Hannah is the CEO of BANGS Shoes. She started BANGS when she was 22 years old to try and make the world a better place. Now at 29 years old, this humanitarian turned business woman has leveraged her profitable company for global impact.
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3 Value Bombs
1) Getting to help people may not be about getting a non-profit job—sometimes, it means starting your own business.
2) Your product or services can still be improved.
3) What works for your business will NOT always work for other businesses.
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(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
[01:12] – Hannah has a degree in political science and a minor in Mandarin
[01:21] – She graduated from college in 2009 – right when the real estate market crashed
[01:43] – She initially wanted to get paid to travel, so she signed a contract to teach English in China for a year
[02:15] – While in China, Hannah found out that across different job sectors, most people were unhappy with their jobs
[02:52] – Hannah researched how she could make an impact and found out about nonprofit jobs; however, they pay 1/4 of a corporate job salary
[03:37] – Her teaching contract was ending and she still didn’t have a plan
[03:54] – Hannah came across the words, “Social Business.” So she looked it up and decided this was for her
[05:11] – She purchased a pair of shoes from a vendor on the road
[05:23] – One day, she just had that “ah-ha moment” where she realized that the shoes could be her business
[06:00] – BANGS, the name of her company, came from the Chinese (Mandarin) character for “help”
[06:28] – Hannah’s area of expertise is in social media
[07:01] – Share something we don’t know about your area of expertise that as Entrepreneurs, we probably should: Leveraging the community around a brand should not be about fancy photoshoots. A business should be able to pull images and stories from people that are physically wearing your product
[08:11] – Worst Entrepreneurial Moment: Hannah had an opportunity to talk to a venture capitalist for BANGS. She went in, and the venture capitalist spent an hour and a half talking to her and he told her how her company was going to fail. The worst thing was, he had statistics and specific reasons that broke Hannah’s dream.
[10:23] – Hannah got depressed after that
[11:04] – One thing Hannah did was improve their product
[11:34] – Entrepreneurial AH-HA Moment: Hannah was an activist in college. She remembers her roommate, Katie, was a part of an organization called Feel Good, which gives away grilled cheese sandwiches in exchange for donations. Hannah joined Katie in setting up a booth without thinking the idea would work. Surprisingly, they had over $1,000 at the end of that day. She realized people care about causes and you just have to know how to mobilize them
[13:36] – Hannah tried to replicate the system for Feel Good, but she came to realize that a model that works for a non-profit does not necessarily work for other types of business
[14:15] – The brand’s ambassador program already has 2600 participants
14:53 – They leveraged technology through Zapier
[17:36] – The Lightning Round
- What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur? – “The biggest thing that was holding me back was myself”
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? – “Think about the life that you want when you’re 60 and envision it… and then start making decisions today that put you on the path to reach that”
- What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success? – “Yoga”
- Share an internet resource, like Evernote, with Fire Nation – Google Drive
- If you could recommend one book to our listeners, what would it be and why? – The Good Earth – “it’s set in emperor times in Asia”
[21:31] – “If you have an idea, pursue it now!”
21:55 – Connect with Hannah on Instagram
Hannah: I am. Let’s do it.
John: Yes. Hannah’s the CEO of BANGS Shoes. She started BANGS when she was 22 to try and make an impact and make the world a better place. Now, at 29, Hannah is leveraging her profitable company for global impact. Hannah, take a minute, fill in some gaps from that intro, and give us just a little glimpse of your personal life.
Hannah: Yeah. So, it’s just so funny to hear that. The introduction of BANGS lasted 20 seconds, and it’s seven years later. It’s definitely gone a little bit more energy into that. So, I have a political science degree and a minor in Mandarin, really neither of which has anything to do with what I’m doing today. And I graduated from college in 2009, which I’m sure all of your listeners are very aware that that was right when the housing market crashed.
So, I graduated college literally into the worst economy that the United States had seen in decades. So, it was a really awesome time to outsource myself. So, I think like most college-age students, I wanted to try and find a way to get paid to travel, and so I decided to sign a contract teaching English in China for a year. I took my minor in Mandarin and my interest in Chinese culture and went over there.
And the goal was you have the plan. I’m gonna go. I’m gonna do this for a year, and then my plan’s gonna be this. So, the plan was to go teach English in China for a year. I studied for the LSAT. I was gonna go to law school and then got over there. And I found that while I was there, I was having all these conversations with people who graduated and were lucky enough to get jobs right out of college.
