Adam Khafif is the Founder and CEO of LisnUp Clothing. In this interview with UpEffect, Adam shines a light on his entrepreneurial journey including wins and failures and how over the last six years he’s made LisnUp Clothing the go-to streetwear brand for Muslim influencers and socially conscious fans.
Just like any other kid, at 15 years old, Adam Khafif was discovering what he liked. Hip-hop never interested him until he heard Lupe Fiasco combine artful skill with social consciousnesss. He was hooked. Around this same time, Adam noticed that a lot of the streetwear coming out pertained to sex, drugs, or being flamboyantly vulgar – things he couldn’t wear around his mother. Down the street from his school he discovered Johnny Cupcakes: the buzzing “t-shirt bakery” on Newbury Street in Boston. Adam had no money, but he would still walk into his shop every day and soak up the creativity. He spent any extra spending money he had Johnny Cupcake’s shirts, and found any and every excuse to meet him when he was holding events in the area.
Adam needed a way to fund his Johnny Cupcakes obsession, so he decided to start his own brand. In 2011, LisnUp Clothing was born.
What were you up to before you started LisnUp Clothing?
In high school I knew that I wanted to do something in business, my parents are entrepreneurs so I knew that I wanted to take that path. I was a pretty typical high school student. I used to play on the high school sports teams, play video games – the normal things a teenager would do.
But when I realised I wanted to do LisnUp Clothing, I sold my video games and purchased the equipment that I needed and just dove in head first.
I wasn’t sure how or what business I wanted to run and I didn’t want to just create something for the sake of creating it. I was preparing to go to business school, so I figured I wouldsee where it takes me. By the time I started the program I had already founded LisnUp and I knew that this is what I wanted to focus on and apply my education to.
How long did it take you to come up with the idea and start the business?
It took a year – I came up with the idea in 2010 when I was a sophomore in high school.very day after school, any free time, any vacation I would just spend at the kitchen table researching how to make clothing, how to start a business, all the details that I would to launch my business.
How did you know where to start?
I took examples and models of some of my favourite clothing lines and studied everything there was to know about them. I read every interview and every article written about them.
I did extensive research on Google figuring out how they sourced their products – different ways that they incorporated branding and detail into their business. The customer experience was really important to me so I also researched a lot about that.
I picked a few musicians with strong brands or clothing lines whose businesses that I admired and I studied them relentlessly during the year before I launched. I still do this research.
What was the problem that pushed to go forward with running the business? What problem were you trying to solve?
One of the clothing lines I was researching had an amazing collection, and every time they launched a new product I would try and purchase it. A friend of mine encouraged me by saying if you love this brand so much why don’t you start a brand of your own? That’s kind of how it got the gears turning in my head.
I knew the landscape of the market of streetwear and lifestyle apparel, it’s really in parallel with Hip Hop and at the time Hip Hop was very misogynistic, a lot of the songs were about money, sex and drugs and those were things growing up as a Muslim I couldn’t really relate to and definitely didn’t want to promote.
I knew that I wanted my brand to go in a different direction. My father always told me to do something that you love, but also do something that benefits others.I used that advice to create a socially conscious lifestyle brand that had the look and feel of a streetwear but it did something positive.
Whether it’s the designs, the 50% that we donate to charities, the attention to detail in the packaging or the customer experience that we provide – it’s a positive experience when you’re visiting or consuming any of our content. We always ensure that the customer is getting an experience that supports our socially conscious brand.
Can you describe your company in 1 or 2 sentences?
We are a lifestyle apparel brand that focuses on social consciousness intertwined with philanthropy. We give you the look and feel of your ideal streetwear you didn’t know was possible from a business.
What are the key activities towards solving the problem?
The quality of the product. We make sure that we are sourcing all of our products from companies that have certain certifications to ensure they’re not using sweatshops and that the quality does not deteriorate after one wash. So we really do our research on the product materials.
Customer service. When you go to purchase a product from our site, we donate 50% of our profits to charity and you get to choose which charity you want us to donate to. This makes the experience and purchase more personal.
Also to make sure our customers feel like they’re getting something of value, we package all of our products in Boombox packaging. It looks like you’re getting this radio through the mail. It opens up and there is a shirt inside. We do everything we can to make the transaction feel human.
Charities. We work with organisations to cross-promote. The customer can go to the charity section of our site launching on 1st July to educate themselves on the organisations we’re working with and what they do to make an informed decision.
We work with the charity to promote them twice a month and in return, they promote us twice a month. It’s a lot more hands on with the organisations so that we’re creating this community feel.
How do you monitor your company’s environmental impact?
We haven’t done any data-driven addressing of the problem but our tees are made out of material that is environmentally sustainable – they save about 10 gallons of water with every t-shirt. We’re doing little things, but we’re still a small business. The more environmental you get, the more expensive it is. But as we grow we plan to build more conscious elements into the supply chain.
How did you onboard your first five customers?
I launched my business at a Muslim convention in Long Beach California, my thought process behind that was that a brand that donates 50% to charity would be perfectly aligned to the convention’s audience. I went to this conference for three days and that was the first time I sold a shirt. I was just 16 years old!
