Relationships and acquaint abstruse abaft confined helped drive the company’s abutting success.
January 16, 2020 15 min apprehend
This adventure appears in the January 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
It was too early. And too loud.
Shok — as the architect of MeUndies had become accepted in federal bastille — befuddled himself awake, pissed. The 29-year-old from Beverly Hills had gotten acclimated to sleeping in a cell, but absolute beddy-bye was sometimes adamantine to appear by, accustomed that his bed was above the anteroom from the “black TV room” (as anybody alleged it). Guys could get blatant in there. And on this morning, as the halls of the bastille were still abundantly quiet, they were accepting a acrimonious chat about backroom with the aperture advanced open. So, angular as Shok had become abaft bars, he got out of bed bent to shut their aperture — alike if it led to a confrontation.
What he found, in the average of that room, was an alarming dude alleged Grease, who couldn’t accept been beneath blessed to see him — and who, to both of their abundant surprise, would advice ascertain a new administration for MeUndies. But at that moment, cipher was talking business. The catechism was which one of them would end up on a stretcher. And really, it wasn’t abundant of a question. Area to start.
In aboriginal 1985, Jonathan Shokrian was built-in into a clamp of Persian Jews in Beverly Hills. Most had fled the 1979 anarchy aback Iran became Islamic, addition they’d go aback aback it all blew over. But Shokrian grew up analysis the attempt of a association that accomplished they were ashore here. “There was a big character crisis amid the old apple that our parents came from and this new apple that we were active in,” he says. “I was told how I had to dress, who I could date. I was afflicted to booty Farsi classes and clean-cut into demography over the ancestors business.” He hadn’t alike accelerating academy at Southern Methodist University in Texas aback he started alive for his dad’s absolute acreage company.
But Shokrian activate that business bloodthirsty and impersonal. At the aforementioned time, he compared himself to his adolescence friends, who were accomplishing amazing things. Escaping like a exciting beef from their tiny burden cooker of a Persian Jewish community, they’d been ablution some of the buzziest startups of the moment — companies like FabFitFun, Alfred Coffee, and Sweetgreen. Shokrian could feel the acuteness of their entrepreneurialism; it pushed them not alone to be allotment of this American ability but to ascertain it. “I had never been added aflame by anything,” he says. “I started obsessively cerebration about what my own affair could be.”
In 2011, Shokrian was packing for a European vacation with Sweetgreen’s cofounder Jonathan Neman and ran to Macy’s to aces up a brace of underwear. There in Dallas’s Northpark mall, he was ashamed to accept to ask a changeable agent area the men’s underwear was. (“I apperceive it sounds silly,” he says.) Afresh he alone about $30 for a brace of Calvin Kleins that angry out to be a bad fit. On the trip, he vented about it. “We were jetlagged, bubbler coffee in a café in Amsterdam, and Jon’s like, ‘Someone should accomplish underwear bigger and advertise it online,’ ” says Neman. “And afresh actually appropriate there, he logs on to the internet and finds the guy who had UnderwearClub.com and offers him, like, $5,000 for the URL. That’s how Jon works.”
That accord fell through, and anyway, as they traveled, Shokrian absitively that the name of his beginning underwear aggregation should accept added attitude. “I alone struggled with anatomy angel and confidence,” he says, “and every ad I saw out there was so alienating, like you had to accept a six-pack or wings on your back.” He capital to anatomy a aggregation that fabricated anybody feel acceptable in their skivvies, which meant the messaging had to be as adequate as the fabric. He admired the bold way the English alleged their assembly “undies,” and because at the amount the aggregation would be about self-expression, Shokrian ashore the “me” in front. And there it was: MeUndies.
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Back home in L.A., he activate a apprentice artist on Craigslist to annual out prototypes. Afresh he set out to accession money. He’d ahead invested in his friends’ startups, so they now alternate the favor. He additionally took money from a new incubator alleged Science, which was allowance to anatomy some of the better direct-to-consumer, subscription-based companies. Dollar Shave Club was starting there. So was DogVacay. Shokrian capital MeUndies to run on a cable archetypal as well, which in access would actualize alternating acquirement while extenuative his barter from awkward trips to Macy’s. “When Jonathan showed me his artwork,” says Science cofounder Mike Jones, above CEO of MySpace, “it was like this admirable alloy of a non-gender-conformity-building, modern, beginning approach. It acquainted like the anti–Victoria’s Secret, the anti-Jockey. And that acquainted absolute next-generation.”
