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When the factory gates closed in the small Welsh town of Cardigan, David Hieatt sparked a plan to get this maker town making once again.
With a vision to create the best jeans in the world and restore 400 jobs, this global brand was built from the ground up and now has a waiting list well into 2023—but it wasn’t without its challenges.
You might want to check your wardrobe after this, it could be time to invest in a new pair of jeans.
Here’s what we cover:
A small Welsh town bursting with worldly dreams
David, so you’ve done so many amazing things.
So I want to start right at the end, in the present, basically, with Hiut Denim.
So just tell me, why did you create this business?
Well, the backstory is, it’s not really a story about myself or Clare, who is co-founder. It’s a story about a town, and a town that used to make jeans.
It used to make 35,000 pairs a week, every week, for nearly 40 years.
And then in 2002, the factory gates closed. The factory left the town, and 400 world-class makers had nothing to make.
We all lose our mojo at times, right? And towns can lose their mojo too.
Its identity was as a maker town. Then suddenly the maker town, didn’t make. 400 jobs in a town of 4,000 people really is a knock.
So we were, at the time, running a company called Howies, we sold that to Timberland, and we found out that we really valued our independence more than anything else.
So we left, and then we said, “what could we do now?”
Well, the town is a world-class maker.
We’re pretty good at building brands. And there was this other thing that came along called the internet.
So we were literally in the right town with the right people, with the internet connection.
And you go, hey, maybe we could get 400 people their jobs back.
So where on earth do you start?
Because you said the factory gates closed. But presumably there was a big business who’d stopped making there, and outsourced production somewhere very hot and sunny.
You got it.
So how do you then acquire that asset?
How do you convince all the people that used to work there to take a chance on a brand-new startup?
Yeah, it is tricky.
The thing is, when you’ve had your income from a making business and then suddenly it stops making, and you hear the clunk of those gates go, it doesn’t give you great confidence that manufacturing is the best game in town.
So there was an awful lot going around like, “Are you for real?” and I’m saying, “We’re going to go and start an amazing company that makes an amazing pair of jeans.”
Sometimes the best in the world. And we are going to literally try and get 400 people their jobs back.
Now that takes an awful lot of confidence and belief for those makers to come back into the factory and make, when literally they had no proof.
It’s really easy to believe in something when you have proof. But when you have no proof, no evidence, no data to be able to go, “actually, this guy can do it.”
So the grandmasters really trusted me, and we’ve always been a team.
I said, “Look, hey, do you know what? All the TV cameras are going to come, the press are going to come, some of the most famous people in the world are going to wear our jeans.”
They were just looking at me going, “Yeah, Dave, maybe. Man, I don’t know what you’re smoking, but keep smoking it.”
But slowly the belief comes, right? Because suddenly the BBC came, Shopify came, ITV came, CNBC came.
The world cameras came. Some of the most famous people in the world started to wear our jeans.
We had to go and move to a bigger factory, which was actually the old factory where they used to work. Some of them are working one meter from where they used to work.
So the belief comes, you’ve just got to be good to your word.
When you say something, and you follow through and then somebody says, “Hey, he seems to do what he says he’s going to do.”
Creating a global cult brand
It’s interesting you say that it wasn’t the easiest task convincing people, because otherwise it sounds a bit like a movie.
This kind of captivating story line. Factory closes down, someone arrives to save the factory. And in the movie, everybody rises up and works together.
But actually it must have been quite a slog for both of you to get it going.
You’ve built Hiut into a cult brand. And as you mentioned, you’ve got famous people all over the world wearing these jeans.
Did you have a playbook for that?
Did you know, “I want to create a cult brand.” And if so, can you share what’s in that playbook?
Well the playbook was, firstly, you’ve got to think, can I make the best pair of jeans in the world?
That’s almost like the starting point.
If you can’t do that, then you’re going to need a lot of advertising money.
We were very particular that we were going to make jeans for the most creative people on the planet.
