Denim in the Raw: ‘There Is No Better Time than Now to Start Your Business’

Black Box Denim is on a mission to provide affordable, custom-fit jeans to its customers. Last October, the startup, founded by Wharton sophomores Adina Luo and Molly Liu, successfully raised $27,492 from 122 backers on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter to help put their business plan in motion. KWHS interviewer Avivah Hotimsky recently sat down with Luo to discuss her passion for great-fitting jeans and for building a brand.

An edited version of the transcript appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Hi, everyone. My name is Avivah Hotimsky, and I would like to welcome you to today’s Knowledge@Wharton High School video. [I’m] interviewing Adina Luo, a sophomore at Wharton concentrating in marketing and OPIM [Operations & Information Management]. Adina is originally from Southern California, and she recently started a company called Black Box Denim, which focuses on making [and selling] customized jeans at an affordable price. We’re going to be talking to Adina about entrepreneurship and also about her background in marketing. She’s heavily involved in marketing here at Wharton and outside of Wharton in Case [business] competitions. Thank you so much for coming.

Adina Luo: Thanks for having me.

KWHS: To start off, can you please tell me some steps you’ve taken to [get] where you are today? How have you [followed a path of] entrepreneurship throughout your life?

Luo:

I was always really into marketing. Back then I started a marketing consulting startup where I would come up with designs and logos and do basic marketing campaigns for local companies and family friends. [For example,] someone started a learning center, so we did marketing of promotional materials for them. Then I took a gap year [a year off between high school and college] and worked at a business incubator, where I got even more entrenched in start-up life and entrepreneurship. I felt like I wanted to do that when I came here.

Once I got to Wharton, I was looking for my opportunity. [When] the idea struck — which ended up being Black Box Denim — I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to go for it. There’s no better time to do it than now.’

KWHS: To give everyone background on Black Box Denim, it’s made a huge splash in the last few months. You raised over $25,000 on your Kickstarter campaign [a crowd-funding website that helps startups raise money for their new endeavors]. And on top of that, you’re involved in many different Wharton entrepreneurship programs, including as a semi-finalist in the Business Plan Competition. So, congrats.

Luo: Thanks.

KWHS: How did Black Box Denim get started, and how did you and your friend, Molly, launch the business? [What are] the logistics behind that, as well?

Luo: I distinctly remember sitting at my house over winter break [of my freshman year], feeling like I wasn’t doing anything active…. I [thought], ‘I should really get a move on the whole start-up thing. I’ve always wanted to do it. I know I’m a freshman, but this is my time.’

Molly and I had talked before about how we were both really into [entrepreneurship], and we wanted to do something fashion-oriented. We started with an idea called Little Red Bag, where we would [sell] custom handbags. As we developed and cultivated that, it lent itself to ultimately being jeans because it was more feasible and it made more sense. So, we ended up there. And then we took it step by step. [We asked questions.] We’re just undergrads, but we’re figuring it out along the way. We have great programs. The VIP [Venture Initiation Program] here at Wharton helped us a lot.

KWHS: Can you tell me more about Black Box Denim? [What does your] product look like?

Luo: We do custom jeans. Customers can go online and choose their cut. They can choose their wash. Then they enter in their measurements to get the perfect pair of jeans delivered to their doorstep. We have a bunch of different options — four styles for girls, four styles for guys. We also offer both washed denim — the different colors you traditionally see in stores — and also raw denim, which is a kind of new denim. [Raw, unwashed jeans] are a trend right now. As you wear them more and more, they mold and fold to your daily life. People get [lines that look like] whiskers on the sides of their pockets. And that back pocket where people keep their cell phones becomes an outline.

KWHS: Can you tell me more about the development of Black Box Denim, and how you get the jeans from the customer’s online order directly to the customer? [I’d also like to know] about the success of the company and whether or not you face dramatic competition, or are you entering into a new market?

Luo:

We went to China, [to a city that is] known as the textile capital of Asia. We cold-called all of the manufacturers we could find. We went door to door, found our fabric suppliers, found our tailors. We found our sample workshops — everything. After we had that in place, we then launched our Kickstarter campaign, and [that is] when the initial orders came in.

The best kind of gauge for how we’re doing is the Kickstarter campaign. We’ve sold over 200 jeans off of that, [which are] preliminary sales before the official launch of the company. We’ve done a lot of market sizing and market research. At this point, we have our business in place, and we’re looking to scale [grow revenue without increasing operating costs]. It’s really going to be a marketing and execution play. Our other pseudo competitors are not quite filling the niche we’re looking to fill, which is high-quality custom jeans at a fair price. We’re looking to execute well — to get the branding right and the tone right, and then get our distribution channels in place.

KWHS: How has marketing helped to develop your company?

Luo: One of the things we thought about at the beginning [was] what sort of company we would want to start. For me, it was important to have something that was consumer-facing, something [where] I could apply my interests in marketing. Sometimes I joke with Molly that a huge part of the reason we wanted to start a company in the first place was to [have the experience] of building a brand.

From the second we started it, we talked about, “What’s the name going to be like? What’s the tone of the brand? What are the brand values?” [We applied] all our marketing interests to the startup.

KWHS: Most of our audience today is high school students who are interested in pursuing entrepreneurship, marketing or just business in general in the future. Could you give our audience any advice for the future in college and beyond?

Luo: I think the biggest thing with entrepreneurship is that people always wait around for the right idea to fall into their laps or the right people or all of these stars to align. [They say], “I need more experience.” A

You’ll realize once you start doing something how far ahead of the curve you are. You’re so much farther ahead than all the people who just had the idea and decided not to do it. I think the biggest takeaway is action. Get that idea going. Just start. Draft those business plans. Ask people [for feedback] — your friends, your family. You just have to go and do it.

KWHS: Thank you so much for joining us today.

Luo: Of course.

KWHS: For all of our viewers out there, you can check out Black Box Denim online on Facebook and then also, although the Kickstarter campaign has ended, there’s still great information on the Black Box Denim Kickstarter page, [listed below in the related links]. Thank you so much.

Luo: Thank you.

Questions

What is Kickstarter, and why has it been so important to the launch of Black Box Denim?

What does Adina Luo mean when she says that she and her partner spent last summer “securing our supply chain.”

Luo is fascinated by marketing and brand building. After reading this article and exploring some of the related links, how would you define Black Box Denim’s brand? What are some of the ways the founders are building this brand?

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