Tom Malloy of Deuce Brand: “Have an “Underdog” mentality ”

Have an “Underdog” mentality — You have to have the mindset of an underdog striving to continue to get to the top. It’s an absolute must! Gary and I both walked on at the University of Kentucky and it was a grind. At the end of the day, we both got playing time, but every day we […]

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Have an “Underdog” mentality — You have to have the mindset of an underdog striving to continue to get to the top. It’s an absolute must! Gary and I both walked on at the University of Kentucky and it was a grind. At the end of the day, we both got playing time, but every day we had to wake up and prove we could play to the other players and coaches. That same approach has followed us into Deuce Brand. We both have incredibly high goals for the company that we haven’t achieved yet. Being an owner of a brand is not easy, and some days it feels like you’re never going to get where you want to go. Each year we have highs and lows, but without having the right mindset we wouldn’t be able to succeed.

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 Tom Malloy.

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Tom Malloy is a co-owner and co-founder of Deuce Brand. Tom and his business partner, Gary Hughes, are both former college football wide receivers at the University of Kentucky. Together, they launched Deuce Brand 10 years ago and since then, it has grown into one of the world’s top lifestyle and apparel brands, and a number of the National Basketball Association’s top players are wearing Deuce apparel and accessories on and off the court. This is their story.

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”?

Thank you for inviting me to be interviewed for this series!

So, I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa and played just about every sport that I could growing up. I ended up playing football and basketball in High School and I had an opportunity to walk on to the football team at the University of Kentucky as a wide receiver. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up so I moved 10 hours away from home to pursue a dream to play in the SEC. That’s where I met my business partner, Gary Hughes, who also was attempting to walk on at UK. As it would turn out, we both played four years for the Wildcats, and then we went our separate ways after college.

I left Lexington and moved further from home to Washington D.C. and worked in the mortgage business. It was a great experience. It taught me a lot about how to run a business, and I learned everything from the start to finish of a customer journey. I stayed in D.C. for a few years, and then in 2007, I decided to quit my job and travel the world for a year. The last city I visited was San Diego and I fell in love with it and never left.

In 2010, Gary and I reconnected and we started Deuce Brand.

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

While I was traveling around the globe, Gary met and married a girl from Japan. He went to Japan with her after they got married and later, they visited China. While in China, he was at a market that sold all kinds of products and he found a silicone wristband that had a timepiece built into it. It was lightweight and fashionable, and you had the ability to customize the wristband with logos. Gary didn’t think much of it at the time, but he bought around 50 of the watches. When he got back to the U.S., he gave a couple of the watches to one of our friends, who happened to be a scout for the San Francisco 49ers and some of the team’s players showed some interest in them, so our friend called Gary to see how he could get more watches for the players and that was how Deuce Brand was born.

At that time, I was still working in the mortgage business, but seeing an opportunity, Gary reached out to ask if I could help him grow the business. In all honesty, I didn’t know what to think about it until we went to a trade show in San Diego called ASR (Action Sport Retailer) and saw the reaction. ASR no longer exists, but it was a massive convention that included all the top brands in action sports and retail buyers from around the globe came to it to check out the latest products in the action sports industry. With little to no expectations going in, we ended up finding distribution opportunities in Japan, retail stores in the U.S. that wanted to carry the product, and additional private label opportunities, and right then I was sold.

After the show, I remember telling Gary that I was going to quit my job in the mortgage business to help him, which also meant that I had to call my parents and tell them. To this day, I can still remember calling them up and telling them, and admittedly, they couldn’t believe it, but they were supportive of me and to this day still encourage Gary and I to continue to grow Deuce as big as we can grow it. Since then, Gary and I have been “all in” with Deuce Brand.

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?

Looking back at when we first started Deuce Brand, our second year in business, we received an order from Dick’s Sporting Goods for 40,000 units. Even though we manufactured our products overseas, we didn’t have a quality control company in place, so we had all the products packed as required for Dick’s, but we didn’t have a warehouse of our own so we brought them into a rental unit that we had leased.

