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Mart Drake-Knight
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Mart and Rob Drake-Knight set up their first small business, Teemill, in a garden shed.

From tinkering with Epson printers to building factory robots from old eBay parts, the pair built the first open-access circular fashion supply chain from scratch.

We will share how they went from building robots in a shed with old eBay parts to running a high tech printing on-demand business with customers such as Google, the BBC and Joe Wicks.

Snap straight to the advice here:

You can base your business anywhere you want

There are business opportunities to be made out of sustainability

You can start up a business with little to no money

Innovating with technology is best done in small steps

Businesses should solve a problem

Shorten your supply chain by forming direct relationships

Prevent silos and build a connected supply chain

The circular economy may require redesigned products

Happy customers equals growth and profit

Look at using renewable energy

Designing waste out of your products and processes

Iterative development is constant improvement

Expect to make lots of mistakes

With experience, you can manage the highs and lows of the business easier

Make sure everybody in the business plays to their strengths

Recruit people in the way it will work for your business

If the problem you’re trying to solve exists, you still have a business

Bex Burn-Callander:

Mart, thanks so much for joining me. Are you on home turf? Are you in the Isle of Wight right now?

Mart Drake-Knight:

The west of the Isle of Wight, just down by the needles. It’s a great place to work. The factory site I’m in now is about a mile from Freshwater Bay, the Isle of Wight surf mecca. Lunch breaks, we can go to the beach and stuff. It’s wicked.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That is amazing, and you surf as well, so you get the ultimate work-life balance.

Mart Drake-Knight:

Yeah, surfing and working. There are a few decent WhatsApp groups if you want to get into surfing here. It’s a nice place.

That’s the good thing about the internet. You can work somewhere like this if you want and grow a meaningful company because you can reach many people worldwide. You can base it wherever you are, and for us, this is home.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did the journey of Teemill start? Take me back to the origins of the business in 2009.

Mart Drake-Knight:

It’s always nice to talk about it because I think when you’re busy growing your business, we’re bad at stopping and remembering these things. If we were doing it again, I’d probably take more photos!

We started in a garden shed on the east of the Isle of Wight, belonging to my mum and dad. I was 19, and my brother was 21.

It was 2009, so there were no jobs. We were naive, which was quite helpful. We looked at the clothing industry, thought there was a massive problem, and wanted to do something about it.

Bex Burn-Callander:

What made you think about the clothing industry, though? I remember being 19 or 20 and not focused on anything altruistic whatsoever. What focused your minds on that?

Mart Drake-Knight:

In the clothing industry, around 60% of clothing is made from plastic. Three out of five T-shirts bought today will be thrown away within a year, and most of that is landfilled or incinerated.

You’ve got a dump truck a second of what is plastic textile waste getting burned or buried, and that’s completely unsustainable.

I don’t know if it was altruism, but it came from a well-meaning place.

We asked ourselves, “Why don’t we make clothes from natural materials instead of plastic? Use renewable energy instead of fossil fuels, and surely you can make clothes from old ones like recycling. Surely that can work.”

We decided to have a go.

Probably the most important thing was that we just couldn’t buy the products we wanted to see in the world.

We just thought, “Why don’t we just make some?” That’s how we got started.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You started in a shed. So, what was your first goal?

What was the first thing you bought, and what was the first thing you did to get this business off the ground?

Mart Drake-Knight:

We had £200. The first thing we did was buy business cards for £100, which was completely stupid.

I don’t know why we did that.

One of the first things we learned was that everybody’s doing it a certain way is part of why sustainability is a problem. So, not having money or resources was helpful for us.

I am a big advocate of the zero pound startup.

In sustainability, it’s relevant because it makes you resourceful and innovative for materials and designing out waste. Increasing utilisation and making more of what you’ve got is one of the most important things about the business of tomorrow

So we said, “Let’s see if we can make some T-shirts.”

We had a website that we couldn’t afford to pay for, so we learned to code through googling. We couldn’t design T-shirts, as I’m not very good at drawing, so we googled that as well.

We decided we would try and make products after they’d been ordered, which was probably the first good idea that we had.

Bex Burn-Callander:

How did you do that?

I’ve seen notes about you taking an Epson printer and then trying to pimp it with extra parts. What was that all about?

