How to Build a Brand on a Bootstrapped Budget

Written by Riley on April 1, 2014


$1 Million in sales
with a $2000 marketing budget

Seun Olubodun started the Duke & Winston clothing company in 2009 with not much more than a bulldog and a rented rowhouse in Philly. He sold his car to start producing t-shirts locally, and turned his living room into a retail store open to the public. From these humble beginnings he has grown the company into an internationally recognized apparel brand that's on track to earn over a million dollars in revenue. And he's doing it all on a bootstrapped budget, without traditional marketing.
How do you get a lead designer from Tommy Hilfiger to design your logo for $200?

If Seun is anything, he's persistent.  It took some convincing, but after hounding one of the top designers in New York for months he was able to get the brand's current logo design done for an amazing deal.  But he accomplished it by doing all the research and hard work himself first.  He had to sell himself and his work to the designer to earn the help he received in polishing up his original design. So how did Seun develop products with high enough quality to garner such attention?



Direct to customer

In true lean startup fashion the strategy from the beginning for Duke & Winston was customer development.  A good part of the first few years was spent out at events interacting with customers and selling t-shirts directly to them at a booth or trunk sale. The original price of the shirts was $20, but after building up the brand and honing in on exactly what his customers were looking to buy - he was able to sell them for the perfect price of $32. And after figuring out the right product designs for the market, Seun went from selling a handful of shirts to moving over 300 of them at a single event.

Getting to know customers has lead to many other successful products for the company.  The bulldog mascot and brand icon is a big draw for dog lovers, so expanding into the pet market was an obvious move that worked out well.  They now produce a wide variety of dog hoodies, beds and other high quality pet products that their customers want to buy. Learning what prices customers can afford and are willing to pay has been crucial. This process was made much easier by constantly interacting with people as they shop.


Leveraging the fans of other brands has been a great way for Duke & Winston to expand their reach.  One early example was when a YouTube video of a bulldog went viral. Seun designed a t-shirt for that dog and donated 50 of them to dog's owners after reaching out to them.  They ended up making an appearance on the Ellen show wearing the shirt. 

There has also been many collaborations with non-profits like the Hamels Foundation and the Multiple Sclerosis Society.  The profits from these ventures have all gone to charity, but the goodwill earned has been priceless for the brand.

Local Production

Producing products locally gives them more control over the quality, and makes it feasible to experiment with low volume runs of products.  It also makes it easier to manage the supply chain when it's a company you deal with face-to-face and know them personally.  80% of their products are currently locally produced.   Philly is filled with printers, pattern makers, embroiderers, designers and t-shirt companies, so it's a perfect fit for the brand's location.


Social media

Duke & Winston's main marketing efforts have all been through free social media services.  The brand has spent less than $2000 in the last few years on marketing, and has over 13,000 organic Facebook followers.

Social media strategies:
  • Engage followers instead of selling to them
  • Ask questions and get involved
  • Listen to what fans say and respond

Example campaigns:
  • Twitter "Kiss the Duke campaign" - announced a popup location for a dog kissing booth, where you can make out with Duke the bulldog to get a free t-shirt
  • Encouraged people to send in Twitter pics of dogs on beds - first six get a free shirt

Their online store would get dozens of extra sales each time one of these campaigns would start trending on social media networks.

Bootstrapped marketing budget =
Think outside the norm

Duke & Winston operates completely outside the fashion industry.  Everything the brand does is based on customer feedback, instead of the latest trends in NYC.  Seun bought an old white van and painted the logo all over it.  People seeing this van around town have consistently become new paying customers based purely on their attraction to the brand image and logo. 

People thought it was crazy to turn a living room into a retail store, but this unusual story turned out to be great PR, and earned them a lot of press.  It also only cost Seun about $1000/month to have both a retail storefront and a home to live in. 

In 2012 Duke & Winston had a successful Kickstarter campaign to start up some new clothing lines.  Originally the idea was to have all the apparel  100% made in the USA, but that proved to be infeasible.  By openly communicating the issues as they developed the company was able to avoid a major PR disaster.  And in fact it helped grow the brand even larger.

Holiday popup shops have also been a huge hit.  These temporary store fronts at key locations are able to earn triple the revenue of the original store.

Questions and Answers



The first employee hired was an administrative assistant.  Seun was getting too many emails, and didn't have time to take care of all the inquiries and scheduling.  So the focus was on growing the company's infrastructure.

The second employee was an outreach coordinator that was brought in to increase outward growth.

The third was a store manager to take care of running the store and inventory. 

And the first hire after receiving funding will probably be an operations manager.


Choosing stores to sell to?

Urban outfitters approached the company to buy 300 shirts when 100 shirts was their biggest order to date.  They fulfilled the order, even though it did not pay as well.  And then Urban Outfitters dropped their prices on the products, which ended up hurting the brand image. So the deal ended up being something they wanted to avoid in the future.

Most of their wholesale accounts are small mom and pop stores that allow custom store displays for the products.  So they can retain control of the overall brand experience. 

Seun said it's important to prevent the brand from being devalued by other companies. Macy's and Nordstrom's won't let you do your own custom displays, and they usually have buy back deals where you could lose money if they can't sell the products.


Made in USA?

It's really hard to make products in the US. You need to research the costs and options available. Since Duke & Winston knows their customers well, they know that high quality is expected.  But the domestic manufacturing costs of certain items just don't add up.  Duke & Winston focuses on the products that they can make work.



Seun looked at comparable brands to see price ranges of $22-48 for shirts.
It was just a matter of factoring in the costs and running the numbers.  Once a profitable price range was established they had to match it to customers expectations for the brand.  And 32 sounds better than 31.


Getting product in stores?

Seun told a story about walking into a store crowded with customers while carrying an armload of shirts for sale.  He started soliciting the customers directly.  The owner freaked out, and she started yelling at him to leave.  Seun then talked her into keeping four of the shirts to test them out.  She called him back shortly afterward to say that customers immediately picked up the shirts and bought them all.  So she ended up ordering a whole lot more over the years, and she became a good friend, as well as a reference for other retailers.



Shipping clothing overseas is expensive because of import taxes and customs fees. It can easily double the cost of the goods, so it's often prohibitively expensive to do it legitimately.  Getting them produced in that country will save money. And as a brand grows you need to expand the style to reach beyond regional tastes.  Duke & Winston has focused on products for Philly, NYC and LA.  To grow into other markets they need to consider the different styles of each location. For example, many NYC shops refuse to sell shirts with "Phila." text in the brand logo.  And you don't want to pigeon hole the brand in ways that will limit growth in the long run.


Wholesale vs. retail?

Currently 11 wholesale accounts make up 60% of all their revenue.  Trunk sales and retail were 100% of the revenue for first two years though. Wholesale is the key to growth, but you have to sell a lot more at the lower wholesale prices.