Is there anything more exhilarating and terrifying than trying to launch a business? Perhaps a few things. But what about doing it as a young man full of ambition but no experience? And within the notoriously challenging apparel and footwear industry? But Justin Jeffers is not just a young man, but a “fine young gentleman,” which is the name of his style blog that eventually gave birth to Jay Butler Shoes. We first profiled our friend and colleague back in 2014, and guess what, he’s still at it. Here’s an update on the development of the brand, with advice for young entrepreneurs. For Jeffers not only has six years of experience under his belt now, he’s also finishing up an MBA. For additional background, our original interview is preserved below.
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IS: When you decided to launch a shoe brand, did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into?
JJ: The short answer is no, not really, I just knew I was going to start a brand. The longer answer is that I knew starting a company would be challenging, especially having never done it before and having had no experience in menswear or shoes. But admittedly, I did not think through all of the possible ways things could progress. When going through the early stages of starting the business, a lot of people who I spoke with that had been in the industry said I was crazy and that shoes were the biggest pain in the ass, so I figured I was in for a treat. They were not totally wrong, shoes and especially loafers have a number of intricacies that ensure frustration and difficulty. But like many entrepreneurs, I listened to their warnings and still went for it. I was more of the mindset that I knew there was an opportunity there that I could build a business around, I knew that I loved shoes and I knew that this was not a business that I would get bored with. Knowing what I know now, I would still have started Jay Butler and made the same products; I may have executed slightly differently, though.
IS: What advice would you offer young entrepreneurs in the apparel space?
JJ: I will keep my list concise and it will focus largely on the mental side of entrepreneurship and not the operational. Additionally, my perspective may resonate better with first time entrepreneurs than seasoned ones.
Entrepreneurship is as much about the emotional and mental journey as it is about the business journey, but you don’t hear much about the former, which is unfortunate. It can be emotionally abusive, and the entrepreneur’s mental state may rise and fall with the state of the business.
Perseverance is key. There will be many setbacks along the way. They are all just part of the journey, take them in stride and just keep moving. You have to have commitment to your vision and the willingness to carry it out.
You must be comfortable with chaos and ambiguity, as you will have to deal with ample amounts of both. If you crave stability and consistency and dislike instability, then entrepreneurship is probably not a good path for you.
You can’t do it all yourself, so delegate early and often. Figure out what your strengths are and where you are really able to add value. Focus on doing more of those things and less of other things. In other words, delegate out the rest. I’ve made that mistake more times than I care to count, which leads me to my last point.
Have the humility to reflect on your mistakes, weaknesses and losses. Learn from them and do better going forward; remember, progress not perfection.
IS: As if the brand weren’t enough, you’re also doing a master’s degree and presumably have some sort of life outside those endeavors. Then again maybe not. How do you balance it all?
JJ: Balance is an elusive state, but you are correct, I do like to keep myself busy. My mom has always said “If you want something done, find the busiest person in the room.” It sounds counterintuitive at first, but upon thinking upon it more it makes sense. Think of it like momentum. If you are already in motion getting things done, it will be easier to stay in motion to continue to get things done.
As you alluded to, I am finishing up my MBA at Berkeley shortly and will start at one of the management consulting firms next spring. Jay Butler will of course keep operating; it’s not going anywhere. I love Jay Butler and I love the idea of having Jay Butler continue to grow while I indulge in other professional pursuits. We have a great product and great customers. It would be a disservice to our customers to make any dramatic changes. The show must and will go on.
Outside of my academic and professional pursuits, I enjoy playing golf, squash, soccer and rugby, although it has been a couple years since I’ve played the latter. I am passionate about making ice cream, and just made some salted caramel for Thanksgiving, in fact. I also enjoy reading, mostly non-fiction, and am currently reading a great book about some of the notable families of Philadelphia. And then of course I am a big Star Wars fan. “Mandalorian” is amazing, and through it Dave Filoni and John Favreau are righting some of the wrongs of JJ Abrams’ abysmal Episodes VII-IX.
IS: What are your hopes for the future for Jay Butler?
