The relationships and lessons learned behind bars helped generate the company's success.
15+ min read
The opinions expressed by employees are personal.
It was too early. And there was too much noise.
Shok , as the founder of was known in jail, woke up, upset. This 29-year-old man, originally from Beverly Hills, had become accustomed to sleeping in a cell, but sleeping well used to be complicated, considering that his bed was just in front of the “black TV room” (as everyone called it). The boys could make noise there. And this morning, while the halls of the prison remained silent, they were having a lively conversation about politics with the door open. Slim as he had been since he was in jail , Shok got up and decided to close the door, even if it triggered a confrontation.
What he found in the middle of that room was an intimidating guy named Grease , who was not happy to see him, and to the surprise of both of them, he would end up helping him define a new address for MeUndies . But at that time, nobody talked about business. The question was who would end up on a stretcher, and there really wasn't much doubt. Let us begin.
SHOK / Postal Code 90210
In early 1985, Jonathan Shokrian was born into a family of Persian Jews from Beverly Hills . Most had fled in the 1979 revolution, when Iran converted to Islam, and they thought they would return when it was all over. But Shokrian grew up perceiving the struggle of a community that felt trapped, stuck where they were. “There was a great identity crisis between the old world that our parents came from and this new world we were living in,” he says. “They told me how I should dress, who I should date. They forced me to take Farsi classes and prepared me to take over the family business. ” He hadn't even finished what he was studying at Southern Methodist University in Texas when he had to start working at his father's real estate company.
But to Shokrian that business was too impersonal and ruthless. At the same time, he was compared to his childhood friends who were doing incredible things. Having escaped like steam from a pressure cooker, they moved away from the Persian Jewish community and were launching some of the most interesting startups of the moment, companies like FabFitFun, Alfred Coffee and Sweetgreen. Shokrian could feel the intensity of his entrepreneurship, motivating them not only to be part of American culture but to define it. “I had never been so excited about something. I began to think obsessively about what was going to make it mine, ”he says.
In 2011, Shokrian was packing for a vacation in Europe with Sweetgreens co-founder Jonathan Neman, and he had to run to Macy's to buy underwear. At the Northpark Mall in Dallas, he felt ashamed of having to ask a female employee about the men's underwear department. (“I know it sounds silly,” he says). Then he paid almost $ 30 dollars for Calvin Klein shorts that didn't fit. During the trip he talked about the matter. “We had jetlag, drinking coffee in a coffee shop in Amsterdam, and Jon said 'Someone should make better calzones and sell them online,'” says Neman. “And he literally went online where he found that a guy had the domain of and offered $ 5,000 for him. That's how Jon does things. ”
The deal did not close, but during the trip, Shokrian decided that the name of his nascent company should have more attitude. “I struggle with issues of body image and confidence,” he says, “and all the ads I saw were so foreign, as if you had to have small squares or wings on your back.” I wanted to build a company that made everyone feel good wearing underwear, which meant that the message should be as comfortable as the fabric. He liked the word used by the English for underwear, “undies”, and as the core of the company would have to do with self-expression , Shokrian added the “me” at the beginning. And there it was: MeUndies.
Back in Los Angeles, he found a design student at Craiglstist to help him design the first prototypes. Then he proposed to raise money. He had previously invested in his friends' startups, so it was time to collect the favor. He also asked for money from a new incubator called Science, which was helping build some of the largest companies that went directly to consumers through subscriptions. Dollar Shave Club was there, the same as DogVacay. Shokrian wanted MeUndies to have a subscription model, which in theory would create a recurring profit, saving people from uncomfortable visits to Macy's. “When Jonathan showed me his designs,” says Mike Jones, co-founder of Science and exCEO of MySpace, “I saw that they had a beautiful mix of modernity, freshness, and gender-based compliance construction. It felt like antiVictoria's Secret, and antiJockey. And they had that feeling of belonging to a new generation. ”
But Shokrian did not end up being the star of Science. That honor went to Dollar Share Club, which quickly became popular (and was later sold for a billion dollars). In MeUndies the story was different. Six months after launching in December 2011, Shokrian's team was piled up in his father's office, with no money and almost no inventory. He thought about resigning but decided to give him one last chance with a loan from his father to buy more product. That allowed them to survive until Christmas and gave MeUndies their first $ 100,000 per month. With that momentum, Shokrian went to raise more funding and was interested. “The basic market was stagnant,” says Tyler Winklevoss, who ended up investing “and was not attractive to the modern consumer, either in sensitivity or in shopping carts. I was ready for a new cooler player. ”
Shokrian got a million dollars and moved MeUndies to his own warehouse. While pushing relentlessly to sell products, his tactics were sometimes at odds with his ambition to build a positive brand for the body. “At that time, all major brands used sexualized content in some way to get attention,” he says. “At the beginning, it was all I knew.” MeUndies hired seductive models to show off her underwear and even threw socks at a new exclusive porn site. “I feel very proud of some of our first campaigns, but not so much of others,” he admits.
