Building a T-Shirt Empire One Instagram at a Time

John Pugh, CEO of House of Swank Clothing, joins the Social Pros Podcast to discuss product curation through social and why the art of handwriting notes is still alive and well.

In This Episode:

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Full Episode Details

Postcards Are The New Tweet

Using his creativity and intuition, John has built a local, inside-joke focused clothing empire with a rabid following that has expanded to stores in different parts of the country. The foundation of his success lies squarely in customer engagement over social media. Without Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, many of his ideas would have never found a shirt or an audience.

And while it may be hard to believe, in the modern world of social media there is still a spot at the table for pen and paper. Connecting with customers through the mail (we’re talking snail mail) and handwritten sign-up sheets, he has established a successful newsletter and engagement campaign that routinely keeps customers coming back for more. So successful is his engagement strategy that he even manages to receive snail mail from customers.

All of this is born from a keen understanding that knowing what you are doing is important but trusting your gut and following your humanity is what keeps your social relevant and engaging.

In This Episode

  • How engaging social in the brainstorming process leads to an open book of ideas you’ll never forget
  • Why a successful e-newsletter and social campaign means breaking out the trusty pen and paper
  • How analytics and data can lead to brand suffocation and stagnation
  • Why content curation means trusting your gut


Quotes From This Episode

“I’ll make one shirt, I’ll walk around my favorite bar, walk around my favorite grocery store and if anyone says anything, we’ll go ahead and make runs of this thing. And if no one says anything, then we just shelve it.”

That one to one feedback, that's where we generate a ton of our stuff. Click To Tweet

“A lot of it is just people kind of shooting the breeze and something pops up, 45 seconds later we have a new design.” —@House_of_Swank

“You just have to keep an open ear and there’s always something going on… we can go from idea to an actual physical product in 45 minutes if we need to.” —@House_of_Swank

“I see a lot of companies overthinking stuff, getting stuck in the numbers, getting Excel sheets and all the analytics, they get bogged down with that crap instead of, ‘Here’s who we are, here’s how we live, and here’s why you should approach us’.” —@House_of_Swank

We try to concentrate on what are we doing well, let’s do very incremental stuff to make that a little bit better.” —@House_of_Swank

“Folks love buttons and they love getting something for free and there’s a engagement there.” —@House_of_Swank

“It’s a tangible thing that you can hold in your hand, in a world that’s of such much untangible crap. A Facebook post is great, an Instagram picture is fantastic, but there’s this thing with a picture of a customer or my kid … That sort of tangible authenticity, you can’t fake that. And I think people appreciate it.” —@House_of_Swank

“One thing folks are doing right is great photos make a difference.” —@House_of_Swank

“You can focus group things, and you can do all that kind of stuff up and down, and do all the Google measurements and all that kind of jazz but if it doesn’t come from an authentic place that you really care about from your heart, you’re just pushing widgets and it doesn’t matter.” —@House_of_Swank

The important thing is not what you know, but realizing what you don't know. Click To Tweet

“This entire business I feel like is one big social experiment, in one way or another. And a lot of times our fans and our friends that started from fans, they have some really cool stuff and some really ideas and I want to see what happens with it.” —@House_of_Swank

Just go with it. If it feels good, if it looks good, - do it. 'Cause chances are, it is. Click To Tweet



See you next week!


Jay: Welcome everybody to Social Pros, the podcast for real people doing real work in social media. This is, ladies and gentlemen, episode 257. I am still Jay Baer from Convince and Convert, joined per usual by my special Texas friend hailing in from the great city of Austin, Texas. Well, hailing now. He’s originally from the dirty South. He’s from Tennessee.
Adam: Dirty South.
Jay: Now he is in Austin. He is the executive strategist- not a regular strategist- the executive strategist for Salesforce Marketing Cloud. He is the one, the only; He is Mr. Adam Brown.
Adam: Jay, great to be here. Hailing from originally Nashville, Tennessee, music city USA, to the live music capital of world, Austin. I think you’re headed to Nashville in the next couple of weeks, aren’t you?
Jay: I am headed to Nashville as we record this in just a few hours. In the morning, as a matter of fact. By the time you hear this, ladies and gentlemen, I will have been to Nashville, and Denver, and Vegas, and returned. Assuming that I’m still on this mortal coil when this podcast airs, I will have had a great time. That’s my prediction.
Adam: Well, I hope you’ll have a Goo Goo Cluster, a moon pie and a Gerst beer for me, not necessarily in that order.
Jay: I’m gonna have all those things. It’s good times. The first event I’m going to is from our friends at Emma formerly a sponsor of this show. They are doing their annual conference. Tito’s Handmade Vodka is one of the sponsors, so that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.
Adam: Austin company there.
Jay: A week after I’m going to Vegas as I do so many times with our friends at Oracle. My sometimes client, your mortal enemy. Their conference, the musical guest, you’ll appreciate this, is Fitz and The Tantrums and Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears. That’s going to be good times.
Adam: That’s going to be a good show.
Jay: That’s going to be a really good show. So be checking the Instagram for that. You’ll hear this ladies and gentlemen after. You can go back and check my Instagram in arrears as the kids say.
Adam: The kids really say that, really?
Jay: I have kids and they do not say, “in arrears.” They should. I’m going to teach them that tonight before I leave.

