I’m sitting in an old whitewashed barn flooded with sunlight. Every so often a chirping swallow will swoop through the open arches, setting the stones echoing. Above my head, a dark cavity under the roof’s beams is home to a barn owl and owlet. Donkeys bray outside. Sheep bleat. Bluebottles buzz in drowsy circles. It is a perfect summer’s day.
I’m with fifteen other people, seated around two long tables held together with paper and tape, laden with fresh coffee, home baking and Sharpies. Most of us have travelled many miles to be here. We’re listening intently, scribbling furiously.
This is David Hieatt’s Do Workshop. And it was bloody brilliant.
Ten days ago I travelled from The Bathory HQ to west Wales in search of some inspiration. A tube ride, two trains, a bus, a taxi, and seven hours later, I arrived in Cardigan just as the sun was going down. Then I travelled a little bit further until I hit the sea.
The following day I found my way to the beautiful Do Farm, tucked away outside the town, overlooking rolling countryside. It’s a storybook farm, worthy of Enid Blyton – golden hay bales, a friendly farm dog, flowers blooming everywhere. Home to the Hieatts – of Hiut Denim, the DO Lectures and The 25 Mile — I’d challenge anyone to leave it uninspired.
I’m a longtime fan of David Hieatt’s “do one thing well” approach to business. His Hiut Denim brand is on a mission to get 400 people their jobs back in Cardigan – once the jeans manufacturing capital of the UK. The DO Lectures brings together incredible people to share their stories and break bread under the stars. The 25 Mile is all about eating local and championing small producers.
The DO workshop distills the spirit of DO into eight jam-packed hours of practical advice and unapologetic passion. My fellow attendees were all (lovely) entrepreneurs at various stages – some with products or businesses (from proper baked beans, to ethically made custom tees), some with ideas. I think we all left galvanised and encouraged, with a little more fire in our bellies.
For me, it was one of those experiences where I felt I was being spoken to directly. You know those moments — when you hear something you already knew, but needed to hear someone else confirm or validate. I filled a notebook from cover to cover with notes. My head has been spinning a little ever since.
This is my attempt to pin down a few insights that particularly stuck with me. Here goes:
1. There’s never a right time to start.
Start now. Even if you don’t think you’re ready. The world is full of people with great ideas for businesses and unfinished novels (mine included). Genius is not coming up with an idea, it’s making it happen. And chase the work, the kind of work you want to do, not the money. The thing that will keep you going is that the work matters to you.
Even if you’re at the bottom of the world that matters to you most, that’s ok. That’s better than being at the top of the wrong mountain.
And remember — sane people quit. You need a little bit of crazy to keep going.
2. You are your brand.
This is the secret to branding a small business. You are the essence of your brand. The company you create is going to be a version of you. It’s the little things, the details, that make you stand out.
Innocent’s tone of voice didn’t come from the marketing department, it’s just how creative director Dan Germain speaks. Jake Burton invented a sport, and Burton Snowboards is unmistakably a brand made by and for people who feel most at home on the mountain.
The trick to being so close to your brand, says David, is to learn how to take emotion out of decision-making. Cultivate “cold passion”, and remember your biggest loyalty is to your business.
3. Define your purpose.
You should watch this video. Simon Sinek explains his idea of “the Golden Circle” – in essence, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
“The best companies,” says David, “are a tool with a purpose, a tool to change something.” Businesses can often do more than individuals to change things. If your intent from the beginning is to use your business to change something, it’s a huge multiplier of energy. It gives you focus.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard uses his business as a tool to educate people about the environment. David Hieatt wants to get his town making jeans again. Jake Burton asks himself, “Can I spend 100 days on the mountain?” That’s his idea of success.
Find your why. And remember that being small is an advantage here — the Goliath in your market has probably forgotten why they’re in business.
4. Find your 1,000 true fans.
You might have heard this one before. It’s a concept that originally came from the music industry; the idea being that if you have 1,000 true fans — people who will buy anything you put out there — you can quit your day job.
Your job isn’t just making your product. It’s (mostly) about finding your 1,000 true fans. The people who will tell your story for you. And it’s engagement, not numbers, that is important. David said he realised that he didn’t just have a jeans factory, he needed to have a content factory as well. The content you create is for those true fans, it’s what keeps them coming back to your product.
Jeff Johnson of Nike wrote letters to athletes asking how their training was going, enclosing a pair of sneakers for them to try. Fan-building is the time to do unscalable things.
5. There are no shortcuts.
Slowly does it. There are very few overnight successes. Dyson went through 5,127 iterations before he released his first vacuum cleaner. In 1995, David and Clare Hieatt started howies; in 2001, they paid themselves their first pay cheque.
Growth takes time. You put the potato in the ground, and there’s a period when nothing happens. “Analogue” businesses tend to need to grow slower than digital ones – cash flow, stock control, market penetration is a slower burn. Digital products are different – being first usually matters. It’s tough being the second Airbnb.
Howies grew too fast for David and Clare and they sold to Timberland in 2006. David asked Yvon Chouinard how he managed to hold onto Patagonia. “Two re-mortgages,” was the answer, “ and fifty years hard work.”
There is no magic bullet, despite what all those growthhackers might tell you. It’s just hard work.
I think I’ll leave it there. But here’s a few bitesized notes that can probably speak for themselves:
6. The timeliness of your idea really matters. Don’t fish where there is no fish.
7. Stay away from the things you don’t do well.
8. ASK. As Michael Jordan said: “I miss 100% of the shots I don’t take”.
9. Work smarter than everybody else, not longer.
10. Investors mostly back people, not ideas. But first you need to back yourself.
You should probably just go to David’s next workshop. It’s in London, on Friday, September 12 2014. Less braying donkeys, I’m imagining, but just as much inspiration.
“I think you probably already have all the answers,” David said to us as the day drew to a close. “I think you’ve come today looking for a nudge.”
Sometimes all you need is a nudge.