Regardless of what was said, and considering that people said many things, the strategy tripled earnings. By 2013, the team, already with 10 people, had survived.
“And then agents from the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) appeared at my door to tell me they were going to stop me,” says Shokrian.
GREASE / South Los Angeles Center
While Shokrian was growing up in one of the most elegant neighborhoods, a little boy named Joe Nickson was growing up in south central Los Angeles, famous for his gangs like Neighborhood Crips and Bloods, and for drugs.
Nickson's father managed the logistics of a security company; His mother works as a home nurse. They separated when Nickson was about 6 years old, and sent his son (his only son together) to a school in the suburb of San Fernando, so he wouldn't get into trouble.
Nickson loved his classes but felt divided between two realities. “I went to different pajamas, I had different ways of speaking,” he says. “In elementary school I heard about Tony Hawk and when I returned home I listened to Snoop Dog and Eazy-E records. I felt identified with both worlds, but I never felt that it belonged to either. So during adolescence I began to reveal myself, trying to fit in. ”
At 16 he joined the Neighborhood Crisps gang and began stealing. The thing was like this: Nickson, who earned Grease's nickname (fat or butter) because he was too agile to be caught, stood next to his band, dressed as basketball players selling candy, or put on t-shirts with black ties and they handed out pamphlets pretending to be Jehovah's Witnesses. Thus they went to the richest areas of the city and knocked on the door. If nobody opened, they got in. He says it all ended abruptly when one of the houses they stole turned out to be from a district attorney. The computer Nickson stole had a tracker.
Nickson was sent to a fire camp, an alternative to jail for those without criminal records. It was there a few months. When he returned home, a member of the Bloods gang stood in front of him, in his Camaro, lowered the window and threw an envelope. “When you're ready to make money, you talk to me,” he said. The envelope had $ 5,000 in cash. Nickson relented and was soon robbing banks.
In four months, his gang robbed more than 10 banks. “It got out of our hands,” he says. But there is one occasion that recalls particularly: He was armed and you are wearing a mask, robbing a Bank of America branch on March 12, 2001. He had already filled his bags with cash and was moving away from a sign that said, of all things He could have said: “Easy access: What are you waiting for?” When a child, about 4 years old, came out of nowhere. “He ran to me and put his hands like they were a gun and said 'Stop!'” Nickson recalls. “And I said, 'Little one, where is your mom?' And she replied 'Here I am' ”.
Nickson took the little one by the hand and took it to his mother. This was the first time he really thought about the people he was victimizing. And he told himself he shouldn't do what he was doing.
He stopped robbing banks, but the police found him anyway. Nickson was found guilty of conspiracy and robbery of a bank, and pleaded guilty to three other robberies. On June 6, 2005 he was sentenced to 20 years in a federal prison. I was 25 years old.
SHOK / Dallas
Shokrian's situation with the feds (the reason agents appeared at his door) was going back to a critical mistake he made when he was 23. Before starting MeUndies, he worked for his father and convinced him to buy and fix a mall from the 50s called Fazio. The place was a pigsty, with rats, holes in the ceiling, raised floors, and supposed asbestos in the glue that holds them together.
Some types of asbestos are not regulated and do not require a complete elimination process (something that is quite expensive). Shokrian's consultant, according to court records, said the building had these types of asbestos. So eager to make his father proud and quickly renovate the place, Shokrian equipped his workers with masks and respirators, and proceeded to renovations. But the project came to the news when workers used gasoline to clean the tiles, something that caught EPA's attention. The agency decided to investigate and determined that, according to regulations, asbestos had to be removed. “I tried to tell them that it had been a mistake without malice,” says Shokrian, “and that I would never have risked anyone's life intentionally.” The Shokrians paid a $ 500,000 fine, prepared better on asbestos issues, and began monitoring their employees on health issues. Everyone moved on.
Except that, four years later, out of nowhere, the matter returned. After the agents showed up at his home, he was accused of not having notified the Clean Air Law. “I never thought a judge would send me to jail,” says Shokrian.
But it happened. “This was not a case in which [Shokrian] set out to harm the environment,” Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater said at the hearing in Dallas. But the law is the law: He sentenced Shokrian to spend a year and a day in a federal prison. The founder of MeUndies had 45 days to appear. “We were in shock,” says Neman, co-founder of Sweetgreen, who traveled with others to support his friend. “We felt it was like the last dinner.”
GREASE and SHOK / Terminal Island
Nickson had been sentenced to Terminal Island Prison in Los Angeles Bay for 12 years (where he had been transferred for good behavior), when Jonathan Shokrian arrived to begin his sentence. It was April 15, 2014.
