Focus on one thing and do it really well: Find your niche and make it your USP. It’s easy to want to rush, to try to run before you can walk. But it dilutes your business, your messaging and customers can see through it. This has been one of the biggest lessons for me. When you overstretch yourself and your team, mistakes are made, you lose your focus, and it’s easy to confuse your audience. In the early days of business, in my experience, there’s nothing more important than focusing on your point of difference and owning it before branching out into new avenues.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Morter.
Rebecca is the Founder and CEO of Lone Design Club, an omnichannel designed to support independent and sustainable brands, launched in its current form in 2018. Rebecca has directly experienced building an independent brand and is now working to solve the exact problems she experienced getting her designs to market, creating new solutions to outdated selling models. Over the past eight years, she has built strong connections in the brand community, gaining their trust and a reputation as a champion for independents. Rebecca is a regular speaker on topics around the changing face of retail, ethics, sustainability and has been featured in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, The Independent, Metro and The Times to name a few.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Coming from NZ, I was brought up with an appreciation for the natural world and our place in it. Organic food and home farming were pretty standard, due to a small population and access to land. During my teenage years, I became interested in design and craft and was intrigued about how that could merge with sustainability. I decided to study abroad to understand this better globally and was accepted to study fashion at the University of the Arts. Whilst studying, I was privileged to gain experience with global brands, such as Alexander Wang in New York, Simone Rocha, Paul Costello and John Lewis in London.
Post-graduation, these experiences gave me the confidence to launch my own womenswear brand. With celebrity ambassadors such as Lady Gaga, Charli XCX, Jessie J and others, I was selected to showcase my brand by the British Fashion Council at London Fashion Week February 2015. As the Founder of a small fashion brand, I soon faced the challenges of the traditional retail model and the struggles small emerging fashion brands faced trying to grow an organic and sustainable business within an outdated and backward industry. I soon realized that wholesale was a tough, expensive and unsustainable route and focused my attention instead on going D2C with my brand.
Generating awareness, building excitement and momentum around a new brand with a minimal budget, and finding the ‘right’ customers is always challenging. So along with a small group of designers, I started using community sourced, collaboratively manned pop-up stores as a sales vehicle for my brand.
I found one of the most rewarding parts of creating these pop-up spaces was giving a voice to these talented, emerging brands, all focusing on changing the state of fashion in some way. Whether that be with sustainable materials, ethical manufacture or social responsibility. As this community of designers and customers grew and grew, I eventually put my brand on hold and went it alone to form the Lone Design Club platform in May 2018. At this point, we were seeing retail changing, big names on the high street were beginning to crack, and it was the start of retail disruption that we at LDC were rebuilding.
At LDC, we try to make our digital platform and each of our stores as exciting and immersive as possible. We theme the stores around current events such as Chelsea flower show, Wimbledon tennis and London Fashion Week, keeping them short for maximum impact. Sustainability is at the core of the business, so we must be working with brands trying to make a positive difference to people and the planet.
Two weeks is a call to action, ‘come and see before we are gone’ — and if that’s not enough our events and experiences are even deeper calls to action, another reason to come and visit the store within a set 1–2 hours.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
An interesting story, there have been so many stories, some inspiring, some crazy, some petrifying! One of the most interesting was when we launched for the first time in Shanghai across Shanghai Fashion Week back in October 2019. After months of prep on the ground in London, we were suddenly off on a plane to China. We were going in blind, having never been to China, we hadn’t met the people on the ground we were due to work with or even seen the space (in the flesh) we were due to pop up!.
Only three team members flew over, bringing 6 Uk brands with us in suitcases. We landed and had to head straight to the site into a day and a half set up before opening to the public. It was a manic few days, and even more challenging with everything in Chinese and none of us being particularly fluent. However manic, it was one of the most exciting times and the relationships we built with locals, customers and industry were invaluable.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have made so many mistakes throughout the years. Some not so bad, quite funny and silly and others more serious which meant swallowing a harsh lesson. I get asked a lot by students or recent grads, that want to start a business, what advice I have, and my answer is always the same. Get life experience before starting a business, go and work for someone else, and make mistakes on their time and balance sheet before starting your own business. It’s not so funny when errors are made on your own business’s time and money.
In the beginning, I was incredibly tight with cash, I still am now, but this was real bootstrap, start-up level. Therefore anywhere I could, I would opt to do things myself or in the team — like anything!