Mart Drake-Knight:

The thing about having not much money to spend is it forces you to get hands-on, understand how businesses work, where stuff comes from, and how you make clothes.

But you’re not interested in how businesses work so that you can copy them. You want to go and find out so you can change it and make a better one.

So we looked at how T-shirts are usually made, and it’s just completely insane.

You have screen printing. You cut a hole in a mesh and smoosh ink through it one colour at a time. There’s lots of work to set up the presses and lots of waste, and it only makes sense to order hundreds of T-shirts at a time.

At this time, you have to make T-shirts through mass production, which the current system is built around.

We said, “This is stupid. You should be able to make it in full colour, in real-time, one at a time, with no setup. You only make what people need when they need it without any waste.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but it was quite a good idea because we don’t utilise 40% of all clothing production.

Companies make clothes speculatively en masse, and 40% goes straight through, never sold, in the bin. It’s crazy.

By designing out that waste, we saved the equivalent of 40%. We could see efficiency and a return, allowing us to invest in other things like renewable energy and organic materials.

To do that, we needed to build a new type of factory.

I think there are five or six Teemill facilities now—a network of factories, so it’s serious. Each one’s about the size of a football pitch—two in the Isle of Wight, one in Europe, and two on the UK mainland.

When we first started, we were just trying to make our own printing machines.

We used to cycle down the road to a guy. Every time we got an order, we’d cycle down the road to use this machine. This other guy had to do one part, and then we’d cycle back to our house to do this other bit.

It’s just mad, but I guess what it taught us was it is possible to make things in real-time.

It was an office printer with T-shirt inks in it, and we wrote the code to automate parts of it.

Now it’s more advanced, and we’ve invested in the technology. We can print two full-colour T-shirts in less than the time it takes to make a cup of tea.

What’s different is that we only make what people need using technology when they need it. The thing that came out of the resource-constrained problem we had was that we needed to develop new types of technology to make producing clothes more efficient.

Those efficiencies have driven the growth of the business.

Bex Burn-Callander:

It’s fascinating because developing new technologies sounds quite terrifying, but what you’ve explained is that you started creating new technology by tinkering in a shed with some old printers, which is a lot more accessible for people thinking about trying to tackle problems.

It’s a lot easier to imagine that than where you are now, which is full-scale robotics and high-tech stuff. It all started with this small step.

Mart Drake-Knight:

Yeah, you’re so right about that.

Imagine if someone said to me, “If you want your business to succeed, you need a fundamentally different technology and completely different supply chain design”.

I can’t do that. I’m 19 and from Shanklin.

I will say, though, that it’s never been easier. We were pretty lucky because we were the first generation with high-speed internet, affordable laptops, and access to whatever knowledge you needed via Google.

I don’t think people even 20 years before that had that, plus access to the economy in the sense that we can send stuff all around the world from the island.

There are some great technologies we have, with the team of factories heavily automated.

There are many robots in the factories at essential stages, such as automating parts of the packing process, making it affordable to design our single-use plastic.

But the technology doesn’t have to be from a laboratory or some multinational.

We built our robots with Raspberry Pis, which are like educational computers for kids.

These can cost about £20, and we developed this little clip thing that clips on to them, turning a little kid’s computer into what is like an industrial robotics controller,

The people who build all our robots aren’t formally trained, technology graduates. Adam, who’s easily our best robotics engineer and amazing, worked on a farm before working in our robotics team.

We’re enabling technologies. Tech doesn’t do anything on its own. It’s like a chainsaw sat in a corner.

You need to pick it up and do something with it, and I don’t think enough people are encouraged to have a go.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’ve taken a traditional approach to the supply chain, shaken it up, and come up with something new. How did you do that?

How did you create this new relationship with farmers? Bring in organic? What’s the process?

Mart Drake-Knight:

The hard thing was the most important—having a conscientious approach to technology. But the reason we did that is that we based the business on solving a problem.

I think a lot of people forget that. When they say, “I want to start a business to make money.” That’s not a business.

Businesses should solve a problem for society, and profit is society’s way of rewarding you for contributing.

So, we were trying to fix clothing.

One of the things we met with organic cotton and renewable energy was pushback for trying to do the right thing. It’s cheaper to be bad, and it hurts to be good.

Indeed, that’s the wrong way around.

What we needed to do was to go around the supply chain and find efficiencies.