Shokrian had left MeUndies in good hands. He had chosen a CEO to run the business and had taken his team to dinner to leave them motivated. I knew that, as a federal prisoner, I could not do business while I was in jail, but I planned to keep up to date as much as possible. In the office, the MeUndies staff installed a telephone, red to make it more dramatic, especially for when Shokrian called. “I was confident that the company would survive my absence,” he says.
On the other hand, his own survival did not feel so clear. “I was afraid,” he says. “That is, I come from this very wealthy Persian Jewish family from Beverly Hills.” He hired a prison consultant (this exists) who prepared him so he wouldn't get into trouble. And once inside, that was exactly what Shokrian did. The other inmates started calling him Shok, and he remained focused on writing every day, reading, and as soon as he could have some tennis, running 80 kilometers a week.
Shok thought a lot about MeUndies and was frustrated that he couldn't contribute anymore. From jail he could send emails, monitored by CorrLinks, and make minimal calls, but he had to be careful. “I could make suggestions and be told the news,” he says. “But it was still a very very thin line.” Noah Taubman, Shok's first employee, visited him regularly. “Jon always came with a paper in his hand and asked 'how is this going?' 'How's it going?' ”Says Taubman, senior project manager. “He asked us to print the Instagram MeUndies feed and send it to him by mail, and he reviewed it and made comments. It was unreal to see it that way. He always wanted to control everything, and he had done it. Now he was in this jail uniform that was too big for him, with short hair, and he had lost a lot of weight. It was scary. ”
But then, one terrible morning, Shok said: fuck. He had had enough.
Terminal Island is home to some 1,150 inmates , and, as usually happens in prisons, they tend to be divided by race. Shok's bed was right in front of the TV room used by black men. Nickson describes it as a barbershop, where men could meet and talk. And they left the door open so it wouldn't be so hot.
“So one day, like at 7 in the morning, Don Privileges enters, looks at us, and closes the door,” says Nickson. Don Privileges was, of course, Shok. And Nickson, Grease as everyone knew him in jail, opened the door again. From there, no one remembers exactly how they almost hit them.
Grease: “I had already thought that if I closed it again, I would tear the collarbone from his shoulders. Can you believe what his first words were to me? “All I hear is your stupid mouth.”
Shok: “Well, no. He said 'If you knock on the door one more time, little bitch, it will be the last door you knock on in your life.' And I said 'I wouldn't be knocking on the door if I didn't have to hear your loud mouth.' ”
Grease: “And as sure as the sun came out, he came back and tried to close the door again.”
Shok: “I forgot where I was. That is, this type measures 1.80 and is marked. I am a skinny Jewish boy of 1.70 and he is about to knock me out. ”
Grease: “I'm going to take you out… or yes, I was going to do it. And then, one of the other boys said 'Hey, relax.' ”
Shok apologized and the two ended up having dinner together that day. “The connection was instantaneous,” says Grease.
From there, they began to walk together, exercise and share special meals. They talked about life, family and integrity. If the two had led impossibly different lives, they shared the feeling of being divided between worlds. Shok wanted to understand how it was that a guy as smart as Grease had robbed banks. Grease wanted to know everything about MeUndies. “Grease's energy was more than I had ever seen,” says Shok. “He was passionate, full of ideas, witty. He was always laughing. We were very very united. ”
One day, Grease came running from the television room with news of a Dallas Cowboys runner. He told Shok “Joseph Randle has just been arrested for stealing Dillard's underwear. You have to do something with this. ” Grease had a good point, the player could have bought it online! It fit perfectly with the history of MeUndies.
In the central offices, the red telephone rang. Greg Fass, senior brand manager, replied. “Jon said 'We have to do something, we have to get on the conversation',” he says.
And they do it like that. Adam Schefter, an NFL reporter on ESPN, was tweeting about how expensive the underwear Randle had stolen was, considering how expensive the Cowboys were going to be. So through the MeUndies Twitter account, Fass replied: “@ AdamSchefter, if you see it, tell Joseph Randle that we pay him the fine. We also hate to buy underwear in the department stores #DirectoAlConsumidor ”. Schefter responded by contacting them with the people of Randle.
MeUndies negotiated a deal that would help pay the $ 29,500 fine if Randle made charity appearances and donated $ 15,000 in underwear for the needy.
In jail, Grease and Shok ran to the nearest television to watch the story unfold. “I had to give him an honorary seat in the black TV room,” says Grease. And then they saw it, right on the screen, the idea of Grease going behind bars to the real world. It was nothing less than an awakening. “When I robbed banks, I did it for adrenaline,” he says. “This was like that but 10 times better. I thought: this is euphoria. This is what I want to feel the rest of my life. ”
Randle's story went viral quickly. In the media, they attacked MeUndies for helping a thief (and it turns out that, since then, Randle has gotten into several more problems). But Shokrian leaned toward controversy. If MeUndies was under fire, he was also in the spotlight, and the team responded by highlighting the theme of charity. “It showed me the power of the situation, and of getting on something socially relevant in real time,” he says. He also saw Grease's potential and motivated him to think of more ideas for MeUndies. “Jon told me: 'Bro, you have something,'” says Grease.
