The bedroom was not a place to sleep for Fergus Macdonald.
A college student in Scotland, Macdonald began operating a business out of his bedroom after spotting the growing demand for sporrans, a type of belt and pouch combination worn around the waist with a kilt as part of traditional men’s Scottish Highland dress.
“I’d run home in between classes to fulfill orders,” Macdonald says with a grin. “I called it Macdonald Sporrans because that’s my name and that’s what I sold, so it wasn’t very imaginative.”
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the name, though.
Despite a full course load, Macdonald’s online business, a first of its kind for sporrans, caught fire and each time he’d sell out he used all of the proceeds to purchase more inventory and sell more. “I still remember the very first order,” Macdonald says excitedly. “I remember his name and the trust he placed in me. This guy gave me his money and trusted I would do what I promised. It was an amazing feeling and something I’ll never forget.”
The orders, wrapped in pink flowery paper because it’s all Macdonald had laying around, literally began piling up all over the bedroom.
Eventually, the business grew, and Macdonald had to move out, find a larger space in which to operate and create from scratch the massive bags he needed to carry all of the orders he personally walked to the post office every day.
“I actually apologized to the postal worker when I moved the business out of the bedroom,” Macdonald recalls. “I had developed a friendship with him, and when I moved, I knew I’d be taking my orders to a different post office but that’s part of growing a business.”
But Macdonald’s burgeoning business acumen would quickly be tested.
Macdonald had just one supplier who became unreliable. So a few months after launching the business, Macdonald ran out of inventory and was unable to get more.
The orders continued to come in.
But Macdonald had nothing to sell.
“It was actually the best thing that ever happened,” Macdonald recalls. “The lesson I learned was when you depend on just one thing, and it fails, you fail too.”
While Macdonald quickly formed relationships with multiple suppliers and resumed the budding company’s growth, the supplier issue certainly wouldn’t be Macdonald’s last or even biggest test in business.
In fact, years later when Macdonald was in the market for a kilt to wear for his wedding, he realized there was nothing on his own website that appealed to him.
The Modern Man & Kilts
A decade after launching from his college bedroom...
Macdonald’s business, which started out selling exclusively on eBay, had grown to include a handful of separate online stores that sell a range of products from flasks to drinkware. However, Scottish staples such as kilts and tartans are what Macdonald quickly became well known for selling.
Remember, Macdonald was one of the first to sell sporrans online.
The tradition of being first to market on the web continued as Macdonald persuaded kilt and tartan blanket suppliers to trust him to sell their products online. “The makers of items like these are steeped in tradition and some were skeptical at first,” Macdonald recalls.
Key in Macdonald’s success was product selection. “We pick the best products,” Macdonald says. “We are really good at choosing products that people want to have in their lives.”
But Macdonald quickly identified a gaping hole in his strategy.
Don’t misunderstand; the business was experiencing double digit year over year growth. But as Macdonald’s wedding approached and he needed the perfect kilt, he visited his online kilt store and didn’t find anything special enough for his big day.
“My own site didn’t serve my needs,” Macdonald says with a hint of disbelief in his voice. “It was eye-opening. I couldn’t find a kilt to meet my needs. The kilt is a traditional piece, but I’m a modern man and desire something more while still respecting tradition.”
The discovery came just as Macdonald began to notice other headwinds.
The eBay sales channel for Scottish garb had gotten extremely crowded and customers, influenced heavily by the competition offered by Amazon, were increasingly being conditioned to make purchase decisions on price alone. “It was getting increasingly difficult to make any margin on a sale,” Macdonald says. “People had come to expect that they could find a twenty-pound item online for ten.”
The margin-crushing pressure from Amazon and other big box retailers was already weighing on Macdonald when he discovered he wasn’t selling kilts that truly interested him. “It became obvious we couldn’t compete on price anymore,” Macdonald says. “Instead of trying to sell the same products everyone else was selling we knew we had to do something different.”
It meant much more than simply no longer selling on eBay to focus on the various ecommerce stores he was operating.
It would require a massive pivot and the transformation of an entire business and its strategy.
But Macdonald, who was operating five separate stores at the time, lacked the time necessary to transform his business and differentiate his products.
In fact, just when his business needed him most…
He was distracted by the costly technology underpinning his ecommerce stores.
