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Jody Symons, the founder of Hardvark, spent twelve years dedicated to a career in finance, starting with six years at PwC and ending up in investment management. One day, whilst wearing merino wool base layers skiing, an idea came to him: to take merino performance fabrics and make stylish and versatile shirts you could feel equally comfortable wearing in the outdoors or the city. Jody immediately left his job and spent two years meticulously developing the Hardvark Merino shirt (www.hardvark.co).
Since launching Hardvark has been making their shirts for the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Daniel Craig, Tom Cruise, and Brad Pitt. Jody Symons talks to Finbuzz.com about his bold career change, crowdfunding, champion tailor performance, and Christmas plans.
Tell us something on the background of your newly launched business, Hardvark.
Previously I was in finance, I was at PwC for six years and then I worked for a couple of investment management businesses, one in Singapore and one in Geneva, working with a mix of public market investments and also some private investments. When I was working in finance, I was always passionate about trying to figure out what was coming next, what the emergent trends are and what the world was going to look like in three years’ time.
How I got into doing this, it’s little bit of a change. In Switzerland I was able to indulge my passion for skiing pretty much every weekend through the winter; a lot of hiking and a lot of skiing. I love merino wool and merino wool clothing, it’s just fantastic stuff. It’s soft, it’s breathable, and it’s great when you’re in the outdoors. If you sweat, it stays comfortable, and the best thing of all is that it doesn’t smell. You can wear it time after time unlike synthetic fabrics where you wear it once and it smells really bad at the end of the day.
With merino, you can take a couple of tops and they last a week. It’s just an amazing performance fabric and I just felt that there was a possibility to do more with it. I just starting thinking, ‘well, why can’t you make something a bit smarter?’ And I started thinking about how you could make a smarter design that could work in multiple environments, really, it’s a convergence between the performance and convenience and technology of active wear with more formal styling.
It came from my own needs, I wanted something and it didn’t exist. I felt that this was the way things were going in the future. People would want more convenience and functionality from their everyday clothing.
Which markets are you currently focusing on?
At the moment, we work online in the UK, and we are currently working on expanding the product range. So we started out with just three shirts, and really to get out there and, get some customer feedback and see if people liked the product, and that feedback was really positive. We are expanding the range and once we enlarge the range we will slightly enlarge the distribution, primarily online. We will later pursue retail where they [customers] can go, touch and feel the product.
Are you thinking of working solely through online stores?
We are probably going to start off with a very small number of select retailers. I think opening our own store is something for a little bit further down the line, if we have enough of a range to fill the store. As we expand our range it is important for us to stay true to our beliefs and producing what we call tailor performance clothing. We are trying to use natural performance fabrics with no chemicals, (using) breathable fabric which is good for the environment. We do not want a big range of things just to fill a store. We want to make the best possible garments and concentrate on doing a few things really well.
Did your skills in the finance sector help how you approached the launch of your subsequent business venture?
When you are working in the environment of finance it’s fast paced, it’s an environment where you are always learning about businesses, you are learning from markets, you are learning from developments, and that translates very much from having your own business. It’s been a lot of things and learning all the time is an aspect that I love. The other thing with finance, I started out working on private equity transactions and you learn about getting things done and solving problems under time constraints. I think it’s a transferable skill, just being able to do your research and then performing the right actions at the right time.
What made you opt for crowdfunding as a source of capital as opposed to other more traditional routes?
We haven’t raised any money through crowdfunding yet. So I think it is about something we might look at the future. We did early on, when I was developing the shirts. We did on Kickstarter, but it didn’t run particularly well. I think I spent so much time focusing on the product I didn’t have enough time in terms of Kickstarter. I think any Crowdfunding is about momentum, it is about creating the right environment. You have to have a fast run-rate, on top of the page attracting the casual browser and its virtual circle. You need to price and structure your offers so that is an incentive for the people to buy. You need to mobilise your own networks, through marketing in advance, approaching a campaign so that you attract as much attention as possible. Having realised our mistakes, we just funded in other ways.
Which alternative sources of funding did you seek?
The business was funded by my savings, up until very recently we raised a little bit of capital from private investors, and that is very important because it helps us to grow the business and expand the range we are offering, and the places we are offering.
Through the launch of your business, you introduced a new product, high-performance merino wool. What is so special about merino wool?
Merino wool for a start is a natural product. It is fully breathable so unlike the synthetic products, plastic and polyester, which are polyamide solid plastic fibres. They are natural fibres [merino products] that allow moisture to be absorbed, they keep you comfortable and if strenuous activity, hot and sweaty, merino keeps you comfortable and it dries quickly. It regulates temperature, and it is naturally antibacterial, that means you can wear it more than once. They are also anti-wrinkle, the fibres spring and bounce back to its shape, what it means it is a shirt you can wear and it stays crease-free. In most cases you can put it on the hanger and next thing you can wear it again. There is no need to iron it so from the convenience, and both from the comfort and convenience point of view, there is nothing else like Merino wall. Normal shirt soaked in chemical bath contains formaldehyde to make fabric stiffer so it does not crease. However we get anti-wrinkle all natural which comes from fabric itself. It’s just this natural performance.The Hardvark Merino Shirt is the result of almost two years of testing and development, working with the world’s finest fabric mills and some of Verbier’s best riders, to create the ultimate shirt. Jody teamed up with rising sportswear designer, Alasdair Leighton-Crawford, a former Savile Row tailor and professional athlete, to develop a button down shirt that blends high style with high performance.
Please share your pipeline for growth within the UK and outside of it, with our readers.
We are a British brand and we do have global ambitions. We are a premium product so we will be looking to sell globally. It was a long development phase, we are the first people to make wool city shirts using merino wool. The other great things are they are washable, having spent time being obsessive developing the shirt, not just the fabric but getting the fit just right. Now we just need to expand the range so there is more choice, thus getting the product out there, increasing the distribution and doing marketing. People come and buy one and then come back and buy another one for themselves, and then they buy shirts for all the members of the family which is great. It gives me a kick.
What trends have you picked up on throughout 2016, and how do you expect them to develop in the coming years?
It has been very good and we have done very little marketing, so seeing the pickup is great. I think now with the capital, we should see the growth rates to accelerate next year. It will take us some time to bring in the new products. The new staff will come in December, for Christmas and then new staff will be coming through next year. That’s a pretty exciting time.
So what comes next in the journey of Jody Symons? What can people expect to see from you in the future?
To achieve goal champion tailor performance, smart functional clothing that works all through your life wherever you go. If you want to look smart and want some performance functionality, there is not much out there and I would like to change that.Aardvark – An adventurous mammal that thrives in many environments. Has a protective skin that shields it from the elements. Hardverk – (Icelandic): durable, strong, well made.