Reflecting on a decade of learning

Auckland | 31 December 2015

A few years ago I read this great article by Josh Linkner in Fast Company and thought to myself with some relief, 'that's exactly how it is. There is no such thing as overnight success.'

Our journey kicked off ten years ago, and as I look back I've come to realise that I've learned more about business through this experience than any corporate role or higher degree could have taught me. I've also come to appreciate that the ingredients for success are as much about having the right idea, skills and knowledge, as they are about good timing and the choices we make along the way. 

I'll be honest though. It never occurred to me that the path to building a business from scratch would be quite so challenging. Nor did I appreciate how much time, effort, and money it would take. Some may call this blissful ignorance. I prefer to call it blissful innocence. After all, when we decided to develop our own textile, I was the one who said to Grant (co-founder) 'how hard could it be?' Bear in mind, at that point neither of us knew anything about textile development - or garment design for that matter. But we were quick studies. 

The thing about start-up land, at least the way I have experienced it, is that much of the territory is completely foreign and until you venture into it, you have no idea what to expect. In other words, you don't always know what you don't know. But you push on and persevere in pursuit of your vision and eventually you connect with those who do know and can teach you. We were fortunate to get ourselves in front of some world-class textile scientists and garment manufacturers who generously and patiently shared years of knowledge and experience with us. For that alone, I am forever grateful.   

The other way you learn, is the the hard way. By making mistakes. 

And we've made plenty. For example, we spent the best part of two years trying to commercialise the production of our fabric (Fortitude®) before accepting that we didn't have the right manufacturing partner. Within two months of making the decision to switch manufacturers, we had in our hands the highest quality production samples we'd ever seen. Ouch. That's 22 months of lost time (and sales). But at least we found the right solution in the end. 

We also spent way too long on the design and construction of our first gi. Both perfectionists, every last detail had to be just right. We weren't in the frame of mind to ship at anything less than 100%. The reality is, there is no such thing as 100% with a consumer product. There is always someone out there who will tell you how you can improve what you've created. 

And then there was our choice of business model. Operating an online store is a skill in itself, and it takes time to scale. I can recall reading somewhere that successful online businesses need to be fast, scalable, and repeatable. Achieving all three with a manufactured product that has long lead times is a lot harder than rolling out the next generation app. And you burn through a lot of cash before you've made a single sale. 

We invested a truckload in product design and development, textile R&D, IP protection, brand strategy and getting to market with our version of a minimum viable product (MVP). What we didn't factor in was how much additional investment would be required for sales and marketing once we launched. 

Now, as I reflect on these lessons of the last decade I can also see how each one has added a texture and richness to the whole experience which has been valuable in itself. For that, I am also grateful. 

So as we move into a new year, with new energy, here are some of my top insights from our journey to date:

  • 'The map is not the territory' - be prepared to chart and correct your own course.
  • There will be those who don't share your vision - that's their business.
  • The curse of knowledge is a real thing - don't let it stop you from learning.
  • There is no fail-proof recipe for success - start with quality ingredients.
  • Be remarkable and stand for something - 'same old' is boring.
  • It takes courage to put your idea out there - let go of fear and do it anyway.
  • Feedback is just that - like everything in life, you get to choose how you respond.
  • Choose the right people to work with - recognise when you need to make a change.
  • Not everyone will fall in love with your product - 'everyone' is not your market.
  • The Universe has a way of lighting the path - pay attention to signs along the way.

    Happy 2016. May it be your best year yet!