Yang Liu – founder of JustWears – taking the balls by the horn
Calvin Klein, Armani, Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren … the leading men’s fashion brands have made advertising men’s underwear an art form unto itself – memories of David Beckham modelling Armani are probably still fresh in the minds of many 50’s something women the world over. But what of the humble undies themselves – have they really changed much over the years?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is no, not really. Though it may come as a surprise that research published by Dibyendu Datta in 2018 shows that the ‘boxers’ pre-dated the now somewhat unfashionable ‘y’ front briefs which came into being in the 1930s. At the time, they were seen as truly revolutionary as they offered much needed support to men in much the same way the bra revolutionised underwear for women.
Looking to take the men’s humble undie to a new level, JustWears founder, Yang Liu, launched a brand that realised sales of 15,000 pairs of underpants in 30 days across 60 countries. So what led her to make this assault on the market?
At 26, Liu is a textbook example of an entrepreneur. She noticed a gap in the market, carried out extensive research and then worked relentlessly to turn her dream into a reality. Her young age aside, Yang’s story is not so different than other start-up founders but she is probably the only one that started her journey by learning English watching “Friends” and “Sex in the City”:
“Believe it or not, I learnt English by watching the TV shows Friends and Sex & the City . At 16, I was introduced to Friends (14 years after the show aired). The plot was casual, conversational to learn. So, I wrote down the dialogue on paper, read them out and recited again and again until it became muscle memory in my mind. Quite a robotic process, but it worked well when the learning resources were limited.”
Due to China’s strict one-child policy Yang is an only child but she wasn’t for want of family. As is not uncommon in China, she grew up in a household where four generations shared the same house. Growing up, she was given the choice to follow in her parent’s footsteps, who both worked as doctors in a public hospital, but Yang knew she had to follow a more unorthodox path. She ended up attending the best agricultural university in China, while majoring in English! Eager to get out into the world and frustrated with the pace of her education, Yang decided she needed to complete her four-year course as quickly as possible. Having made the decision, Yang wasted no time in making it happen:
“With frustration at school, I was eager to start working asap. So, I convinced my dean and scheduled full credits courses from 8:30am to 10pm every day. Eventually I completed them in 2 years”
Yang’s father fully expected her to return to her rural hometown and take up teaching English upon finishing her studies but Yang had other plans as her life had taken her down another path. While on holiday in Thailand in her early 20’s, Yang met her now husband and fell in love. After two years of spending time between their two homes in the US and China, they decided to settle between their two countries and so made the UK their home.
Within a matter of months of arriving in the UK, Yang managed to land a role with 500 Startups, one of the world’s largest seed fund and accelerators, where she operated the Series A investment programme to help UK startups accelerate their growth. Working in such an organisation showed Yang what was needed for an entrepreneur to stand out from the crowd and how to build a team that could run a successful business.
Like Yang, her husband has an entrepreneurial streak and they both knew that they wanted to start their own company. Exasperated by her husband’s ‘saggy underwear’ they looked at the male underwear market and found a sector that had had little product innovation and outdated brand messaging. Yang’s research led her to conclude that existing brands were overlooking the one thing most men cared about in their underwear – comfort.
Convinced that they had uncovered a USP in the undie department, Yang left her job at 500 Startups, to fulfil her ambition to set up her own business. She puts her experience at 500 Startups to good use, always remembering their legendary mantra of HFGSD (Have Fun, Get Sh*t Done):
“Being an entrepreneur often time means we keep our heads down working really hard. And things could get harder that make us feel incapable and vulnerable. The attitude keeps reminding me not to forget why I started the business. We need to enjoy what we do first and try our best to get the work done.”
