Brian Spaly: Debunking common myths about startups

Brian Spaly, the CEO of Trunk Club, filled The Temple for Performing Arts with Midwestern enthusiasm at Thinc Iowa 2012 as the opening speaker of the conference Wednesday morning. That's because Spaly decided to launch Trunk Club, a men's clothing service that sends clients personalized trunks of clothing, from Chicago rather than New York City,

Brian Spaly spent his time on stage at Thinc Iowa dispelling myths about building startups.

Brian Spaly, the CEO of Trunk Club, filled The Temple for Performing Arts with Midwestern enthusiasm at Thinc Iowa 2012 as the opening speaker of the conference Wednesday morning. That’s because Spaly decided to launch Trunk Club, a men’s clothing service that sends clients personalized trunks of clothing, from Chicago rather than New York City, the fashion capital of U.S., or the Bay Area, thought to be the startup capital of the U.S. 

Why Chicago? “Ultimately what I wanted to do was put this company in a place where people wanted to work,” Spaly said. And he didn’t want people who were only interested in getting paid more at the big new startup across the street or people who would question when Trunk Club was getting an IPO. 

“In Chicago I don’t find people trade up on people,” he said. 

In telling the story of how he’s built a company in Chicago, Spaly shared six myths and truths about startups: 

Myth #1: You need a great idea to start a company.

Spaly said he was fixing a pair of his own pants with a sewing machine when he got the idea for Bonobos, which manufactures “the best fitting pants in the world” for men. “I was the only pro finance person in Boston who would come home from work, working on spread sheets and would turn on a sewing machine,” Spaly said. “That was how I got the idea for Bonobos. I fixed my pants.” 

The truth, Spaly said, is that you actually need to be able to sell stuff to start a company. “A lot of people can come up with good ideas, build elegant business models and create awesome technology, but can you actually sell stuff? You need to be able to sell stuff to start your company,” Spaly said.

Myth #2: If you screw up at your first startup, it will be hard to find a job.

While Bonobos was Spaly’s idea, he and his then-business partner Andy Dunn decided to part ways. “I thought, who’s gonna hire me?” Spaly said.

Spaly said the truth is that great failures often lead to even greater opportunities. Just 27 days after leaving Bonobos, Spaly was approached by investors in Oregon who were looking for someone to lead Trunk Club. 

“It turns out,” Spaly said, “I was still reasonably marketable.”*

Myth #3: You need to live in the Bay Area to be part of a great startup.

There will be times you will need to get on a plane and go to the coasts to raise capital, attend conferences and meet new people, “but you don’t need to live there and your company doesn’t need to be there,” Spaly said. 

Spaly said the truth is that, in some instances, the Bay Area may be the worst possible place to start your company. “Will many wonderful businesses get started in Silicon Valley? Yes, absolutely,” Spaly said. “I simply want to illuminate that there’s other opportunities.”

Myth #4: Great entrepreneurs want to get rich.

Spaly’s list of why he loves working for a startup did not include wealth. “I think it’s super important to get away from this idea that entrepreneurship is all about wealth,” he said. “You should do these things for the right reasons.” Spaly outlined his reasons for working for a startup:

  • Meeting awesome people.
  • Constantly building stuff
  • Fixing stuff that’s broken in the world
  • Giving people jobs they love
The truth? Good entrepreneurs care about building, Spaly said. The greatest way to serve a community is creating a sense of community and passion about what you actually do for most of your waking hours.

Myth #5:  Harold Hill was trying to fleece river city and never had any intentions of starting a boy’s band.

In a reference to his favorite musical, “The Music Man,” which he performed in as a kid, Spaly emphasized that “great leaders are actors.” He encouraged poets, musicians and actors to get involved in a startup.

In truth, Spaly said, acting is a great background for entrepreneurs.

Myth #6: Startups are run by engineers in hoodies who do coding.

Trunk Club would be nowhere without 80 percent of its staff, who happen to be women, Spaly said. 

Spaly said the truth is that the best startups are often filled with beautiful, brilliant women. 

“No, we’re not saving the world,” Spaly said of Trunk Club. “We’re just helping people have more sex.”  


*Updated Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. – The description of Spaly’s departure from Bonobos and move to Trunk Club was changed from a previous version of this story.

Credits: Photos by Anna Jones and Phillip Harder.

Thinc Iowa is a premiere event produced by Silicon Prairie News. For live video of Thinc Iowa 2012, tune in at from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Oct. 10 and 11. For more on Thinc Iowa, check out the conference on Twitter and Facebook


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