Ian Bentley of Parker Clay: “Listen, but to the right people”

Listen, but to the right people. Listen to the people whose lives you want to impact and regularly ask yourself who is NOT at the table. At Parker Clay we exist to empower and employ women, 80% of our employees are women, and in turn, that has to be represented in leadership, creative, and any […]

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Listen, but to the right people. Listen to the people whose lives you want to impact and regularly ask yourself who is NOT at the table. At Parker Clay we exist to empower and employ women, 80% of our employees are women, and in turn, that has to be represented in leadership, creative, and any big decision.

As part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ian Bentley.

Ian founded Parker Clay after living in Ethiopia. His in-depth language, cultural, and business knowledge allow unique access to the market, while Ian’s business background paved the way for Parker Clay’s business success. Ian brings a high level of expertise with sales, marketing, executive leadership, and business development. Strengths include leadership in sales and marketing, strong organizational, management and people skills, market analysis, product placement, business development, consulting, and overall management of legal and sales/marketing related procedures.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Grew up in Los Angeles in a middle class family. I loved competing in sports and at school, but something was always driving me to have a purpose in life — a purpose not just for me, but for others. My family and I moved to Santa Barbara when I was 13, where I would later meet my high school sweetheart, get married young, and kick off our careers in business and design. A few years later, we had Parker and Clay, our two sons, and after about a million twists and turns, here we are!

Can you tell us the story of what led you to this particular career path?

Like I mentioned above, Brittany and I had started our careers in design and business, respectively. We were living in Santa Barbara, starting our family, and starting to reach that age where you look at your life — your kids, especially — and realize the magic of creating something that’s yours. Our careers were great but I think they lacked that sense of purpose. We didn’t have ideas right away, but I think that’s when we started looking at the world through that lens of “what can we do?”.

One night, we were watching TV and playing with the kids when a news story about orphans — 160 million worldwide at the time — caught our attention. We thought immediately about the kids playing just feet away and the sheer good fortune we all benefit from. It led to a regular dialogue in our house about inequality, opportunity, and perspective. In 2011, we first traveled to Ethiopia and came home with our first adopted daughter. And in 2012, Ethiopia would become our home.

There we saw how many young women, without opportunity or education, ended up in a life of prostitution, or even sold into human trafficking. We began to work with organizations empowering women through rehabilitation, skills development, and job creation. Meeting these women and witnessing the transformation that can come with just a teaspoon of opportunity deeply moved and inspired us.

While living and learning in Addis Ababa, I stumbled across an extraordinary leather bag — the craftsmanship was stunning, and we came to learn that the leather was not only of some of the highest quality in the world, but also ethically and sustainably crafted.

The cogs started to turn, and the first ideation of Parker Clay was born. Could we bring these beautiful products to the world, hire and empower vulnerable women to become economically independent, and protect traditional, sustainable, and ethical craftsmanship all at once?

Being able to say yes to that question would become our life’s work.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As a founder, you learn to step into the unknown and take it all on. The roadmap isn’t always clear in the early stages of a startup, but you learn to just figure it out and do what it takes along the way.

I remember early in our business, after we had just moved back from Ethiopia and got an order for over 5000 of our products. At the time, my wife and I were the only team in the US, our daughter had just gotten brain surgery, and we gave birth to our 5th child… crazy times. There was leather in every corner of the house that we needed to pack up and get shipped. We had a mini heart attack when we couldn’t find our daughter, when we realized she had crawled into a box of leather straps and was playing with them. Less of a mistake, but more of a moment where we just looked at each other and laughed at the ridiculousness of where we had ended up. Juggling it all, building a business, building a family… give yourself some grace, learn to laugh, and you’ll look back on those memories so fondly.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The recent Ford Vs Ferrari is one of my favorite films of the last few years — a showcase of brilliant minds being pushed to the extremes of creativity. We’re also tackling Italy in our own way, so it’s a perfect parallel with our efforts to make Ethiopia the next fashion capital of the world. I love true stories more than anything, especially people who overcome great odds to succeed.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It’s one I learned later in life — an African proverb that I think has come to represent everything about what we do at Parker Clay. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.

It’s pretty self-explanatory, but I think context matters. This isn’t just an individual traveling with a friend — it’s about the human race realizing that we’re always stronger together. When we can get behind a common goal and work together, we can accomplish pretty much anything. So for Parker Clay, it’s about more than just bringing incredible leather to the world, and it’s more than just creating employment in Ethiopia. It’s uniting people in those two places and improving the lives of everyone involved, at every step of the process, so that we can all go further together.

For the benefit of our readers, let’s define our terms. How do you define a Lifestyle Brand? How is a Lifestyle Brand different from a normal, typical brand?

To me, what is and isn’t a lifestyle brand is defined by the consumers, the community. If they make the brand part of their lifestyle, perhaps by talking about it frequently with friends, posting about it on social media, etc., then it’s a lifestyle brand!

I think it’s a bit of an arbitrary distinction, but ultimately, a lifestyle brand is any brand that takes on a greater role in a customer’s life than just providing a service or product.

What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?

The benefits are countless; from a business perspective, it drives customer loyalty, returning customer rate, referral acquisitions, ad finitum.