And what I found pretty consistently across a variety of different sectors – people who were in graduate school, people in the fashion industry, people in technology, people doing consulting – that most people were unhappy in their jobs. And that was so terrifying to me. So, again, I think like most college-age students, I wanted to find a way to leverage my life and my limited time that I had to try to help people and make the world a better place.
And so, I started researching. And so, if I have this desire, if I have this drive to try to help people, what does that look like? And I think the most obvious one is you work in the nonprofit space. So, I started looking into that, and what I found was that these nonprofit jobs looked a lot like really similar to people that work in the corporate space, but people made like a fourth of the amount of money. And they were working just as hard. And so, I was like ah, that just doesn’t look like what I was hoping it to look like. And then, of course, I had all my bills. And so, you hit the real world and try to figure out how to make it work, acknowledging all these things about what you want.
Like, what does success and happiness look like out of your career? So, acknowledging all of that, my teaching contract to China was coming to an end, and I realized that I just still didn’t have a plan that I was really happy with. So, I was researching all these different options, and I came across this word that I’d never heard before called social business. And right now, you hear a lot of people the social entrepreneur thing is definitely trending.
There’s a lot of people that are doing this now. But in 2009, 2010, it wasn’t, I don’t think, quite as frequent. And I looked at companies like TOMS and Patagonia, and I was just so inspired by these people that were using a business plan as a tool to affect social change. And I was like this is it. This is what I want to do. It’s a way to help people, and also, you can find a way to pay your rent and pay for food.
And it sort of answered all my questions and hopes that I had for my career. So, I was like oh, I’m just gonna do it. And so, around this same time, I had also done what any other, I think, 22-year-old in China would have done. And I’d gone shopping and looked around and gone to all these night markets. And there was this style of shoe that was worn by Chinese workers and farmers that you could literally buy off the side of the road.
It wasn’t like a branded shoe or anything, and so I purchased one of these pairs of shoes and carried on my way. And then when my teaching contract ended and I decided I was gonna try to do some sort of social business, I literally sat up in bed one day. And I had like the textbook ah-ha moment, and I’ll never forget it. I slammed my hands down on my bed. I shot up, and I went oh my gosh. It’s the shoes.
And from then I decided I was really passionate about sustainable development. I know that that phrase is really overused, but I loved the idea of providing opportunities versus stuff. So, I decided I was gonna leverage this style of shoe to create a company that helps people. The idea teaching a man to fish versus giving a man a fish. So, the company’s called BANGS. The name comes from the Chinese character for the word help. And today we have sold thousands of pairs of shoes to countries around the world and invested in 700 entrepreneurs in 63 countries.
John: So, Hannah, in just one sentence, how would you define your area of expertise today?
Hannah: I would say that I’ve gotten really good at social media. So, our target demographic is age 14 to 24, which I’m aging out of it –
Hannah: – which is depressing. So, what that means is that we have to know how to talk to our customers, and all of our customers are on social media. So, it’s just sort of a sink or swim thing that somebody might call me a social expert in social media.
John: Well, what do we know as entrepreneurs about social media that you found out as an expert?
Hannah: I don’t know if I’ve discovered this. I mean, of course, I didn’t. But I feel like I’ve definitely gotten really good at leveraging the community that’s built around the brand to build our social media. So, I see a lot of companies spending thousands and thousands of dollars on curated photo shoots and trying to make sure that their feed is all perfect.
And, of course, having a curated Instagram feed and making sure your branding is all the same is one of the only things that really matters making sure everything’s consistent. But I would say that most people don’t know or leverage their community enough. Everybody talks about being authentic. And what’s the easiest and most real way to be authentic? It’s to actually pull images and pull stories from the people that are physically wearing your product. And that’s how we built BANGS shoes.
John: Hannah, you haven’t been an entrepreneur for a super long time, but you’ve been an entrepreneur to have both the ups and the downs. And what I want you to talk about next is not just any down, but the lowest of the low. Take us to your worst entrepreneurial moment to date. Tell us that story.
Hannah: Oh my gosh. Why would you bring me there?
John: That’s what I do best.
Hannah: Yes. So, there’s one moment, and I think about this all the time actually. So, you start with your ah-ha moment, and you start with the up. And we, by many counts, failed in the first couple years. And this was in that fail section of the BANGS shoes development. And I had this really incredible opportunity to go talk to this venture capitalist, this really, really successful guy. I was so excited.
