The Business of Bellroy w / CEO Andy Fallshaw

 

As far as brand crushes go, this one is right up there for me… and whilst I’m probably not allowed to say that on this forum (being an independent platform that doesn’t take industry advertising, aside from job listings 😉 ), I figure I have some leeway as Bellroy is essentially not a surf brand, nor is it distributed in the surf channel, aside from a few key partnerships here and there around the world.

But the brand based out of Bells and Fitzroy in Victoria does have more links to the surf lifestyle than first meets the eye. Driven by the love of surf travel and a simple need for a wallet around 9 years ago, the seed was planted for what is now a successful global brand by a couple of surfing brothers and their friends… some of which came from the Rip Curl stables up the road.

Now sold in Australia, the US, Japan and the UK and even further afield through partnerships with MoMa and Patagonia, Bellroy is brand that is big on detail and stands for something other than just making a profit. At it’s core, Bellroy is an accessories business, with a focus on creating better ways to carry your stuff, with premium product at an affordable price.

It’s these driving principles that get CEO and co-founder Andy Fallshaw out of bed in the morning. That and a pumping new groundswell. Based primarily out of their Bells Beach office (with another office up in Melbourne) Andy is still very much linked to the surf lifestyle both by his geography and his love for surf, the industry and travel.

We caught up with Andy to find out a little more about the business – how’d it start, what does it stand for, where is it distributed, what was Andy’s view on the surf industry and what are the things that have made the brand so successful?

Here’s the interview with Andy Fallshaw, one of the curators of my current brand crush.

Enjoy!

First up, who are the founders of Bellroy and are you all still involved in the business?

 The core founding team was myself, my brother Matt, his partner Lina Calabria, and Hadrien Monloup, a fellow designer from Rip Curl days.

A couple of friends – Jimmy Gleeson (ex-Rip Curl) and Lincoln Eather (also surf industry) – were also helping the founding team from super early on.

These days Matt, Lina, Jimmy and myself have Bellroy as our full-time gig. Lincoln still works part time with us, and Hadrien occasionally collaborates. So yeah, it seems impossible to ever fully escape Bellroy!

How long have you been in business for and how did the idea come about?

 We sold our first wallet in August 2010, with about a year of design and planning before that.

The seed of Bellroy started a long time before then, when I was studying at the Glasgow School of Art in 1999. I was dirt poor, and needed a wallet. Some sail-cloth, a yard of binding, a needle and thread, and there was the seed of our Slim Sleeve wallet, minus some polish. Funnily enough, that first sail-cloth wallet was later passed to my brother and remained in use for over a decade, well into the start of Bellroy.

How is the Bellroy brand positioned in the market?

 From early on we noticed a gap in the brand world…

There are the mass-market brands of our youth; like Nike and Adidas; most of the surf brands; and the fast fashion suite. These are brands that often have to compromise quality to hit youth price-points.

Then you have the luxury brands selling exclusivity and status. And while the quality is generally great, the prices only make sense if you want to signal how much you paid for something.

So we wanted to create a brand that could be priced to achieve a premium quality standard, but still be within reach. We called this the Step-Up space.

Recently, folks have started to call it Modern Luxe, Lean Luxe, Digitally Native Vertical Brands and a variety of names that capture the whole space from slightly compromised quality like Warby Parker, right up to the amazing Outliers and David Kinds of the world.

Why does Bellroy exist?

 We want to inspire better ways to carry, use business as a force for good, and help the world, and our crew, flourish.

I might have been a bit slow off the mark on this one – but only fairly recently realized the Bellroy name is a blend of two locations – tell us about that. 

 Haha, yeah, when you’re searching for a unique URL you’ll try all sorts of name mash-ups!

Our offices and our world’s are split between Bells Beach and Fitzroy. Bell/Roy.

But we think it worked out well, as our worlds really are split between the coastal/nature/adventure vibe of Bells, and the urban/cultural/reinvention vibe of Fitzroy. Bellroy would not be the same with either of those gone.

Personally, I’m based in our Bells office, along with our Product Design and Wholesale Sales teams. Then all our other teams are based in Fitzroy, where Matt, Lina and Jimmy are based.

Most of us spend a day or two in the other office, to make sure we keep the collaboration close.

And where does the owl icon come from?

 Have you seen just how rad owls are?!!

While not a surf brand per se, you (and others in the business) are avid surfers. What elements do you bring over from the surf lifestyle into the brand and product?

The most tangible and immediate is probably just our love of travel, and the ease with which most surfers roam the planet. We’re trying to shape products that help folks move about the world with ease, and that feels second nature to most surfers we know.

