James Gold was 23 years old when he got a life-changing phone call from his friend Lewis Blitz, 22, back in 2010:
“I’m at the Apple Store with my girlfriend. All the phone cases are black, white or grey. It’s like that everywhere. All the stores are doing the same thing.”
At the time phone cases were seen as quite boring tech accessory, sold in tech and electronic stores. No-one realised cases could be turned into a fashion accessory for young fashionable women. But Lewis, James and James’ younger brother Richard did.
“We found a gap on the market, and had no competition”, says James today.
The three guys gave their business idea six months to take off. If it worked, fine. If it didn’t, they could always get an ordinary job.
Little did they know that their brand Skinnydip London, by 2019, would be trading in 30 countries, have 560,000 followers on Instagram, offering around 4,500 unique products a year, having concessions with 200 retailers – including fashion giants Topshop, River Island, Harvey Nichols, Asos and Zalando, as well as Nordstrom, Bloomingdales and Urban Outfitters – plus having 15 own stores (the one on fashionable Carnaby Street being the first), and a successful online store as well.
Also, they couldn’t imagine how hard their very first sale would be.
Months of rejections in the beginning
Without having too much insight about how to approach their business idea, they started to Google “phone cases” and found a tech exhibition in China. They decided to go there to make connections and to learn.
“I remember we were the first people in every morning, and the last to leave in the afternoon. We went to every single booth.”
Back in England, they were full of enthusiasm. They found an old office in a less glamorous part of London and congratulated each other on the fortune that lay ahead of them and the amazing journey they were about to embark on.
However, their enthusiasm quickly crashed into a fierce reality.
All the retailers they approached turned their backs.
“We spent two months calling and e-mailing every retailer in the UK, and all we got were rejections. It was disheartening of course, and if it was just me alone in a room, I’d probably have given up. But now there were the three of us, and together we were both fearless and naive.”
How did they maintain their persistence?
“That’s one of the advantages of being as young as we were. We didn’t take those rejections seriously; in fact we were able to laugh at all the ways we got knocked back.”
There are plenty of rejections from those early days they can laugh at still today. James recalls one attempt to get a meeting with a very big retailer. It turned into a crash-and-burn experience:
“Just finding the right person to get in touch with is very hard when you approach billion-dollar retailers, so when I found out who to reach out to I e-mailed every week. I was very polite and to the point each time. I also called three times a week, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Then suddenly, one day, he picked up the phone. I presented myself in a friendly manner, expressing how happy I was to catch him. His response? Here’s what he said: ‘Have I replied to any of your e-mails? Don’t you get the message? I’m not interested’ I immediately turned to the guys saying: ‘Can you guess what he just said?’ Then we all laughed.”
The spell of rejections was finally broken when high street fashion chain River Island gave the guys a chance.
“They said like: ‘You’ve got 10 minutes’, and we got the opportunity to sell them the idea of being the first store to sell phone cases that couldn’t be bought anywhere else. That was one of the most exciting memories ever.”
The fashion chain put in a large order of thousands of cases for their stores.
There was just one problem.
The trio didn’t have the £10,000 needed to manufacture the products. The guys themselves were pretty much broke at the time.
“Thankfully, friends and family chipped in and provided the funds needed. It all felt like suddenly we had been thrown into deep water and we were about to find out if we could swim.
As it turned out, the guys couldn’t just swim, they could swim fast. After only 18 months they had sold over 200,000 products and had turned over more than £500,000.
In the beginning, Skinnydip London was a manufacturer for retailers, with limited freedom over what to design and produce.
“We would have meetings with fashion retailers and they would tell us there was a demand for flowers, so we would make flower motifs.”
The creative freedom that is a signature of the Skinnydip brand today came about when Topshop gave them the opportunity to place whichever products they liked in their stores.
“We could design the display, but also market the products on social media right when influencer marketing was at its infancy, while Topshop took a percentage of everything we sold. Then it all took off. One concession turned into three, then ten, and after a month it was 40.
Then their website was launched, and the three entrepreneurs started to get a deeper understanding of things like logistics, pricing and margins. They also began taking advantage of having complete creative freedom.
“This is when we started to produce bags, beauty and sunglasses. If we had started with those from the beginning, we would be nobody. But focusing on one category at first gave us a way in.”
The secrets behind their success
We’ve already highlighted one major secret behind their success: good old persistence.
Breakthroughs are often hiding just beyond that point when most people give up.
James thinks that the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make is taking their business too seriously and forgetting to have fun even when things aren’t going according to plan.
Also, having a bit of self-distance has turned out to be useful when it comes to trusting employees in important strategic decisions. One key to the company’s success is having employees that embody the brand itself.
“In the beginning, our designers would tell us: ‘This is the range’, and we would go: ‘Are you sure?’. They would answer: ‘Yes, people will love these, trust us’. We let them do it, and it worked. It resonated with the customer, because our employees are just like them. 85-90 percent of our team are female, with an average age of 24. They use our products themselves because they love this brand.”
