The Interview: Yang Liu, co-founder and CEO, JustWears
JustWears is a menswear brand founded in 2017 by CEO, Yang Liu, and her husband and CFO, Alex Walsh, who both saw an opportunity to innovate men's underwear, developing fabric and fit – including their signature double-pouch - to ensure a comfortable, protective experience for men, with the tongue-in-cheek strapline of "The only underwear your balls deserve.”
Earlier this month saw the airing of their Dragons’ Den appearance, on which they turned down cash not once, but twice. Instead they went in favour of five times the amount of investment from a group of millennial investors outside of the show. Liu was previously in venture capital, and her gut instinct clearly came in good stead. They have recently seen a big sales increase, now selling 750-plus pairs of pants per week in a direct-to-consumer model through their website to over 70 countries, due to what is being dubbed the "comfy commerce" in the face of COVID-19. She talks us through their story so far.
When did you launch and what was your original idea behind JustWears
We tested the idea on Kickstarter in July 2017 and officially launched in October 2018. I previously worked at one of the most active early-stage venture capital funds in the world called 500Startups. After investing in and helping many other businesses scale, I recognised the dramatic shift taking place in retail. During that time, my husband and co-founder who worked in finance often complained that his underpants would regularly bunch up or get uncomfortable after a long day sitting at his desk. We looked around and tried to find a solution which would be both functional and comfortable, and I was pretty disappointed with what I found.
What was your take on the men’s underwear market then?
The premium men’s basics market has largely been dominated by high street brands which have failed to innovate over the past decade. Most essential wear products are the result of mass production with lack of thought regarding comfortable fitting, often made of cotton that doesn’t breathe well and often rides-up, or even chafes. These legacy brands primarily focus too heavily on winning over women, relying on hyper-sexualised selling tactics which fail to connect with men of today. They spend millions to put Justin Bieber or David Beckham in a black and white photo to look sexy, when what most men want is something to solve a problem, make them feel comfortable and confident. The current men's essential wear market has been separated into two extremes, either complete high fashion brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, or functional sportswear brands like Under Armour. We fill in the market gap to be the ballsy lifestyle brand focusing on functionality, comfort, and sustainability.
What’s unique about your offer?
We are bringing the advanced textile technology and ergonomic designs to solve real issues men usually have, particularly around sweat. Currently, we are doing research and development in multiple resorbable technical fabrics that can make underarm sweat invisible or make socks not smelly anymore. We would be the first one in the market who introduce this functional wear at an affordable price. For now, we prefer not to disclose the details, but it’s fair to say we’re in development to launch other basics products. We started JustWears as a direct-to-consumer brand on a mission to solve men’s wellness issues by reinventing basic wears, starting with underwear. By introducing sustainable, high-tech fabrics and ergonomic designs, we help men relieve discomfort, reduce sweat and help increase sperm count. The other main thing that has made JustWears stand out is our signature pouch design which separates a man’s package from his balls. We call it a “palace for your phallus”. They are designed with men’s movements in mind, with two distinct pouches, an upper pouch offering quick-draw access and a lower pouch - made of high-performance ventilated fabric - to wick away sweat and create more air flow down under. Together, it helps men stay cool down under.
How did you start out? Did you test the market first?
After interviewing more than 200 men, it was clear that the issue of poorly made or poorly fitting underwear was not unique to my husband, Alex. So, I got to work going to conferences sampling over 1,000 fabrics and doing many, many rounds of prototypes – 35-plus in fact. Once, I came up with something that our friends and family loved, we decided to test the market on Kickstarter. To our surprise, it quickly became the most-backed apparel project in the UK in just 30 days. Between Kickstarter and Indiegogo, we received pre-orders for 8,000-plus pairs from 2,200-plus customers in over 73 countries. Soon after getting them shipped, we were overwhelmed by the volume of positive comments and emails we received. Quickly, people were asking where they could order more, which inspired us to launch our website in October 2018.
How did you manage to get selected to be on Dragons’ Den and what did you get offered?
Early last year, we received an invitation email from a producer at the BBC from Dragons’ Den about potentially coming on their show. He saw us through social media ads, was “really impressed with the branding” and thought it could be a perfect fit for the audience. It was such an exciting opportunity for us! After going through three rounds of pre-audition, we went to Manchester to meet the Dragons and record the show. After three hours of great conversation with the Dragons, Tej Lalvani came in and offered us £80k for 20%. Touker Suleyman said that he was willing to go for £80k for 40%, but since Tej's offer was so much better he couldn't beat it, so he dropped out. The only reason we have made such an achievement is because of the support of our early investors who believed in us before we even got the website going, and we couldn't do a deal that would disadvantage them. So, we decided to turn down the offer.
What happened after?