One of our highest costs was raw material and organic cotton. With the linear economy, we usually give the customer a T-shirt and then throw it in the bin when they’re done. You grow some new stuff, and they pay for it again. It’s stupid.

Why don’t you give it back to me, where I’ll chop it up and re-spin it?

We didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what people today call a circular economy. It’s hard to do because there’s a lot of engineering involved. There’s lots of design because you need to design the product from the start to come back and be remade.

Every product we make is designed from the start to be used again.

We give our customers money off their next order in return for the material. We use that material, chop it up and make new products from that material.

Instead of creating waste, we create new products from it. That’s the circular economy in action.

Fundamentally it saves money because the customer gets money off their next order, and the environment doesn’t have a whole lot of waste and resources ripped out of it.

It’s a win, win, win.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Am I correct that you now have relationships with the farms that grow the cotton, so the supply chain is shorter even when you need more raw material?

You’re not dealing with too many intermediaries. How did you create that direct relationship?

Mart Drake-Knight:

Yes, it’s an interesting question. The weird thing is that people think many sustainable business principles create more expense, but it’s cheaper and better if you get it right.

What most people do is they buy from a supplier, who buys from an intermediary, who buys from a distributor, who buys from a wholesaler, who buys from someone on the ground.

Whereas if you go to the field and buy it from them, you could afford to pay them more and get your raw material for less, plus you can have conversations with them.

Going to an organic cotton farm is fantastic.

There’s a farmer whose whole family has been growing cotton forever organically. There are non-organic farms a couple of miles down the road, as it’s up to you what you do out there.

The amount of insect life is unbelievable. It’s mostly cow poo and co-planting.

If you plant different crops together, and the insects prefer the other ones, you get less cotton, but you can charge more for it, as the ground’s clean. Then you can grow onions and other stuff in the dry season,

You talk with the farmer, and they’ll say whether they can do this or that and the problems they may have.

It’s incredible.

As a designer, you don’t realise how much responsibility you’ve got until you do that.

Linear supply chain sequences can cascade to cause all these problems for people worldwide and create a lot of waste, whereas if you go and ask them, they can tell you the sequences are a complete nightmare.

As a designer, you’ve got the power to stop a linear sequence. I don’t know how designers and brands have been getting away with it for so long. Everyone’s blaming customers, but often they haven’t got a choice.

Designers and brands need to buy differently, choosing to avoid linear consumption and waste, which they can do.

Getting out there as a designer, meeting these people and collaborating, is the best part of the job.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That is so interesting. To make a fit for purpose product, you must connect to the raw material, customer, and whole production technique, to design the right thing. Nothing can happen in a silo.

All the information must be in one place as a connected system.

Mart Drake-Knight:

But before you build that, why are you making the product?

I think people make products without working that out. They’re saying, “I don’t know, to make money.” That’s not good enough.

There must be a reason for this thing to exist in that form, so why have you used that material? Why haven’t you questioned it?

I suppose it’s been easier for us because we knew why we were doing these things. It’s incredible when you’re going around meeting the people that do this stuff, listen to their expertise, and respond to it.

When we started with traceability, someone quoted what we were doing was game-changing. We just thought it was common sense, which is one reason why naivete is sometimes quite helpful.

We’ve had great advice from people who’ve been there and done it in our growth, but we benefited early on in having a complete, fresh look, as there is no fashion industry in the Isle of Wight.

There’s very little industry here, except for ice creams and Teemill now.

You want to be super curious about how you make things because fundamentally if you want your business to succeed, you need to do something different and better.

That means changing things.

Bex Burn-Callander:

With this circular economy, you wanted the T-shirts to come back when they weren’t worn or wanted anymore. How did you do that there?

I know you said that you had an incentive with money off, but people can be lazy. How did you get over those barriers to get them back?

Mart Drake-Knight:

That’s a great question.

First, we designed the product, so it made sense to us that we would get it back. That’s the most important thing. If someone makes something with plastic (even recycled plastic), you can end up with plastic polluting and environmental problems.

The reason why a lot of people don’t recover that waste is that it’s no good.

If you design a product so you make it from a uniform material instead of a mixed material where you’re trying to get an egg out of an omelette, suddenly you can look at that as a business owner and go, “I want that back.”

When you want the product back, instead of feeling like you must take it back, you start taking it more seriously.

