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What is Success?

Marc Ecko’s artistic journey began in the mid-80s in a makeshift design studio and showroom. Evolving from just six t-shirts and a can of spray paint, Marc Ecko Enterprises has become a full-scale global fashion and lifestyle company. He was on campus to discuss his entrepreneurial story, marketing the Marc Ecko brands and current trends in the retail & apparel industry.

Marc Ecko, Founder, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Marc Ecko Enterprises, shared his entrepreneurial story to a crowd of over 90 HBS students on January 24th, 2008. The event, which was organized by Shane Rahmani (OG), Earl Gordon (OH), and Sheldon Wong (OC) and co-sponsored by the Marketing and Retail & Apparel Clubs, provided a glimpse into how he built his fashion and lifestyle conglomerate, while learning from mistakes he made along the way.

Marc Ecko’s journey began while he was still a high school student working from a makeshift design studio located in the garage of his parents’ New Jersey home. Armed only with an airbrush and his custom graphic designs, Ecko quickly built a loyal fan base and in 1993, at the age of 20, he left Rutgers University to launch *ecko unltd. However soon after finding success with the increasing popularity of *ecko unltd. t-shirts and other apparel, the business became significantly over-leveraged. After 6 years, the company owed $6 million to an assortment of creditors.

“That $6 million dollar pit was a fountain of knowledge and experience for me. The ultimate Ivy League education.” From this experience, Ecko learned quickly how to do more with less and how to be creative not only with his designs but also with his cash flow management.

“How were we going to survive? If we were going to make it, we had to have teeth. rather than sink us, that survival instinct made us. To do more with less – became our new marketing mantra.”

Doing more with less has become a hallmark of the Ecko brand and Marc Ecko sensationalism. He described innovative ways the company distinguished itself from its competitors. An early example occurred at the expensive, heavily-trafficked industry trade show in Las Vegas, known as MAGIC.

“One year we came up with a cheaper way to get the ultimate impact. Instead of manning our [trade show] booth, we deserted it. and placed in the middle of it, a sign that read ‘Where’s Ecko?'”

To the chagrin of competitors and the MAGIC coordinators, Ecko had set up a tent outside of the convention center for a fraction of the cost and was able to book over $50 million in sales that year. As Ecko explained to the audience, “You don’t have to be afraid to approach traditional markets. Maintain the power of surprise – have some swagger!”
More recently Marc Ecko rented a 747 passenger jet and painted one side of it to be an exact replica of Air Force One. Marc Ecko’s team tagged the phrase “Still Free” on the plane and captured the moment on a grainy home made video. After being uploaded to YouTube, the hoax spread virally throughout the web. The plane looked so authentic that the Air Force wasn’t immediately certain whether the plane had been targeted. The stunt resulted in significant press and drew attention to his advocacy of respecting graffiti as a modern art form.

As Ecko explained, “It’s not the things you do that define success. It’s the reactions you create – how you make people feel. Sensationalism is about creating a sense you can touch and feel.”

That was his rationale for spending $750,000 on the Barry Bonds record breaking homerun ball. Ecko set up a website for people to vote on its fate. Ten million people voted for the ball to be bestowed to the baseball hall of fame with an asterisk. This controversy garnered a reported $40 million worth of media coverage for Ecko and his assortment of brands.

Marc Ecko urged the audience of future business leaders to operate with passion and instinct in whatever career they choose. “If you’re in a comfort zone when you’re working, you’re in the wrong business. because success isn’t for people who make safe choices. It isn’t for people who resist change.”

Ecko has created significant value from pursuing his passion and evolving his business over time. Marc Ecko Enterprises has grown to include 12 separate *ecko unltd. and red by marc ecko apparel and accessories lines, the contemporary Marc Ecko “Cut & Sew” collection, G-Unit Clothing Company, Zoo York, Avirex, Complex magazine, and a recently launched video game and multi-media entertainment division. The company says its wholesale sales to retailers now exceed $500 million annually.

However it appears that Marc Ecko has been motivated by more than financial gain. To close his talk, he offered words of wisdom that should resonate with all business students.
“Success does not always come with a dollar sign. I get a tremendous sense of fulfillment from creating something I love, practicing my inner force. I suppose I knew that when I was 14. Only now, at 35, I can finally articulate it – and be your Yoda for at least today.”

Shane Rahmani is a Vice President of Speakers for the Marketing Club. Earl Gordon and Sheldon Wong interned at Marc Ecko Enterprises.

February 4, 2008
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