One night after they arrived, we brought in a few co-workers, a photographer, and even some of our friends to go to this rental space from something like 8 p.m. until 3 in the morning to help us ensure we were shipping the exact product that DSG ordered. We literally opened up every box and counted baggies to make sure they each contained five units and more. It got so late that we even had to jimmy rig the elevators at the rental facility so they didn’t lock us out from going to and from where we were storing the wristbands.

After pulling nearly an all-nighter, we finally shipped the product out to Dick’s, but what a painful and time-intensive effort we undertook to do so. We were so new to the industry and we just didn’t want to make a mistake while trying to figure out the process. In the end, we got the order out, but it was definitely a growing pain that we learned from and now laugh about, but we did what we had to do to make sure we could deliver the order and sure enough we did!

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?

When we started Deuce Brand, we had a lot of good things happening left and right, and there were a lot of small things happening too that led to even bigger opportunities. God kept sending new business our way and we had professional athletes from all sports reaching out who were interested in working with us. It was just amazing that when people would see our product, it would open up new doors. We had a small team when we started and we always referenced the book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It has two great quotes that fit our brand very well:

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” and “When you can’t go back, you have to worry only about the best way of moving forward.”

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

Treat people how you want to be treated.”

That quote is something that I think about a lot. It’s a super small community in the retail/e-commerce industry, and it is important to treat people as you want to be treated. Deuce Brand has had its fair share of ups and downs, but the best thing that we have done since we started the company is to be as nice as we can to everyone, no matter who they are. Not only has this tact led to new opportunities, but it has helped Gary and I forge great friendships and relationships within the industry. Those friendships have helped us save time and money by surrounding ourselves with genuine people who want to help us be successful.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?

I like to define a lifestyle brand as a company that has built a community of followers that are passionate about the products that they create, sell and market. This community not only buys the first product that the company comes out with, but will continue to buy anything that the company comes out with! The brand essentially becomes part of their lifestyle.

On the other hand, I think of a brand as a company that manufactures products that consumers purchase and have emotional ties to, but that product isn’t necessarily a part of their daily lives. As an example, I know people that love their Dyson vacuums, and this is nothing against Dyson, but those same people most likely aren’t buying other Dyson products outside of that vacuum, if that makes sense.

What are the benefits of creating a lifestyle brand?

The benefits of creating a lifestyle brand include:

  • Bringing value to the customer by making them feel as though they are a part of a community when they wear your apparel.
  • Repeat customers — It costs less to market to repeat customers than it does to attract new customers.
  • Customers become brand ambassadors who tell their friends and family about the brand for free.
  • Customers are typically not price-conscious and will continue buy new items that the brand releases.

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?

Being in Southern California, there are quite a few lifestyle brands that have had a lot of success over the last five years. Two brands that come to mind right away that are also based in San Diego are Pura Vida Bracelets and Blenders Eyewear. Both have done a fantastic job of building engaged communities using social media and influencers. The result is that any new products or restocked items, they can send out an email or put up a post on social media and almost always that product will sell out.

And to answer your question, I think there are a few things that need to happen in order to replicate building an engaged community:

  • Have quality products that people fall in love with so they in-turn become brand advocates.
  • Seed influencers and people that have a similar style as your brand, but it needs to be authentic to them. That will then in-turn introduce their audience to your brand.
  • Create engaging content. The content could be UGC (user generated content) created by your customers.

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

I really think that if you are starting from the ground up, you need to get your product to as many influencers as you possibly can. We call this ‘seeding’ product. It doesn’t mean that we pay them anything or ask them to post on social media, it is just an opportunity to get Deuce Brand product into the influencer’s hands. From there, we hope that they like our product, and will somewhat organically wear it to work out, go shopping, or while they’re just hanging out at the house. Once we find out that an influencer is wearing our product, then we’ll talk about potential next steps if they fit our marketing strategy.