So you’re from the dirty south, but you kinda knocked it out of ya. Our guest on this show of Social Pros still is in the dirty South. In fact he is the proprietor of the raddest, southern themed t-shirts on the planet company, all about city pride designs representing the great city of Raleigh and the great state of North Carolina, he is John Pugh, CEO of the House of Swank Clothing Company.

John: Yes CEO, brush cleaner, that kind of guy. I’m that guy.
Jay: He’s all the things. You told us this. You do everything. You’re doing all the t-shirt designs. You’re doing all the social media, which is what we’ll talk about of course. You’re doing a lot of the sales. You are like the man, the myth, the legend. And this is not like a four month old. You’ve been doing this for a while.
John: Yeah, we’re into our sixth year now. We started off, just I was playing gigs around town. I had a three-string guitar I have. I was in grad school at the time. I couldn’t afford a proper resonator so I made a lunch box guitar out of a lunch box I had when I was a kid. Made that. I bought five shirts from the craft store. Made a few of those. Sold them. Bought two more. Sold those. Bought twenty more. Sold those and kinda went from there. There was no game plan by any stretch of the imagination. I just wanted to pay my bar tab was my entire goal at the time.
Adam: Excuse me John, and Jay, can I interrupt for a second? Is this the first time in over 240 episodes that we’ve had live music?
Jay: 267 episodes, and yes Adam, that is true. We’re taking it up a notch with live accompaniment from John as part of this show.
John: Music.
Adam: Have we paid our ASCAP and BMI fees for this particular-
Jay: Well, I think John wrote that riff, so I think we’re fine.

I love that story, that you just bought some shirts for cheap, doctored them up, flipped up, and all of a sudden over time it became a business. It seems like, to me, that that’s the same way that social works. That you do something, then people will be like, “That’s pretty rad.” And then you do it some more, and then they’re like, “That’s still great.” And then you keep doing it and all of a sudden you have a following and a thing.

John: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when we first started and hell, now we still don’t have much of a business plan. But yeah, the social media stuff was just, I had to Facebook like everyone else, I’d post something and half my Instagram feed is me scratching something at the back of a bar napkin and going, “Is this really stupid, or just kinda partially stupid?” And getting feedback from that. Honestly, I’ll make one shirt, I’ll walk around my favorite bar, walk around my favorite grocery store and if anyone says anything, we’ll go ahead and make runs of this thing. And if no one says anything, then we just shelve it.
Jay: You know it’s not for you. How about that market research, ladies and gentlemen, we don’t need any reporting, we just walk around the bar or the grocery store and if somebody says, “I like that shirt,” then you make more of them. There you go.
John: It’s nuts, but honestly that’s the most effective way we’ve handled all this initial runs of things. It’s just, see what happens. We do a ton of street vessels and fairs, and that sort of thing. And I’ll make three, I’ll throw the staff in them and if people like them, then we’ll order them, we’ll do a presale. And that’s some of our best stuff, has just been off the cuff, taking less, if it has to be more than five minutes for a design, those are the ones that never sell. Ever, ever, ever, never sell. The one that takes 20 seconds, boom, that’s the bestsellers. Period. Every time.
Jay: So, most of your designs as I mentioned in the intro are, I don’t want to say inside jokes, but it’s about Raleigh and North Carolina primarily. Other then you’ve got ones, “Man versus Booze” is that what it is? You’ve got sort of a line that’s-
John: “Man versus Liver,” that’s a friend of ours. Paul Friedrich is a designer and artist in town, and that’s a side company he has. He’s done Onion Head Monster and several other things. But so we basically work with him, he develops the designs, we sell them, he gets a cut of the proceeds. And we kind of do some cooperative things like that. But yeah, most of it is all like, North Carolina, southern-centric. We’re really big into city shirts, especially small towns. I grew up in the big town of Climax, North Carolina, and we do have a stoplight now, which is big stuff. But we’ll do little town t-shirts all over the state, because no one else really cares about these little itty-bitty towns, but I do.

I love those little places. And people are really gravitating and it’s really caught on, it’s just been fantastic. I love hearing people’s stories about these places, they’ll come to the booth or come in the shop or send us an email and they’ll rattle on about their great grandmother’s tomato patch in Whitsitt or wherever. And that’s just the best thing, that’s the most gratifying thing we do, is get that sort of feedback.