Many people say behaviour change is the problem, but I think it’s pretty lazy to blame the consumer when they haven’t got a choice about the type of places where products come from.

Then we just incentivised it with money by saying we’ll give you £5 off your next order and made it easy for them.

You scan a code inside the product, get some automated communications, scan it on your phone, which will tell you what to do, and then free post it back.

I guess what we banked on was that there’s one thing that people never do: throw money in the bin. When people started seeing their wardrobe as money instead of trash, their behaviour changed instantly.

Bex Burn-Callander:

This is gold. Take this nugget of gold. You know it’s gold, and we know it’s gold. No one throws gold away.

Mart Drake-Knight:

It’s funny because I wrote an article which is about that. “We’re looking around at these mountains of waste, and we never realised the whole time they’re mountains of gold.”

Sustainability is a gold rush because there’s so much waste everywhere in every industry.

All you’ve got to do is design it out, and your business is more efficient, more competitive, potentially more profitable, and will grow.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’ve got twin businesses in Teemill and Rapanui. Tell me about Rapanui.

Mart Drake-Knight:

When we started, we built the brand Rapanui because who doesn’t want to build a clothing brand when they’re 19?

Then we realised this might be a good thing that we’ve built here.

We realised that we could fundamentally change things with the technology we’ve got. We could make products from natural materials using renewables, designed to be remade without single-use plastic. And it was affordable.

We knew that we needed to scale Rapanui and were serious about making a difference. If you’re serious about a big problem, you need a big solution. You want everyone in the world to wear Rapanui, yet we struggled to get everyone in Shanklin to wear Rapanui.

We needed to share Rapanui, so we and put it on the internet as you do and gave it away for free on our platform, which is Teemill.

Teemill lets anybody build a free website and design their own T-shirts, all for free.

When they get an order, our technology and factory systems print them in real-time, ship them directly to the customer, and send the profit. There are about 10,000 brands from small to big, from BBC and the legend that is Joe Wicks down to just people like us.

What’s different is that they can do what took us 10 years in 10 minutes and start circular from day one. That’s how we’re trying to scale our solution.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You said it’s about having a problem to solve and not about making money, so it would make absolute sense to give this service away for free and let everyone else do it.

If you were thinking about profit, margin and what’s in it for me, it doesn’t make so much sense.

But how did that feed the growth of the business? Is giving something away for free good for business?

Mart Drake-Knight:

It’s funny because it’s counterintuitive. But a business profits because of the good that it does. The customer is better off first, and then they pay you. That’s what’s supposed to happen, but it’s incredible how many businesses say, “Well, we need to get paid and then maybe we’ll do something for the customer.”

It reminds me of Dave Grohl.

He said, “If you want to be a rich rock star, go to the garage and rock. And if you rock hard enough, eventually, you’ll be rich. But if you want to be a rich rock star and you try and get rich, you’ll never rock.”

It’s kind of like that.

It’s not—who cares if we make a profit? Because if we don’t make a profit, we won’t survive.

But the mission is why we’re here and why we need to profit to survive, not the other way around. It just doesn’t work.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You talked about finding efficiencies in the business, which pays for cool stuff like renewable energy.

Talk to me about this renewable energy journey, where you started and where you are now.

Mart Drake-Knight:

I studied renewables, such as wind turbine technology, and it was pretty frustrating it wasn’t more popular. From an engineering point of view, why do we use coal? It doesn’t make sense.

So we like direct action.

That’s one of the things that people don’t tell you about growing a business. If you’ve got a business, it’s successful, and you’ve got money, you can do a lot. So we bought a load of solar panels and planted a million tons of carbon-free trees.

You can buy change, which means renewable energy powers Teemill. I think we’re carbon neutral and got the Carbon Trust to study us. It will be certified soon.

Renewable energy is a bit more expensive per kilowatt, but we have technology and software that turns things in factories on and off, such as lights. If renewable is 15% more expensive, the trick is to see it as a connected system and find that 15% in efficiency savings from other places.

Honestly, it’s not that hard and almost a slightly disappointing answer to your question. How did we solve the renewable energy problem? We did it because we wanted to.

There’s on-site solar, so the lights here are powered by our solar array. In some places, we have wholesale power purchased from companies like Good Energy. In India and Spain, there’s solar and wind turbines as well out there.

