It’s late on a Thursday afternoon, and an email has just arrived from one of the most respected cycling publications in the UK. In it is a copy of our first ever product review. Palms instantly clam with sweat, and a wave of nervous nausea rises from the pit of my stomach.
Like me, most of you probably read product reviews with a detached interest, skimming through the article to decipher whether the product in question is actually worth buying. When you’re looking at a review on your own product it’s a whole new world of emotional involvement. We had obsessed over the design of these products for months and it was time to finally read what the experts really thought about them. The public perception of our products relied on it. Which meant that our sales would be influenced by it. Which ultimately meant that our future depended on it.
Beyond the long hours, the penny pinching and frequently feeling like a crap friend/relative, it is this intensity of emotion that seems one of the most common threads joining us with fellow start-up founders. When things are good, you’re on top of the world. When they’re bad it really, really hurts. A friend sent me Kipling’s famous lines of sage advice “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same” during a particularly low moment and came very close to receiving a particularly sweary email in return. Here, I’m going to share a few anecdotes from the eighteen months leading up to that review which should give some insight into the life of a new business fresh out of the blocks; the blood, the sweat and the tears. And it should also explain why heeding Rudyard’s advice isn’t always so simple.
We set up LUMO in 2014, after Doug (then boyfriend, now husband) was knocked off his bike for the second time on his daily commute. The driver of the Hyundai that hit him had thankfully left him with only a few cuts, a bruise the size of a baked potato and a knackered front wheel, apologising that he ‘just hadn’t seen him’ in his dark jacket and jeans.
Still, I completely understood when he stubbornly refused to buy high viz clothing, and kept with the jeans and dark jacket combination that looked good in the office, if a little impractical on the bike. After months of looking for alternative gear that would do the job and realising that it just didn’t exist, we decided to do it ourselves and make clothing for the thousands of people like Doug who wanted to be seen on their bike, without having to sacrifice their comfort or style. Cycling to us is more than doing big rides at the weekends in full racing get up (although we do love that too and have plenty of Strava segment battles). It’s simply the best way to get around any city. We want more people to get out on their bikes and experience the freedom of the city that comes with being on two wheels.
Before putting pen to paper to start the designs, we read hundreds of product reviews, and met with respected urban cycling retailers, designers and journalists to make sure we knew exactly what was important to them in a cycling jacket. Armed with all of this input we then hired an amazingly talented freelance menswear designer (Rob Freeman, ex-Nigel Cabourn and Hardy Amies, now designs for Farah) and got to work.
This was both the most exciting and frustrating stage of the process for everyone involved. Doug and I have very different skills and ways of seeing things and are both can be ever so slightly stubborn. Doug is logical, methodical and has an incredible attention to detail when it comes to functional fine points. I am more creative and all about how things look and feel to wear. Inevitably this led to a few clashes - one particularly heated debate about the dimensions of the hood on our Parka Jacket resulted in a pen throwing mini-tantrum, cue more blood from Doug’s forehead. Every single decision from the depth of each pocket to the capacity of the battery unit was deliberated over and over until we decided on what we considered to be the best balance of style and function. Putting aside the occasional glowering looks it resulted in a better end product, which we’re incredibly proud of. Looking back, it was pivotal to come at our product idea from every angle and with different viewpoints before settling on our final design. Pressure testing your ideas with people who care, who know what they are talking about, and will tell it to you straight was so important (drawing blood is optional).
the much debated hood on the regents Parka jacket
Over the past two years we’ve had a number of make or break nervy moments – the biggest came before we even had a product to sell and decided to crowd fund on Kickstarter. We had 30 days to generate £50,000 in pre-sales of a product that no one had ever seen or heard of before. We did this primarily because we needed to test the concept – would a complete stranger part with their hard earned cash to buy a LUMO jacket? Kickstarter would answer that question and, if successful, would also fund our first production run.
our kickstarter campaign video (i was camera shy)
Cash flow is a challenge for every start-up, particularly in the clothing industry. When developing the prototypes we chose to work with one of the best factories in the world and use some of the most advanced technical fabrics on the market to make our garments. Neither of these came cheap, and meeting the factory’s minimum order quantities was another hurdle to overcome if we were going to be able to produce the highest quality garments that we were looking for. It was simple, if we didn’t hit our funding goal, LUMO wouldn’t happen.
December 2014 was a month of the hardest graft and tightest personal budgets either of us had ever experienced in our working lives. Kickstarter recommend not launching around Christmas as their traffic ‘drops off a cliff’ so it was up to us to push the campaign hard. That meant 2am finishes, quickly followed by 7am starts, a diet of baked beans, coffee and Red Bull and pulling in every possible favour from friends and family we could (various friends doubled up as models, photographer and PR consultant).
A word of warning to anyone considering crowd funding – don’t expect to sit back and watch the money start rolling in, running a campaign properly will take over your life. We’d put in our entire life savings, had persuaded an angel investor to put in £50,000 of his money and had the slightly odd pressure of knowing that so many friends and family were pulling for us to succeed and if we didn’t it would be their time, money and emotion that had been wasted too. After some nervy moments as the online traffic ground to its predicted halt over the festive period, in January 2015 LUMO became the most funded cycle clothing project on Kickstarter globally, generating £75,000 in pre-orders.
My sister Georgie and a mate giggling during our Kickstarter photo shoot
So, back to the extreme emotions. I’ve talked about the ups and downs of getting designs ready, prototypes made, and a Kickstarter project funded. By that stage the teary moment count was already up to four (three frustrated/angry, one – Kickstarter crossing 100% funded – happy). To make things a little bit more interesting we thought we’d make July 2015 the month to complete the production of our jackets and backpacks, raise an equity investment round on Crowdcube, get our website and marketing assets ready to launch and get married. No biggie then. Cue more teary moments. The tears of joy when, thanks to our incredibly supportive Crowdcube investors, we passed our funding target with three days to spare before our wedding.
The relief of knowing that, as well as having product to sell, we were going to have a business plan and people to deliver it was incredible. The tears of woe came the day before our wedding, being told that some of our raw materials had been held up so we were going to miss our production slot just before the factory went on summer shutdown, meaning we would miss our launch date.
After much toing and froing, including frantically ordering replacement materials (having conversations with magnet suppliers while arranging flowers was a particularly surreal moment), and with some amazing help from our factory staying open a week longer than they planned to, we eventually managed to get everything out on schedule. It’s moments like that that remind you that you’re the little guy, fighting with every last bit of energy and persuasion you have to get what you need from your suppliers to deliver on your promises to your customers. That’s not something you tend to experience in a big business, where everyone jumps when you command.
The best day of our lives, if a little hectic in the run up!
Fast-forward two months to September 2015. We’d said our ‘I do’s’, received the first production order, shipped to 458 Kickstarter backers in 32 different countries, successfully raised a quarter of a million pounds on Crowdcube, launched a website and hired our first employee. LUMO was officially off and pedalling – we had sent our products out to the media to review and were waiting nervously for them to be published.
4.22pm on Thursday afternoon, said review arrives in my inbox. Here we go… I gather Doug and Molly (our Marketing Assistant) around my laptop….click on the link and the first thing to leap off the screen is “10/10, one of the very best jackets we’ve ever tested.”. Cue whoops and Andy Murray style fist pumps, followed by an enormous sigh of relief. The blood sweat and tears of the previous eighteen months had been worth it, even if reading product reviews would never quite be the same again.