The entrepreneurs, the designers, the blockchain enthusiasts, literally the people who have companies and go and change things. Designers, innovators, cryptographers.
That was always the intention.
So yesterday, I was looking at the co-founder of Shopify, a really interesting company.
We use them to do all our backend, but he wears our jeans. So you have all these amazing people, and I’ve got so many non-disclosure agreements that I can’t actually tell you who wears our jeans.
So if you ask me who wears our jeans, I don’t know, I can’t tell you.
But it’s kind of reassuring that you suddenly go, “wow, they wear our jeans, and they wear our jeans.”
They can buy any jeans in the world, and they come to us.
Actually, it’s interesting because brand is a funny thing to talk about, because people go, “I don’t know what a brand is, it’s all ephemeral.”
But basically, you’re buying into something that they say they stand for.
If you maintain that trust, then you grow your brand, and you grow the trust.
I think that’s a really interesting thing for us as a small company. The reality is, Porsche makes 10 times more cars than we actually make jeans. I think maybe Rolls-Royce make more cars than we make jeans.
We’re a small maker, we just happen to make the best jeans in the world.
10,000 pairs of jeans a year, so actually you would expect a bit of a waiting list.
We’ve had a waiting list for an entire year, and I’m thinking, “oh, wow.” That sounds really good from a business perspective, but actually it’s quite stressful, because most of your time is spent hearing, “Dave, where are my jeans?”
The problem with running a factory is you plod along, plod along, and then suddenly you get this massive spike of publicity and then people just don’t understand.
You say, “well, yeah. But we can only make the same number of jeans today, as yesterday.”
The demand is now a hundred times what it was yesterday, but the process of making them is still the same.
If anything, we teach people a little bit of patience. You can go on Amazon, have a pair of jeans, any pair of jeans, by tomorrow morning. But for ours, you have to wait.
Now, guess what?
They’re the best jeans that you’re ever going to buy. I buy so many samples of other brands, and we look at them, and I’m not even being boastful.
You look at them, and you just go, “man, they don’t care. When did they stop caring about how they made things?”
Making your brand the best in the market
Okay. Tell me though, what is the difference?
When you say you make the best jeans, so spell it out for me. What is better about your jeans?
So let’s go and look at our business models first, right? Our business model is not that unique, but it just happens to be unique in the denim world.
We are a direct-to-consumer brand.
So we sell direct. We don’t go wholesale, because all the other brands are really connected to the wholesale model. They have to give half their margin away to the shop.
I love shops, but I just don’t want to give them half my margin.
So at that point, we can go and buy the best denims in the world. But the other brands can’t because they have to give half their margin away.
If you start with the ingredients, like a chef, what do you want?
Do you use the low-quality ingredients, or do you use the best?
What kind of restaurant do you want to run? If you want to run a really great one, then buy the best ingredients, buy the freshest fish.
And for a denim company, you just go and buy the best denim in the world.
And guess what? It’s expensive. And guess what? There’s a cue.
You got to be really preselected to work with the best mills in the world. So we have to go and seduce the mills, saying, “Hey, we really are the best maker, and we need to work with you.”
And then you’re in, and you have the relationship once they trust you.
So you start with the best ingredients.
And then the makers have 10, 20, 30, 40, 50,000 hours of making jeans. Malcolm Gladwell talks about being a grand master at chess after 10,000 hours. Our makers are grand masters of jeans, but they’ve done 40-50,000 hours of making jeans.
They’re among the elite makers in the world because here’s a fact. This is an odd thing. You can spend 20 years in a jean factory making a belt loop and never make a pair of jeans.
Our grand masters, take it from the start to the finish of the entire jean.
And that’s why at the end of the jean, each grand master signs it because all artists, which they are, should sign their work.
So we’re in a very different jean business to other jean businesses, and people don’t quite understand. You go, “Come to the factory, and then you’ll get it.”
Sustainability: Understanding you are part of the problem
So presumably these jeans, I mean, if they’re made of the best quality denim, and they’re stitched so beautifully, they must last an awfully long time.