Three months later, Grease found another opportunity in the news. With the Super Bowl nearby, the Seattle Seahawks runner Marshawn Lynch had been fined for touching his crotch. Grease and Shok knew a cousin of Lynch (who had been in jail) and was able to introduce them. MeUndies announced that he would donate $ 20,000 to Lynch to cover the fine plus $ 20,000 to the charity for each touchdown he scored. They ended up spending $ 40,000, nothing for exposure in the Super Bowl. “These two campaigns put us on the map,” says Shokrian.
SHOK / MeUndies Offices
On November 3, 2014 , after 202 days in prison, Shokrian left Terminal Island. They let him go five months ahead of schedule. His whole family went to receive him. They returned his cell phone, which had been turned off since April 15, and took him home, where he could change his clothes and have breakfast with his friends. A few days later he returned to work.
He says the transition was easy. Shokrian had kept in touch with everyone while he was in jail and had even shared his diary with several of them, so there wasn't much to catch up on. But I did have a new lesson, something learned badly with the asbestos issue: I had to think more carefully about the decisions I made and I had to have more experience. “It is my responsibility to be more diligent and not accelerate,” he says. “Now I ask as many questions as I can, to feel comfortable with the decision we are making.”
In the long run, this permeated in MeUndies. “It wasn't as if Moses arrived and gave us new values for the company,” says Taubman. But employees did notice a subtle change. During the first five years of MeUndies, Shokrian had copied the marketing of his competition, the typical sexy and unoriginal models. Now, according to Taubman, Shokrian began to think differently: “We cannot be a brand that does the same thing, which has the same photos, which pays the same influencers. It was as if they had given him permission to do different things. It was something small but powerful. ”
Shortly after Shokrian got out of jail, MeUndies partnered with Arsenic, a vogue digital platform, but when he saw the sexual content that was being planned, he decided to withdraw from the deal. From there, MeUndies stopped looking for the cheap click. The company decided to support the LGBTQ community and partnered with restaurant owner Eddie Huang, who stood in front of the camera using only his MeUndies and talked about the insecurity felt by Asian men for his body. In August 2019, the brand launched Feel Free, a much wider range of sizes, and then “because there will probably be someone who does not stay and is left out,” says Shokrian, they added an additional button for people who need more space. This button makes no financial sense, but shows the commitment they have towards inclusion.
The formula seems to be working for them. In January 2019, Shokrian resumed his position as CEO and has grown the company to 250 employees, anticipating sales of $ 100 million by 2020.
The MeUndies model seems to be giving results. The underwear and socks category did not grow in the last year, but the migration to digital is profound. And MeUndies is moving towards offline too. In November 2019, they opened their second store, now at the Del Amo Fashion Center, owned by Simon Property Group, the real estate giant that invested in MeUndies. (Which has raised almost $ 11 million). “Therefore, there is definitely a very large strategic partnership as we seek to expand and open more stores,” says Shokrian.
GREASE / Outside
When Shokrian left Terminal Island, he gave a note to Nickson that said: Stay positive and evolve, learn and grow. “It was very deep,” says Nickson now. In the following years, the two men spoke frequently.
Then, on July 15, 2019, after 17 years in prison, Nickson was released. He breathed the fresh air and a friend picked it up. In MeUndies I expected a job. He learned about the product in the factory and then passed a marketing position.
But both men agree that it is not easy to get away from a criminal past. Shorkian has to explain to potential people or clients why he was in jail. “That has definitely had an impact, both in me and in the business,” he says. And for Nickson, it means that every part of his new life needs to be adjusted, and the structured environment of MeUndies was not for him. After five months working there, they decided to separate, without resentment. “He is my friend for life,” Nickson explains. “I feel so much love for him,” says Shokrian.
In fact, the two are waiting for the next chapter of the story. “They say we plan and God laughs. This is my destiny”. Another friend of his from Terminal Island, Vincent Bragg, having seen how Nickson's ideas contributed to the success of MeUndies, co-founded ConCreates when he left prison, a marketing agency that collects ideas from people in jail or affected by the system. As you see it, good marketing is some kind of era, and there is a ravenous hunger for originality, so ConCreates has already secured a partnership with the global agency 72andSunny. Now Nickson also works with them.
Meanwhile, Shokrian is grateful for the perspective he found in jail, one he believes will continue to train his company in the future. “Although I wish it had not happened,” he says, “it is not something I regret. Considering that no one was injured, I feel grateful for the lessons he gave me. There are still opportunities, no matter who you are, to turn the negative into positive. ”