15+ min read
Early in his career, Shaun Neff carried around gold business cards that read Shaun Neff, Boss Man. People weren’t always sure how to interpret this. Was it braggadocio? A joke? They would half smirk and reply, “Oh, a gold card,” Neff says, imitating the reaction many people had. But the gold card wasn’t an ego thing, and critics didn’t necessarily see what was driving the young entrepreneur. “My favorite inspiration ever is Willy Wonka,” Neff explains. The card symbolized fun — it was the golden ticket.
Nearly two decades later, Neff is definitely having fun. He’s an avid surfer, his vibe is casual, and he often sprinkles his language with words like dude, gnarly, and rad. But underneath the relaxed appearance is a shrewd marketing guru, a guy with entrepreneurial hustle and a highly analytical mind working overtime to make sense of complicated trends. His process has ended up making a lot of money for a lot of people, earning him the nickname “the Brand Whisperer.”
One of his latest ventures is Beach House Group in El Segundo, Calif., a company that incubates celebrity-driven brands such as Moon, a line of oral care products created with Kendall Jenner; Florence by Mills, a beauty collection with Millie Bobby Brown; Tracee Ellis Ross’s hair care company; and Shay Mitchell’s Béis travel gear. The company’s full portfolio, before the pandemic hit, was estimated to generate more than $120 million in sales this year, driven almost entirely by products created since Neff joined the company in 2016.
But that success isn’t a case of lightning striking for the first time. It’s more like the third or fourth time — a pattern that begins to turn heads. Neff has built his reputation by navigating the fickle and arbitrary world of youth culture — a mercurial demographic if there ever was one. At 41, he’s been doing this for nearly half his life, accumulating an invaluable set of lessons about how to navigate markets that are in constant flux from dramatic changes in technology, social media, culture, and now a racial justice movement and a deadly virus. But the guiding principle is still the same: A brand is about emotion. You have to make people feel.
Most children like a brand’s products. Neff, however, was attracted to the deeper psychological components of their advertising campaigns. “That’s kind of where the initial entrepreneurial bug came from,” he says. Even as a kid, he’d ask himself, Why am I jonesing so bad to try to be a part of this brand? Why am I just so bought into everything that they’re putting out?
One of Neff’s earliest epiphanies came during junior high school, when he first saw the classic Nike advertisements featuring basketball player Michael Jordan and filmmaker Spike Lee. Jordan was an icon, but as anyone who has seen The Last Dance knows, he also possessed an intense (and pathologically competitive) personality that can be difficult for mere mortals to connect with. Spike Lee helped soften Jordan’s persona and gave him a hipness he didn’t naturally have. “I was like, Someone’s so smart, because Spike is so rad and steezy looking — the glasses, the hat flipped up,” Neff remembers. “Those two being on the same spot together made Michael so much cooler, right?”
The insight sparked his curiosity about how brands build followings. By high school, he knew he wanted to own a lifestyle brand around his passions — surf, skate, and snow sports — that would draw fans. Then, as a freshman studying marketing and advertising at Brigham Young University, he decided, I’m just going to do it and printed his last name on some 30 shirts. “Wanna buy a T-shirt?” he’d ask random classmates. “People were like, ‘Yo, dude, I’m just trying to leave math class.’ ” When his professional snowboarder friends told him they couldn’t wear his shirts because of sponsorships with brands like Quicksilver and Burton, he had an idea.
Image Credit: Shaun Neff
“I’ve never seen a deal,” he told them. “Can I read yours?” They showed him their contracts. And that’s how he discovered a loophole.
The paperwork said nothing about headwear — surprising, Neff thought, because a professional athlete’s head is frequently on camera, especially if they’re standing on the winner’s podium.
Knowing nothing about headwear, Neff took the $30 in his pocket and purchased as many beanies and headbands as he could from a 99-cent store. Then he scrawled his name across them with a Sharpie and handed them out to his pro snowboarder buddies at an Olympics prequalifying event in Park City, Utah. “Dude, you can rock this,” he told them.
The athletes looked to their agents for approval: “Can I rock this?” According to Neff, the agents replied, “Uh, I mean, Neff has a point, but you know all your companies are going to be mad. It’s up to you.”
Some of the athletes agreed, and later ended up on the winner’s podium. That’s when the brand “got its first hurrah,” recalls Neff, who launched Neff Headwear in 2002. Much of its success was due to his friendship with the pros, but he also acknowledges the role played by an aspect of snowboarder culture that scorns corporate influence, even if it’s paying your bills. “That definitely was part of the appeal,” he says — his headwear’s appropriation felt like a fun yet harmless prank. What snowboarder, decked out in his corporate threads but wanting to keep it real, would turn down a chance to join in the fun? Especially if it came with no real financial penalty and helped support a friend from the scene?
