Lessons Learned With Longlive the Swarm
Shane Spalione and Aaron Avila are the co-creators of Longlive the Swarm, a limited-edition apparel and accessories brand deeply rooted in Southern California.
Longlive the Swarm came onto our radar four years ago, when they submitted to (and won!) our Store from Scratch contest. We loved their video, their ethos, their drive - they’re a great example of what can be done with hard work, creativity, and the right tools.
Fast forward to a couple months ago when I got an email from Aaron expressing the importance of winning our contest. He included a link to this video of him and Shane reflecting back on their winning video submission. I shared the video with the entire company and we all loved the personal insight it gave us into their lives, both personally and as a brand.
It was high time we caught up with them to see what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown as they’ve transformed a creative project with humble beginnings into a real business.
Let’s go way, way back to when you two decided to submit a video to the Store From Scratch contest. Can you share a bit about how your video came together?
Aaron: I remember waking up to a text from my photographer buddy, John Baehr, who sent me a link to the Store from Scratch contest and said, “I think you guys can win this.” I don’t think I really believed we could win at the time but I knew we had a genuine story to tell. I immediately reached out to our friend, Matt Fredrick, better known as Matthias on YouTube. He is an extremely passionate and talented filmmaker and creative in general. I knew he had the skills to help us make this project happen. He jumped on board and I gave him the run down on how we wanted to tell our story.
It was really important to me that in addition to giving people a glimpse behind the scenes, that we also clearly presented our past (what got us here), present (where we are), and future (where we hope to go). Packing that into a video under two minutes was difficult to say the least. I outlined a few basic scenes and their locations and we shot and edited the video in one day.
It was really important to me that we showcased the streets and homes where this brand was truly born. I feel like most suburban kids grow up with a certain level of disdain for the town or city in which they are raised. I think Shane and I both recognized early on that our hometown of Santa Clarita and Southern California culture in general was our biggest muse. We wanted to be as transparent as possible and in a sense motivate others to create their own path. Whatever that may be.
Where were your heads at when you were starting out? Did you have a well-defined idea of what you wanted Longlive the Swarm to be?
Aaron: Looking back, this all started from a void. I think both an emotional and creative void in both of our lives at the time. With the passing of our friend, Barry Warrick, I think we were both pretty lost. I knew I wanted to do something to keep his creative spirit alive. Something that he could live through and that I could use as a way to stay close to the memories we shared. I just wasn’t exactly sure what that “thing” was. We had no money. There was no business plan. In fact, there has never been a plan. We just started. We were just trying to create things.
Shane and I grew up playing in punk and hardcore bands. We bought a van right after high school and drove half way across the US on a tour we booked ourselves through Myspace. I printed all of our band t-shirts in my high school screen printing class. We set up our own shows. We put out our own records. The DIY mindset was just what we knew. Those formative years really taught us to be self sufficient. Honestly, as DIY as you can get. That mindset has carried us through and shaped the way we operate.
We have never been focused on, or motivated by, money. We have ideas and we do our best to execute them. Every part about this journey has been a learning experience beyond anything I could have imagined. We have made a lot of mistakes. TONS! We have also grown so much because of them. I wouldn’t change a thing about our history. We move at our own pace. We have no debt. We do what we want, when we want. We have total creative freedom. So, in a sense, we are doing what we set out to do. We make what we like and that’s it.
A lot can change in four years. You mentioned recently that back when you two submitted the video, you were only getting a few orders a week. When did things start to pick up and build momentum? Did it happen organically or were there specific things you did to push and grow the business?
Aaron: A lot of slow organic growth. A lot of trial and error. A lot of determination and hard work. I have always lived by the idea that we need to do at least three things for the brand every day. It can be as small as just posting a picture on our Instagram or something larger like preparing for a new release. A brand needs to be fed every day in order to grow. We started doing more pop-ups and getting involved with other like-minded brands and artists. We did giveaways and put a ton of effort into social media. Anything that could push us forward even a little bit, we did.
I really focused on branding as well. The packaging and presentation is extremely important to me. At some point you have to just put your head down and go. We failed a lot. We celebrated small wins. We just kept going. Eventually people start taking you seriously and you are able to sustain. In our eyes we are still a very new brand and that is exciting. I love forward movement and creating our own momentum. The ability to create with total freedom. Seeing others connect with something that was just an idea in our heads is an incredible feeling.