And to give you a great example of this, Kyrie Irving was the №1 pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. To this day, we’re still not exactly sure how it happened, but somehow, Kyrie ended up with one of our silicone wristbands with the watch in it. Again, to this day, we still don’t know who gave it to him, but one day, Gary and I received a call from Kyrie’s marketing team and they told us that he wanted to come to San Diego to meet us.

Shortly thereafter, he came to our office and we prepared a killer marketing deck about who we were. We shared some examples of custom wristwear that we had designed for other professional athletes, including former NFL wide receiver Stevie Johnson, and Kyrie kept mentioning how he would love to have his own designs. We hadn’t yet told him that we’d created a presentation showcasing what a potential line would look like for him, but when we showed him the deck along with the research we’d done on his heritage and that he had been called the “Aussie Assassin,” he couldn’t believe it. He stood up right there and said he was going to rock Deuce Brand from there on out, and now for 10 years running, Kyrie Irving has worn Deuce Brand wristbands and products on and off the court because he loves the brand!

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 one of the most common mistakes people make is that they pay influencers and athletes guaranteed money, or give away equity in their company for marketing, and then they don’t see the return on their investment.

I know of several companies that thought that if they could get a certain athlete to promote their brand, that it would allow them to scale at an accelerated rate. Unfortunately, after signing the deal, the influencer or athlete didn’t hold up to their end of the bargain, and that creates a tough relationship between the company, the agent and athlete or influencer.

I would recommend brands try to find deals where they can avoid paying guaranteed money or giving away equity, but rather try to work out revenue share programs with their athletes and influencers. Doing that keeps them motivated to continue to promote the product as they stand to earn more money or equity the more that they do.

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?

  • Know your competition. Research the space you are trying to enter. Find out who all the companies are in that space and take a dive deep into all the digital and social media platforms that they are on, including their website, Instagram, YouTube, etc.
  • Start to think about how you are able to differentiate your brand from other companies in that space. Write all of that down and start to seriously think what you want your brand to be about and what you want it to look like.
  • Figure out how you are going to manufacture your apparel and/or accessories. Can you do that domestically or are you going to need to work with a manufacturer or supplier who is based overseas. There are pros and cons for doing both, so those are things that you will have to work out, including cost, time to manufacture, shipping costs, inventory, etc.
  • Cash is King. How are you going to fund your company? There are a lot of different ways to start a company, including crowdfunding, angel investment, or boot-strapping it, but you need to figure out how you’re going to get started.
  • START! Just start putting your product out in the market and put it in front of everyone in your network. You can set up an online store through Shopify in as little as one day and start sending ads to potential customers by spending as little as 5 dollars. Then you will be able to start to see data from social media sites like Facebook and Instagram on your product, and if there is traction, you’ll know that you have something that you can potentially scale.

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.)

