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the challenge

Ottawa entrepreneurs Matthew White, left, and Mackenzie King have aimed their quirky, made-in-Canada fashion accessories at young professionals ages 18 to 25. But with so many ways to grow, they aren’t sure what to do nextDave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

The bow tie, elegant and simple, is at once everywhere and nowhere. In high society, it is crucial, a timeless accessory. Its presence in pop culture, where even Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z have declared it a staple, is inescapable. But on the street? A rarity.

Mackenzie King and Matthew White say that's nonsense. The bow tie doesn't have to be a staid ornament capping off a $5,000 suit; everyone should have a chance to wear one.

The pair launched High Tide Bow Ties last year to democratize the knotted neck ornament. For just $35, customers can pick from dozens of patterns and have a made-in-Canada bow tie delivered in days. For a little more, they can have one designed with a custom pattern. High Tide sells pocket squares, too. So far, more than 1,000 people have decided to buy in and slap casual-Friday-centric society in the face.

Mr. King, 24, and Mr. White, 25, are anxious to scale up quickly. There is, however, a slight hitch: There are plenty of ways to do that.

The pair met at Nepean High School but parted ways after graduating. They both travelled after undergraduate studies, eventually returning to Ottawa with dreams of becoming entrepreneurs.

Last spring, they met up for a game of tennis, and made an agreement: by the end of the match, they would have a business idea to launch. As he lobbed balls at Mr. White, Mr. King recounted a wedding he had just been to in Toronto. On a whim, he wore a bow tie. It was a hit; he got compliments all night. He was also the only person wearing one.

"That was our aha moment," Mr. King recalls. "We thought bow ties were the beginning of something big, trend-wise, in male fashion."

They dove in headfirst. Through his day job at Shopify, Mr. King recognized the value of e-commerce, and the wide markets it could help him reach. (Mr. White spends his time as a sales representative for Carlsberg Canada.)

After several failed attempts at making ties, they hired a seamstress. Sourcing fabric from local stores, the twosome began selling through a Web store and, increasingly, local trade shows. At $35, their bow ties are half the cost of those at commercial retail chains, which are often made overseas.

"There's no one doing what we're doing – no one who has the fabrics and designs," Mr. King says. "It takes a specific set of eyes to be able to pick out something that's going to work for the age demographic that we're looking for."

Here, High Tide's co-founders diverge in their visions. Mr. King, the pragmatist, sees their market as young professionals ages 18 to 35. Mr. White, the dreamer, has a wider vision – a bow tie for every neck, "from little kids all the way to seniors."

They also offer custom ties. A grandfather requested a Volkswagen Beetle pattern as a gift for his grandson; a group of University of Ottawa students got their school neckties refashioned as bow ties; the fiancée of a political staffer asked for one fashioned with the federal Conservative logo.

Mr. King and Mr. White have found that every eight hours of effort they put in – either in person at shows or in digital marketing – results in similar sales numbers. They launched in a physical store on Bank Street, too, and are determining whether that is a viable route for expansion across the country. Small successes are great, they say, but they only make the path ahead more cloudy.

THE CHALLENGE: With endless growth options such as digital marketing, trade shows and retail, how should the guys behind High Tide Bow Ties focus their energy?


Dominic Lim, assistant professor, and Donald G. and Elizabeth R. Ness Faculty Fellow in Entrepreneurship, Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario, London, Ont.

It sounds like most people buy your bow ties because they want them, not because they need them. In that case, it is particularly important to understand why they buy them. And if they end up not buying, why not? Who are your customers and what are the values that your customers seek? Is it the design/fabric/price? Is it the fact that they are made in Canada? Or is it the story and experience?

Your online store and trade shows will provide you with an opportunity to interact with customers and develop a better understanding of them. Then, you should be able to launch a more targeted digital marketing campaign. You can also use this information not only to find the right retail channel if you choose to, but also as leverage when you negotiate with them.

Growth is generally a good thing, but you also need to keep in mind that many entrepreneurs failed because they grew faster than they could manage. This is the right time to ask yourselves some hard questions, such as: How large (and fast) can I scale this up? Will we be able to rely solely on the current seamstress and local fabric shop to produce thousands of bow ties, and to accommodate all those customization requests? Will we be able to hire additional seamstresses and expect the same level of quality and/or productivity? And how much will it cost to produce one bow tie in that scenario, and what will be the contribution margin per bow tie?

Merril Mascarenhas, managing partner, Arcus Consulting Group, Toronto

Upscale, unique accessories are a growth sector in the fashion business. Mr. King and Mr. White have a niche product whose success will depend on their capacity to take it mainstream with exciting designs. Bow ties do have a conflicted image in the public which needs to be addressed – or exploited. After all, Warren St. John called a bow tie "a red flag that comes in many colours" worn by "an Old World sort, a fusty adherence to a contrarian point of view."

To scale up sales, they need to come up with an exciting story to get people to sit up and take notice. A series of designs on a topical trend? Or Jay Baruchel donning one? They need to define their target market and then be opportunistic with PR and social media to make the brand both exclusive and approachable in their core target group.

Zane Aburaneh, founder, Zane, a handbag and accessories retailer that began as an online store and pop-up shop, Toronto

They need to build and romanticize their story to start to create a digital relationship with the customer – with an emphasis on a Canadian-made and -sourced product. To start, they can exhaust the free social media tools that are available, such as Instagram and their blog, creating symmetry through all of the online platforms. They can create a unique customer community and experience around a hashtag, where people can be inspired to dress dandily every day.

Their fun bow ties are a niche product, and they need to find unique ways to continue to capture clients, such as pop-up partnerships with complementary brands and exclusive product collaborations with retailers, designers or neighbourhood events. This will help them gain client response and feedback to see if their product assortment has enough breadth to sustain a bricks-and-mortar location.

Each product should have a story about the fabric and a styled product shot showing the end user, indicating how to potentially style this bow tie and pocket square. Styling visuals online can lead to stronger sales, and the opportunity to test additional product assortment under the High Tide aesthetic. Once the brand's assortment has expanded, there might be enough product to sustain a bricks-and-mortar shop.


Why do they buy?

Learning more about your customers will allow you to launch a targeted digital marketing campaign.

Create a backstory

This will help make the brand exclusive and approachable to the core target group.

Show the styling

Photographs showing how to wear bow ties and pocket squares can lead to stronger sales.

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Interviews have been edited and condensed.

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