Shane: We were also fortunate to have influencers pick up our brand on their own time. They helped us grow a lot in terms of social media and online presence.
Starting from scratch can be super rough and awkward, but from that video it seemed like you all had things pretty well put together. For folks that are just starting out on a new endeavor, do you have any advice on how to look like you know what you’re doing even when you’re still in the stage of figuring things out?
Shane: I think one of the most important things in building a brand or building anything for that matter is confidence. If you are confident about what you are doing, and appear so then the rest kind of falls into line. My advice would be to use what you know and what you are good at to really mold your vision, and if presentation and professionalism is a quality you have right off the bat you’ll find yourself in a good position to convince people that you know what you are doing.
Aaron: I agree. Be confident. Be yourself. Be optimistic. Be realistic without selling yourself short. Take calculated risks and put in the time to learn your craft. If you don’t know something, use the internet! Don’t be afraid to collaborate and ask for help. Reach out to people who have skills that you don’t. We definitely had no idea what we were doing when we made that video. We still have so much learning to do.
I think my main advice would be to just start. Don’t get caught up in the lie that you can’t do it, or no one cares, or you need a bunch of money to be creative. Focus in on the general idea and be unrelenting. If we can do it - so can you! It doesn’t have to manifest itself as clothing. Everyone has a passion. Surround yourself with others who share that passion and help each other make something.
How do you determine your product line-up? And why limited edition?
Aaron: T-shirts were always the obvious first step for us and things just spread from there. We already knew the process of making shirts from our band days. When we started printing shirts we always did a limited run based on the fact that we had no money. We were also aware that there was a large chance that no one would buy them as we were just getting started. We never want to be sitting on inventory for too long, if at all.
We restock certain popular items here and there - when we do, we try to offer different colorways or a different rendition of the garment. We do our best to listen to what our customers want, too. With social media, it is insanely easy to get instant feedback and test new ideas. Any product we sell is based on our own desires. We sell hats, pins, patches, sweatshirts, socks, wallets, and more because we are passionate about everyday lifestyle products. We try not to limit ourselves, as far as the range of products, but at the same time we want to deliver quality.
Shane: It’s really important to us to keep our brand true to what we are all about, and true to what we love.
What’s it like working side-by-side with one of your closest friends? Do you each handle different aspects of the business or is there a lot of crossover?
Shane: Probably the biggest benefit is to being able to talk to one another about the business on a comfortable, personal level. We’ve known each other for the better of 15 years now and I think I speak for both of us when I say it’s a privilege to work with your best friend on something like this. It really has become a part of who we are. As far as handling the brand, it’s only us two. Aaron has been the real machine behind the company. He has been handling all of the factory correspondence, online orders and shipping, as well as social media. As of now every package you receive is hand packed by the owner of the company.
What’s the hardest part of running your own business? What’s the most rewarding part?
Aaron: I would say time. Time always seems to be against you when you want to get something done - which without fail leads to stress. We both have full time jobs outside of the brand so managing our time is always difficult. Our schedules are completely opposite as Shane works mostly nights in the bar and restaurant industry and I work during the day as a commercial realtor. Longlive The Swarm is a passion-first business. We learned rather quickly that we are creatives first and almost everything else second. The learning curve with forming the LLC, taxes, trademarks, and more has been rough, but we get through it together.
I think the most rewarding aspect has been our customers. We have gotten some pretty mind-blowing messages over the years from people around the world - some who connect with our story and others who just like the design on the back of one of our t-shirts. I am so grateful that people connect with the brand at all. We don’t take it for granted.
Where do you see Longlive the Swarm four years from now?
Aaron: We’ve always done things at our own pace. We usually take the hard road, not necessarily by choice haha. I used to try and plan months and years ahead, but I am at a place in my life where I am living in the moment and taking things as they come. So, to be honest, as of now I see us continuing to grow the brand and expanding the line through collaborations - whether that be with other brands or artists or even with musicians or other content creators. I’d really like to explore more video content and do what we can to curate events and pop-ups that bring us face-to-face with our customers.
The plan is to not have a plan. That’s the way we got here.