No one had ever heard of the brand so I had these little cards with a story on it and I would see that the people I would give the card to would normally come back 10 – 15 minutes later.
I think being young helped a lot because people saw the time and effort that went into it. I felt some people bought out of pity because I was a young entrepreneur, but I took it!
You use tracks, albums and tours as part of your branding so that you can work with the music industry and you’ve done such a great job of building an identity for your business. Did you get any help with this?
When I was starting my brand, there were a few things I was interested in high school, one was sports, the other was music, particularly one artist, Lupe Fiasco. Hip Hop was the best representation of what I believed and I felt Lupe was someone who could add a positive or social twist to his lyrics and still make it sound incredible. I used to say that I wanted to be the Lupe of streetwear apparel. That’s how everything came about. It just made sense that if I was going to do that, the next logical step would be to mould my company like an artist. I act like an artist manager and that’s how I came up with the idea for each collection being an album, each shirt will be a track, our events and pop-up shops will be tours and our lookbook is a physical printout like a CD booklet. We put those in our orders and give those to bloggers and influencers. Every little detail comes back to our music aspect, the charity aspect and great customer experience.
How did on board influencers like Lupe Fiasco?
The short answer is by being completely consistent with everything that I did. The long story is that at the first conference that I sold at, these two NFL players who were Muslim, were at the conference and they came across my table. After the conference, they emailed me and said that they bought a shirt and that they wanted to work with me. So we made a few lines of shirts for them over the summer that really helped my brand get exposure and got my name out to a tonne of Muslim followers who still support us to this day.
I would still tour at these conferences in D.C., Connecticut. At the next conference, I met Olympic fencer, Ibtihaj Muhammad and she said that she saw my work with the NFL players and so she wanted to work with me. So we made a couple of designs with her, we worked with her for a year to a year and a half and by that time she had become very popular with her mission by being a high profile Muslim athlete I started getting a lot of support from the Muslim community that were into sports and music. One day, Lupe tweeted that he wanted to make Ramadan shirts. I texted my friends and told them to tweet to Lupe to do his Ramadan shirts with us. We had about 20 people tweet to him telling him to work with LisnUp and he ended tweeting back and giving us the opportunity to send some designs. My friend and I whipped up some designs in 30 minutes, sent it to him and that night we had placed our first order to start sourcing these shirts. This opportunity came by chance but at the same time these people are professional athletes or musician they’re not going to work with just anyone. They obviously looked into our brand and realised our visions aligned. Everything comes back to consistency.
We then worked with journalist Noor Tagouri and did a collaboration with her to combat sex trafficking. Our last collaboration was with Malaysian musician Yuna Music.
Tell us about the causes that your collaborations have supported
NFL brothers: Empowering women through sports and to wear the hijab.
Lupe Fiasco: Encourage and give young Muslims a sense of pride when fasting
Noor Tagouri: Project Futures – combats sex trafficking and other causes in Thailand.
Yuna Music: worked with US Refugees and Immigrants. Showing solidarity with the millions of refugees around the world.
It’s important to start somewhere when having an impact, regardless of the size of your organisation. We always promote the cause with each T-shirt and raise awareness around the impact we’re having as well as their work.
What has been that one source of inspiration that drives you every morning?
Seeing the impact that we’re making in people’s lives inspires me every day.
If you had to do it again, would you have started the company with a co-founder?
I would say yes and no. In terms of branding and having someone that has the same vision can be difficult to find. In terms of having someone to support with running the business would have cut my time and I would have had time to work on so many other things in the business.
What would your advice be to founders facing adversity?
1. Every idea has been done so whatever you’re doing has to be unique and that’s where having attention to detail and having human communication is very important.
2. For the entrepreneur themselves, I would just say be the hardest worker that you know. If anybody watches my Instagram or Snapchat rants, one of the things that I say is that at the end of the day when you put your head onto your pillow, pull out your phone and find one person who you think worked harder than you today. If you can find someone then that means you didn’t work hard enough.
Who do you look up to and what is the best advice someone has given to you?
My role models are around me, my wife is a role model, my best friends are role models, these people work insanely hard in their careers and I take inspiration from them every day. Other role models include Gary Vaynerchuk and Johnny Cupcakes – those two people work insanely hard on the details of their brand. I’ve met Johnny a few times and the best advice he’s given to me is that it’s not about what you’re doing when people are watching you, it’s about what you’re doing when people are not watching you. So when we create specific packaging for our customers, I was doing that even when we only had a few followers. It really is just the message of consistency.
What are your future plans?
We just released our Spring Summer collection and hosted a live interactive art event. We transformed an entire store into a warehouse art gallery. What we’re doing is on July 1st we’re looking to launch our charity section and more cross promotions. Also working on getting more products ready for certain influencers we appreciate.
I’m also going to the U.K in July for an all expenses paid fellowship for social entrepreneurs and I’m hoping to learn a lot from that and meet a bunch of great people and network.
What is your proudest moment?
My proudest moment would be going from having a table at events and selling at events to hosting entire events where people come only to support LisnUp. We have hundreds of people attending to meet the team and take pictures with us and buy merchandise.
To learn more about LisnUp Clothing, visit their website here.