Country people can be fashionable too. That’s the raison d’être for William and Kate’s favourite clothing company, Joules. Its founder Tom Joule has been selling his own brand of colourful, rural chic since 1989, before listing on AIM earlier this year for a cool £140m.
Joule’s tale of steady, organic growth is refreshing in an age when your average Shoreditch or Silicon Valley entrepreneur thinks success is all about hype, disruption and a rapid (preferably eight-figure) exit. To be honest, he’s not entirely comfortable with the word entrepreneur itself.
‘It’s a bit of a mistake if your start labelling yourself an entrepreneur. You have to earn it. It means you’ve thought about something, brought it to life and it gave you something back,’ Joule says.
So what can the sharp-suited city whippersnappers learn from Joule’s approach?
Lesson 1: Hard work and tenacity
Joule’s first exposure to commercial life was on his father’s market stall in Market Harborough, selling clothes. He worked there on Saturdays until he left school (‘child labour’, he jokes), and then for another year or so afterwards.
‘It was a typical father son relationship. Impossible,’ says Joule, who left to work for a clothing importer, after a brief stint in the motor trade. After four years, though, he started to get the itch. ‘I thought I can do this myself. I suppose to an extent I had something to prove to my dad.’
So Joule began selling socks and jumpers at outdoor events on the weekends, arriving half an hour before everyone else set up and leaving half an hour after they left – which brings us to his first lesson.
‘I was 21, working probably 30 hour weekends then going back to work so tired on a Monday. It’s about tenacity and hard work. People think it’s easy. It’s not easy.’
Lesson 2: Hold onto your equity
Describing himself as an ‘upmarket market trader’, Joule started taking branded products like Chyrsalis jackets and attending events in Europe (‘that was before we had open borders – so I know what it’s going to be like if we have to use export forms and pay tariffs’).
By 1994, he was turning over three times what his father’s business was. They merged that year, with the elder Joule taking a 20% stake and leaving the rag trade to run a cafe. By 2001, Joules had grown to £1m in revenues, without taking a penny in external finance.
Joule believes there are big advantages to taking it slow. Navigating a business through the different risks it faces at different stages of growth gives entrepreneurs vital experience further down the line.
‘Hold onto as much equity as you can for as long as you can before sharing the risk with other people. Then they’ll want to share the risk with you because they think you’re a great operator,’ he says.
Equally, the experience will give you more credibility with employees. ‘If you’ve done absolutely every single job – and I have, from packing boxes in a warehouse to doing our first VAT return – then you’re qualified to have an opinion.’
Lesson 3: Move with the customer
If there was a turning point in Joule’s career, it came in 2001. That year, the Foot and Mouth crisis shut down the country show scene – and with it 85% of Joule’s revenue stream. With no way of returning his stock, he needed to find a new way of shifting it.
Fortunately, he had already tentatively started selling products wholesale, a channel that was to prove the saving – and the making – of the business.
‘It made me think that I’d been on the circuit for ten years, I was seeing the same customers, but I didn’t really know anything out them – where they lived, how many pets they had, what their acreage was, all the details a modern retailer would want to know.’
Joule began incentivising his staff to collect that data, which he used as the basis for a highly successful catalogue business. ‘By 2002 I was run off my feet with new wholesale accounts, coping with a business that was more than doubling in size. After I took stock, I realised the value of the data. By 2003 I had my first online shop.’
Before long, Joules was ‘multichannel’. The lesson is that the guiding force for a business that’s expanding into new areas needs to be the customer.
‘If you’re close to the customer they will guide you. I’ve never sat there and said I need to go online or I need to deliver a catalogue or I need to sell to John Lewis. I’ve just said what is my customer doing, how do they want to spend their money and how am I best placed to put my product in front of them,’ Joules says.
Lesson 4: Know when to let go
When Joules finally took private equity investment (£22m from Lloyds Development Capital for a 20% stake) in 2013, its revenues had risen to nearly £80m. When it floated in 2016, turnover was £131m.
While a fan of keeping hold of the reins for as long as possible, Joule does recognise there comes a time to bring in the big boys. ‘To me it’s always about giving the business the best chance it can have. Bringing in the type of investors that get involved in AIM businesses teaches you new things and makes you more professional.’
Even before the listing, Joule had already relinquished the CEO’s chair for his current title of chief brand officer.
‘I think people who hold onto positions they’ve outgrown must have incredible egos. You can’t be good at everything. I know where I’m effective, and being [chief brand officer] gets me closer to the customer - I’m going to work in a shop this Saturday, actually.’
Learning to delegate to people you trust is essential if you want to scale any business, Joule says, even if sometimes that means you have to swallow your pride – and write some hefty pay cheques.
‘To pay someone more than you’re paying yourself to allow you to continue to build the business is not a bad thing at all. I can give examples of that over and over again,’ Joules says. ‘Besides, you always catch up.’