Hero Within Carves Out A Niche & Builds a Brand in High-End, Men’s Geek Clothing
“Our goal is not to just create apparel… it’s really a platform to tell heroic stories.” -Hero Within, Co-Founder/CEO, Tony Kim
How a Comic Fan Built a DC® Licensed Geek Clothing Brand…IN LESS THAN 6 Months
We’re all super fans at heart, who dream of the day when it’s “our time” to fly and land smack-dab, front & center of Hall H, where our name is inscribed in black and white on some star-studded panel. The bum-rush of attendees, press outlets and die-hard fans serve as confirmation that our dream, our art, whatever you wanna call it…is very much alive.
This journey begins with an idea you carry, nurture, shape, and perhaps – at times – even doubt.
But for whatever reason, your instincts never betray you, and your idea takes flight. Just like an infant, our ideas take their first steps, and before you know it, sprint their way to the finish line and transform you from believer to achiever.
I met Tony at SDCC 2016’s panel How to Build a Geek Brand, and Tony is targeting the billion-dollar geek clothing market with a pretty wild and unconventional concept: sleek, high-end men’s “geek” apparel.
How’s this look below for “bat”-ass?! (In Tony’s words, this is pure, unadulterated nerdvana…)
Batman, Superman, The Flash and Green Lantern are ALL getting the upscale geek fashion treatment…and the second-round of pre-orders is happening NOW so head on over to the Hero Within Store, because supplies are limited…
WHY HERO WITHIN IS ALSO YOUR SUCCESS STORY
With Hero Within, “the apparel collection is meant to help remind us that you can be a hero in subtle design cues,” says Tony.
The photos pretty much say everything: classy, cool, confident and the epithet of success. I wanna stress “success”, because Hero Within has gone from prototype to licensed DC® brand in less than six months.
But it wasn’t without high stress and high anxiety.
“We would have been dead in the water…my whole career and livelihood was on the line for this one meeting,” exclaims Tony.
It’s an inspiring story where a young boy who felt like he didn’t fit in turned comic super-fan and steadfastly fought his way to build a licensed Warner Brothers/DC brand.
He did so by tapping into his own creative ingenuity, enlisting a network of support (some complete strangers), and – most importantly – willing to embark upon entrepreneurial uncertainty in the spirit of making a difference. A portion of all sales are donated to foster children and Hero Within (in true heroic style) even provides such kids with age-appropriate comic books for hope and inspiration. “It takes a lot of little things to create change in someone’s life,” says Tony, who grasps that reality wholeheartedly, being a foster parent.
So if you ever wanted to know how to go from idea to implementation and get a big name “stamp of approval” (like Warner Brothers/DC), plus promote a positive message that’s quickly catching on, check out how Tony built one of the coolest geek clothing brands out on the market.
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Q&A WITH TONY KIM: BUILDING A BRAND IN CHIC, GEEK CLOTHING:
NR: It goes without saying, but who is your favorite superhero?
TK: It’s probably Superman. He really has had the most impact on my life. My parents emigrated here from Korea and moved into a very Caucasian suburb. It was very hard for me, feeling different, knowing no one kind of got me…and I felt like I didn’t fit in. I turned to comic books to find my moral center. The story of Superman is really the immigrant story, coming from a different place, trying to fit in, having multiple identities and not fully belonging to the home culture or world culture and you need to adapt. And through the process, he realized he was made for a greater purpose…to do a greater thing and that really resonated with me.
NR: What sparked the idea for a high-end, men’s fashion line celebrating fandom?
TK: Hero Within was basically birthed out of frustration of years of not having the right clothes to wear. I can help manage and fulfill someone else’s dream, or I can really help with fulfilling my own. Back in February when I was wrestling through what I was going to do with my future, I just realized that…you know what, ‘If I’m going to make this happen and live and fulfill my dreams, I’m really going to have to dive in with both feet.’
NR: Hero Within is less than 6 months old, can you tell me what the name represents?