So this is also quite a nice play from a sustainability point of view because you buy one pair of jeans, and they’ll last you a long time.
I mean the best thing you can do for the environment is to make your product last a long time.
One of the stress points in the business, an honest caveat, is we’re struggling because we offer free repairs for the jeans, for life. And that was fine.
But then suddenly, during Covid everybody just went, “hey, maybe I should send these jeans back to Hiut and get them repaired.” So we had all these repairs come back all at once.
Then Paul, who does the repairs was going, “wow. There are a lot of repairs to do.”
So we’ve got this backlog at the moment, and our customers are not happy because they’re having to wait six months for the repairs.
So we suck right now at repairs and because we spend a day on a pair of jeans, repairing it, and it takes about an hour and 10 minutes to make a brand new pair.
If it was just economics, you’d go, “Dave, don’t repair the jeans.”
But we are committed, we want to be a responsible maker if we can. We are part of the problem because we are all a part of the problem.
I see so much greenwashing. Like, we are part of the problem. But we’re trying in a small way to be lower impact than most people.
That’s our Achilles heel at the moment. We need to fix our fixing business because people love it. We spend a ridiculous amount of time and money on these products.
The best thing you can do for a pair of jeans is make them last longer.
Slow your growth to manage workload stress
This might be a stupid question, but you’ve got these epic waiting lists. You’ve got poor old Paul with a massive stack of jeans to repair.
Could you not hire more grand masters?
Could you not expand the business to take some of the pressure off?
Well, I’ll tell you the honest answer to that.
What I’m trying to do this time round is to stay in control of my company, because I have the best interests of the people in that building, and the town at heart.
So the slower I can grow, and this is going to fry people to say, “What do you mean slow growth?”
A nice steady 10%, 20% slow growth a year is fine. We can manage that.
It takes a lot of time to go and train a grand master. If it takes 20 years to learn, how long is it going to take to train somebody that can actually make it to our standard?
We want to manage growth so it’s sensible.
Businesses are at high stress when they’re experiencing the highest growth. I would rather be a slow growth company and get to the project end at 400 people having their jobs back over a longer period of time, if it takes that, I don’t mind. I think that’s okay.
Yes, we are going to try and find, somebody, an apprentice, to go and do repairs. But it’s taken Paul six years to learn the craft.
And guess what? Not everybody wants to make. I mean, I wish they did, but not everybody does.
You kind of know the answer, but then you have to work towards it, and it’s not like you can just go, “Yeah. Go hire more people.” Because you have to find the right people, and you have to grow the company in accordance with your credo.
And for me, I would rather be a slow growth company and be completely in control of it, than go and raise.
I can go and raise VC [venture capital] money tomorrow. I get emails going, “hey Dave, do you want a coffee?” I go, “No. I don’t. I’m fine.”
I love this perspective because too often you hear about the other approach where you have an artist in a business where a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of money, a lot of resource goes into this perfect product, and then they try and grow too fast.
They cheapen the product, the skills get diluted, and you do see these horror stories, and then they become just another brand.
Even though they started right up there at the top of the mountain, they kind of slowly tumble down.
You don’t have to be a big company to be influential
But it does sound hard to try and stay true to your principles in the face of a lot of demand and a lot of business pressure.
So it’s interesting to hear that perspective.
The good thing is we live down in west Wales. Our commute is two minutes.
Nobody really comes down for meetings. It’s like four hours. They look at a map and go, “yeah, should we do it on Zoom?”
I learned the lesson last time, when we had super-fast growth and we were growing at 350%, we had to go and raise money by selling the company.
We were fairly successful because Japan’s richest man wanted to invest. Steve Case who started AOL, wanted to put $25m to $30m in.
PPR who are now called Kering, who own Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Puma, they chose two brands in the world that they wanted to buy and Howies was one of them.
So it wasn’t like we’d done something pretty amateur. We’d done something pretty special.
