When I first met Matt, I got entirely lost in his powerful and, frankly, funny story about how he started Naadam, the company producing cashmere clothing (now purchasing a large portion of all cashmere in the Gobi Desert) and a thriving direct-to-consumer fashion Challenger brand. Everything from getting stranded in Mongolia in route to Southeast Asia, to trying to help the nomadic herders improve their lives and livestock through his non-profit to then taking on the black market who were setting prices to create a better livelihood for the herders all around. And, of course, to goats having sex in NYC. Yes, you read that right. Enjoy this crafty story and happy hump day!
Tell us about your background and why you chose to start Naadam.
I didn’t come from fashion, I actually never graduated college. After working in a rather thankless job in finance for a few years, I decided to quit and take some time to travel. I had a trip planned to Asia starting in Mongolia and eventually ending in Southeast Asia. The latter half of this trip never happened. I basically never left Mongolia. I took a trip to the Gobi Desert and after a 20-hour car ride, a broken down land cruiser, a motorcycle ride hanging onto a stranger, and about two liters of goats milk vodka, I ended up in a Ger in the middle of nowhere, living with a family of nomadic herders. I ended up more or less getting stuck with this family and lived with them for about a month. No electricity, no running water, no clothing, food or cell phone service. I fell in love with the people, who took care of me and asked for nothing in return. I eventually left but was thoroughly transformed.
From there, I started building a nonprofit in Mongolia supporting nomadic communities with a microeconomic development strategy to support and sustain the herder heritage. It wasn’t until we realized that the nonprofit work we were doing wasn’t working (due to the region’s lack of transparency and regulation) that we decided to build a business to provide ongoing support. We started buying cashmere, the output from herding goats in the Gobi Desert, from the herders we had been supporting with free veterinary care. We bought cashmere at higher prices than other traders, almost double other buyers and not reselling but instead processing material, spinning yarn and eventually knitting sweaters. We were able to reduce costs, improve quality and change living conditions of the communities we worked with in Mongolia.
What defining Challenger Brand characteristic has made your company successful?
Product market fit and authentic brand positioning. We have a very honest and transparent marketing model, we want our customers to know everything we do and why we do it. We want them to know if we fail at something so we can show them how we plan to fix it. We have also really focused on our positioning and speaking transparently and authentically. As part of this authenticity, we feel it’s important to have a sense of humor. This fall we really typified this sense of humor with an out-of-home wild posting campaign to highlight our breeding work in Mongolia. We posted images of goats having sex all around NYC with “cashmere coming soon” and “this is how you make sustainable cashmere” written all over them.
What major challenge did you overcome as a start-up?
Initially, we needed a lot of cash to make up-front purchases of raw cashmere from these remote communities. It was difficult to acquire the funds we also needed to rearrange the supply chain to build our brand. Once we were able to do that we had to learn how to sell the product efficiently, build strong cash flow and scale our marketing to build the brand we always wanted.
What’s currently happening in marketing that most excites you?
We are a direct-to-consumer brand but really starting to branch out from online marketing into offline, direct mail, out of home, and physical locations and experiences. We are bringing the brand to life for people and it’s transforming the impact we have on new and repeat customers. We think it’s really important for online brands to have a physical presence for people. Facebook and Instagram are both getting very expensive and the marketing arbitrage that allowed brands to grow quickly a few years ago doesn’t exist anymore. We need to get creative and meet people in all areas of their life. Direct mail can be a great way to test different campaign strategies, meet people in an unexpected format and track sales.
What are you currently working on that’s unique or innovative?
We are launching a new product called Naadam Ultra-Thin, Silky-soft summer cashmere TM. It’s a seasonless set of sexy summer cashmere in 9 styles and 6 colors. Its ultra-thin and ultra-ribbed to maximize cashmere pleasure! Priced from $75-200, these are luxury essentials that totally flatter and accentuate all women.
What big learning moments have you had along your career path?
I think learning to evolve and strengthen my self-awareness and empathy to manage people efficiently. Building a fast-growing brand is like a pressure cooker learning experience. I have to adapt and learn quickly. We went from 10 to 50 people in six months and the getting teams to work well together and perform is a real challenge. Listening is really important to me. It sounds simple but when things are moving quickly, it can be difficult to switch from asking for things to listening to what others need. I not only give myself reminders, but I also ask those around me to call me out and help me be better.
What one leadership trait do you think is most critical to making a Challenger Brand successful?
Passion. I think if I don’t love and believe in what we do passionately, I can’t expect others to either. Running a start-up is hard, and if you don’t love what you are doing and don’t believe in why you are doing it, it’s easy to give up.
What advice would you give to other marketing pioneers?
Trust your instincts. For a long time, I listened to other people and didn’t trust my gut around marketing decisions I thought were authentic to my identity.