Jay: So you mentioned that you have a shop, tell us about the actual retail environment.
John: So our retail shop is in downtown Raleigh, we basically have about 3000 square feet, about two thirds of that set up for production and offices, then we have about 1000 square feet we’ve carved out to do just a retail shop. We’re kind of off the beaten path, so folks that come in generally know what they want to get, so we don’t do a lot of foot traffic, which is fine with me. We’re mostly wholesale at this point. But yeah, it’s great. That one to one feedback, that’s where we generate a ton of our stuff. Honestly a lot of it is, you think about my grandparents and what they said when I was growing up, and my parents, and everything. But a lot of it is just people kind of shooting the breeze and something pops up, 45 seconds later we have a new design.
Jay: Yeah that’s the amazing thing about it, you mentioned that you put design options on your Instagram account. We’ll make sure to link it up in the show notes, go to to find all the links, and you did a shirt, I don’t know it was a little while ago, and it was the, “I miss Raleigh,” shirt and you got huge engagement on that photo on your Instagram. But what was amazing to me, is that seemingly instantaneously, it was really quick, you dropped a comment back in there said, “Yeah, we made it. And here’s when it’s available, here’s how to get it.” And I was like, “Man, talk about rapid prototyping, rapid production.” You know from a sketch to a shirt, to you guys can come buy it or go down the website was really, really quick. And that has to be such an advantage over other people who are making shirts and it takes them six months to refresh their line.
John: Yeah, I mean that super quick engagement is something we’ve kind of been known for. Raleigh is the capital city of North Carolina and there’s lots of stupid people saying lots of crazy things all the time here in the capital city. And we always jump on something, you just have to keep an open ear and there’s always something going on, we generally always have something within eight hours of something. And now we’ve kind of gotten to the point where people are texting me, or tweeting me, or Facebooking me like, “Did you hear about the thing?” And I’m like, “What thing?” It’s like, “Here’s the thing.” And then we do everything in house, we do all the screen work, any vinyl work, all that kind of thing is done in house. So we can go from idea to an actual physical product in 45 minutes if we need to.
Jay: Wow, that is remarkable. I mean you see that sort of more commonly in sports, where companies are set up to, “Okay, it’s the end of the third quarter, let’s start making shirts that we’re gonna sell instantly after the game.” But to do it with sort of pop culture and ideas, especially at a local regional level is really, really fascinating. Do you have a whole notepad of ideas, like the way I would with blog posts or with podcast guest ideas. Like we’ve got a whole list and then sometimes people go to the top or they slide down the middle, because something topical happens.
John: Oh yeah, absolutely. I always have a little moleskin in my pocket or a bigger one in my man purse that I’m always have on me. And honestly a lot of the times I’ll do a sketch and I immediately put it on Instagram or Facebook just to have a marker, so if I go back and look two months down the road I can look at that like, “Oh, I totally forgot to do that design!” And we’ll push that one out. It basically gives me something in the cloud, immediately as a placeholder. But yeah as always I always have a three by five card, nothing else in my pocket at all times. Forever and ever.
Jay: Maybe I should do that, I always have this list of blog posts and it’s always like three words. And then I get ready to write it, and I’m like, “What the hell was that about?” Like I forget what the whole thing was and I’m like, “Oh, I guess I can’t write that.” ‘Cause I have no idea what my point was. Maybe I should do what you’re doing, as soon as I think of the idea write one sentence and put it on Facebook and say, “What do you guys think?” I might have to steal that from you, John.
John: Oh yeah totally. In all sense one of my Gmail accounts is basically just a to-do list of stuff and I’ll punch out something real quick and it’ll be three words or I’ll take a picture of something like, “Don’t forget this,” and I’ll go back and review that about once a month or so. If it doesn’t go in my phone or on my pad, it’s gone. It’s in one ear and out the other, completely.
Jay: Let’s talk about all the things that you do in social, we mentioned Instagram and we talked about Facebook, so some of that is ideas and getting feedback on ideas, some of it I presume is customer service. Are you doing other stuff? Are you doing Twitter or other platforms as well?
John: Yeah we do Twitter, we actually use Instagram to push out a lot of thing to our Facebook page and to our Twitter page as well. We do have a Pinterest page we do a little bit of stuff with, not nearly as much as we should be doing. We’re looking at our stats, most of our buyers are women and we really need to be keen in to those folks.
Jay: Really? That kind of surprises me, it seems like some of your stuff is more bro-centric, is that different than most t-shirt companies or is it common that it’s mostly women?
John: I think it’s probably 50/50 with t-shirt companies. We don’t do super feminine designs, we do a lot of guy stuff. We do some fair like non-specific, we have a lot of women buying stuff for guys. So our email list is easily 65% plus female at this point.
Jay: So Pinterest would be a good place to engage with them and post designs and get repins and more of that eCommerce opportunity from outside the local market.
John: You think? Yeah. We have an intern coming in, we need to basically like, “You’re gonna be my Pinterest person, and-“
Jay: I’m sure we’ve got a lot of Social Pros listeners, especially those from North Carolina of which we have many, who would love to be an intern for you. Send me an email, send me an email. We’ll hook you with John at the House of Swank.

Okay, so we gotta ask, why is called House of Swank? That is a fantastic name for a clothing company, it’s a fantastic name for anything, how’d that come to be?

