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Joel Primus of Kosan Travel: “Review your data”

A company needs to clearly understand why they are doing what they’re doing. What is their reason for being and why are customers buying their products. That leads to understanding exactly who their customers are. So many of us fall into the trap of trying to please ALL customers but that is a game most […]

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A company needs to clearly understand why they are doing what they’re doing. What is their reason for being and why are customers buying their products. That leads to understanding exactly who their customers are. So many of us fall into the trap of trying to please ALL customers but that is a game most never win. Extremely focused on what you’re the best in the world (Jim Collins calls that a hedgehog concept ) and focused, consistent, disciplined execution is the vanilla answer that makes a good company great.


As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Primus, a serial entrepreneur, author, speaker, and award-winning filmmaker. He founded a premium underwear brand Naked and took the company public in 2015. He is also a founder of Kosan Travel adored by travelers around the world and a filmmaker behind the “Raising Global Citizens” documentary. Joel shares his business story in his book “Getting Naked” which is scheduled to be released in early 2021.

As a founder of Naked, Joel helped raise over 17M dollars, establishing retail distribution at Holt Renfrew, Nordstrom, Hudson’s Bay, and Bloomingdale’s. The brand partnered with three-time NBA Champion Dwyane Wade for an exclusive Wade X Naked Collection and was worn in The Amazing Spider-Man. Recently, Joel co-founded Kosan, a travel clothing company that launched one of the most successful Kickstarter apparel products of all time — reaching over 1M dollars in sales in 30 days.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Sure thing! It’s always hard to pick a start because one thing is always leading to another in life. As one door closes another opens, so to speak. I was a runner all through high school. I was fortunate enough to receive a full ride to a great school down in North Carolina. I’d just qualified for the World Cross Country Champs and then on a train running and then I tore my achilles. Much like my achilles, my running dreams were shattered and to make a long story short, I lost my mind a little, decided to hitchhike across the country, travel around the world.

Then one hot, steamy night in Lima, Peru my brother O’neil and I, 18 years old and 21, respectively, had set out from our home near Vancouver to create a world-wide documentary film we called Project World Citizen.

I was in desperate need of some underwear so we stopped at a night market and I found this picked up a few boxer briefs. As soon as the fabric slid between my hands, I started to pay more attention. This was something different. It was smooth like silk but stretchy. Soft like cotton, but light. I’d like to say that, from the moment I picked up those boxers in a Peruvian night market I decided I wanted to make really nice underwear. Of course, it was still a multi-year exploration, following ideas and new opportunities as they arose, and gathering experiences along the way before I truly got started but it eventually led to starting an underwear company called Naked.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

There wouldn’t be a book out if there weren’t a million failures, times I felt like giving up and lessons learned. There are examples just like the 20,000 pair debate where I thought of giving up but in business, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a “the sky is always falling” sort of mindset. And it’s not. Every problem is just one thing and if you block and tackle it you can find your way through it. The hardest thing was when my 80 hours weeks and ego were threatening my mental and physical health and my relationship with my wife. I didn’t want to lose my family over the business and I had to find a way back to balance and self-acceptance and many things. The inner wars are much harder to fight.

As human beings and entrepreneurs, we’re entitled to two things, our attitude and our effort. And it’s one of the gifts of being alive to see what we can do with those. The outcome is not in our control and there isn’t an end game. So for me, the drive to keep going is, in part, a combination of those things. Our path to success and failure is the exact same path or road, one is just longer. And if you focus on the work and your attitude, and doing your best, and not the result one day you’ll wake up and see how incredibly far you’ve driven on that path.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Literally 10-years later this may still be “too soon” but after I received a 900 unit order from this great store called Holt Renfrew I decided to order 20,000 pairs because I thought we’d blow it out of the water. Now it’s important to note that this was my FIRST order ever so at this point I have zero understanding of planning. I also had no understanding of the Design process or really even how to make underwear. I remember receiving a phone call shortly after the product was shipped from an angry Shareholder who’d bought a pair saying I know why you call it Naked… because it doesn’t stay on. Sure enough, the underwear slid right off guys in the larger sizes. That was a nightmare that nearly ended the business right out the gate. I drove straight across the country in the dead of winter visiting each store, replacing products, and explain how we’d fixed the garment.

I learned two important lessons. One being the importance of extreme product testing at every stage of production and development as well as having good processes and starting smaller test orders as you launch new items into the market.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

We have to do the personal inner growth work if we want to be successful human beings. Success being happiness, peace, contentment….not just money. We are the foundation of our business and if there are cracks in us they can topple a business. This is a life journey of course and entrepreneurship is a great way to discover and become more aware of ourselves — again if we are committed to doing the self-work. There is a lot to that but the balance can be one of the ways we cultivate it. Balance, in any endeavor, is found through the trifecta of our Body, Spirit, and Mind.

Body — We maintain a healthy body by exercising regularly, eating reasonably healthy, and getting enough sleep.

Spirit — We maintain a healthy spirit by having meaningful relationships with the people we love. Doing what we love nourishes our spirit. We can achieve a healthier spirit by staying true to our personal beliefs, having a sense of connection to higher powers, and being in nature.