Neff soon had a roster of about 25 of the biggest snowboarders in the world. “I wasn’t paying them anything…I was just slinging them beanies,” Neff says. “It kind of got around that if you got on Neff, you were a part of the cool crew in snowboarding. And I think that was massive.”
Neff was also giving the beanie look a unique spin. “No one was selling a neon pink, one-off, handmade beanie,” he says. Roy Thorsen, who became the company’s COO in 2008, points out that many schools at that time were cracking down on kids wearing ball caps, partly because of their possible gang affiliations, which helped make Neff Headwear a popular alternative. “The beanie became this new fashion item,” Thorsen says. “Shaun timed it perfectly.”
Over the next four years, Neff Headwear expanded into apparel and accessories, with sales growing from roughly $5 million a year to about $30 million a year. In 2012, the company pulled in about $100 million in retail revenues, according to Thorsen. The company’s rise, which Neff gives Thorsen much credit for, wasn’t without missteps, however. Neff was traveling in South America when he spotted a pair of boots. “Like an Ugg, but they were knitted, almost like a beanie,” he says. “I was like, Whoa, those are dope.” While it’s hard to imagine anyone having that reaction to a knitted boot, this was around the same time that Uggs were at peak popularity. Neff found a manufacturer and created a new brand called Ffen. “Neff backwards, which was not a good idea,” he now admits. Shortly after launching, Ffen cratered. “For years I was giving away knitted boots,” he says.
What he gained, however, was a lesson: Time out — stay focused on Neff. He now tells protégés that their first business venture “can’t be more than one thing. You’ve got to be all in.” Back then, Neff refocused his efforts on scaling up his core company. A relentless networker, he began leveraging his success to gain access to parties and events where he knew there’d be certain celebrities with appeal in the wider popular culture. Contracts were eventually signed with talents like Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Scarlett Johansson, Deadmau5, and Kate Upton. By 2017, Neff Headwear had gained distribution in 72 countries and had overall retail revenues approaching half a billion dollars.
But Neff also knew that the snow, surf, and skate space was still only a niche area. He was missing out on broader opportunities. That same year, he sold Neff Headwear to the licensed apparel wholesaler Mad Engine for an undisclosed amount. He stayed on as chief creative officer but, unshackled from day-to-day duties, had room to broaden his horizons. So what next?
When you’re good at building a brand, people take notice. And PJ Brice was taking notice. Back around the time Neff sold his company, Brice was the CEO of an incubator called Beach House Group. It was an under-the-radar operation that primarily supplied private label products to Target and changed its name a few times. But Brice had bigger ambitions, and his friends kept telling him to talk to Neff. “You need to meet this guy; he’s a creative genius,” they’d say. A meeting was arranged, and the two agreed to partner up. Neff would get a cofounder title, and they’d shift Beach House’s business model. “We had the established infrastructure to be a safe haven for him to come and play and create,” Brice says.
The new goal: It would build brands that resonate — fast.
Neff’s plan was to partner with celebrities, which sounds like a no-brainer. Famous people have little trouble getting press and a built-in reputation to trade off of. But the world is also littered with failed celebrity-backed businesses, from Britney Spears’ Nyla Restaurant to Mandy Moore’s Mblem clothing. Even part-owners Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone couldn’t save Planet Hollywood.
What’s missing in all that, Neff believes, is the same thing any business needs, regardless of its founder: It needs genuineness. Neff is extremely selective about whom he partners with. He won’t simply slap a celebrity’s name on a product. He looks for enthusiastic collaborators who are a natural, organic fit for the brand. Even with a celebrity, the brand has to come first. It is, after all, the thing consumers really interact with.
For this reason, Neff often starts with the product, a marketplace, or even just a sensibility. He constantly scans for inspiration — in art galleries, murals, fonts on a menu, subcultures on social media, his kids’ coloring books. He obsessively notes details, gut-checking what resonates and what doesn’t. Instead of chasing trends that have already gained traction and then riding their coattails, Neff tries to create entirely new ones. He has a hard time articulating exactly how he does this; he says he’ll get into a “zone” where his mind blanks out — surfing the waves or running on the treadmill, music pumped, staring at a white wall and thinking, All right, OK…what’s an industry I want to try to come in and shake up?
Often he just wanders through stores, looking at the shelves. That’s where the idea for Moon came from. “The oral care aisle was just the ugliest aisle on the floor,” he says, referring to a section of the pharmacy that, since the dawn of time, has contained “the same big blue and green bottles I’ve seen my whole life, and the same color toothpaste. No company had really taken oral care and made it part of the beauty regimen.” So he approached Kendall Jenner about partnering on a line of products that would create a new market niche, one that Neff felt already had customers waiting for it.
