There are some topics I know a great deal about, and some topics I don’t. Style and fashion would fall into that latter category. But I know enough to understand that how we look is absolutely critical to how other perceive us and how we feel about ourselves. So when I started the Art of Manliness, I went looking for a man who could provide readers with sound on advice on classic men’s style. When I came across Antonio Centeno’s articles at A Tailored Suit, I knew he was just the guy for the job. In return for providing the Art of Manliness with absolutely top notch fashion advice, I’m happy to give Tony’s business some exposure. And so Tony has become an important partner with the Art of Manliness. And today, we asked him to take part in our “So You Want My Job” series so that he could share more about himself, what the Tailored Suit is all about, and his advice to other men about being an entrepreneur. Thanks for all you do Tony!
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a 33 year old married man with two great kids, an amazing wife, and a 110 year old Victorian house that needs a lot of work. I live in Wisconsin, but grew up in Texas and still consider the Lone Star State home. Currently I’m the president of A Tailored Suit, an online custom clothier that allows you to conveniently design menswear and have it built to your exact measurements. Prior to founding A Tailored Suit I was as an Officer of Marines where I had the privilege of serving alongside some of the finest men and women in the US military. I graduated from Cornell College and later UT Austin, and have studied men’s style in London, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Austin, and LA. I’m always optimistic and believe laughter and a smile can solve many problems.
2. Why did you decide to start your own business?
First, I wanted the challenge and freedom of running my own show. I like the idea of waking up in the morning and knowing that the success of my company depends directly on the decisions I make. Second, I believe that one of the surest and most responsible paths to financial freedom is through building a successful small business that creates jobs and wealth for a community. Over the years it seems the men and women I admired were entrepreneurs living their lives on their terms. I was especially attracted to the passion they had for whatever they did; they worked 60+ hours a week yet still loved their work. This was pretty amazing to a kid who grew up around people working hourly jobs they hated. I wanted that passion in my work and my life. Today I have it.
3. How did you get interested in custom men’s clothing? How did you find your way into that field?
Back in 2004, I was living in Ukraine and needed a suit for an interview in New York. Shopping for a week, I was amazed that all I could find was either cheap and un-wearable or expensive and impracticable. I had to re-arrange my travel schedule to accommodate shopping in the US where I was met with salespeople who didn’t know how to dress themselves. I finally found a suit, but the experience left a bitter taste in my mouth. Why was it so hard to conveniently get a quality suit at a fair price? What if you created a website where people could build their own clothing and supported it with free information and people with a deep knowledge of menswear standing by to assist? After researching the idea in business school, my partners and I decided to launch the company in the fall of 2007. We focused on the market pain points of:
Education – A company that sells clothing should have representatives who have a deep understanding of fabrics, style, and proper fit; unfortunately most menswear salespeople do not. For us, the education of our staff and management is paramount; persons working with us are required to read a number of classic menswear texts, and we encourage employees to write their own articles on men’s style, read industry blogs, and participate in forums. We created and continue to improve our Men’s Style Guide, an online library that provides the basics for any man to build a foundation in classic men’s style.
Convenience – Our goal was to enable clients to complete the process 100% online while delivering their clothing in half the time our competition takes; in that we have succeeded. One of my favorite orders was for a stout 5’ 4” military man in Iraq who on a short time frame needed clothing that actually fit him for his vacation to Australia. This gentleman designed his clothing and had his measurements taken in Iraq, and within weeks we had a custom shirt and trouser delivered to him in the combat zone with the rest of the order sent to his Sydney Hotel. We even took care of the small things, like making sure he had undershirts and dress socks. This hard to fit man was able to spend his vacation relaxing, not shopping.
Customer Service – People want to be able to call a company toll free, talk with a live person who attentively listens, and have their needs immediately handled by a capable and educated decision maker. Sounds simple, but when was the last time you received this type of service?
4. What is the worst part of your job?
The worst part of my work is when a client receives a garment that does not fit. Although this rarely happens, it’s still very disappointing, and I hate that we have inconvenienced the client. The bright side is that we get to show off our customer service – we maintain a 100% satisfaction rate because we do everything we can to make the client whole. We reimburse shipping, cover the cost of alterations, and in extreme cases remake the suit or shirt outright. All the while we keep the client informed and aware of our progress. I find that this last part is vitally important – people don’t want to be left in the dark.
5. What are the best parts of your job?
Helping people – We’re not saving lives, but a well-fitted suit can change them. A hand-made custom suit is about confidence and knowing that you look good. This affects everything, from the way you walk to the way others perceive you. Nothing makes my day better than speaking with a client and hearing how much he loves his new clothing and the way he, for the first time, received unsolicited comments about how great he looks. I’ve had clients attribute all types of successes to our clothing, from nailing high level interviews to being able to confidently meet with fashion conscious clients to just looking great on their wedding day.
Pride & Passion – I love telling complete strangers about A Tailored Suit and how we are revolutionizing the menswear industry. Once or twice a month I pull an all-nighter writing and doing research because I’m wrapped up in an idea that just can’t wait till tomorrow. I seriously think I would miss meals if it wasn’t for my awesome wife calling and reminding me to eat. How many people can say they voluntarily do this and still love their work?
Control – A lot of friends have been laid off in the last year, all because of events out of their control. I can’t control the economy, but I can control the way A Tailored Suit presents itself to the world. Every day I have a direct effect on increasing awareness of my company and can see immediately the effect of following up with potential clients and building relationships through social media platforms. I do not live in dread of losing my job; instead I live with the knowledge that my success (or lack of) is a direct result of my actions and decisions.
