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Ep. 125 - Having a Social Impact Through Ecommerce with Hannah Davis

Hannah Davis is the Founder & CEO of BANGS Shoes. 

Davis founded BANGS at 24 years old to sell adventure-inspired footwear & help people start businesses around the world. 

Over the past eight years she has streamlined her company's operations and sales to 100% online, selling unique canvas footwear & investing in over 4000 entrepreneurs in 70 countries. 

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • [00:00] Heads up: Some audio issues
  • [00:18] Intro
  • [01:48] Reluctant business founder
  • [04:01] Hannah’s big realization
  • [05:11] The Chinese connection
  • [07:08] What type of business is BANGS?
  • [09:40] It’s difficult to run 2 endeavors
  • [10:31] The first phases in BANGS
  • [13:05] BANGS’ go-to-market strategy
  • [15:51] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [16:11] Sponsor: Avalara avalara.com/honest 
  • [17:05] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.io/honest
  • [17:40] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest
  • [19:09] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [20:18] The lack of gusto in some entrepreneurs
  • [21:20] How BANGS capitalized on Instagram
  • [22:45] Don’t be afraid of what people would think
  • [26:09] Indecision can be a barrier to your growth
  • [26:59] BANGS’ marketing landscape now
  • [29:23] No excuse to not start your business

Resources:

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  Transcript:

Chase Clymer  

Hey everybody. Chase here. Just a quick heads up. There's a little audio snafu within this episode. It seems as if there's a microphone rubbing against the collar. 

We did our best to edit it out, but we still felt that episode was salvageable. And I hope that it doesn't annoy you too much. And it's a really good episode so stay tuned.

Hannah Davis  

If the fear is based on what other people think, that is not a reason to not do something.

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show. 

Hey everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase. Clymer. 

And today, I'm very, very happy to bring to the show the very well-rested Hannah Davis from BANGS Shoes. How are you doing today?

Hannah Davis  

I'm doing great. This is such a treat. The well-restedness and the conversation, so I'm happy to be here.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So again, another awesome founders story. This one is super cool, because not only did she start this brand when she was young, which some people would say. 

But also they're doing a lot of stuff to get back to entrepreneurs, which I think is really cool. So you guys don't wanna hear from me anymore. Let's dive in. 

Hannah, take me back to what were you doing before you kind of ideated on what became BANGS shoes? What was going on in your life and where did this come from?

Hannah Davis  

Yeah. I will... I'll try to wrap this up. I've been doing this for --it's crazy-- for almost a decade now. So I certainly would consider myself young when I started it. I'm 33 now so I was much younger when I founded BANGS in my young 20s. 

But I never really thought I would be a business owner. I was definitely somebody in college that identified as a self-proclaimed philanthropist. I tended to want to spend my time doing community development things, working with nonprofits

And for whatever reason, good or bad, I [was] attached to the idea that businesses were not good. And so if you had told 19- year old Hannah, that she would be a business founder and running a business, she would have been like, "No way". 

But I knew I wanted my career to have some sort of social impact. And I think when... At least in my experience, when I was in college and younger, I thought about that impact... The way that impact would come to life was through the nonprofit space. I was very linear in my mind. 

And now having a little bit more experience being older (laughs) just having more experience in the world, I realized that impact looks so different. And I certainly don't believe that anymore. But that's where I was coming from in my career. 

When I entered the workforces, I wanted my career to make an impact. I thought I needed to work in the nonprofit space. But I graduated in 2009. So I used to be able to say [that] it was the worst economy the US had seen in decades. But I can't really say that in 2021. 

But I graduated right after the housing market crashed. In the thick of it. And so there were no jobs. That's not true. 

It was very difficult to find a job at the time. And I remember, when somebody was able to find a contract for whatever in whatever industry, everyone's like, "Oh my gosh. That's amazing. It's really unique, really rare." 

But it was also a great time to outsource myself. So I decided to sign a contract to teach English in China for a year.

And while I was there, I was like, "Alright, I'm going to figure out how do I have an impact? What does it mean to have a career and also support the community around you? Can you do both?" 

