Fireside Chat: David Heath BOMBAS
As part of the Inaugural Anthem Awards Conference on February 28, 2022, David Hatch was given the opportunity to talk about his company, Bombas.
Bombas is fueled by a unique mission to have a buy-one-donate-one service that allows the homeless community to be provided with quality clothing that is made to last. The other highlights of this chat included diversity & inclusion practices within the company and corporate social responsibilities.
- David talks about the design of the apparel, diversity within the company and lgbtqia+ pride initiatives
Watch the full discussion:
Read the full transcript below:
Felecia Hatcher 0:14
Hey David, how’s it going?
David Heath 0:15
Good Feleicia, how are you?
Felecia Hatcher 0:17
I’m pretty good, pretty good. So I’m here with David Heath, co-founder and CEO of Bombas. Welcome. Welcome to the stage officially, man. How are you doing?
David Heath 0:27
Thank you, you as well. I am great, the sun is shining here in New York. So, yeah, it’s a good day.
Felecia Hatcher 0:36
All right, so I won’t brag about the Miami weather at all. I know, maybe a little chilly. I don’t want you to hate me. We just met. I want to have a good conversation over the time that we have together. I want to jump right into being able to share with the audience is joining us today a little bit more about you right like your story. I know you do interviews, and you’re always asked, like, tell us the origin story. Maybe start a part of the story that you don’t get to share really often that you would like people to know, a little bit more about the journey. Can we start there?
David Heath 1:08
Yeah, yeah, I think that it’s a great place to start. So it’s interesting. I grew up in a household where my dad was an entrepreneur. I watched him start a business with $5,000 in the basement of our house. So, from really early on, either through genetics or just, you know, osmosis, I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur one day. So I went to school for entrepreneurship at Babson College. When I graduated, I spent basically my entire career with the intention of always wanting to start and run my own business. Fast forward to when I came across, you know, the idea for Bombas. I was scrolling on Facebook one day, and came across this post that said, socks were the number one most requested clothing item at homeless shelters. I sat there and I was like, Oh, that’s interesting. Here’s an item of clothing that I’ve never spent more than a few seconds a day thinking about. Yet, it’s perceived as a luxury item for over 600,000 people living here in the US. I didn’t immediately go, Aha, here is, you know, the next, you know, billion dollar global apparel brand. I thought, you know, this is pretty sad. You know, maybe there’s a way you know, that we can help solve this problem in our community. I took a lot of inspiration from a business that was growing at the time and getting a lot of attention, which was Tom’s, and their buy one, give one model. I thought, oh, maybe we can create a sock brand that donates a pair for every pair that we sell. I think the thing that is really fascinating about the founding story is, I thought that this was going to be like, what I called like a hobby business. Right? Something I’d work on, you know, until like, the real idea came along, right? So, you know, I started working on it without really the intention of ever imagining that it would be to the size and scale of where we are at today.
Felecia Hatcher 3:16
So we have that in common, right. So my dad, entrepreneur most of my life. But, it didn’t make me immediately go into entrepreneurship, right? I just knew my dad worked really hard, and came home dirty and tired everyday construction, right construction and development. So was there anything else along the journey that you kind of tinkered with, tried before launching Bombas?
David Heath 3:43
Yeah, I started, I think, like three other businesses. One was a social networking platform for apartment buildings. Shortly after, you know, I mean, this was 2006. So Facebook hadn’t had world domination yet. All these like, you know, boutique start social media sites where, you know, Dogster and Friendster and all these other things, and I thought, oh, maybe there’s one for apartment buildings in New York. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. Then right before Bombas, me, my brother, my dad and another business partner, we started a fine foods business here in New York, selling truffles, caviar, mushrooms and other wild edibles to the top 300 restaurants here in New York, which is fun. It’s a small little four person business that wasn’t really ever going to scale to being something big. Again, I think my journey with entrepreneurship was, you know, dive into or find interest in the thing that was like intriguing me at the moment and use it as a stepping stone to learn and you know, figure out you know, what it was like to be an entrepreneur and progressively wait or find the next big idea.
