The Simple Sales Secret That Took Ralph Lauren From Zero to $6 Billion in Annual Revenue
Sell what you know, and one product is all it takes to get started.
When you hear the name Ralph Lauren today, you might think of iconic polo shirts, colorful sweaters or even his trademark fragrances. Not many people know that Ralph Lauren started out his fashion empire with just one product: ties.
In 1967, ties were narrow and plain. Lauren wanted to launch a tie that was wide and colorful where traditional ties were narrow and drab. A salesperson at the time, Lauren pitched the idea to his manager Abe Rivetz.
Rivetz declined. So what does someone with entrepreneurial spirit do next? Go out on his own, obviously.
Many entrepreneurs fail in their first year, but Ralph Lauren sold over $500,000 of his core product under the name Polo in the first twelve months — that’s over $3.8 million in today’s dollars. Fast forward to the present day, and the parent company does over $6 billion in annual revenue.
What was the entrepreneur’s secret sauce? Here are a few of the subtleties that led to his success.
Don’t wait for success to find you
Many would-be entrepreneurs are light on business and heavy on excuses. “I’m just going to get my MBA,” “I haven’t perfected my pitch deck yet,” and “I want to wait until the time is right” are mindset traps that will keep you stuck. Even though Lauren only had the idea for one product, he knew that the idea was worth pursuing. It launched him into fashion history.
In his high school yearbook, Lauren — then known as Ralph Lifshitz — wrote that his goal was to become a millionaire. With just a high school diploma and a few business classes under his belt, he went after his dreams. Today he’s worth an estimated $7 billion.
Lead with vision, and let knowledge follow
When Lauren came onto the fashion scene, ties were nothing to write home about. They weren’t seen as accessories, but rather as functional items of clothing. Lauren changed all that with his vision, which was partially inspired from attending his first polo match.
Instead of taking his cues from the existing industry, he sold ties that matched his ideals and beliefs. Though he experienced some pushback from the department stores that he was trying to sell his ties to, Neiman Marcus eventually took a chance on him and placed an order for 1,200 units.
Lauren later confessed to Vogue in 1982 that he didn’t even know how to manufacture a tie. Clearly he figured it out, and as soon as department stores began stocking them, they found their consumers were hungry for a new fashion trend.
Anyone can copy success, but only truly successful entrepreneurs can forge their own path. Lauren proves that by focusing on your own vision, you can beat out the crowd of imitators.
How to find your one product
Going all-in on a single product or offer can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be completely uninformed. Here’s what to keep in mind as you dial in your strategy.
Look for gaps in the market. Becoming the best can be expensive, challenging and time-consuming. Look for ways to be different or go against the grain, and you’ll have an easier time standing out.
Launch, then iterate. LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman famously quipped that “if you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” It’s unlikely you’ll deliver a slam dunk on your first iteration; optimize for learning instead.
Let consumer behavior guide you. Instead of building something no one wants because your mom told you it was a great idea, look at the actual behavior of your prospects. If their response is a tepid “Oh, that seems nice…”, go back to the drawing board. When you start hearing “Can I buy that right now?” you’re on to something.
Many entrepreneurs believe that you need a perfect set of conditions for a successful launch. Ralph Lauren proves that wrong. You don’t need a complete set of products, a fully ideated branding or a fleet of VCs to back you. All you need is one good product that is built around what you stand for as an entrepreneur.
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