But in the end, we didn’t own the company.
Then the owners didn’t love the company like we loved the company and then the company just went, “Hey, let’s be average.” And you go, “I don’t want to be average.”
I didn’t come down to Cardigan to retire. I don’t need any slippers and I don’t need a pipe.
I’ve come down to create one of the most influential brands in the world, if we can.
And I’ll tell you a story about that.
One of my favourite brands is Patagonia. I love Patagonia.
This is me with my ego going, “This is what I look at as success.”
I wrote a piece in the Howies catalogue about the journey of a carrot from Poland, all the way to Cardigan, every left turn, every right turn, and every roundabout. And that inspired Patagonia to go and do their Footprint Chronicles.
Oh, no way.
That piece inspired them, my favourite company. And that’s what I say to the team. I’m going, “We can be small. We can be tiny. But we can be influential.”
If you think about a splinter in your foot, it can be very influential to pain, but it’s tiny.
So we don’t have to be big to be super influential.
We make jeans for Rene Redzepi, the world’s best chef. He serves 45 people in a night, and yet he’s the world’s best chef.
So that’s where I’m going. I don’t mind being a splinter in their foot.
I like your splinter analogy. I remember Anita Roddick had one similar, which was, if you think you’re too small to make a difference, ask a mosquito. Because you don’t forget when a mosquito has made a difference in your life.
Clare used to work at The Body Shop. She used to write all the copywriting and stuff for The Body Shop. So Anita’s amazing, bless her.
A failed business venture is a great starting point
So let’s talk about Howies a bit. You’ve talked about that being a journey that you learned some quite hard lessons from.
But do you want to just take us back to how you ended up creating that brand, what you wanted to achieve, and then we’ll talk about sort of what happened next and the challenges.
I mean, it was kind of an interesting story, a very quick backdrop, and it’s not too far into the past, but at 16, I persuaded my mum and dad that I didn’t need to do A-levels.
It was obvious that I wasn’t ever going to do super well at school.
But what I wanted to do, was to go and start the world’s best sports brand. My dad didn’t have much in terms of savings, but he gave me 50% of it to go and start this company.
And within six months I was broke.
So I had to go and tell him, “Hey, dad, business didn’t work out.” And he said, “Well, what did you learn?”
I said, “Well, I learned I love it.”
And he said, “It’s really good that you’ve learned that because a lot of people will go throughout life and don’t learn that.
“But now the next thing is to go and learn how to be really good at it, so you can always do what you love.”
I said, “Yeah, good point dad.”
So I went back, I did my A-levels in a year, I went to college, got thrown out, ended up on the dole for a year and a half. I then got a job in this little advertising agency called Saatchi & Saatchi, which at the time was the world’s most creative advertising agency.
I couldn’t spell. I thought a colon was a disease and a semicolon was a complication of that disease, but I did have ideas and I did pretty well.
But the twist in the tale here is the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi at the time was called [Robert] Louis-Dreyfus.
He came in one day. He said, “I’m going to go and buy Adidas.” I was like going, “What?” And he did.
Morrison Charles had fallen out with Louis-Dreyfus over something. I don’t know what really truly happened. But Saatchi pitched for it. I did the pitch, and we didn’t win it.
So then the next week I took a £20,000 pay cut to go and work for the agency that did win the Adidas account.
I spent a year and a half writing all these ads for Adidas. My boss just didn’t get, he didn’t like what I was doing.
And I felt, “God, there’s a really amazing voice here.” And that’s how I started Howies.
I made four T-shirts out of the words I’d written. I just felt there was a place for a brand that made you think, as well as buy.
That was the journey. I promise you, like we didn’t have a clue how to run a business.
We had no clue. I’m not just saying that for the laughter. We had no clue. We’d never done it before. We had the L plates on, and we were trying to do hand break turns.
We were a mess.
A T-shirt so unique, it was practically criminal
That’s everyone though, right, when they start their first business.
Let’s be honest. No one goes into startup life being like, “I’m a pro at this.”
