When Tom Cridland couldn’t find a publicist to help launch his startup clothing line in London, he launched his own PR agency—and now helps fellow fashion entrepreneurs.
Announcer: From 2820 Radio in Philadelphia, it's The Build. Conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators about their dreams, their triumphs and their challenges. Joe: Press. That word means two things to this week's guest. It's what you use to make your dress trousers look great, and that's the kind of look that Tom Cridland envisioned when he borrowed about $10,000 to launch his clothing line. While stars like Daniel Craig wore his fashion out on the town, Tom found even more success with the 30-year sweatshirt, a casual piece that's designed to last far, far longer than the typical fast fashion item. However, getting the kind of press Tom needed to launch his brand - attention from fashion magazines, newspapers and bloggers - proved a little daunting for London's establishment publicists; so Tom spun up his own process to land stories about his crowdfunded fashions on TV networks and in publications around the world. He's been so successful, his shop on the King's Road in London's Chelsea neighborhood now doubles as a PR firm that helps other fashion entrepreneurs get their own press. It's the story of Tom Cridland, coming up next on The Build. Announcer: The Build is made possible with support from 2820 Press, providing business consulting and content strategy services to customer-obsessed companies nationwide. More information at 2820press.com. Joe: It's The Build. I'm Joe Taylor, Jr. In just two years of operations, the Tom Cridland clothing line's been racking up attention from fashion journalists all over the world. That's because the company's namesake founder isn't afraid to call up an influencer who could share his story. I caught up with Tom on his mobile phone in between meetings in London. Joe: Tom Cridland, welcome to The Build. Tom: Thanks for having me. Joe: I love the story. Tell me a little bit. Two years ago, at around this time, you are looking to get started with a company, and you start with a loan of 6,000 pounds; it's about 10,000 US dollars based on today's exchange rate. You decide to kick off with what? What's your next step after securing the financing? Tom: Yeah, it was around this time in 2014 that I had secured that financing of 6,000 pounds from the government-subsidized start-up loan scheme. I'd already had the plan of creating a men's wear brand, e-commerce brand, focusing solely on trousers. We were just going to make trousers and chinos, and that was going to be our only product basically in lots of different styles. That's what we started with for the first year. Things really took off when we had the chance to make trousers, which was the result of me being plucky, but we had the chance to make some trousers and chinos for the likes of Daniel Craig, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Hugh Grant, Ben Stiller, Rod Stewart, The Elton John Band. That was from me contacting their managements. I couldn't have imagined how much interest there'd be from some of my heroes, and also how gracious they were. For example, Elton John's drummer, Nigel, is a very good friend of mine now. That side of things was a dream come true, but that was the initial idea. Just trousers only, and it was after that that we diversified. Joe: By diversifying, I think what we may be familiar with over here in the US is the concept of the 30-year sweatshirt and the 30-year jacket. Tell me a little bit about how you came across this idea to actually build fashion that lasts. Tom: I thought it would be an interesting thing because there are a lot of people who live and breathe sustainable fashion - environmentalists or people who are concerned about the durability of clothing or people who are simply concerned about maybe the lack of training that some people whose job is to put together clothing nowadays ... Do they have any training? What expertise do they have? Do they care about the clothing that they're putting together? These are the concerns that for our fashion raise, and I thought that it would be interesting to launch a project that was appealing broadly to the most people and was a bit more lighthearted, but got people talking about and thinking about the way in which they consume fashion. Tom: Together with my suppliers in Portugal, I developed the concept of the 30-year sweatshirt based on how long in their experience, because they'd been making clothing for over 50 years ... Just based on their experience of how long a sweatshirt could really be guaranteed to last. They reckoned it would be about 30, 40 years. We've got the loans. I always knew that it would be called the something-year sweatshirt. That's how we came up with the first year sweatshirt. Joe: The thing I found pretty interesting is that you chose Portugal based on some knowledge based on your family, right? You've got Portuguese lineage? Tom: Yes. Joe: It's not necessarily the first place that Americans would look to get clothing from. We typically hire