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At the age of 21, James Wren and Jack Dyer said to themselves that they wanted to become millionaires, and they were going to take any means necessary to get there.
In this episode, we explore how these two ex-football players leapt into the entrepreneurial world with nothing but the resilience, goal orientation and self-awareness that they learned on the pitch.
We delve into everything you need to know about manufacturing, to looking at the bigger picture for your business and how to know if you’ve found the right business partner.
Here are the highlights:
From football to friends and finally, business partners
Let’s start with your professional footballing careers, because you are both really young, but you’ve kind of already had two very distinct careers.
Tell me about being Premier League youth players.
Maybe if you’ll kick us off, James, and then I’ll bring you in, Jack. And what made you decide to choose football? Because that’s a massive commitment.
I think it’s something that every lad in the UK has been brought up with, to be honest. It’s just something I wanted to do from the age of six, up until about the age of 21-22.
And it’s been such a fantastic journey, even though I’m not doing it anymore. It was a platform to learn all of your disciplines, keep you out of trouble, and learn a lot of life lessons, really.
So I look back on that time with fond memories.
And Jack, were you just a natural?
Did you just kind of fall into football or were you one of the kids that was like, this is my dream, I’m going to work at it and work at it and work at it until it becomes true?
Pretty much, yeah.
Similar to James, I think, as a kid, you’ve got a ball at your feet, and if you love and enjoy it that much, you think that’s what I want to do when I’m older. And you try and work as hard as you can to try and make that dream happen.
Luckily for us, it did happen for a short period of time.
And yes, I lived the dream for a while, and now I’m trying to live and pursue a different dream.
But you were both playing for different teams, right?
So tell me how you came to meet and become great friends.
After the age of 18, I left the club that I was at, Walsall, and then I moved to Burton Albion, where Jack already was previously the year before.
When you’re at a new football club, you tend to find out which people live near you, because you try and save as much money as you can by travelling in together. So we kind of got forced together, to be honest.
I’d been there about two or three weeks, and one of the senior players said, “Oh, you two live close to each other. You should drive in.”
And you look across the dressing room at someone else, and you think, are we really going to get on? Do we have the same interests? Are we going to have a fight over the music in the car on the way there?
So you have that sort of awkward stand-off. It’s like, “Right, I’ll meet you tomorrow at 8:30am.”
As we got in the car, after about two minutes, the tunes start blaring, and then you go, do you know what? He’s actually all right, he is.
Then you find common ground. You start talking about music, about people in the area who you know and whatnot.
Our friendship was formed travelling up and down the A38 on the way to training.
That is definitely a way to accelerate a friendship, spend a lot of time in an enclosed space with them.
Creating a product
What made you think about the actual product, this vest? How did you come up with that?
Were there lots of other ideas on the table, and then you settled on that later, or was this the one true idea that you always wanted to pursue from the beginning?
Oh, no. There were loads of ideas, honestly, loads.
I think the biggest catalyst was that you come out of professional football, the dream job that you always wanted to do, and then you go into the real world, and whilst you can have a fantastic job in that capacity, we always just wanted more.
We’d always meet up at the gym, and we’d be training. And then after the training session, be in the jacuzzi or the sauna, and we’d be talking about certain things and the things that we wanted to achieve.
As you do when you’re 21-22, you kind of go “Right then, we want to be millionaires. How can we get there as quick as we can?”
There were ideas around renovating houses, and then you look at each other and go, “You can’t even paint your bedroom, so how are we going to do that?”
We’ve had a few wacky ideas like portable blenders and that sort of thing.
We were actually creating an app at the time, influenced by Instagram. So we thought we had a good idea. But we soon realised just how much money it was going to cost.
The realisation was, if we’re going to pursue this app, we’re going to need some funds, and our first thought process was, what can we sell in order to create those funds?
We’re talking about physical product.
And it just so happens at the time of thinking about what physical product can we sell, it was closed season, and we were both out running, both running with our phones in our hands, earphones coming out and whatever else.
And it’s like, “Why don’t we come up with a vest where you can actively use your phone and put your headphone wires away?” The plan was to sell that in order to create funds for the app.
Just like that, the idea of the Freetrain, well, it was actually called the F1 at the time, was born.
We’ve just always had that mentality of, think of an idea, now how can we get it over the line?
And how did you design this vest? Which of you is a designer? Were you doing sketches?
Did you have your sewing kits out, trying to come up with prototypes?
How did you create this particular structure?
By hook or by crook is the most honest answer to that.
Neither of us are designers by trade.
But I think with anything and what we’ve learned is literally just trial and error, and you can always cut something out of a T-shirt.
