Putting the How in Howies

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Howies' David Hieatt pays attention at a Little Big Voice talk
Howies' David Hieatt pays attention at a Little Big Voice talk
Read more on Howies and other exciting brands in our Creative Marketers Report. What was it like when you were getting the business growing yet you and Clare were still working in advertising?
Trying to do two things at the same time was difficult, and I guess we got greedy because we really enjoyed the part time job and were really keen to find a way to do it full time, and it took us six years to try and work that one out. There comes a point in every business where you either have to stop the hobby or make it a business. In a strange way, for six years, because we didn't pay ourselves, the company was allowed freedoms that wouldn't have existed if we had to pay people straightaway. We could do some things. I remember speaking to Paul Smith and the first year of his shop, and because he was working it didn't matter if he sold things or not. It allowed him to work out what he wanted to sell. In those six years for Howies we worked out what we wanted to do with the company and how we wanted to do it. It didn't have to be a grown up straightaway. It might have failed. That was the incubation period; it was hard from the point of view, when you're in a demanding job and you're going to get up early in the morning and do a bunch of stuff, then come back in the evening, do a bunch of stuff, then on the weekends, do a bunch of stuff. It does, at some point, make you tired.

What agencies did you guys work at?
I started working when I was 21, I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, then after about seven years we pitched the Adidas account, and I really wanted to work on it, and we didn't get the pitch. Then I resigned and went and worked for Leagas Delaney because they won the pitch. I was there for a bit, I started Howies then, but at Leagas Delaney they worked so many hours I couldn't have a business and have a career at Leagas Delaney, so I went to Abbot Mead Vickers and I was allowed to do both because they don't work you so hard there. Then for a very brief time I was at Wieden + Kennedy, which was brilliant.

You were a copywriter, was Claire an art director?
She was an art director, but she was a copywriter who was asked to be an art director. She was a writer at The Body Shop and a design company called Imagination.

How do you maintain the stuff you learned in the advertising world in what you do now?
It's obviously good training about brands, and various things. Perhaps it just taught me to be able to write what I thought down on a piece of paper, the skill of just being honest on a piece of paper was a good one to learn. Sometimes learning about humor as well, and that people learn things while they're laughing, I think that was a good thing as well.

Were there any notable creative directors you worked with?
Because it was my first agency, Saatchi, we had Paul Arden as our boss, he's written some books, like 'It's not how good you are, it's how good you want to be,' I think that's sold a million copies. At the time Saatchi could do no wrong. He was a real maverick character, and at the time was perhaps the biggest name in British advertising. I was very fortunate to work with Tim Delaney and very fortunate to work with David Abbot. I was around some very good people, incredibly lucky to look and listen and learn on them.

Do you stay in contact with many people from advertising?
The likes of Tony and John Matthews, who was creative director at W+K for quite a while, but not too many. I was never the one to go to the awards or play all that game. I tried to start a sports brand when I was 16, so it was kind of something I'd always wanted to do. I learned enough from advertising to be able to do it.

When you were working on Adidas, was that a career pinnacle?
Well, I knew a lot about it. When I was 13 or 14 I was sending off marketing ideas to the best brands. I would get free product; I never really bought any sportswear when I was a kid, I'd just write a letter and say, You should do this. I was writing for trade journals when I was 15 or 16. I borrowed 500 pounds from my dad when I was sixteen and said I'm going to go and start a sports brand. I worked on a market stall, unfortunately the coal miners who were my customers went on strike for a year, and that was it. The dream was shattered, but I have a Plan B. But that's Steve Jobs' thing about connecting the dots backwards. It doesn't make any sense at the time when you're going forwards.