I mean, I don’t know. Maybe they would be slightly ahead of us if they just watched some YouTube channels or read a book about it.
But we were pretty naïve, but maybe that’s why we got to where we got to.
Suddenly, when we said, “Hey, we don’t know how to run this thing. We need to go and get some investors.”
The calibre of investors that we attracted was insane.
We were there choosing, and you go, “Wow. God, we must have done something right.” And we did.
We built an incredible voice, an incredible brand. We were doing things on T-shirts that made people just go, “What?”
We had a T-shirt, and we put barcodes in the sleeve, and we printed on the T-shirt, “Shoplifter.” We launched it to all the skateboarders. They went down to Oxford Street and set all the alarms off.
The next day the police said, “Is your company responsible for this T-shirt?” I’m going, “Which one? We make a lot of T-shirts.”
They proceed to say, “The shoplifter T-shirt, Mr Hieatt.”
I went, “Yeah. We did do that one.” They’re really not happy and saying, “Well, you better stop making it, or you’re going to have a knock.”
I’m saying, “I will stop making it.”
I put the phone down and immediately phoned up every skateboard magazine, every BMX magazine, every mountain bike magazine saying, “Please, whatever you do, we don’t need any publicity on this T-shirt because it’s been banned. Can you take everything out of the magazines?”
Of course, they ignored me. And then they became folklore.
I’ll tell you a funny story. I was in Lisbon at the Monocle Quality of Life Conference. A guy came up to me on the Sunday. I was slightly hungover.
It was after I’d given a talk, and he said, “Hey, did you really do that shoplifter T-shirt?” I went, “Yeah.” He said, “Can I show you something?”
He worked for Airbnb. He said, “Can I show you my bag? This thing is made of the strongest material. You can’t put a knife through this because I can put a half a million dollars in it.”
He said, “But I do have a bigger one that fits a million dollars.” And he said, “What do you think?” I’m going, “Wow. Yeah, that’s cool.”
And he did this ballistic bag and I thought he was thinking, I was bonkers for doing the shoplifter T-shirt and I thought he was bonkers for doing the bag that doesn’t rip when you’ve got half a million dollars in it.
Who even carries half a million dollars?
Also, what’s to stop someone from nicking the bag?
You don’t need to rip it. You can just take it. Get you a pneumatic drill. That is such an amazing story.
Thinking outside the box to create trending products
I was going to ask actually, you said you took some of the words that you’d been working on for the rejected Adidas campaigns.
What were the words that you put on the first few T-shirts that you launched?
I think the one that I remember was *Life* or *Big Life*, with asterisks.
And it just said, ‘For a limited period only’.
There was one which was like a donor card, but on the back, we printed the back of the donor card, and you could actually sign it. So it was a legal binding document.
That ended up getting displayed as a part of an exhibition in the Tate Museum.
I mean, everybody says everything’s been done on a T-shirt. I say, “Man, I don’t think so”.
When we were protesting against Monsanto for what they did to food, we sent out some special T-shirts, and they said, “I love GM,” but the T-shirts had three sleeves.
We sent them to all the journalists, and they were going, “We are literally having so much fun.”
The people were just going, “Who is this company?”
The turning point for me was, by then I was working in this amazing advertising agency. I left the one that didn’t like any of my work. I worked for this really beautiful man called David Abbott.
I picked up a magazine, it was like a sports industry magazine. It had the top 50 brands in Britain at that point. Adidas was number 12, Howies was nine and Nike was six.
It was at that point, I thought, wow, and we’d been doing it for five years, no pay, just doing it as a side project.
I put the magazine down and started to think, maybe it’s time we take ourselves a bit more seriously because other people are beginning to.
That was the point when we decided to move back to Wales.
The complications of business growth when it becomes unmanageable
But it’s interesting because when you were talking about Howies earlier, you were talking with a slight sense of regret.
But whenever I’ve looked at the journey of that business, it’s held up as this major success story, where you came from nowhere, and you ended up selling for a decent amount of money, and you had international acclaim.