out to China, India, Bangladesh; but it sounds like the story your telling includes a lot of recapturing this idea of craftsmanship in the work that you found among the Portuguese vendors- Tom: It's absolutely that. I'll make no bones about the fact that I've had a production run in China before, and it cost us more money than it cost us in Portugal, and the quality was twice as bad. By the time you ... If you're a small independent brand ... It's one thing if you're J Crew or whoever it is and you're getting okay quality, and you're able to negotiate on shipping, and you've got lots of money in the bank and ... If you're an independent brand like mine, getting it made closer to home makes sense. I mean if I could make it in Britain, that would be wonderful, but as I'm half Portuguese, half British, the next place I looked was Portugal. I think there's a tradition of excellent craftsmanship across Europe, and I run the business with my girlfriend of six years. She just stopped working at Universal Music to be our managing director full time, and she's half Italian. We even may be looking at moving production over to Italy now. Joe: Fantastic. Tom: That might be more expensive, but I know the quality might even be a further step up. I'm in this obviously to make a living, but I'm also in this to create products that I'm really, really proud of, because it's got my name on it. I was initially reluctant about naming the brand after me, but on the other hand, it was great for buying the domain. There weren't too many people called Tom Cridland queuing up. Joe: There's no motivation like having your name on the door, right? If something goes wrong, people know exactly who to complain to. Tom: Absolutely. I still get the same rush if we ever have an article or anything, and it's not a nice article, then I obviously feel really happy; but at the same time if anything goes wrong, then I'm really upset. This is a real labor of love for me and for my girlfriend. We really poor our heart and soul into it, and I'm not going to pretend that we haven't made mistakes, but we've always had the best of intentions. We always work as hard as we possibly can, and I know that with that attitude, we're only going to be able to move forward and make things even better than we do already. It's a really great situation. Joe: Two years into this evolution of the business and you are competing with some of the brands that you mentioned: J Crew, Gap, Primark. Some of the large global retailers. How do you get your customers to shift away from this idea of inexpensive, instant gratification into investing a little bit more for that quality workmanship and for something that's going to last? Tom: Well I think at this point it's people who are interested. It's people who have a vested interest in either the uniqueness of our designs. Even though we make staples, there are little things about our designs that are unique. They're interested in our "buy less, buy better" philosophy. We will have had to catch their attention at this point, you know? It's not like we're competing in terms of sales with any of those brands, but we are at least causing a little bit of a stir. Nothing big, but some people have noticed, and that's wonderful. We're at a slightly awkward price point really. We're trying to do in fashion what, in America, people like Great Brands have done with sneakers or Harrys has done with shaving. Tom: We're trying to do that with fashion, and we don't have anywhere near the level of investment that they've started with. We only started with the equivalent of $10,000. I'm imagining the people at Harrys and Great. Some of them have had previous ventures that were successful when they were in their 30's. We're very young, straight out of university with less funding. That was our inspiration in terms of ... We want to be part of the future. Physical retail's in the decline, and we want to do something really special with clothing, and we want to make the basics. We want to make the stuff that a lot of people buy. We want to inject some personality, and sort of a decent code into how we make it. Joe: When you say that physical retail's on the decline, how does that inform your decision to open up an actual retail shop in London? Tom: That was based on the fact that we were approached and we were given a deal that we couldn't turn down. It's a wonderful opportunity. This shop front in London is simply, if I'm being quite frank, another publicity stunt, and also because we couldn't turn down the deal because it was so good. It was a wonderful opportunity. Creatively, it's been a joyous experience to kind of extend our brand and our brand personality into a physical retail space. In terms of sales and in terms of our business strategy, opening this physical retail location was never something that was informed by business strategy or business thinking, money making. It was only because it was an excellent deal and because it was a creative, wonderful creative experience, and obviously such a huge adrenaline rush to have such a wonderful place in London. Joe: