After Chris “Drama” Pfaff graduated from high school in Akron, OH, he moved to Los Angeles with dreams of working in a skateboard shop and renting his own apartment. Through his second cousin, professional skateboarder Rob Dyrdek, he became a character on two MTV reality shows. In 2009 at age 22, with no background in business or fashion, he launched a t-shirt and streetwear line, Young & Reckless, which has grown into a nationwide brand, with distribution in more than 3,000 Macy’s, Dillard’s and PacSun stores, celebrity endorsements from Puff Daddy and Justin Bieber, 43 employees, and $31 million in revenue last year. In this condensed and edited interview, he describes how he got the business off the ground and why he thinks YouTube is a better marketing tool than Facebook.
Susan Adams: Your original career plan was to be a professional skateboarder. How did you change course?
Chris Pfaff: I fell off my skateboard and fractured my skull. I had a brain hemorrhage and I was in a coma for four days. There were no long-term effects but I was like, I don’t think this is what I should do. Then I thought I’d move to LA, get a studio apartment and work in a skate shop. That was my dream come true.
Adams: How did you wind up on an MTV reality show?
Pfaff: The only person I knew out here was my second cousin Rob Dyrdek. I ended up becoming his personal assistant instead of working at a skate shop. He was filming a pilot for MTV, “Rob and Big,” with his friend Big Black, who was a big black security guard. I was on the show as the shy, quiet cousin from Ohio. That’s where I got my crash course in being an entrepreneur.
Adams: What did the reality show teach you?
Pfaff: Rob had all these sponsors and I would go with him when he was negotiating deals with DC Shoes or Monster energy drinks. I realized I liked the idea of putting together a business and a brand and a plan and executing it.
Adams: What made you think you could start a successful t-shirt company?
Pfaff: Growing up I was always really particular about my clothes. But because I was a dirty skateboarder kid, my clothes were t-shirts, jeans and hoodies. I would wear them inside out and cut holes in them. I realized I could take that old love and my newfound passion for building a brand and put them together. Also MTV was starting a second reality show with my cousin, “Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory,” and MTV was asking, what’s Drama’s thing? What’s he working on? I realized the reality show was a good place to launch my company.
Adams: Isn’t the market flooded with t-shirt brands?
Pfaff: When I moved to LA from Ohio I started getting into streetwear brands like Supreme. But they only really existed in LA and New York and a little bit in Miami, but not in Akron, OH, where I’m from. Those brands prided themselves on having one or two brick and mortar stores where they were really rude to you but when you got in you felt like you were part of the brand. I wanted to create that feeling for a kid who walked into a mall in Ohio. At the time there was just Billabong and Hurley and watered-down sports action brands.
Adams: What sort of market research did you do?
Pfaff: I really didn’t. I just knew there were three big retailers, PacSun, Zumiez and Tillys. They all sold very similar stuff and you could probably get into one of them and start a business.
Adams: How did you come up with the concept for Young & Reckless?
Pfaff: I just wanted so badly to connect with the customer and I wanted the brand to mean something and I wanted it not to be pigeonholed into surfing or skateboarding. I wrote down names and somehow Young & Reckless stuck. I knew I could take Y&R and make a logo out of it.
Adams: Did you hire a designer?
Pfaff: I had a buddy who knew graphic design and I had him sketch up the original logo.
Adams: How did you get the company off the ground?
Pfaff: A friend of a friend had a contemporary men’s line called Five Four Clothing, which is now a subscription service. I said, here’s my plan, I want to start a line of streetwear for the mainstream audience, I’m going to be on this TV show and it’s going to be huge. They said, we’ll help you manufacture and distribute your line. We partnered 50/50.
Adams: How much start-up capital did you need and how did you raise it?
Pfaff: There was zero. We used their printers and we printed up a handful of shirts with just the logo on it. On the show they gave me a little office and I covered it with logos. We did an episode about my brand, I got my hands on a DVD and I drove down to PacSun and said, this is going to be the next biggest clothing line in the world. You guys can have it exclusively for the next six months. But you have to take it for all your stores. They said OK, cool. They knew all my social media would tell people to go to PacSun. We told them we’ll do indoor autograph signings and whatever it takes to make this work. We printed the t-shirts from our printers, drop-shipped them to PacSun and we were instantly profitable.
Adams: How did you expand the line?
Pfaff: We hired a young guy to start pumping out graphics. I would pull inspiration from art or what other brands were doing or my favorite shirt as a kid.
Adams: What kind of marketing did you do?
Pfaff: We took $50,000 of the money we made through PacSun and paid a rapper named Meek Mill who loves doing wheelies on dirt. He did a photo shoot, an interview and an autograph signing. I remember I was scared out of my mind. Part of me felt like I was the ultimate businessman because I was writing checks now but at the same time I thought I could crumble and nobody would care.
Adams: Did you calculate the effect on your sales of the Meek Mill promotion?
Pfaff: That’s one of the frustrating things. You just can’t. But sales steadily rose pretty much from day one.
Adams: What’s the craziest thing you did to promote the brand?
