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Fair Harbor CEO Jake Danehy on Building the Next Iconic (and Sustainable!) American Heritage Brand

jake danehy fair harbor sustainable swimwear

In Episode 57 of Earned, we sit down with Jake Danehy, co-founder and CEO of sustainable beachwear brand Fair Harbor, which achieved $50M in revenue last year, earning Jake prestigious features on Forbes’ 30 under 30 (2020) and Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year (2021). To start the episode, we dive into how Jake and his sister/co-founder Caroline conceived the idea for Fair Harbor—named after their hometown on Fire Island—while in college, after learning about how plastic bottles can be converted into yarn. We learn how the brand generated the majority of its early revenue from trunk shows, and how consumer insights from these events inspired Fair Harbor’s anti-chafe, meshless lining for its hero boardshorts (made almost entirely of upcycled plastic). Jake reveals how the clothing brand has seen unexpected advertising success from radio, TV, and even beachfront plane banners, before explaining why it was important for Fair Harbor to become a B Corp. We hear why Jake’s sister Caroline was the perfect co-founder, and Jake shares why he believes the two are the right pair to move the brand closer to their ultimate goal: becoming the next iconic American heritage brand. 

We’ve included a couple of highlights from the episode below, but be sure to check out the full video above, or tune into the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts!

The following interview has been lightly edited for concision.

How Fair Harbor Leveraged Consumer Insights to Build Better Products

Conor Begley: You had an unexpected consumer insight around your shorts and then how you actually leaned into that and how that was a big driver. So talk to me about that a little bit, specifically around the board short.

Jake Danehy: Definitely. So we started the business with boardshorts. I'm a surfer, I love board shorts, I've grown up in board shorts. And board shorts typically have a fixed waistband and nothing in them from a lining perspective. I learned firsthand how important it was to listen to customers. In our first three years, we had done over 500 trunk shows, and so that was our really only source of revenue. We had an e-commerce site, but we weren't spending on any marketing ads, so no one knew who we were, or had any way to find out about us. So really our lifeblood was going to these different places and pitching our product. 

A common theme that I kept hearing, particularly from women, was “My husband and kids absolutely hate mesh lining. I don't even know why it exists. It's ruined vacations. I have to cut it out. It's so wasteful, and it makes my kids really unhappy.” And I'm like, alright, I never set out to solve the mesh lining issue, but I just kept hearing this over and over again. So what we ended up doing was making swim trunks with an elastic waistband and built-in boxer brief liners that we marketed as “not your dad's swim short, anti-chafe, fight the chafe,” and it just took off for us. 

It was an incredibly amazing insight to learn early on to listen to the customer, hear what problems they're having and how you can provide a solution that they can understand in a matter of seconds. That's really the number one learning for us when we started—just continue listening—and this weird insight of fighting the chafe inspired us to replace the mesh lining in swim trunks with a super soft built-in boxer brief liner.

The Unexpected Advertising Channels Spelling Success for Fair Harbor

Conor Begley: So the other thing that I thought was really interesting that we’ve spoken about is, we were at this round table together and we were supposed to be talking about direct to consumer advertising, which in everybody's mind is influencers, Facebook ads, all these things. And then you came out of left field with, “Radio is killing it for us.” I was like, “Radio? What is this, 1957?” And you were like, “It's done really well for us,” which I think is even more surprising given that the nature of your products is very visual. It's a very visual brand. So talk to me a little bit about what made you decide to test radio in the first place? 

Jake Danehy: Yeah, I think it really stems from how can you reach as many people as possible for the cheapest value possible? Radio is just an incredible way to do that. We're very close with the team over at Untuckit, and they advertised on radio early on and saw success with it. I think it's important too because how can you get your point across in a matter of seconds to convert a customer? People's attention spans are so short these days. And we learned from those early trunk shows that people were intrigued by us because of [our sustainability mission], but it wasn't why they bought the product. They bought the product because it was better, and had this attribute that made their lives better. They didn't have screaming kids or whatever on the beach. So from a radio standpoint, we advertised with SiriusXM and were just able to tell our story at such a wide level at a pretty cheap CPM in terms of being able to reach people driving their cars during the summer and just getting out there and hammering our mission of what we're trying to do. We also partnered with Howard Stern and Bobby Bones to help tell our story through their voices and just continue to hit people over the head with it. So yeah, it was just a cheap way to reach lots and lots of people, and then we measured it from How Heard. So after you purchased from us, we have a How Heard survey and people actually fill it out more than they don't.

Conor Begley: That’s pretty cool. Let's talk about some of the other channels of acquisition. You're north of $50 million gross on your e-commerce site. So obviously you've got both e-comm and offline in terms of distribution channels, but that's a lot of revenue to be driving through your e-comm site. So what are some of the tactics? You've figured out radio ads. Those are working. What were some of the other tactics that you think led to getting north of $50 million gross on your website?

Jake Danehy: We've done a lot of different things and tried to be as diverse as possible. Of course, we do spend on the gorillas in the room in terms of Facebook and Google, which are a lot of our spend, if not a majority of our spend, but catalog has also been a big channel for us. We’re really leveraging catalog to tell much more visual stories, hit a lot of our existing customers and drive their LTV, as well as using it for prospecting, which has been productive for us. We also launched TV this year, so we were doing linear TV, which actually has been very productive. One of my favorites is airplane banners. We fly airplane banners on beaches, which is just perfect because you’ve got such a captive audience in our ideal locations. And so people are sailing on the beach, not really doing anything, and we fly airplane banners by them. We did California, Florida, up and down the east coast.

Conor Begley: I love all the nontraditional advertising techniques you're testing out. That's awesome.

Jake Danehy: Yeah, and people talk about them, so they build word of mouth.

You can watch the entire interview here, or listen to the full episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Google Podcasts. To catch up on our other 56 episodes, featuring leaders from brands like Milk Makeup, Gymshark, Gucci, and Summer Fridays, visit our Earned Podcast page.

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