Michael Williams | A Continuous Lean & Paul+Williams

As you walk through the offices of Paul + Williams, a narrow hallway opens up into one of the coolest showrooms of men’s clothing I’ve ever seen.  It’s been carefully developed over years, and is a reflection not only of Michael’s good taste, but his attunement to his own personal vision.  We sat in the back at a round table surrounded by racks of Patagonia gear, rows of Red Wing Boots and stacks of limited edition Levi’s.  The perfect backdrop for his story…

“Our philosophy with everything is no turnover. No turnover with our clients. No turnover with our staff.”

A little background…

Eight years ago Michael Williams and Ali Paul began Paul + Williams as a boutique PR agency.  Over time the agency has evolved, and their current client list now is comprised mostly of men’s fashion brands.  Despite the agency’s success, Michael is probably best known for his popular blog, A Continuous Lean, which features and examines style and some of the American-made products that Michael admires. He and Ali have developed a robust and focused business, and have become sought after for their sharp instincts and deep expertise by the media, his clients and his blogging audience.

This place is amazing.

Thanks.  It's kind of like a dream closet of mine.  

So, rewinding about eight years, why did you start?

I started because I didn't want to work for someone else.  I wanted to be the one who decided what was the best use of my time, and how I structured my day. 

There's that thing, on Sunday, if you have a job you hate, where you dread going into work. I had a job like that.  But if you do something that you really love, and if you work for yourself you never think like that.

When you started out, what were some of the bigger challenges? 

There were two things that were the most vexing. Number one is that there are no guidebooks to this. You just have to make the mistakes on your own.

Number two is good people. Without good people you can't scale. You can but it’s unsustainable.

Were your parents an influence on you?

I’m very much my father’s son.  He owned a bunch of businesses, and I remember in kindergarten I would have a half-day of school and the second half of the day I would ride around in the car with him as he visited his different businesses and took care of what he had to do.  I always saw how he worked, and I guess I’m very similar, and eventually I started my own businesses. 

Why did you think people would want to work with an agency like yours?

I think I was just naive enough to think that I could do it. I don't know what I was thinking.  I got my first two clients in a round about sort of way and then I added another client and another. But I didn't think to take that first jump until someone offered me a freelance job.

What makes Paul + Williams special?

We're unique in that we understand the brands we work with really well. We understand what our niche is and we like those brands that have a history, substance and that make things a certain way.  When selecting brands, our litmus test is:  Do we wanna wear this stuff?  Do we want to take this stuff home?  That's why our relationships are so genuine.

The whole concept of our company is that we only work with a certain type of client and don't water down the work.  Just because it can pay us, doesn’t mean we're going to take it. We want to be passionate about what we work on.

Sometimes the partners (at bigger agencies) will just sign (any kind of) business because they're not on the front lines. From the beginning, we decided that we didn't want to communicate about things that we didn't like and didn't care about.

Agencies often talk about their how important culture is to a healthy business – how do you do things differently at Paul + Williams?

You can get a lot out of this world by being nice to deal with and good to have around. We saw how the agency world can be catty and cutthroat and we just thought, ‘we don't want to be that way.’ 

This isn't Google. We don't have a cafeteria and tons of amenities. But, when people come to work here, they don't have to sit in meetings twenty hours a day. Everyone is friendly. There are no politics or backstabbing. We all sit in one room.

It's not for everyone though.  Some people want (that structure) that big companies offer. 

How do you hire?

Our philosophy with everything is no turnover. No turnover with our clients. No turnover with our staff.  It may not be the most lucrative approach, but you get better things done, you have a better time.  It's another reason we don't want to grow really quickly.

Were there ever any times when you thought you might want to throw in the towel?

At the end of 2009 it felt like the world was ending and it was really difficult for us. Our business wasn't as developed as it is now. When the economy crashed all of our clients cut their marketing budgets and we lost 75% of our business. And the remaining business wasn't paying.  We got to the point where we had no employees. We had to fight as hard as we could just to get work. We lost people. It was tough. It was dark. We didn't think we were going to make it.  But one by one we were able to get work.  And because of that we changed our perspective on things like efficiency and waste. Making decisions based on the long-term. Saving up. 

This has not been all easy. For a time, we almost sold the business.  Now we're so glad that didn't happen. I think I went all of 2010 without getting paid.

As someone who works in marketing, what’s your view on content, and where it’s headed?

I saw someone with the title “content creator” as their social media bio, as if that’s a badge of honor.  The whole idea of “content” doesn’t imply quality; it just implies something to be consumed.  Content has changed so much and is still changing. Blogs are becoming less relevant and things are moving to social media. But I think a brand having a direct line of communication to their consumer is important and very empowering.

The whole online world, like the things that Buzzfeed does, it's crazy and incredible. There is a lot of science and data to it to get the most clicks. On one hand, it's interesting and cool, but on the other hand, it sucks.

Nothing is ever going to be like it was. But I’m not one of those people who wish it would stay the same, believing that print is better, for example. The world changes, this is what happens.

What do you think brands get wrong in marketing?

Social. It's so disingenuous sometimes, robotic, saccharine -y and fake. Asking questions that don’t matter just to try and engage. I hate marketing for the sake of marketing.   I see a lot of really bad fake marketing.

The reason so many people connect with Patagonia is because they have a lot of real core values. They actively pursue those values genuinely. They incorporate it into their product. They stay true to that and then all they do is highlight what they're doing. And so people connect with it.  And almost everywhere I go people say, “I love Patagonia.”  Because it's real, it's not made up.

A lot of brands, you see what they do is so fake. Because they don't have it. It's just a marketing story.  I want it to be good product, good marketing, and good story for a good reason. That's what I'm into.

What are consumers looking for in a brand?

Everyone is looking for something different in clothing. Certain people look for price. Certain people look for design. Certain people look for brand name. Everyone makes that decision differently. Some people don't want to spend time and energy thinking about clothes at all.

I don't judge people by how they dress but when someone puts time and care in what they wear, that can help enhance people’s perspective of you.

 What's the vision?

We'd like to be able to continue to stay connected to the business.  We want to stay involved with our clients and find a way to teach the people we work with, clients and the people that work here. I’d like to be able to pass knowledge down to the people who work here and help them grow.

We never saw the value of being huge just to be huge. Why have a huge company and a complicated life just to make more money?  Not to say I wouldn't want to be rich but I'd rather have a comfortable life.  I want to feel challenged and do good work, and add value to our clients.  Just getting big, it doesn’t seem that fun.

Finally, any advice for someone interested in starting his or her own business?

I see a lot of people who start businesses and start with office space and a phone number first then worry about clients. Get the business first, be working on that business and then get all the other stuff done.