But Shokrian wouldn’t be the brilliant of Science. That annual went to Dollar Shave Club, which bound exploded in acceptance (and would afterwards advertise for $1 billion). At MeUndies, six months afterwards ablution in December 2011, Shokrian’s aggregation of three was awkward in his father’s office, out of banknote and appealing abundant out of inventory. He advised abandonment but absitively to accord it one aftermost shot, demography a accommodation from his dad to buy added product. That tided them over into the holidays and led MeUndies to its aboriginal $100,000 month. And on that momentum, Shokrian went on addition fundraising bout and activate some interest. “The basics bazaar was aloof stale,” says Tyler Winklevoss, who’d become an investor, “and didn’t allege to the avant-garde customer either in affection or purchasing channel. It was accessible for a beginning newcomer.”
Shokrian aloft $1 actor and confused MeUndies into its own warehouse. As he relentlessly pushed to advertise product, his approach were sometimes at allowance with his appetite to anatomy a body-positive brand. “Every above cast at the time acclimated some anatomy of sexualized agreeable in acclimation to drive attention,” he says. “In the aboriginal days, that’s all I knew.” And so MeUndies assassin alluring models to advertise its underwear and alike launched its socks on a new high-end porn site. “Some of our aboriginal campaigns I’m absolutely appreciative of and others, you know, I’m not,” he admits.
Say what you will, and bodies said a lot, the action tripled revenues. By 2013, the aggregation — now about 10 able — was adequate to be over the hump.
“And afresh EPA agents showed up at my door,” says Shokrian. “They told me they were prosecuting me.”
While Shokrian was growing up in one of the world’s fanciest neighborhoods, a boy alleged Joe Nickson was advancing of age in South Central L.A., abominable for gangs like the Neighborhood Crips and the Bloods, and crack.
Nickson’s ancestor managed acumen for a aegis company; his mother formed as a home nurse. They breach up aback Nickson was about 6 but beatific their son — their alone boyish calm — to academy in burghal San Fernando Valley to accumulate him out of trouble.
Nickson admired his classes but acquainted broken amid two realities. “I would go to altered sleepovers, accept altered vernaculars,” he says. “I would apprehend about Tony Hawk in elementary academy and aback I went aback home, the new Eazy-E and Snoop Dogg albums. I could chronicle to both worlds, but I never acquainted that I belonged to either. So in my boyish years, I started acting out, aloof to try to reversely fit in.”
At 16, he abutting the Neighborhood Crips and started “flocking.” It formed like this: Nickson, who affiliated the artery name Grease because he was too glossy to get caught, would set out with his crew, dressed like basketball players affairs candy, or they’d put on white shirts with atramentous ties, get some pamphlets, and pretend to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. Afresh they’d “flock” to affluent genitalia of boondocks like brief birds and beating on doors. If no one was home, they’d breach in. It all concluded rather abruptly, he says, aback one of the houses they burglarized belonged to a commune attorney. The laptop Nickson blanket had a tracker in it.
Nickson was beatific to blaze camp, an addition to bastille for first-time offenders. He was there alone a few months. On the day he alternate aback home, a affiliate of the Bloods pulled up in advanced of him in a Camaro, formed bottomward the window, and tossed out an envelope. “When you accessible to get some money, appear bark at me,” the man said. The envelope independent $5,000 in cash. Nickson hollered and was anon annexation banks.
In four months, his aggregation hit added than 10. “We got out of hand,” he says. But one time absolutely sticks with him: He was masked and armed, heisting a Coffer of America on March 12, 2001. He’d already blimp his continued johns with banknote and was branch abroad from a assurance that said, of all things: “Easier Access: What are you cat-and-mouse for?” Then, a kid — maybe 4 years old — popped up out of nowhere. “He runs up to me and he puts his duke like biting a gun and he says, ‘Freeze!’ ” Nickson recalls. “And I say, ‘Little man, where’s your mommy?’ And she says, ‘I’m appropriate here.’ ”
Nickson affective the boy by the duke and brought him to his mother. This was the aboriginal time he absolutely anticipation about the bodies he victimized. And he said to himself, I’m not declared to be accomplishing this.
He abdicate hitting banks, but the badge still bent up with him. Nickson was bedevilled of cabal and coffer robbery and took a appeal on three added coffer robberies. On June 6, 2005, he was bedevilled to 20 years in federal prison. He was 25.
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Shokrian’s altercation with the admiral — the acumen the EPA showed up at his aperture — went aback to a analytical aberration he fabricated aback he was 23. Before starting MeUndies, aback he was alive for his father, he assertive his dad to buy and fix up a huge, abandoned 1950s arcade centermost alleged Fazio’s. The abode was a bones — rats, holes in the roof, askance attic tiles, asbestos allegedly in the cement captivation them together.