Pfaff: At MTV we came up with the idea that if you have a brand called Young & Reckless, you have to prove that you’re actually young and reckless. They came up with the idea that I should jump out of a sixth-story window. The fourth floor was young and regular and the fifth, young and risky. We went to an abandoned warehouse in San Pedro and they put a stunt man airbag on the ground. It was terrifying. It was also the coming-out party for the brand and it was responsible for the initial boom at PacSun.
Adams: How do you market the brand now?
Pfaff: In the beginning it really felt like it was a game of eyeballs. It was, how many people can you get to see this logo. Now it’s much more about telling the right story and what the brand stands for. I learned a lot about storytelling from being on TV. You need the A story and the B story and an arc. We tell stories on YouTube.
Adams: What was your first YouTube video?
Pfaff: Darius Glover, a kid with a passion for racing dirt bikes, got in an accident and became paralyzed from the waist down. Instead of quitting or hating his life, he figured out this system where he could strap himself onto a dirt bike and still race. But he had trouble getting into big races because if he fell, he wouldn’t be able to get up. It was the perfect epitome of what this brand stands for, not just because he overcame his paralysis but he was fighting a system that was against him. After we posted the video, we got a call from CNN asking for his information. That’s when I saw the impact. If you can tell these stories, people are listening.
Adams: How do YouTube videos affect your sales?
Pfaff: A YouTube video will get less views than an Instagram post and on Facebook, between me and Young & Reckless, we have 3.5 million followers. On YouTube we only have 55,000 followers. But we’ve noticed that if we have content that has real meaning, people are more likely to click and go look at the actual product, as opposed to saying, hey look how cool this photo is. People are being sold to online 24/7 now. If you get across your brand message and make people feel inspired or motivated, then they’ll go and buy your product.
Adams: Have you made any marketing mistakes?
Pfaff: We did this $150,000 campaign with a celebrity when we were in a phase where I believed in myself a little too much and I believed in the brand a little too much. I thought you could just grab a celebrity and have them wear your clothes and it would look nice and it would work. But the celebrity didn’t fit the brand. There was no story to tell. There was nothing reckless to tell. The campaign wasn’t just a loss, it hurt the brand long term.
Adams: Who was the celebrity?
Pfaff: I would get in trouble if I told you…
Adams: Have you made any other mistakes?
Pfaff: Tillys asked us for baseball jerseys because baseball jerseys were huge. We put our logo on a baseball jersey and it just didn’t work. We didn’t have a story about why we were making baseball jerseys.
Adams: What challenges are you facing now?
Pfaff: Brick and mortar is shrinking, malls are shrinking, it’s so much more about ecommerce. We’re working much harder on being price conscious, on making the best quality clothes with a brand name attached, for the most affordable price. My competition has gone from being Hurley and Quicksilver to H&M and TopShop and I can’t compete with them on price and volume.
Adams: Does that mean you have to get even better at marketing?
Pfaff: In marketing it’s an amount-of-content issue. Everyone is on their phones all day constantly being fed content. Now the game is more quantity-driven. The question is how do you create enough pieces of content to really make your mark in that ocean of noise, but never go below a certain quality. The goal used to be, how do you make 10 pieces of content for $1 million? The new goal is how do you make 100 still-good pieces of content for $1 million?
Adams: Can you tell me how much you pay yourself?
Pfaff: I still don’t take a salary. At the end of the year, I take what I need to live my life.
Adams: Since you’re the face of the brand, don’t you feel like you have to have a prosperous lifestyle?
Pfaff: I have a Mercedes S550 and I have a gold Rolex. I did have a phase where I leased a Lamborghini for a year. I also leased a Rolls Royce. But to be honest, it was much more of a marketing expense to me. You do have to be the poster child for the life you’re preaching. But I don’t feel the pressure to do that anymore. People would rather see you do videos on people born in less fortunate circumstances. We just went to Flint, MI and did a video on what’s going on there and we gave out a bunch of clothes. That’s what makes me sleep better at night and what I’d rather do.
Adams: Where did you get the nickname “Drama?”
Pfaff: My original email address was “causindrama.” I thought it was cool or sounded like a rapper. I wrote Rob an email before I moved to LA, saying I hoped we could connect and he wrote back and said, “causindrama,” are you kidding me? When I moved to LA he told everyone my name was Drama. Then when the reality show appeared, it would pop up on the screen, “Rob’s cousin Drama.”
Susan Adams: In January 2016 I joined Forbes’ Entrepreneurs team, after spending the previous six years writing for the Leadership channel. I’m most interested in dramatic success stories that include a colorful, rocky road, where the business founder learns lessons as she navigates the terrain. I’ve been at Forbes since 1995, writing about everything from books to billionaires. Among my favorite stories: South Africa’s first black billionaire, Patrice Motsepe, and British diamond jewelry mogul Laurence Graff, both of whom built their vast fortunes from nothing. At Forbes magazine I also did a stint editing the lifestyle section and I used to edit opinion pieces by the likes of John Bogle and Gordon Bethune. I got my job at Forbes through a brilliant libertarian economist, Susan Lee, whom I used to put on television at MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Before that I covered law and lawyers for journalistic stickler, harsh taskmaster and the best teacher a young reporter could have had, Steven Brill.