MTailor: Cloud-Native Jeans

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Most of us, sadly, fail to embody a platonic ideal in our physique. I certainly don’t. I’m vertically challenged and stocky (I prefer to use the term ‘muscular’). 

That means for the vast majority of humanity, clothing ourselves is a challenge — an unhappy compromise resulting in tradeoffs among bagginess, pinching, too short or too long sleeves, etc., etc.

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When it comes to jeans — the sartorial lingua franca across the globe, happily worn by students and billionaires alike — the situation is miserable. The largest brand, the ubiquitous Levis, offers a bewildering variety of different numbered styles characterized by terms such as skinny, athletic, narrow, and so on, all costing around $50. In my experience, the only way to determine whether a particular number type fits you is to physically check it — go to a store, take several number types in a range of sizes, try them on, and find the least ill-fitting one to buy. Even that is problematic, as I’ve found that two pairs of the same number type jeans in the same size can vary in actual fit, so thinking you can find the right style with a physical store visit and then order online from then on is sadly mistaken. 

An alternative is to look more upmarket to designer jeans. They cost on the order of $200 and purportedly offer more customized fit than plebeian Levis, although I speculate that the ‘customized’ fit is more commonly due to the liberal use of spandex in the cloth rather than better tailoring. In any case, many people might be reluctant to wear such an expensive item for prosaic daily duties like gardening, taking out the trash, and so on.

Given my jeans travails, I was primed for a different approach and was pretty intrigued when I came across a company called MTailor via an ad on CNN. Its pitch is that its smartphone app measures the customer in seconds and results in a custom tailored pair of jeans delivered to the door two weeks later, all for around $100, with a money back guarantee. I figured it was worth a try.

I downloaded the app and went through the measurement process. It involved putting the phone on the floor and leaning it against the wall at an angle specified by the app. After that, you position yourself a few feet away and do a complete spin so that the app can capture your measurements. The capture takes approximately 10 seconds. Once that is done, you use the app (or website) to select color and leg style (e.g., bootcut) and order. Here is an MTailor ad depicting the process:

Ten minutes after I started, I submitted my order and began my two week wait. 

When the jeans finally arrived, I immediately tried them on — and it was revelatory. They slipped on and were just right. For me. No tight places. No baggy places. They just slid on and fit.

So, you’re thinking “Great. I’m happy for you. But so what?” Some of you might be thinking “Yeah I know about MTailor. It was on Shark Tank. It’s not a secret.” To the latter, I would just offer the obvious: I’m not very engaged in fashion and definitely not a leading edge follower of fashion trends. It took MTailor getting on CNN for it to come into my ken. But this post isn’t about me and my clothing options.

It’s about cloud-native jeans and how MTailor symbolizes the way technology is disrupting long-established industries (Levis got its start 170 years ago during the Gold Rush when a San Francisco-based French immigrant created durable pants for miners). With the confluence of a number of separate technologies like cloud computing, machine learning, and global high bandwidth digital connectivity, IT is moving from manipulation of digital representations of physical processes to being used to transform physical processes, to the disadvantage of incumbents strongly entrenched in traditional industry processes.

Let’s look at what makes up MTailor’s offering:

