I think it’s really important to have someone who can complement you and balance you, and we’ve definitely found that in each other.
It’s a good thing that there’s a lot of outdoor space next to Mike Koranda and Aaron May’s office, because their actual office is basically a closet.
“You don’t even want to know,” says Mike when I ask exactly how much square footage they have. “Twelve-by-five?” he estimates. “Six-by-ten?” Aaron offers.
So, yeah. It’s small.
Working in that close of quarters has its virtues, though. When you work, as Mike puts it, “literally on top of each other,” it’s hard not to check in with what the other person is doing.
And checking in is important for Mike and Aaron. A little over eighteen months ago, they co-founded a company together called Pacific Issue. To this day, they’re still the company’s only two employees.
Pacific Issue is an apparel brand specializing in ultra-tailored, ultra-stylish button-down shirts, which you can customize and order directly through their website. Inspired by their own struggles with finding shirts that matched their measurements and their personalities, Mike and Aaron have set out on a mission to rid the world of boring, baggy button-downs once and for all.
It’s a mission that has taken them from the bars of USC to the streets of Bangkok, to here, in this six-by-ten-foot office in Marina Del Rey, where they’re plotting out their email marketing strategy and preparing to expand their audience beyond the small but incredibly loyal population they built during beta testing.
How did it start? When I ask Mike and Aaron, they both go in for the joke.
“We locked eyes from across the room.”
In all seriousness, though, they kind of did.
Mike and Aaron came to their Pacific Issue partnership by different paths. Mike’s involved jumping ship from politics for a job in sales, writing advertorials from all over Europe and Asia. From there he jumped again to a job in eCommerce and digital marketing, before landing at a startup stateside. It was only with time that he started to connect the dots and see the path that was leading him toward starting his own company — this company, in particular.
For Aaron, growing up just north of Silicon Valley, a startup was always in the cards — it was just a matter of what the startup would be. In high school he and his friends would sit in their basements, throwing around ideas for companies they wanted to start. At one point, the Big Idea was to launch a cereal restaurant. “Then in college we heard about all these cereal restaurants taking off and we thought to ourselves, ‘Ah! That could have been us.”
Here, Mike interjects to go on the record: he’s glad Aaron didn’t go through with his cereal restaurant idea.
Eventually, both Mike and Aaron found their way to business school at USC, where, the night of Aaron’s birthday, the future co-founders met over beers. Neither of them can quite remember how the conversation went that first night, but one thing they definitely remember:
“I knew I liked him, I knew I trusted him,” says Mike.
That night, Mike pitched Aaron his “stupid idea” for doing a custom clothing company built on state-of-the-art 21st century eCommerce, and for Aaron, it clicked: this was the startup he’d been waiting for.
And from that time on, Aaron says, “That was it. I was in.”
After that initial meeting, nothing much happened for months: Mike and Aaron continued with their MBA studies, went to class, participated in group projects.
But the idea that became Pacific Issue never really went away. Over time, it started to take up more and more of their imaginations.
“As we would come out of an information session for some mega-corporation that neither one of us really wanted to work for, we would joke and say, ‘Hey, you know what we should do next summer instead of an internship? Let’s just go to extend our stay in Thailand and Vietnam and find manufacturers,” Aaron remembers. “And every time we would say that, it would become less of a joke.”
We’re doing this now for real. We’re not building a deck any more, we’re starting to build a company.
Sure enough, a few months later, when their study abroad group had the option of extending their visit to Thailand for a few weeks to see the sights and hit some beaches, Mike and Aaron extended by a month.
But it wasn’t for vacation — it was for work.
“We arrived in Bangkok, we said goodbye to our friends, and then it was just the two of us,” Mike says. “And we were in an apartment that we had found and it was just like, ‘Okay, what do we do? We’re doing this now for real. We’re not building a deck any more, we’re starting to build a company.’”
While some co-founders come into a company knowing exactly what their areas are going to be, for Mike and Aaron, finding that balance took time.
“We started from a viewpoint of we both need to do everything. And that was for us a really important place to start, just so we could have an understanding of every single aspect of the business,” Aaron remembers. “Even now, it’s two of us, so we still both are heavily involved in most things.”
Over time, the roles they would eventually take over in the company became clear: Aaron’s love of data and analytics, finance and optimization led him to “embrace his full nerdiness” and take the reigns on the operations side, while Mike’s passion for branding and consumer psychology led him “into the weeds” on marketing and brand development.
“We naturally gravitated toward our roles as they are now based on our personalities, which is probably a bit of luck in a way, because I don’t think we really thought that out before we solidified our partnership,” Mike says. “Maybe we sort of fulfilled those roles as we saw a need for them, but at the same time I think it’s really important to have someone who can complement you and balance you, and we’ve definitely found that in each other.”
