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When You Are a Startup, Be Like a Startup with Michael Vaughn Acord - Honest Ecommerce Ep. 184

Arguably the most sought-after authority in men’s grooming, Vaughn did not find success by accident. 

The son of a barber, his interest in hair piqued at an early age, and he gave his first haircut as a teenager in 1976. 

Vaughn’s client list includes some of the most well-known names in the world—Bruce Springsteen, Richard Gere, Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Brady, President Bill Clinton, Jeff Gordon, Ashton Kutcher and Al Pacino—as well as everyday guys who do anything but fade into the background.

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [01:29] How Vaughn had the idea of going to beauty school
  • [02:41] Vaughn’s music background
  • [03:39] Vaughn’s modeling opportunity
  • [05:24] The return to hairdressing and grooming
  • [07:45] What grooming means for Vaughn
  • [08:45] Vaughn’s involvement in luxury beauty brands
  • [09:52] Sponsor: Electric Eye electriceye.io
  • [10:11] Sponsor: Mesa apps.shopify.com/mesa
  • [10:55] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.com/honestecommerce
  • [11:25] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [12:13] LBP and Vaughn’s partnership with them
  • [13:23] How Covid and the internet affected hairdressing
  • [15:04] Targeting a niche and preparing for dry spells
  • [17:08] Partnerships and buying the group of brands
  • [18:25] Men and women shop differently
  • [19:44] Make sure your products are in stock
  • [22:02] Trust your hands
  • [22:53] Men are not vocal but looks are important to them
  • [23:31] Where to find V76 products

Resources:

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 Transcript:

Chase Clymer  

Before we get started, if you're enjoying this content, you can do us a favor by subscribing to our YouTube channel and ringing the bell.

That will let the algorithm know that you like this content and it will help us produce more.

Michael Vaughn Acord  

You want to stay strong, you want to feel strong, and you want to certainly be involved. But there are times when you just gotta back off and you gotta be patient.

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.

Chase Clymer  

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host Chase Clymer. And today we're welcoming to the show a self described "OG''. That's original groomer. 

Michael Vaughn, he's coming to us. He is the founder of V76. It is a hair care product brand. He's gonna get a lot more into that here in a minute. But first, we talked... 

A few weeks back, we got on the phone and had a little pre-interview about this. And there's a really good story, a fun story about where, where Michael ended up to where he is today. So I'm gonna kind of hand it over to you today. And you can take it away.

Michael Vaughn Acord  

Well, it can be long or it can be a short version, but I'll try to keep it as brief as possible. I grew up in Ohio and the Great Lakes with a single mom, oldest of three. And it was her determination to get me to college. 

And I did not know at the time what I was going to do in college. I had no idea but I also wanted her to... I wanted to fulfill our wishes and ended up going down to Ohio State. And like I said just a moment ago, I just didn't know what I was doing. 

So I went through a period of time where I was enjoying myself getting acclimated but I was burning through her money and everything she was doing to keep me there.

 And I noticed there were a couple of guys that would show up occasionally to some of the parties or get togethers and they just look really very cool. This was like in 1978 around there, '79. And they just... 

They were very fashionable and they looked really cool. And I just at one point went up to him and said what do you guys... "What are you studying here? I'm trying to find my own way." 

And they said "No, we don't go to school here, we come to the parties because it's a lot of fun. But we actually go to the Beauty Academy downtown."

Chase Clymer  

It hasn't changed much, by the way. Everyone goes to the parties at OSU. They don't go to school there. Myself included. (laughs)

Michael Vaughn Acord  

(laughs) So hey, I'm driving them for lunch one day and in some weird way, it just made sense to me that.... 

I didn't realize till later what it was that triggered me but I thought in a couple years time, I could be licensed, I could be a hairdresser, and go anywhere in the world. 

And at that time in my life I wanted out of Ohio, I was playing music with a band called The Pony Boys out of Cleveland. Trent Reznor was getting started with a band called Slam Bamboo

And we just kind of thought that was going to be the next place where music was going to generate from. It was happening in Athens, Georgia with R.E.M. and Pylon, B-52s, and then it shifted over to Seattle. There was a big scene happening there. 

And we just felt like Cleveland had so much going out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame being there, coming there. And we thought we were going to be the next big thing. 

So I was playing with this band, but I was going to school and we were going in and out of New York and various places, touring with national acts, we would just get on these bills and open for them. I was in New York one weekend and got spotted at a... 

We were playing CBGB and I was spotted at a club called The Nightlife or Limelight and somebody asked me what agency I was with. And I didn't understand what she meant. I said "Come to the gig." And she was... 

She sent me a bunch of information to have me fly to New York a week later to embark in this modeling career. So she was wanting to know my availability and all that sort of stuff with modeling. 

