Well-loved for its bright printed men’s underwear and swimwear and cheeky marketing campaigns, Aussiebum has grown into a $20 million international business since it launched almost 20 years ago. Here, founder Sean Ashby discusses product innovation, SMS marketing and the importance of local manufacturing. Inside Retail: How did you come up with the idea for Aussiebum? Sean Ashby: It was back in 2001 when the dotcom busted. I was working in a traditional marketing role and decided to do a sea-
a sea-change. I wanted to be a herbalist, but I discovered I hated it. I was unemployed with no job prospects. In the afternoons, I’d be at the beach like a beach bum. Then Speedos decided to stop making the nylon swimwear that I would always wear, so I was doubly peeved. I thought, “How hard could it be to make something and sell it to my mates in the morning, then go to the beach in the afternoon?” I found the fabric, got my mates together, did a photoshoot, and my friends were buying them from me. I had no idea about e-commerce, and when I presented my grand brand to retailers, they all rejected it. At first, I was naive and thought I’d go to the next store, then the next, until I went to almost every store. I had $5000 in my pocket with a boot-load of swimwear I’d made. So I thought, “If I’m going to stuff my life up, let’s go the whole hog!” I had a huge chip on my shoulder. It was like I wanted to prove people wrong. When you’re unemployed and doing it tough, your self-worth gets hit. I drove on fear for the first five years to turn it into a successful business, and that’s how Aussiebum came about. The next thing you know, Kylie Minogue featured it in her video clip, Slow! Now we’re a $20 million turnover company. I started it in 2001, and it’s now turned over a quarter of a billion dollars in sales. Ninety-eight per cent of the business is online. We do have wholesale, but they’re also migrating overseas. We’ve retailed in House of Fraser, Harrods, Selfridges and pretty much in all the majors, but with the decline in bricks and mortar, our real audience is online. Our key markets are in the US, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Taiwan, South Korea. IR: A lot of businesses switched things up once the pandemic hit. What did you guys do? SA: We were fortunate because I basically took Amazon’s marketing principles. I’d created a quality product at a good value price and got it to customers fast. I’d been doing that for two years. We discount aggressively when we can move volume because we pass those savings on. We do that when [other retailers] aren’t on sale. People think it’s crazy. Around Black Friday [last year], we’d become aware of Twilio and its communication platform, and we sent SMS to our customers on our database. So on Black Friday, we did more than $1 million in sales. That really set the cat amongst the pigeons. IR: SMS marketing is still a relatively new concept in Australia. SA: It’s an interesting one and bear in mind, 80 per cent of our customers are international and 20 per cent are in Australia. Australia is a little bit behind, just in terms of experience and seeing how these platforms actually integrate into a marketing solution. Overseas, SMS is a very standard method of communication. When we used it, we saw a difference. We’re seeing a continuing decline in email opens and conversion rates, so we’re madly working to develop new communication platforms. In Australia, when we started sending out SMS to our customers, for many, it was a novelty: “Oh wow, look what I got! I got a message, and it’s 50 per cent storewide!” Then it went through a very fast-track maturing. Other companies are doing it, so the consumer is becoming educated, and they know they have control to opt in or out. When I look at our figures, there’s only a small number of opt-outs in comparison to any database, but there is definitely a cut-through in getting the message to the customer. When we built our first e-commerce platform in 2004 when I was peddling my underwear shop to shop in the first couple of years, e-commerce was just starting and I was naive about the whole thing. I had no benchmarks and I wasn’t comparing what I was doing to other brands. IR: Tell me about the Wonderjock and how it came about. Men are very sensitive. They think, “I wouldn’t mind looking a bit bigger!” I just saw it as having a bit of a laugh, until one day, I realised there’s not enough innovation in underwear, then came the Wonderjock, which made news around the world. Back in those days, underwear was pretty straightforward and most was modelled from Jockeys; the basic white Y-front. For women, there are all sorts of bras — some that offer more support, others for fashion — but there wasn’t any underwear in the market to support a guy, not only in size and appearance but also in comfort. So on the inside of our underwear is a cup, and it literally supports the jewels. It’s just more comfortable and easier to wear, so we patented the Wonderjock. When that made news around the world, AAPT blew its services in New Zealand because of the attention, and the volume of orders was incredible. It just demonstrated the innovation and ideas that were being addressed, and that men’s underwear hadn’t had as much attention as women and their bras. That’s