Mind — We maintain a healthy mind by both continuing to learn new things and taking a break from work thoughts. This can come from meditation, reading, hobbies, and taking time to unplug and be silent.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Oh, man! One person is impossible. I had mentors and friends at each step and each served a different purpose. Travis, Ross, Alex, my wife, David, Carole, Andrew, Phil, and many more we’re all rocks that I crashed against and that were crucial and I have plenty of incredible stories for each!

This is a good story. Once Ross and I were traveling to Calgary to meet some investors he’d line up. We got into a car crash about 4 hours away and ended up in the hospital. He was such a positive guy that he didn’t let me lose hope. Stiff, stitched up we boarded a bus at 5:00 am to make it to our meeting in time the next day. We got our very first investment cheque EVER from that meeting.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

A company needs to clearly understand why they are doing what they’re doing. What is their reason for being and why are customers buying their products. That leads to understanding exactly who their customers are. So many of us fall into the trap of trying to please ALL customers but that is a game most never win. Extremely focused on what you’re the best in the world (Jim Collins calls that a hedgehog concept ) and focused, consistent, disciplined execution is the vanilla answer that makes a good company great.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose-driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

I’m not sure I can! I always tell entrepreneurs to ask themselves two questions: why are they personally doing this business and why is the company making what it’s making or why is the brand what it is. Focus on the why. So if your purpose is profit or something else, then I wouldn’t recommend jamming a customer-facing social impact or purpose-driven angle into your business. It’s inauthentic. That said, certain you are going to align a cause to your brand then it needs to align to your why — your reason for being.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Good question. Usually, companies who’ve had successive growth had an MVP that was scaling and they’ve either fallen away from that or haven’t evolved with the needs and trends of their customers.

Revisit your “Why” or “Purpose”. Review your data. See what’s happening. Review comments on your page…what are people saying?

Do SEO research to see what your customers are looking for.

Revisit your Hedgehog concept.

Conduct surveys or start a group chat with your customers and outright ask your customers what they’re looking for and needing now.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Another great question! Covid-19 certainly taught us many things. 1) That the only certainty is uncertainty 2) Cash is king and 3) we need to be highly adaptable as humans, entrepreneurs, and businesses.

I’ll all for profitably scaling fast but I think companies need to put an equal emphasis on fortifying their treasury as best they can. This will mean slower growth.

A great example of adaptability during Covid was the restaurant business. Switching to patio seatings only in some cases, reduced menus and take out and app services. We need to be careful not to chase trends or short term opportunities that leave you stuck with inventory or abandoning your Why or competing in a segment you and your team don’t have strong competencies.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Alway people. Good people are a company’s greatest asset. Good people can make or break a process, a culture, a strategy….everything. You hire assholes you get a culture of assholes. You hire people who don’t take accountability, you have a team of people who don’t take accountability. But it’s a competitive job market and good people are expensive and have lots of opportunities so it’s tough to keep and maintain strong teams…especially in cash-strapped start-ups.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Keep focused on your MVP’s and your audiences. Trying to please everyone and casting too big a net will dilute your conversion.

Create for your audience not for yourself. Use data to inform your products. Find out what colors or features your customers like, or what their pain points are. Apply that data through the filter of your brand to develop and launch products. Don’t guess.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

I believe trust is formed by first being consistent with your brand and product offerings. Second, it’s achieved through having a clear WHY or purpose and using that WHY as a filter for your customers’ service, your marketing campaigns, and social media. When customers see that your actions are consistent with what promises they’ll trust you.

The other critical item is customer service. Bad customer service can destroy the greatest product and brand WHY.

And all this comes through the people you hire. Are they aligned with your WHY? Do they care about your customers and products?

Your people will be the living and breathing ambassadors of trust you’re trying to build.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Totally Agreed! Again it all comes back to hiring and culture. I think Howard Shultz says something like, I don’t train people to smile I hire smiley people. …something like that. And Peter Druker says, Culture eats Strategy for breakfast. If you have a wow customer experience, hire WOW people! It’s as simple as that.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Social is absolutely a double-edged sword personally and professionally. It needs to be a 2-way and ongoing conversation. I sometimes think of it as attending a dinner party. You and the other guests may have differences of opinion. Some people you’ll feel more connected to than others. How you show yourself, what you say will result in others consciously or unconsciously forming opinions of you based on their own values, likes, and interests. If you want to be truly successful in building a tribe socially you’ll likely alienate some portion of the room, so to speak.

But ultimately it should just be a reflection of your inner culture. And if your inner culture is toxic I think one way or another that will rise to the surface.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Scaling too fast is a big mistake we all fall victim to.

Thinking there is a silver “marketing” bullet that will make you an overnight success.

Taking things personally and making decisions reactively or through their ego. I’ve been guilty of all these!

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

I can’t speak for all the world, but I think here in the West, a lot of us struggle with cultivating self-awareness. A lot of our poor reactions, negative feelings, bad decisions, conflicts, and self-sabotaging behavior comes from a lack of self-awareness. A deeper understanding of where, or better said, why, our emotional reactions are what they are, and separating “ourselves” and reactions from them would change us, and how we treat each other, for the better!

How can our readers further follow you online?

Official page: https://joelprimus.com/

Instagram : https://www.instagram.com/joel.primus/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Primusblog

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/joelprimus/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!


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