What made Timberland different from other companies that approached you about selling?
I think, to give you some context, the really good thing is that we were growing fast, but the really bad thing was that we were growing fast. We couldn't really afford the growth that we were doing at the time. Myself and Claire re-mortgaged the house twice, we'd guaranteed the overdraft, and it was a real struggle for us, because we'd hired some people and they were paid market rate—as the founders you're always the worst paid people in the company—and after we re-mortgaged we couldn't afford to make the repayments. We got to the point where we couldn't afford to work for Howies anymore. And we were going, This is a bit dumb, really.
Because we wanted to sell direct, we knew, at some point, we needed to get some extra investment. My original plan was to find a likeminded company. Trouble is, there aren't that many likeminded companies. When you make a list, you get three companies, and you sort of run out of other people to talk to. I best not mention other people's names but one of the companies, we were a huge fan of theirs and they were huge fans of ours, but the only way they wanted to do it is if we sold 100 percent to them. But we hadn't come this far to not have any say in the company. So you were down to two companies before you knew it. I wrote a letter to [Timberland CEO] Jeff Schwartz, the letter literally said, 'It would be great to do something, would you fancy a cup of tea' and looking back it might have been better to be a bit more explicit in the letter, Would you like a cup of tea real quick. So the best part of eight or ten months we didn't hear from Jeff, and he was going to his people and saying, This company is amazing, we need to talk to them. We started talking to Revolutions, which is a company started by Steve Case, and we were all set to do a deal with them, because they wanted to invest in companies that wanted to change the world. The CEO was ex-Patagonia, that's how we got to know those people. But in the end, a friend who I play football with texted me and said Timberland want to speak with us—don't sign anything, you've got to speak with them. And actually, financially, the Timberland deal was not as great as the other deal, but it felt more right. The growth is slower and creative control was going to be maintained and the Earth tax was going to be maintained and the fact that we live in the middle of nowhere was going to be maintained, and they just said, We'd just love you to be better at being Howies. And if you've got a choice between independence and making Howies the company that you'd love it to be, then we thought that was the better dream.

How much of the courtship process were the employees aware of?
I think in a company of 25 people, there are no secrets. Like in a small town, there are no secrets in a small town. In a city there can be. They knew. It's kind of funny, because there was no shortage of venture capital money floating around, we could have taken any bit. But the money was too fast. They wanted us to be Cardigan Bay's second biggest clothing company next week. I do believe if you grow slow you grow strong. Once we're really, really good at what we do then we can grow.

How do you think the relationship is progressing?
I think Jeff has laid down some challenges for us, but they're good ones. Can Howies be better at being Howies? Yes, that's something we'd like to do. Can we go off grid? Can we be more transparent with how we deal with our factories, where they are, who they are? Can we transfer the clothing miles? Can we make products in a better way? At the moment it's gone amazingly well. From a creative point of view we show them the catalog when it's at the printers. I think also with that trust is responsibility. Next time, if we let them down, they won't trust us as much. We understand that, in as much as we're not going to do anything dumb or stupid, we just want to do Howies the best we can do Howies. We speak to them once a week, actually now it's down to once every two weeks, reporting figures, Jeff's going, Right, how can we be better at being Howies? From a creative point of view it's been one of the best things we've ever done, because now we can focus on making the things we desperately wanted to make happen, happen. Time will tell if it carries on like that, but so far, definitely, so good.

What do you think their plan is for you? What does Howies bring to Timberland?
Do we have potential to go and start Howies in America? Yeah, definitely. Would we want to do shoes one day? Yeah, definitely. I guess for them, Howies attracts a different crowd, perhaps, from the people who buy Timberland. I'll put my business head on, for them, to build up a portfolio of really interesting companies. But that kind of makes sense. From their point of view, their strategic thing is to find companies who want to do business like they want to do business.

Personally how hard is it to entrust your baby into the hands of a large corporation?
That's the thing, when you stare into Jeff's eyes you can go say, Jeff, it's important that we do it and do this thing called Howies and be better at being Howies. It's got to come from myself and Clare, otherwise it'll just fail. Not from an ego point of view or anything. There has to be some crazy nutter in the corner who's being a stubborn mule on some things. Companies are driven by a small bunch of people. Is it difficult to hand over the trust? Of course, it's twelve years hard work. But it's more than that. You probably only get to do one project like this in your lifetime, so you do have to have a lot of trust there. From Timberlands' point of view, they know that. They have to make sure the voice is true. And some things are just gut instincts. You can't research stuff, you can't try and invent that stuff. You're either following your heart or you're not. But they want to leave us alone, and see what we do when we're left alone. If we're smart, and hopefully we are, we can show we're amazing at being Howies by being left alone.

