The inception of Hanz de Fuko stems from the perfect concoction of entrepreneurial gumption, original high-quality products, the beginning of the YouTuber influencer era, and an endorsement from David Beckham.
David Alfonso, CEO of the luxury men’s hair care line that focuses on creating products speaking to creative individualism and self-expression, sat down with us for a one on one conversation on how he went from bootstrapping in his parent’s basement to running one of the most dapper styling brands in the world.
Alister & Paine: Tell me about the inception of Hanz de Fuko, what was the inspiration behind the brand?
David Alfonso: The inspiration really came from my brother. He has one of the top salons here in Los Angeles. He would cut hair out of our garage and we always felt like we were ahead of the curve a bit in terms of fashion and styling. We were 18 years old and had that San Francisco arrogance—then my brother got on a reality TV show and became a celebrity hair stylist/barber. I told him, ‘We have to monetize this momentum!’.
We came up with a hair product line. There was just one product originally, Hanz De Fuko, which became the name for the entire line eventually.
I brought in my friend Chris, and over the course of the next few months my brother decided this wasn’t really him so we parted ways very amicably while Chris and I continued to move forward with it.
Alister & Paine: Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I’ve always been entrepreneurial and creative. I started working all these startups in the early 2000’s and realized I didn’t have the ability to be as persuasive as some of my colleagues, whether it was at the agency level or at the marketing level of a Fortune 500 company, I’ve always felt like I was being smothered. I never felt like I was able to climb that corporate ladder. No one was going to hand me $100,000 for that months marketing budget and say ‘David, I trust you. Just have at it.’ I was waiting for something to come along that I knew I could dig my teeth into, and when this idea popped into my head with my brother I just knew ‘This is it.’
I took out my 401K. My parents said I was crazy. I took all the money I had and self-invested into this company, partnered up with Chris and things started happening. I was living with my parents for three years, doing whatever it took. I lived in a very loud household—I remember taking conference calls with a distributor in Europe while my Mom was shouting my name and I’m whispering ‘Mom! I’m on a conference call!’. There are a lot of stories like that.
Alister & Paine: I bet! What was the initial marketing strategy?
David Alfonso: We found YouTube and realized it was perfect platform for us to really resonate our brand with potential customers.
What we did was a little different – we didn’t try to start our own channel. We went after YouTubers, influencers essentially. But it was 2009 and influencers didn’t exist yet. They didn’t have agents and the respect they do now. There are big corporate companies that focus on influencers now and pay them, but back then it wasn’t happening. We thought, ‘Hey, let’s give these guys free product, or a promo code, and see what happens.’ We were lucky to be one of the first to do that.
Time flies and things have moved so fast—now it’s just commonplace, but back then it was so unique. We had YouTubers telling us ‘Oh my god, you’re the first company to ever reach out to me like this!’. We were shocked that no one else was doing this. Back then corporate companies weren’t comfortable with putting the integrity of their brand in the hands of someone who was just a YouTuber the way they are today.
Alister & Paine: How do you stay unique in an overcrowded industry, and keep yourself from getting off course?
David Alfonso: I did go off course a little bit, to be frank. Things started to get a little corporate, getting proposals together for investment opportunities, and we hired a marketing team. Over the course of six months to a year we redid the branding approach that was going out the door. Then I met these celebrity barbers from Compton, the best in the industry. I was talking to them about my concerns, there’s all this oversaturation, there are all these brands trying to be like Hanz de Fuko. They said, ‘As you stay true to why you started to do what you do in the first place, keeping things original and intuitive and going with your gut you’ll be fine.’
That’s something that really resonated with me and reminded me of why I got into this. We’re focused on that mantra, to have blinders on while focusing on what makes sense for us, both from an artistic standpoint and from a formulation standpoint, creating products that we think are original and provide the best performance possible.
Alister & Paine: I know you’ve worked with quite a few celebrity clients as well, was that integral to getting where you are today?
David Alfonso: We went from the Mission District in San Francisco—very urban, very artsy—and then when we started going to the L.A. market for whatever reason we ended up on Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills, etc. One of our hair stylists at the time was living with Victoria Beckham when David Beckham and she really loved the shampoo and conditioner. She was able to give our QuickSand product into the hands of David Beckham—this is all organic, right? He LOVED the products.
Then we went to New York and were drinking in the sights, doing the whole PR thing. So we’re meeting with GQ and I mentioned that David Beckham uses this product. They contacted his agent who confirmed it with David, and he started raving about it. That was really our entry into celebrity endorsements. A lot of buzz came from that. From that point on every celebrity stylist in LA started using our products on their clientele. I don’t know if it was the universe blessing us or what. It was surreal for that to happen, and for our first celebrity endorsement to be David Beckham was huge. I would have been happy with Nick Jonas or something.
Alister & Paine: Do you still believe in influencer outreach?
David Alfonso: In the beginning, we really didn’t know how loyal followers were to the person they were following. We couldn’t believe how receptive fans were. More so even than celebrities. You could have this billboard of Johnny Depp using our products on the highway, but it wouldn’t have the same effect. People are so receptive to these organic reviews.
All these corporate companies are spending millions and millions on endorsements but I felt like we had a brief window of influencer’s Pandora’s box. All these people are willing to review and promote Hanz de Fuko for free, and they really love our products and so do their fans. It’s funny because we’re sort of shying away from focusing on influencers. As a whole they are shooting themselves in the foot, because they are promoting anything and everything. Everything is a positive review. You never hear a negative review. Everything’s great, everyone’s getting paid.
We decided it wasn’t organic and it’s not like how it was before so we refocused on our pre-existing loyal base of customers. They’ve been doing such a great job of spreading the word. We’re doing pop-up shops in L.A., we’re opening a new venue, the House of Hanz de Fuko pop-up barber shop, we’ll have events there…that’s sort of the new direction we’re going in right now.
Alister & Paine: For the struggling entrepreneurs what advice would you leave them with, for the ones still living at home trying to make that one idea work?
David Alfonso: Work internally. You can read all the books you want to read, you can be inspired by as many external sources as you can be exposed to, but at the end of the day it’s what is in your heart. Believe in whatever it is you feel like needs to be put out there. You have to love what you do and stick to that. Don’t let anybody tell you how to change or revise something just to keep customers happy. Stick to your guts.
Alister & Paine: Best and/or worst advice you ever received?
Best piece was from Simon Cowell, believe it or not. He said, ‘Don’t believe in your own hype.’ I’ve always believed that since day one. Do not believe in your own hype. I try not to pay too much attention to the buzz that’s going on with Hanz de Fuko. I think it keeps me hungry.
Worst advice was ‘You can’t make it without investors.’ Anybody has an opportunity to bootstrap—especially with the resources out there now. 15 years ago, I don’t think there was an alternative route. You have Paul Mitchell and Bumble & Bumble, who had no choice but go door to door with the traditional business model. But now you have the 12 year old kid that does toy reviews online—next thing you know he’s partnered with Hasbro and made millions. Who knows. The possibilities are endless.