So after a few things, a few jobs in New York and some tests and the opportunity to go to Europe, I thought "Sure." And at this point, I had already graduated from Beauty School. So I started cutting hair, dabbling in it up around Oberlin College

And my uncle who was kind of a father figure at the time said "Go. You can always cut hair. But this will be a period of time where you can go over there and live and learn the currency, the culture, the language, all that sort of stuff." So I did.

I embarked on London, Paris and Milan for about 4 years. My wife came over to study in Geneva and she wanted to be in international business. 

She wanted to move back to New York after 4 years, but I was there too for her. And I said "I didn't want to live in New York. I want to go back to Ohio and fish." 

But she said "You're already working in New York so it makes sense." So I came back to New York. I was about to get married to her which we did and just felt like I didn't want to leave.

I think at the time, there was a big contract to go to Tokyo for six months or something, guaranteed money. But I didn't want to leave her in New York because we had never lived here before. And we've never been here before, in that capacity. 

And so I just kept picking around doing odd jobs here and there flying to Chicago, various places. But I just didn't feel like it was a real career path. 

Now I was into my seventh year modeling and playing music on the side and stuff. And she said, "Why don't you back into hair, you're always good at hair." 

And I remembered when I was in Europe, primarily --but sometimes in the States, too-- I was doing a lot of hair campaigns at the time and meeting some really amazing hairdressers through this out through Vidal Sassoon, Skroob, Trevor Sorbie, Alan International, all kinds of big beauty brand names, and I would be in these ads. 

But these amazing hairdressers that I formed relationships with would do my hair, and I started talking about hair. And a couple times, they said, "Why don't you ever get back into it, you'd be great at it." So I remembered that and I reached out to them. 

And they said, "You should check out a place in the city called Bumble and bumble. It's just starting. And they've got a lot of momentum. A lot of cool things are happening." But back then it was about magazines, and it was about runway and celebrity and stuff. 

There wasn't so much internet. Youtube itself changed in a huge way, not just in the story I'm telling now, but also in the capacity of business in a huge way in my industry. So they were known for that. And they were known for giving credits in the spine. 

You'd open up a magazine and you would see "What clothes are they wearing? That's a really great looking outfit" or "Who did the hair? Who's the photographer." And Bumble was getting a lot of that. So I decided to go there. And I was hired. 

And then a lot of the work they were doing was female work with magazines and the rest of it. And then when some things would come in for guys, I said "I could do this." And they said "Alright, well then let's get you set up." 

And I started doing things with Rolling Stone and GQ just doing models and got an agent put together a portfolio of all that sort of stuff. So you start getting busy in that capacity. 

And then before you know it, it's other magazines like Vanity Fair or Time and you're doing actors, and then you're doing musicians, and then you're doing presidents, and senators and just people. 

But my niche was men's grooming and I felt like I knew it because I was on the other side of it for a while so those situations really didn't intimidate me at all about being with a photographer like Herb Ritts or Annie Leibovitz or Mark Seliger and grooming these guys because I felt like I knew looks good on a guy. 

And then from that Bumble's product was born with the help of Salon which made it really popular and cool at the time because it was coming from hairdressers and not from labs or from companies.

And then I always was sort of thinking on the side like "What would I do differently if it was mine?'' and "What does men's grooming mean to me? It's always been more than hair." 

I'd go on a photoshoot or I'd go with the guys about to go on stage or something and I'd be looking at everything. I'd be looking at his belt, his look, his feeling, his skin, his hair, it was more than just being this hairdresser guy. And that's where the word grooming fell into it. 

And yeah, so I wrapped myself around what grooming was and it was skin, it was beard, it's gifting for guys, and it's  hair. So it stands on these sort of 4 pillars in my mind of well-groomed and the line is the hair. 

Boldly barbered, has the bearding face forward, it's the skin stuff. And a well-gifted man is the other pillar. 

And that's what we did about 6 years ago, as we launched it with a group called Luxury Brand Partners, who also was the group behind Oribe, which has become a huge success and then recently sold to Kao, a Japanese company that also owns Goldwell, a big color company. So I'm still with them. R+Co is with them. There's… IGK is another line that's with LBP. And, yeah, I decided to go with people that knew how to do this. 

And administratively, there is a core of LBP that was with Bumble at the time. So when they... Bumble sold and they left. They were in a non-compete for a couple of years. And then when they came back into the scene, it made sense for them to do artists-driven products. 

And Bumble was an artist driven product that was a huge success. So then they had a relationship with Oribe, they had a relationship with me, Garren, a few of these other guys and they've wrapped themselves around having these artists-driven brands, Oribe being a huge success for them. 