Since they’re positioning to grow the company by leaps and bounds over the next couple of months, I can’t help but ask: How will these two co-founders stay in sync as their responsibilities pull them into increasingly separate spheres?
Aaron points to a surprising resource: “One of the biggest saviors of our company is using [project management tool] Asana,” he says, “Everything we do goes through Asana, to the point where sometimes we’ll be sitting next to each other in the office and having a conversation on Asana because we want to make sure everything’s there.”
Even with tools like Asana, Mike says, communication can get tricky. “Even though we’re two people and theoretically that should be really easy because we don’t have five people to communicate with, and even though we have Asana set up and I almost know every single task that Aaron’s doing throughout the day, I’m not inside of his head, and I don’t know what he’s going through on a day to day basis,” he explains. “So checking in on that is really difficult, especially for two dudes who don’t often talk about things that frequently in general.”
One of the things that helps Mike and Aaron stay in sync: once a week, they head out of the (very tiny) office for a few holes of golf.
We are able to communicate better when we get out of the office and we step away from our computers and just talk to people like humans.
“I don’t know if that’s related to the stresses of running a company, because it’s such an all-consuming task, that you need to go out and scream at a ball and hit it a bunch of times,” says Mike of the fact that they both just happened to take up golfing at this crucial moment in their lives. “But we usually will get out and golf once a week, and we usually have a check in or a mini heart-to-heart, just like ‘How are you feeling, where are you at with the business, where are you at personally, what can we do to improve, what can we do to continue to relieve stress when we need to?’”
Both Mike and Aaron get a bit squeamish talking about the feelings of it all — after all, they are “two dudes who don’t often talk about things in general.” But somehow, Mike says, getting out of the office helps. “We are able to communicate better when we get out of the office and we step away from our computers and just talk to people like humans.”
When I ask Mike and Aaron the top criteria they think entrepreneurs should be looking for in a co-founder, they’re quick to converge in on one essential ingredient: trust.
“Because there’s no other mechanism than self-motivation for getting things done,” Aaron explains. “You need to trust who you’re with, that they’re going to do everything they can to make the company better.”
You’ll spend more hours and more difficult times with each other than you will with anyone else, and there’s no great way to prepare for that, other than knowing it’s a person you can trust.
It ties back to one of the classic metaphors people use when they’re talking about co-founder dynamics. “Cheesy and hokey stuff, but it’s true: in a lot of ways: [starting a company] is like a marriage or a relationship,” Aaron says. “You can’t always get inside this person’s head — but you almost need to be able to. You’ll end up spending more hours and more difficult times with each other than you will with anyone else, and there’s no great way to prepare for that, other than just knowing that it’s a person you can trust – somehow building that trust before you start the company.”
Another thing Aaron emphasizes: a get-shit-done attitude. “You have to find someone who is action-oriented, who won’t check out or not concern themselves with tasks because they think, ‘Oh, that’s below me, an assistant should be doing that,” he says. “Because especially in the early days — and the early days might last a while — it’s up to you to get things done. Whether that’s running to the post office or doing data entry, you want people who will do whatever it takes to get things done and keep things moving.”
Speaking of keeping things moving, both Mike and Aaron are laser-focused on their goals for Pacific Issue, and what the future has in store.
Just recently, they completed development of a beautiful new version of their website, which a successful crowdfunding campaign on Fundable helped them take from simple landing page to fully functional customer portal.
Now, the twin priorities: marketing and customer experience.
“A big thing for us right now is finding the right places to spend money, where we see a good return,” Aaron explains. “We have some hypotheses on where that is — it’s where we’re really optimizing to the experience of a person, so that from the moment they click on our ad or join our email list to where they’re actually ordering a shirt, it’s an easy process — a process that adds value to their lives, as opposed to being just another eCommerce site screaming at them.”
Mike chimes in, “We have an awesome community of customers already and we continue to build that even though we haven’t been doing a lot of marketing,” he says. “We’ve seen a great repeat rate in customers and we want to continue to see that. We think there are two reasons for that repeat rate: number one, the quality of the product and what we make, and the value that our customers perceive in it, and number two, it’s making our customers lives easier through customers service and going that extra mile for them, whatever they need.”
Chances are Mike and Aaron will have plenty of “extra miles” to go before they see this thing through to the end. In the meantime, it’s nice to have a travel buddy for the trip.
Andy Dunn has spent the past ten years building Bonobos. He’s funded about 15 other ecommerce companies, advises even more, and serves on the board of three others. In this interview, he shares his thoughts on better fitting pants, 100M in capital, and why men should embrace a world run by women.