There often comes a plateau for a start-up that’s been growing pleasingly. One of the most enticing elements of starting your own business is the fact that, technically speaking, the sky is the limit and, no matter how far you come, growth is always possible.
That said, scaling in almost all cases requires investment, which, if you’re young and inexperienced, is extremely hard to come by without sacrificing an exorbitant amount of equity.
Tom Cridland, the startup
I run a sustainable fashion brand with my girlfriend of almost eight years, Deborah Marx. I started it in January 2014 with a £6,000 government start-up loan and decided to call it, Tom Cridland (my name), because tomcridland.com was the cheapest domain name that I could find.
Our initial goal was to make the finest pair of men’s trousers that we could. Thanks to a unique, elegant but comfortable cut, a range of over 20 colours and cotton, wool and cashmere fabrics sourced from Biella in Northern Italy, we were able to develop our target product pretty quickly.
We also, in our first year of business, secured the opportunity to make these trousers for some high profile names in the entertainment industry, starting with Nigel Olsson, Elton John’s drummer of nearly 50 years and now a good friend, and continuing with Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Stiller, Sir Rod Stewart, Daniel Craig and many more.
This definitely helped us spread the word about our young brand but what truly got it off the ground was an idea I had to make sustainable fashion more appealing to consumers.
Gap in the market
Watching The True Cost, a superb documentary by the director, Andrew Morgan (who I would end up meeting in person in Los Angeles in 2016), I discovered more about the grave social, economic and environmental harm that fast fashion has long been causing.
The entrepreneur in me saw a business opportunity and a win win.
Effective sustainable fashion was a gap in the market but also a chance to do some good at the same time. The concept was to make a garment so well that we would guarantee it for a certain length of time, repairing or replacing it should anything go wrong.
The clothing would obviously have to not be a short lived fad but a timeless wardrobe staple. Manufacturing it to such a high standard would help protect our natural resources by reducing the amount of clothing that ends up in landfill as a result of our customers keeping their “guaranteed garment” for longer.
It would not only be the more environmentally friendly ethos behind this collection that would be attractive to consumers. Producing clothing with exquisite care like this would inevitably make them look smarter, as well as saving them money in terms of cost per wear.
Together with our production team in Portugal, who have been making beautiful clothing since 1964, we came up with The 30 Year Sweatshirt. The reaction to this has been life changing and grew our brand to £1m in sales, from just that initial £6,000 loan.
We have secured features across the press consistently since the launch of this in June 2015, including NBC, CBS, The CW, National Public Radio, BBC, ITV, CNBC, The Times, The Telegraph, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, The Independent, The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Star, Daily Mirror, Forbes, Fast Company, Esquire, Evening Standard, CityAM, The New York Times, El Pais, ABC, Il Sole 24 Ore, The Hindustan Times, South China Morning Post, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Bild, Die Welt, GQ, Daily Express, Bloomberg and Fox News, among many others.
For a company started on a shoestring by two University graduates with no experience and no marketing budget, it was overwhelming to get so much international exposure and, in order to cope with increased demand, we needed to scale.
Essential requirements were bigger stock orders, a more impressive website and a full-time logistics and customer Services team, since we could not physically handle packing and shipping out orders alongside our other responsibilities. These three things would require extra capital which we did not have and, so, we were featured again in The Times in an article by James Hurley, which explained our need for investment and posed the difficult choices we would have to make to its “Business Clinic” and its readership.
Inevitably we received a multitude of emails and letters from people who wanted to meet with us and discuss becoming Tom Cridland shareholders, so we pencilled in meetings with several of them.
Sorry, but no deal
Ultimately, we did not end up deciding to work together with any of them on growing the brand. Not a single potential investor that we met seemed to have any interest in letting us retain some level of creative control.
The bulk of every meeting was spent talking numbers and the overriding feeling that we got was that, whilst giving away equity for cash would make taking those crucial next steps easier, there must be another way that would keep us from relinquishing the freedom that made doing something entrepreneurial seem so appealing in the first place.
Unexpected turn of event
It then occurred to us that we might have built up a skill-set that we could monetise in order to raise the funds we needed to scale the Tom Cridland brand.
We had a developed a unique method of securing press and celebrity endorsements, which had caused our brand to grow hugely without any sort of budget for marketing. This could be applied to other brands and businesses quite easily. We also knew, from our experiences as founders of a start-up, that the traditional PR industry model is fast becoming outdated. PR is seen by many people running independent businesses or start-ups as overpriced and inflexible, with account executives roping businesses into 12 or 24 month contracts and then outsourcing the work to interns whilst they go off again in search of their next client.
As two people who had successfully built our brand’s profile from nothing, we were confident that potential clients would like the fact we could see things from their perspective. In order to achieve our funding needs for Tom Cridland, we also would only need a maximum of 15 to 20 clients, who we knew we’d be able to comfortably split the work for.
TC PR, founded
Tom Cridland Public Relations was therefore founded in November 2015 and, by January 2016, we had over 15 clients. We have been able to reinvest in our brand, which was always a labour of love, and, today, The 30 Year Collection comprises t-shirts, sweatshirts and jackets, while we still have our range of trousers in over 20 colours and have recently launched The Entrepreneur’s Shirt.
We raised significant funding for a redesign of tomcridland.com, which we’re delighted with, and have that full-time team working on dispatch, customer services, inventory management and all logistics for us. Before founding our agency, we did not have the resources to take these crucial next steps so quickly.
The best part about working with our clients, who range from Savile Rowe tailors to multi-million pound funded start-ups to regional SMES in everything from fashion to handbags to shotguns to bootstrapped, kitchen-table-based one man bands, is that it is truly enjoyable and engaging.
Dividing our time between running TC PR and the Tom Cridland brand comes naturally to us. Some people get the impression that we risk stretching ourselves too thin but it is organisation as opposed to overwork that allows us to do this (we even now have a third business venture, a rock n’ roll band, The Tomicks, in which I am the co-songwriter, singer and drummer, and Debs is also a singer, and which has recorded an album at The Village Studios in LA for release via a major label later on in 2017).
Takeaway: Some words of advice
Our recommendation to other entrepreneurs, especially those with limited financial resources who are young, is to try to avoid giving away equity too early and to treat getting into debt as a last resort. Business ideas would be so much easier if start-up capital was easy to put together but part of the thrill of entrepreneurship is having to think outside the box to get things done.
What was initially a dilemma for us in running a start-up ended up resulting in a business with no overheads generating nearly 100% profit and enabling us to fund the pursuit of our other passions. It’s taught us that there is no substitute for enthusiasm channelled effectively and good planning.