I was like this is gonna game change. This is gonna turn us around. And, I mean, not all venture capitalists are terrifying, but this one in particular was one of your stereotypical terrifying dudes. And I go in – I might have been 25 or 26 – like big smile like I’m gonna reach for the stars. The world is my oyster. I can do anything I put my mind to. I go in, and this guy, I mean, for an hour and a half looked me in the eye and told me why my company was going to fail.
Hannah: And it was one of the most difficult things to sit through because I had already put years and years into developing this, and it’s your blood, sweat, and your tears, and your baby. And it’s like to listen to somebody with so much more experience tell you – and the craziest and saddest thing was that everything he said had a point. He wasn’t just like being mean. He had statistics and reasons, and I left – deflated doesn’t describe it.
John: What’s one of the things that he said that you were just like ouch, that cut like a knife?
Hannah: He basically was like why would anybody buy these shoes when Vans and Converse – like your product is bad. You’re not doing something new enough. And I just stepped back, and it’s not like we hadn’t sold any shoes at that point. But when I looked at our branding and our product next to these other shoes, I was like you know what? He’s not wrong. And I got depressed after that.
I mean, how can you not when this guy – I would go to him and listen to him and take advice from him – tells me that I’m gonna be a failure? And I went and thought about it, and it really was one of the – that conversation, that lowest of the low was definitely a turning point for me because it made me really think and evaluate what are we doing? And how can we improve it without – you don’t want to listen to everything everybody has to say, but what was he pinpoint absolutely right on? And what can –
John: Well, what was –
Hannah: – I do?
John: – the pinpoint? What was the biggest takeaway, if you could just name one thing, that you kinda walked away with that you implemented into your brand?
Hannah: We improved our product. It all starts with great product.
John: Hannah, you’ve had a lot of great ideas. I mean, obviously, focusing on product is one of them. That’s an ah-ha moment that you walked away with from that meeting. Amongst other things, social media, etc., we’ve talked about a few things. But take us to one of the biggest ah-ha moments you’ve had today, one of those great ideas that you’ve actually implemented within your business. And kind of walk us through that story and how you turned it into success.
Hannah: I was definitely an activist in college, and I was a part of all of these different organizations that were socially focused. And I remember in college, my roommate – her name was Katie – was a part of this organization called Feel Good. And it was this idea that you sell grilled cheeses on college campus. Well, you weren’t selling them, you were giving away in exchange for donations.
And then 100 percent of that money that you raised was donated to the hunger project. And Katie, my roommate, learned about this idea while she was doing semester at sea. And she brought it back, and I was like, “That’s never gonna work. You’re never gonna be able to do anything.”
But I was like it’s my roommate. I’m gonna help her. And we set up a booth, and if you can imagine, it’s like giving away grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s college football. I went to Clemson University, so people are tailgating. And who doesn’t want a grilled cheese sandwich?
John: You must be pretty fired up about the recent national championship, huh?
Hannah: I was there. I –
John: You were there?
Hannah: – was there.
Hannah: I was there. I was on the 40 yard line. It was –
John: So –
Hannah: – amazing.
John: – cool!
Hannah: Yeah. And so, the first Feel Good booth that we set up on Clemson’s campus we raised over $1,000.00. And when you’re getting like $1.00 donations, it literally blew my mind because what it said to me was that people care. And you have to just figure out how to mobilize them and communicate to them in a way that they can interact with. And so, I wanted to try to replicate that model.
So, I ended up reaching out to the Feel Good’s founder and said, “How did you build this program?” So, basically, they had this one autonomous unit set up these different little pods on different campuses, and they empower these people to set up these booths. So, I was like I love that. I want to replicate that for BANGS Shoes. And so, I did that. I talked to Kristen, the Founder of Feel Good.
She helped me and provided some amazing insight. And then we tried to replicate it, but what we found – and this was also, actually, a really important realization for any kind of social entrepreneur – is that I realized we are not a nonprofit. And the model that might work for a nonprofit does not work for a business. And so, we had to move and shift and change.
And some of those learnings, talking to people in different ways, we don’t want them to sell. We don’t want them to give away products. So, then how do you push this mission forward, get this brand out there in a way that people care about? And so, some of the things that Feel Good does clearly didn’t work for BANGS, and I think some of the things that BANGS does might not work for Feel Good.
But the Brand Ambassador Program now has 2600 participants. So, we started with 0 in 2012, and then went from 0 to 10. And I remember when we hit 50, I was like oh my gosh. How are we ever gonna manage this? And then growing from 50 to 150, and then we had this explosion the year that we went from 3,000 Instagram followers to 30,000 Instagram followers.
