MK: Can you give us a quick overview of the journey of FRAHM so far?
NH: I grew up in Nottinghamshire, and as a super keen racing cyclist I studied sports science. But I realised that actually, I'm not really a Sport Billy, I'm actually a very creative person.
After a few years in various jobs picking up general management experience I realised I really like working with people. Then I moved into the creative industries. I represented Directors for adverts or music videos, and I found I was really good at building real trust with people over a long period, rather than just taking people out to get pissed all the time, which was standard practice at the time.
With my cycling background, I was commuting to work by bike, and it bothered me that I had to wear stinky, weird kit to the office. Cycling also seemed to be a very non-inclusive and unfriendly place, so I really wanted to create a brand more about the transformative effect cycling can have on all kinds of people. I always had an entrepreneurial mindset and at the end of 2009 I decided that I would start my own business, with my wife Emmalou’s wage supporting us.
I started Vulpine and it pretty quickly became clear that I was good at the brand and marketing side, plus the product development side. We had a lot of publicity and did exciting things that were much talked about, but structurally, in the background it wasn't particularly efficient, and, we weren't profitable.
We grew very fast and raised lots of investment which created a lot of pressure & exhaustion, which started causing me mental health issues. At first low-level anxiety but it became very serious as time went on.
Vulpine went bust in May 2017. I had a total nervous breakdown and was suicidal. Not a surprise when I’d been pushing so hard for so long. I'm totally honest about my experiences, not because I find it pleasant but because I feel it's important to break down those barriers around talking about men’s mental health.
It took me a long time to recover from my breakdown. But as I did I realised that I wanted to continue having my own business. It was important to me and I took great joy from it.
MK: How challenging was it being brave enough to get back on the horse and start a brand for the second time?
NH: It was really terrifying to start it again, genuinely. I think one of the ways to overcome that is to be absolutely coruscatingly honest with yourself about what you're good and bad at, and what you need to do to overcome the things that you failed at. Saying you failed still seems taboo.
MK: Who is in the team now, and how do you see it growing?
NH: There's three of us, full time. Myself and my wife Emmalou. Tal in marketing, then around six consultants with excellence in specific areas. I’ve realised over time it’s better to bring in expertise when I need it, and that it’s worth paying for it.
Atalya has joined us in marketing and we're recruiting someone to help build a marketing team and processes. After two and a half years, we’ve got to the point where when people go online, they see a fully formed brand.
Recently we got to the point where we’re completely sold out, and selling a year in advance on most stuff, which is pretty bonkers. I think it's because we're in the right place at the right time. People really want to spend on better quality stuff that lasts a lot longer, from independent brands and also brands that are doing something ‘good’.
So it's a very different place to Vulpine - much calmer, much less stressful. And we're profitable already. Phew.
MK: You’re very visible as the man behind the brand. Was that always part of the strategy?
Initially, I wasn't going to be the face of the brand, and I still don't want to be. But what keeps happening is when I do videos about mental health or about jacket design, people really like them!
MK: And in turn, you donate £10 from every jacket to Mind in support of men’s mental health. How did this become another pillar within FRAHM?
NH: If I was going to attach the brand to a purpose, it had to be something I had some knowledge of and not just be bandwagon jumping. I'm no expert on men's mental health but I have been through it and I can talk about my own experiences from a real place of passion and pain. I genuinely want to help because it's horrible dealing with it.
It was a source of doubt. Will people accept a brand that talks about a traditionally negative thing, and a positive thing which is really nice jackets? Do they even mix? As it turns out, they do.
It's built into the fabric of the company now, a non-negotiable in everything we do.
MK: It even permeates through how you market the brand now?
NH: I didn't want to be a brand that makes mental health worse by making it look like men's lives were perfect and that your life isn't and you should do better.
I wanted to be a brand that was as real as possible, so I use people I actually know in the photoshoots. We don’t do photoshoots in the Adriatic with beautiful couples and Cristal Champagne draped around the place. That kind of toxic marketing just doesn’t help anyone.
MK: You’re clear that you are eCommerce only and always will be. Why follow this route rather than wholesale and/or retail?
NH: We failed at wholesale with Vulpine, and that was something that dragged us down.
We weren't built for giving up so much margin on low prices. And then managing the disruption of payment terms, or even worse people not paying on those terms. Sometimes companies went bust and we lost thousands of pounds of stock that we could have sold on our website.
To grow wholesale we had to develop a catalogue, build B2B sales relationships, and have account handling facilities. We had two completely different businesses with all these new things that we don't even understand.
So with FRAHM, why would we do anything except sell direct online?
MK: Shopify refers to itself as ‘arming the rebels’ in how easy it is for anyone to set up a store and start selling. Any tips you can share for future rebels from a brand already on the platform?