And through this research, I discovered social business. And I was really inspired by companies like Toms and Patagonia who were businesses that were using their business plan as a tool to impact social change. 

And I was like, "Oh man, business can be good." And it's not necessarily that business is intrinsically --in its nature-- bad. There are people behind it and choosing... There's nothing wrong with wanting to make a living and support yourself and support your family. 

And there was this awakening that I had, where I was like, "Oh! Money, in its essence, isn't bad. It's how you manage it. And business isn't bad. It's how you do it, how you execute it and how you bring it to life." And so I decided. I love that idea. 

And to me social business was the answer. and I was like, "Alright. Well, (laughs) I have a political science degree. I have a minor in Mandarin. Nobody in my family has any experience in textiles, international shipping, any sort of... Anything." 

But I was like, "No problem. I'll figure it out. I'll Google it." And that's what I did. 

I started researching and talking to people. I happen to be in the manufacturing center of the world at the time where I was surrounded by people who had been doing similar things, or who had similar interests in manufacturing. 

So I was able to ask questions to people who I don't actually think I would have had contact with, if I hadn't been an English teacher in China at the time. And I conceptualized the idea for BANGS shoes. 

I had a very stereotypical 'aha moment' where I sat up in bed and was like, "Oh my goodness, it's the shoes!" The look of BANGS is inspired by shoes that are worn by Chinese workers and farmers. So what's really unique about bangs?

Well, there's very many things unique about things. But the aesthetic, unique thing about our shoes is that they're monochromatic all the way around. So they've got the same color upper as they do the rubber sole. 

So if you're envisioning something like a canvas, or a Converse or a Ted’s Shoe --which [are] insane category things-- they typically have one color upper and then the sole of the shoe is white. 

But BANGS are neutral colors and different colors all the way around. So the brand name BANGS comes from the Chinese character for the word "help", the phonetic spelling of the Chinese character for the word "help". 

And when you buy a pair of our shoes, we invest in a new entrepreneur. So we take 20% of our net profits and put those profits, those net profits towards entrepreneurs. 

We've invested in over 4000 entrepreneurs across 72 countries, including the US, which is wild because we started at 0. 0 entrepreneurs at $0. And that's very, very exciting. Probably the thing I'm the most proud of. 

And yeah, that's the founding story. I could keep going. But I'll take a breath.

Chase Clymer  

Well yeah. I'll let you take a breath. Get a drink of water. Now with your business model, you spoke a bit earlier about this concept that if you want to do good, it has to be a nonprofit.It has to be something super rigid and structured. 

And I want to like to dispel that myth real quick, because I'm on the same page with you. I've done a lot of work in that space. You don't have to have a nonprofit to impact the world with your business. And that's really what I want to call out here. 

Now a question about BANGS is are you a nonprofit? Or are you a certain corporate entity? Or are you just your run of the mill business entity?

Hannah Davis  

We are a for-profit business. So we are registered as an LLC. And we partner with a nonprofit. I think there's many ways to have an impact. And I'm not sitting here and I'm not gonna say one way is right or one way is wrong. This is just the path that I chose to take. 

But I cannot imagine starting any new organization from scratch. I think "Alright, if BANGS..." For whatever reason, if I find myself in however many years with a lot more free time and I want to do something new, would I start a new organization? 

And I'm like, "I don't know." (laughs) It's realy, really hard. It's very difficult to start a nonprofit on its own. It's very difficult to start a for-profit business on its own. 

And to start a for-profit business that also has a nonprofit inside of its entity sounds impossible to me. So basically, like what Tom's did, they were the mechanism for social impact. And BANGS doesn't do that. 

So BANGS partners with a nonprofit. And I really believe in this model so much because I think... There's some schools of thought, there's some people who believe that the world doesn't necessarily need another nonprofit. 

There's millions of nonprofits around the world. But the world needs organizations that connect those nonprofits together. And in my mind, BANGS fits into that category where we are... 

Assuming we can stay in business, we become a steady revenue stream for our nonprofit partner, to help them build out their mission, and they are doing it way better than we ever could. 

They have a decade or more of experience, doing exactly what I had hoped my company could do. And so instead of starting from scratch, we worked with them.

