Socially conscious businesses are becoming increasingly popular in the retail space, with a growing number of consumers opting to purchase from companies who give back to their community, donate to those in need, and have a focus on protecting the environment – even if it means paying a higher price.
Combine this altruistic business model with a team of highly passionate entrepreneurs, thoughtfully designed products, and a stunning website, and you’ve got yourself the recipe for success. Or, in this case, our latest Merchant Success story – Lost Format. We chatted with co-Founder Ernie to learn about where the motivation for the business originated, and how their previous experience helped shape the company.
Tell us about Lost Format and where the inspiration for the brand came from.
My close friend, Chad Husar, and I were looking for a way to make an impact in our community. We live in the middle of Chicago and constantly see the struggles that the homeless community face. So, we launched a clothing line with the main purpose of helping those in need. We both love a certain aesthetic and had a clear vision for what we wanted our designs to look like, so it was a win-win. We would make clothing that we loved and at the same time give back to our homeless neighbors.
Had either of you owned a business prior to launching Lost Format, or was this your first foray into entrepreneurship?
Both Chad and I had owned and operated our own businesses for years prior to launching Lost Format. Chad is an incredible photographer who’s been working professionally in the field for 15 years. That skill has helped us out immensely with our work in Lost Format. Having a professional photographer as a part owner has made so much of the process easier.
And for the last 12 years I’ve been the owner of Forever Young, a senior daycare facility. Over the years, we’ve grown to accommodate close to 800 seniors and 50 employees. I’m incredibly proud of my staff and everything we’ve accomplished. I’m still active in the business but a bit more hands off now that we have the right management in place to continue running it.
Okay, so you’ve got an idea for a business - what were the next steps you took to get things off the ground?
Research. Tons and tons of research. And then even more research! We knew we had to invest and we knew the risk that came along with it but doing nothing wasn’t going to bring about the change in our community we were hoping to achieve. So, we jumped in headfirst. We didn’t really know what we were doing either. It started with ordering products from all the brands we loved to gauge quality, cost, design, etc. Once we knew what we wanted to create, we found a manufacturer to work with to fit our style. Things started to naturally take shape from there.
But it wasn’t only about making clothes. We needed to pair with the right organization in Chicago that understood the needs of the homeless community. We linked up with Sol Flores of La Casa Norte who had a wealth of information to pass onto us. They’ve done some incredible work in alleviating homelessness in Chicago by providing basic needs, food, housing, job opportunities and much more. The more we met and worked with them, the more we started to understand what the community needed. It wasn’t giving just for the sake of giving; it’s fantastic that people donate their clothing when they can, but we as a company wanted to approach it from a different perspective. Instead of donating a shirt for every shirt we sold, we wanted to donate what was actually needed at the time. We decided we would meet with La Casa Norte, tally up our sales and donate to them the things that they need most. Things like feminine hygiene kits, a night at a shelter, seasonal clothing, food, etc. They tell us what they are short on and we give them that.
Was Shopify an obvious choice for you, or did you explore different platforms?
We actually launched our site on Squarespace first. Back then it was just information about who we are and what we were setting out to do. Unfortunately, at the time, Squarespace was limited in what it could with customers. It wasn’t the right platform for us for e-commerce. We explored others but ultimately landed on Shopify. Our first build out was on the Out of the Sandbox Parallax theme, which allowed us to create a really design-forward site. Once we thought we hit our ceiling with how far we could take it, we jumped over to the Turbo theme and have been on that for the last 2 years.
You’ve created a beautiful website, full of incredible photography and bright, eye-catching colors. Did you work with a designer to help you achieve this aesthetic or was it done in-house?
All the work you see has been done in house by Chad and I. Like I mentioned earlier, we were extremely fortunate to have Chad as our photographer. We were able to shoot our products and models at our studio which helped us get off the ground much faster (and cheaper!) than hiring out all that work. Between the two of us, we owned all the equipment we needed to get it done and we’re lucky enough to find an incredible space in the Humboldt Park neighborhood to work out of.
Our aesthetic is partially what got us so excited about launching Lost Format. We both love the look and feel of that 80s vibe. We wanted to take the best of that era, simplify it and put it on our clothing. It gave us an opportunity to explore new ways of thinking about apparel and designing for it. That naturally led to our site being created in that image. We wanted a harmonious flow between the design of our clothing and the experience people had while browsing lostformat.com.
Talk to use a bit about the initial marketing strategy you used to build brand awareness and reach potential customers.
Even though we live and breathe Lost Format, we weren’t able to pour all of our funding into marketing and advertisement. We had to come up with a clever way to get us in front of people. So we started collaborating with local businesses, bands coming through town, anyone we could reach out to that we thought would be a good fit for what we’re doing.
Our first collaboration was a Retrowave music group called The Midnight. Their entire sound and aesthetic is very much what our design is all about. They were coming in from Los Angeles to play a show in Chicago, so we reached out and created an exclusive tee design for them. We made a bunch of shirts, posted it on social media, had them post it as well and things took off from there. The deal was, and has always been with anyone that we collaborate with, that a portion of the sales would translate to donations to the homeless. It was a win for everyone involved. Fans got a one of a kind tee, both us and the band got cross-promoted and the local community benefited from the sales.
As word spread, we started noticing a huge influx of traffic on our site. This was an organic way to reach people, and it was more effective than any money we invested into marketing.
How long after you launched the website did you get your first sale? How did that feel?
I remember this day well! By the time we launched our e-commerce site on Shopify, Lost Format already had solid following on social media. We started letting everyone know who we are and what we were setting out to do months before we launched. We sent out emails to our growing mailing list, we posted on every platform we could think of, we sent text messages to everyone in our contact list (and probably annoyed quite a few people!).
When we flipped the switch from Squarespace to Shopify, the first few sales came fast. I was so stoked that I staged an entire photoshoot of myself on my motorcycle taking the first 3 orders to the post. It was also when we knew without any doubt that this was actually happening - an indescribable feeling.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced when it came to launching the business?
We made a ton of mistakes, which I think stemmed from trying to not micromanage every decision. It was along the lines of “this is what we need to get done and we’re not entirely sure how to do it, but we know we need to try.” It led to some funds being wasted on things that didn’t exactly help propel us forward, but did teach us more about how to run this kind of business.
Obviously quality and sustainability are important for you as a business - how did you choose a manufacturer that shared this vision?
To circle back to the last question, finding the right manufacturer was one of the biggest hurdles for us. We didn’t want to just sell clothes for the sake of selling clothes. It needed to be clothing we would want to wear ourselves, comfortable, not insanely expensive, socially conscious. We sampled tons and tons before finding the right company to work with. Our company values are aligned, and we couldn’t be happier.
If you knew then what you know now, what advice would you give to your past selves or to someone else in your shoes?
I’d say take some more time. I was always under the impression that the train was constantly leaving the station and things needed to happen now or we’d miss our ride, and even though there is some truth to that, spending that extra time gauging the business can help in the long run. Would I take that advice though? Probably not 😊 There was too much excitement for what we were doing to stop us.
Last question: what aspect of running Lost Format gets you out of bed every morning and stoked to do what you do?
Seeing a business grow from the ground up, especially one that we’ve poured so much of ourselves into. A business that sets out to help others first and foremost - that’s enough to get us out of bed. We’ve met so many incredible people along the way, people that change the lives of others for the better day in and day out, it changes the way you view the world. I think that’s also what we’re most grateful for. It’s been an eye-opening experience and we can’t wait to see where it takes us!