(2010 update: I’ve been told very recently that Joanna Van Vleck is no longer running the Trunk Club, and that there may have been problems under the surface that I wasn’t aware of as I wrote this post. It was written in 2007, more than two years ago. Tim)
It’s called The Trunk Club. It’s a great example of how market, identity, and focus come together to build new businesses that combine new ideas with old-fashioned serving the customer. It’s also a personal favorite because it’s the brainchild of one of my former students.
Three years ago Joanna Van Vleck was a student at the University of Oregon who wanted to build her own personal shopping business. Now she and partner Brie Chapman have built a successful business in Bend, Oregon and are looking to expand nationally.
I summarized the market-identity-focus trio as the Heart of a Business on Planning Startups Stories.
- The market is about what people want, or need, who they are, why they want or need it, and how to reach them.
- The identity is about who you are, your business, what you want, what you’re good at.
- The focus is how you bring these elements together, differentiating, positioning, combining your market focus with your business offering focus with your strengths.
The Trunk Club is a good example of how these three come together in a real business. You can’t really separate them.
Joanna arrived in my class a few years ago wanting to build a personal shopper business. She developed a business plan for that business. She had worked at Nordstrom while studying, she knew the market, she knew she liked style and wanted her own business. I don’t know Brie, but I do know Joanna is doing what she’s always been good at and always liked doing. I also know that she’s young, personable, very self confident, and very determined.
Joanna and Brie discovered their target market was men, particularly men 35 and older who value service more than low prices. These men were far more likely to want the service of shopping instead of doing it themselves.
Then came an important “Aha! moment:” relatively few men identify with the phrases “personal shopping” or “personal shopper.” “But men join clubs,” Joanna told me on the phone this month. “they join golf clubs, athletic clubs, cigar clubs and hunting clubs.” So the Trunk Club was born.
Focus is magic. Once Joanna and Brie realized they were offering personal shopping services to a high-end older male target market, then the business offering and the marketing followed. The Trunk Club has members who pay annual dues. They get sized and customized with what they like. Then they call and ask for whatever — new suits, new casual, new khakis, new cargo pants, whatever — and the Trunk Club delivers.
The Rest of the Story
The business model is pure gold. The target customer doesn’t want to go shopping and is happy to get new things delivered, so The Trunk Club doesn’t need or want a retail location or — more important — the investment and working capital and fixed costs implications of a retail location. In the meantime, though, there’s enough business volume to land business relationships with several of the more stylish and desirable clothing brand names and major distributors, so the member gets what he wants, major brands and great styles, without the effort. And The Trunk Club can make the same margin as the retail boutiques, but without the overhead; and members get the same stuff for no more than they’d pay in the store.
Joanna and Brie started in Bend, which is also one of the fastest growing and most new-business-friendly cities in Oregon, with a view of Mt. Bachelor and the Three Sisters Wilderness; a great place to live. Their flagship Trunk Club has been operating for a while now and has 85 members. Having proven the model, they’re now looking for capital to expand quickly into a selection of major markets: Portland and Dallas now, others very soon.