There’s a wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight, so there’s the proper infrastructure. It’s not cripplingly expensive and easy to do.

Solar panels are things you can contract someone to buy.

The technology costs money, but not a lot of money. People love it. Businesses can sort out environmental issues directly by buying more renewables and fewer fossil fuels. It’s a way that businesses can do something about sustainability issues directly,

Bex Burn-Callander:

On that point about sustainability, I’d like to get a complete picture because I think it might be inspiring for anyone who’s starting a business and thinks, “What are all the things I could do?”

You mentioned planting trees. You’ve got the solar farm and buy renewable energy from a provider. You do the organic cotton and the circular economy, so the cotton gets remade into new T-shirts.

What else is in that mix? Did you say plastic recovery?

Mart Drake-Knight:

Yeah. David Attenborough’s got the answer because he is who we should all be listening to. I think some kid asked him, “What should we do?” And he goes, “Don’t waste.”

If you can design stuff out, that’s the best thing you can do. In our business, designing out can feel quite hard.

There’s a difference between design and decoration. A lot of businesses, when they get their product, say, “Here’s my product. Here’s some packaging. Here’s some extra packaging. Here’s some material. Here’s a flyer. Here’s this other thing.” And they add and add and add and add.

Taking away is one of the best things you can do, and it’s cost-effective not to spend money.

Something called swing tags is a relic of resale. You tie them on to the clothing to display product information—got rid of those. Super annoying, and nobody likes them. Neck size labels—got rid of them.

You can design stuff out of your business, removing waste to save money. Waste is where sustainability and the economy line up.

If you have a Venn diagram, you’ll overlap sustainability and economy, with waste is in the middle. If you hunt waste, you can find many exciting opportunities. I think that’s pretty much true for pretty much every business.

If you save time and money, you can use that money to pay for stuff.

It’s true that plastic-free packaging, like paper packaging, is 10 times more expensive than single-use plastic. You can’t change that because recycling is more expensive than plastic, but you can make the packing time much faster.

This saves time and money, which we can use to buy more sustainable packaging. So go hunt waste.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Am I right in thinking that even with the dyes you use, you’ve looked at every element and reconfigured it so that it’s less wasteful and impactful on the environment?

So what’s different about the dye?

Mart Drake-Knight:

That’s a good question. Inks and dyes are the two sides of this, and it’s about the chemistry.

Inks are an interesting problem. We wanted to use water-based inks because they sound better. Then you have a synthetic or polymer-based ink that dries with one-seventh of the energy, which is better. But then, if you can get that energy from renewables, it doesn’t matter so much.

So, you flip flop. It’s not like you get up in the morning and go, “There you go, done.”

Some of these are problems for a reason, and it takes time to solve.

There’s a philosophy we use, which is called iterative development. It’s not like you’re ever just done. It’s a constant improvement process.

A lot of the ideas that we get are from Japanese car manufacturing books. One is called The Toyota Way, which is excellent, and they’ve even got specific words for things. There’s the word kaizen, which means constant improvement—you do that with everything.

Water-based inks are compatible with the organic standard. We can do that affordably because we’ve got renewable energy-powered driers, so it dries for free.

In the dye house, it’s water that’s the problem because it’s so wasteful to yank water out of a river, dye it, treat it, and then just mainly pour it back in the river. I think there’s quite a lot of TV programmes about these blue rivers.

The solution is to recover the water, distil it like at school and put it through sand. Then the wastewater’s clean enough to drink.

I think there’s a video on our website of me drinking this distilled water. We’re just reusing the water we’ve got, which is cheaper. So again, reusing what you’ve got removes waste, solves the sustainability problem, and saves you money, so your business can grow.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I remember you telling me that nothing can compete with reusability. There’s absolutely nothing that’s cheaper than reusing, which is why it should just be the first port of call for any entrepreneur.

Mart Drake-Knight:

It’s how nature works, right? Everything is reused. Waste from one process is fuel for the next.

Think about an old organic biodegradable T-shirt. If you designed it from natural materials and it’s compatible with nature, it will be a house for a woodlouse or something. You’re welcome, Mr Woodlouse.

But seriously, take it in a business context.

Imagine we have got competing bicycle brands. I might say mine’s going to be slightly cheaper. But if they’re disposable bikes, you’re pitching a bike, driving it to work, and throwing it in a bin. You buy another bike, you drive it back home, and you throw it in a bin.

