Nic Haralambous is the founder of NicHarry.com, a leading online mens accessories company. Before he began to redefine men’s style, he co-founded a social network, Motribe, which garnered over 1.5 million users in only 10 months, and was acquired in 2012. Before founding Motribe, he was a journalist, and he continues to write influential articles on entrepreneurship and life advice. We caught up with Nic to hear his story and learn about the art and science of launching businesses.
You are now a successful entrepreneur and speaker who has launched a social network and an apparel brand, but you started off as a journalist. What were your initial career goals?
First off, I definitely don’t consider myself to be a successful entrepreneur. I think there’s always more to do and success is a relative goal. When I was a kid all I wanted to be was a war correspondent. I didn’t ever have career goals as such. Other than to get onto the front line and report on wars.
…most of the doors that I ended up getting through, I had to break down.
You were working as a journalist you also ran a blog called SA Rocks. Did this open doors for you, and more broadly do you see passion projects as being worthwhile?
No, most of the doors that I ended up getting through, I had to break down. Nothing worth doing is easy. I learned to code when I was 11 and that was a good lesson for me. If I wanted to build something I had to learn how to build it. If I wanted to get something, I had to figure out the best way to do that and then do it.
What made you decide to leave journalism, move into tech, and eventually start a social network?
My move was one part luck and one part calculation. I was working at a local online publication and my boss at the time left to go to a mobile network operator. I decided to go to a startup and eventually ended up moving to join my boss at the MNO. That was my move out of pure media and into technology as an industry. I saw that print was dying a speedy death and that journalists didn’t earn a lot of money. I also wasn’t satisfied with the types of things that journalists build and create. The self-publishing age had arrived and I figured I could build business and still publish my writing.
What was the biggest challenge you faced starting Motribe?
Starting Motribe was never a challenge to be honest. It was the things that happened afterwards that were challenging. Co-founder issues are complicated, hiring staff is always extremely difficult and we battled with finding and keeping great staff.
Motribe also taught me the value of cash flow and diversifying a revenue stream. We had all of our revenue hopes pegged to a single client who didn’t renew our contract. We had to retrench part of our team and I took a huge pay cut for the following 6 months to make it out alive.
Why did you transition from tech to apparel?
I don’t think it was a transition as much as an add-on. I still consider nicharry.com to be a technology business but with a wider variety of technologies at play. We’re an ecommerce company that manufactures socks, distributes to 20 countries and has to manage omni-channel strategies and implementations to make sure our customers get our product where and when they want it. Tech is everywhere.
The shift into the category of apparel was something I’d wanted to do for a while. I love style and feel that men are under catered for. I wanted to solve this problem.
You started your sock business with 5,000 Rand ($350 US) and within the first 10 days sold 800 pairs. How did you achieve such rapid success? How did you stock up on product with such a limited initial investment?
To gain initial traction I partnered with a company that had a large database and sold my socks on their platform as well as my own site. I also used my social following on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to launch the business. All I wanted to do was prove that there was demand so I knew that I needed an audience to get a taste of the product and show some kind of commitment.
In terms of funding the stock – I didn’t. Initially I listed with the product and took backorders. We closed the sale after ten days and with the money committed and paid in, I was able to go to the factory and produce the socks that were ordered. A simple matter of managing customer expectations around delivery dates solved most of the problems I would have had.
The next thing in ecommerce is already here: Incredible customer service.
You started selling socks under a subscription model, but now are a full-service e-commerce website. What are the advantages of each business model, and which one provides most of your revenue today?
We still have high hopes for our socks as a service model but unfortunately in the emerging markets like South Africa there is a resistance to recurring billing. As a relatively small and conservative online nation, the subscription model is a small portion of our strategy but one that will definitely grow in the coming years and more than likely overtake straight sales.
We recently launched our first brick and mortar store in Cape Town, South Africa. This is by far and away the most profitable part of my business. A multi-channel solution is key to our model and we’ll be rolling out more stores in the coming months.
The subscription model has really gotten popular. What do you think about it today, and if you were starting over today, would you still use the subscription model?
Yes I think that having a subscription model helps to create some decent recurring revenue so I’d do it again (and we’re still doing it). But I think that I’d probably try to focus on larger markets like the US or a country in Europe for subscription services. The developing markets are tough to crack.
How are your socks and accessories produced? Has this changed as you have grown?
Our socks are produced in a factory in South Africa. Most of our other accessories are also produced in Cape Town but by hand using small CMT’s in Cape Town. The only thing that has changed in the past 3 years is the volume. Other than that, we’re still working hard to keep our production local and grow the South African textile industry.
Have economies of scale significantly improved your profitability as you have grown, or have production costs stayed roughly similar?
To an extent, the larger we’ve become, the better the pricing has become. However to begin with I chose a product that could support a business with large margins. I wanted to negate that part of the equation entirely. We sell a luxury product in daring colours and we’re building a brand, not squeezing our suppliers and customers for a few cents.
There is a myth around ecommerce; people think that it’s easy.
In an interview you once said “If you are not in e-commerce now, you better get cracking because the space is gonna blow up in the next five years.” What do you see as the future of e-commerce, and do you think that the window for new entrants is closing?
I don’t think there is a closing window. I think there’s always the time to build real brands that mean something but most people want a quick win and an easy flip.
The next thing in ecommerce is already here: Incredible customer service. It’s not particularly hard to offer great customer service to someone paying you money but most business think of this as an extra service, not a core service. Amazon and Zappos lead the way, we need to learn from them and provide incredible customer service in as many channels as possible.
You have moved from being online only to also opening a store in Cape Town. Do you plan on getting further involved in retail, and do you recommend someone who is thinking of getting into retail to first start online?
If you’re in the emerging markets I would suggest the other way around. Start with a small store and test the market out. If people buy, then you can build up some capital and launch the digital side of your business.
There is a myth around ecommerce; people think that it’s easy. That you can build anything and people will buy and that it’s uncomplicated to get things working. I’ve found that this could not be further from the truth. The many areas of ecommerce make it extremely complicated to execute effectively (SEO, Social media, technology, shipping, picking, packing, packaging, product returns, customer service, content creation, advertising on GDN, adwords, FB, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Ebay, Amazon). The challenges are immense.
You have been a journalist, tech company founder, and fashion entrepreneur. On the surface, these are all very different ventures. Do these different industries require a common core skill set for success? Do you think there is something that sets successful people apart from others?
In my career the common thread has been the ability to formulate a story and tell it effectively enough to make a sale. I learned that skill through my journalism degree and in my media jobs and I honed that skill while selling product at my various startups.
The things that sets successful people apart? Persistence and an incredible work ethic.
There was a lot of fantastic advice in this article, but what it really got to me was Nic’s flexibility and willingness to adapt. From journalism to tech to entrepreneurship, Nic has shown that multiple interests and passions can be used to create great products. What do you think about Nic’s story? Let us know in the comments.