Episode 192: Creating A Sustainable Business with Andrew Gibbs-Dabney, CEO of LIVSN Designs

September 14 , 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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Continuing the Entrepreneur Series of the Be Epic podcast, Matt talks with Andrew Gibbs-Dabney, Founder and CEO of LIVSN Designs. To begin their conversation Andrew shares how he started LIVSN through the crowdfunding channel, Kickstarter, and the evolution of the brand to today. The pair also chat about Andrew’s Venture Mentor and GORP mentor positions for the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the U of A. He leaves listeners with two pieces of advice if they want to start their own business.

Learn more about LIVSN Designs

Episode Transcript

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  0:00  
I think it's very, very rare that anybody doing their own thing currently caught up in their own business and their own challenges and their own ideas are gonna find out about yours and say "We are going to suddenly start doing that."

Matt Waller  0:15  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality. These are the values and Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business, and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College, and welcome to the Be Epic podcast. Andrew Gibbs-Dabney, who's founder of LIVSN Designs. Andrew, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today.

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  0:58  
Absolutely. Thank you for having me on.

Matt Waller  1:00  
I know earlier in your career, because you you founded this company almost five years ago, is that right?

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  1:07  
It's crazy to hear that being said, but yes, it was the beginning of 2018 was when I founded it. So we're coming up on our fifth year.

Matt Waller  1:13  
I'm really looking forward to talking about that. Let's, one of your taglines is, "Own Less, Live More." Could you talk about that a little bit?

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  1:29  
Sure. It really starts with the name of the company so LIVSN and sometimes we get asked, "How do you pronounce that?" I think it's because it's a little bit interestingly spelled for the English language. It's a Swedish word, or it's derived from the word Livsnjutare. It means roughly translated to English because it has no English counterpart, it means one who lives live fully and to the extreme. And this idea is and what really crystallized the brand in my head was, if you're going to live life fully, collect experiences, over more things, what is it that you do? Um, what do you surround yourself with? And what do you call yours that facilitates this life of experiencing? We've thrown around various phrases, but this "Own Less, Live More" speaks to that, which means that the less you own you, you can spend more time doing. And it's it's not preaching to extreme minimalism. Um rather, we, we say you do own things. But if you try to minimize the volume of those things, then what happens naturally is you start to maximize the quality, the value of those things, and make sure that they're additive and not subtractive. 

Matt Waller  2:43  
That is really, I think you're right, maybe you're not preaching extreme minimalism, but there is so much truth to that. I know, I have four kids, and we had several acres and good size house, and we recently sold it and bought a townhouse. Now, I don't have any yard, and less than half the space I had originally. And I mean, it's really true. When you have less, it does, because everything you own takes time. There's no question about it. Well, you're in the apparel business. So tell us a little bit about your apparel.

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  3:24  
Yeah, following from that, what we make is designed to do more things than just one. So we are outdoor apparel, we are an outdoor brand, our company and our customer branding is focused around being outside. But we're not trying to, we're trying to not get stuck in the trap of just making performance apparel that you can only wear outside. So you take those features, those technical design elements and construction elements from from very technical outdoor, and we're putting it together in a package that's much more appealing to day-to-day wear. So that when you're wearing your outdoor clothing, in your every day, you don't look like you need to be outside or climbing Kilimanjaro to fit in where you are. You can wear the same pair of pants to the office as you can hiking the Buffalo River Trail, right? I'm sitting here talking to you in pants that have hiked all over Arkansas. It doesn't really need to be separation between your outdoor apparel and your day-to-day apparel. And a lot of it just comes down to how it's designed and how it's packaged, what colors you choose, things like fit. And that's what we're going for. Just that really happy middle ground. So you can have one pair of pants or one shirt that does what three others used to do.

Matt Waller  4:41  
What is your primary, what are your primary channels of distribution?

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  4:47  
So we've used we're omni channel so we sell both online and through traditional retail stores with a little bit of new age in there, in the sense that we also do crowdfunding. So we've utilized Kickstarter in the past fairly successfully. We launched on Kickstarter, we've done three campaigns grossing, right around three quarters of a million dollars, yeah three quarters of million dollars between the three of them. And sell through Shopify so LIVSN.com, and the internet, but also sell through retailers. So retailers locally, like like Pack Rat, and stores like that around the country.

Matt Waller  5:24  
I know that you're using crowdfunding, tell me a little bit about how you decided to use crowdfunding in this process.

