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Friday 9 October

This week, lessons on pivoting from a Portland designer, the big opportunity in sleepwear, the challenges of tweaking company culture at a distance, and why you need to get a lot better at authentic storytelling. Enjoy.

Pivoting a small business to survive an event like Covid-19 is difficult, and it often doesn’t work. But sometimes it ends up building a more resilient company. This week we caught up with Ken Tomita, co-founder of Portland-based Grovemade, a business with a massive and dedicated customer following. Yet Ken knows a thing about changing direction – and the heartache that can accompany it.

Grovemade was born back in 2009. Ken, a furniture builder, had moved his 'tumbledown workshop' to a 'slightly less decrepit space’ – and became fast friends with his neighbour Joe Mansfield, who ran a laser engraving business from his bedroom. The two soon launched a business manufacturing wooden iPhone cases when few companies were doing it. 

On the podcast this week, Ken recalls the past decade’s ups and downs, including launching their iPhone 3 case on the same day that images of the iPhone 4 were leaked. ‘Epic fail,’ he says. But the bad timing turned into a blessing – ‘we had no idea what we were doing, the case we designed was almost impossible to make, and we probably would have lost money on each unit. We wouldn't be talking today as I would've gone bankrupt 10 years ago.'

The pivot point came in 2014. Grovemade became successful selling iPhone 4 cases, but sales started to decline as new entrants crowded the market. ‘We were riding on the shoulders of Apple and the business model was flawed – we were tied to somebody else's product,’ Ken says. They decided to take the company in a new direction, launching everything from computer monitor stands to plates and bowls. ‘Joe and I were still in "solopreneur" mode where we were making beautiful products that we loved, however, reality hit us in the face,’ Ken says. ‘Total failure. We didn't check to see if people wanted these things, which was a huge mistake. There was no market for it.’ 

Ken describes the following few years as a race against time, during which their iPhone case sales were declining but their new product sales weren’t strong enough to make up for the falling case revenue. ‘There were some painful years where the timing wasn't quite right, where we knew we had a future but our revenue was just diving. We almost lost the business in 2016. We were inches away from running out of cash.’ Yet they managed to navigate the company through the crisis – listen to the full story here.

Spending more time indoors and at home has given the sleepwear and loungewear market a huge boost. At the end of 2019, the sector was worth $10.5m – by the end of 2027, it’s projected to reach $18.7m worldwide. Tons of new entrants are jostling for space as demand for designer, premium and sustainably produced loungewear is rising, while demand for regular ‘work’ clothes is dipping.

‘There’s usually a seasonality to sleepwear, in that people spend more on it around Christmastime,’ says Bairavi Raja, co-founder of sustainable luxury pyjama brand Luna & Noon. ‘Yet during Covid, we’ve seen demand pick up in odd months.’ Founded in 2018, the company has differentiated itself by cornering a niche between polyester-based sleepwear available on the high street, and unaffordable, high-end pieces. ‘It was either child-like pyjamas or all silks and satins,’ she says. 

Consumers are looking for affordable but high-quality options, says Bairavi, who’s expanding Luna & Noon to cover loungewear as well as sleepwear as we’re moving away from a clothing market that produces clothes for others to see, and towards one that centres around ourselves and our comfort. In a sense, clothing is becoming part of our wellness ritual. 

But how long can it last? ‘I can’t imagine the sleepwear space can sustain this level of growth for years to come,’ Bairavi says.

Building company culture is a lot harder than it looks. But changing existing company culture can be even harder – especially when a team is working remotely. That’s the challenge Louisa Mordaunt and Janine Jacobs are taking on. Earlier this month, they launched Happy HQ, a culture consultancy that helps organisations recognise and implement culture change. We caught up with them to find out ways you can embrace and bring in change.

  • Collaborate at all levels: ‘Leadership needs to be on board, but everyone also needs to be actively heard down the chain. Culture isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy; if you’re implementing a mandatory lunch break, do people actually want to have lunch with their colleagues, or would they rather eat by themselves?’

  • Focus on the practical and the shareable: ‘We use psychological methods, but we want to be able to make the theory accessible, creative and commercial. To that end, our culture audit reports are created in infographic style to encourage sharing between teams.’