Then I just come in and say, “My bike is 5% more expensive, but you don’t need to throw it in the bin anymore. It gets reused and reused and reused. I’m going to beat you.”

We see that everywhere.

With space rockets, SpaceX is dominating because of reusability, and that’s what we’re talking about with waste.

If you’re in a business that makes stuff and your customer throws it away, someone in your sector is going to make the link and go, “Hang on, what they throw away is our raw material, plus they’re our customer. We can reengage them by getting that stuff back.”

They’ll do it, reactivate the customer, cut their materials cost and win. What you want to do is make sure that person is you.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Have you seen that Teemill as a catalyst for change? These people come to you and build whole T-shirt brands on your technology.

Are they doing any cool stuff that’s pushing things even further?

Are they doing anything inspirational where you say, “Wow, I didn’t even think that was a way you could go with this?”

Mart Drake-Knight:

That’s the best thing about it, and to be honest with you, kind of unexpected. That’s why the iterative approach makes sense because if you just take it one step at a time and keep trying to improve, all sorts of weird things happen.

Some of the brands built on Teemill are awesome. Or people like Joe Wicks. A lot of charities that used Teemill made millions of pounds for charity last year.

Joe Wicks did something with NHS charities, selling tens of thousands of T-shirts. He raised hundreds of thousands of pounds using Teemill. Incredible. We came into work, and it was, “Whoa, who’s Joe Wicks?”

It’s excellent when famous people use it because it feels like it’s encouraging people to do something.

If you’re a young person, it’s easy to look around and think big businesses are taking the biscuit a little bit. But BBC Earth, for example, switched all their mass production for Blue Planet to Teemill. They have backed it and stuck by the circular economy.

They care, and that’s encouraging.

And then probably the highlight of my career was when the Chuckle Brothers built a Teemill store. You can’t top that, can you? It’s all downhill from here. That was the greatest ever. I almost said, “That’s it, you can’t get better than that.”

What gets me and everyone in the team out of bed in the morning is when young people build brands and use them for issues they care about. What we want to do with the business now is enable technology.

It’s incredible seeing how people are doing using tech to do good things.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Have there been any times when you’ve got it wrong?

Any massive mistakes that you had to fix?

Mart Drake-Knight:

Quite the opposite. The whole thing has been a complete disaster from start to finish, but that’s growth.

That’s what no one tells you.

The whole thing is mistake after mistake after mistake. If you drew an X, Y graph, at the end is all of the stuff you’ve learned and at the start is all the stuff you’re going to learn. You’re going to be wrong most of the time.

All sorts of stupid stuff. Starting with the business cards—what were we thinking? I’ve probably still got them. It’s an internet business. What do you need business cards for?

And then the place burnt down, so that was bad.

The business was just getting going, and we’ve got this big factory. We were in a shed, then we were in a garage, and then we got a factory the size of maybe three or four tennis courts, sort of size. We felt we might have just about survived. We might not go bust.

And then I was walking back from lunch, and there was a lot of smoke over the top of the town. “Oh, there’s a fire. Let’s go and rubberneck.”

We’re walking down to figure out who’s on fire. It was our building, and everyone was outside.

But we didn’t start it.

Next door, someone was welding next to a barrel of diesel, and the whole place went up. I think it was the biggest industry fire on the island in the last 100 years. It was huge—seen from space.

Questions like how do we rebuild from this? That’s the job every day because things will go wrong.

You’ve got to be the person that figures out how to get over an ongoing series of obstacles. That is the way. That is the path.

We had insurance, but there were delays, so you need to call and work with your customers, explain why stuff will not arrive, and try to make lemons out of lemonade.

So, we took a lot of pictures and made a joke about it.

You know the film Apocalypse Now? So we used “Apocalypse Cows” and said, “Can you please order this T-shirt, so we don’t go bankrupt? We’ll send it when we’ve rebuilt.”

And everyone’s said, “OK.”

You try and make some sales out of it.

You find a way, and it’s constantly non-stop. You’ll make mistakes all the time with everything—technology and the team. Sometimes you might say the wrong thing.

The trick is confidence, which comes from ability, which comes from the things you’ve learned, which comes from the mistakes you’ve made.

