As part of a series on “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Demsky.
An entrepreneur at heart, Dan Demsky founded his first company, BizMedia, a full-service digital video agency, in 2009. He was still working on this endeavor when he and his co-founders came up with the idea for Unbound Merino. Being incredibly passionate about traveling, Dan noticed a major hole in the market in terms of clothing designed specifically for men with his shared interest.
He and his two business partners co-founded Unbound Merino — a classic line of men’s clothing, ranging from t-shirts and button-downs to midlayers, underwear, and socks — in 2016. Unbound Merino prides itself on utilizing durable, breathable, anti-bacterial, and sweat-wicking Merino wool to create timeless pieces that can be worn through all facts of life — whether it’s a vacation to coastal Greece, a board meeting, or a dinner out with family and friends.
Dan lives in Toronto with his wife. When he isn’t brainstorming new products for Unbound Merino, he enjoys live music, good food, and spending time with friends, family, and his pug, Walter.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Before Unbound Merino, my first business was a video production agency, through which I learned a lot of the tough lessons that come from the beginning of an entrepreneurial journey. It was while I was still operating this first business when my co-founders and I came up with the idea for Unbound Merino. We were all wildly passionate about traveling the world, but found that there was a huge hole in the market as far as clothing designed for men with our interests was concerned. The cincher here was when my wife and I went on our honeymoon in Greece — carrying her luggage and mine up and down the winding hills was no easy task and I vowed to myself then and there that I would never again travel with more than one bag.
I discovered Merino wool — a fabric that is naturally wrinkle-resistant, sweat wicking, antibacterial and smell-repelling — after conducting some research on how to make single-bag travel a reality. While Merino wool as a textile is nothing new, and there were already plenty of products on the market, I noticed that a large majority of these were fitness or outdoor apparel brands — things with bright colors and flashy logos, or intense camping gear, but nothing that appealed to the urban traveler. It was difficult to find something that could seamlessly transition from a long plane ride, to a hike or outdoor excursion, and off to dinner out with my wife. This is what men needed in order to pack less and experience more, and since there wasn’t anything like it — my co-founders and I set out to create it.
Together we developed Unbound Merino — a classic line of men’s clothing, ranging from t-shirts and button-downs to midlayers, underwear, socks, and coming this summer, our first line of shorts, each of which can go nearly 40+ days before needing a wash, without smelling or wrinkling.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In the beginning with my first business, a video production agency, we worked with a lot of small mom-and-pop shops — they were our bread and butter as we got our footing in the industry and as entrepreneurs. At this point in our careers, we had no real professional etiquette whatsoever at this point — we wore ripped jeans to business meetings and were still essentially students, learning as we went. While we didn’t think too much of it at the time — we were incredibly passionate about our business and good at what we were doing — we didn’t really look the part.
One story I’ll never forget happened when we got our first corporate client. When we first met, we discussed our firm’s capabilities and pricing and this big client asked us to draft up an invoice for them. This was something we had genuinely never done before, so naturally I said, “We don’t typically send invoices, our customers just give us an envelope of cash…you guys cool with that?”
Everyone on the client side broke out hysterically laughing because they thought I was joking! As they were laughing, I remember realizing they thought I made a really funny joke, when truly, I didn’t know how to do what they asked. Luckily I was able to take control of the situation. I turned around and said “just kidding, i’ll have an invoice to you by tomorrow!” The big lesson I took away from this encounter was that sometimes it’s key to fake it till you make it. Don’t be afraid of things you don’t know — tell yourself (and your clients!) that you can, and figure it out as you go!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
A couple books I’ve read recently that have had a huge impact on me are —
Meditations, by Marcus Aurelis — This book made me realize the importance of refining a personal philosophy that I live by like it’s the law. No book as ever shaped my perception of what’s important in life and business, and I swear I have been working three times as hard since I read this book.
Do The Work, by Steven Pressfied — A short book that feels like a slap in the face. A lesson in how to shut out distractions, put your head down, and get the work done.
Mastering the Rockefeller Habits, by Verne Harnish — Because it’s the best and most practical framework for running a business I’ve ever come across. It is a tool that has allowed me to focus on the right steps I need to take in order to accomplish the goals I set out for myself. Recommended for businesses past the initial startup stage, looking for rapid growth.