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Chase Clymer  

You're being a little bit humble here. I'm gonna list off some names here of people that you've worked with in the past, including Paul McCartney, Lenny Kravitz, you did the cover of GQ's Man of the Year.

So there's a lot of clout behind your name in the industry. So to have a partnership with a company... You said that it was Lifestyle Brand Partnerships, correct?

Michael Vaughn Acord  

Luxury Brand Partners is the name that they formed. It was Oribe. And then with the success of Oribe they wanted to become sort of like a mini Estee Lauder in the beauty industry with a nail company called Smith and Cult

R+Co was this celebrated hairdresser. Garren's a company with Howard Mclaren. Also, me with men's grooming. IGK became another sort ofSephora brand, but it's all in this sort of beauty... There's a makeup... 

There was a makeup line in there as well. But they had maybe 7 different companies at a time underneath there that they were germinating and...

Chase Clymer  

Mm-hmm.

Michael Vaughn Acord  

...conceiving, then again, you just hope to find the right... To walk the right path and be successful and or sell at some point. I didn't get into this to sell it but to be in it. 

It does feel good to still be standing, especially with all that we've been through with Covid, with all the changes I spoke about earlier with digital media and education and what that looks like. I'm not driving... 

We're not flying from city to city, with barbershops and other hair salons giving these classes which is really valuable because it's face to face. 

You're really on top of something teaching someone. You also get to entertain later in the evening, get to know these different people, their families, their way of life, whether it's in Austin, Detroit, Phoenix, Boston, San Fran, wherever. And that's all shut down. It's come to a halt because of Covid. 

And as we get back into the whole education type of thing, now you look at the internet. Everybody's educating everybody. Everybody's got a platform and a brand. So that's what makes things noisy. It's sorting out what's credible. 

And what's just become a popular idea for a guy that used to be an insurance salesman, and now he's in the aerospace business.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Well with... I think there are probably some listeners out there that do have a bit of clout about them in some way shape or form and maybe some Instagram following or some other network or just previous life. They had some kind of notability with what they're doing. 

And I think that a lot of people want to capitalize on that reach that they have and one way to do it is a partnership of what you've established yourself. 

What should people be looking for in partners to help them build out these types of companies like a product company based upon some previous experience?

Michael Vaughn Acord  

What I've learned from it is that I think that if I go back, I may have hit the market with too many SKUs right off the bat. 

So, again, I was wrapping myself around this word grooming. And I didn't want to just put out like a hair paste or a couple of shampoos, I wanted to golf on what I was doing whenever I would leave the salon and go on set. But it's a lot when you all of a sudden have... 

You enter the marketplace with 23 SKUs, you're gonna have those big sellers and you're gonna have ones that just don't move just like your bathroom. 

For anybody listening right now, you've got... You go to your bathroom and open up the medicine cabinet or look at what's in the shower. And it's not everything of one brand. 

Very rarely do you see everybody with just one brand of something you've got a certain deodorant scent you like, there's a scent that you like from a cologne, there's toothpaste that's different. All these things just get mixed in. And so being aware of that... 

Also keeping in mind when you are a startup to be a startup and think like that. And so that's a lesson to myself. I wanted to do both with the salon that I own now with partners, as well as the product company, I wanted to get into business with people that knew this. 

And they knew what would happen when there's a supply chain freeze like there is right now or there's raw materials that aren't available. 

In the case of the salon dead months, like August in New York City when everybody's in the Hamptons are away.

And then when it's crazy leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas and everything, so just it helped me a lot to just with a confidence standpoint to be with people that understood what it was that I was entering and what I was going through. 

But there are some mistakes that happen. There are assumptions that happen. We think we're going to be, it's going to be a home run in some cases and money gets spent and then you have to pull back. And it's navigating through all of that. 

You want to, you want to stay strong, you want to feel strong, and you want to certainly be involved. But there are times when you just gotta back off and you gotta be patient

Chase Clymer  

Entering into a partnership like this, where does the division lie? Who takes responsibility for what pieces of the business?

Michael Vaughn Acord  

From a creative standpoint, it's me. I'm the one... Things would run through me, I touch these products, I come up with these fragrances, I'm the one that decides on all of that: The way it looks, the way it feels, the way it touches, the experience of the product. 

I trust through discussions and the board meeting and whatnot, whether we go into distribution, whether we go into specialty shops, whether we break that 23 SKU line up. Because at the beginning, we were saying, as with Bumble and Oribe, if you want to go into business with us... And you can go 3 deep on the shelf, 6 or 12, deep or whatever but you're taking all of it right. 

And with that comes this umbilical cord of education, this relationship. As I said with Bumble, we set up on both the times an inch wide, but a mile deep. So it wasn't everybody that was involved. So when we went after... 