My nan was a seamstress, so she got the sewing machine out.
We ordered a roll of neoprene and thought, “Well, let’s try and make this something you can put on and wear.”
And at least then we can have this idea down into a physical product, and we can actually think, does it work?
So it was a massive trial and error process.
When we got the first one made into something you could put on, it was then all about the reshaping of it, the additional add-ons, or thinking, let’s take this bit off.
It was a case of having the idea, trying to get that tweaked on the vest, and then trialling it again.
It was almost like, do something, get the feedback, go again, go again, go again.
It was a long, very frustrating period, because we knew how we wanted it, but we didn’t have the skills ourselves to create it, because we didn’t have the manufacturing or the engineering background.
But we just found a way to do it somehow.
When you think back now, you wonder how we did it and got it to that stage, to where it is now, but we did somehow.
Just keep going. You’ve just got to keep going, that’s it.
Entrusting your vision to others but not letting them alter your idea
How did you get that feedback?
Was it just the pair of you wearing these prototypes, or did you have a whole army of mates or other people in the family who were wearing them?
How did you get people to say, oh, actually it’s a bit uncomfortable under the armpit?
We did everything from start to finish. The first one actually looked a little bit like a bulletproof vest.
I remember that time vividly, sitting in the car park, we put it on, and we were thinking, “Can you really go for a run in this?”
We always had an idea of how it would go and the next one we made was actually drawn out of a T-shirt, and we cut it out, and we’ve still got that one to this day, so we’ve still got the original shape.
But it was just a case of, as Jack said, what else can we add on? Is this a benefit? Is it not?
But I think the biggest and most stressful thing for us has been taking it to people with these backgrounds and specialised skills, because we’ve always had that vision of what it was going to look like.
But you’d have someone try and take you in a different direction with it, or you would think that they’ve got your vision down to a T, they know what it is, and then you go back and see it, and they’d say, “I know you said this, but I was thinking we could put a jetpack on the back.”
And you’d just go, “Oh no.”
We ended up going to a manufacturer just down the road in Wolverhampton. We got them to make a sample, and we went through sample, after sample, after sample, until we really got what we wanted.
It was like pulling teeth, but we got there eventually.
That’s a really interesting point because when you come up with a product, people are trying to be helpful, but when they’re trying to tweak it, and they’re trying to make recommendations, “Oh, you can go in this direction…”, it can be a massive distraction.
And it can also sort of dent your confidence in the initial product, because you’re like, oh, well, it doesn’t need all those things. We liked it the way it was.
I think the good thing is, for us, because there’s two of us as well. We’ve always almost been our ideal customer.
We’ve had a very good opinion that if something’s not right, one of us will figure out that it’s not right and say, “Look, we’ve been biased here,” which we’ve learned very quickly.
We’re very honest, and we know what our customers want, and that helped us right from the off.
We’re also obviously surrounded with our sports background, and I was doing some fitness stuff at the time too.
So we’d get the guys down there to test it.
Once we got it to a stage where we thought, this really does work, we put it on some people and said, “Just go for a little run around the car park and see what you think.”
And you can see them believing in the product and saying to you, “Oh my God, this solves that problem. This is so simple.”
At that moment, when you’re not telling someone how good it is and saying, “Oh, we’ve got this idea, it’s going to be great.” When you see the reaction without saying anything, you kind of know that you’ve got something worthwhile.
The other thing, just to add to that as well, it’s very hard.
If you can, go into Google and say, you’ve got this idea, and you want to make it into a product, a lot of people will charge you a hell of a lot of money from that.
James touched on the manufacturing side, when we’d go and pick up the latest sampling and it would be so frustrating. It was one of the most frustrating periods because we wanted to get it across the line so fast.
We didn’t have a big budget to go to a big company and say, “Make this into the finalised product.”
We were getting little bits of material from eBay, different bits from here and there and saying, “Can you do this? Can you do that?”
And every time we’d go back, we’d say to each other, “This is the one, this is the one that’s going to be perfect today.”
But we’d get there, and they’d have changed it or something else had happened.
And we’d be back at square one almost.
It was that good having two of us then to say, we got to just keep going, keep going, we believe in it. Eventually, we got to the stage where it was finalised. And we were like, this is it. This is ready to now go and sell.
Doing your own manufacturing research could save you thousands
Do you remember how much it cost per sample?
Because that’s a really interesting point when you’re doing just short runs of things, or you are asking a manufacturer just to make a one off, sometimes they can charge hundreds of pounds.
But do you remember how much you were being charged and how many samples you ended up checking out?
Absolutely. It’s honestly like swimming across the Atlantic.
