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Dan Murray of Sly Underwear gets down to business

Dan Murray might have been dacked in the playground one too many times, because upon finishing high school he devoted his time and income to designing an underwear range no schoolboy would be embarrassed to have on show.

Now 20, Murray did his first design in Microsoft Paint, getting 1,000 units made in China to sell from his van at festivals, parties and the beach. “People would say ‘you’re that underwear guy!’ and I’d say ‘Yeah, do you want to buy some?’”

Three years later, Sly Underwear is sold in 170 stores across Australia. With 25,000 units sold in just four months, sales are already tripling month-to-month. Sly has signed distribution agreements in the United States and New Zealand, with more in the works in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

A little help from his friends

Six months after Murray’s first shipment arrived, an enterprising friend nominated him for Triple J’s Catapult competition for young entrepreneurs. He won, and the media exposure was enough to attract the attention of an American consultant with a 20-year record at Jockey and Tommy Hilfiger. When Jalil Keval called, Murray jumped on a plane and spent six months in America while Keval showed him how the underwear industry worked. “Two things came out of that trip: one was that I needed to build on my range and the other was that I needed to develop the whole young Australian story behind it.”

With the bulk of his own $25,000 investment used up (Murray invested 90% of his weekly concreter’s wage in the company), he put together a business plan to seek investors. “I said ‘This is the gap in the market I see, this is the help that I require, this is the opportunity I’ve got—who wants to help?’”

He was offered a loan in February 2010, which funded the development of a 28-piece range. Murray brought on two mates (“a guy called Jake who’s had about seven years in the sales game and another mate called Josh who’s done 10 years in design”), and Sly Underwear went from a project to a full-time business.

Working with mates can easily damage a friendship, Murray says, but it’s easy if you can keep work as work. “As soon as it’s not work, you go back to being mates. It’s been great, because everyone puts in triple the effort of what they would [if they were just employees].”

But Murray advises anyone trying to work with friends to be clear on guidelines and expectations. “Don’t take things personally when an idea gets shot down or someone doesn’t like something. You have to remove the personal aspect when you’re in business with your friends.”

Murray says the mentorship from experienced friends and generous advisors has been instrumental. “When you add their experience and direction to my enthusiasm, my drive and my vision—that’s one of the main reasons it’s been so successful. I’ve been able to learn from their mistakes, follow their guidance and skip a lot of years of lessons I would have had to learn myself.”

He’s cautious in what advice he takes, however, because “everybody’s got their own agenda”, and as the business grows more and more people are offering their help. “As important as it is to listen to everybody, you’ve also got to back your gut feeling and go for your instinct of what you think is right.”

Building a brand

Murray’s instincts told him men his age were moving away from big surfwear brands. “As they grew older and saw every man and their dad was wearing it, they started going less for the big brands and more for the small stuff.”

At a creative level, Murray wanted to design something he could put on a streetwear shelf “that covers the basics as far as comfort and all the rest of it but was also a little bit more edgy in terms of design and marketing.” So Murray has a professional tattooist on his design team, and Sly’s most popular design is a simulation print of denim jeans. “If you were to sum up the creative side of the business it would be to Think Outside Your Jocks [the range]. Underwear isn’t just a boring essential, it’s actually an addition to an outfit.”
Sly has grown quickly with the help of a strategic social media campaign. “I wanted to be less of a corporate label and more of an open transparent label. The easiest way to be transparent and interact with your potential customers is to show them how you do your business.”

Sly’s Facebook page has nearly 4,000 members, and Murray releases a new video every month detailing life behind the scenes. “It’s an easy way for customers to feel a part of the story and a part of the label.” Murray says it’s his major advantage over corporate competitors. “That’s what was driving me in the first place, to be that brand that people could actually associate with, rather than just buy.”

Selling a lifestyle

Sly has run a cheeky, racy campaign, boasting images of a man climbing out of a woman’s window as her husband arrives home and a tattooed body builder holding two kneeling women in chains. Murray says it’s because his range is targeted at “the heterosexual, everyday man”.

He says: “We tried to include a lot of females in our imagery because at the end of the day, our customer doesn’t want to look at a guy in undies, our customer wants to look at the whole lifestyle and the whole picture. Obviously, that includes girls.” To compete with the bigger brands, Murray says he has to sell more than underwear. “We have to sell the entire lifestyle and the entire idea behind the brand.”

Being a young gun

Just 20 years old with a successful business and a pending nomination for Cleo Bachelor of the Year, some might find it hard to take Dan Murray seriously. But Murray says his youth and good looks have helped get media attention someone 10 or 20 years older couldn’t achieve.

It hasn’t always been easy, but Murray advises the only way to get around scepticism is to do things that people respect. “Get a proven track record, make sure you deliver, and do what you say you will. Build off your momentum.” The internet has helped, Murray says. “Because when you talk on the phone or over email, as long as you’re slightly literate, people don’t need to know how old you are.”

Murray says it’s no surprise he moved into business (but he feels honoured to have ‘made it’ so early). “The thought of business fascinated me, generating money from an idea rather than working from someone else’s idea to get money.”

At Sly, the next three years will be devoted to expanding its product base. “Just to continue on this path of providing something for that lifestyle kind of guy that wants to spend his money elsewhere.”

Sly will release its first product outside of underwear at the end of the year, but Murray is coy about the details. “It’s the upgraded version of underwear, I guess you could say.”

And as for Murray himself, he says he can’t predict his future path. “In five or 10 years’ time I’m going to have such a good platform to launch my next thing purely through the contacts I have and the wisdom I’ve got through doing this.” If he can still see a trend “or the ability to make money” in underwear, Murray says that’s where you’ll find him.

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Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake is a staff writer for <i>Dynamic Business</i> magazine. Fascinated with the power of media, she's previously worked for Sky News and <i>The Jakarta Globe</i>. In her time off, she's likely cooking up a storm, haunting vintage stores on King St, Newtown or trawling design blogs for things she can't afford.

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