I think it would also give you a sense of credibility among potential customers that there's a physical place. I think there's still a little but hesitation for some consumers that want to shop, but don't necessarily know where the product comes from or where the people stand behind their brand. Tom: Yeah. That's definitely true. It was really ... It was a no-brainer. That's not to say, you're right, it's the credibility ... The sales are still going to be made online though. Joe: Along those lines, coming back to the funding, you had the initial start-up loan. Have you taken any investment or are you completely bootstrapping at this point? Tom: I wouldn't say that we're bootstrapping, but we are achieving our results simply through organic growth. We've taken no further investment, no further bank loans. We've given away no equity. We've just continued to grow organically. It's taken a huge amount of resilience to be able to do that. There's obviously been moments early on where we came close to thinking if it's the right idea to sell our clothing brand, what would we do? It's been smooth for quite a while now, and we're learning as we go along. If nothing else, it's a wonderful experience. Joe: It sounds like one of the big things you learned along the way was how to tell your story effectively to journalists. One thing that I observe is that, Tom, you're not afraid to pick up the phone or send an email to anybody that you feel like can help tell your story. What do you think ... Knowing now that you're actually advising other start-ups, other fashion entrepreneurs, why do you think people are afraid to reach out? What do you try to coach new entrepreneurs about telling their story that maybe they haven't heard before? Tom: I try and emphasize in today's day ... In the world that we live in now, there's so much content. There's so many stories. There's social media platforms. For example, print advertising doesn't work in the way that it used to. If you got an advertisement out in the New York Times or the Sunday Times in England or wherever it was, in the old days, and you saved up and you shelled out whatever it was - 10 grand for an advertisement - you'd expect some results and you'd almost be certain to get some results out of it. Now, you cannot predict that. You've got to get fresh, whether it be small blogs or whether it be big national newspapers or magazines or go on the radio. Go on TV. Whatever you can do. You need to get your name out there, and you need to do it every month. That's just an essential part of life. Tom: Maybe some people are put off, because, quite frankly, some journalists are very conceited and obviously very busy, and you get a lot of rude responses. I don't care. You know? I'm doing my job, and most decent journalists respect that. As a result, we've been featured in a lot of places. I'm not going to be afraid. The situation is I need to get press for us to grow the brand, so I'm going to pitch for it and I'm going to try and earn it. I always pitch in a very polite way, and I just try and lay out the story as simply as I can, and in a way that people are going to see my email and they're not going to be like, "Oh God, that's a long email. I can't really be bothered to read that. Delete." I try and at least capture people's imagination. I'm sure it gets deleted 90 percent of the time, but we do manage to capture people's attention, and that's ... We use exactly the same attitude and the same methods with our clients as part of Tom Cridland public relations. We've been effective. Tom: We're an agency that people approach based on my own track record. I'm not going to go around shouting from the hilltops what press I've got for other people, because the whole point is that I want people to know maybe that I'm working with people only based on the writing style of the pitches. Some people might be able to work it out. Otherwise, it will be signed off ... Anything that my clients send is signed off as them. I know that journalists prefer to speak to the actual founder or the boss or the person behind the business, not some third party PR. Joe: I find that really compelling, because in some of the work that we've done with clients, we find the same thing. One of the adages that you hear a lot, especially in places like Silicon Valley, is figure out how to sell your run-off. In this case, the run-off was you developed a process that worked very well for getting attention for your brand, and you've actually turned that into a second business, which is the public relations practice. How did you end up in that situation? Were brands contacting you, or did you start to highlight people that you wanted to work with? How did you decide to start curating a client list? Tom: The first step is starting the business. It was two-fold. On the one hand, I drew up lists of some people I wanted to work with. I contacted them, and I listed what press I'd done and told them a bit about me in a very simple way. On the other hand, I thought, well if I'm starting a new business, just like with the trumpet and fashion label, I'm going to need to get some press. We got an article in Forbes about how I'd started my own PR agency, and we got a lot of inquiries off the back of that. I'm not going to do too much more promotion for the public relations agency because we get most of our inquiries now on referral or on people who have seen the Forbes article. PR-wise, it's more important to get press for the fashion business. Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Tom: Back to the public relations practice, we only started it at the end of November, and we've already got some clients on a referral basis after two months of working for them. I don't know of too many public relations practices you can say that about. Joe: The thing that I love about this, because I often tell folks that with the right amount of discipline, you can effectively manage your own campaigns. You didn't go to school for public relations or communications. Tom: No. Joe: No. This is all from the trial and error and figuring out how to build your own brand, and now you're making that a service for other brands that you feel that you can make a difference for. Tom: Yeah, absolutely. Joe: Tell me a little bit about what the Tom Cridland enterprise looks like in ten years. How do you grow all of these disparate parts of your business into something that sounds like it's already on the path of becoming a substantial brand? Tom: I'm more of an ideas guy. I'm good at the promo and I'm good at the PR stuff. In terms of growing the business, my girlfriend has a degree, master's degree, from London Business School. It's going to be more her wheelhouse to plan the numbers and plan our strategy business-wise in terms of how we grow. I'm an ideas guy. I've got all sorts of schemes that I'm already brewing. Some future projects and even future ways of diversifying the business, but I basically just want to continue to do things like we're doing now. As effectively as possible, as transparently as possible. Just doing things as well as we possibly can and injecting a bit of personality into the proceedings. Not being afraid to say what we think. Not being afraid to go out there and pitch to press. Just working as hard as we can. We're very energetic. I feel like we're getting a lot done and quite quickly. Joe: Tell me a little bit about how you capture ideas and how you determine whether an idea's worth pursuing. Tom: I just thought that with the amount of press that we're getting, I thought it was surprisingly impressive for a start-up. I thought there would certainly be a way of diversifying that and creating another business out of it and allowing ... We didn't have a PR agency. We didn't have a marketing budget. We didn't planning on to get a CR. It was all us. All of our efforts. I don't think ... Without blowing my own trumpet, I don't think there are a lot of people out there who could have achieved that. Tom: People who become accountants and lawyers, they spend three years, they qualify. They prove that they're able to cater a service to people. Then they start charging people fees that are market rate. Then that's how they make a living. I feel like I've done my qualification and earned ... I've earned something that can prove my track record when it comes to promoting, when it comes to getting press with no budget. I use that and I monetize it in the same way that a lawyer or an accountant would. That's how that idea came about. You know the interest was overwhelming on that front, but everything's been overwhelming so far. I still go into it the same. Everything's a thrill. Everything's a surprise. Joe: Tell me a little bit about how you intend to scale the business. If you've got your girlfriend who's taking on the business and numbers and the operational end of it, what kinds of people do you want to attract to your team? How do you fill up a company with more people that share your passion for coming up with great ideas? Tom: The next person that we're going to hire is going to be someone to handle logistics and customer service. We're taking hiring for that very seriously. I'm going to need to know these people personally or at least get to know them personally. Not socially necessarily, but I'm going to need to know that I can trust them and I'm going to need to know that they're happy to stay up late and work properly. Yeah, it's going to be difficult because at the moment, it's just us. We're building our lives together. We care very passionately about it. I know that we're both putting in 110 percent. Tom: It's very, very difficult to know who on earth we can supplement the team with. We've obviously got part-timers in the shop and we've got other people, but they're all we ... We've had lots of applications for free internships. Instead, I've chosen to hire my brother, who's just graduated from university and is starting a full time job in September. He's managing the shop. Then I've got another friend working, and then another friend who'll be going on our promotional tour of America. He'll be driver. It's just friends and family at the moment. Joe: Tell me about