If you’re interested in how a business is put together, how to build it, react to events, then how it all actually works and feels, read on:
The reflective impulse finally kicked in on day 10 of our 2 week family holiday. I was dog tired, foggy, demotivated, out of ideas and apparently looking rather pallid...it's called Knackered.
Normally it takes a day or two to bounce back. You know you’ve bounced back when you start drifting into your company and reflecting, dreaming, creating, learning and rebuilding. This time it took 10 days.
Kids: sources of exhaustion & relaxation. Terrible for a business, and great. The context of kids and 'the important things' are great leveller and knackerer
Nothing worth having ever came easy
It’s partly a function of having a 6 and 3 year old. Partly years of smashing it as an entrepreneur, a pinch of the exhaustion and stress of my previous company, but mainly just working damned hard, like any small business owner, to launch their passion. The exhaustion isn’t so much physical, it’s mental and emotional. You’re right on the ragged edge of “will it work, will people like it, can I pay the bills, how can I write a blog when the kids need picking up, why have they overcharged me, have I got the VAT return right?" Often fascinating and mostly mundane stuff, but what you put in, you get out. It's addictive.
So out the back of a good rest, I feel recharged, full of ideas, clarity and intent - and, it seems, I’m quite content. Looking back at expectations, I cannot believe the reviews, and that MOST of our customers are now repeat buyers. Hell, 12% of our customers have bought 3 jackets or more! MOST have bought 2. In a year!
That for me was the parting of the fog. Holy wombats, people LIKE THE KIT! That imposter syndrome never leaves you, despite previous successes. Is it good enough? Am I good enough? It’s healthy, it bats away the arrogance, keeps you hungry and alert - as long as that humility doesn’t become fear. It’s a tightrope I walk fairly well - though I still fall off - more into fear than arrogance these days! I know what’s at stake...
In looking back at FRAHM’s first year, the important comparator is what we THOUGHT we’d be, and how that matched up.
This was our founding strategy:
- Make only jackets. Be really good at just that.
- They should last for life - tougher, but more detailed, subtly innovated classics - what we’d wear.
- No investment - less pressure or loss of control.
- That means we MUST stay small - it’s a discipline, especially when you get offers of investment of wholesale from nice folk. So we’ll only make 100 of each jacket design once a year.
- Let’s try pre-orders and deposits then.
- Let’s make them for more thoughtful ‘curious’ men.
- We’re not doing stereotypical luxury fashion brand slickness.
- Market them without the ‘lifestyle’ BS. Sell real life, in all it’s beauty and difficulty.
- That means we should support a mental health charity.
- We’ll only do this on our own website, from home.
- We’ll market them on reputation, social media, email and through press reviews.
- Nick does design, website, marketing, service, creative. Jason does finance and operations.
- Look after ourselves physically and mentally. Eat well, sleep well, take time off, exercise.
- Let's launch it all in August 2018.
What actually happened?
Well, we only make jackets so far. 4 of them.
They’re holding up great - no faults since we launched (that is a pretty insane statistic actually).
Still all bootstrapped. No investment, but by god we ran on fumes through 2018! That meant some proper squeaky bum moments last Autumn, as we got massively let down by an agent, so our stock arrived in November, not August. We fired the agent, went direct and thanked our lucky stars we'd found the problem early. That's how you have to think as business owners - not "we just lost a load of money" but "we found a problem and made it better, phew". Thankfully our pre-ordering friends were extremely considerate and understood our growing pains. Thank you, really.
Demand was so high for the Utility Field Jacket in early 2019, I released some more. I kind of regret that, simply because it is not Sticking To The Strategy (our mantra) and it felt a bit weird (never a good thing). So we’re now reverting to a once per year system as we gain traction and have learnt more. Each jacket appears on pre-order to get at the appropriate time once a year, then that’s it.
Utility Field Jacket - our launch garment. Now it's arriving in 4 colours and 8 sizes this September, not just black and 5 sizes
That means we’re making new jackets in 2020 to ‘fill in the season wheel’ as we call it.
To my shock, delight and a good chunk of wobbly bottom lipped emotion, pre orders kicked off spectacularly in July last year. Before we had even shown a design and even said what it was we were making (apart from great jackets) we had £395 pre orders coming in. I asked, and it seems my reputation (blush - false modesty?) from Vulpine had brought those initial heart warming sales in. That gave us such a huge boost.
With deposits though, we eventually dropped them. Very few customers used them, to our surprise, and they seemed to clutter our website, as we sought to clearly explain the FRAHM concept. So I took the leap and stopped doing them in Spring this year. You should have a strategy, but always be prepared to adapt, as long as that doesn’t compromise your founding ideals.
