Would you rather have limitless potential customers or just a handful of guaranteed buyers? Ahmed Malik, founder of Radian Jeans, would advise you on the latter, and he’s made good money on that wager.
Moving from Pakistan to America to work in finance, Ahmed always had an obsession with the American dream, specifically startups. His dream became a successfully crowdfunded ecommerce business selling jeans with deep pockets. His business stayed afloat despite a pandemic that forced him to pivot to other products (he successfully became one of the first fabric mask suppliers in the US).
When many were going low Ahmed went high and chose quality and market demand over growth potential and personal gain. Today, Ahmed’s one-person company only requires a couple of hours of work each week and rolls in a healthy couple hundred thousand every year and seven figures in 2020. This is how he made it.
Obsessed With Success
Like many expats moving to make a life in the US, Ahmed has a real affinity for the American dream. The classic belief that anyone can make their dreams a reality if they just have a great idea and work hard.
He attained an MA International Business in Boston and spent the years following his graduation working for large financial companies like Citibank and Mastercard. However, he always had the American Dream in the back of his mind and was awaiting the right moment to start his own business.
While his career focus had been finance, he noticed how quickly e-commerce businesses could get up and running and was intrigued. Growing up in a family that worked in garment manufacturing, Ahmed decided his first solo venture should be in the clothing space because he was somewhat familiar with it. He began researching in earnest at the end of the 2010s.
“I had some pretty bad ideas for businesses in the first year,” says Ahmed. “However, as I was researching, my wife kept coming back to me and mentioning how much she hated that her pants had no pockets. We did a little research on our female friends and five in six people we talked to couldn’t stand it.”
Ahmed realized that deep pockets could be as good a place as any to start. Especially if the demand was as obvious as it seemed to be.
“It checked the box for me,” he says. “Even if there were only a small number of people interested, I’d rather focus on them than try to persuade a large number of whom I knew nothing about.”
A person that likes to do things right the first time, Ahmed knew his startup would not be successful if it was just a side hustle. He quit his job in 2018 and didn’t attend any interviews until December of that year to focus on his product. He thought the best way to establish product-market fit was by launching a Kickstarter campaign.
“I’d given myself a deadline of the end of December. If the campaign was unsuccessful I’d go back to a job,” says Ahmed.
Setting his goal first to $15,000 and offering rewards like a special pair of discounted jeans for contributors, Ahmed felt he set a fundraising bar that was low enough to be achievable while high enough to be aspirational. In hindsight, he only regrets the timing of his campaign.
“I launched the Kickstarter campaign on December fourth which is a terrible time because everyone already has their Christmas shopping done,” he says. “That wasn’t the only part I was worried about. Most of the stuff on Kickstarter are gadgets and only thirty percent of participants are women.”
Fundraising went slow at first, but suddenly the money came rushing in. In the last half of December, Radian had raised $250,000, over 16 times its fundraising goal.
Doing Crowdfunding the Right Way
Ahmed credits his campaign’s success to two things: the rewards he offered his contributors and ensuring he could deliver on what he promised.
“It wasn’t just the company’s Kickstarter reputation on the line, it was my reputation too,” he says. “ With a hard product, you need the product. I didn’t just want a concept. I wanted to be further along the process so I could deliver. If things went badly, I would’ve returned the money.”
“I had to work very hard with a ninety percent chance of failing. I was just burning money in the hopes that things will work out.”
To tantalize buyers, he created prizes for contributors including discounts and special products.
“Customers who contributed to our Kickstarter not only got jeans at discounted prices, but also some unique items they could only get on Kickstarter that had some special features not available on our other pants,” he continues.
Ahmed says hitting $250,000 on Kickstarter was the easy part of starting up. The hard part was the fulfillment.
“What happens on Kickstarter is you suddenly have fifty countries you need to ship to immediately once it’s complete,” says Ahmed. “You more or less need the resources of a company that would have $250,000 of revenue in a day.”
While Ahmed made sure the shipments happened, he was also busy managing expectations.
“Scaling up was tough,” says Ahmed. “There were delays but we were very communicative when they happened. Some people think you place an order first and you get it first, but usually, the order has to be done by location. Ninety-five percent of the product was shipped in the first year but it took that long for people to get their orders.”
Fortunately, even with delays customers were impressed with the product when they got them.
“You can’t just put pockets on pants and expect it to work out,” says Ahmed. “It was hard to find the supply chain for our product so when we did, we thought we’d just do everything and make it a really high-quality product.”
Who Buys Women’s Jeans With Pockets?
Ahmed is very proud of the community he found. By targeting a very specific group he may have missed out on super fast scalability, but he has made up for it in repeat sales.