It’s just interesting how for you, you felt like you wished you’d done things differently.
I mean only a little bit because I mean, it’s like if you were married once, and then you got married twice, you don’t really want to speak too fondly of the first wife—not really a great metaphor.
But everything we’ve done has got us to here. We are super grateful for it.
All the things that we had to learn, we learned and suddenly that gave us some real steel to go and do it, but for the long term and to look after people properly.
I’m super proud of that.
The only thing about Howies, is it was born to do great things. That was its DNA. I felt like we lost our nerve halfway through it because we could have done it on our own.
It was kind of like, I didn’t have enough experience to know that actually I could stop growing it. I had my foot on the accelerator pedal when we were growing so fast. Actually what I should have done was just put my foot on the brake.
We would’ve been fine without other people’s money. There was a little bit of a misstep, and sometimes you see this thing with so much potential, and you know it’s never going to get there now.
That’s not bigging myself up or whatever.
Sometimes the founders are the driving force. It’s not just an ego thing. You are the one who’s pushing and when someone starts pushing, and it doesn’t get to where it could have done, there’s some sadness there for it.
But there’s great opportunity and optimism for Hiut.
I mean you’ve got to take the learning with you. It happened and guess what? I’m a better human being for it.
Don’t put the wrong timeframe on the right dream
In terms of your ambitions for Hiut then, it feels like you are still aiming for an amazing, lasting, big company.
You said you want to bring back these 400 jobs, but you’re just happy to do it over a much longer timeframe.
So do you feel like you are just as ambitious as you were when you were putting out your shoplifter T-shirt, but you are just a lot more pragmatic in how you go about it?
I think the intensity of the ambition is still there, but the timeframe is more sensible.
I think people get stressed by putting the wrong timeframe on the right dream. When you put a different timeframe on it, you suddenly go, “Hey, it’s fine.”
I have an incredible, ambitious desire to do better today than yesterday.
So if you only get 1% better, over a year, that’s 3,800%. That’s 37 times better. So you might think, “Oh, that’s not very ambitious Dave.”
But I can tell you being 3,800% better at the end of this year is enough.
I’ve just changed timeframes and I think a lot of young founders out there right now, maybe listening to this, their stress is coming from a misguided timeframe.
All great brands, all great businesses, take time.
I can tell you this, they don’t take three years.
You can do a lot in three years, but if you want something really meaningful and robust with rigour, that’s going to stand the test of time, it takes effort, it takes love, it takes stubbornness, endurance, and it takes grit.
A crisis can either get you in a panic or give you clarity
Have you had any setbacks with Hiut?
I was thinking when you were saying about sourcing the best denim in the world, and I was wondering how on earth?
The kind of supply chain challenges, that have been plaguing a lot of businesses over the past year, might have impacted you guys and the fact that you ship your jeans all over the world.
I mean, have you had any tricky times?
I think to have a business without any tricky times, it’s a nice idea, but it’s not reality.
Every day is a challenge and yes, the last two years been pretty interesting.
Things haven’t been normal, but being an entrepreneur is actually about solving problems, and they just happen to be different problems tomorrow than today.
So your strength as an entrepreneur is your ability to solve the problems and also to be okay with some frustration along the way or a setback. Setbacks are just information, you try something, and it doesn’t work. That’s called learning, isn’t it?
Some examples are, when we started Hiut we got six months’ worth of orders in the first month. I was in the mindset of “My God, this is great!”
Then I realised it was terrible.
People were going to have to wait six months for a pair of jeans. This was going to be their first experience of our brand, a brand who want to be the best in the world.
So I decided to close our website—terrible decision.
Anybody out there thinking of doing that, please give me a call, and I’ll put you right, because you do not want to go and close your website.
We got all the jeans made. We went and hired more grand masters, and we opened our website back up.
And guess what? Crickets. Nothing, no orders, no publicity.
