Startup Spotlight: Amberjack
All Things Venture #055
Woah. We’ve got a lotta new people who have subscribed in the past week. So first of all, welcome. It’s great to have you here. If you’re new here, you’re joining a ragtag crew of founders, operators, and other investors who are here to learn, share perspective, and grow together. All Things Venture was started way back at the beginning of the pandemic with the explict focus of helping early stage entrepreneurs’ share their founding story. That will always be core to what we do here, but over the past 2-ish years, we’ve begun to share more perspective on a whole range of topics. Generally we’ll limit our focus to early stage startups, technology, and investing (both VC and public markets), but don’t be suprised if you see the occassional hot cultural take. Anyways, to retirate, we are beyond happy to have you here and excited to continue to learn, share, and grow.
Today’s article is about Amberjack, a direct to consumer company based out of New York changing the footwear game. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the CEO and co-founder of Amberjack Johnathan Peters to learn about Amberjack’s founding story, their “aha” moments as a business, and how to innovate in a more established product category. One of the things I’ve learned from meeting with founders every week, is that the best founders have developed some sort of competitive edge for themselves. Some founders know their industry inside and out, some founders have an incredible network or audience, some founder just have off the charts, ready to sprint a marathon, energy. It’s a mix and it’s a range, but Jonathan is one of those founders that have all three in spades. As always, let’s dive right in.
Jonathan! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to start Amberjack!
I started my career at Mckinsey, coming out of Cornell, within their consumer practice. I spent a lot of time with bigger brands in the consumer and apparel footwear space. As a consumer, I found the category in general to be really boring. I had a pair of traditional dress shoes that I wore all the time and that I thought were lame and my feet were always killing me, and I just wanted a more comfortable brand. As I did work for the bigger brands doing the customer research, you’d realize that for the 25 - 45 male age group, there was a negative net promoter score for the dress shoes category. Not a lot of people were excited about the category so I wondered , why weren’t people excited? You know, could we do an AllBirds for the dress casual segment?
I ended up cold DM’ing the former CEO of Cole Haan, pitched him, teamed up with him, and a few other people on the product development side and Amberjack was born.
Who do you believe Amberjack is best positioned for?
We had originally positioned Amberjack as for the white collar New Yorker (finance and professional services type jobs), and while we do still sell to that segment our core demo today is a bit different. We primarily sell to mid-30s men with a little bit more disposable income, people who are later in their career and willing to pay a premium, and a little bit more geographically distributed. We reach the average professional consumer in Raleigh,and in Houston, cities like that. When you think about it, they are a bigger consumer base, and from a marketing standpoint our product resonates with this group as well.
What was your “aha” moment when you realized something was working at Amberjack?
Great question, we had two “aha” moments:
We spent a painful amount of time prototyping, and actually at one point had to unravel the whole thing and almost start from scratch. We basically had to rebuild the product a year into it - but after that we finally created something that was comfortable and I could finally show it to my friends and not be embarrassed
The second “aha” moment was when we started growing and selling the business, and we started to get feedback from customers we didn’t know and get real unbiased reviews. We saw people generally liking it and loving what we provided and that’s another point when we knew we were on to something
What are some of the challenges that you face at the current stage for Amberjack?
It’s probably similar to most founders, I mean hiring is the biggest one - that’s a very painful process from a time standpoint, especially as a solo founder. We’re in the middle of hiring our head of growth marketing, which is effectively the head of revenue, growth, and strategic initiatives for the business.. In my mind it’s a cool opportunity for someone with experience in digital marketing, but more importantly it’s an incredible opportunity for someone who is smart and hungry and looking for a step up in the scope and reach of their responsibilities.
What defines success for Amberjack over the next few months?
Our mindset over the back half of last year was how can we grow in a profitable/bootstrapped way. The business was working and we just wanted to keep it going. Our mindset over the first half of this year was, how do we accelerate growth - how do we invest in longer term projects that have less immediate ROI? Can we continue to optimize the growth marketing? What are the short term projects we need to keep on track? What are some of the long term projects we should be experimenting with? We’re working with some customized fit technology that's a longer lead time for us, and we have a celebrity partnership we're looking to launch, but the core of what we do is footwear. We’re looking to maintain the edge that we had with the first product we created, because at the end of the day our business is about designing and creating amazing products that consumers love.
What advice do you have for any aspiring entrepreneurs?
I spent a lot of time thinking about ideas at Mckinsey and I was never sure on how to quantify what a good idea is or not. My perspective now is two pronged, and I always think is this idea a venture backed style of business or is it a lifestyle business? I think this is an important question to ask and a lot of people will want to build a venture backed type of business. My perspective is that venture backed businesses need to be trend driven, and in that environment you need to create something where there is an underlying current. I’d rather be an okay swimmer, swimming with the current than the best swimmer swimming against the current. On top of that, you should try to figure out your core skill set where you have an advantage. The core skill set in shoes is product creation, but there are certain businesses that are extremely network based. Figure out what the core thing that the business requires, and figure out what unique insight you have into that requirement.
What is your wildly ambitious vision for Amberjack?
In my mind I would say the core thing I believe, and our team believes, is that the future of dress wear and work is changing. The definition of “nicely dressed” is changing - people are looking for different options, more versatility, and a lot more comfort. Our goal is to become the new version of what that style of dress is going to be. We’re a dress casual brand that stands at the intersection of material innovation and comfort and we’re excited to go on this journey ahead.
Note to self. Swim with the current. Easily some of the best advice we’ve been able to share in this newsletter. Still working on that Web3 piece, but we’ll have it out soon! As always, inbox is open to suggestions on topics to write about. Don’t be shy!