Interview with Derek Tian, Co-Founder at Black Lapel


The founder series explores the minds of business owners and their journey to make a difference in their industry. We interview these business founders to understand the life lessons that mold them into who they are today. We also learn more about their company, their products or services, how they are different from their competitors, and the problems that they are trying to solve for their customers. The information that these business owners provide to us helps inform other entrepreneurs who are looking to make an impact in the business world. We all can take these lessons and apply them to our entrepreneurial journey. We want to thank every business owner who volunteered their time to participate in these interviews and share their knowledge with the community.

Great to meet you. Thank you for doing the interview. We want to know more about your journey, early struggles, success, and some wisdom that we can pass on to others who are interested in walking your footsteps toward becoming an entrepreneur. We know that being an entrepreneur is not all glory and fame, but there are hard times too. We believe that others who are interested in being a business owner can gain insight from other business founders like yourself. Again, we want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. Let’s get this interview started!

Let us start off with some basic questions to learn more about who you are as a person.

Can you tell everyone your name, please?

My name is Derek Tian.

Photo credit: Derek Tian

Tell me about your education?

I have a B.S. in Finance and Marketing from NYU Stern.

Can you give an example of an early lesson in life that helped shaped who you are today?

I was born in Shanghai, China, the son and grandson of educators. My parents and I immigrated to the United States when I was 8 when my dad got a scholarship to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati. To this day, I have a strong indelible image of my parents constantly hard at work from the moment they arrived. Having very little savings, our family was forced to be extremely frugal to make ends meet, buying all of our clothes at church sales for $1 per brown bag and always getting whatever was on deep discount at the supermarket. Seeing my dad work another job while getting his degree and my mom works two jobs seven days a week had a substantial impact on me to this day. They’re comfortably retired now, and you could say that their hard work paid off in the kind of way American Dreams are made of — but I inherited their work ethic. My parents were far from the tiger parents that you read about that’s endemic to Asian cultures. I was by all accounts a “good kid” who didn’t make trouble and diligently got good grades. I think even then, and I realized that I had to do well in school to make their hard work and sacrifices worth it. That carried on into college and ultimately my decision to pursue a career in finance coming out of NYU.

We all have entrepreneurs whom we look up to in our industry. These business leaders help influence, shape, and drive our ambition to succeed. These entrepreneurs could be someone that we have worked with on a project or could be someone that we look up too from a distance. For example, Bill Gates is a big inspiration to me not only because of his work in Microsoft but his outstanding contributions to society.

Who would you consider to be a significant influence on you professionally and can you explain why?

Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, had a foundational influence on my philosophy as an entrepreneur. I read his book Delivering Happiness when I was still working in finance and was already thinking about starting a business. Tony’s philosophy of creating an amaze and wow experience for his customers, and how you can apply that same concept with your team internally to create happiness, satisfaction, and purpose in their careers resonated with me.

One of the things my business partner and I were lucky to have done very early in our business is we codified our core values. Following Tony’s lead, we adopted a few of the lessons from his book amongst other learnings and personal principles, and we distilled them into 11 distinct core values touching on everything from humility and honesty communications to having an attitude of constant self-improvement.

This focus on core values has allowed us to make some fantastic hires of team members who have a strong affinity to those values and also comes in handy in providing guidance on challenging business decisions. It’s indeed become part of our DNA.

Thank you for providing background on who you are as a person. I always find it fascinating to learn who a person is and their early life lessons. Let us move forward with the interview and discuss what you are doing now and how you are making a difference in your industry.

What is the name of your company?

My company is called Black Lapel.

Where is your company located?

We’re headquartered in New York City, where we have our offices and a showroom. However, our brand mostly lives online where the overwhelming majority of our customer interactions take place.

What services or products does your organization provide?

Black Lapel is a maker of men’s made to measure clothing from finely tailored custom suits and shirts to accessories and topcoats.

What problem is your business trying to solve?

Off the rack clothing, especially suits, don’t fit most people properly. Standard sizes are meant for an “average person” that simply do not exist in reality. Alterations are costly, time-consuming, and still result in a less than an ideal fit. Offering a made to measure custom product online provides an accessible solution to this problem at a price point comparable to off the rack options without ever needing to leave your home.

Photo credit: Derek Tian

How is your business unique against your competitors?

Rather than competing on price with our made to measure suiting peers, we’ve invested in our process and product to provide a better experience and outcome to our customers. This process involved a methodical and data-driven approach to understanding customer pain points and what their real needs are and applying those learnings to how we innovate and develop new products and processes. For example, knowing that most customers who order from us online are nervous about taking their measurements, we’ve invested in analytical algorithms utilizing our extensive database of customer measurements to identify potential measurement issues as soon as an order comes in (before we cut any fabric), so that we can reduce the risk of a poor fit on delivery. This tool applied with an intense desire to see our customers looking their best, yields incredible outcomes in fit and ultimately helps us earn some delighted customers with fantastic repeat purchase rates.

How did the idea for your business come to fruition?

My business partner, Warren Liao, and I were both working in finance. We wore many suits but as young professionals, could never find the find mix of fit, quality, and affordability. We set out to change that with Black Lapel. Having no background in the business of fashion, we had to do a ton of learning from understanding fabrics and fit, to learning about various construction methods and finding tailoring partners. That was a year plus process before we even launched our site and that the learning process continues to this day as we seek to improve our offerings continually.

Where can people go on the web to learn more about your business?

Our website — is a great place to start!

Final question. We want to thank you for the interview. We have one last question to ask you about imparting some wisdom to future entrepreneurs.

What three tips would you give to other entrepreneurs who are starting out on their journey?

I’d offer the following three tips for any aspiring entrepreneurs:

  1. Be humble. It will ALWAYS be harder than you think and throwing money at the problem is never the best solution.
  2. Be humble. Never fear constructive feedback, from customers, from vendors, from employees, from investors, from friends/family/sig other. Listen empathetically.
  3. Be humble. “This is how we do things.” This is why you were able to disrupt the status quo. Don’t become the status quo and instead, keep disrupting yourself.

Author: Ricky Singh, MBA

Editor of The Startup Growth.

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