But more importantly for us, it allows us to build a community and really foster a relationship between our products, our mission, and our customers. Customers know what impact they have with every purchase, they’re proud to brag about their bag and the story behind it, and nothing beats an honest recommendation from a friend. There are faster ways to grow, but we think this is the most sustainable, genuine, and successful approach long-term.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved Lifestyle Brand? What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

Patagonia. If we accept that a lifestyle brand is one that takes on a larger role in a customer’s life and gets them talking, nobody does it better than Patagonia.

A large part of their success is the fact that they never put their customer in a box — they provide information, transparency, and knowledge, and they let you decide what aspects of the brand you want to get excited about. You’re a Frat-agonia college guy that appreciates the fashion of it? Great, wear it and share it. You’re a materials geek who goes nuts for the latest upcycled-syn-gore-tech? Cool, nerd out about it! You’re an eco-consumer who cares about quality over quantity and shopping responsibly? Nobody does it better.

So what we try to emulate is being equally “open” with our products and brand, and whatever we do, we try to do it better. We’ll tell you everything about the bag, where it comes from, who’s making it, and what impact every purchase has, and let you decide what part gets you most excited.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a lifestyle brand that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

I think it starts with passion and purpose. Start with challenging yourself and your idea; What does success look like? When your business wins, who else wins? Can you be both profitable and impactful? Can you be the best in the world at what you do and better for the world by doing it?

We all crave purpose and so do your customers. It’s so much more than a mission statement or a yearly donation. It answers the question “What would the world lose if your company disappeared?”. These are hard questions to ask yourself in such early days, but the answers will set you on the right path.

What are the common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a lifestyle brand? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I think it’s really the inverse of what we’ve been talking about. Brands fail when they put themselves and their customers in a box, because you never really know how you might grow and in what direction.

If you come out and say, this is what we do and this is who it’s for and nobody else, you’re restricting your growth so much. And that “prejudice” seems obvious to avoid, but it happens so much and it’s often a subconscious thing — if you are a founder and let your preconceived notions speak too loudly, it can take over. My advice is to always be open to hearing from your customers, your employees… everyone. Once you put your idea out there, it belongs to the world — let them contribute to making it happen.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a lifestyle brand that they would like to develop. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

You can’t put the electrical in your house until the walls are up. Following the steps, in the right order, are important in building something great.

For us, we started with a great product, built on the idea of a better bag with better production. The latter half of “A Better Bag, For a Better World” is vital, but the better bag had to come first. Zero in on the product or service you’re offering, and make sure it stands out in at least one major way. I would also encourage you to pay close attention to millennials and Gen Zers as they combine to dominate much of the market. They typically don’t want to compromise on either quality and ethical standards, which we identified and which gave us a lot of confidence in the fact that our product and story would align perfectly.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Very Successful Lifestyle Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Know what makes you unique
Figure out the unique assets your company can offer, whether it’s product, story, impact… or all of the above! For us it looks something like this; “From the time we source our leather, to the moment our products land in your hands, we do things better. As a certified B-Corp, Parker Clay upholds the highest standards of social and environmental impact. By owning our factory in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, we can create a safer workplace, more sustainable production, and for you, a better bag than ever”.

What might this look like for you and your brand?

Pursue progress, not perfection.

We’re in a space that has really only been in existence for the past 10 years or so, and in many ways we’re still the pioneers. We will make mistakes, feel vulnerable, cautious, and our job is to continually challenge ourselves to make progress while understanding that perfection is not the end goal.

Set goals, measure successes (and failures), and create accountability. Rinse and repeat, and repeat, and repeat. Nothing about this is “set it and forget it”.

Go further together.

Remember that quote we talked about earlier? It applies to your team as well as your community. Create a sense of ownership for each team member and assign adequate resources to social impact initiatives. We love being together as a team, but also hold each other to a high degree of accountability. Being transparent with our community and focusing on impact also reinforces that accountability through external forces.

Celebrate loudly.

Don’t just run past key milestones, take time to celebrate! Running a business is chaotic, and it’s so easy to jump to the next page of the to-do list. But celebrating is important, as is having fun. We have our own warehouse, and in the busy season we have a Shipping Box Making competition to see who can box the fastest. We give prizes and have a meal together. It’s one of many ways to celebrate during a busy season, get closer as a team, and relieve some pressure.

Listen, but to the right people.

Listen to the people whose lives you want to impact and regularly ask yourself who is NOT at the table. At Parker Clay we exist to empower and employ women, 80% of our employees are women, and in turn, that has to be represented in leadership, creative, and any big decision.

Here are our final questions. You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement would be to celebrate the value of people. I think Parker Clay is a step towards it — allowing people to discover that their choices matter, that their support of a brand can make a difference for real people, and a reminder that people everywhere, especially in places that the Western world has left out, have value, have agency, and just need to a chance to shine.

I believe that nothing would be more impactful than society truly embracing the intrinsic value of each and every person on the planet.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Ashton Kutcher — he’s a local Santa Barbarian and the way he has fought for the rights of children and vulnerable people around the world, while being a leader in business makes for a unique blend of someone I would love to meet with.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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