John: That is the shortest, lamest way to ever get a company name. So when I through-hiked the Appalachian trail back in 2000, back in my young days, back when I had knees-
Jay: So you walked that whole thing? How long is that? That’s like a project.
John: It’s 2150 plus miles or so. It’s about 2200 miles now.
Jay: 2200 mile hike, I don’t even like getting the mail as I’ve mentioned previously.
John: It took about six and a half months or so.
Jay: So how’s the Wi-Fi on the Appalachian trail? I’m guessing not good.
John: The Wi-Fi was definitely sketchy at best of the time, there were basically no access points. Basically I was writing a newspaper column for one the papers under the nickname Johnny Swank, I picked up on the trail. And I’d go in skim one hour from some library to get the 500 words out or 1000 words out and sending snail mail, sending pictures. Now people are tweeting immediately from the entire trail, it’s amazing. But even so, I picked up Johnny Swank as a nickname and –
Jay: Okay, let me just drill down on that a little bit. How do you just casually pick up the nickname Johnny Swank on the Appalachian trail, I feel like there’s more to that story that you’re not telling us.
John: So before the trail I had done a ton hiking with some friends of mine, and they had through hiked in years prior and you can either get a nickname, someone gives you a nick-, that could be anything it could be like ‘poodiebutt’ or something like that. I didn’t want to be ‘poodiebutt’ so while I was playing a gig at the bar and into my set and they came down and said, “We got the name for you man.” So it was like, “Johnny Sherwood or Johnny Swank, which one you want to have?” I’m like, “One I don’t want to have a poor name, so let’s stay away from Johnny Sherwood, but let’s go with Johnny Swank, I’m fine with that.” So that’s pretty much how I picked up the name and the House of Swank was just me registering the business. I go to the registrar to get a checking account and they’re like, “What’s the business name?” And I’m like, “I don’t know man, how about House of Swank? Does that sound good?” It’s like, “Yeah, let’s do with that.”
Jay: “Has anybody taken that yet?”
John: Yeah, and yeah right. So that was as much thought as I had put into it at that point.
Jay: I love it. Do you guys use Snapchat in the business? It feels like for younger customers that might be something they would be into.
John: I do a little bit, not terribly much though to be completely honest. People Snapchat me, I respond back but I should be doing a lot more. I should be doing lots of things, I should probably be writing all this stuff down.
Jay: That’s why you need an intern.
John: Right, exactly. Tell me, what’s the cool thing now? Let’s do the cool thing.
Jay: We always say is the cool thing is doing today’s thing better.
John: Yeah, right. Exactly. Basically we try to concentrate on, what are we doing well, let’s do very incremental stuff to make that a little bit better. We’ll spend five minutes a day, what’s one thing each of my staff can do a little bit better, and we’ll give them time. And they’ll tweak a production process, or find a cooler way to do something. We’re trying to constantly not do like the big five-step plan two years down the road. I’m like, “What’s my next one quarter of a step.” ‘Cause that’s attainable and that’s something that I can handle at this point. That’s kinda how we try to approach things.
Jay: Yeah. And speaking of kinda next steps for small businesses, I’m fired up that you are starting, not one, not two, but three separate podcasts that you believe, as I believe, as Adam believes, as many of our listeners believe, and certainly as our sponsors believe, that podcasting is a great way to connect with people, with customers, with influencers, all that kind of stuff. Tell us about the shows that you’re starting and why you’re diving into the podcasting pool in a serious way.
John: Oh, absolutely. I got hooked on podcasts I don’t know, about eight months, nine months ago, little bit longer. I was a casual listener prior to that then I just dove really deep into it and now I’m totally hooked. So we kind of want to bring in our folks from several different sides. So we’re gonna do and that should be launching tomorrow if I get my website stuff finished up. We have the feed in iTunes that’s ready to go, we’re just gonna launch some episodes. That’s gonna be basically just, as the word says, it’s gonna be all Raleigh centric. Basically we’ve got a guy that rides his bike with no hands for 60 miles at a time, or like a really cool barista, or we have several microbreweries in town. All that kind of thing, just neat stuff.

So we’re gonna do that, we’re also gonna launch the NC Maker podcast which is more curated, we’re basically approach this from around the state doing pottery or weaving or all kinds of neato 3D printing, all kinds of neat stuff with that. I want to kind of keep those separate because the interests are gonna be a little bit different. With that one we’ll actually start doing some maker marketing so for folks doing social media or this is how we set the tin up, or these are some products that we’ve thought had worked very well because we have purchased all manner of things and half of them have been garbage or didn’t work out well for us. So we’re gonna kinda get to the product review things.

And then we’ll have a House of Swank blog, or a House of Swank Podcast that kind of captures everything else in my ramblings and just kind of stuff happening. So yeah, three podcasts this year.

Adam: That is absolutely fascinating, and I love John how you’ve articulated the different audiences and the different content that’s being kind of focused to those audiences. And my question is, are you doing that kind of with the other platforms that you’re working with. I know you do a lot with email, you have the House of Swank email and you’ve got an entire kind of marketing program using that. Are you finding that the email is working just as effectively for you, and are you kind of slicing and dicing your content to different audiences, makers, consumers, large buyers in that channel.
John: With our marketing, we have the House of Swank lame news letter and we’re terribly proud of our lame and infrequent production of that, but we put the news letter out and we actually have been subdividing a little bit as far as locations. If we go to a different town, we’ll get the email addresses from that gable and we’ve tried, we use MailChimp for our back end for our email list management, and they have a little Chimpy dude like you plug in your email address with an iPad and we’ve tried it and frankly it doesn’t work worth a damn for us. People understand like, “Here’s a notebook, here’s a pin, here’s an email address,” and we actually give away little one-inch pin back buttons if we get somebody’s email. We found from the pin back button that we upped our engagement probably 300 percent, folks love buttons and they love getting something for free and there’s a engagement there. We have like this big bin of buttons that gets kind of weighed through. And people love that, and people stay. We have a fairly decent amount of folks who just stick with the news letter.

