Quit Your Job. Sell Everything you Own. Start Making Swimwear.

Like most stories there have been some twists and turns.  

This is a one year anniversary post from when we first officially launched - it's a bit late (it's 15 months since we went live) but we thought we'd share a bit more detail on how we started and the journey so far. How we came to sell our houses, our car and pretty much everything else to get going. To be fair if you'd told us 10 years ago we would sell everything we own to start a business in a sector we didn't know doing something we had no experience in we wouldn't have believed you.

Stories about oneself can be a bit boring so feel free to skip the boring/unfunny/self-indulgent bits (maybe that's all of it??) but hopefully there are some nuggets in there that may be of interest or help to anyone else trying to start something or change direction - despite the Usual Objections. Maybe it's a business, learning to swim or giving something up?  

With all the upheaval of the global pandemic there are a lot of people now reassessing their work and what's important in their lives - if you're one of them then feel free to drop us a mail and we'll be happy to help as much as we can - two heads are better than one!

The Usual Objections - What's Holding us back

The Usual Objections are the reasons/excuses we give ourselves for not doing or starting things; it's too cold, it's too risky, the timing isn't right etc. Some of which can be justified no doubt - but a lot of which are self-imposed. I'm not professing to be an expert on any of these things but here's what we've learned along the way in our swimwear making journey.

The Desire to start a business

I'm not entirely surely it's a sensible thing to start a business.

For us it was more of a compulsion. Without doing it we would always feel regret - like we had failed no matter how well we did with our normal work/life.

The novel Jonathan Livingstone Seagull by Richard Bach had a big impact on me personally - about being the best possible version of yourself. Refining habits and goals. The business seemed like a logical extension of this.

There is a lot of risk and you leave behind a lot of the comforts and securities that you're used to but having talked about starting a business with our friends for years and years we finally got to the point where we thought we either do this or stop talking about it. The fear of not doing it became greater than the fear of doing it.

I think about this quote a lot from the journal of David E. Lilienthal which was published in the book Business Adventures from the early 1900s. It sums up our own experiences and views at least.

"But there is another purpose: to have had the experience of business.… The real reason, or the chief reason, is a feeling that my life wouldn’t be complete, living in a business period—that is, a time dominated by the business of business—unless I had been active in that area. What I wanted was to be an observer of this fascinating activity that so colors and affects the world’s life, not … an observer from without (as a writer, teacher) but from the arena itself. I still have this feeling, and when I get low and glad to chuck the whole thing (as I have from time to time), the sustaining part is that even the bumps and sore spots are experiences, actual experiences within the business world.…"

So we now had the desire to start a business but it would still take a while mind to find our feet and find the idea.

The Idea

We never had some genesis idea moment which is slightly disappointing. No Eureka in the bath. At the start it's very hard because you're looking for something perfect, that's never been done, that's going to be amazing.

There are obviously some businesses that start like this but for the majority it's about building a better mousetrap as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said (I think this was a misquote but the sentiment is the same).  

"Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door"

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

Looking at the things that you think you could do better, that don't work as well as you think they should and just having a go.  

The ideas phase leads to the procrastination phase - if you're not careful you can loop through these 2 phases ad infinitum.

We had about 4 or 5 idea/procrastination loops before deciding on swimwear.

The Procrastination Phase aka Research

The research phase or procrastination phase as we found it to be is doing lots and lots of research about different business ideas, market size, growth, niches etc. Do lots of research but then do nothing with it - partly because of procrastination - but partly because nobody really teaches you how to start stuff.

We had messed around looking at some gardening businesses (nice garden furniture), web development/apps (too much like our day jobs) and then bike jackets (still want to do this but was crazy expensive to get going).

This stage is good - you have a vague idea that you want to start something and feel like you're taking action towards it. However - there is a real risk that you never get out of this phase. Analysis paralysis.

Deciding on Swimwear Phase (still procrastinating but getting warm)

I think there's an expression along the lines of if you're looking for something specific that you've lost - you don't really see anything else that you're rooting through. I think careers are a bit like that from my own experience. Trying as many different things as possible can be a lot more helpful in figuring out what your interests are than just thinking about it.