Chase Clymer  

I couldn't agree more. And I have first-hand experience saying that it is hard to run a nonprofit, especially if you're trying to run a business at the same time. People may know that I did start one and actually just turned it... I set out of it. 

I'd like to stop it legally during the pandemic just because.... Here's the thing. I'm like running this business full time and I didn't have the time to dedicate to it, personally. And I felt as a failure myself. 

But here's the thing, if it's not your full time thing, you can't do it both. 99% of businesses fail or something like that. And it's like, yeah. If you're not focused on the nonprofit... The nonprofit is a business. If you're not fully focused on it, it's going to fail. 

So if you are driven by a mission and you want to impact the world, you need to actually, 100%, just focus on what you're doing and find someone to partner with to do the nonprofit element of it. I don't know how Tom did it. And my hat's off to them. 

Hannah Davis  

Exactly. 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So you have this idea for this amazing product. I'm assuming you're finding some really, really amazing connections to help you source and manufacture this product, through your career over their teaching. 

What are the first phases of getting samples or building a website? What were you... How are you getting things going?

Hannah Davis  

I'm like running through that time of my life in my head. I'm just flashing back to all the memories. But I actually, interestingly enough, the factory partner that initially produced the very first run of BANGS, I did not meet through my connections in China. 

I found them on Google because through the connections that I did have in China, those factories, none of them ended up working out. I actually think we got kicked out of... And this isn't a bound number. It's around here. 

But we got kicked out of around 7 factories before we found the factory that we currently work with now. So factory production, especially, for this product is extremely difficult because it can't be done in small batches. 

This might be a small number for some people. But for somebody starting from scratch, the minimum order number for a lot of these factories was 2000 pairs of shoes. 

And if you have sold zero pairs of shoes, that's a really big number. So we... But I'll back up a little further. So I had the idea for BANGS. I'm in China. I decided on the name of the shoe.

I still didn't have a business plan at the time but I found somebody to make me samples. I started showing them to people, and then I decided I was gonna start this company and try to do this thing right or what I imagined would be right. And yeah. 

And then we got kicked out of a number of factories, and ended up finding our current factory partner that we've been working with since 2015. And they are based in Vietnam. So our production is now no longer in China. 

It's exclusively out of one factory in Vietnam, which is amazing. And I have to really credit them with the development of our shoes. 

So it's very stressful switching factories, but we were also able to say "Hey, what can we do to improve our product. And with the switch of our factory, I think we have better, more durable shoes, which is a silver lining of chaos. (laughs)

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So you have now got samples and you've got some you got some production underway. Obviously, from what it sounds to me, you used the original factory to get things started. 

What was the go-to-market strategy? How did you launch the brand to the world? I think there's probably someone listening right now that has a product and they're about to launch and they just like "What do I do?"

Hannah Davis  

Well, I launched things in a different world. There was... Instagram wasn't what it is today. Social media was on the edge of the explosion. Facebook ads were a big deal but it wasn't what it is now. And the word 'influencer' wasn't a thing. 

So when I launched BANGS, wholesale was our main strategy. Our direct-to-consumer was a piece of our business. It wasn't exclusive. And now BANGS is 100% direct-to-consumer. 

The only place you can buy our shoes is through our website, or maybe Depop or something like that. But those.... We don't manage that, naturally. So yeah. I put 12 pairs of shoes in the trunk of my car and I drove up and down the East Coast and cold-walked into stores. 

And again, I have a political science degree. I don't have a degree in fashion merchandising. I don't know the lingo, but I have no shame (laughs). So I would walk into these stores like I was supposed to be there and would just talk to whoever. 

And eventually I learned the lingo from messing up. I learned the language that you need to be doing wholesale. 

So I started walking in and I would just say, "Hey, I'd like to talk to your footwear buyer." Nobody told me to say that. 

I'd walk and be like, "Hey, I have some... I have  this new shoe line. Who do I need to talk to?" 

They're like, Oh, you want to talk to blah, blah, blah. Oh, he's the footwear buyer." 

And I'm like, "Okay. Footwear buyer. Remember that one." 