We also have a wholesale newsletter that goes out just to the big clients, for the wholesale clients. We’re gonna be doing a separate podcast for each one as well. Separate podcast newsletter. I’m sure each one of these things is gonna bleed over as a, “PS also if you’re not on the list for the Raleigh Raleigh Raleigh, we actually have a new episode out this week,” I’m sure we’re gonna be doing a lot of that, because that’s just how we do things. Everything kind of bleeds together, including my personal life. At this point, my personal Facebook and by business Facebook and my Instagram, there’s so much bleed over from one to the next to the next. We try to separate a little bit, but I have a three year old, and everybody knows my kid because he’s all over my Instagram account. Forever and ever, I’m in.

Adam: I would assume that one of the reasons you’re having such great success that you are is, and just the past 15 minutes of this podcast demonstrate, you’re a great storyteller. And you’re creating great stories, whether they’re about you, whether they’re about your trip on the Appalachian trail, whether they’re about your son, you’ve got great content. Now, I know one of the things I often hear when I sit down with both small BM business owners as well as retailers, and you are both. Is looking at, “Gosh, okay where are our social audiences. Who are they? Are they regional, are they here in Raleigh, are they in North Carolina, is it regional, how is this all kind of coming together?” Is that something that’s of importance or interest to you since some of your products are somewhat localized? Would you rather have a deeper, more focus in Raleigh as followers in your social media and your email products or would you say, “Hey, I don’t care. A person is a person and if they’re interested in this topic and they could be a customer, come on by.”
John: Probably the latter, I know from our stats a good, probably at least 50 percent of our sales are within 100 miles of Raleigh. Which just kind of stands to reason we’re kind of locally known around here. We have gone to a couple of trade shows, now we have stores in Oregon and Florida and kind of all over the place. So we get folks coming in from that area, and we’re kind of bleeding into South Carolina and Georgia and Tennessee right now. I think we’ve kind of had our hands tied with that but it’s also great in a way too ’cause we can dive really deep into it.

I grew up here, I’ve lived on the coast, I’ve lived in the mountains, I’ve lived in Central North Carolina. Clearly, I love this state beyond measure. So it’s a little bit of both, we’re probably gonna stay definitely Southern, there’s a million and one t-shirt companies that do like the Southern thing with a fish on the back, or a sailboat and mustaches and bow ties and that’s great and more power to them that’s just not my style, not my thing. So I’m not going for that super wide breadth if you’re in the South East this is the place for us. Our kind of style works for folks that it works with and it doesn’t work for other folks, that is fine. I knew my place in the art world and I am very good with it.