How many employees do you have now?
I think by the end of this year we'll have about 30. We have a small band, a bunch of skateboarders, mountain bikers, surfers, runners, canoers. So the sports and the brand brings us together. My idea for Howies, the principals of the business are certainly grounded, but our ideas will make us. The first ten years have been about learning a lot of stuff. The next ten years should be able to bring some ideas to the party. If we do that, we'll succeed. If we don't, we'll fail.

What is your day-to-day like?
Mad. Right now I've got 15 days to do the next catalog, 10 days to do the opening of the shop and there's a bunch of stuff in between. But I quite like the chaos, actually. There's probably not as much time to sit down and doodle as much as I want, but I quite like the idea of going in and just causing a bit of chaos and then getting on my bike and going home.

How do your and Clare's roles differ?
Whereas perhaps I'm all heart, she's thinking more logically about stuff. We're a good mix actually. If it was just left to me we'd go off on a wild goose chase—Clare's strategically thinking about stuff. How we split the roles, actually, she runs more of the product stuff and I'll look after the brand, make sure we don't do anything dumb and then again make sure we try and be brave as well.

The central Little Big Voice yurt.
The central Little Big Voice yurt.
What was the rationale behind the Little Big Voice retreat?
When we started the company I'd always had this idea that, a company, as well as trying to make people buy, if a company wants to make people think I always thought that's a good thing. It was kind of inspired by a thing Patagonia did, a little boot camp. My feeling is if you can give them the tools to go and tackle the media, I find that pretty interesting. Little Big Voice was all about trying to give little voices a big voice. It was the most amazing thing we've done. Forty people came down, the talks, I found them inspirational, and I thought I knew a lot of that stuff. It was a real moment in the history of Howies. We've talked about trying to change things, and I felt we started something there. It was quite inspiring. You'd go to bed at night thinking 'I can't believe we pulled it off.' And it was just giving people practical things about 'How do you get a hold of the news desk?' It wasn't anything fancy. It was the tools to do the job. If you're a plumber, you need a spanner, but if your river's been polluted and you want to try and change that, how do you go about it? It was one of the times where I remember thinking, 'Yeah, that was good, actually.'

And you've been working on that event for a while, yes?
Yeah, these things take a while to come into play. We're going to try and do it every two years, because it does take a huge amount of time to pull off. If you look at the TED lectures in the States, they're amazing. In the UK we don't have anything like that, which is just set up to go, 'Yeah, ok, this is what you want to do if you want to do this stuff.' I find that really interesting. And we mixed it with some good food and good music. That always helps.

And what about the latest program I've read about on the blog, with the van covered with chalkboard paint?
Is it still green?
Is it still green?
We had this old van from one of our suppliers and everyone said, 'We want to do a tour' and I said, 'Anybody can do a skate tour.' So we bought 70 pounds of blackboard paint, and painted the van with chalkboard paint. And we went around various cities, On one side of the van we wrote, just to raise the profile about nuclear power. Because at the moment, there's an awful lot of spin in the U.K. about how the answer to climate change is to build nuclear power stations, and we're going, 'At what point did that become the green answer?' On one side of the van it says, 'Is nuclear power dumb?', and on the other side, 'Or is it green?' We're interested in what people thought about it. And we'll do a nice little booklet or something about it, or put it in the catalog. For the price of 70 pounds. I quite like those things where you don't have to spend so much money, but if you're going to do a skateboard tour it's much better to do a skateboard tour and talk about some stuff. Without being too serious about it, because nobody wants to talk about nuclear energy. You have to try and find ways to engage them, and get them to think about it, we call it infotainment. If you just ranted about nuclear energy, they wouldn't listen. So how can we engage them without being too serious about it?

