With diploma in hand, Shawn Liu SOM ’07 founded New Haven custom clothing company Hillhouse Tailors with classmate Jennie Vry SOM ’07. Liu, whose company sells Shanghai-manufactured men’s dress shirts that start at $65, estimates that Hillhouse Tailors will have revenues of $1.2 million by 2009. Liu sat down with the News to talk about how he started his company, how he has found a niche and the direction he hopes Hillhouse Tailors will take as it matures.
Q: What does it take to start a business in New Haven?
A: It’s important to think of who your customer is and pull together the right people to execute on the plan. We had to rely on our Yale network as well. We did our testing of our product with our classmates at the business school, and that was invaluable. That gave us the confidence to really go and launch. We set up shop at commencement festivities to attract new customers, and we found our product to be really popular. All the feedback that we gained at the time became pertinent, especially later on.
Q: How do you plan to compete with established name brands?
A: According to our market survey, our target customer currently shops at Brooks Brothers or Joseph A. Bank’s. What we’re trying to do is price ourselves at a similar price point to them, but we’re going to deliver convenience, a better-fitting product and a better quality dress shirt. Also, with our online model, we retain all measurements of the existing customer, and repeat purchases are simplified with the same templates and styles, fabric, collar, cuffs, however you want to customize your dress shirts.
Q: How are you able to compete financially?
A: This is a piece of advice that I received from [SOM professor] David Cromwell, who teaches the entrepreneurial planning class: we’re actually a services firm, and we’re not at all a production firm. Everything about our company is a service. We don’t actually produce or manufacture the dress shirt. We’re in partnership with men’s retail stores, so we don’t actually pay the employees there. That’s one way we’re able to keep costs low. We don’t have all this overhead, and we’re able to make the link, make the sale of our product, by using established retail outlets out there.
Q: How can students start businesses of their own?
A: Anyone interested in entrepreneurship needs to recognize a trend that’s occurring and ask the question: “Why is no one else capitalizing on this trend?” In our case, we realized that Westerners, whenever they travel to Asia are bringing home in bulk loads custom-made clothing. They’re not just buying one or two dress shirts when they go abroad; they bring home wardrobes-full. It’s important to recognize the trend.
Also, it’s important to do a lot of market research. Who are the competitors out there? What are the existing services that can compete with you? How are you going to compete with your market niche?
Q: Where will your business go in the future?
A: In order for Hillhouse Tailors to succeed, we need to be scalable. One way to do that is to make partnerships with men’s tailor and boutique shops. We’re not going to go out and build brick-and-mortar retail shops on our own. We’re going to create partnerships to get our products out in front of our customers.
The second method that we’re going to deploy is a traveling tailor team that goes directly to corporate campuses and our target customers: working professionals.
Our third shop is our online platform. We try to make that as easy as possible to help customers make orders online.