The truth of the matter is, unfortunately there are people out there that overprice these things. There are people out there that see you coming, and we’ve had a few of those moments ourselves very early on.
We were quoted initially £20,000 (€24,000) to get this product over the line, and then it got to the point where it was just impossible for us to do.
But as we said, we’ll always find a way.
We went to a manufacturer with our ideas, and eventually it costs us £30 (€36) a sample to keep making and making and making.
But that is the stark contrast in terms of taking your idea and trusting in someone who says, “Yep, I can take you from start to finish.”
And just to really reiterate that point, the last and final process of that £20,000 (€24,000) quote, which was introducing us to manufacturers and finding a manufacturer, which was going to cost us another £6,000 (€7,200).
Instead, we went on Google, picked up the phone, found a manufacturer, and it was free.
And the only cost was £60 (€72) per sample.
It was towards the end, and we were quite close to what we wanted. I think we must have had about seven samples from this manufacturing company, and the lessons in between that period of idea, to meeting this manufacturer, are invaluable.
But I mean, we could have been, it could have been over before we even started.
What we didn’t want to do as well, was just send this product off to different manufacturers and say, “What’s your price on this? And can you get us a better sample?”
Because we had this invention, and it was so unique. Obviously, we had the protection around the brand and the product, but still, at a very young age, you think, well, what if they just take this sample and if they believe in it as much as we do, in terms of it being a real game changer, they might just run with that.
We were very scared of people having our idea, that it took us so long to get to a stage where we were nearly there, we just needed that little bit of help across the line.
But we couldn’t just send it out to people and say, make us another sample, or what’s the cost on that? Because we were scared of people copying us.
Getting a patent on your ideas and their novelty
But can you patent something like a running vest or is it just seen as being a kind of general product? So you can’t actually say no one else can copy this design?
I think it’s more in that it’s the novelty of what you are creating. If nothing out there has been made like this, then there’s protection in and around that, which is what we sought after.
A lot of the time with patents and whatnot it’s to do with the mechanisms.
But I think if you’ve seen our products, you’ll know it’s a pretty simple idea.
But our protection is in and around where the item is, the fact that you can pull the phone down and use it.
So it’s the novelty in that which we’ve been able to protect thankfully. So that’s given us a platform, and it was always going to give us the head start that we needed to get the product out there.
I’m still reeling from that £20,000 (€24,000) quote.
Sometimes it’s a good thing when you don’t have bags of money because you literally cannot say yes to these outlandish quotes.
Raising money by any means necessary
So how did you fund your startup at the beginning?
Was it just savings from you guys or did you manage to get some venture capital or seed funding at all?
We did put a little bit of savings in ourselves.
People say the word entrepreneurs, but we look at ourselves as problem solvers. All we do is look at a problem and think, how can we solve it?
It’s going to cost this much for us to get it off the ground. How can we solve that problem?
And our way of solving that problem was leaning on our previous football background in terms of using the PFA, our fitness degrees.
So what we did was we combined the two, we spoke to the PFA, which is the support network for professional footballers. They gave us a grant to go and buy some equipment, and then we went around schools, and we were actually putting on sessions for the kids and sessions for the teachers.
And that’s the way we funded, we actually funded this.
One of the funny stories we’ve got is, on one of our development days, we were down in Cardiff, and we were scrambling down the motorway, running.
We had to go home, get changed into our sports kit, and get to this school, we were putting on a session for the teachers on a Friday, but that was just the journey.
It was all about getting this over the line by any means necessary.
So in these sessions, were you basically showing how the product worked, or were you just, what were the sessions with the teachers and the kids?
Was it related to the business or were you doing that separately?
We did fitness classes, football classes for the kids and boxing.
We’re both really big fans of boxing. So we got on Sports Direct or Google, and we ordered 20 sets of pads and gloves. And then we just got the teachers pairing up in twos, one had the pads, one had the gloves.
We’ve always had a passion for fitness, and we had our qualifications as well. So we just put on group fitness sessions for the teachers, and we absolutely loved it.
It was a real good thing for us to learn, because at a young age, we were in charge of the teachers who were a lot older us at the time, and you got to try and get their respect and put on a good session for them because inevitably they were paying us for this.
We had a month’s trial at the start in terms of, well, we’ll see if it goes all right and stuff.
We ended up doing it for about six months. It was really, really good. We got a lot of satisfaction out of it really.
The main thing is we got the money to start moving forward with Freetrain.
Oh, I understand.
I’m rambling here, but the other good thing is, it wasn’t just a quick thing where we could go, “Yeah, we’ll do two weeks, we’ve got the money, and then we’ll do it.”