You need to be good at going, “OK, I’m wrong. This is a mistake. What am I going to do about it?” That’s what you need to do every day. You do that for long enough. You get good.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Do you get tired?

Hearing you talking about having to constantly wake up every day and think, “How can I make things better?”

Where do you get your drive and energy? Do you ever want to give it up?

Mart Drake-Knight:

It’s a good question. I think anybody who said no would be lying. You’re only human.

One of the hardest things is to disconnect the business from yourself. Many founders will probably say, certainly in the first 10 years, especially if you care about stuff, you’ll take things personally. I certainly do.

I find it very hard if someone criticises the business or writes some horrible review, and they know what they’re doing.

When people do that, they’re doing it with the intent to cause harm for whatever reason it might be. They might be frustrated or trying to write some article to get some traffic to benefit from—whatever.

It can be upsetting and tiring.

I think progress is the reward, though. When you see progress, and momentum, that brings encouragement. I think having people around you helps.

Through our situation on the island, you don’t have a university or anything like that, so many of our team were vocationally trained and have been with us a long time. That was one of the best things that we did.

Half of the management team used to be apprentices or trainees. You’ve got people who appreciate and want to be in the business, and so I think it’s kind of like you’re working for them. If you have a bad day, those people can cheer you up.

There are some things you just can never get good at, and you need other people around.

I’m rubbish at stuff like the spreadsheets. I can do accounting, but I don’t like it.

With enough experience, those highs and lows become manageable. You’ve seen it all before—it’s never that bad. We’ve had worse—the business burnt down. Come on.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yeah. Keeps a perspective on things when you’ve seen your business burn to the ground.

Mart Drake-Knight:

And the other way round. If you have a big month, OK, but next month it could burn down, so let’s not get too excited.

I think things settle. There’s only one way to get to that point—time.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Talk to me about the dynamic between you and your brother, Rob. You started this thing as kids and have built this business together.

How important has that trust and bond? How have you worked all that with your dynamic?

Mart Drake-Knight:

I’m still a child. I haven’t worked out what I’m going to do when I grow up.

Well, it’s good to work with your brother because there’s a lot of stuff you don’t need to work out. You know each other.

One of the best things we did was divide our responsibilities.

When we both did a bit of everything, we used to tread on each other’s toes. One of the best things we did was say, “You do that, I’ll do this”. We learned to defer to each other on those things. It was a decision we made early and really helped.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Was there a natural delineation in that you both had skills and they were different, or did you have to say “OK, you take this bit, and I’ll take this bit”?

Mart Drake-Knight:

With us and what we’ve learned about our team, it’s essential to play to your strengths and not put someone in a position where it’s not their preference, or they’re not comfortable just because they’ve got to do it.

I suppose we’re fortunate that we have slightly different characters.

Rob’s good at business administration, finances, business, great with people and negotiating.

He loves doing deals.

If he could get up, have his cornflakes, and then negotiate 1% off a consumable somewhere, he would be in heaven.

Whereas me, I don’t want to worry about money.

I got this idea, and we need to build it. I won’t sleep for three days, but I will build something if I’ve got all the tools and equipment. I can’t do the other stuff.

That complements each other in an innovative applied engineering sustainability business because I can do the first bit, and he can do the last bit.

That’s especially true as the business grows.

We have this philosophy. I think it was in a book called Good to Great by Jim Collins where he said, “Get people on the bus that you know are good eggs, have the same values as you, and believe in your mission.”

Where they sit specifically is something that might change, and you’ll find what they’re great at.

I think figuring that out as we went was smart. If we’d have set it up and gone, “We’ve got to do this, and you’ve got to do that,” we would have probably fallen out and not be doing this now.

Mart Drake-Knight:

Interestingly, we spend a lot more time on recruitment, which is a good idea, but it’s slow as it might take months to find the right character.

We prioritise values, attitudes, and potential. You can teach the rest.

There’s a certain number of technical tests in engineering, but it’s mostly about problem-solving.

How much of a self-learner or determined you are, and whether you’re a problem solver. There are multiple interviews, but they’re mostly built around establishing people’s intent, values, and alignment with the way we work.

And so, if you’re a little bit weird, don’t wear the right clothes and haven’t got any experience, we don’t care.

But if you’re respectful and wants to learn, good with empathy and capable of picking yourself up with a bit of grit, saying, “OK, I’m wrong, but I’m going to try again.” That’s more important to us.