TK: Hero Within is a geek lifestyle apparel company. It’s called Hero Within because I believe all of us have the ability to be a hero for another person. Whether it’s in small ways or big ways, public or private, we have the ability to be heroic. And much like all the geek properties we all love through comic books, TV and film, we may not necessarily wear a cape, but we have a chance to make an impact and influence people for good.
In the past few years while there has this been the revolution in female apparel through Her Universe, Welovefine and Hot Topic, the guys have not taken a step forward. It’s kind of been the basic t-shirt and hoodie that has clothed our back for many years and continue to do so. Going in to professional environments, business settings or board rooms or other corporate environments, I really didn’t have anything to reflect my fandom. So after years of experimenting and stumbling around and doing research, last year at Comic Con – a little over a year ago – -I had prototyped a blazer coat that was really the “version one”. It was basically a custom made blazer with a Superman emblem on the back, and I knew that it wasn’t by any means the final form, but it was enough to get the conversation going and use it as a way to interact with people. I used that coat for a number of conventions to basically just gather the research that I needed to really grow the company.
NR: You mentioned ‘diving in with both feet’…can you talk about the risk involved with starting your own company and why you felt compelled to do so?
TK: Many great steps forward in industry is birthed out of frustration. Personally, I have been involved in a lot of creative fields over my career and I was doing marketing communication – this was all last year – and had a good stable gig and it afforded me the opportunity to participate in different comic conventions. But then after last year – after I had prototyped this coat – I had talked to my design partner [Michael Lew of Imaginary Concepts]. We kind of talked through the potential of this blazer, but I knew that if this is going to actually happen, it’s going to take my full-time investment and start my own company. It’s very risky, I have a family to support, [thinking] I just don’t know if I can do that right now…even though I really, really wanna do it. I may have to do it on the back burner, or on the side. Well, life has a funny way of kinda responding to things like that because in February, I got laid off and found myself in this place where…wow…we talked about how it would take me full-time to launch this company, and I found myself with all the time in the world. So, I cut everything else out and fully committed to Hero Within.
We had a few months to get this company off the ground and get the whole collection up and running, and we had to get the Warner Brothers/DC License and we had to be ready for [San Diego] Comic Con. There was no crash course or plan D – it was that sort of urgency and fear and desperation that I believe really helped.
NR: With such a tight and ambitious deadline, how did you go about assembling your business relationships and production team?
TK: From last year’s Comic Con, I put out some blog posts. The wonderful thing about social media – and with any sort of blog – is that opportunity to be transparent and put things out there. That’s the wonderful thing about being a fan-geek, influencer…now, you don’t need a million people to follow you. You just need a handful of people that share the same love and passion that you do. When I last year stepped out and tested Hero Within, I had a couple people that responded that they would love to whatever to be a part of it, love to help shape it, and just want to be a part of it.
My design partner and I already had been together, working full-time and then another friend of mine, who was transitioning jobs, was looking for a new opportunity. The start of anything great and awesome is finding a great team. You can have a superior idea and not have money, but if you have a great team, you can figure out how to make something happen. I was very fortunate and grateful to have people who were willing to just put “go all in”, not getting paid anything, months and months everyone just putting in blood, sweat and tears to get this vision off the ground. It was really blogging and through social media and putting things out there.
NR: When tapping into your networking, you never know who can be instrumental in helping getting off your idea off the ground. Tell me about Hero Within’s unique design and the subtle approach it uses to capture the essence of the character but still be fashionable.
TK: With the handful characters that we’re working with, we say what is the essence of this character and what is the concept of this character, how does it translate into high fashion? He’ll [Michael Lew] come up with some designs that are sophisticated and subtle and it’s empowering, which is our three core values. And then, I’ll take that and then figure out how to integrate the superhero element to it on the outside and inside.
NR: Can you walk us through the process of licensing with DC and that initial pitch meeting? [Tony’s NDA prohibited him from talking specifics…]
TK: Fortunately, Daniel, my VP of Sales, is very talented and very persistent and he just reached out and found the right person that we needed to meet with; and we we’re fortunate that they [Warner Brothers/DC] were familiar with my work online already, so that helped.
