“If music be the fruit of love, play on!” – Shakespeare
The whole team has been asking, what are you going to write about for Valentine’s Day?
I wanted to talk about my first relationship; and how it turned into the custom embroidered shirts and apparel business that it is today. I got into the shirt business because I loved Lacoste Alligator shirts. Then I hated them. This was one of my first formative relationships. How could one have a relationship with a shirt? There was a lesson there and even way back at the age of 20, I was eager to figure it out.
The shirt part of the Lacoste shirt was always fantastic. As I came to learn, it was made from a special two-ply 100% cotton yarn that provided outstanding comfort, durability and shape retention. There was simply nothing more comfortable than a Lacoste shirt. As a teenager, when my mother went back to work, I became the laundry boy at home. I was never not impressed and a bit awed by how soft and crisp those shirts were when they came out of the dryer. They folded up perfectly into the hamper and felt just perfect when you put one on. It is a sensation that has never left me.
And at first I loved the alligator. In my mid-teens the alligator seemed like an interesting little symbol – maybe a bit amusing on a shirt. I always found the bit of red in the mouth a fascinating detail that seemed to give the symbol that little extra something to make it perfect. Even at that young age I also thought it remarkable that the same green alligator could contrast so perfectly with every color of shirt it was on.
But as its popularity grew, I came to hate the alligator. I couldn’t wear one without someone making a snide comment about preppy elitism. I didn’t want to be seen that way. Oh well. Nonetheless, people were attached to these garments like the alligator was attached to the shirt. It was an early lesson for me in the irrationality of business math. 1 great shirt + 1 interesting logo equaled something much more than two. Together they equaled something probably closer to 5 or 6. Something magical can happen in a relationship where the sum is clearly much greater than the parts. Though I had broken my personal attachment to the shirt, for many there was still a very strong connection. It was a relationship that was much stronger than logic would suggest.
Moving on from this past “relationship”
It was in college as I wistfully watched the Lacoste sensation grow from the sidelines that I got the idea “What if you could get the same great shirt as the original Lacoste version, but have it emblazoned with any logo or design you wanted?” Each relationship with the garment would be unique. No one could fault you for being anything other than who you were.
I got to work, and here I am. It may one day turn out that people create their own “brands” that they use to embellish their clothes and various other personal items. If that ever happens, hopefully we will be ready to serve them. In the meantime, however, when I started running ads in the back of the New Yorker with the headline “Better than Lacoste or Ralph Lauren – Our Great Shirt/Your Great Logo”, it was the businesses, the ones that already had logos, that came calling.
Fast forward almost 40 years and my little idea of putting your own logo on a shirt has turned into a huge industry, which we are just a tiny piece of. Meanwhile, my love for a shirt has evolved into a passion to build a great company. We have kept things personal by developing our niche with smaller companies and have always dealt directly with our customers, as opposed to selling through a distributor network or retail stores. By using technology whenever possible, we have gotten very good at processing a lot of small orders quickly, accurately, and at a great price. And we always have a big smile on our faces.
What started as a fascination about a relationship with a shirt has evolved into a fascination with how to develop relationships with customers and among co-workers strong and rich enough to withstand the inevitable ups and downs of daily life.
A few years ago, when I became increasingly focused on the goal of building a great company, it became clear that developing those relationships was going to be at the center of that journey. In fact, I now see they are essentially the same thing.
We are not yet great, but every day we get a little better. Here are six things we know about great relationships so far:
- It all starts with two people committed to making it work.
If either or both halves of a relationship, for whatever reason, are not prepared, willing, or able to acknowledge the importance of the relationship and commit to doing their part to making it work, that relationship is doomed to first make both parties miserable, and then fail. One person simply can’t do it alone. If you are trying to develop relationships with people that don’t get it, or just don’t care, you are setting yourself up for a lot of frustration and failure.
- There must be genuine affection.
