Q&A: Knickerbocker Mfg. Co.'s Andrew Livingston

Andrew Livingston courtesy of Jessup Deane.

Andrew Livingston courtesy of Jessup Deane.

A few months back, I went to visit the guys at Knickerbocker Mfg. Co. to see their factory in Queens, and learn a little bit about their new brand. They have a skate ramp in the middle of their factory floor, but as I noted then, it wasn’t getting a much use. The crew was maxed-out finishing up orders. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of Knickerbocker collaborations released, and a bunch of the company’s own offerings as well. Recently, I caught up with co-owner Andrew Livingston to find out what he’s learned since launching the brand, and also ask him to share any insight he has for other entrepreneurs.  

When I visited the shop, I remember there was a guy who had worked in the factory for a long time. Tell me how you train up new workers to make sure everyone is producing quality products. Obviously your workers have a skill set that is not common among American workers right now.

Maintaining quality is all a matter of respecting the process. There's an order of things that needs to be followed; from the apprentice to the master, and from the cloth to the final product. It simply comes down to putting the work in and not jumping the line. With our process it's about mastering the craft, then utilizing both new and old machinery to not simply cut out steps but to combine the traditional machines associated to our craft with the use of modern machinery to create a new process. As long as you're doing something special, you'll always have a place. 

Social media/marketing/telling the Knickerbocker story. You guys make real nice videos and are always posting beautiful images. Tell my about your approach to Instagram/ online video and social media and how it helps get your story out there.

It’s no longer possible to have smoke and mirrors, you gotta be the real deal. Americana doesn't mean blue jeans and white tees, it means hard work. The level of transparency within businesses is greater than ever before and by owning the process we have an angle 99% of other businesses in our market do not. We market our process first, then the goods and the lifestyle influences behind them.

Partnering with other brands. Tell me me a little about how you decide who to partner with and the importance of that. What do you look for in a partnership with another brand i.e. exposure? new consumers? etc.

We partner with other brands who share similar values. It's a way of broadening the consumer base for us and our fellow collaborators. In starting Knickerbocker Mfg. Co., the collaborations were the most essential part. We did not have the capital to begin producing our own label nor the market for it yet. Through strategic partnerships with those like 3Sixteen, Hill-Side and others we became known for quality through their history of providing quality products. From there and as you're seeing now, we are able to move into our own offerings without the uphill battle of starting a brand from scratch with no recognition or approval. Not only that, but those who began following us then, were waiting and asking for when we'd begin putting out our own. We're an impatient bunch but in this case there is no doubt it paid off.

Any challenges that you encountered that were unexpected and how you dealt with them?

You're always facing challenges when starting a business, it's impossible to see every little thing that will come at you. But if you have the confidence in yourselves as well as those around you, you know you're going to make it work because, well, you simply have to. The hardest part in looking at that, is finding those who care about the vision just as much as you do. It's a mindset of always wanting to make things are better, and it sure isn't easy to find employees with that trait. But I couldn't be more proud of the crew we've established and I'm confident in the fact that they really are always making our product, as well as our process, the best it can be.

Trade shows: I know they take up a ton of time, but can you tell me how important or unimportant they are?

People always debate the importance of trade shows. It’s tricky to judge, that's why they're successful for those hosting the trade show, whether it's Liberty, Capsule, Project, Jumble, etc.. People are always willing to bet on themselves, same reason people gamble in Vegas, it's the potential for opportunity. It boils down to timing and exhibiting in the shows at the right time for your business. As a new brand it's very important to get your name out there and the shows are a great opportunity for this. 

At the end of the day, for many businesses in these growing niche markets, it's all about direct to consumer. Wholesale serves as a great marketing ploy and may serve for some as a great revenue channel, but the real money lies in creating a loyal following of consumers who can purchase direct from you.

Any entrepreneurial advice for other startups, or brands, that are just getting started and want to build a business?

For the fellow entrepreneurs out there, know your market forwards and backwards. From there, make sure to follow your heart and intuition. No one ever got anywhere by doing the same thing as someone else. Maintain your integrity by consistently improving upon the product and don't think with a capitalist mindset, there's no longevity in; look at all the examples of big corporation's scaling back now. Doesn't mean you should refrain from growing your business, just make sure your opportunity to grow comes at a time that makes sense for the business. This opportunity for growth must then make sense on a marketing and financial level. From there, just keep doing what made you special in the first place.