Out of the gates, we went after the top salons because of this history of Bumble and Oribe in the country. So we were in some of the top salons in all of the cities in the country, and Neiman Marcus. And that was a really nice crowning that I loved having. 

And it was about a year or so later where we're sitting in a board meeting and my wife says, "well, some of the numbers weren't coming in the way that we were projecting them to.

And she said, "I have a question for you. To the board, can you run some data on how many men in America in numbers like we want, are going to these $100+ haircut places that are the best salons in America? And how many men are discussing their grooming concerns? At the Neiman Marcus counter?" 

And it was a huge wake up [call] for us that men are different [from] women, and men shop differently than women. And in figuring that out and navigating through where [the guys are], but in numbers like we want when you launch a company like this with partners, they weren't at these $100+... 

There were plenty of people going there in the cities, but not across the country. Not where we really wanted to drive revenue.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So definitely getting some more market research under your belt about where your customers may or may not be, is always some good advice we hear here on the show. 

Is there anything else that you remember from getting the product off the ground and especially the online store off the ground That comes to mind... 

Maybe even like mistakes that you guys made along the way that you would help the listeners avoid?

Michael Vaughn Acord  

Well, you just have to stay on the fact that things like Salesforce came out and Shopify came out and all of these things started to gain momentum. 

And we perhaps, at the very beginning, weren't looking in that direction, doing things really more direct, again, trying to keep that hand touch right into the office. So fulfilling orders, making sure inventory was there when you needed it... 

I'm taking advice from any of the big vendors that we have now. For instance, Amazon where you can find anything these days. 

One of the things that they said, "Just make sure that you have the inventory, make sure it's in stock.

Because if any of us are looking for a specific moisturizer or something for their hair, and they're online doing that, if it's not in stock, then they're gonna go to another company to try and find something that mimics or gets close to what it is that you have." 

And either they'll hate it or it might replace something where you have the guy. So those kinds of lessons are elementary, but they're huge. And it's difficult to manage [inventory sometimes] when you're up against certainly what we've been up against the last couple of years. 

Websites, the same thing, they're gonna morph into different user-friendly. There's this thing called Loom, I think, that just came out or maybe it's been out. 

But I've been shown it, people have been showing this to me recently, where you actually pop up on these pages and have a chat about whatever it is that's in the background that you're talking about. It could be a haircut, could be a new product, it could be just a new job. 

But you're actually there doing it, instead of just having a copy up or having to send somebody to another YouTube site or something. It's just right there. 

So staying current with all of that, websites constantly changing, keeping it fresh with music choices to what you've been up to... 

Yeah, and I just think that it's a living, breathing thing that you can just sit there and go. Well, that's what it was. And now we change it to this one. 

That's true, but it's still changing, all the time changing. And we meet every week to discuss a lot of this stuff. And yeah, it's been a journey, that's for sure.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Is there anything I didn't ask you about today that you'd want to share with our audience?

Michael Vaughn Acord  

The only other thing I would share was like I was saying earlier, what was interesting for me was that I ended up trusting my hands. So I [have been] a drummer since I was a little kid.

And at 14, I made my first bit of money by playing at a 45. And at the time of going to college and breaking off and going into beauty barber school, I was trusting my hands. It was something tangible for me...

Chase Clymer  

Mm-hmm.

Michael Vaughn Acord  

...that I just could touch and feel and that's just something I realized much later. So a lot of my hashtags are, #trustyourhands. 

Whether it's somebody that's an architect or an artist or works with his hands, but a lot of us, we just have all these different journeys that seemed to be the one that made sense for me. I still work in the salon, I still have these conversations, I get my questions answered. This is... 

When it comes to guys and finding out, they really do open up, and it's something that's tricky, because not all men are that vocal about things that are personal. 

And it's not funny when a guy has an issue with thinning hair, or he's balding, or graying, or he's got unwanted hair or whatever it may be with men's grooming. 

A lot of sites and a lot of different companies approach it with girls and laughter and joking and manscaping and all this stuff. 

But when you really get down to a guy wanting an answer for something that's an issue to him, or to change his look simply, it's important to him and it's serious. And it really does give him confidence when you get it right.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. I can't thank you enough for coming on the show today, Michael and sharing your journey with us. Where should people go to check out the products?

Michael Vaughn Acord  

V76.com. The new fun website. I'm sorry, it seems like here at the apartment they're cleaning the hallway or mowing or doing something? V76.com is a website and interactive. I talk and answer questions and all that good stuff. So yeah.

Chase Clymer  

 Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Michael Vaughn Acord  

Thank you, my fellow buckeye. (laughs) Nice to meet you chase

Chase Clymer  

You as well. 

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.