I had started doing some sewing classes over 10 years ago now when I was getting annoyed by the launderette/tailor not altering my clothes properly so I figured I can surely do better myself. That was probably the genesis of our swimwear business. I remember being incredibly nervous arriving at the class - I've always been very shy internally - since I was a child. The bit were you have to introduce yourself is always the worst. Not helped by being the only boy in the class which was a trend that would continue.

I got more and more into sewing and started doing more advanced courses at London College of Fashion and Central St. Martins on sewing, swimwear, pattern cutting, grading etc.

At this point we were swimming a lot and realised we could never find nice swim stuff - how hard could it be to make a swimsuit?

How To Actually Start (Action)

Having finally decided on swimwear and keen to move out of the procrastination phase we then had to learn how to actually start. Moving from the procrastination phase to starting phase was probably the hardest bit.

Everyone always tells you to just start but learning how to start things is actually a skill. Nobody really teaches you how to start things. The next phase was learning how to actually start something - to move from procrastination/planning/research to actually doing.

I only realised later that we never really took any proper action on the first ideas we had - it just felt like we had - we never actually committed emotionally or financially. We just didn't really know how to move from research/analysis to actually doing.  

The important thing is to have forward movement - even if that means some mistakes could be made. Generally a mistake can be corrected but not making decisions or committing one way or another means you stay in the same place.

We had started to go to some trade shows to look at fabrics, find suppliers etc. This was our first commitment but was probably still a bit half-hearted. More of a holiday/work trip.

Our first major decision was buying some rolls of fabric which at the time seemed like a crazy amount of money - what if we didn't end up making swimsuits? What would we do with all the fabric? This was our first step in committing and starting to do stuff. (we have since used all of the fabric from our first order).

The early days (first 6-12 months of product development)

Like most people we started to look for a factory, and someone to help with the pattern cutting, making samples etc. It was important to us to find a UK manufacturer as we wanted to keep production local from a sustainability and regeneration point of view.

We had never planned to make everything ourselves but we had terrible/good luck with factories depending on how you look at it.

The first factory told us they could do it and it would take a few months, then this kept getting extended by a month at a time until the final deadline arrived 6 months later and they told us on the day that they couldn't do it for us after all! The next factory/studio told us they could do it and were quick but made such terrible samples we didn't bother to get back in touch with them.

The third place had potential but again just couldn't deliver what we were looking for quality wise. I remember not opening the final DHL parcel from them for a couple of weeks because I didn't want to be disappointed and then practically crying when we did finally open it. After spending thousands of pounds we had swimsuits with the same mistakes on Version 4 that we had on Version 1.

Sampling is a painful process - even with everyone knowing what they're doing it can still take a few rounds of sampling to get the fit right on a garment. If the factory isn't very good it can cost thousands to have stuff that still isn't fit for purpose.

Looking back though this was definitely a good thing. We had slowly started to buy some industrial sewing machines to help speed up sampling but we soon realised the stuff I was making myself was actually better than the samples we were getting sent back and it gave us the confidence then to think - maybe we can make it ourselves?

Self-teaching how to operate a swimwear factory (12-24 Months - ongoing)

Getting from 90% to 100% can take almost as long as getting from 0% to 90%. Fine tuning the swimwear production and getting everything just right took the best part of a year.

We found the best fabrics, the best threads, the best machines - if we were going to do this we were going to do it properly.

We also learned that we would need to invest in a lot of specialist machinery - we have now collected 9 industrial sewing machines, each carrying out a different task for our swimwear.

I cadged as much information as I could from anyone that would help. The best way to cut fabric, the best way to sew, how to setup the machines. Reverse engineering things to see how they're made. YouTube videos of people in factories overseas!

The industrial machines don't actually really come with instructions - they tell you how the machine works but not how to actually sew with it. I've spent countless hours experimenting with trial and error until getting the result we're after. Some of the machines I was actually quite scared of when they first arrived. Always wondering if they were going to blow up when I switched them on - that I would do something wrong.

We've lost a lot of these skills in this country and we'd like to help start bringing them back!

Swimwear launch - 24+ months March 2020 - actually moving to selling

When we finally launched our business in March 2020 after a good few years of development it felt like we’d finally crossed the finish line.

Finished the marathon and were ready for the nice bit - drawing prints, and making swimsuits. Going to swim events. Maybe sipping Margaritas on a beach somewhere in the Bahamas as the money rolled in :-)

Then Covid-19.