From the initial idea to when we launched, to run those classes for six months to raise the money, to try and put into the first batch of products, we knew it was going to be six to 12 months.
It was quite frustrating at the time, because as much as we wanted to do it there and then, we just had that bit of longevity to say, well, it isn’t going to happen straight away, but we’ve got to just keep going through it to get the money.
There were no shortcuts to it, which I feel is a good lesson. Because I think a lot of people want things so quickly these days.
Yeah, I was going to say, how do you cope with the slow pace when you’ve got this product, and you desperately want to get it out, you’re worried about people copying it, you don’t want anyone to bring out a rival product in the meanwhile while you’re trying to raise the money to get it going.
Let’s talk about NDAs
How did you both stay focused and determined when the timelines just kept stretching?
That’s a great question.
To be honest with you, I don’t really know. As we say, I’d almost call it tunnel vision. We kept our cards close to our chest in terms of the idea and what it did.
Not many people knew. Our friends never knew we were doing this. It was very, very private between ourselves and some of the guys who we were using to manufacture the product.
So of course the first thing you do is get your NDAs [non-disclosure agreements] and you hope that they stand up, and you’ve done the best job possible.
But I think one of the takeaways from football is patience, it’s patience about getting into the first team, it’s patience about learning a new skill.
And it’s dealing with setbacks, which is, I’d say, the most vital thing in anything you do in life.
There will be setbacks, and it’s how you deal with that, that determines how you move forward. So both of us have had many setbacks in football. So it’s just one of those.
You take it on the chin, and you keep moving forward.
And I definitely want to return to that theme about what you’ve learned in football that you’ve brought into business, but you said NDAs, just their non-disclosure agreements.
How did you know how to write a non-disclosure agreement? Do you have like a pal who’s a lawyer or is this one of those sort of, you can Google and just download the template and off you go?
Well, we didn’t write it ourselves, we can tell you that.
Again, it’s like, you got to think that the time we’re in nowadays, most things are accessible if you’ve got a bit of notice about it.
The good thing is we’ve got two brains, and we’ll figure it out, so you can look at local lawyers.
One thing we did is use friends and contacts to enable us to get something done for a cheaper price to start with.
It just so happened the first lawyer that we ever used really liked the Freetrain vest.
So it was a real easy synergy, and it was great to just crack on with, and that was a real help to start with.
But there are ways to figure it out. I mean, you only have to go on Google these days. You can find most things out is the honest answer to that.
Looking at the bigger picture to decide your route to market
And tell me then, so once you’d actually created this product, so you’d had all the samples, there was one that you loved, the manufacturer was set to go. So how did you then decide your route to market?
Were you immediately thinking, I’m going to sell sort of direct to consumer?
Did you think you might try through a partnership?
Did you think about what platforms you might use, like Amazon, or is that like not quite right for the brand, so I’ll do something else?
How did you work out how you would target your customer?
Many, many, many conversations.
And again, I think it was the age that we grew up in. Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, we were exposed to all these things, but I think the biggest thing for us has always been the end goal.
I think the end goal determines what you do today.
There were quicker wins and easier wins for us.
For example, we only launched a product on Amazon at the start of this year. That was always in the plan because we knew that this product wasn’t going to last forever. It was always going to be a success, but it wasn’t going to last forever.
So we had to think about how we would build the brand.
It was the overall goal in that sense, as to what directed us at the start.
So we went direct to consumer believing that if we put our own ads out, if people are coming to our website, if we can send the product to ourselves and get our personality across, we are creating and showing people something that they can believe in and buy into.
I think for where we are today and the fact that we’ve just launched our first collection, and we’ve got a strong customer base that we’ve launched that to, that they are all decisions for the future that were made two years ago.
That’s really interesting.
So you don’t think about individual problems, or how will I do this?
You think about what the end results needs to be, like your overall mission. And then you make sure that whatever decisions you make along the way all lead you to that particular goal.
And did you say that the actual mission was to build a long-term brand?
If you had to articulate that one audacious goal that you set right at the beginning, what would it be?
Honestly, we say this to everyone, and we ourselves laugh at it now after really analysing them and what they do, but we always wanted a sports brand to be the size of Nike or bigger than Nike. And it all stems from the product.
Our whole aim was always to go narrow and then wide.
So to really penetrate the market with one product, get the name out there, and then expand into apparel, rather than starting at the start with a few T-shirts and shorts.
That probably wouldn’t have been the best quality.
We had an idea, something that a platform that enabled us to get to this point now.
Building your own website
That’s really interesting.
