James Kent: Carving A Differentiated Growth Space In A Well-Established Market
Entrepreneurs always generate new value for customers; that’s what they get paid for. It’s not always necessary to create a new market; there are many creative ways to expand the value potential of established markets and carve out a territory in the new expanded space.
James Kent, founder of the innovative apparel brand Rogue, White and Blue, talks to E4B about the entrepreneurial value creation method he pursues in growing a distinctive and differentiated brand in what might look to outsiders like a crowded market, but which to him looks like unbounded opportunity.
Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights
Entrepreneurs start with what they love — it’s the first source of differentiation.
James is a lover of open-air experiences — of walking and hiking and exploring trails and off-road lands, of snowboarding in the mountains, and enjoying all the freedoms of exploration and everything to do with the great American outdoors. “What do I love?” is one of the first questions an entrepreneur asks of themselves, and James is certain of his answer.
Adding knowledge and experience fortifies the entrepreneurial recipe.
All experience and most knowledge are individual. What we pay attention to, and how we learn is always unique to us personally. James picked up some valuable experience by working in sporting goods retail stores, both interacting with customers in stores and working his way up the corporate ladder into management positions. This commercial experience in sporting goods was highly complementary to his love of the outdoors, and the two became a productive combination in James’ entrepreneurial approach.
James was able to gain some even more fine-tuned experience by working as the first employee of a start-up, running an office in a location removed from the head office. This provided exposure to the entrepreneurial experiences of risk-taking, autonomy, maximizing the use of limited resources and using business development tools like Google AdWords — all directly useful for a future business journey.
A third layer of relevant experience came from joining the National Guard in a patriotic spirit of service. The service ethic is fundamental to all entrepreneurial endeavors.
The stage is set: what kind of business to launch?
James asked the entrepreneurial questions. What do I love? The outdoors and outdoor recreation. What do I know? Apparel and apparel retail. What are my resources? Passion, the genuineness and clarity of commitment, design ideas, and a small amount of savings. Who are my customers? People who share the same passions.
Where will differentiation come from? It came from a reservoir of genuine feeling and the combination of two streams of thought: recreational love of the outdoors and patriotic love of country. The combination became the brand Rogue, White and Blue, described by customers as “the patriotic version of Patagonia”. It’s wild and unexpected like the American landscape, and it embodies patriotic design ideas, both in visual look-and-feel and in functional attributes such as Made In America.
The commitment to a differentiated brand platform creates a differentiated supply chain, differentiated production, and differentiated presentation.
Entrepreneurs design their production infrastructure and supply network backwards, starting with the brand and then identifying the system components that will bring it to life.
James had design ideas in his mind. He self-taught himself Adobe Illustrator to get them from his mind into digital documentation, occasionally hiring outside designers on Fiverr at low variable cost for some specific refinement tasks. Modern technologies ranging from design software (and the training videos and additional user content available online for new adopters) to digital printing to internet-enabled collaboration sites like Fiverr can be combined to create a complete value network with limited fixed cost investment.
The next step down the supply chain was to find screen printers and James tested alternatives until he identified the best craftspeople in that specialized profession. He made them his business partners, which enabled him to benefit from their expertise in identifying the right Made-In-America apparel manufacturers and the right high-quality fabrics. By ordering garments through the printers, he was able to give the printers a more profitable business model while offloading some risk (e.g., of misprinting) onto them. The shared value space was big enough for everyone in the network.
The integrated platform of a differentiated brand and a differentiated supply chain is the result of entrepreneurial commitment: to brand integrity, quality, style, and consistency.
Finding customers through entrepreneurial action.
At the outset, there wasn’t any marketing budget for Rogue, White and Blue. How does a brand get customers in those circumstances? Not by advertising but by entrepreneurial action: by meeting customers personally. James had a good instinct for who his customers would be based on input from like-minded friends and family. So, he went out to meet similar people by setting up a sales table at selected events where they might congregate. The first one was a gun show, and then more broadly outdoors-themed events. James vividly remembers the excitement of show attendees stopping by his booth, immediately bonding with the “patriotic version of Patagonia” brand feel — they didn’t need to be told, they understood it without prompting — and paying cash for the products. Rogue, White and Blue started with a batch of 96 T-shirts which quickly sold out.
Growth is funded by cash flow and there is no shortage of growth drivers and growth ideas.
Cash flow is the most important financial indicator of business performance and it’s the most important source of growth capital. Profit is an accounting notion, and debt-financed development has its own set of risks. Cash flow is a pure indication of customer approval and customer value. Therefore, it provides the best funding source for both working capital and investment capital — turning the value experienced by consumers into the funds that enable expanded and enhanced value experiences in the future.
Rogue, White and Blue has expanded into more designs, new apparel items, a strong website to drive sales, and a reinforced brand presence.
Customer feedback loops ensure continuous improvement and progress.
Meeting customers face-to-face or getting their feedback via the internet — these are feedback loops that help entrepreneurs refine their offering. The feedback may concern product quality, design, or brand imagery; it’s all positive input for an entrepreneurial business that is open and not defensive whenever there is criticism.
The entrepreneurial life is exciting.
How are we all going to share in the productivity of the economy? The old way was to take a job and participate as an employee, hopefully ascending the hierarchical ladder of a firm or translating increased experience and skill in a profession for higher wages.
As the digital economy unfolds, and more of the work is being performed through algorithms and A.I. and machine learning that’s translated into process automation, the traditional ways of sharing in economic production will be blocked.
The better alternative is economic participation and reward through entrepreneurship. James Kent describes the entrepreneurial life as exciting and fulfilling. It requires a thorough commitment and it’s hard work — he described the long nights he’s devoted to the Rogue, White and Blue brand — which he finds energizing and motivating. There’s a commitment and a service ethic, and a consequent freedom.
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