So then moving forward, I just got comfortable. And I got told no all the time. All the time. I actually got kicked out of a store in Brooklyn because I walked in and asked to talk to the buyer. 

And this woman got really mad and she was like, "You can't just walk in here." And she kicked me out. And then... But the first year of BANGS, I ended up selling in close to $100,000 worth of shoes just by walking into stores and handing out pieces of paper. 

And that would have been really impressive, except that nobody was walking in and buying them. 

So we were left with a situation where we were selling shoes to retailers who were not wanting to pay their bills because the shoes weren't selling through. And then we discovered Instagram and then everything changed.

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Chase Clymer  

Wow, that's amazing. I think the gusto of just "I'm gonna go try to sell these things" is  the thing that any entrepreneur needs to do. Honestly, I was talking about this yesterday, actually, with my roommate. And I'm not going to get very specific. 

But essentially a friend of ours and stuff has started a business. But the way they were speaking about it... It's almost as if they were waiting for some sort of virality to happen organically and that things would just work out. 

And it never will unless you put the effort in and go out there and sell the thing that you're trying to curate with your business and bring to the world. That's the only way to get to the next level. You really have to go sell it. 

So I think a lot of entrepreneurs don't want to do that, especially now with just how easy it is to build a store and get your products online. And just the hopeful, wishful thinking of "it's going to sell eventually." 

No! If it's not selling now, it's not going to. You need to put an effort out there to get eyes on your product and get people in the door. So I applaud you there. 

So one, I'm assuming you fielded quite a few phone calls from these people about it not selling. How did Instagram help? What was that turning point like? Was that where you think the initial success and everything took off was how you guys capitalized on Instagram?

Hannah Davis  

Yes. Instagram absolutely was like the turning point for us. Basically, what happened was... And these numbers, in retrospect, might be small, but it was a sign for us. 

So we gifted a pair of shoes to this girl that I followed, who had a lot of followers who at this point in time, you might call her an influencer. But that word wasn't a thing in 2015. 

And I was just like, "Hey. I'm a girl. I follow you. I like your vibe. Do you want these free shoes?"

And she was like, "Sure." 

So we just sent her a pair of shoes and she posted about them. And overnight, our Instagram account grew by 700 followers. And then we were able to have a spike of sales. And that really showed us that Instagram could be very powerful for us. 

So we decided to shift a lot of our attention from wholesale to our Instagram efforts. And eventually we just phased [out] our wholesale initiative out completely.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. That's how easy it is. Throw some offers out there to influencers and see what happens. Obviously now, it's like a completely different world. And there's different levels of influencers: Macro, micro... 

And you got these people with million followers and all sorts of engagement levels. This whole thing now. But it's still a very, very viable way to get like a new product off the ground. 

And I think people often overlook it, because it is a very non-scalable thing. But to get a business going, I think it's like you have to do those non scalable things at the beginning to get the initial traction. 

So let's fast forward now. Is there anything that happened between learning about Instagram and how that all worked out and launching the brand and going straight to DTC that you wish you go back in time and be like, "Let's not do this thing or make this mistake." that you want to help other people avoid?

Hannah Davis  

I think the thing... My biggest mistake... And it is still my biggest mistake. I have not fixed it yet: It's being afraid. We're lucky that --knock on wood-- that we haven't made any massive errors. 

We haven't purchased a shoe that's just like bombed or a series of shoes that just didn't do well or spent a huge amount of money on something that didn't work out. Our growth has been pretty measured. 

And I don't know if you call our growth conservative because some people might say we've grown quickly. Some people might say we haven't grown fast at all. 

So I guess it just depends on who you're talking to (laughs). But I would say that I sometimes get so afraid of what people will think that I won't do certain things and like what you were saying about your friend or somebody that you know that is waiting for something to happen. 

You have to put yourself out there and you have to tell your story because this is a good... This might sound really harsh or also really freeing depending on how much sleep you have or like your mood for the day (laughs). But nobody cares. 

Nobody cares what you're doing or what I'm doing. People are so focused on themselves and their goals. And this includes me and us. I would assume if you're listening to this and you're an entrepreneur, you're so focused on what you're doing. 