The Wedding Day Revelation
That which we really love can never be shaken, right?
Besides his soon-to-be bride, Emma, Macdonald’s lifelong love was tailoring men’s clothing. So when he couldn’t find a kilt on his own site worthy of a wedding, Macdonald used his tailoring skills to create the perfect outfit for a perfect day.
“When my friends saw the wedding kilt I designed they all started asking where they could get one similar to it,” Macdonald says. “People loved the outfit, but I had to apologize and tell them that these items weren’t available for sale on my site.”
Unless maybe they could be…
So besides convincing Emma to marry him, Macdonald also convinced his new wife, an accomplished fashion buyer with expertise in merchandising, marketing and branding, to join him as co-owner of Eagle & Fox to dramatically transform the business.
“We’re building a dream business together,” Macdonald says. “We’re creating products that we’re passionate about and turning the organization into the business we’ve always wanted.”
Besides shedding several businesses and narrowing the focus of the existing businesses on selling custom designed and tailored kilts and blankets that paid homage to Scottish heritage, the newlyweds and entrepreneurial dream team simultaneously added a unique and personal touch that would differentiate the products and make them more valuable.
“These are kilts made for the modern man who demands a bit more,” Macdonald says.
"It's a bit like renovating an old house with some modern amenities like better insulation and triple glazing. It's both acknowledging the beauty in the traditions and heritage while also making sure it functions well today."
The approach would require some additional heavy lifting; the Macdonalds would have to eliminate the handful of middle men that ordinarily markup generic apparel for an approach that more closely connected the customer with the manufacturer so the customer’s voice could be heard and their desires better served.
“Today the customer is five steps removed from the process,” Macdonald says. “As a brand we need to bridge that gap so when the customer asks for something we’re right there with the manufacture and able to create a unique product that customers can’t find anywhere else.”
The new strategy would require a laser-like focus on business which is why the Macdonalds, who created the umbrella Eagle & Fox to house their two remaining brands, chose as their ecommerce platform Shopify Plus, an enterprise-level solution for high volume merchants.
“Before Shopify, I spent way too much time managing complicated technology rather than my business,” Macdonald says. “Things that used to cost tens of thousands of pounds and take months to accomplish now happen automatically and almost instantly with Shopify.”
What emerged under the Eagle & Fox banner are two stores offering unique products no longer in competition with the likes of those on Amazon:
Kilt Society- kilts, outfits, and accessories Macdonald uniquely tailors to offer a degree of customization not often found elsewhere
- The Tartan Blanket Co.- a staple in nearly every Scottish home, these tartan blankets offer a flare with their unique coloring, thickness, and quality of wool while also being packaged in a way that creates an unforgettable unboxing experience
The company will do more than $2.5 million in sales this year and has been growing between 30-50% year over year. While selling off three online properties and restructuring the existing business will impact the financials in the short term, Macdonald suggests the company’s differentiated offerings position the company for future growth it might otherwise not be able to count on.
“It’s really exciting because we’re transforming the business into a passion project,” Macdonald says. “Before we were just selling someone else’s stuff but now we’re putting a little piece of ourselves in each product we sell.”
In Focus: The Future & Family
When Macdonald had just three employees…
Everyone was trained to fix things that broke on the company’s old ecommerce platform. But now that Macdonald has 12-employees he doesn’t have time to train everyone to make complicated and time-consuming fixes which is why he appreciates the simplicity of Shopify Plus.
“When someone asks me how to do something on Shopify I tell them to just log in, and they’ll figure it out,” Macdonald says.
Expect new products, the possibility of new retail partners, and additional customization down the road.
But the opportunity Macdonald credits Plus with offering Eagle & Fox pales in comparison to the lifestyle Macdonald says he and Emma have created for themselves; a blessed mix of business and family. Not only is Macdonald building a dream business with his dream girl, but he and Emma recently became new parents with the birth of their daughter.
So beware, if you call Eagle & Fox, don’t be surprised if you hear the newest Macdonald in the background; she’s often in the office alongside her proud parents. In fact, Macdonald gracefully fielded our interview questions while in the middle of a diaper change and suggests he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Life is too short not to spend it with family,” Macdonald says. “Being in business with the person you trust more than anyone else in the world is extremely special and unique.”
Just like the products Macdonald now sells.