larger.
A rational human being would have lacked the audacity to even try this, but it worked! Shaun Neff successfully convinced a group of pro snowboarders to wear - in his own words - “the worst headwear ever” in one of the biggest snowboarding arenas in the world.
Not even Neff himself could believe it. Shortly after deciding to sell t-shirts from his backpack in a small college town, “the guys that won 1st and 3rd place were wearing the most ghetto hats ever with my last name on their head!”
It seems the hustle really does pay off...
Addressing the captivated crowd of Los Angeles entrepreneurs, Neff distilled his experience into a few key lessons.
Lesson 1: make it work
The first lesson taken from his time building Neff Headwear is that business is tough, and very competitive. The solution he posed is simple; keep dreaming, keep believing in yourself and keep smashing through barriers. “I never let a wall knock me down”, he explains, “and now I have a headwear company. I made it work.”
Lesson 2: focus on what you’re good at
One of the first questions Neff likes to ask of people is “if there are 6 of us starting a business and there are 6 chairs, what chair are you sitting in?” Elaborating on his thought process he added, “because I’m going to crush my chair. You can’t put anyone else on this chair that will do a better job.”
Clearly a team player, he told the audience to work out what their craft is, and then own it.
Lesson 3: success comes from a business that “makes sense”
Sharing his concerns on vanity metrics, Neff cautioned that despite the fact he raised $10 million solely off the back of a conversation, “it’s the business that needs to make sense for success, not who gave you the money”, adding that entrepreneurs should not “get too focused on analytics and who their advisers are” but rather focus on what he calls “business principles 101”.
That is, building something that people need, at a price they’re willing to pay.
It is clear from the way Neff talks that he is the greatest proponent of his delightfully simply philosophy: all you have to do is dream, believe and hustle. This may seem a little too simple, but it’s pretty hard to argue with a man who built a $100 million business out of his backpack...