They also make sure the love of the brand doesn’t fade. This is how:
“I would never say that I don’t like a new idea, or that it doesn’t fit. Instead, I ask a key question to the designers and other employees in the company: ‘Would you buy it?’. If the answer is no, we don’t offer it to our customers. If a majority says yes, we go for it. That way we get it right more often than we get it wrong.
Any more secrets?
“We are not scared to be different. If we find something no-one has done before, brilliant. That’s our attitude. And we are not afraid of making mistakes. We had a meeting with a very successful retailer boss once who told us to never cry over a bad decision. That’s so true. It’s impossible to get it 100 percent right. It only becomes bad if you don’t learn from it.”
Another part of their success is how they have leveraged the power of social media, cultivating a close relationship with their customers.
“We have active conversations with them. For example, when we question our followers on Instagram about what collaborations they would like to see, we get hundreds if not thousands of replies.”
Collaborations so far include names like Coca Cola, Disney and Starbucks.
Many e-commerce businesses struggle with getting engagement on Instagram and other social channels. Do you have any advice to give them?
“You want to be relatable and engaging, and show off your brand’s personality, its likes and dislikes. When our customer service replies, they do it in a Skinnydip way: fun, direct, and sometimes challenging.”
The name itself, “Skinnydip”, was actually chosen to reflect the desire of many young women to have fun and feel free without limits.
How did you develop your own brand personality?
“It’s matured naturally, like a child growing up. I don’t think the identity should be regimented too hard, because the world changes, and the identity needs to change too, even if the fundamental principles remain the same around the branding and core message.”
“The personality in the beginning was more or less about showing off products. Now it’s relatable in many other ways, from what she is eating, drinking and reading to what she cares about. For example we introduced the #hatesucks campaign on Instagram, because we believe strongly in inclusivity. Yes, we are a business, but we also want to do some good. It’s actually part of our mission statement to bring kindness into the world. It’s not just about how nice this new bag is, it’s about making the choice to stand for certain values, and that is an extension of who we authentically are.”
How is that authenticity mirrored in your recruiting?
“We want employees who love our brand. We aren’t looking for people who got an ‘A’ in school, but for those who are self-motivated, want to be part of this journey and who roll up their sleeves without ever saying ‘that’s not my job’. I believe anyone can be trained to do what needs to be done; no-one can be trained in the ability to care.”
Employing 250 people is exciting, but James also feels the responsibility that comes with it.
“It’s a pressure, but a good one. I enjoy how we have developed as a company. We actively try to keep a dynamic culture. We do wine-time every Friday at 3 pm, management mornings to present what’s going on, idea breakfasts where anyone can bring ideas across the board, and lots of company socials where we all go out together.”
Is being an entrepreneur different than you thought?
“You evolve as a person when growing a business, and your business evolves too. I would use an analogy as running a business is like having a baby. You want to nurture it, look after it and have fun with it as it grows up. You do your best and hope that as the business grows up, it develops and eventually stands on its own two feet.”
What’s your worst moment so far?
“Truthfully, I haven’t had any really awful moments. Let’s see. Well… in the early days, we had a big order of 30,000 products where all the products were falling out as they arrived, because of bad glue on the packaging. At that moment we felt helpless. Potentially we could lose the sale. The three of us, along with several employees and a third-party processing house, spent three full days fixing the products. But it all worked out.”
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Skinnydip’s strategy for growing even more
What’s next for this fashionable brand? One of their growth strategies is to diversify the product range even more. In 2017 the company launched beauty, stationery, sunglasses and jewellery on top of their bag and tech range, and last autumn they launched their own clothing range, including t-shirts, swimwear and jumpers.
They also see personalisation as a way to strengthen the brand experience – both in stores and online.
“If you buy yourself a phone case, a water bottle or a wallet you can get your name, or someone else’s, engraved in 25 seconds with our machine. That has been very popular. We will add that option to our website later. Our e-comm team is looking into how we can give the best possible experience of our brand online as well. Everything needs to be convenient for our customers. Easy to understand, and quick.”
Speaking of convenience, last year Skinnydip London made a successful move to give their customers more financial flexibility, thanks to Klarna’s Pay Later service, which is now part of the start page and product pages.
“Customers can now get what they really want, when they want it. For us it is about giving a better experience, and many take us up on the option to pay later. Our customer demographic don’t always have disposable money before payday, or just prefer to spread out their costs.”
Entering new markets is also in the pipeline.
“We are looking at Japan, Korea and China. But also the Middle East and Australia.”
You haven’t brought in venture capital yet. Is it time for that now?
“Whatever happens in the future, happens in the future. We are very happy with our organic growth so far, but we’ll see. It’s all about having the right partner at the right time.”
There’s no sign the guys are tired yet.
As long as they can have a laugh or two during the day, they are likely to keep going.
“When Lewis and I were in our teens, we used to call each other after each episode of The Simpsons to laugh about all the jokes. Who would have known then that one of the creators of the show would send me a signed drawing of Bart Simpson with my name on it after we collaborated with The Simpsons?”