The Corner Office: James Bond, Co-Founder of UNDEFEATED
Words: Julian Mitchell
Images: Ja Tecson
Images: Ja Tecson
Some of the most successful people in the game refused to follow the rules to make it happen, they did it their own way. Welcome to the Corner Office.
James Bond serves as the CEO of UNDEFEATED, a leading lifestyle brand known for embodying the spirit of hard work that defines today’s generation of multi-talented hustlers. The brand cemented their cultural footprint with the launch of several popular sneaker stores across Los Angeles. The company, co-founded by Bond and his longtime business partner Eddie Cruz; now boasts nearly two decades at the forefront of an evolving streetwear industry.
Respected for their signature collaborations and limited collections with apparel giants like Nike and adidas, UNDEFEATED has leveraged their influence to release their own products designed for people from all walks of life who are paving their own way. Recently, Beats By Dre connected with UNDEFEATED to unveil custom camouflage co-branded products. Both founders continue to remain committed to their goal of shattering tradition and redefining the business model for lifestyle brands looking to elevate culture.
I spoke with James about the mission of UNDEFEATED, staying ahead of a changing industry and the keys to building an impactful lifestyle brand.
You’ve teamed up with Beats multiple times before, what was the thinking this time behind the most recent collaboration and how do you usually approach working with brands?
James Bond: When we decide to collaborate with a brand we always look to create more than just a one-off piece. We want to tell a story from beginning to end. This recent release is our third collaboration with Beats. As UNDEFEATED, we’ve been fortunate to become known for the olive color and tiger camo. It’s the equivalent of our five stripes or the box logo. For us, the camouflage is a way to blend into the atmosphere. At the same time, with Beats, it’s interesting that you would blend into something, yet your voice, paired with the noise coming from the Beats Pill+, let's you stand in front at the same time. You’re essentially hidden in the shadows, yet your voice is very loud. It expresses the metaphor that you’re not only for yourself -- you’re for a bigger cause. That’s a big reason we went with the [tiger] camo. It’s hidden and it’s in the environment. But, at the same time, it has a definitive voice and sound that cuts through.
How do you describe the UNDEFEATED brand and the work that you guys do?
James Bond: The UNDEFEATED brand is a lifestyle. It’s music, art, fashion and sports. Although our brand expands into these different spaces, everything we do is planted in the spirit of hard work. It’s not really about winning or losing. Instead, it’s about being able to say you gave it your best and didn’t leave anything on the table. Pouring your all into what you do, having no regrets and making no excuses. That’s the UNDEFEATED lifestyle.
You’ve built UNDEFEATED alongside your partner Eddie Cruz, how would you describe the different roles you both play and what makes the dynamic work so well?
James Bond: We both balance multiple responsibilities, but Eddie primarily handles operations. He knows how to make retail work. Eddie has a very good analytical mind, which is critical to running a successful company. My role was always more of the creative and working with our partners. I would manage the design process, make sure each line comes out correctly, work with our licensee here in the United States, and also work directly with our partners overseas. Now Eddie and I operate in the same lane, wearing different hats. I’m helping him with the retail environments, while he’s helping me with the design aspects. We also brought in a design team that he manages. I’m managing more of the technical aspects and overseeing the performance wear line that we’re coming out with. Eddie handles the lifestyle pieces that we’re developing with our new design group. We’ve both been at this together for so long that he knows how far he can push it, and then I’ll step in and vice versa. I’ll do something, then he’ll step in and add some of his flavor to it. By working this way as partners, our ideas are always aligned and in play, so it comes together quite nicely.
"It’s not really about winning or losing. Instead, it’s about being able to say you gave it your best and didn’t leave anything on the table. Pouring your all into what you do, having no regrets and making no excuses. That’s the UNDEFEATED lifestyle."
What is the mantra or philosophy that you apply to both your life and your business?
James Bond: You really don’t have a business or a brand without a philosophy. Without a philosophy, you’re always chasing trends and looking at what someone else is doing. From day one, even when we came up with the name, our conversations were always about being the best at what we’re going to do. We don’t have to be crazy. We don’t need a lot of different layers. It’s really simple -- let’s have the best curation of sneakers that we can have. Let’s also provide the best accessories and products to complement those sneakers. From customer service, to whatever visual we put in front of you, it will always makes sense to what we do as a company. We want to tell a cohesive story.
With industries and trends changing so much what keeps UNDEFEATED fresh, relevant and ahead of the curve even years later?
James Bond: What keeps the brand fresh, and what keeps us ever-evolving is that our business revolves around selling Nike, adidas, Converse and other popular brands. As a sneaker store, by default, you’re always going to be relevant as long as you continue to partner with those bigger brands. Internally, part of what keeps us fresh is our staff. We have a lot of really great young talent that we’ve been able to foster over the years. We’ve watched some interns turn into great social media leaders. We hired a new creative director that was an art director. We can throw everything on his desk and know he’s smart enough to handle it. We’re really fortunate to have great people that work with us. They are what keep things moving and always popping. That allows Eddie and I to sit back and take a mentoring position. We can invest in their growth and development, which only makes us stronger as a company and brand.