Adam: So you’re gonna keep the content that’s on the shirts kind of localized to Raleigh? Or are you trying to keep your zeitgeist on the sensibilities and the activities that are taking place in all these other cities around the United States where you have stores, or might have stores.
John: Yeah basically every time we pick up a new store in a new town we definitely try to pick the buyer’s brain and you know, “Tell me the one really cool thing that the locals know that if you’re 20 miles outside town you have no idea what they’re talking about.” And let’s develop an idea from there. Just throw me a sketch on the back of a napkin and we’ll run with it. It could be some weirdo water tower or the Georgia Peachoid thing on the way to Gaffney. Things like that, I really love that kind of thing. So it’s not just Raleigh all the time, ’cause that pool is only so deep. But definitely kind of more North Carolina, more Southern is my general thing. And just kind of smartass stuff that you can get away with wearing to your mom’s house is my other side of the coin there too.
Adam: I love that. As you talk to other retailers and other small/medium business owners, what do you find that they’re doing right on social and what are they doing wrong? I know one of the things you talked about in your show notes is that everybody is underestimating Pinterest, and that Pinterest is a powerful tool for brands and organizations like yourself, and I think you’ve even said yourself that you’re going to dedicate some more resources, perhaps some of that intern to Pinterest over the coming year. Any other things that you see that colleagues and competitors are doing right or wrong?
John: I think that one thing folks are doing right is basically great photos make a difference. We do not do a great job with that, we do an okay job with that. Having a good story, I think is something that sometimes things are missing is kind of authenticity. You can focus group things, and you can do all that kind of stuff up and down, and do all the Google measurements and all that kind of jazz but if it doesn’t come from an authentic place that you really care about from your heart you’re just pushing widgets and it doesn’t matter. And you’re not gonna be around five years from now. You have to come from an authentic place to give people an authentic meaning. And that’s the thing that I see a lot of companies overthinking stuff, getting stuck in the numbers, getting Excel sheets and all the analytics, they get bogged down with that crap instead of, “Here’s who we are, here’s how we live, and here’s why you should approach us.”
Adam: Yeah, I mean if there’s one thing that we, that Jay and I, talk about on the show is importance of just great content and authenticity of that content. I’m curious, you mentioned you do a lot on Instagram and I’m assuming a lot of pictures of product and this gets kind of down in the weeds but I think this is kind of an important distinction for all of our listeners, as they look at what works and what doesn’t in the visual mediums. Have you begun to kind of look and see what types of imagery work better for actually driving or showing correlation to sales? Is it the picture of an actual graphic of the logo or the quote, is it the picture of the t-shirt, is it a picture of a model wearing the t-shirt, does it have to do with where that model is standing? When he or she is in the picture. I’d love to hear what you’re doing in terms of, I don’t want to call it testing, but just you know, “We find when the picture is kind of this way we get a little bit more engagement,” anything like that?
John: Having a toddler holding your shirt up, it works well. And my son Hank loves being on camera and doing video. He’s a total hammy, he loves that stuff. We don’t look at posts, sometimes it’s a tough correlation. You may have 500 hits and 500 likes on something and then you might sell three t-shirts. Or they might have 30 things, you know 30 likes or 30 thumbs up or whatever, but you’ll sell 29 t-shirts or more so then get three stores out of it. It’s kind of all over the place to be completely honest. The things that we have the most likes on sometimes correlate to sales, sometimes they don’t. And to be completely honest, this is where I just say, “You know what? I’m very prolific, I’m a throw a lot out there at people and we’ll give it six months and see how it goes. And if they don’t fly, then fine they don’t fly we’ll put it in our archives.” People can always buy it down the road in our archive online. But yeah, we have kind of a shotgun approach, more than a laser approach to be honest.
Adam: Yeah, and I think you have the wonderful flexibility in doing that, and it sounds like the passion and the enthusiasm of your customers and of your fans who are also your customers is so great. John I’ve got one last question for you before I give it over to Jay, and as you talked about the speed at which you create new shirts, and this idea that you have the piece of paper in your back pocket and you’re always coming up with great ideas for clever things and clever posts and clever silk screens. I was curious, do you ever worry because you always put this stuff online and everybody can kind of see what the shirt looks like, you ever worry about people making the same shirts?
John: I used to. I used to really panic about it. And not really. If they’re gonna go through the effort to do all that stuff, and they’re just basically snagging designs or snagging ideas, they’re not gonna be around. They come, they go, they’re here for six months they sell a dozen shirts. I don’t really flip out too much about it, we have a really rabid, loyal following and that’s how I approach it. You could trademark and copyright every single thing that you put online, and honestly the way the copyright laws and the trademark laws are you’re gonna spend a hundred thousand dollars to try to really protect something and I’m not moving a hundred thousand dollars in any one particular design. That’s why we have 150 plus designs at this point. We do have a few things that we’ve gone and protected, but you could spend your entire time doing nothing but cease and desist letters on something similar to that.
Jay: And even if you’re gonna spend the money, it takes so long to actually get. I mean I’m still working on the trademark for ‘Hug Your Haters’ and the book came out 14 months ago.
John: Sure, absolutely. I mean we’ve basically taken the approach that if we see something that’s clearly been ours and somebody’s got a pixel for pixel copy from it. That’s kind of actually why we do a lot of hand written stuff because you’ve got to take that and you’ve got to do something with it and that’s actually a fair amount of effort to get something from a hand drawn thing to the one in Illustrator and doing all the work with that. That kind of semi gives some protection just from that, but yes Gosh it’s just the time and the money and the aggravation involved. We do a lot of social pressure, so we’ll find someone who’s completely snagged a design for ours, generally someone, a fan taking a picture of it in a shop, they’ll send it we’ll find out who it is, and I’ll start badgering them. I’ll just basically throw it out there completely, I’ll start tagging them and all that kind of jazz and they back off pretty quickly.
Jay: Yeah, there you go. Social media as lobbying effort I like that angle, it’s pretty interesting.
Adam: The iron hand of discipline.
John: I don’t know, it’s the slacker way of idea protection I guess.
Jay: Well so Adam asked about people taking your ideas, I’m gonna look at it from the other perspective. There’s lots of great t-shirt companies out there, James Brothers and tons of other ones. Who do you look to for inspiration like, “You know what? Those guys are doing it right.”
John: You know what? Fresh Brewed Tees do a great job, there’s the folks out in New Orleans, and that’s gonna come to me in a second as soon as we get off the line here I’m sure. There’s several local companies, Cleveland’s got a fair amount, New Orleans has a fair amount, New York has a few. Detroit has a ton of stuff, Sota out of Minnesota, they’re all these kind of regional and state pride things that folks have done a really cool job with.

And we’ve approached some of them just to say like, “I really dig what you’re doing,” and we’ve made some really good friendships out of that. And we’ll shoot ideas back and forth and has nothing to do with necessarily the cycle of t-shirts or the concepts or anything, but just kind of more general, “You seem like a really cool person, and I just really want to hang out and let’s have a chat session.” And we’ve had more cool experiences in that than almost everything else. I just love doing that. There’s a bagillion and one t-shirt companies out there, but there’s not a ton that are doing really super creative … I just love small little companies doing really cool stuff. The big, big digs, that’s just not my thing at all.

Jay: Yep, I’m gonna tell everybody about some big companies that are sponsoring this show. John if you want to play a little music during this part you can feel free to accompany the ads with some sort of riff. If you want to do that.

So first this week, this show is brought to you by our friends at Salesforce Marketing Cloud who employ Mr. Adam Brown and also the exclusive sponsor of this riff. I want you to go to Fantastic ebook all about the future of advertising, what you need to know about Facebook ads, Twitter ads, even Google ads. Really interesting data on target ad spend, target click-through rate, things like that. Great stuff. John’s doing some paid social as well as we pretty much all are, so grab it go to

Also this week our friends at Yext who are all about local ratings and reviews. I wrote an ebook with my friend Daniel Lemon who works at Convince and Convert called ‘How to Win Digital and Real World Traffic with Local Reviews’ so if you have an actual storefront like John does at House of Swank, you probably want some reviews. In fact the House of Swank reviews are fantastic on Yelp and Google and Facebook, there’s a way to do that well and there’s a way to do that just okay. So I wrote an ebook about that that is for free from Yext, I want you to go to that’s, Grab that free ebook, won’t you? Mr. Brown, back to you.

