Dan Murray of Sly Underwear gets down to business

Dan Murray founder of Sly Underwear

Dan Murray might have been dacked in the playground one too many times, because upon finishing high school he devoted his time and income to designing an underwear range no schoolboy would be embarrassed to have on show.

Now 20, Murray did his first design in Microsoft Paint, getting 1,000 units made in China to sell from his van at festivals, parties and the beach. “People would say ‘you’re that underwear guy!’ and I’d say ‘Yeah, do you want to buy some?’”

Three years later, Sly Underwear is sold in 170 stores across Australia. With 25,000 units sold in just four months, sales are already tripling month-to-month. Sly has signed distribution agreements in the United States and New Zealand, with more in the works in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

A little help from his friends

Six months after Murray’s first shipment arrived, an enterprising friend nominated him for Triple J’s Catapult competition for young entrepreneurs. He won, and the media exposure was enough to attract the attention of an American consultant with a 20-year record at Jockey and Tommy Hilfiger. When Jalil Keval called, Murray jumped on a plane and spent six months in America while Keval showed him how the underwear industry worked. “Two things came out of that trip: one was that I needed to build on my range and the other was that I needed to develop the whole young Australian story behind it.”

With the bulk of his own $25,000 investment used up (Murray invested 90% of his weekly concreter’s wage in the company), he put together a business plan to seek investors. “I said ‘This is the gap in the market I see, this is the help that I require, this is the opportunity I’ve got—who wants to help?’”

He was offered a loan in February 2010, which funded the development of a 28-piece range. Murray brought on two mates (“a guy called Jake who’s had about seven years in the sales game and another mate called Josh who’s done 10 years in design”), and Sly Underwear went from a project to a full-time business.

Working with mates can easily damage a friendship, Murray says, but it’s easy if you can keep work as work. “As soon as it’s not work, you go back to being mates. It’s been great, because everyone puts in triple the effort of what they would [if they were just employees].”

But Murray advises anyone trying to work with friends to be clear on guidelines and expectations. “Don’t take things personally when an idea gets shot down or someone doesn’t like something. You have to remove the personal aspect when you’re in business with your friends.”

Murray says the mentorship from experienced friends and generous advisors has been instrumental. “When you add their experience and direction to my enthusiasm, my drive and my vision—that’s one of the main reasons it’s been so successful. I’ve been able to learn from their mistakes, follow their guidance and skip a lot of years of lessons I would have had to learn myself.”

He’s cautious in what advice he takes, however, because “everybody’s got their own agenda”, and as the business grows more and more people are offering their help. “As important as it is to listen to everybody, you’ve also got to back your gut feeling and go for your instinct of what you think is right.”

Building a brand

Murray’s instincts told him men his age were moving away from big surfwear brands. “As they grew older and saw every man and their dad was wearing it, they started going less for the big brands and more for the small stuff.”

At a creative level, Murray wanted to design something he could put on a streetwear shelf “that covers the basics as far as comfort and all the rest of it but was also a little bit more edgy in terms of design and marketing.” So Murray has a professional tattooist on his design team, and Sly’s most popular design is a simulation print of denim jeans. “If you were to sum up the creative side of the business it would be to Think Outside Your Jocks [the range]. Underwear isn’t just a boring essential, it’s actually an addition to an outfit.”