  • Build a roadmap – with a pinch of salt: ‘Include measurable targets in your roadmap, which might include re-asking employees for feedback over a certain time frame. It’s also vital to acknowledge that you’re in the middle of a trial-and-error process, and be transparent about any pitfalls.’

  • Don’t be avoidant: ‘Not having the time to implement changes, or being secretive about the findings of engagement surveys is a no-no. You need to be ready to change things that you might not want to change.’

‘For me, it's so terribly important to have something to say, no matter what it is that you're doing,’ says Walé Oyéjidé, the Philadelphia-based fashion designer, filmmaker, lawyer, writer, music producer, founder of the fashion brand Ikiré Jones – and one of the judges for Courier’s new Fresh Fund grant scheme. While Ikiré Jones is a fashion brand on its face, it’s really ‘a vehicle for storytelling’, Walé says, particularly about people from marginalised backgrounds – immigrants, refugees and ‘people who society has kind of cast aside’. That storytelling is done through everything from the designs of his clothing to his recent film work.

But having a strong brand point of view and a clear and consistent way of expressing it can also be key to standing out and outlasting a crisis, Walé says. ‘Whether you're selling T-shirts or stocks, so many people get into trouble when they have to cobble together a point of view at the last second,' he says. ‘It’s always very obvious what’s artificial and what was created by committee in a room full of desperate people who want to seem relevant. That's how you end up with black boxes on Instagram one day and then back to business the next without having any true connection to what's happening in society. Whereas if you're a business or an individual who’s always been rooted in speaking authentically and honestly to the moment and to the people around you, then when the world feels like it's ending, in a sense it's business as usual, because you're reacting and speaking honestly.’

In this sense, the story that a brand tells is almost more important than its product. ‘For me, fashion just happens to be a vehicle,’ he says. ‘I often joke that you can talk to me a year from now and I might be baking bread because if I happen to find that bread is a more effective way to get society to be more caring and loving, then we're gonna go and bake some bread. It almost doesn't matter what I'm making – it matters more what it is that I have to say.’

‘Gen Z are highly misunderstood,’ Tiffany Zhong tells us. ‘How can they have a short attention span when they’re also binging hours of TV on Netflix?’ Tiffany is CEO of Zebra IQ, a platform that connects content creators to follower communities to test exclusive content. She has also become Twitter’s resident ‘Gen Z whisperer’, closely tracking and sharing trends and communities on the rise. Each year, Tiffany releases her Gen Z Trends Report, the latest edition of which just dropped. She shared some highlights.

  • Voice communication: ‘Gaming has made it much more comfortable for Gen Z’s to use voice communication,’ says Tiffany, ‘and they tend to prefer that over video or text.’

  • Subcultures in the comment sections: ‘Anyone wanting to understand Gen Z better should look at the comments section and replies on social media. Look at trending TikToks and Instagrams to see how Gen Z communicate with one another.’

  • Hyper aware (and critical): ‘Gen Z can spot brands who jump on bandwagons without having said anything on the matter before, or without understanding the trend. Either stay in your lane, or be willing to learn.’

  • Everyone’s making money: ‘Everyone is becoming a content creator. Everyone is starting a business online from their bedroom. Gen Z are creating modern-day distribution channels. They know that you can be a nobody and still make yourself heard.’

1. An open-source database of sustainable suppliers.

2. One winery is turning smoke-tainted grapes into brandy.

3. The economics of vending machines.

4. A new business with a spin on owning a second home.

5. Some emerging trends on the secondhand sneakers front. 

PARTNER CONTENT: THE COLLECTIVE

A place to work and connect 

The Collective’s creative community attracts entrepreneurs from around the world such as Laura Fele, 30, a freelance graphic designer and the creative director of CPRESS, an organic cold-pressed juice company. Laura moved into The Collective Canary Wharf in March 2020. ‘I joke sometimes that The Collective is a work retreat for me. I definitely have adopted a healthier lifestyle since being there,’ explains Laura. ‘I can tailor-make my day so that I can focus on work with no distractions. When you are a young entrepreneur, this is priceless.’

Meet the members who explain how co-living has helped grow their businesses at couriermedia.co

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