Original article and interview
by Ken Yatomi
Edward “Ed” Sugimoto is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Really.
We’re at Maguro Brothers in Downtown Honolulu for lunch and I’m insisting on paying for his chirashi don (fresh, sushi-quality seafood served over hot white rice) and he keeps apologizing that he “shouldn’t have gotten the extra uni” (sea urchin roe). I tell him that it’s all good and that I want him to enjoy his meal, but he still feels bad.
He may be a nice guy, but don’t call Ed a pushover — the creator of VH07V and the driving force behind the “Aloha Revolution,” Ed’s quite possibly developed the defining local lifestyle brand in Hawaii.
Q: So, what’s the story behind “VH07V”? What does it mean, and how did it come about?
VH07V spells “ALOHA” upside-down. The meaning behind it is that when you wear your VH07V shirt, the logo sits right over your heart. Whenever you look down, it’s right-side up so it becomes our daily reminder to keep ALOHA in our hearts. It first started as a catchphrase on my old Star-Advertiser blog. Over time I kept thinking to myself, “Man, that would be a cool shirt.” So I tried it.
Q: How’d you get started with your business? And how’s it doing today?
I started with a small, affordable batch of shirts just to sell and give away to friends, which went really well. I then reordered a little more and those went quickly, too. Then I created a budget for myself. I thought, O.K., I’ll set aside $10,000 — total, including what I’d already spent — and use it for this new adventure. If I can sustain that and not put any more of my family’s money at risk, I’ll take it seriously. And you know, I haven’t had to put any more of my personal money into it ever since.
Q: Who works on the apparel designs, and where do they get their creative inspiration?
A lot of my inspiration comes from my personal background. I’m a 2nd generation Japanese-American — a nissei — so I have Hanafuda designs and Shodo (Japanese script) designs, and I’m working on one with the Great Wave and others that I can’t talk about yet. [he smiles, excitedly]
I was also the first, that I know of, to release “Pocket Aloha Shirts” for the business-casual guy like myself. We sourced material locally as well as from Japan for pockets, and had the Aloha Shirts produced right here in Hawaii.
I also get inspired by other brands that I think are cool and represent what I’m about: living clean, enjoying life, and being surrounded by great people. And especially Living Aloha.
I have some background and skills in design, but I know what my limits are and when to contract work out. [laughing] All concepts and styles are mine, though. I’m fortunate that my wife handles our ladies’ lines; she knows the cuts the best and has a good sense for what may appeal to women. I handle the guys’ lines. I pretty much use the “Would I like and wear that?” mantra on everything I create.
Q: Without giving away any trade secrets, what’s your operation like? Do you have staff? Where’s everything stored?
I have a wonderful partnership with Hawaii Self Storage that’s enabled VH07V to grow organically, at its own pace; they’ve really supported me from Day One. I originally had a storage locker on the upper level — you know, the kind you have to drag a ladder to get to? Then I moved to a modest ground floor unit, then a larger unit. Now I have two large units. It’s great because it’s climate-controlled so the product stays clean and fresh for our customers.
I’ve also been fortunate to be able to work with a fulfillment company, Aloha Ship & Pack (ASAP), that handles all of my online orders. When I first started, I used to have to go to storage to pull items, take them home to pack, then stand in line at the post office just to get stuff out. ASAP has a brick and mortar shipping and fulfillment business in Mililani Shopping Center, near my storage, so I just run it through them now. When orders come in, they pull the items for me and get them out — usually same-day or in a few days, at the latest.
Q: How’ve you promoted your brand? And how does social media fit into your marketing mix?
Social media has been key to our success. Before Facebook instituted their algorithm that hurt business’ ability to market organically, we were doing gangbusters. We gained a lot of traction in those early years just from people seeing our posts of their friends wearing our shirts. Since then, we’ve adjusted and have been primarily using Instagram.
We’ve also been fortunate to have the support of many athletes and celebrities including Marcus Mariota (football), Shane Victorino (baseball), Jesse Sapolu (football), Eric Hernandez (drummer and brother of Bruno Mars), Chad Owens (football), Jeremy Guthrie (baseball), Jerome Williams (baseball), Justin Young (musician), Jonas Otsuji (Survivor), Kapena (musicians), Jackie Perez (CrossFit), Mark Yamanaka (musician), Kenneth Makuakane (musician), etc.
Q: So tell us about Ed Sugimoto — at work and at home.
Local boy, born and raised in Honolulu. Went to Kaiser High School and graduated with a New Media Technology (Communications) degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. I work at Oceanic Time Warner Cable which is transitioning to the new Charter (Spectrum). I’m on the board for Lanakila Pacific and do an annual food festival called Rice Fest on the side. Our beneficiary for the event is Lanakila Meals on Wheels, which helps feed seniors.
My hobbies include blogging and writing — I write for e-Hawaii.com, Go-Naminori, and Lawaia Magazine — as well as eating and playing basketball. We like to travel from time to time, although it’s a bit more challenging these days with with a family. I have a loving wife who helps with the side business, and two beautiful daughters.
Q: You’re also a Guinness World Record holder!
[ laughs ] Yeah, it’s kinda cool to call yourself a Guinness World Record holder, but it really was a team effort. We set the record for the Largest SPAM Musubi at Rice Fest in 2011 at 286 pounds, and broke our own record the following year at 628 pounds. We’re still waiting for confirmation from the Guinness organization for our Loco Moco record-breaking attempt. That one came in at a whopping 1,103 pounds!
Q: What advice can you give to young entrepreneurs who want to follow in your footsteps?
Take affordable steps and always be ready to move with how the market and your customers move. I support my family so it was easy for me to take affordable steps — I wasn’t willing to risk my family’s wellbeing for what was initially a selfish project. I think if I were a bachelor, it would’ve been easy to throw money here and there aimlessly, and that may’ve hurt me in the long run. Things have gone relatively smoothly so far, but it hasn’t been easy. Adjustments always had to be made along the way and you just learn to flow with it or you won’t succeed.
Q: What advice can you give to those who want to use social media to promote their business?
Unless you plan to pay to play, use Facebook sparingly. I was stubborn and kept scheduling posts six times a day, hoping the algorithm wouldn’t affect me. [laughing] In the end, I was wasting time that I could have been using elsewhere. I still post on Facebook, but they’re select posts. The “good” posts usually still get seen so it’s better to just post your better ones on Facebook, and other “quickie” posts on Instagram or even Snapchat. I’d try to use as many platforms as possible. You want to be where the people are. If you’re seen in several locations, your name will stick in your customers’ minds. YouTube is another interesting medium because the ability to become viral and instantly recognizable is there. Look at Chewbacca Mom or even Pidgin Siri. Great examples of using the media in the right manner.
You can find ALOHA — via VH07V — everywhere:
a7oha.com on the Web
@VH07V on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Pinterest