My Week: Thomas Kelly of Jottnar

When former Royal Marine Thomas Kelly spent a winter in the Norwegian Arctic, he realised that normal clothes just can't take the extremes. He set to work on a new, super-durable brand.

by Michael Northcott
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013

My business partner Steve Howarth and I were Royal Marines and after spending a winter in the Norwegian Arctic, we became fascinated and inspired by the ruthlessness of the environment there. We noticed how it completely degraded clothing and equipment that had not been specifically designed for those conditions.

Once home, we spend some time around the dining room table discussing how to solve the problem with specially-made clothing and gear. That was back in 2005, but a couple of years on, we found ourselves putting it into practice. In the early days it was a case of using the kitchen table as our HQ whilst we acquired patent licenses, established partnerships with the main players in the textiles industry: manufacturers, designers, garment technologists et al. 

We’ve spent the last 12 months prototyping. We test each item to destruction, but try to maintain a look of Scandinavian elegance and simplicity in the design. We’re prolific users of all the gear, ourselves. We do a lot of skiing and hiking and we are also mountaineers. We’ve also got a team of ‘brand ambassadors’ who are full time mountain guides, and we get them to take our prototypes to the mountains where they live and work. They probe for weaknesses and flaws along the way and report back to us with improvements they think are needed. In fact, the name Jottnar comes from the nickname for a particularly challenging route up a mountain called Aiguille du Midi in the French Alps - so it's serious business.

There is no such thing as a typical working week for us. One reason is that it’s just the two of us working full time: we have to wear all the hats. Legal, finance, PR, marketing, product testing, strategy - it’s all us. But the other reason is the nature of the products we’re making: last week, I was in a meeting room in a large law firm in Manchester agreeing final times for our recent second round of investment, and the very next day I was in the Highlands of Scotland hanging off a frozen waterfall testing some of the latest prototypes in the field.

Every week we simulate lots of potential scenarios and snags (finance-wise) and try to determine from a distance what our funding requirements will be if circumstances change. Thankfully, we just raised that second round of funding from a private investor, which will allow us to start ordering kit in bulk ready for the full launch in autumn this year. Before that, we were using savings - we both had a significant stockpile of cash from having been in the Marines for many years.

The great thing about coming into business from a career in the Marines is that the forces teach you a lot of skills which are essential in business. Problem solving, the ability to execute, initiative, strategy, confidence, bloody-mindedness even.

The best thing about the job is I have a real sense of freedom. It’s strange because I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life, but the fact that I’m in control of what I’m doing and when I do it is an energising experience. One of the toughest things is getting the right people. As a small startup, your voice is small and it’s difficult to attract the quality of talent you might need. 

In the future, I can see Jottnar being a global brand. The launch later this year is the first step, and we will pay extremely close attention to customer feedback, which will inform the design and development of an enlarged range for the following year. Hopefully this will also help us penetrate some of the more established markets in Europe and Southeast Asia, for example.

If I had to offer a single piece of business advice, I would say: be as painstaking and ruthless and diligent as you possibly can beforehand. Research your idea as minutely as you possibly can to determine whether it’s got legs. Then have the courage of your convictions to make that leap off the cliff. It takes real guts to take that step and cut off that security blanket that comes from have a normal job. But without that sense of the ground screaming towards you, it wouldn't be the same, would it?

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