Good to Great, by Jim Collins — One of the most fundamental business books I’ve read. Right people on the bus, wrong people off the bus is one of the most simple, but important concepts to take really seriously and implement everyday.
Getting Things Done, by David Allen — Without the GTD system, I would still be in my mom’s basement. This is THE system for having more work than you can handle and figuring out how to organize your time and just slay the workload. GTD is the martial arts of efficiency and is a lifelong pursuit.
48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene — Anyone who says this book is evil is missing the point. Power is one of the most important elements in anyone’s career pursuit and this is the most in-depth study I’ve ever read on the concept of power.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
This purpose behind Unbound Merino is simplicity at its core. We’re creating clothing that helps men to simplify their wardrobe and in turn, simplify the decisions they have to make on a daily basis, and their overall lives.
Unbound Merino was developed for the busy, on-the-go man. All of our pieces are intentionally timeless and seasonless, allowing men to create a capsule wardrobe for every facet of their lives, whether it be a workout, a month-long vacation, a concert with friends, a romantic dinner with your partner, and everything in between.
Not to mention, because our products can go more than 40 days before needing a wash, they are inherently better for the environment, cutting down on water and waste.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one guiding principle, especially right now, is to maintain a strong level of belief and optimism that you can always make things better. I find that I’ve been through a lot of amazing times, but also a lot of hard times as an entrepreneur. Through it all it’s been important for me to try to remain level-headed and even-keeled, through the highs and the lows, and to continue working hard no matter what’s thrown my way.
I think there’s something to be said for business owners who can maintain a level of optimism and belief in themselves — to continue pushing ahead through the hard times — even when things might seem downright bad. I personally work each and every day to keep myself calm through challenging times and to keep moving forward. Every day is an opportunity to keep moving forward.
A perfect example of this was at the start of Unbound Merino. We were able to fund 100 percent of our initial product through an Indiegogo campaign, completely forgoing outside investment. While I always felt that this was possible, one of my co-founders doubted it in the beginning. And yet, here we are — in our fourth year of business, and while we’re not without the obvious pandemic-induced stress, we’ve been incredibly fortunate and successful thus far. There’s something so powerful about believing in yourself, your team, and your passions, and trudging forward.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’ve spoken with a few people about this coming summer, and how we won’t be able to meet up at the beach or play on our volleyball leagues, etc. It’s been difficult looking forward when good times are sort of put at a stand still — but there are still so many good things that we can do during this time.
Covid-19 has of course presented us with terrible tragedies every single day, but in terms of staying entertained, physically fit, learning new skills, and so on, this time at home is presenting a real opportunity to expand how we focus our energy. Personally, my wife and I live in a small condo and it’s easy to get down and agitated — to combat that, I am trying to eat really healthy during the week and while I can’t go to the gym, I’ve taken a lot of good yoga classes online. I’ve also vowed to read a book a week which is something I wouldn’t have the opportunity to do otherwise. I don’t personally have children right now, but for the people struggling at home to take care of their families, this is presenting an opportunity to spend more time with your kids, time that you’d likely never have if we weren’t in our current situation.
The days are tough, there’s no denying that. But for me personally, I’ve been able to copy by filing my time with the things that fill me with passion and purpose. That opportunity is there for everyone right now. Trying to be grateful for what we still have and what this time is presenting to us is not only important, it’s helpful. I’m actually getting a bit of enjoyment out of this time and think I’ll come out better for it.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
When we first launched Unbound Merino, our tagline, premise, website, and everything in between was wholly focused on travel. This was where my co-founders and I found the most use for our products — the ability to pack one or two t-shirts in a single backpack and travel that lightly for weeks on end was a major selling point, and one that nearly all of our messaging was focused on. Cue the age of Covid, when just about any form of travel has been put to an immediate halt — we’ve had to do some intense overhauls on our brand messaging and the audiences we’re working to target.
That being said, my co-founders and I would agree that this time is actually making us better entrepreneurs in the long-run. We were fortunate enough to launch a super successful product into the market from day one, and if I’m being honest, have rested on our laurels since then. If it’s not broken, why try and fix it?