About three weeks after our debut on Dragons’ Den, we received a call from Tej Lalvani’s team. The guy on the other end of the phone explained that Tej was still interested in us, and he was willing to come down to invest £80k in exchange for a 10% stake in the business. This was amazing news! But by this point, we had arranged an investment with a new generation of investors, including Caspar Lee, for five times more investment. We have maintained 80% of the business. As retail is shifting from bricks towards clicks, I believe the future is creator-driven, direct-to-consumer, quick-drop and on-demand. Also, as more businesses move online away from physical stores, we believe this younger group of creators and opinion leaders can help expand our brand to the next level. All in all, Dragons’ Den was an incredible experience, which helped elevate our business to the next level, and I’m so glad that the producers reached out.
How much has the business grown since launch?
In less than one and a half years of trading, we have sold over 50,000 pairs of premium underwear to more than 10,000 customers in over 73 countries. We are now selling more than 3,000 pairs per month and are on track to get the first seven-figure turnover. Team wise, we started as a husband-wife two-person band, and have now grown to a seven-people team based in Bermondsey, south London.
Why did you call it JustWears?
We actually started as JoeyWears on Kickstarter, because we invented the unique pouch design to protect your manhood like a joey (baby kangaroo) is protected in a pouch. We officially launched the brand with the new name JustWears in October 2018, after many early customers emailing us saying “This is so comfortable, every man should just wear it” and “It’s the only underwear every man just wears.”
Who came up with "The only underwear your balls deserve" strapline?
I personally come up with the straplines. At JustWears, our core value is “Be humble, but have balls.” Dressing comfortably and feeling confident will give you balls to take bold action, whether that’s making an adventurous decision or saying what you feel to someone - go up to that guy or girl in a bar! And we try to let that mission come through in our brand voice.
Do you have experience in the underwear market? What’s your background?
I started my career in marketing for consumer electronic brands and worked in venture capital as an investor in the latest consumer technology. In a lot of ways, I was an outsider to men’s underwear, or indeed fashion, but in a lot of cases an outsider is needed to really shake things up. What I do know is how to listen to our customers and bring onboard the right team members to develop the things they need.
How would you sum up the offer?
High-performance pants that men can feel incredibly comfortable in all day. We’ve innovated to ensure sustainably sourced materials, and fabric that is five times softer than cotton. They are also quality-made biodegradable, so good for the environment, and they have a specially designed innovative pouch that keeps you fresh under for longer.
How else is it sustainable?
Not only does cotton not breathe well, it’s also one of the most environmentally unfriendly plants to harvest. JustWears is made of sustainably sourced renewable tree fibres, which are five times softer than cotton. More than 99% of our wood is sourced from sustainable forestry operations, and our production partner is certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council certification). Compared to traditional materials like cotton, this production uses 95% less water and cuts the carbon footprint in half.
How have you got the word out?
Social media and word of mouth have played a big role in helping JustWears to reach more people. In fact, we’ve had one customer who has referred over 100 people because he likes our products so much! The organic word of mouth has brought us customers like former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt and Bear Grylls. Our products are designed to solve functional problems, anything from excess sweat to chaffing to riding up. We stand out in the market because we are the very first brand which uses humour as a window to create an open dialogue about these issues, which often don’t get talked about.
Are there plans to wholesale?
That’s certainly the long-term plan. We believe there is a place for JustWears both online and offline and would love to start wholesale conversations once things get back to normal. Short term we remain focused on continuing to connect directly with more customers who we can have a more real-time connection with via online. Our products typically sell for anywhere from £10-£16 per pair. Offering better quality than high street brands at a better value.
How is the current COVID-19 crisis affecting business?
When news about the COVID-19 crisis first began to spread, we moved quickly to implement work-from-home policies several weeks before the lockdown. We had several staff from the US and Singapore, who we sent back to their home countries to be with their families. They continued working with us remotely across three continents. In terms of the sales, in the first couple weeks of March we saw about a 48% drop in sales. However, in the following weeks as people settled into working from home, we saw that come back in a very big way. Sales recovered by 100% before April’s Dragons’ Den debut and only continued upward from there. Long term, I think this time is going to accelerate the shift in how people buy things, shifting more from bricks to clicks. E-commerce is on the rise and thankfully JustWears are equipped to navigate the crisis.
What contingency plans do you have in place?
The beauty of being an online business is that the process is highly efficient without too much in-person work needed. We’ve acted quickly before the lockdown to ensure our employees, customers and partners are safe. Beyond that, our sales remain in good shape and our supply chain is stable.
So, it hasn’t affected production?
Surprisingly, there has been close to zero-impact on our supply chain as our manufacturing partners in Asia were able to contain the virus pretty quickly. I think the much bigger impact on businesses in the UK will be increased caution in the investment environment.
Are men stuck indoors really wanting to buy new underwear now?
The data certainly suggests so. If you’re going to spend more time at home, you want to be comfortable and what better way to do so than to pick up some JustWears?! After an initial dip in the first two weeks of March, when the virus really hit in the UK and the government imposed the movement restrictions, we’ve had a 300% sales uplift since the beginning of April. That kind of rise is hard not to notice.