And did you then have to design your own website because you wanted to go straight to the consumer?
Tell me how tricky it was to actually build that initial sales point and that brand and attract those first few sales, those first few orders.
We did build the first website. Luckily, the platform we use, Shopify, who we’ve used right from the off, it’s fairly simple, there’s not much coding involved.
But again, we just kind of sat down, it was uploading certain images, thinking, how does this one look? And just feeding back between ourselves.
We believed in what we wanted the consumer to see, and then pulling favours off, whether it was from photographers or graphic designers to get the right image done.
But I mean, a classic one, on our website, on our homepage, one of the main banner images was, we believe that this product, anyone who had a phone arm band or a bum belt, this was kind of our pitch that it’s the best way to carry your phone.
So the banner image on the website, we had a picture of an arm band, a picture of a belt, and a picture of our Freetrain vest.
We ourselves just put two red crosses over the arm band and the belt and a green tick on the vest, literally on an app on our iPad.
And we launched with that.
Again, we look back, and it’s hideous to think of it now. But at the time it was, well, what’s the other option? We’ve kind of got to go with this.
So the first website we did, looking back now was far from what it is now, but we had to launch with something because we didn’t have the budgets to get developers in and stuff like that.
So you just got to roll with it.
Using Facebook ads to market your business and investing in your website
How did you get those first eyeballs to the site, though? Because you can build the thing, but no one knows you exist. No one even knows this product exists.
So how did you get people to come and buy it?
I don’t think there’s a magic answer to that.
I mean, luckily for us, we started by marketing on Facebook and stuff. Eventually we kind of roped in a friend who, again, was someone that we knew through someone we knew, to help us run some Facebook ads.
The first time we launched, the day that we launched, we got all the stuff on the website. We’d done this Facebook ad ourselves, and we were thinking, right, this is it then. We’re going to press live on this ad. We were rumbling around from our other jobs.
We, in our head, for some reason, had this idea that the ad had to go live, I think it was 4pm or 5pm on a Friday for whatever reason.
It was like, it has to launch at this time. We were uploading the video, it wasn’t uploading properly.
Then we put, I think it was £100 (€120) on the first Facebook spend, hooked everything up.
We woke up in the morning, and we were thinking, well, there are no notifications. It must have been a glitch. It must have gone mad. We’ve probably sold out all the vests. These things gone like fire.
And we didn’t sell one vest.
We literally thought in our heads, we’ve got the vest, we’ve got the website, put the Facebook ad on, that’s it, we’ve made it.
But we didn’t sell one vest, which is, again, looking back now, is mad.
But we didn’t really overthink it.
We thought, well, how do we do it? We realised that the Facebook targeting ads was a little bit beyond our kind of knowledge level, and we managed to get in some help for free to start with.
Once we started getting the ads going properly, people were seeing the products, we made a fantastic video to start with, which was telling people why this is a good invention and why it’s better than how you’re currently carrying your phone.
People seemed to watch the ad, see exactly what the product was, the price point was good, and somehow, they converted on the website, which didn’t look fantastic.
But that’s when it started to take some momentum.
The feedback was that people were loving the product.
And then it was enough for us to say, again, the public are taking to this now. Not our friends, not us. We’ve got something which people are buying into, so let’s move with it as fast as possible.
And can you remember the one slogan or ad or cleverly worded Facebook post?
Was there one thing that you did that generated more sales than anything else?
I wouldn’t necessarily say a campaign because I think in this day and age now with social media and the fact that you can create an ad and put one out there, you try to hit people in as many different touchpoints as possible, whether it’s an image, whether it’s a video.
Our videos were always very descriptive, as to what the product does, and we always started that way.
However, when you start on a zero budget, you are the models, the videographers, the directors, everything.
So I’d say the turning point for us, or the real start of success is when we started reinvesting, when we looked at it, and we said, right, okay. So we can either pocket some of the money or we can buy more inventory.
But what we decided to do was start investing in the visual side of the brand.
So we updated the website, had that looking a lot cleaner. We started paying a real photographer. We started getting real models in.
Then all of a sudden, when you’re doing your outreach to, say, influencers or people who you want your product to be seen on, when you send them a message, and they have a look at your page, they go, “Okay, so you guys are quite serious. I’m happy to work with you.”
I think the big thing I’d like to get across here is that there were people out there with 800 followers who were quite big in their running community, but we could not give this product away.
They wouldn’t accept it. They’d say, “No, thanks. I’m actually signed with ASICS.”
But then all of a sudden, you start investing in how your page looks, how your Instagram looks, how the website looks.
Then you start getting real life, I say celebrities, and real-life endorsements from people who see what you’re trying to do.