We’d done all the publicity, and I’m thinking I’ve literally doubled our overhead and taken all our sales away.
Most people do that in years and decades. I did it in a month.
I think we all have those moments. So we had to go and sit down. A crisis either gets you in a panic or gives you clarity, you have to decide which one.
I was putting 80% of my effort into social media, and it had given me 20% of my sales. And the other 20% of my effort was going into my newsletter, and it was bringing in 80% of my sales.
So it made me think, where should I spend 80% of my effort?
At that point I thought I’m going all in on my newsletter. And I’ve been all in on my newsletter ever since. It’s got me out of my struggle, and it’s got me to thrive, and yet most people don’t care about newsletters.
You can keep scrolling on Instagram and making sure your feed is super pretty.
But I’m going to go and build a newsletter that actually grows my business. That’s what I did.
I was trying to buy a really decent book on newsletters. But nobody cares. Amazon’s got loads of books on everything, but they have hardly any on newsletters.
So in the end, I had to go and write one myself because literally no one cares about this.
Then The Wall Street Journal started writing about newsletters, and who were they talking about? The Hiut Denim Company. I ended up giving workshops on how to do newsletters because nobody else cared about it.
Look, if you’re going to be a young startup, and you want to grow, but you don’t want VC money, maybe you could grow your business by selling.
How to build an effective newsletter to grow your business
But wait, give me your top three pointers then about a successful newsletter.
What do you put in your newsletter that makes it such an amazing sales tool?
Well, there are three pointers I can give you.
There are two ways to do it. So say Rapha make cycle clothing. All they want to talk about is cycling, so they’re all in on cycling. Nike, they’re all in on sport, right?
But there’s another way to do it.
The person who actually buys high-quality jeans, the best jeans in the world, is also interested in craft beer and architecture. So you try and see the 360 degree of the person, not just that thin slice that’s only interested in cycling.
So we choose the 360 approach.
We know that this person is interested in high-quality jeans, but they have other interests, so we talk about the other interests too and not just jeans.
But the key thing to understand in a newsletter is, you are in the relationship business, and most people think they’re in the selling business.
You have to give, give, give, and then at some point, you sell, but it’s a relationship and most people treat it as a transaction.
That’s really interesting. There are three newsletters that I religiously open from brands.
But I don’t know what it is about those brands that makes me open them. Sometimes, it’s just sort of intangible how you create that relationship.
Well, the one common theme that those three newsletters will have, is there will be a human being attached.
I like that, a human being attached. Large attachment, human.
The DO Lectures: A tale of endurance and success
You have been running the DO Lectures with Clare. Do you want to tell me a bit about that?
What are the DO Lectures?
And our listeners who are fascinated, which one should they start with? What’s your gateway lecture?
The backstory on the DO Lectures was, Patagonia had invited me to go to their tools camp in America. They get 80 people to come along every two years to help them get their voice out there in terms of activism.
They invited me, and I was super grateful because it’s a big compliment to be invited.
But I couldn’t make it because I had things going on, and I said, “Well, it’s okay. I’ll listen to them or watch them online.”
They went, “Oh no, we don’t record them.” I went, “Really? God, that knowledge would be really helpful to more than just 80 people.”
So at that point, I said, “Oh, maybe I’ll go and start a lecture series because I’ve got nothing else going on. I’ve just got maybe a business.”
So we did it as an experiment, and we actually called it Little Big Voice Lectures.
This is how old it was. We were teaching people how to use this new thing called Twitter.
We were building people’s websites, and we were telling people how to develop a voice for their brand, and it was really interesting.
At the end of it, we just said, “Hey, should we do this, or should we just treat it as one off, and it’s beautiful, but we say goodbye to it?”
Everybody said, “You’ve got to do this again.” And we loved it as well.
Then, when we were thinking about that, a friend sent us a text at dinner.
We’d had a couple of glasses of wine, and he sent us this text, and it just said, “Don’t just stand there, do something. Dick Dastardly.”