Teaching – I love helping people understand custom clothing and how by paying attention to their unique features they can build clothing that helps them shine. Speaking with new clients, it’s interesting to learn why they have sought us out and exciting to work with them as we solve their problems. And this is just the direct interaction – at least once a week I get an email from someone who thanks us for the info in our style guide or an article we’ve placed out on the web. In addition, I recently started an internship program and have had a great time teaching the skills I’ve acquired over my career. In all it’s very gratifying to know that your work enhances lives.
6. What is the biggest misconception people have about your work?
The biggest misconception we battle is that most men think big box stores are their only option for clothing; thus they settle for clothing that neither fits nor compliments them. What few realize is that the price of name brand clothing is often very similar to what a custom garment would cost. Our business model, that of ordering a hand-made suit or shirt virtually without meeting a tailor face to face, is new, and we therefore spend a lot of time raising awareness of the possibilities online custom clothing enables. We counter hesitation and reduce the risk of our clients by offering a 100% satisfaction guarantee, free style consultations, and encouraging independent reviews verifying the quality of our work. In 10 years I think that buying custom clothing online is going to be like buying an airline ticket is today, a no-brainer decision for most.
7. What is the work /life balance like? Is it hard to separate your work and your life when you’re self-employed?
We’re still in the start-up phase and at this point the separation between work and home life is blurry; workdays easily stretch to 10-14 hours to include weekends. You have to be careful; it’s very easy to get sucked in and work even more. I try to focus on working productively and make a point to have two meals a day with my family, play with my kids, and have a cup of coffee with my wife.
8. What advice/tips would you give to other men who want to quit their 9-5 and take the plunge into entrepreneurship?
Understand why you are starting your own business –Figure out why you want your own business and write it down so that you can stay on track. The happiest people I’ve met are those who not only achieved their goals, but realized they achieved them and then took the time to enjoy their success. Starting your own company is giving everything you have for possibly years on end with no guarantee of financial success; but if done right, the satisfaction of choosing your own path makes an 18 hour workday seem, well, more like an adventure than work.
Start immediately – Do not wait for the perfect moment, because the perfect moment to start a business will never come. People in their teens/twenties are too young, in their thirties they have to be safe for the kids, in their forties they are used to having money, and beyond fifty they are told it’s too late. If you want to start something, start it now – make time immediately, today. Pull an all-nighter and write your business plan. Tomorrow will turn into next week, a month later into years, and in 2020 you’ll wonder what could have been if you had only acted.
Don’t quit your day job – Things move a lot slower than you plan them to; projections that have you making 100K in profits meets the reality of you barely reaching break even. In situations like this it’s nice to have a steady source of income. Yes, you’ll grow slower; but unless you have someone who can cover the basic expenses try to hold on to that steady paycheck and learn to better manage your time.
Plan – Going into Iraq with the initial forces, my unit had spent months planning our routes and tactics. We knew exactly how many gallons of fuel we would burn, rounds of ammo we would expend, and medical supplies we would use. Within days all of these plans were trashed as the campaign transformed into something no one had predicted. However we never missed a beat, because the thorough planning process had prepared us for any eventuality by forcing us to know our capabilities and resources cold. Business situations change and company plans are scrapped, but if you’ve worked through multiple scenarios you’ll be much better equipped to meet any market challenge. Planning forces you to think through ideas and allows others to review them and point out strengths and weaknesses.
Take the road less traveled – I know a lot of intelligent people who have started technology companies in Silicon Valley & Austin. Unfortunately most of them are in industries overflowing with smart people and as such they work for peanuts on technologies that will never live up to the lofty expectations set by Google, Twitter, and all the other overachievers. If you have a tech skill set, consider going into an industry that desperately needs your services and where you would be a valuable resource vs. a commodity. I was talking with an automotive repair shop owner who knew nothing about how to attract clients searching for him on the web – a quick Google search showed neither did his competition as that not a single one had online reviews or a website that was search engine optimized. Think of the impact the right person could have on this one local market.
Keep expenses in check – Watch every penny. Venture capital funded companies receive all the press with their multi-million dollar investments, but the vast majority of small businesses are bootstrapped. And that’s a good thing; it forces you to be ruthless as to what you spend money on and forces you to seek a return on investment for every dollar doled out. The director Robert Rodriguez said something to the effect that a lack of funds forces a person to ratchet up their creativity. Google search how he funded his first film, El Mariachi, to see what I’m talking about.
Read and contribute to your field – Everyone that wants to be good in their field knows they need to read up on the industry. But if you want to be one of the best, take it to the next level. Voraciously devour everything written about your market, and start reading about other industries with the goal of understanding how ideas in these industries are applicable to your field. When it becomes hard for you to find new industry data, sit down and write yourself. Nothing facilitates an education like the discipline and research required to contribute a useful essay to a field of knowledge.
Persistence – Starting your own business is a marathon, not a 100 meter dash. It’s long, grueling, and there are stretches where you’ll hit a wall and want to quit. You will have days that have you moving backwards and weeks that you appear to have made no gain at all; worse your competition may appear to be growing faster and even leap ahead. But measure your progress over months, and from this perspective you’ll see just how far you’ve traveled. View success as profitability and staying in business, not necessarily being better than your competition (they may not be as successful as you imagine them to be….and if they are then you have the option of being a fast follower)
Believe in yourself – If you’re not confident in your company or idea, why should anyone else be? The key to being sure of your eventual success is to have properly prepared – write your business plan, run through the numbers, and ask the hard questions early. After you’ve made it through this, you’ll find it’s rare that someone can rattle your confidence or ask a question that you haven’t heard before.
Throw out your Television – Magically you’ll find time you never knew you had; stop watching life and start living it.