  • A mobile app. Ten years ago a mobile app was something exciting and unique — almost magical. Today, we regard apps as nothing special. Nevertheless, mobile can be well or poorly done, and it’s critical that MTailor execute its app to a high standard, particularly as consumers increasingly prefer to interact with companies via a mobile device. The MTailor mobile app is elegant and easy to use, and eases engagement with the companies offering. The measuring element of the app is particularly easy to use.
  • Machine learning. A strong point of MTailor is how easy it is to get measured, traditionally an important and inconvenient part of buying custom clothes. MTailor simplifies it by making measurement something that can be done in seconds in the convenience of one’s home — but clearly there is machine learning at work in the image capture and analysis, turning a 10 second video into a customer-unique representation of many different measurements. Machine learning is part of a decades-old artificial intelligence field, but has really come into its own over the past five years.
  • Backend processing executed via cloud computing. Once the measurement is taken and the order placed, all of the data is uploaded to a backend system that coordinates the finance, manufacturing, and supply chain logistics. MTailor is a small company with potential to grow quite quickly. Today, it goes without remark that a small company can easily gain access to sophisticated computing resources without much investment and can scale those resources in response to application load, but this was literally impossible a decade ago.
  • A global supply chain knit together by high speed networking. MTailor manufactures in Bangaladesh. Every order gets transmitted electronically to that country, where workers cut and sew orders to a customer’s measurements. This means each piece is unique, unlike mass producers like Levis, where standardized measurements are used as the basis of huge orders. This unique manufacturing means every order requires special handling and tracking, which in turn means that there must be back end system interaction from the manufacturing site. Only with the relatively recent availability of significant bandwidth across Asia would this unique order approach be possible, and only with it is a two week turnaround possible.
  • Numerous integrations with third party application systems. Once a customer places an order, he (or she; MTailor now offers women’s clothes too) is able to track its progress inside of MTailor but also during domestic shipment via USPS. So there are several shipping applications MTailor interacts with, along with credit card processing. The move among industrial B2B suppliers to offer online transactions and status checking via APIs enables small companies like MTailor to engage with supply chain participants in an easy, cost-effective method. Five or ten years ago these kind of integrations were expensive efforts restricted to only the largest partners of supply chain companies; today the API revolution has democratized integration and made it possible for small companies to be just as sophisticated as much larger ones.

The net result of these technology innovations is that MTailor has been able to reimagine an important consumer domain. What has MTailor done by recreating the jeans buying experience?

  • Improve the product. While getting a good fitting pair of jeans is not as important as, say, decarbonizing the global economy, it is nevertheless a fact that most people wear clothes, and all things being equal, prefer comfortable and attractive garb. MTailor jeans deliver that. When compared to the Levis method of achieving a good fit, which involves wearing the jeans in a bathtub and never washing them, spending 10 seconds to get measured and receiving a personalized pair of jeans in two weeks is a strong product improvement.
  • Improve the experience. Going to a store to try on a bunch of different pairs of jeans to figure out which one of the multitude of styles is right, and then having to go back in the future to avoid the inconsistency of manufacture is a pain — not to mention the opportunity cost of time spent schlepping to a mall to buy jeans. The retail experience is unpleasant and time-consuming. Even online ordering with the option of return is still inconvenient, just somewhat less so. But those are the only alternatives when product distribution is optimized for delivery of standardized products. Once the product lot is an item of one and the supply chain optimized for delivery of individually-customized product, the purchasing experience is far easier and convenient.
  • Improve the value. Customized clothing has always been available. It just required lots of in-person attention, resulting in high prices. High enough to make casual clothing like jeans uneconomic. MTailor has removed labor intensity from the custom clothing process, making custom jeans possible at a relatively affordable price point. This improves the value of custom clothing and makes good fitting jeans cost-effective.

All of this is not to say that MTailor’s future is all roses and champagne. I see three areas of concern that could affect the company’s prospects.