It’s an interesting part of the journey. It’s kind of weird.

You go from zero to 10 people, and then you’ve got to learn the whole thing all over again when you go from 10 to 100.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I love you prize things like empathy, but I think one of the great unanswered questions in business is how on earth do you sit in front of someone and know whether they have that?

What question do you ask to find that out?

Mart Drake-Knight:

I don’t know. It depends on different roles, but I think everybody has their way of doing it.

I think what matters is the outcome. Are you getting that person in because you think they can help you hit your target in the short term?

Or are you doing that because you want to help brands on waste, and you think this person will be a long-term asset on that mission, although it will take six months’ investment?

If you know your mind, you can find the right questions.

Bex Burn-Callander:

What about your ambitions?

Because you talk about this journey, so where is Teemill going to go after this? What is the goal?

Is there an ultimate goal, or is it to keep going? What would you love to happen?

Mart Drake-Knight:

If you start with a problem, you only stop if it’s not a problem anymore. If I was appointed CEO of some charity, your goal is to fire yourself when you’re not needed, as the root cause of all the problems that charity is trying to help is gone.

We’re not there yet.

Less than 1% of clothing worldwide is recycled back into clothing, so we haven’t touched the sides. It’s terrible that there’s still a dump truck a second in a landfill. We’re only on a few tonnes a month remade back into our stuff.

We need to scale it.

What we’re trying to do now is working internationally. We’ve shared the tech on the supply side. We’re sharing the free website builder and store tech for people who want to participate in the sales side.

We’re now giving the production technology to other factories who want to modernise, get into sustainability, and supply businesses in a circular way. So, it’s been quite fun.

We’re doing something in Prague that’s a French joint venture thing, where we’re giving them the software, technology, and capability to implement inside the EU.

The Teemill world tour next? Teemill LA, I think, is on our whiteboards.

I think it’s just trying to make sure that we live up to the challenge we set ourselves. Genuinely make Teemill somewhere good that works for our customers and has fantastic tech.

We’re building newsletters now. You can mail your whole database, and we’ll be focusing on that.

I think from that the growth will come. In our business, growth is linked to circularity and sustainability.

We’ve got work to do.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And what about going beyond T-shirts? Because you could do lots of other things, right?

Mart Drake-Knight:

You teed me up there about something I’m so excited about. Jigsaw puzzles!

It’s a great divide—a marmite subject. Half the team think it’s the best idea ever and half of them think I’m a total idiot because we built a miniature jigsaw factory.

You can use Teemill technology to print anything. It’s real-time print production to order technology. T-shirts we’ve dealt with, but you can apply the tech to other stuff.

We do stickers and art prints, but yeah, I’ve just done a Teemill jigsaw.

I have it in this building, and it’s blowing minds. Watch out, jigsaw market with all your plastic and all your waste. We’re coming for you.

I thought “Jigsaws would be funny”. Like your face on a jigsaw would be a sick Christmas present.

And then I thought, “I’m sure I can build a fully automated jigsaw factory.” Paper in, jigsaws out the other end. I designed it just for fun and thought, “Oh no, this is a stupid idea.”

But I googled it and saw it was a £100m market. Who’s buying all the jigsaws? People are at home doing them.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You can only have so many jigsaws in your home, and once you’ve done the jigsaw a few times, is there still any desire to do the same jigsaw again?

Mart Drake-Knight:

It’s a hobby. People buy jigsaws all the time. Anyway, it’s led to waste. It’s super unsustainable, so why not?

To answer your question, we’re just looking at the tech. It’s just a bit of fun, but it is a serious bit of fun. We’re looking at the technology, saying, “How could we apply this to other industries to design out waste and give people a real choice about recyclable products that can make a difference?”

And if we can do that with our software and technology, why not?

Often, we do stuff to pilot it, and we’re doing jigsaws to see what happens. Anyway, I’m excited about it if nobody else is.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I’ll be there. I’ll be printing my whole family’s faces on your jigsaws. Mart, I think that’s probably a good place to stop, but, my goodness, I feel like I’ve learned so much in this.

So many valuable and practical points in that chat, and I love that point that you can’t beat reusability. Look for ways to design out any waste. Find the savings in efficiencies and plug that back into making a more sustainable business.

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