Interview with Jamal Motlagh, Founder and CEO of Acustom
Wharton Journal: What is Acustom, and how did you come up with the idea?
Jamal Motlagh: Acustom is a new, digitally-enabled way to create custom-fitted clothing. We allow our customers to design and co-create their own apparel items. Customers visit one of our physical locations to be “digitally tailored” using one of our 3D scanners. Once their information is in our system, they can order custom fitted clothing on our website.
The idea came to me while I was at HBS. We were conducting a study on male clothing purchasing habits, and one thing that we immediately identified as a major pain point was fit, particularly with respect to items like jeans. Later, when we extended the study to women, we heard the same thing—that finding well-fitting jeans was extremely difficult, time-consuming and frustrating. That led us to explore the theme of mass customization, and to think about ways in which we could enable large-scale clothing customization on behalf of consumers across the country.
In a world where 80% of people hesitate to buy online because of questions surrounding fit, finding a solution to the fit problem would create massive value. Just look at the numbers: right now, out of $220 billion in annual apparel sales, only 6 – 9% of sales take place online, as compared to 50 – 60% of consumer electronics sales. So even a 1% change would be a very big deal.
WJ: For many startups, the ability to gather initial user feedback and make data-based adjustments to the business model is key to long-term success. What metrics and data points do you track to gauge your progress and improve your strategy?
JM: We really think we’re innovating and creating a disruptive product that doesn’t currently exist, so the use of metrics is a bit tougher for us. When you’re creating a new market, as opposed to gaining share in an existing one, it’s hard to gauge customer demand. Steve Jobs, for example, didn’t rely heavily on demand metrics because he was developing something that didn’t exist. In short, it’s difficult to gather metrics and data points given that we’re operating in uncharted terrain, but we genuinely believe that we are developing transformative technology that has the potential to disrupt the apparel industry.
I would also add that while some entrepreneurs rely heavily on data and numbers, my approach is a bit different. I’m not going to spend all my time poring through every available research report. I’ve done the research necessary to understand that fit is a real problem whose resolution would have dramatic impact, and at some point, you just have to know it feels right in your gut.
WJ: You recently made some significant modifications to your business model. What changed, and what was the motivation behind these changes?
JM: We changed from a B2B company focused on technology-enabled custom fitting, to a branded B2C company that enables consumers to co-create their own custom-fitted jeans and other clothing.
Initially, we were approaching established retailers, telling them about our technology, and engaging them in a dialogue regarding potential long-term partnerships. However, many of these companies questioned the demand for custom fitting, didn’t want to disrupt the status quo, and found it cheaper and easier to continue selling in the traditional fashion. So, we faced the classic innovators dilemma: big companies don’t always want to disrupt established modes of doing business, and may not welcome new technologies.
WJ: How has Acustom approached customer acquisition? What has worked, and what hasn’t worked?
JM: We’re still in beta, and haven’t done a full launch, so right now we’re relying primarily on word of mouth and PR. We’re building a physical product, so unlike a pure consumer web startup, we want to make sure that our product is absolutely awesome before we go out. We can’t follow the typical tech startup approach where you go out with a minimally viable product and then iterate along the way. As such, we haven’t been as focused on customer acquisition at this stage; rather, we are focused on product, product, product, and once the product is airtight, we’ll begin building out our client base.
WJ: Your venture has both an online and offline component. Can you walk us through how both of these pieces fit into your long-term vision for revolutionizing fit?
JM: We view ourselves as a real bridge between the offline and online worlds, and in our business model, one can’t exist without the other. To use the online component, you have to visit one of our physical locations and go through the digital tailoring process. Our physical locations are really the first step in a process which culminates in a new online shopping experience centered around custom fit and co-creation.
An example of a company that’s done an excellent job of bridging offline and online is Warby Parker: you have to go to the eye doctor to get a prescription, but once you’ve done this, you have the capability to order all the eyeglasses you want online. Acustom will operate in a similar fashion, with a stop at one of our physical locations preceding the online component of the experience.
WJ: What will Acustom look like five years from now?
JM: I think in a number of years, we will be considered the pioneers of digital fit and co-creation at a reasonable price. I think we’ll come to be seen as a brand which delivers personalized fit in a fun, exciting, and convenient way. Our brand is about empowering you to design your own clothing and purchase it online in an easy way.
WJ: Thanks for speaking with us, Jamal. Any final words of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs at Wharton?
JM: Do it. All of my friends who took corporate jobs have not been satisfied. And there hasn’t been a day where I thought I made the wrong decision in pursuing an entrepreneurial venture. Whether I succeed or fail, it will have been the right decision. Remember that at the end of the day, you have the Wharton MBA behind you. If things don’t work out, you can always get job. And in the process of building something from the ground up, you will learn a lot about yourself, be stretched and challenged in new and unique ways, and develop a powerful entrepreneurial skill set that you can use regardless of what you ultimately end up pursuing.