How are things progressing with the London shop?
For 12 years I've been dreaming of it. I always see the business in a triangle, in as much as we've got the website, and we've got the catalog, I've always wanted the shop to complete the triangle. It's hard for some people, when they see a catalog, they never really know how good of quality our jeans are, or our merino. It is a tactile industry. So I think probably on October 1st we'll open the doors. It's important for us to do the numbers, but it's also important, just like we do in the catalog, where we devote 30-40% to other stuff, and our other stuff is trying to make people think about stuff. In a very expensive retail part of town common sense tells you what you don't devote a large part of your store to making people think. Most people would concentrate on making them buy. But what we've learned in the catalog is making people think is good for our business, too. It engages people and perhaps they feel more for this company than other companies. It's interesting to see if we can pull it off in a retail space; it's a different discipline. We've got a lot to learn. The good and bad thing is if we get it right we go to number two, if we get it wrong then we don't get to go past number one. It's an amazing opportunity to go, 'This is what matters to us.' Most shops, if you're a sports company, all they want to concentrate on is sports. At Howies there's a lot of stuff we don't want to leave at the doormat. You've got interest in music or art or the environment or great food or great books, I think that is of interest. So in the shop there's a lending library, art pieces to make you think, a water tap so you can refill your bottle so you don't have to buy a new bottle of mineral water. You're supposed to leave the lights on 24 hours a day, but we've just got a little button that you press on a timer and if you want to see what the shop window's like at night you press it and it's on for 30 seconds. It's slightly nervous. When you've been dreaming about something for a while and you get a chance to do it you go. 'Oh, bloody hell. I hope I was dreaming the right dream.'

But the main difference between your brand and other sports brands is your sports have a predisposition to independent thinking.
Yes, definitely. The snowboarder, the surfer, the trailrunner. Even when you're in a crowd snowboarding down a hill you're alone with your thoughts. There's definitely a thing that groups all those people together, and because they're out there doing their stuff they are connected to the environment as well. It's not a surprise that they care about it more because they're out there. A surfer will know about sewage. A snowboarder will know a lot about climate change. It's an interesting band of people, they are definitely independent minded folk, maybe that's what attracts us to the sports as well.

You guys cater to people that love these sports, but where does price come in? The people that are hardcore about their sports are going to think twice about spending 80 pounds on a pair of jeans I'd imagine.
It's a challenge for us now. If we're going to use the best materials and go to the more expensive factories and also try and make things in a more considered way, for example, in the jeans, Eco Ball washing is more costly than enzyme washing. But, we have to make these values affordable to people if we're going to be the alternative. The biggest change is going to come from the ability to sell more, not less. If we really believe in organic cotton we should be able to sell more of it than less. It's a tough one for us, but funny enough, as we grow it does become more attainable for us to bring our prices down. Actually, now, because more people are doing more recycled fabrics or hemp or organic denim, whereas five years ago when we were developing our own organic denim, now we can buy off the shelf. So it has become and is becoming more affordable, and that's a good thing. If you want to be the alternative, try and find a better way, you can't price yourself out of the market. It's one of the things that you go, 'Right, OK, how do we work on this, not go to the really cheapskate factories and use the best fabrics?' That's the challenge.

What would you say your ideal Howies fan looks like?
Probably working in the creative industries, in some respect, on the weekends be snowboarding or biking or trail running, getting out there surfing. They're a very eclectic bunch, hopefully with a good sense of humor and interest in learning.

What's next for Howies?
I'm interested in if we're going to design stuff now, how are we going to design stuff for its second or third life. How can we design things so that when we're finished with them they're not just going to the landfill? I think most companies try and have an enemy. I think for us we should try and make our enemy be bad design or the landfill. I want to change some things in terms of how the business is being done. For T-shirts, we don't print and hope anymore, because we have a print shop in our car park, we print when we've got an order. We've cut down the waste on T-shirts because we've changed the business now. We don't just print a thousand and hope. We're looking at how we're going to bring some ideas to the party. Certainly through design, where we do make something so it can be unmade later.
And (it's also about) being really transparent. Want to know how much energy this product consumed? How far it traveled? Where it got made? Who made it? How much they got paid? That's like no-brainer stuff now; it's something that's never been the problem with having the ideas, it's the money or the time with making them happen. We don't have any more time, but some of these things we've got to try and make happen now.
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