Warner Brothers was fantastic, they’re great. They really are great. They care about fashion, they care about nerds, and they care about trying something new and different. For us, we were going after a market that not a lot of people have been going after, and Warner Brothers didn’t really have anything currently that was really going after that same market. The timing of it worked out really well. We had the full process – start to delivery – because the biggest challenge for anyone launching anything like this, is not the idea – even not the licensing – the biggest problem is how do you create a bunch of things on a computer and then who makes it not just one time, but hundreds and thousands. That whole process: the factory process, the production line, having all of the specs, the ability to create something over and over again a thousand times, and dealing with all the laws internationally. All that stuff, it’s a giant bear that very few people realize.
If you wanna go super cheap, you can have someone make the shell, then it goes over to another factory and they put the lining in, and then it goes to another factory and they put the buttons on. And something goes wrong and they all blame each other, so that could be super nightmare.
To be able to walk into Warner Brothers – or any company – and to have a fully finished project from start to finish, fully realized and not needing anything from anyone…you wanna make it as easy as possible for someone to say ‘yes’. If you don’t have production figured out and it’s inconsistent or too expensive, or you need money, it’s just going to be that much harder for anyone to say ‘yes’ to you.
NR: Hero Within’s messaging stresses the importance of giving back and celebrating the heroes in our lives. Can you tell me about that?
TK: One thing I think we all share in our personal story is pain. There’s no one who lives in a perfect bubble. Many of us grow up feeling inadequate or feeling lost or feeling that sense of “what’s my purpose in life”, and I definitely think the immigrant story and anyone who’s from minority culture wrestles with that. I remember growing up and thinking for most of my adult life the only two heroes that looked like me were Sulu from Star Trek and Bruce Lee and that was the only thing that people referenced me as. And I think anyone who comes from any minority, whether it’s culture, sex, handicapped, orientation, whatever that is, anybody who comes form that minority place feels that inadequacy. That was really the DNA of Hero Within and everyone’s a hero and everyone has that ability to do things that are courageous.
NR: You’re a foster parent as well, and I believe there is a stigma regarding kids who grow up in the foster system. Can you tell me about Hero Within’s commitment to helping foster children?
TK: I’ve been a foster parent seven years now, and it’s been a tremendous experience. I feel like I’ve learned – my wife and I – feel like we’ve learned so much from it. There’s nothing more vulnerable than a child at risk and a child who not only is separated from their parents, but who don’t have parents at all. You think of Superman, Batman and Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Spiderman, it goes on and on… it’s all about kids who were abandoned or separated from their parents.
Universally, that’s just as accepted as the weakest position you can be in is being a lonely child or lonely baby so comic books really embrace the gap and bring that sense of hope and future to kids who are going through that experience. I have a daughter who we adopted and she’s now 11. She loves comics, so I have her reading all kinds of Miss Marvel…she’s reading Wonder Woman, all these different types of heroines. Simone Biles [four-time Olympic gymnast from the U.S.], she’s a foster child and her and her sister were separated from her own parents and her grandparents took her in… and you use a story like Simone and you’re like, ‘Wow, she came from a lot hard places, pain and rejection and she was able to channel all that.’ People are calling her the best gymnast that ever lived. Pretty incredible.
Kohei Uchimura [seven-time Olympic medalist from Japan], who won the Mens All-Around, he’s been considered the best men’s gymnast of our generation; he got inspired because of comic books. When he was a kid, he read a comic book about a gymnast that had all these superpowers and abilities and that inspired him to be a gymnast, and now he’s an inspiration for his country and the next generation.
NR: Having all this happen very quickly with the DC partnership, and building a brand, what is the biggest lesson you learned?
TK: The idea that, the riskiest thing you can do is be safe. If you’re looking for certainty and saneness and consistency, you’ll never get yourself in a place where you’re really innovating and finding your unique voice.