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  5:35  
There's very unique aspects to crowdfunding, it really is its own sales channel, it can't be really lumped into DTC. One of, or a couple of the aspects that made it the obvious choice, or the most desirable choice for us to launch was being able to gather up a large amount of orders in a short amount of time, with the money paid up front. So when we wanted to launch the brand, you can go very, go three different ways to launch a company. You can start very small, say we just wanted to buy some hats, or some T-shirts and brand them, sell 100 of them, you know, then sell 200, and sell 300 and slowly scale that way to where you can get to creating these highly technical products. We wanted to launch much faster, launch with very highly technical, custom made products. And to do that you need to achieve a certain scale. And Kickstarter became this very interesting option to be able to put those products out in the world, gather up pre-orders that would allow us to hit production minimums, and then also get the money ahead of time so that we could actually use that to produce the items then ship it to the customers.

Matt Waller  6:46  
Correct me if I'm wrong, but you got jeans, slacks, hiking pants, sweat pants. What are some of the other products you have?

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  6:55  
So we've stayed very focused on below-the-waist on purpose. So we can't be all things, to all people, all at once. And when we launched our first Kickstarter, we actually launched with a fleece. So an outerwear piece and then a pair of pants, the Flex Canvas pants. What we saw was that that campaign netted about 3:1 pants to fleeces as far as gross sales. And then after that campaign, we continued to outsell pants to fleeces at a, at a significant rate. And being small, at the time, just me and an outsource team needed to choose where we're going to focus that limited amount of time and energy and the market was saying, "Hey, we like these pants, the jackets fine, but we're really interested in these pants that you're making." So I decided to instead of expand very fast, and the product collection actually winnow it down. We stopped carrying the fleece, stopped producing it and focused 100% on making the best pair of pants that we possibly could. And then what started to happen, and what's happened since then, is because of that focused direction of branding, in conversation, and product development, and everything, we became trusted quickly for that product. Much quicker than I think than if we would've come out with all these products that had potentially questionable quality because you can't do everything well. We became very good at making pants. And since then, we've now made shorts, we've made pants in multiple materials. We just launched women's in the last few months. And we are working on products outside of just that category for the next, over the next 18 months. But for now still focused on below-the-waist for the most part as far as apparel goes.

Matt Waller  8:36  
Great. Well, you know, I know that other, you know, we've had a number of alumni that have started companies and used Kickstarter. And it's a double edged sword sometimes, you know, because you can get good feedback. But sometimes it can be repetitive and, you know, maybe not as helpful. What, what's been your experience with that so far? 

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  8:58  
So Kickstarter, as I mentioned, it's its own ecosystem. Every part of the playbook is different from normal commerce when it comes to Kickstarter. And there is an an expected level of transparency expected by the community and nurturement, the nurturing that you need to deliver from the company side towards those those customers. They're doing it and they're putting their money up, sometimes up to a year ahead of when they get the product. Not always for the product, but to be a part of the experience and part of the journey of helping a voice be heard, to be an early adopter and everything that comes with that. So I think that varying levels of preparation and acceptance of that expectation from that, from those customers towards towards transparency can lead to varying levels of success on the platform. We went into it, I had gone into it having backed several campaigns and been a part of that community and and also trying to build a company to be as transparent and sustainable as I possibly can. So went into it with this mindset of like, "Okay, I'm going to give, you know, weekly or monthly updates to these people." I'm going to let them know what's going on in design and production. I'm going to be very transparent on what these pants are made out of, and why, where, and for what reason. And, you know, be comfortable with that, I'm going to bite off that workload happily and not begrudgingly. And I, and I also want to do it with some guidance on how much work goes into Kickstarter ahead of the launch, which is a lot compared to other platforms. You need to, you're doing, you know, the vast majority, probably 99% of it before the day you go live. You can't wait to do all of your promotions at the go. And so I think that we went into it with the right expectations about what it would take to be successful there. And as a result, we're successful there. And I think there's a lot of misconceptions about what goes into it, that can lead to some less than desirable outcomes.

Matt Waller  10:59  
At this point, you know, when you're starting an apparel business like this, you have challenges around design, you have challenges around materials, assembly, you know, where you source it from, and marketing, sales, distribution, there's a lot of pieces, even though you're only sticking to below-the-waist, it's still extremely complicated to get all that to come together properly. I think most people probably don't realize how challenging it is. Would you mind speaking to that process?