Although Yang was certain they could exploit the gap in the men’s undie world, she made sure that they gave themselves the best chance of success and so operates as a brand that “listens first, acts second” which is a good philosophy for any new business to live by. Before even creating their first prototype, they conducted over 300 interviews with men to discover what it was they wanted from their underwear. Their research showed that time and time again, the most common issue was that most underwear often bunches up and feels uncomfortable after a long day. Therefore, Yang’s focus was to find fabrics which were softer, more breathable and faster drying.
She had already determined her company, now named JustWears, must have a founding principle that their products always be as ethically and environmentally friendly as possible with carbon neutrality being especially important to them. In search of this aim, they focused their research on natural fibres and after months of going to trade-shows, testing hundreds of fabrics and speaking with suppliers, they settled on Austrian Beech Trees as their fabric of choice.
Having found the perfect fabric, they created more than 30 prototypes before they were happy enough with their design to proceed to consumer testing. Following further modification as a result of feedback, Yang and her husband were ready to launch on Kickstarter. The 9-months of planning and preparation yielded exceptional results as they generated more than £82k from 1,547 investors, breaking the record of being the most backed apparel project in the UK in 2017. Not only that, it seems that guys really went nuts for their undies, including gaining a fan in former CEO and Chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt.
Unfortunately for Yang, one of the issues she had to deal with on the back of the successful launch on Kickstarter was having to rebrand shortly after launch. Originally launched as JoeyWears as a nod to how the kangaroo looks after its precious young by keeping it in a special pouch, they were targeted by a trademark troll so rebranded:
“With traction comes attention, both good and bad. After our Kickstarter spread virally, we were targeted by a trademark troll who attempted to file our brand name in other jurisdictions. When you’re a young company, you often need to pick your battles, and so rather than spend time and resources battling, we asked our early backers/customers for ideas and were blown away with the response. In a short span of time, we had over 400 name suggestions to choose from. JustWears came out on top because the consensus was the product was so comfy that every man should just wear it”
The fashion industry is used to have men designing for women and Yang is acutely aware that there is still a lack of female role models but doesn’t feel that being a woman in a man’s (undie)world has been an obstacle, in fact probably the opposite:
Many of the major brands you can think of today, began as men designing women’s clothes. Back to that time, women didn’t have the same opportunity as men. Although there’s still a gap in the percentage of female founded businesses which start up and get funding, that gap is closing gradually. There are now a handful of female founded unicorns (+$1bn companies) to look to for inspiration, and I hope to someday be a role model for future female creators and innovators.
In this business specifically, JustWears is more than creating the most comfortable underwear for men. We are about tackling men’s wellbeing issues (like male’s infertility) in a fun, engaging way. For someone who is never shy to ask and listen, I actually think being a woman is a unique advantage in getting men to open up about some of this stuff!
There is no doubt that Yang’s relaxed style is reflected in the JustWears brand, from the colourful pants themselves, the design of the website, including the fun graphics and tongue-in-cheek language, and it helps make shopping for something that could be seen as a little awkward to talk about, a bit more fun.
It’s often said that in order to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to have experienced failure. As a young entrepreneur, I wondered what Yang considered her biggest regret/mistake in her journey so far has been. Philosophically, her response was:
“There is always a conversation if it makes sense to raise capital first and build second, or build first and raise second. Of the major digitally native brands, many went the route of raising +$5m seed rounds pre-launch. Our path has always been about building efficiently on a budget, and validate each stage before moving to the next. While I wouldn’t necessarily say this was a mistake, I sometimes wonder how our path to scale may have differed if we chose to raise a larger round of capital earlier.”
The future’s looking bright for the state of the nation’s men’s undies as JustWears are looking to build a solid brand with a difference:
“We plan to stay the course; to have a sense of humour in approaching men’s health/comfort issues; to listen intently to our customers and to introduce new innovations to solve these issues, on the path to make the world’s most comfortable and practicable basics for men.”
Definitely a ballsy statement from a determined business woman and I don’t doubt that JustWears will continue to ensure that every man has, according to their website, a “palace for [his] phallus!”
Key Women in Business Magazine