Some forms of asbestos are able and don’t crave the full, heavily controlled (and expensive) abatement process. Shokrian’s architecture consultant, according to cloister records, said the architecture independent this affectionate of asbestos. So, acquisitive to accomplish his dad appreciative and get the abode adapted quickly, Shokrian outfitted his workers with masks and respirators, and went about renovations. But the activity fabricated annual aback workers acclimated gasoline to apple-pie the tiles, which bent the absorption of the EPA. The bureau absitively to investigate and bent that the asbestos did charge to be removed according to regulations. “I approved to acquaint them it was an honest mistake,” says Shokrian, “and that I would never anxiously put addition in harm’s way.” The Shokrians paid a $500,000 fine, took asbestos abatement training, and started ecology the workers for bloom issues. And everybody confused on.
Except that, four years later, out of the blue, the case came back. Afterwards the agents showed up at Shokrian’s door, he was accused of abortion to acquaint beneath the Apple-pie Air Act. “I never anticipation a adjudicator in his appropriate apperception would accelerate me to jail,” says Shokrian.
But that’s what happened. “This was not a case in which [Shokrian] set about to abuse the environment,” Adjudicator Sidney A. Fitzwater said at his sentencing audition in Dallas. But the law is the law: He bedevilled Shokrian to federal bastille for a year and a day. The architect of MeUndies had 45 canicule to self-surrender. “We were shocked,” says Neman, the Sweetgreen cofounder, who flew in for abutment forth with others. “It acquainted like a final supper.”
Nickson was 12 years into his book and accomplishing time at Terminal Island, in L.A.’s anchorage — transferred to the minimum-security ability for acceptable behavior — aback Jonathan Shokrian showed up there to activate his own imprisonment. It was April 15, 2014.
Shokrian had larboard MeUndies in acceptable hands. He’d alleged a CEO to run the business and had taken his aggregation out to banquet to beacon their spirits. He knew that, as a federal prisoner, he’d be banned from administering business while incarcerated, but he planned to break in as abutting blow as he could. At the office, the MeUndies agents set up a appropriate Golden Eagle Trimstyle buzz — red for ball — aloof for aback Shokrian called. “I acquainted absolute assured the aggregation would survive my absence,” he says.
His own adaptation acquainted beneath certain. “I was scared,” he says. “I mean, I’m from this absolute cloistral Jewish Persian ancestors in Beverly Hills.” He assassin a bastille adviser (an absolute thing), who able him on how to break out of trouble. And already inside, that’s what Shokrian did. The added inmates started calling him Shok, and he kept focused on journaling daily, reading, and, as anon as he could get sneakers, active 50 afar a week.
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Shok anticipation a lot about MeUndies and was balked by not actuality able to accord more. He could accelerate emails via the prison-monitored CorrLinks and accomplish bound calls, but he had to be careful. “I was able to accomplish suggestions and get updates,” he says. “But there was this very, absolute accomplished band I had to walk.” Shok’s first-ever hire, Noah Taubman, came consistently to the visitors room, with its sad automat machines. “Jon would consistently appearance up with a allotment of cardboard and go, ‘How’s this going? How’s that going?’ ” says Taubman, chief activity manager. “He would accept us book out the MeUndies Instagram augment and mail it to him, afresh go through it and animadversion and mail it back. It was surreal to see his complete reversal. He consistently capital to ascendancy everything, and he had controlled everything. Now he was in an fair jumpsuit, three sizes too big. His beard was short. He had absent a crap-ton of weight. That was scary.”
But then, one acute aboriginal morning, Shok said, Screw it. He’d had enough.
Terminal Island is home to some 1,150 inmates, and, as is accepted in prison, they tend to bisect themselves by race. Shok’s bed was above the anteroom from a TV allowance acclimated by atramentous men — “like a barbershop,” as Nickson describes it, area the guys would adhere out and converse. And they kept the aperture accessible so it wouldn’t get too hot.
“So one day about 7 o’clock,” Nickson says,
“Mr. Privileged comes in, looks around, and closes the door.” Mr. Privileged was, of course, Shok. And Nickson — or Grease to anybody in bastille — reopened the door. From there, the men balloon absolutely how they about came to blows.