Felecia Hatcher 5:00
So you started in 2013. Right? The world has literally changed a lot. I feel like it changes by the minute at this point. Tell us a little bit more about you. How has David evolved as a founder, as a leader, or from 2013? To now, especially with the world changing as much as it has?
David Heath 5:21
Well, I think that it’s, I think I’ve evolved in a couple of ways. I think one of the most profound was, when I started this business, this was really like the first real business that I started, where I was gonna hire employees and potentially scale. I said, you know, once we get 25 employees, you know, I think I’ll probably step down and somebody else can run this. Because, what do I know about running a company with 25 people? 50 people? Then there were 100 people, and I kept, you know, I now feel a lot more confident today. We’re over 200 people, but I had never realized that I would be able to grow and scale with the business, the way that I have. I think a large part of that is that I’ve done a really good job surrounding myself with really incredibly talented people. I hired an executive coach who’s helped grow me over the years. Then I also think, I never thought that I could scale to this level. I think one of the things that, I mean, it’s perhaps stayed true, but it’s also changed in how I interact with my team. I see that as a big part of my role. Especially, you know, with the way that the world has changed so much, especially over the last three years, right, we’ve all gone remote. You’ve had these massive, you know, social justice uprisings, particularly around Black Lives Matter. All of the other LGBTQIA+ and you know, all of the awareness, the Me Too movement, and really wanting to make sure that, especially as a privileged white male, that, you know, I educated myself as to what it was like to be a part of these underrepresented groups and see how I, as a leader, should and could show up for these groups, not only internally to to our employees, but also how does the brand show up to the external world?
Felecia Hatcher 7:34
Thank you for sharing that. You said something, in the beginning of that answer was about confidence, right? The root word of confidence is confide, which means to trust. So like, how did you trust yourself as a leader? How did you trust yourself to even go down to the one purchase, one donated like business model? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
David Heath 7:59
Yeah, you know, there’s this analogy that I’ve adopted, when I speak to other founders, especially earlier stage founders. Building a business is related to climbing Mount Everest, right? When you decide to maybe, you know, if you decide to climb Mount Everest, you don’t just like book a ticket to Nepal, and show up and like, strap some sneakers on and start hiking up a mountain, right? You put a lot of thought and planning into, okay, what is the gear that I need? What do I need to train, you know, to get my body acclimated. Then when you do show up on day one, you don’t try to climb all the way to the top on day one, right? You break it down into steps, and it’s done day by day. I think that the way that I started to build trust and confidence in myself was break all of the, you know, the pieces of kind of building a business big business down into small bite sized pieces, and treat kind of every milestone or every step or every day, as just okay, what do I need to accomplish today? Right? Not delusions of grandeur to be this big company that would be global and have multiple categories with celebrities and all this other stuff, which I think people get too wrapped up in the hype or the dream of what it looks like to plant the flag at the top of the mountain versus just showing up and saying like, Alright, I’m going to trust my body today. I’m going to just, you know, get to that next step. Then once I get to that step, I’m gonna evaluate the next step and the next step. I think that’s really what’s ultimately helped me evolve as a leader is kind of breaking it down into these smaller bite sized pieces. As far as the one for one, you know, the buy one give one aspect of our business. I mean, this was, this was like the hypothesis from day one, which is like, here’s this underserved need in our community. You know, for obvious reasons, people don’t don’t donate used socks because for hygiene reasons, or typically people get holes in them, throw them out or, it requires basically our giving partners to go out and buy these products. So, you know, or people have to go out and buy new products and donate it, which people don’t typically think about. So our model naturally works to help solve this problem. You know, we did a lot of research and talking with our giving partners, before we even launched to validate the need to validate, you know, how do they like to receive the product? How much do they need? What are the needs of their, of the clients that they’re serving, and the products that they’re looking for? Kind of doing all of this research ahead of time, just validated for us, okay, there is a real mission here that we can anchor the business in. It felt really authentic and genuine from day one. Because, again, we really did the work ahead of time.