Adam: Jay thank you and John, CEO of House of Swank Clothing Company, John Pugh thank you for the musical interlude. This has got to be one of the most fun shows I’ve ever been a part of and certainly one of the most entertaining for me musical scores.
Jay: We may just have to have John come on every show and do that during the commercial.
John: We’re still available for divorce proceedings and that sort of thing so we’re, you know …
Jay: Nice, I appreciate that.

Actually you know what we should? We should talk to John about commissioning a Social Pros t-shirt that we can give away to audience members of guests or things like that. We’ll talk about it off air, would you want to work on that together, John?

John: Are you kidding? Absolutely. We can do fulfillment out of our place too so we can … Let’s talk offline, we can certainly handle something like that.
Jay: Yeah, that’d be cool. Let’s do it.
Adam: We’ll get you to do our intro and outro music too so we’ll just get the whole full service offering from House of Swank.

Speaking of that, you’ve told us obviously about House of Swank and how it’s growing like crazy, you’ve talked about all the marketing and communications activities you’re doing. You’re about to start not one, not two, three podcasts, you’ve hiked the Appalachian trail, you’ve written about the AT walk on newspapers. How the heck did you get here today? What’s your story, Mr. Pugh?

John: Everyday I wake up and I ask myself the same thing, “What the hell are we doing?” I think I kind of floundered throughout my twenties like any other 20 year old doing their proper thing and basically depression, functional alcoholic or semi-functional. Took a break at 30, got a divorce sold a little business I had at the time, and through-hiked the Appalachian trail and I think from that experience I gained a lot of confidence. I think I got a fair amount of competence about handling myself and basically having a idea to be able to pursue that.

I did not come from a wealthy family by any stretch of the imagination so I really wasn’t exposed to the world is your oyster. It’s you get a job and you do your thing and that’s what it is, that’s what life is about. And don’t believe that at all, my wife and I paddled the Mississippi River as well in 2005 and towards the end of that, we were actually just dating at the time, but we definitely realized we can do all sorts of cool stuff.

And you put your mind to it and you have the idea, but now there’s access to information all over the place. You can go to YouTube, or Google, whatever and you can find the information that you need to know. And the important thing is not what you know, but realizing what you don’t know and filling in those gaps. And that is basically my story, I a lot of times will have an idea for something and I jump in with both feet. If I had to wait until I knew what I was doing for anything, nothing would ever get done. Ever. So that’s, for good or not, that’s how I approach things in life now.

Adam: Well one of the things I really appreciate in just the few minutes we’ve had here to get to know each other on the show is like you said, you love to research things and again that’s one of the great things about digital. Using the latest technology to kind of understand what’s being said, what people are saying, and have that quest for knowledge. But I know one of the other things that you shared with Jay and me is that you’re in some ways quite old school.

You feel very passionately about sending notes and postcards to customers, to friends and family, and I think that’s just kind of an untapped art that a lot of people and the next generation of folks aren’t as appreciative of. So I’m curious how you came to the conclusion that’s important to you and that it resonates obviously, you’re doing it because you see it grow a lot of great satisfaction in the people that you send these notes and postcards to. And second, is there any analog to sharing notes and things in social, or is it you still have to get out that piece of paper, that three by five put a stamp on it, put it in the mail.

John: I got a postcard from a friend of mine several years ago, and it was four sentences. It was just like, “How you doing? Just thinking about you. Duh duh duh.” And that, it’s a piece of paper it’s in your hand, and it’s written by a real person with a real stamp. How often does that happen? It never happens, I mean you get junk mail and all that kind of stuff. I really feel like, we do postcard campaigns for folks on our mailing list and whatnot. And that works great, we’ll put a coupon like, “Come into the shop and you get five bucks off,” or whatever the thing is going to be. If those drop in, and they bring their postcard in and they bring their kids and their dog in, and that builds so much more social connections than you would just sending something to your email list and here’s a coupon, and duh duh duh.

Every order we go out we write a note on, we write a thank you for your order, we really appreciate it. And for some of you, we have folks that do lots of repeat orders, and we’ll at least say like, “How’s your kid, or how’s the dog? We saw a thing on Facebook,” we have a ton of that kind of thing happening. I love getting it, and I feel like I love giving it too. It’s worth doing. As far as the postcard thing, I kind of bulk postcards. It works. All that old school stuff that people got away from 25 years ago because there’s this glut of stuff, works. It’s a tangible thing that you can hold in your hand, in a world that’s of such much untangible crap. A Facebook post is great, an Instagram picture is fantastic, but there’s this thing with a picture of a customer or my kid … That sort of tangible authenticity, you can’t fake that. And I think people appreciate it, I appreciate people sending us notes too. It means the world to me.

