Ethan Song Interview: co-founder, CEO Frank And Oak
Our own Ethan Song on constant curiosity and living the good life
In this, the first installment of our Good Living interview series, we ask our most interesting friends revealing questions about how they design their lives, navigate today’s complicated world and, well, live the good life – whatever that means for them. We’ve started with our own co-founder and CEO, Ethan Song. We asked him about today’s design trends, how to be constantly curious, and how to stay disconnect between team meetings and full inboxes.
Where did you grow up and what is it that brought you to Montreal?
I was born in Tianjin, China but came to Canada as a kid. My dad had an opportunity to pursue his studies in Quebec. The funny thing is that he was originally supposed to go to Switzerland, but a last minute change brought us to Canada. I guess that would have been a whole other story.
You studied acting and dance but then went on to study computer engineering and worked in business consulting. How has the wide variety of subjects and experiences helped you in life?
I was always interested in a broad array of fields and explored it all for a while without any specific vision of where it would lead. I suppose that the intersection of technology and more creative endeavours is where I've focused most of my energy. That said, I really do think that not everything we do needs to have an end goal. Sometimes it’s simply about being in the moment. I really like that Steve Jobs quote where he said something to the effect of, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to have trust. That’s what I always try to do.
So you’re 20-something years old with a pretty diverse base of study and you have some experience at a large financial firm, what drove you to take the plunge into starting a retail brand?
What got us started wasn't any specific idea of a business or product but rather the simple desire to build something. Just two friends doing something of value with their time. I've always seen entrepreneurship as a sort of lifestyle that goes through both successes and failures and I find it to be more of a journey than an end unto its own. I was so passionate about starting a business that one day I just quit my day job and started working on various ideas and projects I had in the back of my mind. We tried and built so many different products until we got to Frank And Oak. Even with Frank And Oak, the initial idea was not so much about selling products but about helping men (many of them our friends at the time) dress better without all the irritations. We knew so many people who just couldn’t be bothered. We wanted to build something that would make it all easy for everybody.
How important is it for you to look ahead and keep learning, keep growing?
In today's world, if you're staying still you are really moving back. There is so much to learn and to further explore that there is always an opportunity to learn more. As an entrepreneur, you also want to have a deeper understanding of all the parts of your business even if you're not necessarily the one doing it. It helps you to better value the work of others and to hire people that will share the same culture. The truth is no one knows for sure what will happen in the future so I think it's super important to invest in yourself and your ability to deal with whatever happens next.
"In today's world, if you're staying still you are really moving back. There is so much to learn and to further explore that there is always an opportunity to learn more."
Are there any designers you were drawn to once you were more exposed to the fashion world?
Yeah, of course. My first passion was film and I was always attracted to directors that were able to really shape a complex world of characters. When I got interested in design and fashion, I was right away interested in the work of designers who had that same sensibility. Designers like Hedi Slimane who are more like creative directors and brand visionaries. They understood that the clothes were just one element in creating a compelling universe.
How do you start and end your day?
I'm not too much of a morning person so I don't have an extensive morning ritual. I do thoroughly enjoy the 15 minutes walk to our office in the Mile End. I find it relaxing and it gets me in the right mindset for the day. I don't think I would enjoy a long commute or drive to work. Before heading to bed, I always like to read for 30 or 40 minutes. It's that time of the day when I'm able to find quietude.
You’ve got a lot on your plate; what guides your choices? How do you decide what to take on, what to focus on?
My role has really changed over the past few years as the company has grown. I think to be a good leader you have to first and foremost focus on what will help your team to be successful. I try to spend as much time as possible supporting our team leaders and removing barriers that might be in their way. Other than that, I focus on setting a clear direction that everyone can understand.
What’s your approach to disconnecting every now and then?
I love to go on adventures and sporting trips like surfing or snowboarding but to places that are a little more out of the way. When there is literally nothing to do other than to surf the waves, that's when you forget about the world around you and just focus on the moment. The harder the physical activity the more disconnected I feel since all my energy is on trying to survive!
What’s the style trend you’re looking forward to in 2018?
I'm enjoying this return to classic tailoring and fabrics that carry history. I always enjoyed fashion that has a story and we're now seeing more traditional menswear pieces being reimagined for the modern day.
What’s your definition of the Good Life?
To me a good life is really about following your own path and not worrying too much about what others think. Time is by far the most valuable thing anyone has and there’s just too little of it to live someone else's life.
As told to Frank And Oak – mens and womenswear designed in Canada. Made for good living.