Goodfibres: Jon Penn and Damon Bonser
The co-founders on ethical business and why it’s easier to start up second time round
Tell us what your business does:
Goodfibres is an ethical fashion brand that uses crowd-sourced content to produce original, fashion-forward, designer t-shirts. We are a unique online retailer that seeks to make a positive impact both visually and philosophically. We ethically manufacture all of our clothing; we respect our artists – we pay 10% royalties for every sale; and for each shirt we sell, we match it with an in-kind donation to someone less fortunate.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
We were already successfully selling products to the same demographic through our other company, Spinning Hat. Fashion apparel is always popular for this target audience and the plan was to create a complementary brand able to draft on Spinning Hat’s success – while also helping us to enter new markets and leverage additional retail accounts. We knew we wanted to start as an e-commerce platform, with the goal of scaling to bricks and mortar shops as we grew. The plan was to create a sexy retail product that had a bigger purpose beyond the actual tangible item.
How did you know there was a market for it?
During our research we noticed that most of our competition stemmed from the United States, so we wanted to create something that combined the elements of companies that we admired, but was geared to succeed in Europe and appeal to European tastes. Our USP is that our stakeholders and suppliers are also our primary customer base, so we repay them by giving them the greatest financial rewards compared to our contributors. Our artists still retain the rights to their work and receive the largest commission for each sale.
Additionally, no other crowd-sourced t-shirt company has integrated a charitable component into its standard business model. We want this to be a big feature so that the customer understands that their spend is doing more than paying for the shirt they wear – they are helping people.
What were you doing before starting up?
Over the last seven years we have built up our knowledge and experience within the retail sector [with Spinning Hat]. We have recently set up an office in Hong Kong, where all of our production is managed, and we are now looking to set up a base in the US. We have also been building traction with our film production company, Spinning Hat Films. Although each of the businesses is slightly different, the one thing that pulls them together is that we have always focused on being creative and slightly edgy.
Have you always wanted to run your own business?
Jon originally started out in the tech sector, working for the big banks, and realised very quickly that it wasn’t for him. He has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, consistently evaluating companies that he admires and wondering how they can be done better. Damon has a similar mindset … he has a creative spirit and likes to do things in a manner that blazes new trails rather than following existing ones. We find that we have to reign ourselves in at times, as we continuously come up with new business ideas that we want to pursue.
What planning did you do before you started up?
We performed an extensive audit of the market both here and abroad. We wanted to make sure there was a commercial demand, but also that we would not be drowning in a glut of other companies trying to supply the same thing.
We hired consultants in a lot of fields to make sure our bases were covered. We spoke to branding and marketing professionals, fashion designers, manufacturers, wholesalers, buyers, graphic artists, retail experts and charities. There were a lot of spokes to the wheel and we knew that we could not do it alone. LinkedIn proved to be an invaluable resource for finding experts and acquiring advice.
How did you raise the money?
The business is funded primarily through our personal investment and the banks. We’ve experienced courtships from some venture capitalists (VCs) but we wanted to do as much as we could without any additional partnerships. They can be a blessing and a curse and we decided that we currently did not want to be beholden to additional parties questioning our every move. We may look to acquire some additional angel investors in the future to give us the cash injection necessary to boost brand awareness but we have modelled a traditional and organic growth method that concentrates primarily on retail sales.
How did you find suppliers?
We already source manufacturers through Spinning Hat and have built up a large supplier base so the whole process was relatively easy. As the business grows our aim is to shift manufacturing between several locations in order to decrease our shipping costs and carbon footprint where possible. We believe this benefits the environment and empowers the local communities. Our aim is to use only eco-sensitive suppliers and a socially positive supply chain.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
The two biggest challenges with Goodfibres were – How do you grow an online community from scratch? And how were we going to find artists for the initial collection when we didn’t have a brand, just an idea? We needed to make sure we had a great collection of t-shirts to sell at the launch, so we could drive sales from day one.
The fact that we have already built a successful business meant that when we started to actively contact the artists, they could see that we had potential to take the idea forward and implement it. Within a few weeks of launching we had over 1,500 artists sign up, which was amazing.
How have you promoted your business?
We are doing traditional digital marketing with e-newsletters and blogging; social marketing with Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr; and we supplement this with SEO and paid search. In addition to doing our own PR in-house, we have also been working with a great London PR agency.
How much do you charge?
Our t-shirts start at £25. We offer a good quality product that is ethically manufactured, however we still wanted it to be affordable. In addition to this, we wanted to build a brand that gave back to communities. We offer discounts to students and to contributing artists. Consumers who buy more than one shirt receive free shipping.
How many staff do you have?
We have about five people working on Goodfibres, plus many consultants and agencies to handle other aspects of the business. They make the company what it is – if they are inspired and feel emotionally invested, you get a strong output. As we share the office space with Spinning Hat, we also get a lot of input from the other 15 staff.
What has your growth been like?
We are still in the incubation stage, however we are tracking in line with our forecasts. In addition to the sales, we have managed to acquire over 2,000 Facebook fans – and we are only in our first month of trading. We have lots of new functionality and product lines waiting to be launched over the up and coming months, which should help us grow our customer base.
What’s the impact on your home life been like?
There is always an endless list of things that need doing, so our work hours have gone up. However, if you’re passionate about what you’re doing and you enjoy it, you don’t really count the hours. We do believe you need to take a break from it now and then, to get a bit of sanity check.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
Patience and commitment. The trick is not forgetting what the end result needs to be as you’re dealing with the hurdles of getting there (known and unforeseen). Successful businesses require persistent hard work – more than a well-incubated good idea. The blood, sweat and tears are crucial.
What was your first big breakthrough?
When we saw the competition begin to adopt attributes that we were using to differentiate ourselves, I knew that we were on the right track. We will continue to be agile and to focus on serving our customer base. If we do this we will just go from strength to strength.
What would you do differently?
I don’t think I would change anything to get to where we are now, as the only way you learn in business is by making mistakes. I see each one as a positive step forward – as you now know what doesn’t work.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with talented people. You can’t do it all on your own.