Adam: Obviously they are appreciating because you’re having the level of success. And again, it’s that quality of message and the storytelling that I think really resonates. Kind of to that end, I know one of the things that you mentioned to Jay and me and this my last question before I hand it over to Jay was continuing that. Continuing that story, continuing that relationship building kind of with an affiliate and brand ambassador program. That’s something you hope to kind of get off the ground in the next couple of months. How are you approaching that, and what do you want to empower your brand ambassador with to tell the House of Swank story.
John: So basically we’re looking at the brand ambassadors and looking at kind of an affiliate program ’cause folks have asked about it for years. Like, “How can I-” They do kind of informally as it is, they’ll tag themself, they’ll tag a friend in a picture of themselves wearing one of our t-shirts. And that works great. I want them to be able to … “We’ll give you 10 percent, we’ll give you a referral of 10 percent if you give this coupon code out to somebody.” And kind of bring more people into the family.

The brand ambassadorship, we’re gonna keep it fairly small. I want to keep it down to about 25-30 folks that are super fans that have approached me about it, and that I think would just do a really good job. Basically we’ll hand out merchant stickers and materials and that kind of jazz. But we’re gonna kind of freelance it for a year and see what works and what doesn’t work. I’m gonna let folks kind of run with it. We have really cool creative folks that probably can do a hell of a lot better job at this than I can. And I’m a let them roll with it, just see what happens. And go from there. This entire business I feel like is one big social experiment, in one way or another. And a lot of times our fans and our friends that started from fans, they have some really cool stuff and some really ideas and I want to see what happens with it.

Jay: I love it, I wish I knew enough about North Carolina to be part of that team. I may well go to North Carolina school and figure it out, but I can’t wait to work with you on some Social Pros shirts and if you ever want to do a series on social media inside jokes, Adam and myself and our listeners could certainly give you a steady supply of t-shirt ideas ’cause there is a rich vein of material, brother, right there. You could do a whole series just on podcasts. Man there’s a lot of them out there. But we are appreciative that you’re on our show, and that everybody’s listening to our show. John Pugh, CEO and Founder, Inventor, brain trust behind House of Swank. Gonna ask you the two questions that we’ve asked everybody on this show now, six years into it. If you could give somebody one tip, somebody who’s looking to become a social pro, what would you tell them?
John: Don’t overthink it. Absolutely don’t overthink it. Try a few things, be authentic, come from the heart. But for God’s sakes, don’t super map out every possible thing that you think is going to happen. Don’t overthink it, simple is good, and simple 90 percent of the time works. More so than overcomplicating anything. That’s my one piece of advice I would have.
Jay: That is good advice, absolutely. I think it’s more true now than ever before, especially because the half life of something in social media is so short now, right? We spend all this time crafting the perfect whatever and then 45 minutes later it’s gone for good, in many cases. So this idea that you shouldn’t completely wrap yourself around the axle stressing out about every single pixel is probably good counsel.
John: Oh absolutely. There’s so much noise out there that … Just try it, just go with it. If it feels good, if it looks good, or good enough – do it. ‘Cause chances are, it is.

The person I would love to Skype with, would Russell Simmons. He is a fascinating dude, he’s been so prolific in so many different areas. I saw him speak in Raleigh a couple years ago at a conference and he just seems like a very humble and unaffected dude, to be worth bagillions of dollars. Just a fascinating guy, I would love to have a conversation with him.

Jay: Yeah I think that’s the first time we’ve had Russell Simmons in an answer to that question, if you could do a Skype call with any living person who would it be? I think that’s our first Russell Simmons answer, gotta go back and check the database. We have not yet hired the intern that I talked about last week, Adam, to search the database and do the infographic. But we’re gonna do that. Maybe that same intern will help John at House of Swank but this idea that we’ll go find out every answer to that question six years into it and create some sort of infographic, it’s coming ladies and gentlemen. But I think, I’m almost positive without checking the database that Russell Simmons has not been answered before, and that’s a great one. Especially given your industry, that guy has made a mountain out of a molehill that’s for sure.
John: Oh my Gosh, really. It’s unbelievable what this guy’s done. I mean in starting from, his folks were employees, he did not come from a mountain of anything. With him and Def Jam and … It’s just amazing, I think the guy is just a genius, and a very humble genius too.
Jay: That’s the best kind. I would say that John you’re a genius as well. Thank you so much for being on the podcast, we really appreciate your time and your expertise. Keep on doing what you’re doing, it was a real pleasure to have you here. Thanks for the tunes as well, that was a rare and special treat. Ladies and gentlemen,, go to the Instagram as well, we’ll link it all up in the show notes as, any closing words from you, Mr. Pugh?
John: Yes, it’s
Jay: There you go, that’s why you should have a final word., apologies.
John: Yeah there’s a band somewhere up North that has houseofswank and I need to talk to them like, “You guys have released a album in 15 years, can we at least talk?”
Jay: What about a redirect? Could a brother get a redirect.
John: I’ll give you a House of Swank sticker and we’ll throw you some shirts, and a couple of cookies, of tin, that kind of thing.

But Jay, Adam, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure, I truly enjoyed your guys’ stuff. It’s just a pleasure to be on here, and give us a holler if you guys need anything.

Adam: I just want to ask one thing. And that is John for you to play us out.
Jay: Next week we have another fantastic guest on the show, LaSandra Brill who is the Head of Social Media at Nvidia I believe is going to be joining us on the podcast. She is brilliant, has been in social media for like a long time, ten years and she’s really super smart so that’s gonna be an excellent show. Until then I’m Jay Baer, he’s Adam Brown, this is John Pugh playing us out.

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