NH: I remember very clearly that back in 2016 we decided to build a better website for Vulpine. Eloise - our fantastic designer - recommended we try Shopify but it didn't seem quite right at the time. We went with a bespoke design which cost us a lot of money, brought months and months of really exhausting work, and then every time we wanted to change something, it cost even more . Our website felt very distant from us too.
I couldn't do that with FRAHM. I wasn't raising investment and I had to do stuff myself. I looked at the brands I admire like Hiut Denim, and how they were using Shopify and I thought it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.
I quickly got under the lid of it, and really enjoyed it. I think it takes two weeks to get proficient at Shopify and build your own site. It taught me a lot of skills and it really made me understand eCommerce a lot better as well. All the little bits that come together to form it, and so it means that I'm a much more rounded eCommerce business owner.
I absolutely love it. I often get approached by people asking what platform they should use. Please, please don't spend all your budget on a bespoke website as you’re starting out. Spend some time teaching yourself how to use Shopify, or find a Shopify developer if you’re stuck, and you’ll be saving an awful lot of money.
MK: For the apparel sector, sizing and returns is often an issue. Is that a challenge for you, and if so how do you approach it?
NH: Fitting is a massive challenge, and I think every clothing company finds the same. We tend to sell to 40 to 65-year-old men, and a lot of men are worried about buying something online.
Most men don't know their chest size - which is the common denominator for all body proportions - so we have to talk to customers to find out their size. It’s a big barrier to conversion.
Ultimately, you've got to have the same sizing across your range. It seems really obvious but it doesn't happen with most brands. We don't have an internationally standardised sizing system so all brands' interpretation of size is different. This is one of the big things you have to educate customers about is - don’t just buy the same size from another brand, you might find that's wrong.
We have an app on the website (Prime AI) which helps quite often, but it’s still our main source of questions on live chat. We have service people who are well trained in sizing so they can help.
We're always finding ways to make that sizing information better and better, trying to mimic the act of trying on a jacket. There are VR and AR apps now, of course, I’ve seen that Spoke started doing Zoom chats with people to talk about sizing. It’s a great idea, but a hell of an investment for me!
MK: You operate with a pre-order model. What’s the main driver for this?
NH: Vulpine went bust for the classic reason that clothing businesses go bust - the clothing industry has a terrible business model!
You buy a load of stock with the cash you have to find at the beginning of the season, and you gradually sell it, some of it a full price. A lot of customers won't pay full price so you sell a load at that sale price, which then customers get used to. So they wait for your prices to drop and your margin goes down. You go through the same cycle again and again and because people are used to this cycle, they are just never going to pay full price.
It also means you can't grow very fast if you're waiting for cash all the time. So I thought I've got to sort this problem out before I start a new business. With FRAHM, I worked out the finance model of this business before I worked at anything else.
The supposition with pre-orders is, if I'm good at marketing I can create enough interest for too few products. That's the key, creating demand for something that isn't available yet. And if I can create that hype and demand, then essentially people will fund me to grow my company by paying upfront. I am completely honest about that, and I say that's what I’m doing but because it's a good, kind business that people like, they are willing to support us.
MK: You’re very transparent in publishing blogs about your progress as a brand. Do you see this radical transparency as being a brave step to take?
NH: Yeah, I'm a massive oversharer! There are pillars for myself that match the brands, one being that I never want to go to bed feeling like I've done a bad thing. If I've done everything right, I should be able to just say it without fear.
We're trying our best. And I think people really appreciate that, it’s the opposite of those brands who try to place a beautiful shiny gold surface over the horrible sweatshop immorality that’s behind it.
Let’s end with some lighthearted questions. Shoot from the hip!
MK: If we could visit 1 place that inspires FRAHM, where would it be?
NH: Often the small things in life are the best things, so anywhere beautiful nearby. Your local dog walk because it is so good for your mental health.
MK: If you could only use 1 marketing channel to build a community for FRAHM from now on, which one would you choose?
NH: I really like Instagram, the mix of images and stories is great.
MK: If you could only subscribe to 1 other brands newsletter, which one would you read?
NH: I like ones that tell really honest stories, so Hebtroco.
MK: If you could only listen to 1 podcast, which would it be?
NH: When I was very depressed Adam Buxton really got me through. It made me realise that there were lovely people out there, and to feel better about humanity again.
Actually, I don't have enough influences. I don't read enough newsletters, have enough books or listen to enough podcasts, because I just work too hard in the business. That's something I want to change because that will make me better creatively.
MK: If we should check out 1 brand following this interview, what brand should it be?
NH: I would keep an eye on Vaela. They are creating fantastic women's cycling clothing, something close to my heart because of what we did with Vulpine and I'm really glad that they've taken up the mantle. Their brand looks great, and I know their hearts are in it.
MK: If you were advising a new brand today, what would be the 1 piece of advice you'd give?
NH: Be yourself. Base that brand about what you care about and what you believe in. Build it around yourself.