I try and talk to as many customers as possible. This has become harder as we’ve become busier. Often you contact me and talk about what we stand for before the quality of the jacket. It feels great to know this, as I really worried about the brand - I had total confidence in the products, but brands are strange gaseous bodies of emotion and interpretation - they morph and look different with perspectives. I worried that the mental health message and connection, the deliberate avoidance of storybook glamour, might backfire and we’d simply be seen as do-gooders and dull, or somesuch! Phew.
With that, our first model Chris Blakeston, late forties Bristol dad and successful tech CEO, who’s clearly LIVED, and gives excellent beard, really set that tone. He’s a good looking fella, but real (imperfect), craggy, tired, but charismatic (sorry Chris, I know you hate this stuff). He IS a thoughtful, curious, kind, tough, adventurous soul - he fitted perfectly and set the tone for the other gents: Miles, Pravin & Russ. Through circumstances, I ended modelling the harrington last year - which was not a pleasant experience. I may like a selfie, but that does NOT make a good model.
Somerset and the men we know nearby, has become a stronger theme for FRAHM. We look for models like Pravin, renowned chef and proprietor (and, as a non-negotiable for FRAHM, a super decent bloke) of Castle Farm Midford, Bath - all part of being 'real'
Hopefully we have continued to be honest about ourselves and life’s highs and lows?
We couldn’t confirm it until August last year, but we’d always wanted to work with Mind as our chosen charity. With that, I blogged for them, about my mental collapse, and we confirmed that £10 from each jacket sold goes to them. As part of that agreement, we also said that we would promote good mental health - simply by not selling unreachable lifestyles and telling it as it is - my problems and others.
Mind don't just throw this logo around. We are honoured to be chosen to work with them
- This became our podcasts, which started with me pouring my heart out one impromptu drive to London one day; to funny and entertaining deep delves into many other men and woman’s (need more than Anna!) lives. What has come out of that is very clear - no matter how glamorous or successful these people seem, we all struggle, we all have moments of horror and fear, but we can all eventually dig ourselves out of them. The podcasts were an unexpected joy that came purely from instinct, not design. They’re 5 star rated on iTunes and listener numbers rank in the 10s of thousands. Yea!
We're up to 8 podcasts now, with 3 more recorded and on their way
Through the last year I’ve become something of a website designer - not a great one, but jumped from rank amateur to building some outside FRAHM too. I love it. Learnt so much- and this is perhaps the main reason I love my day to day work is the learning and personal development. You start the day an idiot, and end it a reasonably proficient starter. A month later you’re nailing it! Joyful.
With that, we have been approached to stock FRAHM in some ace retailers. I was very VERY tempted. But after a lot of soul searching, Jason, Emmalou (my wife has become more involved out of necessity, though she has her own separate job - all hands on deck!) and I decided it was breaking the strategy too much. Wholesale is a beast I’m not comfortable wrestling with (yet?). I’m good enough at ecommerce to have consulted for others on it, but I could never pretend to do that in retail. I’ve learnt that in startups, you must concentrate your efforts into your strengths (the 80/20 rule), and not to say yes too much. Also, when in doubt, don’t. That decision ‘lost’ us quite a bit of immediate revenue, but I think underpinning our concept for all our online customers helps us so much long term, and ultimately wholesale is in my opinion fraught with risk. One thing FRAHM was designed to mitigate was risk - this is a family business to help us. So we politely and gratefully said no. It felt good to make a positive well discussed decision. Not to flip flap around. Just do it.
One unexpected boost and new direction for FRAHM has been events, or rather Frome Independent Market. Interestingly, and very unexpectedly it is our most read blog ever. It seems to be you are involved in our story You want to see us doing well and to share in these unexpected moments of joy. Though we can’t guarantee they’ll keep us, we’ve been attending for 6 months now, and booked until November so far. The question now is what other events we should do? They are exhausting, and when they fail, a very costly exercise indeed, in both money and especially time. That’s a new discovery to be made.
Frome Independent Market - click the image to read our most read blog
Marketing has developed interestingly. I knew I could do good emails (I hope?!) and blogs from Vulpine. But I thought we’d really bounce off our Twitter, as it has 6500 followers. But Twitter isn’t the beast that had driven before. It IS a rancorous place and I have found it hard to invest time. So I turned to instagram. I prefer the imagery and short story format, and it’s been a huge success for us. We’re not big, but our followers are intensely interested.
Our instagram - pretty pictures, behind the scenes, little stories but also get involved, as we ask you what you think of potential new designs & colours
Reputation is probably the biggest driving force for our current ‘success’ (I’m not making any money for the family yet, but can can pay the bills and we’re growing - we’re ‘breakeven’, so I’m a happy bunny). At first that was ex-Vulpine customers pre-ordering and kicking us off. Now, as we build a new distinct reputation and clientele, your customer reviews have exploded. This is the single most extraordinary result of our work, and the one that means the most. These reviews aren’t planted, they’re verified and NEVER edited or deleted. Not a sausage. I feel I have to say that because they’re so good. Not just the 5/5 average, more the sheer passion and though that goes into them. You CARE about the review! I can tell you that that is incredibly rare - our time is precious. A click on star rating is enough - to get paragraphs of kind words and critique is wonderful. Just WOW. …These reviews underpin FRAHM and now I lead with them.