the promotional tour of America. Where are you going? What's your goal? Tom: We're going to New York for about a week. Then we're going to Los Angeles for three weeks. The goal is really to speak to journalists and speak to press who are not willing to cover our story unless we're there to take a face-to-face interview. I'm also going to be announcing a few dates at some universities where I'm going to be speaking to entrepreneurial societies in Los Angeles and around California. We will maybe have a few more promotional things up our sleeves when we're out there. Then we're going to take a well-earned break and go to Hawaii for the weekend. Joe: Nice! Since you're in the neighborhood basically. Tom: Yeah, exactly. Joe: What do you think it takes to crack the American market? Do you foresee working with retail distributors over here, or do you continue to just go forward with this direct sales-to-customer strategy? Tom: I think we will continue to build our brand as an e-commerce brand, because that's what I believe is the future. We're happy if people ... If retailers get in touch, but we've already had some big name retailers get in touch, and we've had to turn them down [inaudible 00:22:42]. People would have to make us a very attractive offer. Joe: You're turning them down because of what? Volume? Tom: Because the mark-ups just don't work. We make our clothing well, and I'm not prepared to outsource it to places that don't make it well. That's basically why some of the numbers simply don't work. Also I find the attitude of re-sellers to be somewhat condescending in my experience. Being a buyer at a big department store or something is an impressive thing. It doesn't mean that all other brands should kind of be looked down on. I certainly don't need their help. There are many other independent brands like mine who only sell direct to customer, and the customers get a fairer deal out of it. In a way, it'd kind of be against our ethos. I'm not going to pretend that I wouldn't be absolutely thrilled to be stocked somewhere like Harrys in London or Saks Fifth Avenue or something like that. I just don't know if the numbers would ever work. Joe: I think you called out an example in Harrys. Anyone who listens to a podcast in the United States is familiar with Harrys because they sponsor, it seems, almost every podcast. The same idea applies. Typical retail mark-up is between four and 10 times the cost of production, and so your price points are actually fairly competitive now with brands like LL Bean here in America. If you were to go into some place like Nordstrom, which would be nice in terms of putting the brand in front of buyers, but you'd probably have to at least double the retail price. Tom: Yeah. I just don't know whether that would be viable. Again, maybe that's something for my girlfriend to look at, but I want to get something that's a fair deal. I like not having vultures breathing down our necks, because our business, and we will do things how we like. We'll try and do them fairly. The minute we start getting other people involved, they'll have all sorts of agendas. Joe: If there's one thing that you would tell an entrepreneur, and it sounds like some American entrepreneur students will get to experience this on your road show. If someone comes to you and asks for advice, what's the one thing that a first-time entrepreneur needs to do right out of the gate to make their business a success? Tom: I would just say don't give up, and if someone comes out with advice that basically is belittling or makes it subtly seem like your idea is stupid or that you should completely change your approach, don't necessarily take what they say as gospel. Times change. People are giving you advice now. That advice might have worked 30 years ago; you don't know whether it's going to work now. Believe in yourself. Just don't give up. Make sure you're having a nice life as well, you know? Work late and be very, very passionate. You've got to work hard and you've got to earn it, but you'll know whether you are. I struggle to balance it at the moment because I'm loving the work and I'm desperate to try and cash in this opportunity and strike while the iron's hot and establish ourselves as a big brand. I don't want to ... I don't care if we become a really big brand. I just want to have a good life, make a good living, and try and produce great clothing that people enjoy. That's what I care about. Joe: That sounds great. Tom Cridland, thanks for making time to speak with us on The Build. Tom: Thanks for having me. Joe: The Build is a production of 2820 Radio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Our producer is Lori Taylor. Our associate producer is Katie Cohen Zahniser. Our talent coordinators are Katrina Smith and Dezeni Ali. Our post-production team is lead by Ed and Wilder at Flowly Audio in Detroit. My name is Joe Taylor, Jr. Thanks for listening to The Build. Announcer: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Build. We hope you'll share this series with your friends and provide us with feedback on the iTunes store.