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  11:37  
You know, I don't think that we would have had the ability to do what we're doing, or had the success doing what we're doing, had I not worked in apparel for about five years before I started doing this. And I'm sure most of your listeners, listeners are familiar with Fayettechill and I started there and in the warehouse, picking orders and worked through basically every, you know, most of the moving parts of that business and learning and trying things and making mistakes and being involved in decision making and being involved in those decisions that go well, and being involved when they go badly, and specifically on the supply chain, and what pieces of that puzzle needed to be in place to, to have success. So I, I do think there's a lot, there's a lot of different businesses that take a lot of moving parts, but apparel has some unique considerations. Considering aesthetic, trends, fit, you know, things that, you know, if you make a widget, you don't need to worry about how it fits people, you know, it sits on a desk, right? You don't need to have, our Flex Canvas pants, for example have 100, over 100 size and color variations in that one product. So I think a lot of it is, just is having some ability to test and gain experience in this industry before trying to go into it or at least trying to go a lot slower. For us, the, one of the things that could control, like you mentioned is is keeping the product selection narrow. Right? So you have all of this, you've got all these moving parts and pieces of distribution and design considerations. At least we can do that for a small amount of products versus a large amount of products. Because every time we add one more, you're 2X in your effort, right, almost. You got all these little decisions to make over again. So I wanted to wait until we had a bigger team, in a more established and devious supply chain before adding more complexity, at least in the areas that that I could control.

Matt Waller  13:34  
Well, you're you're so right. Having experience in an industry before you start a business makes a lot of sense. It's a step sometimes skipped and it can work but not not often. Of course, you you had a lot of experience for almost four and a half years at Fayettechill, as you mentioned, working in logistics, the web ecommerce side of it, you eventually became COO and then CEO. By the time, and I know you had over 20 people working with you and, um, so that experience you got you got to see all different parts of the business. You got to manage people, which is really important to learn to do. So that that experience to your point certainly helped. And you'd even done shipping and receiving at the University of Arkansas Bookstore prior to Fayettechill so you had some experience there that transferred over to Fayettechill. And it's funny how you know I've seen this so much with with young people if they're, if they're willing to try, that path you take can really define, create all kinds of opportunities. If you think about it, you started in shipping and receiving in the University of Arkansas Bookstore and you think what is this, right? But you took advantage of it. You leveraged it for the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, now you have your own business. And you've had it for almost five years. It's a, it's a remarkable story. Congratulations.

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  15:12  
Thank you. Yeah. And I'd say there's just, there's so much chance involved, as well, because I happened to be at the University of Arkansas bookstore working in shipping and receiving at the same time that a friend's company, you know Fayettechill, and Mo, and Grant, and Devon, were moving out of a garage and into a warehouse and needed help on logistics and shipping and receiving and it's not like I was like I had a master's degree in that. I just happened to be doing that. And they were friends of mine and said, "Hey, you know, we're looking for somebody to come in and help with this. You're the only person we know that, that works in this particular area. Do you wanna come and interview for this?" And that's the way it went. And I didn't have grand designs on on starting my own company at that time. It was yeah it sounds like fun. I love Fayettechill. I was just hanging out with the guys and wanted to be a part of that brand. So I did.

Matt Waller  16:06  
Well, Andrew, thank you for also serving as a vent-, Venture Mentor for our Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Would you mind speaking a little bit to that what you've done and and what you think of it and that sort of thing?

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  16:21  
Yeah, I was actually very flattered and appreciative to be asked to be part of it. So first of all, thank thank you and the staff at U of A for thinking highly enough of me to be a part of that. But a group of other mentors has been as helpful to me. And the act of mentoring someone in the process through that has been incredibly helpful to me as well. So it's not it's not a one sided operation. I've enjoyed it. The, through the VMS, the Venture Mentoring Service, I've been working with a company called The Nursery Collective, with a great woman named Liz, who is working within textiles, and not only textiles, but very sustainable hand woven textiles. Created in uplifting community, or you know, focused on uplifting communities all around the world and bringing those those products to the US market without the detriment to the people that they bought from. So that focus has actually been really invigorating for me to see. To see someone working so passionately on something that I'm so interested in as well. In seeing a certain entrepreneur, take the advice that's given not just by me, but the other mentors, the group, and put it into practice in real time and seeing it come back and get done is is incredibly gratifying. And once again, it's motivating. And it's not particularly not specifically in the VMS, but I'm also part of the GORP, Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program mentor group, and had the opportunity to work with Lacaida Ropes. That one, too, and that's been really cool. So once again, right up my alley, I like to climb and seeing a local company come into the extremely technical part of the outdoor space and make a piece of gear that is life saving to people and do that in a cool way. It's been really motivating, and very interesting, as well.

