I’ve said it before: Southern culture is having a big cultural moment right now. Fancy fried chicken is at nearly every hip coastal restaurant I’ve gone to recently. Hipsters are raising chickens in their backyards for the fresh eggs. Country music has finally actually crossed into mainstream.
For broad evidence of that, look at how country music has absolutely dominated reality television from “The X Factor” to “The Voice” to “The All Star Celebrity Apprentice.” On this past season of “The Voice,” the other coaches increasingly had their non-country artists singing country songs in hopes they wouldn’t get voted off. (Even Usher.)
For more anecdotal evidence of that, look at how Chris Sacca wears those horrible Western shirts everywhere he goes. Even Paul Carr has his car radio permanently tuned to new country.
When Robert Altman made the movie “Nashville” nearly 40 years ago, it was a mockery of the self-importance of the country music world. Today, the show “Nashville” is a celebration of it.
Even Paula Deen recently reminding us of the ugliest — and most stereotypical — aspects of Southern culture can’t fully dim what’s going on.
And that’s why I think a small content and commerce company in Little Rock, Arkansas has a real shot at becoming something big. Bourbon & Boots is dubbed as a hipper, modern day version of “Southern Living,” and it doesn’t disappoint. There are modern twists on seer-sucker, jewelry made out of bullet casings, block-printed signs, and plenty of modernized Fab-like items that call to Southern culture and heritage in a hip, new way.
The company has been bootstrapped until about a month ago, when it raised $270,000 from several investors including Kima Ventures, Will Bunker formerly of Match.com, and Pascal Levy-Garboa formerly of eBay, says founder Matt Price. You don’t hear this everyday when it comes to ecommerce 2.0: It turned a profit in the fourth quarter. In just a little over a year, it has sold more than $1 million in goods, Price says.
Bourbon & Boots has a traditional marketplace model where it takes a cut of transactions, but it protects its margins by taking a slightly bigger cut than some other marketplaces, and it doesn’t pay a lot to get users. So far, it’s grown organically, using things like Pinterest boards filled with Southern writers to get attention, Price says.
I found about 10 things I wanted on the site immediately, including this shirt and this necklace. Both are fashionable enough I’d wear them regularly, but uniquely make me think of my roots. (“You Are My Sunshine” is essentially the anthem of the South. My parents still sing it to my kids as they rock them to sleep when we visit.) And naturally there is a vintage and used cowboy boot shop.
On the content side, I smiled at a post about tomato sandwiches. As the post says, they’re in no Southern cookbook, but are a staple of Southern eating — particularly when those delicious Ripley tomatoes come in. My mouth started watering with memories of my youth. There is nothing like a good tomato sandwich.
The genius of Bourbon & Boots’s curatorial mix is that it can appeal to people in the South, the Southern diaspora like me, and people who just want to feel like they are part of this cultural explosion. Nothing on this site looks like it could be sold in a Cracker Barrel gift shop. And most of it is produced by local designers, makers, and artisans in the South. It nicely walks that line between authenticity and something that can have mass appeal for even Southern “posers.” The site doesn’t display a manufactured caricature of Southern culture but the careful evolution of it.
Evolution and the South don’t always go hand in hand. (Insert creationism joke here…) What makes the South the South is an almost stubborn clinging to traditions and notions of the past. What’s unique about American culture right now — particularly urban culture — is that “new” trends like farm-to-table dining and the maker movement are so in line with that old Southern culture that stubbornly hasn’t changed. “Farm to table is me going to dinner at my granddad’s house,” Price says.
Price sees the South very similarly to how I see it: While Southerners are constantly maligned as rascist, poor, unhygienic, and stupid, the South is the birthplace of most of what makes America America. Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner are some of our best writers; the roots of blues, rock, and country are all in the South; and big slabs of steak, BBQ, and fried chicken are some of the most uniquely American foods you can name. “We think there’s a bigger story here than just the cost of living is lower, and there’s poorer education,” Prices says.
And that’s where Bourbon & Boots real opportunity as a business lies: Walking that line between modernization and authenticity. Few people outside the South could nail the content and curation aspect the way the company has. And its potential is nascent enough that a lot of people in New York, Silicon Valley, and other ecosystems still wouldn’t get it or be able to copy it if they tried. “I’m sure you can imagine the faces of some of the people when we pitch this,” Price says. “They don’t understand it.”
His investors got it quickly. It took less than three weeks to put his round together, Price says. “It was kinda fantastic,” he says.
Price says the talk that Southern innovation is inhibited by a lack of funding is overstated:
If you are building something interesting, and you need capital, you can get capital. We’re an example of that. People over-value raising money. If you want to build something interesting; build something interesting. We get the limitations of our market. We’re not going to build the next Facebook, because we don’t have the number of developers. But we can build a really solid content and media company based on our strengths.
There will be challenges in getting big. Bourbon & Boots is profitable but tiny now with about 250,000 uniques a month and an email list of about 170,000. The recent $270,000 cash infusion is piddling compared to other like-minded ecommerce 2.0 companies. “That would probably fund about five minutes of Fab.com,” Price says. He didn’t raise more, because he didn’t want the company to get addicted to cash-infused growth that was unsustainable. Some would call that smart; others would call it playing it too safe to grow fast.
Instead, Bourbon & Boots will continue to grow deliberately and likely profitably. In some ways, that’s good for its artisans. A lot of the things I saw on the site that I wanted were sold out. The site regularly sells popular items by the hundreds, and it’s found plenty of artisans who can scale up to that kind of demand but might struggle to meet a thousand orders. Such mass production could also ruin the small batch appeal. If it can’t sell individual items en masse, that means it needs to add more items, which introduces new challenges in terms of the user experience.
There’s a chance this remains simply a nice lifestyle business. But that in and if itself would be remarkable. How many sustainable ecommerce lifestyle businesses are there? The margins and customer acquisition costs frequently only work at scale.
Still, it’s one of the better ecommerce sites I’ve seen in terms of having a distinct and yet universally appealing identity since Fab or NastyGal. Bourbon & Boots is a natural acquisition candidate for someone, but I hope it continues to fly under the radar and grow in its own uniquely authentic way.
[Image Credit: Smithsonian.com]