“Thirty percent of our revenue comes from repeat purchases. One of our customers has bought more than 26 pairs of jeans from us,” says Ahmed. “If people like it, it’s solving a problem and that’s why it sells. And then they tell their friends. I love that aspect.”
His sales also seem to target an abnormally wide demographic for a clothing product.
“There is no typical demographic or age group for people who buy,” says Ahmed. “Twenty-five to thirty-five-year-olds make up fifteen percent of sales, sixty-five and up make up over ten percent. You don’t see that a lot in apparel ecommerce brands. We solve this problem and it’s your everyday jeans basically.”
With a successful Kickstarter in the bag and a satisfied target demographic referring their friends, Radian began to see healthy growth.
“We’ve always been profitable,” continues Ahmed. “ From January of 2021 to March we scaled up and started shipping via ads. We were scaling up twenty-five percent every week in terms of week-on-week revenue. The beauty of Kickstarter was that when the campaign ended we had $250,000 in the bank, we delivered, and everyone was happy. By March we weren’t even doing email marketing and growing.”
But then, COVID happened, and Ahmed needed to change everything.
Making the Most of a Bad Situation
When COVID hit the US, people initially stopped buying clothing and Ahmed knew he had to think fast or risk losing the business. Fortunately, he saw a need not being met in the States: comfortable and fashionable masks.
“The surgeon general was telling people to make masks by folding pieces of cloth and I said, ‘Hey, I can do that!’ We launched a pre-order campaign on our Shopify by emailing existing customers about the masks. No one even knew what a fabric mask was at that point in the US even though they are fairly common in Asia.”
Ahmed started making and shipping reusable masks in just a few short weeks, barely managing to get his stock order out before his factory shut down due to the spread of the virus.
“I was working with a new manufacturer in another country that I hadn’t worked with before. The first thousand masks were made in just two days. Thirty hours to be specific,” says Ahmed. “For perspective, something like that would usually take three weeks. They shipped them out hours before the factory shut down.”
Even after that, events seemed like they were conspiring against the entrepreneur.
“The factory closed down and then reopened. Then customs said they couldn’t ship. Then UPS said they couldn’t ship. The world threatened to shut down any minute. I was very concerned,” Ahmed says.
But everything paid off when Radian had quality fabric masks at the ready months before anywhere else in the US.
“Most companies couldn’t get them until June. We got them ready by April,” says Ahmed. “We had a few hundred-thousand mask orders in days.”
The result? $95,000 of revenue in a single day. Ahmed had to immediately scale his customer service team from one to five people and he claims he was working up to 20 hours and sometimes fulfilling as many as 1,000 orders in a day.
“Many of our orders were from corporate email addresses so we started adding corporate discounts and then stuff really went up. We had one customer make an order of 70,000 masks,” he says.
Ahmed believes a large factor in his success with the masks is he did not attempt to gouge prices. He wanted to do something good for the world.
“Price gouging was not an option for me. Even when I was the busiest,” says Ahmed. “I had emails from 85-year-olds on oxygen tanks saying they wanted a mask and I’d ship one or two of those out on my own time for free because I felt so bad. Our most expensive mask was seven dollars while some of our competitors were doing ten dollars for their lowest quality ones. We even did subsidized pricing for nonprofits.”
People noticed the good work he was doing and bought from him because of it.
“Facebook wouldn’t let me run ads at the time, but I was getting free press. We got a lot of brand equity because our price was fair and we had a good product and good CS.”
Since September of 2021 Radian has returned to jeans but now with a much wider customer base and lots of free press from publications like GQ.
Ahmed’s Take On Getting Funding
Ahmed says he is not at all against receiving outside funding for business ventures (that’s why he took to crowdfunding), but he thinks entrepreneurs need to know they have struck gold before looking for venture capital.
“I have nothing against VC fundraising and I would do it in a heartbeat if I needed to,” says Ahmed. “But there is a weird, pie-in-the-sky situation going on with it today. You need a certain amount of sustainability before taking that kind of money and there was too much risk that we’d burn through funds in the beginning.”
Looking back on his successful entrance into the ecommerce business, he has this to say to new founders looking to do the same:
“It’s not a hockey stick function when you first start a business. Take it in steps and de-risk yourself. That means if you don’t have an audience, do the testing. Spend a thousand dollars on Google Ads and see what people like. It’s much better to use that money and be certain rather than lose many thousands later when you need to pivot,” Ahmed says. “Focus on the customer first, listen to what people want, and then make the product.”
Today the news is filled with stories of failed Kickstarters that over-promised and under-delivered, especially in ecommerce. Ahmed’s story is one of the many quiet successes that usually doesn’t make the news but offers a valuable blueprint to others in the space. The lesson from Radian Jeans is that if you remain bootstrapped, you don’t need to have an infinitely scalable product to make a successful business. A good niche and a steadily growing demographic is all it takes.
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