Misanthropes don’t have good relationships. I don’t have to be in love with the guy I get my coffee from in the morning to have a great relationship with him, but if we genuinely like each other, getting coffee in the morning will be a great way to start the day. If you don’t naturally like a person you are trying to develop a relationship with, you should try harder to like them by looking for admirable qualities they may have. If you can’t find any, the problem is more likely with you than them. However, if you really do try and don’t succeed, you should probably move on. And if you are stuck, like at work, maybe think about another job.
- First honesty, then trust.
When mutual trust is achieved, a relationship achieves strength. Trust, however, is preceded by honesty, which for various reasons is a very difficult thing to consistently deliver. In many relationships, being consistently honest is an extremely hard thing to do. Some people really struggle with being consistently honest in their lives. Maybe because people haven’t been consistently honest with them, some people seem to get used to stretching the truth at an early age, and then never quite recover. It is not easy to be consistently honest. That is just true. I believe that those who struggle the most with this, however, are the ones that struggle most developing relationships.
- Relationships must grow.
A static relationship is a dying relationship. If time and attention are not invested, connection is lost and the energy fades. You can say hi and smile at the person who gives you coffee every morning, but if you never go further than that, you will soon be looking for another place to get coffee. There is nothing terribly wrong about this. It’s just coffee. But your morning won’t go as well, and you may have lost an opportunity to learn and grow. Maybe the next person will be better. Maybe not.
- Conflict is not just good, it is great.
In France, there is reputedly a saying that it is not a successful dinner party without a good argument. Amongst friends, a passionate argument is one of the most enjoyable ways to spend time. Not all conflict is fun, but in a good relationship, it is always the source of growth. When there is disagreement in a relationship, at least one person is usually at least partially wrong, which means there is an opportunity to learn and grow. If people don’t enjoy learning and growing, they will most likely struggle with relationships.
- For a team to operate at its highest level, all the relationships must be great.
This is one of the reasons why it is so hard to be a good leader. In your team, you don’t have to just worry about your own relationships with your teammates. You also must worry about all your teammates relationships with each other. In a team of 4 (including yourself), that’s 6 total relationships. In a team of 6 it’s 15 relationships. That is a lot of awareness! As the teams grow, things get much more complex. But that is also the job of the leader, for without at least one person on the team watching this, it would be left to each person individually to diagnose their inter-team relationship challenges. Most are just not capable of doing that. When a single relationship works it is a beautiful thing. When it works for an entire team, it’s a symphony! But it does require a lot of maintenance.
I still love shirts and always love to see the logos and designs that our customers send us. And I still feel that spark when a great logo pairs with a great shirt or hat, and all the colors work perfectly together. And then, maybe, I get an enthusiastic note from the customer full of pride and enthusiasm about how happy they are with the products, and how great their entire experience with our company has been.
A greater joy, however, is working with and seeing our team tackle a problem, either big or small, and watch how the strength of the relationships amongst us all allows us to creatively address an issue, take care of it, and generally have a great time doing it.
I was recently travelling and was out of the office for a couple of days. We have a lot of different projects going on right now and were bumping into some walls on a few of them. As can be expected from the process, a few false starts were made, and there was some general frustration that was clearly being felt and expressed.
I was feeling some trepidation about what I was coming back to. There were a bunch of unresolved issues and it felt we were out of sync. The second I stepped in the door, however, the energy was good, and all my anxiety faded away. A smile immediately came to my face. A few minutes later we were huddled up for our morning song and afterwards as I made the rounds to touch base with everyone, all that had seemed like frustrations had turned into opportunities to improve. In a matter of minutes, we all seemed to be back on track.
I know we still have lots of work to do on continuing to improve, but we have made great progress in laying a foundation with a committed team of people who care about their relationships with each other, our customers, and our company. There is tremendous strength and joy that comes from that.
Best wishes to all for a sweet and meaningful Valentine’s Day 2019!