Felecia Hatcher 11:02
How many products have you guys donated to date?
David Heath 11:05
I think the last figure was over 60 million.
Felecia Hatcher 11:10
Wow. You mentioned the giving partners? How do you guys tell us a little bit more about how do you work with them to design the product? I know you mentioned getting quite a bit of feedback from them. But talk to us a little bit more about the design process and the role that they play in that.
David Heath 11:26
Yeah, I mean, I think the explanation of giving partners on a whole is, you know, I think a lot of people, you know, I know some other like giveback companies, right, they kind of farm out their giving, right? They work with a, you know, some one organization and they say, Okay, we’ve sent either all of our products or all of our, you know, profits to that organization, and then they kind of work with the community that they serve, to help get the products to those that need the most. For us, it was interesting, we kind of decided early on that we wanted to own that relationship on a local level with all of our giving partners. Because our customers come from all over the country. So we wanted to understand what homelessness looked like, you know, all over the country. So today, we have over 3500 giving partners with over 4000 in the queue waiting to join our giving program. These are 3500 relationships that our internal giving team, which is a small but mighty team of four, manages those relationships directly. So, it’s through our partnership with our giving partners that we get real time feedback about the real needs of the people who are experiencing homelessness. So early on one of the biggest impacts that had for us is the way that we approached our donation product. I think a lot of people don’t realize that we don’t donate the same product we sell. Some of the cynics would sometimes assume oh, you just don’t need some cheap product. We used to donate the same product that we sell. But early on, we had a lot of bright colors. Just my own experience of walking around the streets of New York and handing out socks. We used to get a lot of requests for just dark colors, right? Some like solid black. I was like, Oh, why is that? And they said, well, it shows less visible wear. It doesn’t show dirt, right? Because it’s a dignity aspect. So that got us thinking, Okay, we work, we rent back out to our giving partners, and we said, what else don’t we know about the needs of the homeless community that we can help solve in this product that we’re donating versus the product that we’re selling to the consumer. That led us to discovering that, obviously, they can’t wash their product, their clothes as frequently as you and I can. So they have a tendency to kind of develop fungus or you know, foot hygiene issues. So we treat all of our socks and T shirts and underwear with an antimicrobial treatment to prevent the growth of fungus and help minimize odor. We use the darker colors to minimize visible air. Then we reinforced all of the seams to provide greater durability. Again, because many of our homeless customers only get one or two pairs of socks at a time. Same thing with underwear and T-shirts. So durability really, really matters to them. So, putting kind of all of this thoughtfulness into the way that we developed this product, specifically for the homeless community was I think a somewhat of a unique approach that we’ve had towards directly working with the customers that we serve in the homeless community. Internally, we talk about them as customers. We have our paying customers and our non paying customers and that forces the team to think about them as end users right and put the same level of thoughtfulness and design, and branding and marketing into that product that we do the product that we sell to the consumer.
Felecia Hatcher 15:08
Jose, in the comments said, that part where you’re talking about the attention to dignity, right? Who you’re serving and why you’re doing the work that you guys are doing. Quick question, kind of going back to your business model, the one purchase, one donated business model. Is that a model that you recommend to startups that are looking to be more mission driven right now?