Grease: “I already accept it in my apperception that if he closes [the door] again, I’m activity to accident the collarbone off his shoulders. Can you accept what his aboriginal words to me are? ‘All I apprehend is your fucking mouth.’ ”
Shok: “Well, no. He said, ‘If you blow the aperture one added time, you little punk-ass bitch, it’ll be the aftermost aperture you touch.’ And afresh I was like, ‘I wouldn’t be affecting the aperture if I didn’t accept to apprehend your loud-ass mouth.’ ”
Grease: “And as abiding as the sun came up, he came in and attempted to [close the door] again.”
Shok: “I forgot area I was. I beggarly this guy’s like six anxiety and ripped. I’m like bristles nine, a angular Jewish kid, and he’s about to beating me out.”
Grease: “I was activity to exhausted the — oh, yes, I was. And afresh one of the added guys, said, ‘Hey, man, appear on.’ ”
Shok apologized, and the two ate banquet calm that night. “The connection,” says Grease, “was instantaneous.”
After that, they started walking the track, alive out, and authoritative appropriate commons together. They talked about life, family, and integrity. If the two had led impossibly altered lives, they aggregate a faculty of actuality broken amid worlds. Shok capital to accept how a guy as acute as Grease was annexation banks. Grease capital to apperceive aggregate about MeUndies. “Grease’s activity was above annihilation I had seen,” says Shok. “He was passionate, abounding of activity and ideas, resourceful. He was consistently laughing. We were very, absolute close.”
One day Grease came antagonism from the TV allowance with annual about a Dallas Cowboys active back, cogent Shok, “Joseph Randle aloof got arrested for burglary underwear from Dillard’s. You accept to do article with it.” Grease had a point; the amateur could accept aloof bought underwear online! It played appropriate into the MeUndies cast story.
Back at HQ, the red buzz rang. Greg Fass, chief cast manager, best it up. “Jon was like, ‘We’ve got to ability out. We’ve got to get complex in the conversation,’ ” he says.
So they jumped on it. Adam Schefter, NFL cabal at ESPN, was tweeting about how big-ticket Randle’s baseborn underwear was, because the accomplished the Cowboys alignment was about to bang him with. So application the MeUndies Twitter account, Fass tweeted back: “@AdamSchefter if you see him, acquaint Joseph Randle that we’ll pay his fine. We abhorrence affairs underwear from dept food too #DirectToConsumer.” Schefter responded by putting them in blow with Randle’s people.
MeUndies formed out an endorsement accord area it would advice awning the $29,500 accomplished in acknowledgment for Randle accomplishing accommodating appearances and altruistic $15,000 in underwear to those in need.
Back in prison, Grease and Shok ran to the abutting TV to watch their achievement disentangle on the news. “I had to get him an honorary bench in the atramentous TV room,” says Grease. Afresh they saw it, appropriate there on the awning — Grease’s idea, transported from abaft confined and out into the world. It was annihilation abbreviate of an awakening. “When I was annexation banks, I was accomplishing it for the adrenaline rush,” he says. “This was that activity times 10. I thought: This is euphoria. This is what I appetite to do for the blow of my life.”
The Randle adventure bound went viral. In the drove of media, MeUndies got airtight for allotment a thief. (And as it turns out, Randle has gotten in again agitation since.) But Shokrian leaned into the controversy. If MeUndies was beneath fire, it was additionally in the spotlight, and the aggregation responded by emphasizing the accommodating outcome. “It absolutely accepted to me the ability of timing and activity alive with article that’s socially relevant,” he says. He additionally saw Grease’s abeyant and encouraged him to appear up with added annual for MeUndies. “Jon told me, ‘Bro, you got it,’ ” says Grease.
Three months later, Grease spotted addition befalling on the news. With the Super Bowl approaching, Seattle Seahawks active aback Marshawn Lynch was fined for avaricious his crotch. Grease and Shok knew Lynch’s accessory from prison, and he got them an addition to the athlete. MeUndies appear it would accord $20,000 to Lynch’s alms to awning the accomplished additional $20,000 for every touchdown he denticulate at the big game. They concluded up spending $40,000 absolute — a allowance for Super Bowl exposure. “Those two campaigns,” says Shokrian, “put us on the map.”
November 3, 2014, afterwards 202 canicule inside, Shokrian absolved out of Terminal Island, appear bristles months early. His absolute ancestors was there to accost him. They gave him his cellphone, which had been off aback April 15, and took him home, area he afflicted out of his bastille sweats and had breakfast with some old buddies. A few canicule later, he was aback at work.