JJ: Big picture branding goal: when guys who are actively involved in dictating their own style are looking for casual loafers, they think of Jay Butler. These are not the guys who’s wife, girlfriend or mother buys all of their clothes for them. Our guys are guys that are at the helm of their own style journey and almost always buy for themselves. Now, looking at it as more of a business owner, I think of it a little differently. As one of my accounting professors would always remark, “The future is a mystery.” I’m going to apply that statement to Jay Butler. The long term — I’m talking 5+ years — status of the brand is a mystery. Will Jay Butler go into other types of shoes or apparel? Will it sell to other ownership? Will it evolve into something else altogether? Will it just keep doing what it’s doing but just at a bigger scale? I kind of like the last idea the most. It would be great to do 3-5x revenue over the next couple years, so that’s what we’re going to work on for the time being. We’re just going to keep making great loafers and not worry about much else.
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IS: What in the world makes a young guy start a shoe company on his own?
JJ: Soon after I started working as an auditor for Deloitte I determined that it was boring and unfulfilling. So I started a menswear blog, The Fine Young Gentleman, as a creative outlet and to foster my growing interest in menswear. As time went on I became pretty removed from my job and I longed for a way to combine what I had learned at Deloitte with what I had learned from blogging. I wanted something that was fulfilling, purposeful, challenging and having to do with menswear. I also wanted to be my own boss.
I started chatting with friends, readers and family about ways to make a move into menswear. The idea for a well styled, well priced and well made line of shoes came about. Eventually I had to stop talking about doing something and actually do it. So I left my job, moved back to Philadelphia in January of 2013, and soon after that started putting together what is now Jay Butler.
IS: Tell us about the design process.
JJ: When I started this adventure I had no idea what I was doing. I wasn’t completely a chicken with his head cut off, but I was close. Once I got on track the first step was to sketch the shoes to figure out the style and type of lines and shapes I wanted. Then I had two different lasts developed, one for the rubber soled shoes and another for the leather soled ones. Then I emailed a few factories to inquire about manufacturing.
IS: Where did you decide to have them manufactured?
JJ: The shoes and leather goods are produced in Mexico. I visited factories in the US, had samples made by factories in China, and talked with factories in India. In Mexico they were using the same techniques as the American factories were using, things like hand sewing, and doing them well. The proximity to the US was also a deciding factor. And although the cost of production is higher in Mexico than China and India, it is less than it is in the United States. Which is of crucial importance in allowing Jay Butler to sell shoes for less than $200. I think there is a serious lack of good options in the sub $200 space. Yes, there are options for between $100 and $200; but I don’t think any of them offer a really solid deal to consumers. If they did, Jay Butler wouldn’t exist.
IS: So what makes them different from what else is currently out there?
JJ: I think there are a few things that give them better style, better construction and better value. The shoes have a very classic, elegant and masculine look to them. They are decidedly sleek looking, helped in part by the low profile flexible soles. I am not a fan of that whole clunky look. I am also not a fan of the excess of design accents and tweaks we see. I wanted a casual shoe that did not draw that kind of attention to itself, something that was supremely wearable. I told the factory that I work with that I wanted the leather lining to feel like melted butter and my foot like lobster. So they went out and found the softest lining leather they could find. It’s worth the extra cost over lesser leathers. Not to mention the upper leathers are also nice, both the suedes and the full grain cow leathers. All of this for around $150 is, I think, unheard of in today’s market.
IS: How did you decide on the name?
JJ: Jay Butler is a combination of the names of two men that I never had the honor of meeting. Jay Desgrange was my mother’s father, my grandfather. He was a mechanic, a fire chief and an Army man; serving during WWII. Frank Butler was my father’s maternal grandfather, my great grandfather. He was a county sheriff and an exceptional baseball player, legend has it that the Yankees asked him to try out for the team; he turned them down citing a need to care for his family. On a separate note, I volunteer as an EMT in part because of the precedent established by these men. My father was in the National Guard, a few cousins have served in various branches of the armed forces, and another cousin is an officer at his local fire company.
IS: Tell us a bit more about yourself.
JJ: I grew up in Bryn Mawr, which is a suburb of Philadelphia, and spent most of my life there; minus a few years in Boston and NYC and a summer in London. I am not quite yet 27 years of age. When I am not found in Philadelphia or NYC I am probably on Nantucket, a snowy mountain snowboarding, playing golf, or visiting my parents down around Naples Florida, where they have moved since retiring. I think the ratio of golf holes to people down there is 1:1.