Brandon Bates, the CEO and Founder at Rural Cloth, has been deep into the rural lifestyle for nearly as long as he can remember. At the age of 15, he moved from his hometown of Baton Rouge to his family’s ranch in rural Oklahoma. An avid rodeo fan and participant, he was already familiar with the bull-riding community when he took on a gig as the official announcer of the Professional Bull Riders Tour (PBR), a position he held for nearly 20 years.
An Untapped Demographic
As Brandon became more familiar with the rural lifestyle and the desires of the community within it, he couldn’t help but notice a lack of apparel brands targeting that demographic.
“I felt like I’d really come to understand and know who a rural consumer was because those were the thousands of people buying tickets every week to come watch PBR,” Brandon told me. “And as I looked around, I just didn't feel like the rural consumer really had a high-quality level brand. You know, similar to a non-rural/Urban person, so to speak, that might wear Patagonia or might wear a Northface or something along those lines.”
Brandon was surprised that a premium rural clothing brand didn’t already exist, specifically in the outerwear category, but he felt strongly that it could be done. His problem: He didn’t have the first clue about running an apparel brand.
“I had no idea what I was doing getting into the clothing business,” Brandon said. “I mean, I didn't even graduate from college, right? I was just a kid that had a pretty good voice coming out of high school and decided to pursue a passion for Western sports and became a pretty high-level and successful Western sports commentator. I had gained some business experience, but I didn't really understand the apparel business and I'm still learning crazy stuff about the apparel business every single day.”
The Challenge Brand-building
Rural Cloth is a young apparel brand, just under two years old. Their site only went live in July 2018. As with all entrepreneurs running young businesses, Brandon had his share of challenges and more than a few stories to tell.
The first challenge for Rural Cloth was Brandon’s underestimation of the difficulty of customer acquisition.
“I don’t want to discourage anyone, ever, but starting a company from cold is way harder than people think,” Brandon told me. "You have to understand what customer acquisition costs are and how hard it is during that initial push to get 25,000 or 30,000 people that are going to purchase your products. That is the biggest challenge and I still don't know that we've overcome it, but I do believe that we now have a significant enough customer base that we’re picking up residual sales.”
When Brandon says ‘residual sales,’ he means sales that aren’t generated by ads. In other words, Brandon is talking about the power of building a brand. Brand equity.
“That's just now starting to happen for us,” Brandon said. “So think about that. 18 months and we’re just now to the point where we're getting residual sales. It takes a long time. Almost all of our sales before recently were primarily driven through ads.”
Treating People Right is the Right Business Strategy
You don’t have to speak with Brandon long to understand that he’s the type of boss that you'd love to work for. He has a cool and collected demeanor that gives you the sense he’s really there with you, not thinking about his next phone call or his unanswered emails. It turns out that this isn’t by accident, but is a core pillar of Brandon’s business ethos.
That empathetic quality is best exemplified by the following story, as told from Brandon’s perspective.
“I had a hat broker that was helping with our hat design and production,” Brandon told me. “We placed this really big order, right? Well, it was our biggest order in the earliest stage of our company. Something like 60,000–65,000 dollars worth of hats. Then the hats land and they apparently had gotten wet on the ship. Some of them had mildewy patches that were falling off. We had crazy problems with probably 70% of the order, and it was the biggest check that we had ever written.”
“Now, the broker that I'm telling you about who had the factory relationship, she was the middle person,” Brandon continued. "She likely thinks that I hate her. But I don't because she was really amazing in the end. Yeah, her factory screwed up. And unfortunately for her, because she was the one that recommended the factory and created the relationship, so much of the responsibility fell on her for the product being bad. However, she absolutely went to bat for us on concessions and actually wound up getting us a significant amount of money back. And if anyone's ever tried to get money back from a factory overseas, you can know how challenging that is.”
“And let me tell you the biggest reason I believe it happened,” Brandon concluded. "The biggest reason that obstacle didn't absolutely crush us at a time when we didn't have any cash flow was that I never lost my cool on her. I was always really professional, very calm. I tried to make her understand that unfortunately, I knew she had to wear the brunt of a significant amount of this, and that it wasn't necessarily her fault. But it had to be somebody's fault. I treated her with respect and tried to be really honest in a very matter-of-fact but never mean way. And I think that might've been critical enough to save our business. That maybe a dramatic stretch, but the point is: I think the biggest thing that affects the outcome of obstacles and issues, comes back to how you treat people.”
Brandon attributes some of his people-first philosophy to his parents and grandparents, but he says it actually has more to do with his own experiences in the workplace. While a lack of time with family was perhaps Brandon’s primary reason for leaving PBR to go full-time on Rural Cloth, he says that bad bosses were a close second.
“That was a huge reason I left PBR and retired after being there for 20 years,” Brandon recalled. “It certainly wasn't because I didn't love the job and it wasn't because I couldn't manage being gone on the weekend to announce a PBR event and then still be able to manage my business. The really big reason was the fact that I've worked for leaders that did not treat people well. So much so that I always told myself in my early years, if I ever had the opportunity to have employees and have people on my own team and I was a boss, I would never treat them the way I had witnessed other leaders treat their people. The other thing I fundamentally believe is that this goes two ways. Employees will either turn you into a king or they will destroy you like cancer.”
"You can create an environment where your people admire and respect you,” Brandon continued, “because they respect and appreciate and admire the way that you treat them and the way that you handle yourself in the way you do things. Or you can treat them like they're a light bulb and, once they burn out, you just screw another one in as if they never mattered. I can promise you that if you treat people the wrong way, there's going to be someone inside your organization smart enough to manipulate, fight, and bring you down from the inside when you least see it coming. So, how you treat your people really, really matters. The sad thing is, if you're an asshole boss or leader, you're probably going to hear this and you're going to be so narcissistic that you're never going to think it's you. So it's not gonna matter that I say this.”
Brand-building Ambition: Becoming the Rural Patagonia
Brandon and the Rural Cloth team have a big dream: to become a brand as well-recognized as Patagonia but made for rural consumers who affiliate with a rural lifestyle.
“We continue to progress and make really premium fashion products for that rural consumer,” Brandon told me. “I hate to keep using this reference because I'm not naive enough to think that people don't realize how it sounds, but we want to be something like Patagonia. I mean, not like their brand, but at the same level. And I know how it sounds. Patagonia was started in like 1973, right? They're a really established company and brand. But we want to become that level of product for a rural consumer that speaks to the rural consumer.”
Brandon describes his customers as caring about things that evoke a sense of American-ness. Things like football, tailgating, spending family time with their kids, and supporting the American farmer.
“I don't expect all of our customers to be farmers by any means,” Brandon told me. “I don't want them to be. I just want them to have an affinity with that lifestyle. What’s important to us is that, people understand that we're making our products so that when they put our jacket on or when they put our hat on, it's going to remind them of a memory or a way of life that they appreciate. And it may be their current way of life, like if they live in rural Georgia or rural Oregon or whatever. Or it may be somebody from the city that looks at our jacket and it reminds them of a time in 1985 on their grandparents' farm. We want to create products that are ultra-functional, super-premium, and have a very real connection with the lifestyles that our customers live.”