All of these people who wouldn’t believe in your product because of how it looked before, they all come calling again.
But instead they’ve got to go through the website and make an order. But no, that was a real big turning point and something that we looked at and realised you get out what you put in.
Chaos and confusion looking for manufacturers in China
And you, when you started making traction, it kind of snowballed quite quickly for you guys.
So you had to move presumably from a kind of smaller manufacturing to a much bigger outfit. Tell me about how you solved that problem.
Was it tricky? Where did you go?
How did you find the right company?
Tell me all about that journey.
When we realised this was a serious kind of thing, and we had a product that we were going to run with, the first thing that we had to do was find a better supply chain. We were manufacturing the products in the Midlands.
We were getting all the materials for the products in from Asia, and it just wasn’t the best way to do it. So this was still when we were working our other jobs.
We thought, well, following the Nike blueprint, we best get ourselves out to China and try and find us some good manufacturers.
So that’s probably where the real gems in the story or some of the gems start, because we had to go to the other side of the world with absolutely zero experience in manufacturing or anything to try and find a good supply for our product.
The research we’d done was that this was the place to make the product in terms of quality. So off we went.
There was a funny story just as we just as we kind of got there.
We were both still working in the airport. I think James, I’m sure we can say, how he only let his work know, I think the day of, but it was getting out to China and finding these suppliers.
We went out there with an itinerary that was jotted down on a piece of paper, thinking that we’d just go to Hong Kong, and we’d make it easy to these factories, show them the product.
It’s probably two or three hours’ worth of stories in with that.
But the magic was we went out to China together, didn’t have a clue what we were doing, had an idea of what we wanted to find.
Somehow after a week we came back, and we found a fantastic manufacturer.
It’s really helped us with getting a good quality product in, something that we could really stand behind, is the top line answer to that.
I think one thing to bolt on to that is when we were getting the products made in Wolverhampton, what we found was all of the components that we were getting were coming from the Far East, and all that was going to do was add costs on to things.
So there was just no way of having the materials, the phone cases, it’s just impossible to have it made in the UK.
And that’s what ultimately forced our hand and why we had to go out to the Far East.
But you guys have massively oversimplified.
I need to know, so you basically, you’re at the airport, you’re flying to Hong Kong. Did you even know which manufacturers you were going to visit?
Or did you think I’ll just land, and I’ll just look for the manufacturing district, and I’ll knock on doors?
Were you, did you have like meetings already set up or, or anything like that?
So at the time, the company that was supplying us the neoprene from China, we got in touch with those guys, because the only way you can get into China is with a visa.
So we were up at sort of three in the morning, emailing back and forth with this factory saying, we need an invitation with a company stamp X, Y, and Z.
So it was all a real scramble for us. We sort of jumped on Alibaba.
Jack went and searched for about, I think for a week we had 10 manufacturers to go and speak to.
So initially we were doing two a day, and being 23-24, we kind of looked it and thought, “Ah, China’s not that big.”
More fool us. It’s absolutely massive.
And we’ve got some real stories to tell about how we managed to navigate our way around China. It was a little bit like ‘Idiot abroad’, except there was two of us.
Literally. It was actually a really hard decision for us to pull the trigger and go, wasn’t it?
Because James was still playing football at the time and working his other job. I was working my other job. And I think we’d had probably three manufacturers or maybe even two confirm that we were good for meetings.
But the idea was, if we go and speak to eight, that gives us real understanding of who’s good and what the best price points are.
We didn’t really want to go and just speak to two, but we were waiting for responses because the time delay and stuff to get these booked in.
But at the same time, I think we flew on Sunday. And on Saturday, we were thinking we’ve either got to book the flight or not.
We kind of went on a whim thinking, well, we’ll book the flight.
Again, the flights weren’t cheap. We didn’t have a lot of money at all. But we went on the basis of hoping that these 3, 4, 6 manufacturers would agree to see us.
Luckily, they all came back on the Sunday as we were kind of landing in China.
We were still booking meetings for later in that week, but they all came through, and we managed to get a good overview of what we were looking for by speaking to multiple manufacturers.
What an amazing adventure.
I want to do a podcast all about how I source Chinese manufacturing. And I want you to come back or at least I want to hear all the stories over a pint or something.
Expanding your business to apparel
But you mentioned that you wanted to be a brand that was as big or bigger than Nike.
So tell me then how you went from just the vest to then thinking what comes next.
Because you’ve come up with an original product. It must have been really hard to think, what do we do next?
I think we always wanted to go into apparel.