Now, with our main avenue of messaging and sales at a stand-still, we’ve had to get creative in exploring new options. We’re started selling exclusive products — and some of our bestselling products in exclusive colors — for our dedicated customers. We’re working to establish and cultivate new relationships with travel influencers during this downtime. We’re tweaking and refining our messaging to let our customers know that we’re still here for them, and we’ll still be here when everything is said and done.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I think of my mother a lot when I get this question because she’s living alone and is always tuned into the news. I personally don’t watch any news — I consume what I need to through social media, friends, and what have you — just enough to be in the know, but not so much that it’s always looming in the back of my mind.
I try to check in with my mom very frequently just to make sure that she is unplugging, going on walks, and taking care of herself. The best thing I can do to contribute to any of my loved ones’ wellbeings is just to continually connect. I was on a Zoom call with my old business partner for an hour and a half the other night, just having a glass of wine, checking in, and hanging out and it was not only so nice to do, it was something we may not have done if it weren’t for the current situation we find ourselves in. I think staying connected is the best thing I can do to help my people and one of the few silver linings to come out of this pandemic.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Because we have been largely focused on gearing our apparel towards a travel audience, I think that when the world of travel opens up — which will likely be a slow, gradual opening, maybe just road trips at first and expanding from there — there will be a big opportunity for us. There will (hopefully!) be a flood of people that want to get out and see the world and will want to buy our clothing for the sake of travel. And when that happens, we’ll be there for them.
But the real opportunity for us is not necessarily about people buying again, it’s been more about everything we’ve done during wartime to become more innovative, more creative, and broader reaching in our strategies. We’ve spent this time getting a lot more creative in our outreach, and have had to work a lot harder to make it happen. Before this, the business was naturally doing well and being profitable and, if i’m being honest, it may have made us a little lazy as founders. We are now working harder than ever before, but in an amazing way. When the economy starts to normalize, we expect to have the normal growth that we’ve been used to, but what we’ll take with us is a lot more discipline when it comes to working hard, being smart with every bit of energy we spend in the business, and taking nothing for granted. Looking deeper into what we could and maybe should have been doing all along, it’s clear that this time has given us back our grind and our hustle
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think a lot of people are doing everything with a lot more thoughtfulness right now. I was looking at Facebook the other day, and a friend of mine is now using an app to monitor the expiration dates on food in his pantry to lessen food waste. I thought that was so cool and it’s just one example of how we, as a society, are really slowing down and taking stock during all of this. We’re driving less, we’re getting outside more, and we’re really focusing on the things that connect us with ourselves and our loved ones in a truly meaningful way. I think — and I hope — that we’re all going to come out of this healthier than before.
Looking inward, there are a lot of things in life I have been wasteful of or have taken for granted — I know I won’t be living like that any more and I think others are in that same boat with me. We’re being more mindful of things that connect us with each other and our planets. Hopefully the world comes out of the Covid-19 pandemic living smarter, healthier, more thoughtful lives. We’ll cook more, be more resourceful, compassionate, and exhibit more love.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Again, we’re really trying to take advantage of this time to broaden our horizons past travel and into other relevant verticals. We’re redefining who we are as a company, who our target demographics are, and we hope to reach even more people in the post-covid economy.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
For the businesses that got hurt by this that were able to survive, I think the lesson to take with you is this — The things you did to survive as a business during the pandemic are the things you should be doing every single day to continually make your business better. Hopefully no one goes back to being lazy in their business endeavors or takes their success for granted again after this — I know I won’t.
I think the importance of mental health has also risen to the surface and that should remain a huge priority. My sister in law had a two hour commute to work, round trip, every single day. She recently said to me that she never cooked for her family before this, and not because she didn’t enjoy cooking! She was just so exhausted when she got home, she didn’t have it in her to do something she enjoyed and spend quality time with the people she loves while doing it. I hope, moving forward, businesses will be more accommodating to their people’s mental health and sanity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?“
You’re the average of the five people closest to you.”
I am very particular about the people I have close relationships with because the impact those people have on you is really profound. I always look to surround myself with people who are optimistic, positive, and growth-driven — in business and in my personal life. I’ve found that personally, when I’m around people who are really negative and energy draining, it rubs off on me. That’s not the person I want to be, so I work everyday to surround myself with people who life me up and make me better.
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