Interview with co-founder of Manpacks, Ken Johnson on Starting Up

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Recently we got to catch up with Ken Johnson, founder of Manpacks. During our interview he introduces us to Manpacks and shares with us some lessons from the early stages of starting their company. Manpacks is seed funded by 500 Startups, an early stage seed fund and incubator program located in Mountain View, CA.

Tell us what  your company is all about.

Manpacks saves guys the time and hassle of shopping for everyday essentials—things like socks, underwear, shaving supplies, toothbrushes, condoms etc. It’s like a quarterly subscription, but you don’t have to receive anything you’re not ready for. Basically we go try out a bunch of men’s products, and list only the best ones on our website so it’s easy for our customers to find something they’ll like. They keep their favorites in a customizable “pack” that they can modify, ship immediately, or delay anytime. We put them on a three month schedule by default and check in before every shipment to make sure it’s exactly as they want it.

 How did you come up with the idea for your company?

As a couple of time-strapped entrepreneurs, we were brainstorming ideas around automation and outsourcing to save time. We identified a basic need — we always need socks and underwear — and asked ourselves the question: “would this work as a subscription?” It just sounded like a funny idea, and we were laughing as we put together the first version of the website.


Can you walk us through some of the early stages of starting Manpacks? (Ex. Inception, Validating demand, MVP, User insight)

We launched an early prototype in late 2009, but it was a total mess. Our goal was to get an entire shopping experience onto a single page, from product selection to checkout. To this end we were a total success, however, we failed at sales. 

Revision #2, and what we consider our launched product, arrived January 15th, 2010. This time we focused on clean, simple messaging on the homepage, and presented three “packages” on a tiered pricing page that looked exactly like a SaaS website. The early market we wanted to sell to were web designers and developers, so we hoped this familiarity would appeal to them. It worked far better than we had hoped. By late April we had outsourced our fulfillment operations and were packing our bags for a three month session at Betaspring, a RI based startup accelerator.

The next big shift was when we moved away from the tiered packages. Beyond our early adopters (many of whom are still with us) the SaaS-style design wasn’t much help in explaining our service — it just seemed like an unnecessary restriction when lots of people wanted to pick and choose a custom pack. So we rebuilt the storefront, allowing total customization, as well as a dashboard so customers could modify their orders at will. Up until that point, we had customers emailing us to make changes.

How has 500 Startups helped you?

We’re one of 500′s seed companies, so they invested in us but we didn’t go through the accelerator program. I would take money from 500 Startups any day — they are extremely founder friendly, and their network is world class.

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur looking to get their company into 500 Startups?

Make friends with someone already in the program, and keep them updated on the progress of your company. If they are genuinely excited about what you are doing you’ll have a foot in the door.

What progress do you hope to make in the next year?

Primarily, we want to blow our customers away with some new features that will make shopping for essentials even easier and, yes, enjoyable. This involves aiding them in product discovery without being intrusive or obnoxious, and allowing them to make one-time purchases with less effort than buying an app from the app store. We would also like to grow traction in a couple new market segments this year. 

What advice would you like to give to an entrepreneur thinking about writing their first business plan?

Stop! Don’t write one. At least, not the kind that you are probably imagining. Go download a free copy of Steve Blank’s Business Model Canvas and give your concept some definition that way. Talk to some potential customers and get feedback. Do some wireframing. Find a cofounder and build something. Learn. If you’re risk averse, think about how risky it is to presume knowledge before validating your base assumptions.

Of course there will always be exceptions, particularly if your idea requires capitalization right out of the gates, but don’t underestimate the value of early data points, moving quickly, and most importantly *getting started*.

What were some mistakes that you learned from?

My cofounder left the company last December. I have no regrets launching this company with him — in fact, it would have been impossible without him and he remains a good friend. However, I should have trusted my gut and had a conversation with him sooner to find out if he was still happy with his role in the company. There were probably six months where he could have been creating more value elsewhere, and we could have brought in someone more energized to fill his role. I was afraid to have this difficult conversation, not knowing if I could keep the business going without him. Turns out it was a very positive change for everyone involved.

A massive thank you to Ken for taking the time out of his busy schedule to put down some awesome answers to our questions. We look forward to catching back up with Manpacks next year to see how things are going. You can also follow them on twitter!

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