So it was a case of once we realised that the vest was such a good idea, we were never going to do the app. It’s just conversations we have all the time.
Most of our day is spent talking about the future and what we want to do next and why it’s the best decision. I think the fact that there’s two of us, even if we both think it’s the best idea ever, it will still be questioned.
From the start I remember, so when Jack would be on sales meetings, or I’d be on the way to sales meetings, I remember driving up and down the M6, just having conversations about the vest, why we think it will work, who we’re going to get it on next, and why we wanted to go into apparel.
It was those conversations that really forged where we are and where we’re going today.
It was very, very natural for us, to be honest. You could call it a little bit of foresight, but I think honestly it was just very natural.
It was just a very early realisation that once we get a bit of traction, we have to move quickly, and we have to move on to something else.
First collections and learning how to design apparel for women
But how did you come up with the first collection?
Were you guys involved in the design or did you outsource that?
Because there’s a lot riding on the kind of next move when you’ve got one big hit product.
So we did start working with freelancers. We worked with a freelance designer and a freelance developer.
Again, it’s similar teething problems to when we were developing the vest. It was all about, really, being able to implement our ideas and our vision on to the items that we wanted to create.
I think, I’d say it’s a strength of ours, to be honest, the fact that we’ve never tried to create a product for someone else, away from ourselves.
We’ve always looked at ourselves as our perfect target market, hopefully in the fact that we are pretty much like everybody else.
So it was a case of working with the designer and the developer. This was during Covid as well.
So it was all through Zoom, expressing our ideas, putting it together, loads of PowerPoints and presentations and saying, this is the essence of the brand. This is what we believe in. This is what we would like it to look like eventually in the end.
There’s no design experience from ourselves.
It was literally just a case of direction, and again, painful at times, but probably a little bit easier than creating the vest.
Well, I’m curious, though. What about the products for women?
Cause obviously you guys, you don’t have much experience of carrying boobs around, you can’t try on the products as women.
So how did you sort out that side of it?
The good news is the first freelancers that we worked with were both female. I think, again, the good thing about us together, we believe that we’re very well-rounded, and we think of all scenarios.
Even when we were marketing, for example, different consumers have different touchpoints, and that’s whether it’s the imagery, the videos.
So we’re always thinking of, well, who’s who are our customers and that is both male and female.
Anything we didn’t know in terms of not being a female, we’d get in expertise from elsewhere.
We would speak to a lot of athletes, a lot of people who like going to the gym, a lot of people who just like wearing active wear for casual purposes and get the feedback.
Then, we’d kind of add some inspiration into that from our point of view in terms of what we believe, because we’re very well-rounded in terms of where we want the brand to be.
We take inspiration from things in everyday life, whether that’s other brands, whether that’s colour palettes from different things. And hopefully then come up with a final product, which we do believe in, in the emergence collection, the female part of our range.
We are really happy with it.
The most important thing, the feedback we’ve had of our female customers is that they completely share the same belief as us.
So however we’ve got there, those points, I think we’ve done it quite well, considering we both are males that kind of own the company.
No, that’s amazing.
And it’s great that it’s gone down so well with women as well as men.
Transferrable skills from sports into business
I want to talk now a bit about the lessons that you’ve learned from playing football.
What are the kind of direct transferable skills that you felt have made you more successful as entrepreneurs?
I would say the biggest one is resilience more than anything.
I think the fact that from the age of six, to the age of 21-22, the setbacks that you get in football and the way that it feels like it’s the end of the world when something happens when you’re younger, and you realise that the world keeps turning and there’s always another day.
That in itself just allows you to keep going forward in business.
I’d say the difference of, I think things move slower in business than they do on the football pitch.
If you make a mistake on the football pitch, myself being a goalkeeper as well, if you make a mistake, it literally is make or break in that term.
And I think you have to move on very, very quickly.
So I think taking that from the football world over to business, if a mistake happens, or we do have a setback, the fact of when you were playing football, you had 30 seconds to get over that issue, whereas in this world now everything, you’ve got a lot longer to do.
You have more time to think, you have more time to deal with it emotionally, you have more time to kind of reset yourself.
That’s such an asset to have in terms of moving forward.
Would you add anything to that, Jack?
What other things do you feel like you’ve brought into this world from your footballing career?
I think it’s a very, very good answer. I’m pretty similar to that.
I think the only, maybe, the key thing that sticks out to me is analysis and just being very, very aware of what your assets are and what maybe you’re not so good at.
So obviously when you’re playing football, you’ll get feedback off everyone, whether that’s your teammates, your parents, the fans, the manager, in terms of what you’ve done well, what you’ve not done well.
Sometimes you will disagree with that.
