Happy Global Entrepreneurship Week! The next few days are all about celebrating entrepreneurship and small business, and as part of this, I spoke to Sarah Jordan (Y.O.U Underwear’s Founder and CEO) to find out a bit more about her own personal experience of starting and growing her own sustainable fashion business.
What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I don’t think I ever set out to become an entrepreneur or run my own underwear business, it just happened! My background is actually in the charity and education spaces, where I worked for 20+ years on digital projects and using ‘tech for good’, having originally trained in Geography (meteorology and IT) and wanting to be a weather forecaster. In that sense I am proof of learning by doing!
My unexpected journey to becoming an entrepreneur began with a trip to Uganda in 2016, where I took part in a volunteering program as part of the Uganda Marathon programme. While working with women in local villages I came face-to-face with the problems associated with not having underwear. In some communities 1 in 10 girls miss school on their periods due to a lack of underwear and sanitary products – up to 12 weeks a year! When I returned and started looking into how to provide and manufacture underwear, I learnt about all the problems associated with conventional cotton and the fashion industry. I joined the dots to create an underwear business with sustainability at its heart - only using organic cotton, manufacturing fairly, and with a giving back model where we donate two pairs of underwear to the charity Smalls for All for every pair we sell.
I don’t think I could go back now - I absolutely love what I do and although it’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced, I know that I’m directly responsible for the success (or not!) or the business and everything we do to have a positive impact on the world.
How did you know when the idea was good enough to take forwards?
The only way you ever know is by trying! There’s always a degree of risk in launching a new product, and it’s only when you get feedback from real customers that you can tell. I successfully crowdfunded enough to launch Y.O.U Underwear’s first product range back in 2017, which was a real confidence boost, but other than this it was an educated guess! Getting feedback as soon as possible is so much more valuable (and realistic!) than nailing a perfect product that directly fits customers’ needs the first time around.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Over the past three years, I’ve faced all sorts of challenges! Everything from business partnerships to stock levels, cash flow to long (and unpredictable!) lead times. I’ll never forget hand-delivering underwear on Christmas eve of 2017 to all the amazing supporters of my crowdfunding campaign.
I would say the greatest ongoing challenge is the need to multitask, and not to let more challenging development projects slip by in the face of the day-to-day running of the business. As a business owner you have to wear many ‘hats’ – and without a conscious effort to tackle the big tasks, it’s so easy to get distracted with work that won’t ultimately lead to business growth.
What’s been your biggest learning?
I’ve realised that a business’s story is as crucial as its products. It’s so important to have a broader purpose, and to communicate this to customers - people care why you do what you do, as much as what you do! I really try to connect with the Y.O.U community on a personal level – everything from sharing ‘behind-the-scenes’ business updates, to handwriting thank you cards that go out with every single order!
Another big lesson for me this year has been realising the value of successful PR! During the first UK lockdown we had to focus our energy on staying creative and finding new ways to connect with our customers. We didn’t qualify for any government support, so it was touch and go for a while, and we prioritised outreach, marketing and PR work just to keep in touch with customers and show we were still there. All the effort paid off with a listing in The Guardian alongside Stella McCartney in May, coverage in London’s Metro and locally on Jack FM. Our sales reached new highs, and this was the precursor to being featured in The Guardian for a second time in August. Inclusion in these national publications really helped to guide us through a challenging period and although they then led to some unexpected stock issues, they’ve definitely helped us grow and emerge stronger than ever!
What piece of advice would you give to you when you started out?
The main thing would be to ‘just do it’! When it comes to starting a business, you will never know enough and the timing will never be right, so don’t wait for that perfect opportunity. There’s a lot to be said for starting somewhere and growing your expertise and experience as you go along. And if you never start, you’ll forever be left with a feeling of ‘what if….?’.
Trust your instincts! Your head does the strategy, your heart drives the passion, but your gut is surprisingly useful in business too. I think it’s something we don’t listen to enough, so it’s really good to cultivate the ability to trust your feelings, particularly that first gut reaction. But on the flip side of that, find allies and ask for help! You don’t need to do it all alone.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever been given?
It’s not advice as much as a quote that I love:
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't - you're right.”
Apparently, it was Henry Ford that said that, but my Grandmother had similar views and was hugely inspiring to me. She really drove my JFDI and ‘no regrets’ approach to life - we only have one, so make it count!
What do you like most about running your own business?
The best thing about working for yourself is the freedom and flexibility. I can (mostly!) work from anywhere and I love being in charge of my own schedule.
The downside is that it can sometimes be hard to maintain that work-life balance – it’s hard to preserve free chunks of time when there’s always something to do. I think that’s particularly true for social entrepreneurs where your work impacts the lives of others too. Having said that, long days really don’t feel the same when you’re working for yourself, and I always feel motivated by knowing that what we’re doing is making a difference!
It’s Global Entrepreneurship Week from 16th - 22nd November 2020.
We’re so excited to be included in Small Business Saturday’s #SmallBiz100 this year, a national campaign that highlights some of the UK’s most inspiring small businesses. We’ve got a whole day of fame coming up on 20th November, where Small Business Saturday will be telling the world about Y.O.U Underwear as part of their 100-day countdown to Small Business Saturday 2020 on 5th December. Find out more about the campaign.
As part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, Sarah is taking part in Oxford Brookes University’s Thrive Festival, so if you want to hear more about Sarah’s entrepreneurship journey, she’ll be speaking on the Social Entrepreneurs driving Purposeful Business Panel, 19th November 2020 13:00-14:00. If you’re interested, sign up here!