How sustainability and technology allowed me to turn a £6,000 start-up loan into a £2m business, and why entrepreneurs need more support
It only dawned on me very recently how frankly bizarre my own business story is. I was a rather lazy Modern Languages student, who scraped a 2:1 from the University of Bristol, when I decided, much to the bemusement of family and friends, that my career path should consist of selling men’s trousers direct to consumer online.
Since my successful application for a a £6,000 government start-up loan to start the Tom Cridland brand from the Fredericks Foundation in Northampton, aged 23 in January 2014, I’ve had an entrepreneurial journey that has taken me everywhere from backstage at Elton John concerts, to having coffee spilt on my TC trousers by Jeremy Corbyn whilst we both waited to go on BBC Radio 4. It’s a story of sustainability, technology and public relations.
It is also my hope that it can serve as encouragement for more support in Britain for young people who want to start businesses.
In spite of the many detrimental effects the internet has on society, it is the great enabler for entrepreneurs. Setting up the Tom Cridland brand, which was initially conceived as a luxury menswear label focusing on chinos, just twenty or thirty years ago would have involved learning to cut, sew, design graphics, deal with an immense quantity of bureaucratic paperwork and either travel the country sweet talking physical retailers or attempt to take mail or telephone orders. In January 2014, with no previous credible fashion or business experience, thanks to a combination of Google, Tim Ferriss, the Portuguese consulate, 99 Designs, Mailchimp and Shopify, it took me just 4 weeks to tour Portugal, find a production team, develop samples, design the Tom Cridland logo (which we still use today), set up an online shop front and begin taking orders. The photography was appalling and it certainly looked like an amateurish set up.
The point is, however, that I was already up and running in just a month, whereas just a few decades ago many people would have run into such severe challenges that they may have had to give up before getting going properly.
Such is the power of technology that anyone can start their own brand these days and on a shoestring budget. £6,000 is certainly not enough to start a high end fashion business making luxury clothing and I soon learnt, during month 1, that I would not be able to afford a big stock order. Instead, I spread the word about my new brand through Mailchimp and sold the chinos initially via pre-order. Once I had a sufficient number of customers, I placed my first ever stock order and we’ve only had to rely on organic growth since then.
Whilst spreading the word through family, friends, friends of friends and my general personal network worked well to begin with, I soon realised this would not be enough to succeed long term. I soon accepted this would not be enough to gain recognition on an international or even national scale. I drew up a list of my favourite high profile musicians and actors, and I began contacting them through their management to see if they’d be interested in having some TC trousers made for them.
As a drummer myself, the first person on my list was my hero Nigel Olsson. Nigel is Elton John’s original drummer and still plays with the superstar today, having been on the road with him since 1969. I was flabbergasted when, a day after emailing his team, I received an email from him himself saying how much he loved the look of the trousers.
Today Nigel is a dear friend and owns almost all of our designs. His feedback undeniably made me persevere when I was losing hope that I could execute my business idea.
We have gone on to make clothing for Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Stiller, Rod Stewart, Hugh Grant, Stephen Fry, Jeremy Piven, Brandon Flowers, Robbie Williams, Nile Rodgers, Michael Portillo, Stephan Merchant, Frankie Valli, Daniel Craig, Neil Young, Danny McBride, Clint Eastwood and Kendrick Lamar.
This created a buzz around our new brand and we managed to achieve this simply by being realistic.
Some start-ups genuinely believe that because they send Justin Bieber gear that they have the right to exposure. Yes, some “celebrities” (with no reference to Bieber) should be more gracious but don’t go into the gifting process expecting anything other than being able to tell the truth, i.e. “I’ve made clothing for x, y and z”. It was, nonetheless, extremely satisfying to see photos of Daniel Craig, in Rome to film the latest Bond, and Ben Stiller, also in the Italian capital for Zoolander 2, both sporting Tom Cridland Classic Navy trousers.
It was seeing the documentary, The True Cost, by Andrew Morgan that, ultimately changed my life and transformed my fortunes in business. The film unravels the grim world of fast fashion and got me thinking about sustainable fashion. I am firmly of the opinion that, in order to turn things around, the world needs to consider sustainability as an opportunity to make profit. I saw a chance for Tom Cridland to pivot as a brand and I took it. The goal was to engage the mass market with sustainable fashion and my idea was to guarantee a garment for a length of time to encourage consumers to spend a bit more on durable, ethically made clothing, keep it for longer and to save money over time. The 30 Year figure was decided after a chat with my production team in Portugal, who showed me sweatshirts, t-shirts and jackets in perfect condition from the 1970s. The 30 Year Sweatshirt, T-Shirt and Jacket’s concept is simple: if anything happens to the garments over the course of the next three decades, we’ll fix or replace them for free. The 30 Year Sweatshirt was first launched in 2015, after a few months spent meticulously developing the product and the PR campaign for it, and the response has been overwhelming.
It has been featured across the international press, including NBC, CBS, BBC, ITV, and most national UK newspapers. We were also a finalist this year in Fortune Magazine’s Cool Companies competition and listed on the Sustainia100.
Since that £6,000 loan, we have spent £0 on marketing or advertising. We still sell direct to consumer online, so we don’t have bricks and mortar retail expenses. We work from home and don’t have swanky offices. When I say we, I am referring to two full-time employees: my girlfriend of seven years, who I met in my first year at Bristol, and I. We do have a superb fulfillment and customer services house, production team, graphic design and accountant, but these are third parties to whom we outsourced some of our workload at various points along the way. With the time this has freed up, we started a sister business, Tom Cridland Public Relations, which now has twenty clients including an energy company and a major Saville Rowe tailor. Working is a labour of love for us, we are now turning over close to £2m and we have just founded Tom Cridland Entertainment, which is funding the production of a rock n’ roll album at The Village Studios in Los Angeles and developing a documentary about one of Britain’s major pop stars.
It is rare I tell our story in full, even slightly condensed as above, but on the occasion that I recently did, the person listening was both amused and impressed, and wholeheartedly agreed with me that more need to be done to support young entrepreneurs in Britain. The Prince’s Trust and Young Enterprise, for example, are wonderful charities that do this, but the government needs to make some revisions to our education system so that young people get business training from an early age. It does not matter if you want to manage the waiting staff at a pub, start your own business or climb the corporate ladder, we should all be taking more initiative and thinking like an entrepreneur.
My advice to people my age who want to go out on their own and do something entrepreneurial is to not be put off by lack of experience, funds, parental advice or people who do not understand your vision. We live in a world where technology has made starting up infinitely easier than it used to be and, as the lifeblood of a healthy economy, it is high time we did more in Britain to encourage our entrepreneurs.
Find out more about Tom Cridland’s latest project, The 30 Year Christmas Sweatshirt, at tomcridland.com.
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