Our homepage now shouts loud about our customer reviews - I mean, who wouldn't?
With that, we introduced a loyalty scheme (bottom left of your screen) in the Spring, as we realised that recommendation and repeat buying was such a huge part of the business. We MUST look after you and show our gratitude. It's not that widely used yet, especially as the referral scheme is really worthwhile - I better plug it!
This leads to possibly the scariest strategic decision we’ve made - the 20% saving for pre-ordering. This was hard because we’ve always said we don’t discount. This IS discounting, no matter how I phrase it. But it’s a reward for helping us upfront. We don’t do Sales periods to clear stock - this is vital - the prices must stay the same (though I guess inflation will have it’s say eventually). We decided to very clearly delineate pre-orders as the way to go, and as we see you as our peers and symbolic partners, you should get ‘paid’ for that. So we did. I have to say, the whole concept of taking 20% off still makes my teeth grind, because, errr selfishly it’s a shed load of money. But practically is it clear to new customers that this is there as a positive, not a sort of Sale (shudder).
Out of interest, and to a certain amount of surprise, Live Chat (bottom of right of your screen when we're online) is huge for us. I’m on it a large part of my day now, from 7am to 9pm GMT. It’s an amazing way to help, connect and understand. I initiated it because the wider data shows it works. But I didn’t realise how much we’d use it. It’s fun.
What we discovered from customer feedback on sizing was that there’s a lot of really tall men not being catered to. So I begged our amazing factory to do ‘Tall’ sizes, we looked at the data and did fittings, and here we are. Tall sizes for men up to 6’10” have been a great success. Now we need to get bigger (more buying power) so we can do smaller sizes. That’s a way off yet… But I have something up my sleeve…
Miles is a very tall chap - 6'5" or 196cm
Press and PR is a tricky one. With Vulpine I’ve had press in all the newspapers, the big mags, TV, radio, the lot. I presumed I’d just do that again, but in reality I've struggled. I think the practical cause is time. It’s pretty much only me, and each day is very busy. PR takes a lot of thought, effort and determination. It's my fault - I’m a much quieter person than I used to be (Jesus how loud was I then?!) and I think my more rationed confidence heads towards jackets and digital stuff. PR never seems to get a look in! I once said in a talk that “PR is easy”. It isn’t - I take it back.
That said, I did appear in a feature of my 10 year journey in the Creative Review Annual recently, a huge coup (thank you so much for this Elisa). Well Dressed Dad (hi Nick!) is a fan, as is Grey Fox (hello David!). There are many more, but the big Esquire, Guardian and New York Times articles are yet to come - simply (if that’s not too presumptuous) because I haven’t tried. Idiot.
Creative Review's feature can be read here
I did a couple of YouTube videos and made an arse of myself. You seemed to like them. I'm not sure! But I do come from a film background and desperate to make films - it's just the cost. My budgets are (I believe) prohibitively tiny. Soon!
Working with my best mate since childhood, Jason, is amazing. It was an experiment, as we are both headstrong fellows. But we’ve calmed down into our forties and seem to compliment each other very well. He works full time as an MD, so his efforts are occasional, but his support and ultimately his understanding and different way of seeing things is vital. Running a business is lonely and scary - there are many times I’ve needed picking up through some shaky moments in the early months. Many times he’s made me laugh or kicked my arse. Mainly he’s the grounded voice of reason amongst my hyper passionate, sometimes over emotional response to events. He makes me calm the eff down, take a more logical view, and chill. Goddam it if he hasn’t been right every time. The bastard.
Founders: Jason - left, Nick - right
Lastly, looking after ourselves: Ah ha haaaaa…. Joking apart, starting a business is damned hard, maintaining a business is hard, life is hard. But I did apply important lessons from my past burnout and breakdown. I am a mess without exercise - I love it, it’s good for my head and good for intelligence. The sleep thing kind of got dashed by the little blighters and working into the evenings most nights (par for the course). Food? Too much! Drink? Whenever I went without alcohol I felt AMAZING. But booze is nice, it’s hard not to chill after a long day with a beer. So heh, I’m an imperfect human being like us all. Crazy huh?
If you have ANY questions about the business, life, jackets or whatever, do comment here or contact me on live chat, Instagram or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for your part in our journey - from the guys who’ve bought all 4 of our jackets (!!) to just reading this - now you’re part of it. Welcome! I won't give you a hug - firm handshakes all round.