  1. Have an “Underdog” mentality — You have to have the mindset of an underdog striving to continue to get to the top. It’s an absolute must! Gary and I both walked on at the University of Kentucky and it was a grind. At the end of the day, we both got playing time, but every day we had to wake up and prove we could play to the other players and coaches. That same approach has followed us into Deuce Brand. We both have incredibly high goals for the company that we haven’t achieved yet. Being an owner of a brand is not easy, and some days it feels like you’re never going to get where you want to go. Each year we have highs and lows, but without having the right mindset we wouldn’t be able to succeed.
  2. Don’t do it alone — When Gary had the idea for Deuce Brand, I remember him coming to my apartment and talking to me about the product that he found. He also talked to me about the vision he had for the brand and that we could leverage the connections we had, including our past experience in sports, for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a brand that sold products people could wear wherever they wanted. I can say through this journey that in the hard times, it has been Gary who has shed light that it is never as bad as it seems, and in the good times, it has been great to celebrate our wins!
  3. Focus on one thing and do that well — When we started Deuce Brand, we knew that the product could be branded 100 different ways — everything from fashion to surf/skate to mainstream sports. Being located in San Diego has allowed us to have a California vibe in all of our marketing efforts, which really opened the door to lifestyle marketing for Deuce Brand. For the first several years, we tried to do it all. We would send products to different influencers in different channels and would see some success, but the one thing that kept coming back that we couldn’t ignore was that NBA players were allowed to wear non-NBA wristbands, something that wasn’t standard across all sports. Because of that, in 2016 we decided to focus all of our attention on branding through basketball and the NBA. That meant that if other opportunities came up, we would turn them down to continue to focus on the one thing that we knew could put Deuce Brand over the top.
  4. Don’t give up — Deuce Brand was retail-focused when we first started the company. Fortunately, God blessed our business and we found opportunities with companies like Brookstone, Dick’s Sporting Goods and City Sports, just to name a few. In 2015, we were just about to start a test run with Sports Authority and had some positive traction. Encouraged, we received a significant holiday order that was due for delivery the first week of November. At that time, we were working through a distributor to help sell into Sports Authority. So, we delivered this huge order to the distributor and then two days later, we were told that Sports Authority was not going to take it in. And not only did they not take in the order, but the distributor wanted to return the product to us, so we got stuck with a ton of product, loans that were coming due on a bridge loan for the inventory with the factory, and on top of all that, a distributor that wanted to return the product. I’m not going to lie, this was a tough time in our business. It was a pivotal moment and we had talks about what to do next and how we could even move forward, and I definitely had thoughts about quitting Deuce. But after a number of conversations with Gary, we decided that we could never let our business be tied to a retailer taking in our products and that we would learn from this mistake. Going forward, we decided that we had to control our own destiny and the very next day, this was in early 2016, I set up a website on Shopify and Deuce Brand changed our focus to being a DTC brand and we are now a seven-figure figure DTC brand!
  5. Create multiple revenue streams for your business — When we first started Deuce Brand, we had one product that we sold. It was a silicone wristband with a timepiece in it. After two years in business, we started to see quite a few knockoff products that were similar to ours hitting the market and it caused competition within the retail stores that we were selling into. Because of that, we had to get very creative on how we were bringing in revenue in order to help with the cashflow for our business. We had a wholesale business selling into retail, but we knew that we needed an online store, so we were steered toward hiring an agency to help us build one. This was before Shopify, so you had to have a company build you a website with a checkout cart, which looking back today, was very, very expensive. It’s a lot simpler today. Anyways, we then started getting questions from a lot of different customers, asking us if we could customize our wristbands and watches, and this led us to create a portfolio of products that we could customize, and that in-turn opened doors for us to work with players in the NBA, WNBA, NCAA, AAU and more. It helped us diversify our business so that no matter what time of the year it was, we had revenue coming in to support the business.

Super. We are nearly done. 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.

Where I live in San Diego, it is about a 20-minute drive to Tijuana, Mexico. I have a heart to help people who are less fortunate than I am. There is a ministry that I started helping out when I moved to San Diego 10 years ago called Spectrum. They help neighborhoods in Tijuana with food and clothing, orphanages and building homes. California has some of the highest values of homes in the country, but in the areas that Spectrum Ministries helps to build a home, it costs 2,000 dollars to construct a single bedroom with a cement floor. Every year for the last 10 years, I have raised funds and taken friends with me down to Tijuana to build a house with a crew from Spectrum. The cool thing about this experience too is that most of the time, the family that you’re building the house for sits there and watches you build their home. They are so excited and gracious for the team that we bring down to Tijuana. The build lasts one day, but my dream would be to build 1,000 homes to help underprivileged families.

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.

Honestly, I would love to sit down over a meal and pick the brain of Michael Rubin, the owner of Fantatics. They’re perhaps the largest online retailer of sports merchandise and they have licensing rights to all of the major sports leagues and retail stores. I could learn a lot from him, so yes, if you can help connect me with Michael Rubin, I’d love to join him for breakfast or lunch, my treat!!

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

Absolutely, thank you again for having me!!

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