Cover Story: Game Changers: Ryan Babenzien, Founder and CEO, Greats
You’ve set the bar pretty high when you name your company Greats, but Ryan Babenzien and his team have the goods to deliver on that promise. Founded in 2013, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based men’s footwear company is manufacturing its product and selling it direct to consumers at a value price, bypassing the inefficiency of selling wholesale to third-party retail partners — not to mention the higher prices paid by customers.
Babenzien is a relative newcomer to retail, having spent the better part of his working life in the entertainment industry as an agent and manager. In that capacity, he often served as a consultant for streetwear and apparel brands. This exposure helped Babenzien develop an affinity for sneakers, which led to positions at Puma and K-Swiss — albeit within the entertainment divisions for both of those companies.
Realizing the flaws in the wholesale business model from his time at Puma and K-Swiss, Babenzien and his business partner/friend Jon Buscemi hatched the idea for Greats. The company’s goal is a simple concept, yet one that’s hard to execute: building a better sneaker for less. While Greats wasn’t born overnight, its success just about was.
“The idea for Greats didn’t happen instantly,” recalls Babenzien. “It came over time and was a realization that the traditional model of brands wholesaling to third-party retailers was inefficient for both the brand and consumer. We knew that the consumer had become very comfortable buying shoes online with companies like Zappos, but no one had created a vertical footwear brand for men.
"In addition, there wasn’t a company taking advantage of the efficiencies that come with building a vertical men’s footwear brand, most importantly the end price to the customer. So after years at other sneaker brands, I decided to launch Greats. In doing so, we’re showing that you can build a stylish, high-quality, fairly priced sneaker brand without relying on other retailers.”
With the business model settled upon and some funding in the bank, Greats was ready to start production. The company — which as of press time consisted of a grand total of nine people — built a website and designed, developed and produced two sneaker styles in three colors each in roughly four months. It was an “insane” undertaking, says Babenzien, and one he’s not willing to do again, but the effort paid off handsomely despite a nonexistent marketing budget.
“In a little less time than that [four months] we had grown to 10,000 followers on Instagram and the editorial world was waiting to announce our launch,” Babenzien says. “We didn’t have $1 for marketing; we just were hoping the word-of-mouth and press coverage would help us sell sneakers when we launched. To our surprise, we sold out of almost our entire inventory in about 100 days. That’s when we realized Greats could be something meaningful and disrupt an entire industry.”
Babenzien credits Greats’ initial success to a couple of factors: one, his experience working at other footwear brands provided an understanding of the design, development, manufacturing, marketing and branding processes and, two, his entrepreneurial spirit that’s constantly looking to challenge the status quo. “Nothing bothers me more than complacency,” Babenzien says.
The Power of Social Media
With little to no marketing budget in its early existence, Greats has had to rely on free channels such as social media and, by extension, word-of-mouth to build brand awareness. In particular, Instagram has proven to be extremely effective as a customer acquisition tool for Greats. The retailer uses the photo-sharing social network to post product photos and lifestyle shots that are simpatico with its brand.
“Instagram is a fantastic storytelling platform that allows bite-size images to inspire and influence an audience,” notes Babenzien.
Scaling for Growth
With Greats in hypergrowth mode, Babenzien and his team are currently strategizing around how to meet the growing consumer demand for its products. Their focus is on several different areas — brick-and-mortar stores, international expansion and building out its team.
Greats has only one brick-and-mortar store right now — located in its hometown of Williamsburg, Brooklyn — but that figures to change soon. Despite the importance of digital to the company, Babenzien truly believes that retail stores remain the best way to tell your brand story and create an experience that people still want. He just doesn’t want to rely on other retailers to do it for Greats.
International expansion is a tricky one for Greats. Global demand for Greats’ products is there — we get hundreds of emails per week asking us to ship to Japan or England or France and so on, and that they’ll pay for shipping, Babenzien notes — but right now the numbers don’t mesh with the brand’s value proposition.
“It’s our belief that if you’re going to buy a $59 Bab from Greats and then pay $30 shipping and duties, that you should buy something in your local market because we’re no longer giving you the value we want to,” says Babenzien. “We know that we have a business globally because resellers are buying up thousands of our sneakers and shipping them on their own to Hong Kong, China, Korea, and reselling them for 50 percent to 100 percent more than we do. It’s unprecedented that a brand of any kind, e-commerce or other, has created the brand affinity we have on a global level. We’ll get there, we just have a lot more to do here in the U.S.”
To grow the business, Babenzien knows he needs to add staff. As of press time, Greats is hiring for key positions, and it’s looking for superior talent.
“Greats is only as good as the team it’s made up of, as is any company,” Babenzien says. “We want to build a great company, and that takes smart, dedicated, talented people. We’ve got an amazing team.”
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