Milwaukee entrepreneur appears on ‘Shark Tank’

Adam Butlein presents on social enterprise Uniform

Adam Butlein presents his business, LiteZilla.

Last updated on May 14th, 2019 at 07:25 am

Cedarburg entrepreneur Adam Butlein appeared on an episode of ABC hit show “Shark Tank” on Sunday to seek investment from its successful business moguls.

Adam Butlein presents LiteZilla at a 2018 Startup Milwaukee event.

Butlein presented New York-based social enterprise clothing retailer Uniform with co-founder Chid Liberty. The pair sought $300,000 in exchange for 10 percent of the business from moguls Daymond John, chief executive officer of clothing brand FUBU, QVC personality Lori Greiner, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Skinnygirl founder Bethenny Frankel, and Canadian software entrepreneur Robert Herjavec.

Uniform makes men’s and women’s clothing lines that are sold online and in retailers including Bloomingdale’s. For every item sold, the company donates a school uniform to a child in the African countries where its products are manufactured.

“To put it simply, Uniform is an ethical clothing company, but our story goes so much deeper,” Liberty said. “Uniform is a streetwear brand on a mission. We’re out to reshape the fashion industry with minimalist hip-hop infused designs that are 100 percent made in Africa.”

Liberty and Butlein, best friends who grew up in Milwaukee together, initially launched an Africa-based clothing manufacturer called Liberty & Justice in 2010.

“I’m from Liberia. I was interested in providing jobs to women after the (Second Liberian Civil War),” Liberty told the sharks. “Adam is my best friend, we do everything together. He’s a Jewish boy from Milwaukee, but he’s like, ‘Bro, I’m coming with you.’”

But that business was devastated by the Ebola virus outbreak in Liberia in 2014. It is now the parent company of Uniform.

“We have spent years working with the best producers in countries like Egypt, Ghana and Liberia,” Butlein said. “Literally from dirt to shirt, we engineer luxury quality staples like our amazingly soft T-shirts to our best-selling women’s jumpsuit and bomber jacket.”

Researchers at MIT have found school attendance among children in Kenya improved by as much as 62 percent when they received school uniforms, and for every three girls who received a uniform, two delayed their first pregnancies, he said.

“All over the developing world, kids are required to wear a uniform in order to go to school, so this donated uniform can mean an entire future for a child,” Liberty said.

Uniform has landed a deal for distribution of its kids clothes in Target stores, which is a huge break for the company, Liberty said.

“It looks like in all areas you are kind of covered, right?” John asked Butlein and Liberty on the show. “What do you really think that we can do for you besides money?”

Liberty had an answer for that.

“Daymond, I don’t know anybody who would want to start a streetwear brand and not be partners with Daymond John. Lori, take them on QVC, I think they would be absolutely gigantic. Mark, there’s so much that we can do with the NBA. Bethenny, I mean legendary, I think there’s a million things we can do with capsule collections. And Robert, we’ve seen what you’ve done with other apparel brands on the Tank.”

In the end, none of the sharks chose to invest in Uniform. Several of them had previously invested in apparel brands and found the industry complex and challenging.

“So, Mark and I invested in a company a few years ago… They also were in Bloomingdale’s, it also was a lot of T-shirts,” Greiner said. “We thought they were cool, they looked nice, the fabric was good and all that, but before we could even close the deal, they went bankrupt. What it taught me is that the clothing business is really competitive, it’s really tough.”

Butlein said he and Liberty had approached a number of other investors, and were aware they may get rejected by the sharks because of the “country risk” around manufacturing products in developing countries. Uniform was ultimately able to secure the funding it was seeking from a couple of institutional investors.

“Shark Tank” actually approached Uniform to appear on the show, and the exposure hasn’t hurt, Butlein said. Since the show aired on Sunday, the company has seen an uptick in web traffic.

Butlein is still a co-founder, investor and on the board of Uniform, but exited day-to-day involvement in the company in 2013 when he founded his Cedarburg startup, LiteZilla, he said.

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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