David Heath 15:33
You know, I recommend it if you can validate the need, right? I think there are a number of brands that have tried to implement this model, right, because it feels fuzzy, it’s easy to understand. They don’t actually, you know, work directly with the either the users who are going to end up with this product or the you know, they’re giving partners or whoever their network is to kind of validate that name, they just said oh, you know, Bombas donates socks and Warby donates eyewear and Toms donate shoes? Well, we’re going to have a water bottle company that donates water bottles, it’s like, I don’t know, you got to figure out like, do they actually need that right? Or can your impact be better served, you know, through some other mechanism? The reason that I think I like the buy one give one model, again, if there’s a need for it, is that it’s really, really under easy to understand for the consumer, right? It’s really easy to quantify, right? We know that we’ve donated 60 million plus items to those that need it most. Which is again, really easy for the consumer to understand and get and then have them go, Oh, I understand the impact that my purchase is having, on this community directly. I think whether you do buy one, give one or don’t donate a percentage of your profits or find some other mechanism, quantifying your impact, and being able to turn around and say this is the direct impact that your purchase is able to have on this cause or this community is vitally important. It’s what people call closing the loop, right? In marketing, right? You have to kind of bring a customer in on the journey, you have to bring them to the end of the journey to help them really feel empowered and emboldened in joining kind of your mission.
Felecia Hatcher 17:33
Yeah, where do you feel this model is going in the future? Right, like, Ali made a great point, Tom’s recent announcement that they’re kind of moving from this, I’d love any insight that you’re willing to share kind of where you think the future of this model is going, especially for those that are looking to really be able to impact that you guys have had over the past few years?
David Heath 17:54
Yeah. I mean, I think the probably the biggest, you know, issue facing everyone, and it’s probably, you know, you see, the momentum behind it is obviously climate change, I think, you know, brands have moved on from kind of the buy one give one to focusing on sustainability more broadly. We’re lucky enough that we’re now at a size and scale where we’re able to make investments in sustainability. We’re able to make investments and commitments around diversity, equity and inclusion, and belonging. But again, it goes back to kind of what I just said before, which is like, don’t, don’t adopt whatever model you think is the most buzzworthy in the moment, or you think is the future of x for us. The problem that we are solving, you know, is probably not going to change the world holistically, you know, you know, in a way, but what it does is it changes the lives for those that are impacted by this. Even, you know, we didn’t even realize kind of the ripple effect of the impact that we would have where, because as I mentioned, a lot of our shelter partners were forced to go out and buy these products buy the new underwear buy new socks buy new t-shirts. By us donating these products that are brand new to these shelter partners, they’re able to divert those funds into other initiatives that are then helping these communities. So we’ve had giving partners share with us that they’ve been able to send, you know, children in their community to college as a result of the money that they’ve saved not buying socks and underwear. We’ve heard that people have received our product and been so inspired by the fact that there’s a brand out there that thinks about them the same way that it thinks about their communities so that makes them feel seen. It makes them feel like a human being again. That gives them the motivation to, you know, alright, I’m going to go look for that job, or I’m going to try to get that apartment. So I think regardless of what you do, I think authenticity, and being really, really genuine and going deep into the mission yourself, right? Don’t say, I want to create a business because I want to be a millionaire, I’m going to tackle this like a mission component, because I feel like consumers really like that. You have to get involved, you have to go deep, and you have to, like, embed yourself in the community or the cause that you’re going to impact. Because when you show up to talk to customers, or hire employees, if you’re not speaking to it from a really authentic and genuine place, they’re not going to buy in, or maybe they buy in at the surface, but they’re not going to continue along to be a customer or an employee for very long.
Felecia Hatcher 20:58
Right. Authenticity, right in all aspects of how you serve, how you show up, how the team shows up. So you’ve also done work around supporting the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities as well as COVID-19 response efforts. Can you share those initiatives and how they fit into the model and the vision of the company?