Running or starting a business is hard at the best of times, starting a business in the middle of a pandemic whilst also having a baby has been character building as my parents would say.

There is a Mike Tyson quote which seemed to make particular sense at this point.

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth"

Mike Tyson

We have definitely been punched in the mouth - like a lot of people and businesses. However, like a boxer being knocked down I think most businesses/ventures succeed simply by refusing to stay down; to keep getting back up again. When you're going through hell keep going - as Winston Churchill put it. Another one I referred to a lot.

So we got back up.

We decided early on in April that we should switch to running stuff as it's pretty much the same machines and fabrics. We started to work on leggings and some other bits but work was slow with all the anxiety that was around - and looking after the home schooling/mental health of our 8 year old.

Our baby came in mid-May - almost his birthday as I write this. It was still pretty much lockdown but thankfully I was allowed at the birth! He is amazing but also slowed things down a bit.

The pools reopened but we stuck to working on running stuff and new products as we weren't sure how long the pools would stay open (this was a mistake in hindsight)

Finally - just to top the year off we all got Covid in late November/early December. I've been with Linda for 21 years but I can safely say that this was the worst 2 weeks of our entire relationship together. We weren't super ill from the virus but mentally we were super low. If there was a chasm of depression/breakdown we were both at the edge on our tiptoes looking straight down. I'm not sure if this was partly the virus' effects on our nervous system or just the cumulative effect of a year of anxiety/stress or both but those were pretty dark days. We were totally broken and decided to head up to my parents for support while we were still allowed.

Being ill was actually a blessing in disguise.

We'd been sooooo busy trying to work on new products and firefighting that we hadn't stopped to look at the bigger picture. Once we stepped back and actually started to look at the analytics on the website it became obvious that we had a marketing problem rather than a product problem.

With most of our website visitors having dropped off we had to start the New Year with a focus back on what we know best - swimming costumes - and what we know nothing about - marketing!

We're slowly figuring this out - marketing was always a bit of a dirty word to me but I've realised that if done sincerely there's no harm (I hope) in trying to tell people about these amazing (in my honest opinion) swimsuits that we've made.

Where Next?

  • Stuff for all shapes and sizes I love sewing. It pains me more than anything when stuff doesn't fit people. We are working on this. To make one swimsuit that fits everyone just isn't possible so as we have more sizing data available we would like to make swimsuits that are semi-fitted based on hips/chest measurements etc - rather than the standard 8/10/12. Please bear with us!
  • As we grow and start to hire people we'd like to start looking at a program we were trying to start last March to employ and train refugees via a local charity that we've been in touch with.
  • Bikinis, trunks and a new tank one-piece are on the way - these should be on the site shortly.
  • Running stuff - leggings at least - towards the end of the year

Mistakes - I have a few

Major

  • Not moving back to swimming stuff properly in July when the pools opened. We lost focus here. I feel like we were heading in the direction of those restaurants that have 500 things on the menu from Italian to Chinese to Fish and Chips but no customers.
  • We focused so much on product development that we forgot that we need to do marketing. I love designing new products, sewing and drawing. You tend to stick to doing the things you like and avoid the things you don't like or know about. I avoided marketing. Have now realised that you need both for a business to be successful.
  • Tweaking the fit too much in testing trying to get things right on a just a few fit models when really we would get better feedback with a bigger dataset.
  • Taking too long to start - too much time thinking about stuff without actually doing stuff. We got there in the end and I can see how starting a second business would be much quicker as we've learned how to start now but it took a long time. Wish I could go back in time and give myself a good talking to!

Minor - I call these mistakes but actually they were the stepping stones that helped us to move forward - too many to mention but these are the ones that come to mind.

  • Ordering a whole bunch of fabric that we thought we could print on but couldn't - we have since used this for block colours! It will teach us to read the Proforma Invoices properly.
  • Buying a couple of sewing machines that weren't actually right for what we wanted to do - the other 9 were fine! That was a few thousand pounds - but if we hadn't bought those machines we'd never have realised they weren't right and which ones we actually did need. It's not always an exact science.
  • Registering a couple of incorrect (typos) domain/social media profile names that took months to resolve
  • Only opening deliveries months later to find that they haven't shipped the right thing - we now open stuff on the day it arrives!