And you notice the people that you like. You're like, "Man, they're doing so well." But if you see something you don't like, it's very rare that you sit around and think about it. 

And so the advice I tell myself is if somebody doesn't like what you're doing, they're just going to move on and forget about it. The people that sit and harp on it, that's weird. And that's very, very rare. 

So I think, for a long time, I was just scared of leveraging social media. And I still am fighting that. And I think that fear... And this is like a cliche thing to say but I genuinely believe it. 

And I genuinely battle it all the time and every day. It's like letting fear be a driver,or be a reason that you don't do something... And not fear of hurting somebody because that's valid. 

But if you're afraid... If the fear is based on what other people think, that is not a reason to not do something.

Chase Clymer  

I couldn't agree more. And I want to double down there with fear. It perpetuates indecisiveness. And I think indecisiveness is what stalls businesses. It stops growth. It stops you from going to the next level [by] not making a decision. 

So I just want to... Just make a decision. Because here's the best thing, even if it's the wrong decision, you're gonna figure it out quick enough, and you're gonna pivot and steer to correct the course. It's not going to ruin your business. 

Growing a business is just a series of decisions made over time that make it better and some of them are wrong. I've made terrible decisions in our business. 

But we're still here and it's still going. Not making the decision, being scared to make a choice, That's what's going to kind of stop you from doing anything. 

Hannah Davis  

I absolutely agree. Yep. 

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. So let's fast forward to now. Obviously, things have changed. You're all DTC. You're doing super amazing stuff with Kiva. You got a lot more businesses and processes and stuff built out into the business. 

What does the marketing landscape look for you now? What are you up to? Are you still doing a lot of Facebook and Instagram advertising? Not advertising, but influencer stuff. What has changed? 

Hannah Davis  

So we are doing ads. We do serve an influencer program. We have an ambassador program so our customers and community members can get more involved with the brand, participate in different campaigns and activities that we offer [and] receive a discount on shoes. And we also do Instagram ads. 

So we pay to have our product which is just... We never... We didn't do Instagram ads until 2018. So BANGS grew organically on Instagram from 2015 to 2018. Not $1 [was spent]. 

And then in 2018, we had a very small budget, yeah, like a couple of $100 a month or something like that where we were putting out ads and then we decided to try to really go after it. 

And actually some people might be like, "You're still not really going after it." But for us, we're putting dollars towards that, towards Instagram ads. And those returns are changing. 

Any advice (laughs)... If anybody takes from this, just know that we are still certainly having these conversations and trying to figure out the answer. And this is something that somebody once told me that's really stuck with me. 

Because in my mind, --when I started things-- I was like, "Oh. If we can just hit like 100,000 followers, our problems will be over." Or "Oh. If we can just hit this revenue milestone, all of our problems will be over." 

But the reality is that every company from BANGS to Nike to converse is going "How do we find more people? How do we talk to our customers today? How do we excite them? How do we engage them? How do we find new marketing?" 

So the problems don't change really at all, they just get bigger, there's more money involved, there's more people involved, and the stakes are higher. So your problems don't ever change, they just get more complicated. 

And so I think the problems that we had 5 years ago we still have today. They just look a little different.

Chase Clymer  

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. This is an amazing interview. Is there anything that I forgot to ask you that you think is worthwhile to share with our audience before we go? 

Hannah Davis  

Yeah. If you are waiting to start your business, just do it. Just start it right now. Because  there's that... What's that quote? The best time to plant a tree is now? The second... The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now. So just start it. 

Another just like a quick little thing is that you don't actually have to have products in stock. You can start working towards your business without having product in stock. 

So that's not an excuse either. You can start building your Instagram. You can start your website and start getting feedback. So that's my unsolicited advice.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. Hannah, thank you so much for coming on the show. Everybody, go check out BANGS Shoes. Check out what they're doing with giving back [to entrepreneurs]. 

Kiva is an amazing initiative. I look forward to connecting in a couple of months and chatting again. 

Hannah Davis  

Thank you so much. Have a good one. 

Chase Clymer  

Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. 

We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. 

Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have. Make sure you subscribe, leave a review

And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.