  1. Price elasticity. MTailor jeans are a bargain for a custom-designed pair of trousers. And they’re far less expensive than designer alternatives. Nevertheless, they are twice the price of the most-commonly purchased option — Levis. Are there enough people willing to spend significantly more than a pair of Levis cost to achieve convenience and good fit? We all confront price elasticity in our daily lives: that’s why relatively few people drive Mercedes and far more drive Toyotas. Maybe MTailor’s TAM is not large enough to build a significant business. MTailor has taken venture funding which means the question of price elasticity is critical, because modest success is incompatible with the venture funding model.
  2. Impulsiveness. The great thing about retail shopping is its immediacy. Want a pair of jeans? They can be in your hands in 30 minutes. Perhaps waiting two weeks, even for a perfectly fitting pair of jeans, will prove to be unacceptable to many or most consumers. I’m clearly unusually disposed toward avoiding the retail experience. I use Amazon Prime for grocery shopping and can’t understand why a huge swathe of shoppers in well-heeled Silicon Valley weekly subject themselves to the hassle of the Whole Foods parking lot (please watch; extremely funny). 
  3. Scale. MTailor has done an end-to-end redesign of how to deliver clothes. And, at least in my experience, it works extremely well. But that is at a volume of something like a few hundred to a few thousand items per month. Can MTailor deliver at ten or a hundred times that volume? It’s a cliche of the cloud-native world that one has to rearchitect an application every time its size grows by ten, and software systems are far more malleable than physically-based systems, which is to say it’s easier to redesign bits than atoms. One would think that the presence of venture funding implies foresight applied to important questions like scale, but this isn’t always the smartest or most thoughtful of money

An obvious question is why wouldn’t Levi develop such a system? It could extend its product line with “Levis — just for you” or somesuch. It’s coming off a hugely successful year, has lots of money, and MTailor is a tiny flyspeck in terms of comparison. That may contain its own answer. The TAM for MTailor is unproven (and unknowable) today, and large companies tend not to invest in small unproven markets — they aren’t large enough, in the common parlance, to “move the needle.” 

This is, of course, Clayton Christensen territory. His theory revolves around why large incumbents miss shifts in technology, and a common reason is that big companies underestimate potential demand for a new way of doing things.

One shortcoming in his theory is that it is based on a belief that existing technology in a given market evolves to meet the needs of the most demanding customer segment; this incumbent technology ends up ‘overserving’ a large part of the market for whom a less-capable and -expensive offering would be sufficient. A new disruptive innovation is introduced that meets that overserved need at a lower price point; eventually the new technology evolves to be just as capable as the existing offering and proceeds to wipe it out because the innovation is just as capable while being cheaper. From Christensen’s point of view, disruptive innovation is fundamentally based on lower prices; it’s a single factor view of customer adoption.

This perspective misses the power of removing friction in an existing market and the potential convenience holds in building a new customer segment. For example, many people assert public cloud computing is more expensive than on-prem infrastructure. Notwithstanding this, public cloud computing use has skyrocketed, which could be a reflection of how much easier it is to obtain computing resources from a public provider.

Based on this, despite the fact that MTailor jeans are more expensive than the incumbent, it is very possible that its market could be significantly larger than might be expected, based on price alone. The superiority of fit, married to the convenience of custom measurement and doorfront delivery might overwhelm the drawback that MTailor costs more than the incumbent.

Conclusion

MTailor represents an interesting development in our economy: restructuring an existing market segment by applying cloud-native technology. While jeans seems like a trivial, unsexy category, they have the virtue of ubiquity — everyone wears them and many customers find the existing offerings inconvenient with more attractive options too expensive. In other words, jeans are a legacy industry ripe for disruption via the application of information technology.

Looking with fresh eyes at how this industry operates, MTailor recognized that it reflects an outmoded approach to operation — delivery of large quantities of standardized designs that actually fit only a subset of the total market. This approach was originally based on the constraints imposed by the need for standard designs to be amortized across mass production and distribution; this makes perfect sense when the cost of customization is extremely high. MTailor removed those constraints by substituting computing for key elements of the supply chain and was able to bring to market a more satisfactory product that can be economically delivered to customers. 

MTailor gives a glimpse of the kind of restructuring we’ll see across our economy and society over the next twenty years. As fresh sets of eyes are cast over legacy products and services, assessing how they can be updated with computing substituted for inefficient and/or expensive elements, we’ll see an explosion of new offerings made possible by reconfiguring value chains. It’s more dangerous to be an established industry participant today than ever before in history and many powerful incumbents will be brought down by small companies leveraging force multipliers.

 

 

 

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