The alteration was easy, he says. Shokrian had backward affiliated to anybody while bound up and alike aggregate his journals with some of them, so there wasn’t abundant communicable up to do. But he did backpack a new assignment with him, hard-learned from the asbestos fiasco: He bare to anticipate through decisions added anxiously and get acceptable expertise. “It’s on me to do the activity and to apathetic down,” he says. “Now I go into aggregate allurement as abounding questions as I can, so I feel assured in the accommodation we’re making.”
This would clarify into MeUndies at large. “It wasn’t like Moses came bottomward and gave us the new ethics of the company,” says Taubman. But advisers did apprehension a attenuate shift. During MeUndies’ aboriginal years, Shokrian myopically followed competitors into adult business and a lot of blah branding. Now, says Taubman, Shokrian started cerebration differently: “We can’t aloof be addition cast that does the aforementioned thing, that has the aforementioned photo shoot, that pays the aforementioned influencers. It was like he was accustomed the accede to do things addition way. It was absolute slight but powerful.”
Shortly afterwards Shokrian got out of prison, MeUndies partnered with the anxious agenda media belvedere Arsenic — but aback he saw the animal agreeable it was planning, he pulled out of the deal. From afresh on, MeUndies chock-full activity for the quick clicks. The aggregation came out in abutment of the LGBTQ association and partnered with restaurateur Eddie Huang, who stood in advanced of the camera in aloof his MeUndies and talked about anatomy crisis amid Asian men. In August 2019, the cast launched Feel Free, a ambit of beyond sizes — and then, “because maybe alike they won’t fit, and addition will be larboard out,” Shokrian says, they added a button for bodies who charge added room. The button makes no banking sense, but it’s a appearance of charge to inclusion.
The blueprint seems to be working. In January 2019, Shokrian took aback his role as CEO and has developed the aggregation to 250 employees. It anticipates $100 actor in sales for 2020.
MeUndies’ archetypal additionally seems to be advantageous off. The underwear-and-socks class all-embracing hasn’t developed in the accomplished year, but the about-face to online purchases is abstruse — an access in the U.S. of 9 percent, to $5.2 billion, during the year catastrophe September 2019, according to The NPD Group. And MeUndies is affective offline, too. In November, it opened its additional brick-and-mortar abundance — this one in the Del Amo Fashion Center, which is endemic by Simon Property Group, the absolute acreage behemothic whose adventure arm invested in MeUndies. (It has aloft about $11 million.) “So there is absolutely a absolute big cardinal affiliation there as we attending to aggrandize and accessible added stores,” says Shokrian.
When Shokrian larboard Terminal Island, he gave Nickson a agenda that said: Consistently break absolute and evolve, learn, and grow. “That bits was so profound,” says Nickson now. The two men talked generally in the years that followed.
Then, on July 15, 2019, afterwards 17 years in prison, Nickson was released. He breathed in the beginning air, and a adult acquaintance best him up from the facility. A job was cat-and-mouse for him at MeUndies. He’d apprentice the artefact in the barn and afresh move into a business role.
But it’s not so easy, both men say, to airing abroad from a bent past. For Shokrian, accepting a almanac as a bedevilled felon has meant generally answer the case to new acquaintances or abeyant partners. “That has absolutely impacted me and our business,” he says. And for Nickson, it’s meant that every allotment of his new activity is an acclimation — and the structured ambiance at MeUndies, it angry out, aloof wasn’t an accessible fit. Beneath than bristles months afterwards Nickson abutting the company, they beggared ways. No adamantine feelings. “That’s my acquaintance forever,” explains Nickson. “I’ve got a lot of adulation for him,” says Shokrian.
Both, in fact, attending advanced to the abutting affiliate of the adventure that is still unfolding. “From the Jonathans to the — I mean, the way we met and the accord that spun from it,” says Nickson. “They accept a adage that we accomplish affairs and God laughs. This is my destiny.” Addition acquaintance of his from Terminal Island, Vincent Bragg, had apparent how Nickson’s annual helped MeUndies — so aback Bragg got out in 2016, he cofounded ConCreates, a business bureau that crowdsources annual from bodies currently confined or afflicted by the system. To whatever admeasurement acceptable business is about a con job, there’s a avid appetite for erupting originality, and ConCreates has already anchored a affiliation with all-around bureau 72andSunny. Now Nickson works with them, too.
Shokrian, meanwhile, is beholden for the angle he activate in bastille — one that, he believes, will abide to appearance his aggregation in the future. “Although I ambition it didn’t happen,” he says, “it’s not article I would appetite to booty back. Because no one got hurt, I’m beholden for the boxy acquaint it gave me. There’s still an opportunity, no amount who you are, to about-face a abrogating into a positive.”
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