The Brand Ambassador Program grew not quite at that rate, but we went from 150 to like how do you handle 1,000? That growth is just incredible. And so, we’ve leveraged different technology. One of your recent podcasts, you mentioned Zapier or Zappier. I don’t know how to pronounce it. And that is a lifesaver.
John: Yeah, big time.
Hannah: The BA Program has just been a game changer for us in general.
John: Fire Nation, if you think Hannah’s been dropping value bombs thus far, you’ve been right. But guess what? She’s got some more coming up in the Lightning Round, when we get back from thanking our sponsors. Hannah, are you ready to rock the Lightning Round?
Hannah: Let’s do it.
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Hannah: The biggest thing that was holding me back was myself, and I know that that’s kind of cliché. But I think that fear is such a problem for a lot of entrepreneurs. And I think people care about what their families are gonna think or what their friends are gonna think, and I was definitely in that category.
Once I sort of realized that people – and I hear it in my head, and I don’t mean it to sound mean – but that people don’t really care – and they care, and people want you to be successful – but no one is looking that closely at what you’re doing.
John: No, Hannah, that’s a common, common theme of this show. I mean, just the thought that everybody’s looking at us all the time, caring about everything that we’re doing, judging us at all times. And Fire Nation, that’s just not the case. People have their own lives, their own concerns. And they think that you’re looking and judging them. It’s that quote that when you’re 20, you’re so worried about what everybody thinks about you. When you’re 40, you finally stop caring about what everybody thinks about you. And then when you’re 80, you realize that nobody was ever caring about you in the first place. And again, not like to be mean, not in a mean way. It’s just they have their own things to worry about. So, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Hannah: The best advice I ever received was to think about the life that you want when you’re 60, and envision it. What does your house look like? Where are you eating dinner? Who’s around you? Where are you living? Go into the most intense, granular detail of what your perfect life looks like when you’re 60, and then start making decisions today that put you on the path to reach that.
And what that meant was that I had to really challenge myself and pinpoint what were my priorities. And I think that that ultimately led to the creation of BANGS, kinda going through that process and saying at a certain point, money is important. You have to be able to support yourself and your family.
But I do feel really passionate about leveraging any kind of money that I might make in my experience to help other people and then backpedaling it instead of saying oh today, I want to try to do this. Instead, challenge yourself to envision what your future looks like, and then do baby steps to get there.
John: What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Hannah: Yoga. Yoga, without a doubt, has changed the way that I do business, the way I interact with people. I think a lot of people suffer from that fear that we just talked about or different forms of anxiety or not being able to turn your brain off. I think a lot of entrepreneurs can’t turn it off, and yoga has been an amazing practice to help my mind stay sane through this whole thing. And also, try to keep your body active as much as you can.
John: Share one internet resource.
Hannah: Zappier, Zapier. That’s my favorite right now. And then, of course, good old Google Drive. It’s my two, my old faithfuls. My business partner and I always joke if Google Drive were to crash for one reason or another, we would be in a pickle.
John: Recommend one book, and share why.
Hannah: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and it was no real business value add. But I think sometimes entrepreneurs need that, just a good book. And, of course, it’s set in emperor times of Asia, and I really love that. Of course, there’s roots in the BANGS brand from Asia, so I really enjoyed that one. And it gives you some perspective and makes you grateful for sure.
John: Hannah, let’s end today on Fire with you giving us a parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we’ll say good-bye.
Hannah: So, I would l say if you have an idea, then pursue it now. Do it today. Someone recently told me that if you’re not embarrassed like full on embarrassed by the first iteration of your product or your service, then you waited too long to put it out. And I believe –
John: Yeah, that’s a Reid Hoffman by LinkedIn quote right there. Great quote.
Hannah: So good. And then if you’re interested in getting in touch with me, I can be reached through Instagram. The BANGS Instagram is BANGS Shoes, and my personal one is Hannah C. Davis. I’m on there all day long and would love to hear from you and be in touch.
John: Fire Nation, you’re the average of the five people that you spend the most time with. And you’ve been hanging out with HD and JLD today, so keep up the heat. And head over to EOFire.com. Type Hannah in the search bar. Her show notes page will pop right up with everything that we’ve been talking about today. These are the best show notes in the biz. Timestamps, links galore. And Hannah, thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that, we salute you, and we’ll catch you on the flipside.
Hannah: See ya.
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