Not Just a Pretty Face Trace Ayala teamed up with his friend Justin Timberlake--yes, that one--to create a clothing line and a restaurant. But they learned celebrity would only take them so far.
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They're a little bit country--and a little bit rock 'n' roll.
But that stark contrast is the mark of originality that separates their clothing line, William Rast, from competitors. According to Trace Ayala, his world-famous best friend and business partner, Justin Timberlake, brings the Hollywood vibe to their partnership, while Ayala flavors it with the distinctive tastes of Tennessee.
"We're a little bit of Tennessee mixed with a little Hollywood flair," Ayala says.
Of course, Timberlake is best known for his music. He became a member of boy band 'N Sync in 1995 at age 14. By 2002, he ventured out on his own with his first solo album, Justified. His first two solo albums sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. Since then, Timberlake has won six Grammy Awards and an Emmy Award.
Aside from music, Timberlake has diversified his resume by taking on several other roles. In 2005, Timberlake acted in his first feature film, Edison. By 2007, he took his knowledge of the music industry to the next level by establishing a record label, Tennman Records, as a joint venture with Interscope Records.
True to their roots
Prior to taking the entrepreneurial plunge in 2004, Ayala worked as Timberlake's personal assistant for six years. That relationship paved the way for their future enterprises.
"We learned what's work and what's friendship, and I think both of us have it down to an art now," Ayala says.
For Ayala and Timberlake, both 27, staying true to their Memphis, Tennessee, roots is a must. In order to make sure they do just that, the business partners have integrated details of their pasts into the projects and brands they manage today.
For starters, take the name of their clothing brand, William Rast. It's a combination of names holding significance for both men.
"We named the brand after our grandfathers. William is the first name of Justin's grandfather, and Rast is the last name of mine," Ayala says. "Our grandfathers went to school together and then our mothers grew up together, and then they had us a month apart. So we're more like brothers than anything."
The duo also finds design inspiration in a true Memphis legend, Elvis Presley.
"Elvis is the perfect mixture of Justin and I," Ayala says. "You can go back and see pictures of him in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat and a nice button-down shirt, but then again you can see him in a tux and a collared shirt with rhinestones on it and slacks. We like to think 'If he was alive today, what would he be wearing?'"
After founding William Rast in 2004, the duo enlisted partner Eytan Sugarman and embarked on their latest restaurant adventure, barbecue-themed Southern Hospitality, in New York City in 2007.
But that wasn't their first attempt at conquering the world of food. In fact, Timberlake and Ayala previously partnered up with Sugarman to open Italian hotspot Destino in 2006, only to decide it wasn't a good fit--which led them to better things.
"It wasn't true to who we were," Ayala says. "It's not the food that we grew up on, it's not the food that we love. That's why we opened Southern Hospitality."
The bar and restaurant serves up Memphis-style barbecue and traditional Southern fare, in addition to hosting special events like live bands, bourbon tastings and even beer pong. The only rule at Southern Hospitality? That there are no rules.
"No doorman, we don't take reservations and we don't have a dress code," Ayala says.
Though it's only been open for about one year, Southern Hospitality is already getting positive buzz. In fact, Ayala says the management team is getting requests to expand the Southern hotspot across the country.
"It's become this crazy thing that everybody wants to do," Ayala says. "We have every casino in Vegas calling."
It's a tempting offer, but Ayala says his team isn't certain it's the right move for the brand.
"We have to keep it right. Once you get involved trying to do one in Vegas, it turns into this celebrity, Hollywood thing, and that's the last thing we wanted to do. We would rather open them in every college town around the world."
But, Ayala admits, being the savvy businessmen they are, he, Timberlake and Sugarman have to at least consider the Vegas expansion.
As for William Rast, however, Ayala and Timberlake have plans to turn the clothing line into a lifestyle brand.
"We want to do sunglasses, tennis shoes and really nice hats," Ayala says. "We have some really big stuff in the works. We have a lot of projects we're working on that will also be William Rast branded."
As the pair continue growing their empire, Ayala asserts the importance of making sure each project flows into the next.
"Right now, I feel like [our companies] flow together so well," he says. "It's not like we're selling tuxedos and then going to a Southern barbecue joint. It's true to us, it's who we are and I think that's why it's so easy."
Thanks to Timberlake's soaring celebrity status, both William Rast and Southern Hospitality have gotten plenty of media attention. But Ayala said Timberlake's famous name doesn't always work in their favor.
"Having Justin involved, it's a double-edged sword," Ayala says. "You get all the publicity in the world that you want, and you have all of the connections that you want, but then again, it's hard for people to take you seriously being a celebrity brand, because the market's so flooded."
But what separates William Rast and Southern Hospitality from other celebrity brands and hotspots, according to Ayala, is Timberlake's dedication and involvement.
"He's 100 percent on board, I talk to him daily about the brand," Ayala says. "For him, when he gets really involved with something, there's no slacking on it."
Both of their hard work is paying off. After four years and the addition of Swedish designers Johan and Marcella Lindeberg, Ayala says William Rast is thriving.
"Since last fall, our sales have been huge, a lot bigger than they've been over the past couple years," he says. "It's finally coming to where we can see where it's going to go."
Most importantly, Ayala suggests the words of wisdom he and Timberlake live by.
"You have to stay true to you."
Celebrity--Good or Bad for Business?
Are you wishing your business partner was a world-famous celebrity, too? Don't get too jealous just yet. Believe it or not, celebrity can be just as much a hindrance as an asset in some businesses.
Marketing and branding turnaround expert John Tantillo, Ph.D., president of the Marketing Department of America Ltd., works with corporations and famous personalities. He stresses the importance of marketing and brand strategy in creating a successful celebrity brand.
"There's no doubt that high celebrity exposure means high initial product brand awareness, but translating this into an enduring entrepreneurial venture is very difficult," Tantillo says. If the public relations component isn't supported by comprehensive marketing, positioning, distribution and long-term brand consistency, then the ability to promote will fall flat on its face."
Tantillo uses the example of Ayala and Timberlake to identify five key tips that can benefit both celebrity businesses and small businesses alike:
- Be consistent. The thing about the restaurant business, however, is the importance of great, daily management. [Managers] ensure the consistency of customer experience and make sure that a one-time consumer experience turns into repeat business.
- Start with a good business model. A great business model can be supported by celebrity and publicity, but no amount of publicity and celebrity will save a rotten business model. Long-term customers don't buy celebrity; they buy goods and services that satisfy their needs. Period.
- Surround yourself with industry insiders. It isn't enough to have a great idea. Work with people who know the industry.
- Think twice before working with friends and family. Real marketing is about getting to the truth of your market and what's operating. Friendship and cronyism can cloud marketing strategy and cause the entrepreneur to be out of touch with his target market.
- Pay attention to sales trends. The cash register is your marketing seismograph. Be flexible, and if something isn't selling, get rid of it--no matter how creatively attached you might be.