Ken Johnson was born in Stavanger, Norway and grew up between London, Indonesia, and Texas before attending the University of Vermont where he studied Literature, Sociology, and Philosophy. He took a job at a performing arts theatre and pursued a career in music – a passion since his first guitar lesson at age 10.
After several years writing, recording, and performing around the United States, Ken found work at an under-construction furniture store that would become Vermont’s largest furniture seller within it’s first year. He learned all aspects of growing a new venture with integrity and customer focus, and the experience left him with an appreciation of business that became an obsession.
Drawing from his experience in music, Ken partnered with former band-mate Andrew Draper to build Hotbottle–a web-based service whereby artists could easily coordinate with venues to book events without a booking agent. With hundreds of users but no clear path to revenue, they launched Manpacks—conceived as a “subscription for underwear, shirts, and socks”—as an experimental side project. Three months post-launch a frenzy of media attention drove traffic, and sales, to the website and it soon became a full-time job. The young company continues to grow larger each day, and inspires profound conversations about underwear wherever Ken goes.
What are you working on right now?
We’re on a mission to keep adding the best men’s products we can find and diversify beyond the basic apparel we’ve been carrying for the last year. We just got ahold of some really great all-natural products from a company called Raw Materials — they make soaps and shaving cream etc — and we’re getting them formatted for the website.
3 trends that excite you?
Commitment to customer service. I fell in love with Zappos after my first experience with them several years ago. People are now coming to expect good service, and that’s an important shift from when people expected to be treated like crap. As someone working in brick and mortar retail and interacting with customers every day, I knew how much an investment in customer happiness was worth to a business. We embrace this at Manpacks. Nobody is perfect and mistakes always happen, but we take really good care of our customers because they are our friends.
Transparency in business. I can’t stand all the artifice in business. It’s all just people working with people, so let’s stop pretending it’s not.
Fitness trends. This 4-Hour Body movement that Tim Ferriss started has a bunch of my friends losing weight and thinking about healthy decisions. There’s also a big Paleo diet thing going on. I get really fired up about nutrition and exercise and it’s fun to relate instead of feeling like I’m annoying people. I hope this trend sticks around for a while.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Talk about them a lot. If I’m really feeling good about an idea, I’ll do my best to sell Andrew on it. He’s a great filter and often a tough critic. Once we’re both in agreement, we’ll usually sketch something out — a whiteboard session, a wireframe, a spreadsheet etc.
What inspires you?
My family. Underdogs who win. People who trust, and can be trusted.
What is one mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
Was it really a mistake if I learned from it? I guess it would be a mistake if the lesson wasn’t worth the price. I didn’t get along with my father for a long time, and I think it was a mistake not to find resolution sooner because he’s great. So I learned that anger towards someone is often self-defense, and getting past that can be really rewarding. Hmm, I feel like I have a couple phone calls to make now!
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
What is one book and one tool that helps you bring ideas to life?
4 Steps to the Epiphany – haven’t read all of it (who has?) but the concepts are at the core of how we approach the development of new ideas.
TextEdit – pretty much every thought I have gets dumped into TextEdit before making it’s way into production. I remember reading about how ill-equipped the human brain is as a memory storing device. The simple act of writing things down is crucial to being more productive, and a simple tool like TextEdit is all I need.
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
Soren Ryherd from Working Planet. One of the smartest people I know, and a true SEM expert.
What would you be working on if Manpacks wasn’t around?
I’d like to build modern learning tools that were suited to how we consume information. I love to learn new things, but setting aside time to read a book just isn’t cutting it for me these days.
Do you wash new underwear before you wear it?
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