This week we sat down with Jay Barton, the Founder & CEO at ASRV, to learn more about niche brands, authentic subcultures, and organic reach.
Jay Barton is the Founder & CEO at ASRV Sportswear and has been recognized in The Forbes 30 Under 30 2020 List. ASRV Sportswear is a premium technical clothing brand focusing on emerging textile technologies to create the most versatile sportswear and activewear in the world. In 2020, ASRV is expanding into partnerships with Kevlar, DuPont, Oakley, and Reebok. Jay enjoys surfing, working-out and building with Legos.
We’re incredibly excited to be working with Jay and the team at ASRV this year. If you’re an emerging brand, we’d love to get in touch! You can learn more about our investment process at Assembled Brands here.
What was the driving force behind launching ASRV?
The inception of ASRV Sportswear was a long series of events starting when I was about 9 years old when I learned I loved selling. I became fascinated by the process of creating something of value using my time and creativity and then selling or trading that thing for someone else’s items of value. My first “business” was collecting old beads at flea markets and weaving Macrame hemp necklaces and selling them at school. In middle school, I started my first “brand”.
At the time I was into skateboarding and snowboarding, so I started a tee-shirt business out of my garage. I learned how to design logos and created “hype” at school selling hundreds of shirts. I enlisted my friends to sell on commission and they felt excited to be a part of the brand. My school eventually shut down my operation because it was causing “cliques” that the school felt were not inclusive but even though the school didn’t like it, it was the first time I figured out how to create a brand that created a culture.
What events catalyzed your interest in entrepreneurship?
From age 19–22, I started two e-commerce consumer product brands, selling sunglasses and watches that I designed and had manufactured overseas. Neither one of these companies ever gained much traction because I was missing one key factor, authenticity. I was missing this crucial piece of the puzzle that I had learned from sports culture as a kid. In my excitement to start a company, I didn’t realize how critical it was to start from a place of authenticity and culture. Why did kids love my handmade, teeshirts that I made in my garage so much? How was that different than the more generic watches and sunglasses?
I played many sports as a kid, Baseball to Snowboarding and everything in between. Whenever I was really into a sport, I always wanted to be wearing the clothing/gear from the brands who identified with those sports. It was about a “culture”, an authentic belonging. I didn’t want to just play sports, I wanted to be part of the culture, and that meant identifying with the brands that were popular for each specific sport. Playing sports and wearing the “right” brands for those sports gave me a deep sense of community. This is how I learned the importance of authentic branding.
Through trial and error, by the time I founded ASRV Sportswear, I had a complete playbook of “do’s and don’ts” for creating a truly ‘roots’ authentic brand. I identified a culture of ex-athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and entrepreneurial thinkers who were not being catered to by the big brands like Nike and Adidas. I started ASRV with a super targeted market, and only six products. Within the first year, we did almost $1 million in sales and had accumulated almost half a million fans on social media.
What should a future founder be most aware of before launching a brand?
There is a huge difference in starting a “Brand” vs a “Business”. I learned this lesson the hard way from my past endeavors. If you just want to start a business because you love entrepreneurship and economics, that is a completely different mindset than starting a brand. Starting a business is about having a solid business model and a product or service that is in demand or that you do better than anyone else. Starting a successful brand is about authenticity. A brand must have a deeper connection to the consumer.
You have to identify a subculture that is not being catered to by the big players, and it has to be authentic or else you will be sniffed out by the consumer. Successful niche brands play the long game, like Patagonia or Carhartt. To play the long-game, you must create a deep connection with your consumer. You must know them on a personal level, so it must be authentic to the founders. I am wary of starting a brand just to make money, I believe, it’s better to start a brand with the mindset of wanting your products and message, to be passed down from generation to generation with pride.
What are the three tools you can’t live without for your business?
Instagram, Shopify, and SMS. Luckily, I utilized Instagram early on; right around the time, it was purchased by Facebook. This gave our brand a platform with massive organic reach for about four years before Instagram (Facebook) started to mess with the algorithms and monetize the platform, which is slowly messing up the authenticity of the platform… I watched the same thing happen with Facebook back in the day. Facebook was an amazing platform for brands until they started optimizing the platform for monetization, making it a pay-to-play platform.
All social media have a similar story, they start off small with authentic reach and not much advertising, and then slowly turn the platforms into a marketing channel for anyone willing to pay more. We are currently trying to identify the next “Instagram”, so we can get in early, it could be Tik-Tok, but we are not convinced yet. My advice would be to try and identify the next big social media channel and get in early. You have about 3–5 years before the platform starts to monetize its user base at which point it not only skyrockets in accessibility for businesses, but users begin to tune out their advertising.
In the broader consumer landscape, what macro trends are ASRV riding?
1. The ever-growing popularity of fitness, health, and mindset.
2. The male consumer purchasing power in fashion.
3. The casual dress-codes being more common in daywear and workwear.
4. The faster-paced lifestyles we all live, apparel must be versatile & fashionable.
What unique angle or niche has ASRV pioneered?
ASRV has a very unique angle on the market. We focus our attention on streetwear fashion trends integrated into activewear & the fast-growing textile technology industry. We spend the majority of our time trend spotting streetwear fashion from around the world & integrate that into our designs, without compromising the functionality of our apparel.
The other interesting thing happening in the textile industry is rapid integration of technology, which is really just getting started, so the leaps in textile innovation are huge. Consumers have not wanted or needed technology in their clothing until recently. LuluLemon pioneered this industry by proving that the consumer is willing to pay a lot more for active/lifestyle clothing that has high-quality materials and use-threshold technology for the longevity of the product.
ASRV is also at the forefront of bringing military and industrial textile technologies into the consumer space. For example, we just partnered with Kevlar® from Dupont as the first consumer brand to integrate Kevlar® into our fabrics. With the consumer’s interest in technical products becoming bigger each year, ASRV is truly creating the future of apparel.