I think one thing that does is it makes you very self-aware in terms of, well, people keep telling me I’m good at this, but I’m not very good at this.
So if I want to get better, I either double down on what I’m good at, or I work on what I’m bad at.
I think that’s very good moving into business because there are hundreds of things that we are not very good at or not naturally skilled for, but we can work on that, and we can know that between us, maybe we are not too good in this area of the business. We maybe need a little bit of help here.
Just being self-aware and understanding that you don’t really know everything or that it’s not always going to go your way.
I think that comes from listening to other people’s opinions, taking feedback from the team, from outsiders to get to a place where we can be confident in the decision that is best for the brand.
That’s one takeaway, I would say.
And I suppose just being goal orientated, I mean, not to just say that as a pun, but James earlier used the phrase tunnel vision, but there’s definitely been a single-minded determination.
And neither of you have seemed to waver at all. You set a goal, and then you’ve just moved towards it, just kind of unstoppable.
There are a million takeaways. And when you ask that question, it all does relate back to football, and you have one goal.
When you’re a kid, and you’re in a youth setup, you want to become a professional footballer. If you get an injury at that point, you can’t wallow in your own pity. You have to go through your rehabilitation. You have to come back fitter, back stronger.
When a negative thing happens, there’s always an opportunity.
When you’re injured, and you’re off the field, you work on your body, you work on your frame and your balance.
Then, when you’re back out in the pitch, you are that little bit better than you were before.
I think working with fantastic managers and coaches, watching them all the time and their tunnel vision and their drive, that sort of rubs off on you.
I think we have that between ourselves.
We have a great relationship in terms of the friendship and then the business relationship. But we take that almost as a team, and we push each other, we spur each other on.
We don’t want to let the side down, we want to keep taking the company forward.
So that’s something that has always been there and something that’s going to remain for the next however many years.
And the dynamic between you two is amazing.
You can see there’s absolute trust that you’ve got this, this way of bouncing off each other that has been the making of the business.
Trust, morality, and honesty are key to building a good relationship with your business partner
So for anyone listening that wants to find a co-founder and is inspired by this relationship, what should they look for?
How can they seek to kind of copy or conjure up this kind of dynamism in a co-founder?
What do they look for?
It’s hard to give advice and to say, go out and look for this. I think if I look back at myself and James’ journey, it sort of did happen naturally.
The fact that we weren’t really looking for each other, but the fact that we built a relationship before going into business, and whether that was around, having the same visions and or having different ones, you really start to know that person.
And then moving into business, it was quite natural.
So we didn’t go, I’m looking at this for a checklist as a business partner.
I think we could probably speak on it now a little bit in terms of what’s worked really well for us. And I think, there are multiple takeaways, and I don’t want that to sound very generic, but we have a very clear vision together.
We also have individual vision on certain things where we can come together, have a real good discussion or a good debate, and come up with a solution where we know it’s the best decision for the brand.
We have certain attributes that lend well to different tasks, whether that’s marketing, whether that’s product.
But again, I think that’s quite hard to go out and look for someone, unless you have a real idea of what you want.
The one good thing is we trust each other.
We work well together. We’re very honest with each other. And I think that’s the fundamentals I would personally look at if I was to do it again. Because without that, I think you’ll really struggle because it hasn’t been easy.
The resilience that James touched on, we really had to have that because on the surface level, it does look fantastic. But we’ve had multiple conversations when things haven’t gone right. And we’ve had to stick in there together.
I think without that trust and relationship before, it might have come to a time where you both just don’t fancy it, but we know we’ve kind of got each other’s back, if that makes sense.
I think it’s very hard to go out and look for your ideal business partner. I would say the big things are, trust, morality, and honesty.
Hopefully, we do have that point, Bex, and that you can sit down with myself and Jack, you’ll see, we are quite different in our personalities and the way that, say, we may react to things and that’s never a negative, but I think the foundations are, the trust and the honesty.
I think we both have a similar work rate.
So the thing is everything that is done is in the best interest of the company and whether we disagree on things, and sometimes there’s short disagreements, sometimes they’re a lot longer, and we always sort these things through.
But we never look at a certain situation and think, he’s doing it for his own self development, or I’m doing it for my own self development. It’s all brought to the table, and it’s all in the best interest of the company.
I think the fact that we’re 50-50 in this and split down the middle, it’s very pure.
Oh guys, I love that. It’s a business partnership based on ethics and trust. I think that’s probably a good place to stop. I’ve loved talking to you both.
I can’t wait to see Freetrain grow and take over, be bigger than Nike.
I’ll be rooting for you the whole way.
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