Written by Kate Fane
Tuesday, September 12th, 2017
Ethan Song is the co-founder and CEO of Frank and Oak, the (mostly online) Canadian clothing retailer known for its minimal aesthetic and creative campaigns. Popular with artists and executives alike, the brand aims to simplify the shopping process for those of us who've got other priorities.
Ethan launched Frank and Oak with his high school friend Hicham Ratnani. It's been called an overnight success story, but it actually was the result of years of market research and lifestyle sacrifices.
We sat down with Ethan to talk about his journey, and how to project success when you're flat broke.
What was your career path like before you became an entrepreneur?
I came to Canada from China as a child. It was a very math and tech-based family, and I was always conflicted by my interest in the arts and entrepreneurship. I worked for a big consulting firm after I graduated university. It was your typical corporate job. You had to wear a suit, you had to be presentable, you had to show up on time. It was good for me to get that discipline, but when I was 25 or 26, I knew it was time to go out and be wild and try new things.
Did you leave knowing you'd be launching your own business?
It's funny, it didn't start with a business idea. It started with my desire to explore. I quit my job without any real sense of what I was going to do. Instead, I collaborated on other people's companies. I got involved in the arts, technology, and digital advertising. By not fully committing to one thing, I was able to touch on all these different subjects. And by the time I felt ready to commit to something, I could bring all this learning together. One of the greatest things about this generation is that there are no barriers. There are no rules, and I think that's scary for a lot of young people. But once you recognize that, it can also be really great.
After you left the security of a corporate gig, did you have to be more budget-conscious than you were before?
Proper financial planning will give you freedom to do what you want in life. I've always been budget-conscious, because I knew I wanted to start my own business. My strategy was to not change my lifestyle, even if I got a promotion or a new gig. I stretched my money for a very long time while I was exploring, and that helped me to build Frank and Oak and take it to where it is now.
What kinds of things did you do to stretch your money?
When I was studying in Vancouver, I didn't have much money. I maintained that lifestyle when I started Frank and Oak. My budget for groceries was, and still is, $50 a week. I still eat instant ramen noodles and I don't own a car. This behaviour probably came from my parents. My dad was an immigrant who built his own business and did very well for himself. But he always taught me that there are ups and downs in life. You may want to celebrate the ups, but you have to be prepared for the downs.
How'd you convince people to get on board with your business idea during the early days?
When you're first starting off, especially in your early to mid-20s, you feel you need to convince people to trust you. You want to portray an idea of success. We started our business in our kitchen, since we didn't have an office or anything. But there was a coffee shop nearby. We'd meet people there, do really sleek presentations, and hand out nice business cards. That was our strategy, because then that's what people saw.
So would you say there's a little bit of truth to the "fake it to you make it" sentiment?
I actually think it's more true to yourself than it is to other people. The first step to any successful project is to convince yourself that you can do it. You always hear people saying "I wish I had done that," or "I knew this was going to big two years ago." And I think, "Well why didn't you do it?" Your first barrier is yourself. Once you pass your own barrier, the rest is a lot easier.
Any other advice for budding entrepreneurs?
It's important not to compare yourself to others. I had been doing this for three years and had no money. Meanwhile, my friend who kept his corporate job drove a fancy car. But that doesn't matter, you just have to focus on what makes you happy. Figure out your priorities in life and business, and then "over-invest" in those areas. With everything else, go lean and cut back.