Nathan Coleman is the epitome of a strategist. His experience in the professional industry shaped him into a well-versed entrepreneur. The drive to become his own boss was always at the back of his mind, even as he jumped from one endeavor to the next. Ultimately, Nathan’s experiences led him to founding The Elephant Pants, an e-commence fashion brand. The Elephant Pants is a company driven by the noble mission of saving elephants and bringing awareness to issues such as poaching and habitat preservation. The Elephant Pants’ combination of super stylish clothes and mission-driven business practices has helped them build a large base of customers and advocates.
Our conversation with Nathan gave us insight into the unique challenges of starting a new business, and the savvy it takes to overcome those difficulties. Learning from Nathan was an eye-opening experience, and we know that it will inspire you as well.
Did you go to college?
I went to the Rochester Institute of Technology and got a degree in management. I had a good experience there from a couple of classes that I really enjoyed. But I learned a lot by doing. I worked at Kraft Foods and Unilever so I got a lot of real word experience. I got my experience in consumer goods experience. That is where I got most of my experience especially when I was at Unilever. When I was over there, I worked at a Product Management type of role called Innovation Planner. When I was there, I would work with every single function.
Wow, sounds like CEO training. It is crucial that you understand everything that is going on. When you were doing that, was this company ever a goal you had? Did you know you wanted to be your own boss?
"From an early age, I knew I wanted to do something to sustain me and my family but I did not know what it was. I have always had a side hustle."
In middle school, I had a dog walking business, and then as the years went by, I had the menswear company. I worked in real estate, retail, food service, bounced around a lot until I ended up at Kraft Foods and Unilever. But I wanted to create a tangible good that would relate to people.
What was your inspiration for founding The Elephant Pants?
For me, I have always loved animals. My first word was “doggie” and I met my dog 30 seconds after I was born. Obviously, elephants are a bit bigger than dogs. I visited Thailand and did all of the touristy things; one of which was going to see elephants. Unfortunately, we went to one of the sanctuaries which are not ethically accepted anymore. We saw elephants chained up and crying. That was an epiphany; I knew about these mistreatment but never really saw it for myself until then. It was really a wake-up call.
"Elephants are apathetic creatures that have nothing wrong to anyone - they are awesome! Our ability to speak for them became a moral obligation. "
After seeing TOMS or Warby Parker create a decent impact for one of these causes through a tangible good, I was compelled to act similarly. When we were in Thailand we found a similar product and brought some back as gifts but couldn’t find it anywhere afterwards. So we decided to manufacture and sell them ourselves. We had experience with E-commerce and the apparel space in general; we were running a menswear company at the time. We knew how to operate an e-commerce website and find manufacturers. It was an easy transition.
What do you think contributed to the success of The Elephant Pants and do you think being a mission driven company was a major part of that?
"Yep, Definitely! The success criteria we have identified was the product itself, it had to something that people would truly like; something comfortable and fun. One of the biggest factors was the donations aspect - the charitable side of it. "
What was your initial marketing push?
What were some of the obstacles that you faced after shark tank? For example, were you able to handle the demand?
Everything was certainly more effective. We reached millions of people. It was a nice tail and saw organic sales for 6-8 weeks after.
We were able to handle the demand. We had properly brought in enough inventory. Pretty much leading up to it, we had a pretty big cash crunch. Obstacles were trying to figure out what our strategy would be. From my side, I wanted to leverage it and keep investing and expand our growth. Nonetheless, other partners had a different view for the use of the money at the time. Generating additional demand was a point of contention.
Where did you guys land on that?
Were there any surprises that came with the business?
Relating to how to get into the women’s products, the sizing and making sure the product fit the customer well was something we didn’t plan for as much. Sampling products and bringing them in from the supplier. We committed to goods without seeing them. Because of that, we had a couple of batches that were unsellable.
Based on all your experience, do you have any advice for someone who wants to start their own business?
"You need to be critical of yourself and the business. It is easy to get sucked into this bubble. You are biased. You need to remove as many biases as possible in order to be successful."
For example, you think your product is great but your customers disagree because you’re not listening. Or, you’re getting direct feedback from people in your direct network that are telling you things you already want to hear. It’s not real feedback - they are also biased.
Was that someone you knew from the get-go?
Is that always something that you are afraid of?
"I eliminated these biases because it is always in the back of my mind. This is where the adoption to data came from. "