Another element is Bellroy’s drive for durability. Any time you empty a surfer’s pockets, you’re likely to find crusted salt, sand, and UFO’s from whatever their last adventure was. Our products embrace that rather than fight it, so they’re as good on day 1000 as they were on day 1, no matter how much you cram into a day.

You’re sold in some amazing retail stores around the world. Can you tell us about the brands distribution – where is the brand sold and through what channels? (locally and abroad)

Retail is really hard to do well, so we have a huge amount of respect for those that shine. We try to find retailers that know who they serve, and that serve them well. So that ranges from fashion focused retailers like Barneys NY, Nordstrom and Incu, through action sports retailers like Patagonia and Burton Japan, to stationary and specialist retailers like Loft and Tokyu Hands in Japan.

Our sell-through is strong, so we’ve been able to earn our place in the folks we think do retail at a world-class level.

Have you ever contemplated entering the surf/action sports channel in a broader way?

It’s always there as an opportunity, but we generally prefer to enter specific channels with specialist partners. It feels more legitimate, and tells a more understandable story.

For instance, we’ve been working with Patagonia for years in a partnership we both love.

Not only do they sell several of our products in their stores, but we also swap ideas and inspiration on a regular basis.

Patagonia is a great example of that legitimacy angle, where no matter how much we write about our environmental and social initiatives, to most people being sold in Patagonia will mean more.

So for surf and action sports, we play with rad partners that make sense and help tell a good story. And at least for now, we try to get the core Bellroy range transcending any single channel.

One thing that has always struck me about the brand is it’s attention to detail – is this an intentional part of the design philosophy? And why is it so important to you guys?

Oh gosh, there is so much I could write here…

Firstly, yes, it’s hugely important to us. There’s a quote from Dieter Rams that gets close to the reason for us:

“Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.”

That sounds so mundane, but gosh it carries some weight.

With Bellroy, our target audience is basically the rad folk in the world. These are people living deliberately and with purpose, trying to be good at what they do and leaving the world and the lives that inhabit it a little better than they found it.

When you’re making products with rad folks in mind, you really want to serve them well.

So we have a genuine desire to give them an elevated experience. We want to create products that will be used and loved by them for as long as possible. We want to inspire moments of delight for them. And these goals need us to nail the details.

While we still screw some plenty of things up, we never stop trying to get every detail better. If a customer has put enough faith in us to buy a Bellroy product, we feel a genuine sense of responsibility to give them a great experience.

Are there certain boxes a potential new product or category has to tick before going from concept to sample?

 Yeah, it needs to do what it does better than what’s already out there.

Sometimes a product vision is really clear from the outset, and it goes from concept to prototypes, sampling and release in a pretty straight line. Our best example of this is a wallet that took 12 weeks from concept to our first sale.

But that sort of speed is hard to hit.

Most of our products start more with a ‘what if…?’ We have a maker lab in our Bells office where we can prototype most things we can dream up, so we tend to iterate and test and pivot and iterate again. We want to make sure we’ve used and abused our design in most of the ways our customers might. So we make higher and higher resolution prototypes, starting in Bells and then moving to our supplier’s sample rooms then production environments, testing each iteration in an increasingly rigorous way.

The lab.

You recently launched into a women specific category – tell us a bit about that.

 We’ve always tried to shape a brand that was deeply woven with our own lives.

When we started with our ‘slim wallets’ focus, it resonated more with guys than girls, because guys were carrying their wallet in their pocket more than women were.

So in our early years we doubled down on guys wallets, but that was always a temporary stage. Half the world’s rad folk are women, so we knew we needed to address that the second we had room to breath.

Last year we had grown our design team and had the buffer to start, so we pulled together a project crew and dove deep. Our ‘what if…?’ for the women’s line focused on finding new and intuitive functionality that didn’t detract from beautiful forms and moments. The muses we chose to guide our designs were sick of the crass bling that so many women’s accessories rely on, yet still wanted to feel delight each time they engaged with the products.

Prototype, test, iterate, prototype, test… and eventually we had a range we are proud of, and which we felt could bring something new to the market.

What about funding. You’ve obviously grown a lot over the years – how have you funded that growth? (taken on investors? Partners?)

Gosh, we feel fortunate in this. My brother and I put in the seed capital, and then when we found traction, the business was able to support the rest of our growth. That’s not a situation most high-growth companies get to enjoy!

Our founding team is not typical.

We’re engineers and designers, supply chain consultants, brand folk and business thinkers, so there are not many gaps in the expertise set.