This is different work from what he’d done before, where his brand was built off his own personality. To make these new brands work, Neff says he is constantly staying aware of who he is…and isn’t. “Make sure you hire people who are your consumer — that age demo that understands what’s poppin’ on TikTok,” he says, for example. He also emphasizes the value of developing close relationships with your partners, celebrity or otherwise, which can give you insight to customer groups you aren’t necessarily a part of. To understand the yearnings of teenage girls, he spends time with 16-year-old Millie Bobby Brown (she plays Eleven on Netflix’s Stranger Things), who has nearly 34 million Instagram followers and launched a beauty company with Beach House. As they work together, Neff closely observes how she interacts with people, what she says, and what trends excite her—all things he’ll later integrate into evolving the brand.
Meanwhile, when Neff has an idea that’s squarely in his own wheelhouse, he tackles it himself. That’s how he got involved in Sun Bum, a small sunscreen company he invested in. The relationship began when he asked himself, Is there a brand on the market today in the sunscreen category with a logo a consumer would take and go put on their car or surfboard? The answer was no, so he decided to seize the opportunity — and as a result, last year, Sun Bum was acquired by SC Johnson in a deal that was reported to be around $400 million.
These days, he’s involved in Orro, a protein-based meal replacement beverage that launched in July, which aligns with his ideas about putting good products into the world. Most exciting to him, though, he is partnering with professional surfers Cheyne Magnusson and Kalani Robb to open a state-of-the-art surf park called the Palm Springs Surf Club. So far they’ve been doing test runs, with plans to go live in 2021. “I’m just going, I love surfing so much. Holy cow; I could go jump in the car with my boys and rip out and go surf for a couple of hours at any time? Like, oh my God, this is the best investment ever.” Pure fun. Which was always the point.
But there was a time when he’d forgotten that.
A few years into his beanie company, Neff lost his way. He enjoyed working intensely, hands in everything, but for an entire decade, he hadn’t gone on a vacation longer than three or four days. When he did, his family would be playing on some beach while he was stressing out about events back at the office. He’d done the thing everyone warns about: If you turn your passion into work, you might lose your passion.
Then he had an encounter that changed everything.
He was at the home of Larry H. Miller, the Utah businessman who owned the Utah Jazz basketball team and a slew of other enterprises. The house was perched atop a hill overlooking Salt Lake City. Neff asked him, “How does it feel to just sit at breakfast and look out at this city and know that your team plays there, and that’s your movie theater, and that’s where you sell cars? Wild, right?”
But Miller just shrugged. “Well, look at me now,” he replied, pointing to a leg he lost from diabetes because he failed to take care of it properly. He had spent his whole career in overdrive, micromanaging everyone around him until his health was gone. “I had amazing people around me my whole life,” Miller said, regretting that he hadn’t let them take more responsibility and lighten his burden. “You have to enjoy life. You have to have balance,” he said. Miller passed away in 2009, at age 64.
The comment “blew my mind,” Neff recalls. He realized that he was making the same mistakes. Right then, he started delegating, putting more trust in the people around him, letting people spread their wings and fly. Neff Headwear grew as a result, benefiting from changes implemented by its new COO, Roy Thorsen. If Neff could give his younger self some guidance, he would recommend being much more appreciative of everyone around him. When business is peaking and you’re having your moment, he says, “it’s easy to think you know a lot.” But others often know more. As obvious as that advice sounds, Neff can’t emphasize its importance enough.
These days, Neff is relying again on that good advice. As the world changes, he is staying alert to what consumers need — and what messages no longer resonate. Back in March, I joined a conference call with his Beach House team, where Neff was urging caution in how they marketed. “Gotta be careful,” he told everyone; an insensitive post from one of the influencers they work with, or photos showing crowds of people, could quickly spiral into a PR crisis. He urged a tone “less about selling stuff” and more about “letting people know we’re here.” It would be a wise strategy: When I checked back in June, he said sales of Beach House Group products online were up 300 percent for the year — a good sign considering everything going on.
The pandemic has forced Neff to make changes in himself, too. Working remotely has made him realize how much time he used to waste in airports, traveling to meetings that might last only an hour. He has been more efficient and is enjoying spending the extra time with his family. Neff also mentions he is particularly stoked about hanging out with his sons at the new surf park next year. “It’s fun,” he says, speaking about why he does what he does, as if nothing has changed from the days of handing out those gold business cards. “I love it.”