Taking it to the streets
Newbury Street is not the everyday place for a clothing startup, but don’t say ‘no’ to Annie Mulz
When Matthew Osofisan sat next to Michael Toney as a freshman in his first class at Northeastern University (NU), he did not expect to share more than notes with his classmate.
But soon, the two had a vision of crafting Annie Mulz, their own clothing line, with a goal of building it into a lifestyle brand.
Based on [Charles Darwin’s] concept of the “Animal in Man,” Osofisan and Toney say that “it doesn’t matter where you’re from, where you live, what job you have, or what car you drive. We all abide by the same rules.”
After literally taking it to the streets — the pair sold the first Annie Mulz designs at a table they set up on Newbury Street — they created enough buzz to let them know they were on the right track.
But the “old college try” is not enough to build an empire. The duo entered NU’s Idea contest for student run businesses and were awarded the inaugural prize, a team of advisors and $10,000 in start up cash.
They used that capital to open the Concrete Jungle pop-up shop on Newbury Street. The Concrete Jungle soon gained a reputation as one of the coolest places on the strip with its late hours and in-store live performances with cutting edge artists. It also demonstrated that the Annie Mulz crew knew how to turn their idea into a successful business.
Now back on Newbury with their NU degrees in tow, the 24-year-old graduates return with another pop-up shop — Green Street Jungle, a collaboration with mobile clothing retailers Green Street Vault. The companies had already formed an alliance when they collaborated on a limited-run line Bay Colony Explorers.
With Annie Mulz being Green Street Vault’s top-selling brand the two companies working together made perfect sense.
This time, Team Annie Mulz is back with a renewed focus and a goal to open up venture capitalists’ wallets closed by a tough economy. Plans for a permanent retail space, their membership-only online store (www.AnnieMulz.com) and adding more team members to continue to grow the Annie Mulz brand are in the making.
Osofisan spoke with the Banner about the company’s start and how a team of young guys are making their successful second run on one of Boston’s most prestigious shopping destinations.
Tell us about your start.
We started Annie Mulz in January 2009. I came back from Chicago working at G.E., and I realized that it wasn’t for me. I was a kid who would take everything from my house and go have a yard sale [laughs]. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit.
Mike was on co-op, as well, working for a record company. He already had the idea for Annie Mulz, but it was very rough. He said, I have this idea, here’s the name.’ ‘I was like, ‘This is great.’ My mind starts running through different marketing ideas and we sat down in my apartment junior year and said, ‘Let’s do this.’
What was your first step?
First we started selling on the street. We would go out on Saturday and Sunday. We went out that first time and said, ‘If we sell one t-shirt and talk to 100 people, it’s going to be a good day.’ We ended up selling 25 and talking to 1,000.
So we were immediately like ‘Word! There is something here.’ The sales showed us that our brand had some power to it and people liked the concept and ideas. We proved our brand from the selling power of the designs and concepts.
How did you go for selling on the street to your first shop on Newbury?
Going into our fourth year at NU, we entered into the Idea program. It was a venture accelerator program and the grand prize was $10,000. Fifty-five businesses submitted to the program. We were one of the five finalists and presented to a board of angel investors and venture capitalists. And in the end they named us the winner.
After winning that, it was bittersweet. We won, but the reason we won was that we said we were going to open a pop-up shop on Newbury Street for 10K. [laughs]. I think that’s one of the reasons they gave it to us. Like, ‘these kids kind of sound like that know what they are doing, but let’s see if they can do it.’
What we did was use a collaborative model. I remember being on the T passing Tufts Medical Center thinking, ‘We can’t do this.’ We were told ‘no’ 25 times by every landlord on Newbury Street. Then it hit me. I had just read a case study on Netflix and Zipcar, which used a collaborative model. We reached out to 4 brands and the shop came together that way.
When you explain the brand to people, how do you get people to really see the vision?
That’s something I ask myself. I tell people who ask me about starting their business: ask yourself everyday why should someone care about us? We really think of Annie Mulz as an ideal. It’s a double-edged sword. People want ‘cool’.
We want to make concepts cool. Even though the style of the clothes might be street wear, people who might be wearing suits everyday on their day off will throw on an Annie Mulz tee.
What are some of the obstacles that you have encountered?
Our biggest obstacle has been [our] appearance. We walk into a room with investors and they will see two young black males with a clothing company.
But then we talk to them and they get our idea. But in terms of obstacles, that initial one is something that we have taken time to conquer. We present ourselves well and we follow through. But I always tell people the biggest obstacle is you. You and your team are the ones who are going to make it successful.
One of the things you guys do that is interesting is creating only short runs of your designs and thus making them collector’s items. How did that come about?
One of the reasons we started the brand is we would go into a store and we just didn’t want to buy anything because all the brands were garbage. They were just trying to make as much money as they could. Throw a Lil Wayne quote on a tee shirt or do something that’s been done five times. And it made us say, ‘where are the brands that have integrity?’
We wanted to make a better brand first over making money. And that’s part of where that model comes from. We don’t recreate our designs. And the reason we don’t is that we want to be constantly giving people new stuff. That creates a fan base and a loyalty for us. There will be a time when we make larger runs but the model for now is focused on building that loyal fan base.