What do you consider to be the keys to managing and developing great teams?
James Bond: You have to trust in the process. It’s about letting people feel empowered. If a mistake is made, it won’t be the end of the world. You have to be able to pivot and learn from the mistake. If they’re willing to listen and learn with you, as you are willing to listen and learn with them, it gives them trust in the relationship. That pushes them to take chances and make hard decisions. Everybody wants the ball for the last shot. We let them know they can have the last shot. You’re going to miss it sometimes, but you’re also going to make it sometimes. When you do make it, it is going to be a learning experience for the next shot. A lot of times I just turn things over to my guys and they know where I stand on most issues. They’re paid to make the decision, meaning that they’re paid to take the shot. So, I must trust them to do so.
"When we first opened, I don’t think Eddie or myself knew what we had or what we were going to do. We just knew we wanted a really fun store."
What were some of the challenges you faced when first getting established and building your business?
James Bond: When you’re in a partnership with brands like Nike or adidas, they have their own agenda. They want to leverage you to get their voice across and they want to get it across the best way that they can. In one sense, we’re just a portal for a lot of their storytelling around athletes and so on. If you go to a NikeTown, they tell the brand story a certain way. But, when you come to us, there’s a little more edge. You may get the middle finger. That’s why brands are aware that they have to tread lightly with us. The challenges are finding balance -- saying that you can have this, but we still need to do it our way. We started our own line because we wanted to do it our way. We love partnerships and collaborations, but those challenges come at a cost sometimes.
In a time where everything is about marketing and messaging, how important is quality at the end of the day?
James Bond: At a certain age, most consumers just want the hype -- they don’t care about the quality. Sadly, the average young consumer just wants to look like everybody else. They just want an Instagram moment. I think as you become a little older and more sophisticated you become a little more strategic about what you buy and the look you want. That’s when you start looking at the quality. Once you start to learn the little subtleties that make your look different, you’ll start to look for that quality. You look for a better fabric. You look for better construction. It becomes more about educating a consumer around what it means to buy things of better quality.
We’ve talked about doing things your own way, but success is still about being scalable, profitable and continuing to grow. How have you been able to do that?
James Bond: Over time our consumer base has grown and brands have put out more product. So, just by natural course of selection, you will organically grow with the industry. We will open another store when there’s more product available. But those conversations start way up on the food chain, with the brands deciding if they’re going to have 5, 10, 15 or 20 new releases. At a certain point, a brand like ours can only maintain a certain number of stores in order to keep that exclusivity and feeling of being unique. Fortunately, I don’t think we’ve gotten anywhere near hitting that breaking point. Looking at how we maintain the business and how the brands maintain their businesses, scalability is not an issue for us at this point.
How has your vision evolved from when you opened the first store to where you are now?
James Bond: When we first opened, I don’t think Eddie or myself knew what we had or what we were going to do. We just knew we wanted a really fun store. This was 16 years ago. We were both in our early 30s and our responsibilities were still relatively low. We were both married. We simply wanted to create something fun and not have to take a regular job. Over time, as we began building the brand, that evolved into wanting a lifestyle brand that can make a change. Even today, the possibilities are endless.
What void or opportunity did you see that sparked the idea to start UNDEFEATED?
James Bond: There were a few sneaker stores in Los Angeles, but nothing that really spoke to who we were as individuals. Both of us didn’t have retail-driven backgrounds. We came from a music video and commercial world, so our lens was slightly different than the typical sneaker store. We were thinking, how do we take these products that Nike and adidas are coming out with and make them more compelling? How do we put the products in an environment that would attract not only sneaker heads, but an eclectic mix of people that live in Los Angeles? We designed it around the California lifestyle, from the floors and furniture, to the displays -- and nobody had ever really done that in Los Angeles before.
What would be your words of advice to young entrepreneurs figuring out what their passion or purpose is?
James Bond: You need to have a voice and trust it. You have to be willing to stand for what you believe in. It could be any idea or business regardless of what it is, the consumer will know when you’re authentic about it. When you put your heart and soul into something, people can feel that. They see it clearly and connect to it. When you find out what that thing is, I truly believe that the universe will support you in that mission. If someone’s energy feels right and they are doing things the right way – I’m going to support that person. That’s where we benefited. We had a lot of friends who provided support. The energy was right. It felt like a moment where everything aligned. If you’re in that moment, you can really turn that energy into something successful. Not just financially, but for your growth as an individual. Beyond building any business, that growth is what you are really seeking anyway.