what gave the brand its colour; it was a disruptive innovation. Back in 2008, we were simply narrowing a quite large audience and really selling to a particular person, not to everyone. And that person on a global scale is a bigger, successful market. IR: Aussiebum still manufactures some of its products locally. That’s pretty impressive these days. SA: Here’s the bitch of it. When I first started, we were one of many brands at one manufacturer. Patrick still manufactures for us today. We have four factories. We manufacture all our underwear and swimwear in Australia — that’s more than one million garments a year, which I’m really, really proud of. We could have gone offshore, and we still can. But for us to evolve and grow, it means we have to look for more technical garments, and if we made them here, we’d have to sell them for $250 because of the labour costs. The other thing is there’s only one knitting mill up in Queensland, where a significant volume of our fabric is knitted. I’m really proud that we knit in Australia as well, but we do make the T-shirts and shorts offshore. My underwear and swimwear will always be manufactured here. I like it because I get to eyeball the manufacturer every day. During Covid, I didn’t have stock issues, I didn’t have quality control issues. I’m not ordering 12 months in advance, I’m not panicking over the Australia dollar dropping to 50c, and I’m not talking to my freight-forwarding company, saying my goods are on a ship or need to be quarantined for two weeks. Here’s the sad part — Australian businesses are pathetic as exporting because we think the most important street in Australia is Pitt Street Mall and if you’re not selling there, what a shame. But if they were more in sync with the international audience, we could have manufacturing here. Sadly, with a 25 million population, it can’t sustain brands here that are just trading within Australia. It’s going to be interesting to see how things play out, especially with Covid: the logistics, the fire sales, businesses going into liquidation and all those sorts of things. Once the dust has settled, where is everyone going to be at? IR: Aussiebum has a significant customer base within the gay community; it’s always been in support of you. SA: Here’s what 20 years of running a business has taught me. When I started my business, back in 2001, I was so scared and embarrassed because I wouldn’t be treated seriously for being gay and having a business where I was just doing what I liked. Aussiebum is my alter ego. The people who resonated with it were the trendsetters, and of those, a large part is the gay community. We have incredible movies, productions, movies and fashion, and all these wonderful things to celebrate, thanks to that community. In the early days, I wasn’t shunned, but people had my best interests at heart: “You really need to tone this down, Sean. It’s getting a bit gay, don’t you think?” I just couldn’t see it; I just created what I thought was great. So that same community, those trendsetters all around the world were the first customers who bought Aussiebum. They then shared it and celebrated it with their friends, as well as the arts and entertainment industry who wore it. William Baker, Kylie’s stylist, saw the brand, wore it and loved it. My community is proud and passionate. I’ve done some stupid things in the past, but you know what? The gay community is always there to tell you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, let’s go again. I’m a loyalist. We identify with everyone, but we just identify as being normal, not anything else. IR: What are some of your plans in the future, locally and internationally? SA: I do see really sustained growth. For me to go to the next level, I definitely need partners. I don’t need money. The company needs to join forces [with someone], and I’ve got values on how that would happen, but do I want it to become that big? Not on my own, because I’m having the best time right now. I don’t live an excessive lifestyle, so I’m very happy to be having a reason to shoot in the outback rather than have a 200-foot yacht, or whatever. But I do have a lot of passion for the brand and its potential internationally, where so many have failed. Bonds went into Selfridges when we did and lasted six months. We stayed for six or seven years. So I can see it as a catalyst, but I can’t do it alone. I’m more excited about what I’m doing than the strategy side of the business, which makes me vulnerable at the next level. I definitely would need allies who have that ability. Right now, this company will keep growing, but it’ll get more streamlined. Today, we do everything in-house for a total vertical solution. We don’t use any third-party companies, and we can push out 2500 orders a day. We can increase that if we do double shifts or if I just employ more people. That being said, there’s a point where the funds stop because it changes and it’s about money. If it were to go to the next level, it really would have to be with someone else, so I can still enjoy what I’m doing, and they can reap the benefits of what a brand like ours has achieved overseas. I think the challenge in Australia is people can’t see the opportunity overseas because they’re not as exposed to it the way that we have been.