It has meant we could keep pushing each part of the business, without the typical weaknesses that can cost a brand in growth stages.

How big a team are you guys now?

We’re about to tick over 70 in Australia. We have about 10 in the Philippines. And then there are hundreds around the world working full-time on Bellroy products in our key supplier and logistics partnerships.

Fitzroy HQ

Do you have a favourite piece in the current range?

 Our 3 Card Phone Case is a game changer. Your three most used cards, a folded bill, and you’re good to go in almost any situation.

Tell us about your stance on being a Certified B Corp business.

We are the generation that grew up surrounded by a broken business paradigm. The idea that a business’ sole purpose is to maximize shareholder profits seems absurd to us, and that fallacy was exposed with the collapse of Enron and so many other self-serving business cultures.

And yet we can see the potential power of global commerce, with the incredible transformation of Asia and the rapid shift out of extreme poverty that countries like China have managed.

So we reasoned that business can be a force for good. And to do that, businesses need goals beyond pure shareholder returns.

Once we had a real business established, we went looking for a certification that would help us navigate all of that, and keep us accountable during our progress.

The B Corporation platform is the best we’ve found for this, and so a few years ago we got our first B Corp certification, and have been enjoying the focus and community ever since.

Your go-to-market packages are very compelling. The coordinated roll out, the imagery/colours and the explanatory video’s/animations etc always pull me in!

 Thank you. It’s almost all done in-house by Jimmy and his creative team. I think they’re pretty darn amazing.

What percentage of your sales come from your online store? 

Online is a big part of what we do. There’s very clear evidence that the healthier our online activity, the better the sell-through our retailers get. So we engage directly with customers, and then encourage them to buy through whichever channel feels most comfortable to them.

What is the key to running a successful online store?

Perhaps something along the lines of ‘constant experiments, hopefully leading to constant improvements.’

What about customer retention? Same deal?

Yes and no.

Customer expectations are forever increasing (as they should), so you need to keep raising the bar, just as you do with the online experience.

But the things a brand is selling have a big influence on customer retention strategies. When we were just selling wallets, you could stoke a customer with one wallet that lasts for years, and it was harder to keep them returning for their own needs (thankfully gifting has always been a great reason to re-engage).

However as we fill out into our other carry categories, customers can now engage with whole product quivers from us. So if they love their wallet, they can add a Phone Case and Key Carry. Or if we helped them feel more focused with our Work Folio, they can now add a bag and a pouch to pimp their hot-desk and meeting act.

If you’re a single product specialist, it’s hard to justify a huge content engine that seeks to engage weekly with customers. But if you’re Huckberry, selling everything a bloke needs, then you can employ an army of writers and win a spot in your customer’s weekly email flow.

Perhaps you could argue that this is still just ‘constant experiments, hopefully leading to constant improvements’, but the emphasis needs a bit more strategic insight than just constant iteration.

Do you keep an eye on what’s going on in the surf industry?

 Every day. We’re still deeply embedded in the community around surf.

What’s your view on what is going on right now?

 Hopefully there’s a lot of re-invention going on…

There are more surfers than ever, and more opportunity for surf brands than ever, but we’re only just emerging from a funk were surfers felt less connection with surf brands than ever.

So the big reset is happening.

Surf brands are realizing that land-locked customers and big logos are probably not the most sustainable model for them. Some are learning that you need to respect your customers to serve them well. And several are working on technologies that will change the meaning of ‘land-locked’ when it comes to surf.

There’s no doubt that wave pools will change the game in ways that no-one fully understands. I have less confidence that inclusion in the Olympics will change much. I think Oaktree will change a lot, but I also think that much of the reinvention will come from a new breed of surf brands that are only just now starting with a Direct To Consumer model.

Haha, should I stop now…?

What do you wish the surf industry would do better?

This stuff is never easy, as it’s not ideal when I’m lobbing this advice in from the sidelines. But I do care deeply about the industry, so here are a couple of thoughts that I hope will be seen as constructive rather negative…

 Focus on the mission more than the money: The way to stoke customers is not by treating them as an entry on a Profit & Loss.

You have to love them and understand them and try to serve them if you’re genuinely going to stoke them.

 Kill the indent model: Or at least moderate it. It’s a Push model, rather than a Pull model, and Push models are almost never optimum (I’m getting all Lean Thinking on that one).

Trying to guess what everyone will buy 12 months out is not good for the retailers or the customers.

If you could give your 20 year old self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Add value.

It’s a simple mantra, but the more I focus on it, the better things seem to fall into place.

 

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