America’s Grittiest Entrepreneur: How An Army Sergeant Created A $100 Million Lifestyle Brand

Daniel Alarik doesn’t look like a typical fashion entrepreneur.He is an Army combat veteran, with a tight military haircut, barrel chest, and large tattooed arms. He’s unapologetically patriotic, pro-military, and pro-Second Amendment. He’s also funny, authentic, and irreverent.He’s not politically correct. He has no sycophantic entourage, no East End summer party schedule, and no friends in the Ibiza jet set.

Daniel has created a lifestyle clothing brand that few others could build—one in touch with a new generation of patriotic Americans.Daniel’s brand, Grunt Style, embodies American pride, personal strength, self-reliance, and a pro-military ethos. No snowflakes here. The brand exudes toughness and independence.As the Grunt Style website puts it,” You don’t have to be a Veteran to wear Grunt Style, but you do have to love Freedom, Bacon, and Whiskey.”

Grunt Style has sold nearly $100 million worth of products over the last 3 years and has 300 employees and over 2 million social media followers. The brand has spawned several sub-brands such as Grunt Style Motorsports, Grunt Style Outdoors, Grunt Style Fitness, and an Instagram group “Girls Gone Grunt.” And Grunt Style isn’t just about T-shirts, hats, and jeans. Grunt Style also runs a survival and adventure-themed subscription box service called Alpha Outpost and is launching a new fitness app, called Grunt Fit.

What’s more, Grunt Style has created a true lifestyle community. Their Grunt Fests draw thousands of people for music, beer, UFC and motorsport celebrities, and good old-fashioned American flag waving.I recently spent an afternoon with Daniel and his team at his headquarters outside  of Chicago. I learned three secrets to his success.

In 2009, Daniel Alarik was an Army drill instructor thinking about leaving the Army to spend more time with his family. He had $1,200 and a business idea.Daniel spent his adulthood in the Army as a non-commissioned officer, not climbing a corporate ladder or in a classroom. Nevertheless, Daniel instinctively has three unique traits he could never have learned in an MBA program:

  • Strong leadership skills forged in the fires of combat
  • A contagious and irreverent sense of humor
  • Deep insight into the psychology of his customers

In other words, Daniel could authentically connect to the customers he sought to serve. He didn’t know it then, but he had all he needed build a successful company.Daniel’s target market was the new warrior class – a segment of the post-9/11 generation anchored by military veterans, first responders, and their supporters. This culture of freedom-loving consumers have a particular set of values and beliefs.Daniel understood these customers intuitively. He was one of them. He understood their patriotism and their preferences. Most importantly, he understood how to use humor to appeal to their shared values.

Lifestyle brands connect with customers on the basis of an ideology or shared set of beliefs, not just a product suite. If done correctly, lifestyle brands are very difficult to replicate. To build a lifestyle brand, one needs to be a part of the lifestyle. The connection must be authentic for customers to respond.

Daniel’s life experience and sense of humor allowed him to authentically connect with his customers in a way that few others could. This connection is the foundation for Grunt Style’s success.The Grunt Style value set is communicated on the sleeves of every shirt.The right shoulder of Grunt Style shirts show a seemingly backward American flag. To the general public, this looks odd

But to the Grunt Style community, it makes perfect sense. The same backward flag appears on the shoulders of many U.S. Military uniforms. To the American soldier, the field of stars is always facing forward—always advancing. This symbolism has historic roots that Daniel’s customers understand. Flag bearers on colonial-era battlefields ran with the attacking Army. The field of stars on the flag was always in the front, nearest the flag pole held by the advancing bearer. As Grunt Style’s first video ad put it, “This flag isn’t backward, it’s assaulting forward.”

The left shoulder of every shirt has the Grunt Style logo: two crossed muskets, the numbers “1776,” and the words “This we’ll defend.” The muskets represent the infantry—the warrior class of the military. The logo communicates independence and a nod to the “don’t’ tread on me” attitude of America’s founding generation.

Together, these two ubiquitous symbols embody the shared values of Grunt Style’s customers: freedom, strength, self-reliance, and American patriotism. These symbols appear consistently on Grunt Style’s product as a steady reminder of what Daniel and his customers believe.

Lesson #3: Grit Matters

Daniel has a saying for this team: “Discipline through cadence.” It’s a phrase he borrowed from the Army. It captures a few basic truths about entrepreneurship (and life):

  • Anything worth doing is hard
  • Any hard thing takes practice
  • Practical improvement comes only with repetition

Like a military sniper at the range, or basketball player practicing free throws, entrepreneurial repetition means taking a shot, making an adjustment, and shooting again. Repetition, correction, and iteration is the process by which entrepreneurs develop expertise. This model was practiced by the U.S. Military long before it was popularized by the “Lean Startup” movement led by Eric Ries .

But repetition and practice is not enough. Sometimes barriers arise that must be overcome. This is where grit comes into play.

Daniel started by designing and selling patriotic, military-branded T-shirts out of the back of his car. The shirts were designed, printed, and distributed manually by Daniel. His wife was the nascent company’s CFO. The messaging was patriotic and slightly snarky…like a great Toby Keith song. Batches were small, sales were slow, and costs were high. But Daniel keep going.

Then the obstacles came. Daniel shared with me several disasters and “near-miss” stories from Grunt Style’s early years.

At one point, nearly all the money the company had—a mere $5,000—was stolen. Daniel and his wife kept going.

Another time, they needed $6,000 from a single convention just to stay in business. They got $6,200…so they kept going.

A third time, Daniel blew their entire marketing budget on a single billboard just outside the gates of a major military installation. The billboard didn’t result in a single sale. They kept going.