Jake Wall and Nathan Johnson each bring a certain set of skills to their work at JAKE, “a premier fashion brand that offers garments with classic proportions and modern conveniences.”
“We went into this knowing where we were good at certain things,” says Johnson, the company’s co-founder and COO. “I’m not a designer and I have no ambition to design, but I do love operations and business. Jake loves business, but he also loves designing and those elements of the business. Whether it’s Jake, myself or any of our team members, we strive to be better.”
Their efforts led to the launch of JAKE in 2012 in San Francisco. They produce much of their signature clothing in the Bay Area using limited-run boutique fabrics made in the United States, Italy and the United Kingdom.
“I was born and raised in California and San Francisco is my home city,” says Wall, co-founder and creative director. “I live in a condominium development that used to be factory space for making clothes, clothes just like the ones we’re putting out there in the world. Nathan and I made the strategic decision to really emphasize a return to this type of business in San Francisco.”
Wall is young and so is his business, but he’s received some of the best education an entrepreneur could ever get. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley and earned a master’s degree from DePaul University and his MBA in international business and marketing at Pepperdine University.
He was also a successful cast member in season 14 of “Project Runway.”
Wall met Johnson at Pepperdine and the duo found that they were both interested in entrepreneurship.
“People just kept saying, ‘Jake makes great suits,’ or ‘you should get Jake to make you a suit,’” Wall says. “One thing led to another and we just moved down that path. Four years ago, we launched under the Artful Gentleman brand because at that time, we were going to specialize in men’s clothing. But very quickly, we started women’s suits as well. We evolved the brand into JAKE because we feel like it fits our customer demographic and our story a bit better.”
One of the biggest challenges for a growing business is the ability to have the discipline to turn away potential customers who aren’t a good fit for what you’re selling.
“You need to understand who is your customer and who is not your customer,” Wall says.
Wall offers the example of a client who might come to JAKE’s custom division to talk about a suit. Throughout the conversation, this potential client keeps referencing a photo of a suit made by another brand.
“We would stop the conversation and say, ‘Hey, it sounds like you’re in love with that other suit,’” Wall says. “’If you’re so in love with it, we honestly think you should go buy that suit. Your mind is already made up and anything else is going to pale in comparison.’ That’s a tough thing for an entrepreneur to do. We always want more customers. But if we’re going to get more customers, we want to make sure they are satisfied customers.”
It’s all about staying the course and believing in what it is you do, says Johnson.
“Our motto is classic, modern, defiant,” Johnson says. “We are a defiant brand. We have a bold sense of taste and humor and have fun with what we do. We love the products we make and it’s not always easy to stay the course. You’re not going to knock everything out of the park, but you’ll get close.”
In order to get there, you have to ask those tough questions: Who is your customer? Who isn’t your customer?
“When you’re in a leadership role, far too many people aren’t willing to have that hard moment and say, ‘That person is not our customer,’” Wall says.
Stay one step ahead
The other leadership principle that drives JAKE is the idea that you must always stay precisely one step ahead of your clients.
“If we are one step behind, the market is already saturated,” Wall says. “They’ve already seen it, they’ve already purchased it and why would they want it from us? If we’re two steps ahead, we’re too far ahead and it’s still out of their line of sight. It’s not on their interest level, so again we’ve missed the boat.”
Wall says the trick is to understand and stay focused on your customer and stay one step ahead of them.
“You want to give them that thing that they never knew they wanted, but that they’ve been waiting for this whole time,” Wall says. “We want to make sure that we are always communicating effectively, with our client, internally. If we ever fall down on communication, the rest of it falls down as well.”
Both Wall and Johnson continue to learn about their business and their team and they see a bright future ahead for JAKE.
“We have projected to grow to five stores over the course of five years,” Johnson says. “We’re going to take the next location as we look to see what makes the most sense on the West Coast. But we are looking at other locations across the nation in high-fashion cities like New York, Chicago and even New Orleans. Those are all in our five-year plan.” ●