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Bryan DeLuca has a name for folks who build brands within large corporations. He calls them “intrepreneurs.” He should know. Having co-founded and then sold a successful ecommerce business, DeLuca worked for a traditional retailer, creating brands within the company.
“We sold our business in 2017,” he told me. “I then worked for a larger organization. We built a few brands inside that company. We had some success. It takes an entrepreneur’s brain to be an intrepreneur.”
DeLuca and I have similar backgrounds. He launched Foot Cardigan, an online sock retailer, the same year as Beardbrand, my company. We both appeared on Shark Tank.
In our recent conversation, we discussed those experiences and more, including DeLuca’s intrepreneurship journey. The entire audio version is embedded below in the feedback section. The transcript that follows is edited for length and clarity.
Eric Bandholz: You and I go back to 2013. I started Beardbrand then, and you started Foot Cardigan. That’s a cool name, a cardigan for your feet.
Bryan DeLuca: We A/B tested three names: Rad Foot, Spiffy Feet, and Foot Cardigan. Rad Foot received zero interest. Spiffy Feet got 20 or 30 responses. Foot Cardigan received about 300.
A downside of the name Foot Cardigan is it restricted our ability to expand into other categories, such as t-shirts. In hindsight, I would not have included “foot” in the name.
Bandholz: Beardbrand has the same issue. We can’t sell beyond males, plus a lot of men don’t have facial hair. But one reason we got traction early on is because of that name. Changing the subject, let’s discuss Shark Tank. You and I were both on that show.
DeLuca: I was on shortly after you. I had a great experience. It was simultaneously the best and worst thing that happened to our business.
It was the best for the exposure and the marketing. That was amazing. But it was the worst in that it gave us a false sense of who our customers were. We had spent two and a half years before then targeting a specific customer persona — irreverent and witty.
After Shark Tank, we had customers ranging from age 3 to 93. We had grandmothers sign-up for our newsletter and then complain to ABC, the television network, that we were cursing in the emails. Sorting out those new customers was difficult.
But the experience of being on the show was terrific. We had four offers from the panelists. We accepted a deal with two of them. It was very comfortable. Our on-air segment lasted only 12 minutes. But we were there for an hour and a half.
Bandholz: I was on air for only 8 minutes.
DeLuca: Early on Daymond John [a panelist] told us, “Relax. We like your business. You’re going to get some offers today. Let’s just casually have conversations.” So we knew that there was interest and we would receive offers. But it was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done.
One of my co-founders, Matt, was with me. He was more nervous than me.
Bandholz: Did Mark Cuban make an offer?
DeLuca: Yes, we agreed to his deal, but it didn’t close. But he was very gracious when it died in due diligence. A good percentage of deals that are made on the show don’t close.
We had our reasons for not closing, and his team had theirs. It was a mutual agreement. We didn’t know if our segment would air. But when it did, Mark sent me a note of congratulations. So super gracious. The financial consultant we worked with helped us sort out Mark’s offer.
I started the business with four others, so five co-founders. We all had full-time jobs. We had wives, kids, and our time was limited.
Bandholz: Five co-founders. That’s a lot.
DeLuca: We eventually whittled it down to three. We had to share the load. I was strong in certain areas and weak in others. Very few entrepreneurs can do everything well. Entrepreneurs and founders who are aware of their shortcomings can create good things.
My strengths are leading people, managing people, getting the best out of them. I have a lot of empathy. Pairing what people are naturally good at with what they want to do in life — that’s when the magic happens.
Bandholz: You sold Foot Cardigan. Do you have regrets?
DeLuca: No. There’s a time for everything. We sold our business in 2017 to a private equity group. I stayed on as CEO for about a year, when I decided to leave. I’m thankful I was able to do that on my terms.
I then worked for a larger organization. We built a few brands inside that company. We had some success. I did the same thing there as I loved at Foot Cardigan, building a team, building products, creating something. I recently left that post as well. Here we are in the summer of 2021. I’m spending time with my kids and family.
Bandholz: Let’s talk about working for that company. I love entrepreneurship, but it’s not for everyone. There are other opportunities to lead a team, make a difference, and provide for your family. So the impact of working for a company can be rewarding.
DeLuca: For sure. It’s a different kind of stimulation. It takes an entrepreneur’s brain to be an “intrepreneur.” At first, for me, it was very exciting, exhilarating. I had free reign to create these businesses, an ecommerce division within a 20-year-old traditional retail company. But like entrepreneurship, intrepreneurship has pros and cons.
The pros are more resources — a finance team, operations team, sales team — that provide the ability to scale quickly. The cons are a ton of red tape and legacy processes that are hard to overcome.
So an intrepreneur has to disrupt longstanding internal procedures — push a boulder up a hill. Success can depend on how strong-minded an intrepreneur is. There’s a lot of internal selling of ideas and ideals and processes and systems that never existed before.
So, yes, there are pros and cons. But, again, there’s a level of stimulation for an intrepreneur that is equal to an entrepreneur.
Bandholz: A great entrepreneur has to be able to tell the company’s story repeatedly with the same energy every time. Why did you start this? What are you doing? An intrepreneur does the same thing, except you’re telling that story to the finance department.
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