Overcoming Obstacles: Brian Smith, the founder of UGGs in America, speaks to PLNU business students

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On Wednesday April 9th, the Fermanian School of Business students in Dr. Randal Schober's entrepreneurship class had the privilege of meeting and learning from the man who is responsible for bringing UGGs to America, motivational speaker and renowned entrepreneur Mr. Brian Smith.  Originally from Australia and a local Southern California resident for over thirty years, Mr. Smith shared his journey to success in a field full of obstacles and restraints.  A key point to the night's lecture was overcoming obstacles and never giving up, and Brian Smith had quite a stack of obstacles of his own before becoming a revolutionary entrepreneur.

At the age of 29, Brian Smith had been an unfulfilled accountant.  He recalled a pivotal moment in his life as he sat in his living room listening to "Time" by Pink Floyd, when a section of lyrics about growing older and missing opportunities gave him goose bumps.  Distraught by the haunting lyrics, the Australian accountant moved to action.  He hopped on a plane to California where he had noticed many Australian trends were birthed; but rather than discovering the next big thing for Australia, a magazine gave him an idea to bring to California.  He noticed there were no sheepskin boots in California which came as a surprise to him due to their popularity in Australia.  Smith came to the U.S. as a distributor of sheepskin boots, believing that they would be a hit in the United States.  He showed up to a trade show in New York with just three pairs of boots and to his disappointment, it was a total bust.  However, people in the California surfing industry knew about these boots because many surfers had traveled to Australia for surfing and had been exposed to the product.  Now Smith would make a shift in market and begin targeting surfers.  The next step was raising the money.

Brian Smith explained that he was so inexperienced and naive during his first pitch that it somehow worked.  He was able to raise enough capital to produce 600 pairs of UGGs in two colors, brown and white.  His own house became a warehouse and his van became his distribution method.  He drove from surf shop to surf shop with little success.  UGGs first year sales were 28 pairs and exactly $1,000.  Desperate to increase sales, Smith decided to put out an ad offering a free pair of boots for the manager of surf shops carrying the product, if six pairs were purchased.  With the aid of advertising strategies, sales went up to $30,000.  His efforts to sell the boots to department stores however was halted.  "Elephants don't move until mice do," was the comment made by a surf shop owner and friend at his efforts.  He realized that until all the specialty stores bought the boots, department stores wouldn't.  Why weren't specialty stores willing to carry the product?

Having heard comments about the models in his ads not being "real surfers," the skill of marketing was realized for Brian Smith.  "I was sending the wrong message to my target market!" says Smith.  Instead of hiring photographers, he followed classic surfers with his camera at popular surf spots, like Black's Beach in San Diego.  He wanted  other surfers to want to be in that ad, walking down that popular path toward great surf.  The success that followed was "purely because of an image change.  Everything else stayed the same."  Kids asked mothers for UGGs, moms looked for them in department stores, and consequently department stores answered the demand by supplying Smith's UGG boots.

In closing, Brian Smith shared several philosophical gems with the class; the first was that "the quickest way for a tadpole to become a frog is to live every day loyally as a tadpole."  Smith had explained that all entrepreneurial ideas go through a life cycle consisting of birth when an idea is produced, infancy when that idea is going through obstacles that entice the entrepreneur to quit, youth when the business processes are smoothed out and going well, and a rebellious teenager stage when the company gets so successful that it becomes chaotic and requires cost controls among other things.  "You can't give birth to adults," Smith wisely explained.

He also shared examples from his business experience that "sometimes your most disappointing disappointments become your greatest blessings."  He encouraged the students by showing how disaster can often lead to more positive outcomes.

Smith spoke highly of his customers' loyalty when a competing brand "Thuggs" entered the marketplace.  "The most heartwarming thing was the loyalty.  People refused to abandon UGGs for those knock-offs." he said, getting a little choked up.  He also warned the students that the greater the success, the greater the challenge.  When asked what advice he would give to young entrepreneurs, he responded, "Do what you love and it's easy to stick to it."

Brian Smith's book, The Birth of UGG in America, will officially be released in October 2014.  You can read more about it on his website, www.briansmithspeaker.com.


Written by Alicia Wagoner