Matt Waller  18:15  
Yeah, the GORP, or Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program. That's a really unique program. It's hard to find something like that anywhere, you know basically, incubating these early stage outdoor products and services companies. So you, I could see why you'd be a terrific fit for that. Thank you for helping them. It's wonderful. To kind of close up, Andrew, if you wouldn't mind, you know, we have a number of students that, you know, they're thinking about potentially starting a business someday. What advice do you have for them?

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  18:54  
I guess, one is, I guess, I have two pieces of advice. One is tactical and one's more strategic, or maybe even potentially self-serving. So I'll start with tactical. I think people need to put what they're working on out in the public much, much sooner. When I get asked by a lot of local entrepreneurs to help or give input on what they're doing, I sometimes get asked for things like, like an NDA for, which is fine, I'll sign it, or I'll, you know, be told, "Hey, you know, keep this really secret." And I think in reality, the chances of anybody, especially a big company, taking what you're trying to work on and put into the market with it, are zero, or slim to none. I think it's very, very rare that anybody doing their own thing, currently caught up in their own business and their own challenges and their own ideas are going to find out about yours and say, "Oh, we're going to suddenly start doing that." I think if anything just comes from a point of pride. They're own new ideas are better than yours, right? And so like, I would just, and the value you get from putting, putting it out in public and getting feedback early, when there's no risk and it's just an idea or a sketch on paper or a business plan is way more valuable, valuable than any potential risk of your idea that you started. That's the tactical one. 

Matt Waller  20:20  
Well, I think that's a good one, because that is a very common thing we hear from students. And you're you're right. I mean, this is so rare that someone would say, "Oh, that's great idea, I'm gonna do it." Even if they did think that, that doesn't mean that they're gonna get anywhere with it. It takes a huge amount of commitment and time and experience to be able to do it.

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  20:44  
Right. That assumes that it's going to be easy. It's never going to be easy, right? So like, it's just, yeah, you're right. So the other one, I guess, would be strategic. And like I said, potentially self-serving, or maybe maybe the opposite. Maybe it's for the greater good. But I would encourage any students working on a business, specifically, I'm putting this in the box of consumer goods or some sort of product, to question whether or not that product needs to exist. Whether it's being done by someone else better and if you're just doing it for a buck. Or if you're creating something that has some value and the bar there is not really hard. It's do you have something unique to say? Do you have a unique feature, unique selling point to what you're doing? That no one else is doing. So therefore, yeah, you've got to, you've got a reason to be out there, we got a reason to put that out there. And it really ties back to this idea of sustainability and this own bus look more like, there's just, there's, there's so much stuff in the world. And I say that with a huge understanding that we are creating stuff. What  we're trying to do, our intention is to do it in a way that would be valuable for people that doesn't already exist in its current form in the market. So that, you know, just by the simple act of creating it, hoping that the good it does outweighs the environmental impact of what it does. So just, I guess in short, keep sustainability in mind to try and make something that can potentially be a net reduction in the context of making it positive. 

Matt Waller  22:11  
That's great. Andrew, again, congratulations on your career. You've really got off to a great start. And of course, you have your own company now. Very impressive. And thank you for, for giving back by advising our students and people involved in the incubator. Really appreciate it.

Andrew Gibbs-Dabney  22:36  
Yeah, thank you. I appreciate it. And like I said, I appreciate the invite, and being in the position to be able to do so. It's rather fun. 

Matt Waller  22:45  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be Epic. B-E-E-P-I-C.

Matt Waller

Matthew A. Waller is dean emeritus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and professor of supply chain management. His work as a professor, researcher, and consultant is synergistic, blending academic research with practical insights from industry experience. This continuous cycle of learning and application makes his work more effective, relevant, and impactful.

His goals include contributing to academia through high-quality research and publications, cultivating the next generation of professionals through excellent teaching, and creating value for the organizations he consults by optimizing their strategy and investments.