Back in the '90s, the big goal for many entrepreneurs was to earn a million dollars. A million meant you had made it--you were not only thriving, you were rich. Alas, being a millionaire now just doesn't have the same cachet. To reach the same level of prestige now, you need to be a billionaire. Once, that might have been a far-fetched dream for entrepreneurs. But today, it isn't only global corporate kings who can luxuriate in such wealth and lead billion-dollar enterprises. Entrepreneurs are creating and running some of these wildly successful companies, too. You'll meet two of them--Marc Ecko and David Hitz--in the following pages.
Marc Ecko once said he hoped people would think of him as Willy Wonka. It's easy to see why, because Ecko brings a sense of edgy wonder to his work. As chief creative officer of Marc Ecko Enterprises and co-founder with his twin sister, Marci Tapper, 35, and business partner Seth Gerszberg, 36, Ecko presides over an empire of clothing and accessory lines, such as Ecko Unltd. and Zoo York, as well as a video game and multimedia division and a magazine.
Ecko (born Marc Milecofsky) began as an entrepreneur at age 14, painting T-shirts in his family's garage in New Jersey. He got the nickname "Echo" when he was born because his mother didn't know she was expecting twins. Ecko isn't known for being quiet now, though--his grand gestures include releasing a video on the web showing graffiti artists spray-painting "Still Free" on Air Force One in 2006. The video was so realistic that government officials checked to make sure the real presidential plane had not been vandalized. (It hadn't.) Last year, he bought Barry Bonds' record-breaking baseball for more than $750,000 and let people vote on what should happen to it.
Ecko thinks bold in his business dealings, too. In addition to his wholesale operations, he plans to open 150 retail outlets by 2010, and a flagship store in Times Square is in the works. The New York City company earned sales in excess of $1.5 billion in 2007. We talked with Ecko about his business and having fun.
You started the business while studying pharmacology at Rutgers. What did you want your business to be?
At the time, I was just doing T-shirts, but I'd go to trade shows and see brands doing everything from snowboard jackets to jeans to leather. Every time, little bits of the business revealed itself. I was like, "That's fair game. I should be able to do that, too."
Your company nearly went bankrupt about 10 years ago. Everybody was telling you to bail out. Why didn't you?
We knew there wasn't anyone we were meeting in our space who was any smarter or working any harder than us. Maybe they had more experience. They didn't necessarily have more smarts.
Here's the other thing, to be candid: You're $7 million in debt, $16 million in sales. You're functionally bankrupt. Who the hell is going to buy you? We were not a very attractive thing to purchase, even though we were putting ourselves out there on the block. It managed to get us a lot of interesting meetings with players and thinkers, though. People were intrigued by us. We were young and scrappy, and they found us charming, so they gave us the time of day. And man, every time we'd get a session, we'd just try to learn as much as possible.
Everything. You're sitting across from the general merchandising manager. What's merchandising? Oh, you're in charge of information management systems. OK . . . what's that? You'd investigate who the players were; you'd ask what the best practices were.
Your sales went from $16 million to $96 million by 2000. What changed?
We stopped trying to sell the company. Then we had the good fortune of [talking to] Alan Finkelman. Alan's father was a part owner in a traditional sportswear company that sold mass, mainstream products to discounters and discount chains. But they had the infrastructure: the warehouse, the production shops, the computer systems. My partner Seth convinced Alan to help us.
Alan could buy into our company. What it would allow us to do is focus on marketing, production, all the stuff we'd learned about in the pursuit of wanting to sell the company.
Alan said if we could pay him back in two years, he'd let us buy back all of his percentage for the interest plus a dollar. That let us put our heads down and focus. Sure enough, in 18 months or so, we bought back his position. If it wasn't for him, we might not have ever had that outlet to turn it around.
What kinds of mistakes did you make along the way?
From 1999 to 2000, we had a hiccup in our sales. Frankly, I take most of the blame. I became arrogant about my capacity. I got first-class tickets to Amsterdam, Milan and Paris and went on a shopping trip. I came back with a soundtrack to a new direction. Coming off the heels of a very successful 18-month run-up, I thought I could do no wrong.
I designed a line that was just shit. It was done in a very self-indulgent, ivory tower kind of way with no semblance of merchandising, no data as to what worked before, what are the colors that are working in the market--all the things you do that are best practices. The stuff got to retail and completely bombed.
I sobered up. What did I do wrong? It was like a wind sprint to get back on course. To feel that pain again and feel like it could all disappear was a very healthy thing for refining our process and putting more quantitative analysis into the design.
What is your role in the company today?
I look for big, bold strokes--business development in new areas. It became very clear that the best thing I can do, rather than being deep in the weeds with design, is to be a muse to my organization. If I come in and say, "I want graphic T-shirts with deep V-necks," in three months, it'll be there. If I'm in the weeds, negotiating changes, it's just one more message that might or might not get executed. The more distance I've created from a hands-on, deep touch design perspective, the better and more effective I've been as a design leader.
As chief creative officer, I've got a painting factory. I have a dozen or so oil painters and sculptors that are constantly building fine art for me. I'm trying to create images that I can't necessarily create in a purely commercial environment. It's like R&D almost. That artwork informs our designs in a huge way.
Do you have any advice you want to give to readers?
There's a book by Daniel Goleman, Working With Emotional Intelligence. That was a big tipping point for me, applying that to my business.
I don't think there's one silver bullet that will shoot you to the moon. Not being emotional and being able to call shit on yourself and on the people around you is really important. And not having to worry about tap-dancing or tiptoeing around people's feelings. Just to be sober and say, "Look, this is how it really is." I think having an environment that lends itself to that without everyone getting pissy is really important. That, coupled with being passionate and being able to distinguish between the shades of passion and emotion, because there is a distinction. Being passionate doesn't give you license to be emotional.
What new things do you want to do?
Right now, one of our big focuses is our retail expansion. That's a great cultural shift for our company, controlling our own destiny.
I'd like to do something on a really large scale relating to public school reform. I don't know how that's going to take shape. I'd love to one day create lots of public art for this country. There are more video game projects I've got cooking. Just to have fun--that's the most important thing.
Is it still fun for you?
It's so much fuckin' fun. I'm so lucky, it's ridiculous. Some days it's hard, a lot of heavy lifting. But I can always end the day thinking, "What else would I be doing?" If you can't envision doing something else, then you've got the right gig.