David Heath 21:19
Yeah, well, just this year, we won an Anthem Award for Best Campaign, Best Marketing Campaign. That was for our Pride Initiative. We launched our pride campaign back in 2017. You know, largely in part because we have a very active and vocal LGBTQIA+ employee base and our company. So the same way that I came across this quote for homelessness and socks. That’s what inspired me. This community shared with us that up to 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQIA+ and the majority of, you know, homeless, trans are black or brown or people of color. So when you start to realize that, okay, we obviously want to, you know, stand up and support the communities of the, you know, the groups that represent who we are, internally, as an organization, you start to realize, oh, the overlap that it has with the mission that we have, because I think, you know, early on as an ambitious, mission driven company, we’re like, alright, well, let’s create some pink socks to donate money to breast cancer awareness. Then, you know, let’s, you know, stand up for this cause and this cause and this cause and all of a sudden, it started to actually, like really dilute, you know, our core mission, which was to help the homeless community. So for us, every initiative that we layer on top, and use the pandemic as an example, right, those with the least suffered the most. It was a disproportionate percentage of suffering, for those in the, in the global pandemic. You and I were like, Oh, we’re suffering, because we’re wiping down our cereal boxes, and, you know, we’re unable to kind of meet up with our friends for dinner. Imagine someone who doesn’t even have a home, right, and doesn’t have access to hygiene. They disproportionately suffer, and nobody wants to go near them. They became even more repelled in our society. So our action response to work with partners to help get bedsheets and hygiene products and PPE to the shelter partners that were still going out and serving this community, despite, you know, the fear of the global pandemic happening. So for all of everything that we do, and, you know, when we got involved in Black Lives Matter, right? Over 40% of the homeless population identifies as black, right, so there’s a disproportionate number of this group being affected in homelessness. So for us, our ability to always tie it back to, you know, our core mission. I think, again, it’s just reinforced how we authentically show up as a brand.
Felecia Hatcher 24:24
Absolutely. I have one final question to round this out. Just in the vein of this question that I just asked you, you know, when the team and Andrew was like, will you do this Fireside Chat? I was like, I have a really interesting Bombas story. So like your team, in support of like Black founders put out this Pay It Forward spreadsheet, two years, maybe about two years ago, randomly ended up in my inbox, you know, funds, Black startup founders, support Black startup founders and that list helped like a bunch of our founders connect with like developers that helped build out their technology for free. Another one of the founders said that I asked for the list to meet their investor on that list. When you talk about authenticity, and like the ripple effects of what you’re doing outside of like the core product, right? It’s that, right? It was, literally, here’s the person that you should know. Here’s their Calendly link, like, let’s take out all the middle people that would stand in the way of you getting someone that can drastically change the trajectory of your startup in your business. So I had to say yes, because I needed to tell you that story. To thank you, on behalf of like, all those founders, with that list, that probably was very simple but, its ripple effects have been immense for so many of those founders.
David Heath 25:48
I have to on that note, because, you know, recognition is so important in this, that initiative, and that idea originally originated with one of our black female, LGBTQIA+ employees, who then shared it with our CMO, Kate Hewitt. LGBTQIA+ as well, and Kate used her position of power and awareness to then get me and all the other executives on our team to start using our networks to push this out. But, Jessica McLaury, who is that employee of ours really deserves all the credit for you starting that initiative, we just kind of ran with it.
Felecia Hatcher 26:34
Yeah, just know that there’s a bunch of ripple effects out there in the startup community that benefited. With black ambition, we always ask our founders this question, because we like them to think much more bigger and expansive about what they’re building and why. So I’m going to ask you this question. You know, who are you uninterrupted? Right? Like, if nothing stood in the way of you being able to achieve your success? Or your impact if every light was green, and never yellow? or red light? Like? What would the world look like? With what you’re doing? And what would you ultimately want to do? Nothing stood in the way of a really long question. No, no, it’s a question.
David Heath 27:15
I think our mission, you know, kind of the, what we call a B hag, or, you know, your kind of end goal would be able to meet the entire global demand for new socks and underwear in the homeless community. Maybe, who knows, once we if we ever get beyond those three products, you know, maybe it’s, you know, hygiene kits or you know, coats or shoes or whatever, but I mean, Bombas exists to serve those in need and, I think we won’t stop until that need is met.
Felecia Hatcher 27:54
David, it’s been an absolute pleasure to spend this time with you. The chat is on fire as well. So you have a lot of fans and thank you so much for the work that you guys do and how you and your team show up every single day. Thank you. Thank you.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai