John Shi: Hillflint

John Shi, a young entrepreneur residing in Indianapolis has created his own line of outstanding collegiate wear. The 2012 Dartmouth grad aimed to give an alternative option to overpriced screen-printed pullovers of mediocre quality that overrun the campus bookstores. The result was Hillflint, a top of the line collection of Ivy League sweaters at an affordable price point. Shi shares with Pattern his methods of lean business practices, focus on quality product lines and passion for his startup company that have propelled him into success.

Although he worked on his startup idea on the side during his job with Amazon, he officially quit the full-time position to dive into Hillflint in 2013. With the help of cofounder Woody Hines, a Princeton grad with skill in the men’s apparel industry, the business quickly kicked off. Despite the measurable risk with the startup, Shi doesn’t regret the move from his full-time position one bit.

“Anyone who leaves a stable career to plunge into their own thing is subjected to risk,” says Shi. “I kind of think of it as regret minimization from a career standpoint. If I visualize myself twenty years from now, looking back, what would I have regretted?”

Hillflint’s latest risky endeavor is the Mark One Sweater. The thicker-than-designer, 100 percent Merino wool sweater is unreal when it comes to quality. But you’d be surprised at the price; the Mark One can be purchased on Hillflint’s website for only $95. According to Shi, the secret to the high quality and low price lies in priorities.

“We stay very, very lean. We don’t have large marketing budgets. We don’t have a network of distributers or retailers that would require the extra markup. For example, if you think of a sweater from Rag and Bone, they design and make a beautiful sweater and they sell it to Nordstrom, who commands a 100 percent markup. By the time it reaches the customer, you get a $300 sweater. If you imagine the $300 pie of that sweater, a small slice is the actual raw material. So for us, we have a larger slice devoted to the product quality. We go direct to customer so we don’t at all subject our customers to a retail markup — we pass that value on directly to the customer.”

johnshi2webIt’s clear their consumers and investors are taking note. The Kickstarter for the Mark One reached its goal of $20,000 within 48 hours and managed to earn $63,149 total by the end of the month. This was achieved with very basic marketing methods that almost strictly stuck to social media.

After the Mark One ships, Hillflint’s next priorities lie in continued growth and improvement. Shi says they aren’t exclusively an Ivy League brand, and are considering reaching out to the Big 10 Universities and other schools, selling a better alternative to the typical collegiate wear.

“I think college students’ tastes are more sophisticated than what a lot of these commoditized apparel brands give them credit for. This idea that college students are really stingy and don’t appreciate quality and nice things that represent their college well — I think that’s wrong. I think students do care and I think it’s a matter of bringing them a product that resonates with them instead of writing them off.”

Overall, Hillflint’s focus on the collegiate products seems to be on target, with business steadily growing. Shi offers three quick tips to other startup companies and young entrepreneurs:

  1. Technological savvy is crucial. Know how to use programs like Photoshop to visually represent your product in an aesthetic manner for smoother manufacturing communication and understand the basics of ecommerce.

  2. Practice good business hygiene. What may seem like obvious housekeeping is crucial in keeping a business afloat, and results in painful consequences when done wrong. Keep detailed notes of business practices and stay on top of tax forms and finances.

  3. Have blind drive to power through obstacles, but have a sense of where you’re going.

Shi’s personal style philosophy is to just “be genuine” and after looking at Hillflint’s record of transparency, loyalty to customers, dedication to quality and passion for the business, one might say “be genuine” is an important aspect of the Hillflint brand philosophy as well.

Connect with Hillflint online: @hillflintstyle

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