And you’re going, “Oh, maybe we should do something.”
That’s when we decided, we’ll do a thing called the DO Lectures.
We had no website, we had no history, we had no business plan. It was only ever going to be done once, unless we got through the event and just said, you know what? That’s brilliant, we have to do again.
For the first three years, we were just going, “Oh man, it’s just brilliant. We’ve got to do again.”
It was a struggle. Selling tickets was a struggle, getting speakers was a struggle, but we kept going.
That’s how you create a really brilliant future, you don’t quit when there’s a struggle.
We kept going, and we kept going, and we got more reputation, so we suddenly attracted Sir Tim Berners-Lee. “Oh, Hey, my name’s Tim. I started the internet.”
Tim Ferris who has 100 million downloads on his podcast, Zach who started Vimeo, Perry who started Kickstarter. We were getting really amazing speakers.
Maggie Doyne, who went and started a school in Nepal. I mean literally incredible, fantastic things.
I’ll sum up what the DO Lectures get you to think about.
We’re all very busy in our lives, and we very seldom take time out to go, “Hey, are we doing the right thing here?”
We had a deal with Virgin Atlantic, and we would pay for premium seats, and they would upgrade people to the upper class, our speakers.
In return for that, they would send through their brightest to us for over three years.
At the end of it, they said, look, “Hey, we’ve done this for three years. We sent nine people down, and they’ve all resigned. We have to stop doing this.”
And I’m going, “Oh boy. Okay.”
So the DO Lectures have become this incredible event.
It’s 100 people, we sell the tickets out now in an hour and there’s a wait list for 2023. We’ve purposely not tried to get any publicity because we already can’t get the cow shed to be any bigger, the tickets sell out, and it’s an incredible event.
Obviously, Covid has happened in the last two years, so we haven’t been able to run the event, but the last person to leave the last event said, “I’ve been to Ted, I’ve been to Burning Man, and I’ve been to Summit. I’ve been to all the events in the world and there’s nothing as good as this thing.”
And it’s in a cow shed in west Wales.
So it’s an extraordinary event, the talks are then free to the world and the tickets, they’re expensive. It takes a lot of money to go and put on the event, but in return for them paying for the seat, we’re able to go and give free talks to the world.
We’ve had 150 million views of our talks and counting, it’s probably nearer to 200 million because we don’t really pay much attention. But it’s also a tale of endurance because we didn’t quit, and it could have been so easy to quit, so easy.
When it’s hard, you can’t give up. We were selling tickets at £1,500, but they were costing us £1,700, and we couldn’t sell them. It was tricky business.
Take your customers on a journey from their head to their heart
I was going to ask you, David, about your smartest advertising tip for listeners, but I think I know what it is because I’ve seen you use it twice on this podcast, and it’s extremely powerful.
When you said, “We don’t want any publicity for the DO Lectures. We’re already completely outsold. We don’t have more capacity.” That is like, ding, ding, ding.
It was the same as when you called up all those BMX magazines and those skateboarding magazines and said, “Do not write about this story. We need to shut this down.”
Ding, ding, ding, you’ve got all the publicity.
You seem to have a real knack for tapping into human nature and making people wake up to what they want, in a way.
Well, I mean, in a world where you can have pretty much anything tomorrow, scarcity matters, so maybe that’s a tip. You’ll always want to be a member of the club that doesn’t want you as a member.
But I’ll tell you one tip that I’ve learned on writing is, I’m trying to get good at writing because people go, “Oh, you’re a really good writer,” and I’m like, “No, I’m not.”
My daughters never show me anything, like the essays they write because I wouldn’t be able to find the mistakes. I could put them in there, but I couldn’t take them out.
But the best brands in the world make you feel something.
The best brands take you on a journey, that 18 inches from your head to your heart, and they make you feel something. Most brands never do that and that’s why Nike beat Adidas.
There are certain companies that have made you feel something, and they’re extraordinary because of that journey, that 18 inches, but most brands never get anywhere near it.
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