The classic was anytime we needed vans for transporting. I would immediately suggest myself and my partner (begrudgingly he would always agree to help) do it, as I knew if we got a zip van, it would be about a third or quarter of a professional’s fee. However, every time we got a fine, every single time! Taking the final cost well above the professional’s quotes, before you even include our time, was stupid. The worst was when we had to drive furniture to Bristol, and both there and back received huge fines for taking the wrong toll bridge, adding hundreds of pounds to our totals. I am now much more a believer in finding reasonable professionals quotes and saving on my own time and lack of experience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am fortunate to have such incredible advisors and a support network. In particular, one advisor has helped immensely, especially when it comes to strategy, digital transformation and challenging me to get the best results. Laura Harnett is the Ex-Director of Digital Projects at Selfridges and has been working with us for over a year. Her advice, support and feedback inspires us to be better and push to grow LDC further.
During my time at Alexander Wang, the Design Director at the time, Marcus Clayton, was a huge inspiration and someone whose advice stayed with me to this day.
On leaving New York and moving back to the UK, I caught up with Marcus and mentioned that I was keen to start my own business someday and his response was along the lines of “It’s a challenging career path, one that will knock you down time and again, but you just have to keep getting back up”. Resilience is crucial to an entrepreneur, and this advice has stayed with me all these years.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think a lot of it goes back to youth and education. Women aren’t encouraged or given confidence in getting into these roles early on. In my experience, neither my school nor university fostered an entrepreneurial environment. There was no real preparation for business. It was all ideas-based. At university, particularly in the fashion courses, they focused on the creative and not on how to build a business, let alone what it meant to scale and profit.
I think we need to see more resounding support and encouragement for women from those early days, more access to knowledge, experience and what it means to build a business in practice, and the confidence that women can and should be great founders.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
I think one of the challenges is that traditionally the people giving out money have been men. It’s great to see more female-led VCs and institutions focusing on female founders, but it is new, so it will take time to impact the broader picture.
Another challenge we know is that traditionally men are more likely to push for things than women; this spans all areas from pay rises to business investment. This itself is something society can and should address, and we are seeing movements here. There needs to be a deeper push, introducing awareness, education and confidence at a grassroots roots level, in schools and universities. Ensuring the support is there to nurture entrepreneurship in women from a young age.
I would love to see more organizations set up to specifically help women into entrepreneurial roles and Govt encouragement for universities to place more focus on business/entrepreneurship into their course modules. I would go one step further and suggest this at the secondary school level. Introducing classes on financial literacy and how entrepreneurship shouldn’t be feared but instead embraced. As an entrepreneur, I think it’s part of my responsibility to speak to women and encourage them into these positions actively.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women are incredible founders; numerous studies have shown women can build more profitable companies focused on tight spending and returns, ergo driving deeper profitability. Women can be very nurturing and are good communicators, with excellent listening skills and empathy, which is a hugely important part of team building and company culture. I recently completed a Barclays x Techstars programme that completely blew my mind just how incredible female founders are and the tight, collaborative and resource sharing communities they can foster.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
Oh, there are so many! That extroverts are most suited to being founders, that everything seems like a success on the outside but the challenges the company may be facing are well hidden, that it’s all on your shoulders when it’s actually about the team you create.
One of my favorites is that so many people think Startup offices are about ping pong tables and coffee breaks. Our first office was a tiny little white box with neither of those! Another is the misconception that Founders / CEOs are always arrogant, difficult to approach and hard to talk to, when, in my experience, people in these positions, granted they are busy, are much more up for helping, giving advice and offering support than you may think.
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely and isolating road, but it is essential to remember that you are not alone, It is a collaborative world. By building a good strong network of supporters, advisors and mentors around you, they will give you the ability to keep going by shouldering some of the weight, allowing you to thrive.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
There is no career path in the world that suits everyone, and being a founder/entrepreneur isn’t an exception. We’re all gifted with different personalities and unique attributes, which is what makes our society so colorful.
In my opinion, everyone should be an employee before starting a business. There are so many skills needed, so gaining a few years of experience within your chosen field before starting a business., will set you on the right path. For some, this experience will show them that they are more comfortable playing a supporting role with a regular income.
Should you decide that you want to follow your dream and go it alone, you’ll need all the passion, drive and relentless determination you can muster. A thick skin and incredible resilience are essential traits.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I started as an entrepreneur when I was young, so I made many mistakes along the way!
- Ideas are easy; execution is the key: We all have grand ideas, but you’re doomed without strong execution. The number of times I have been here. I love ideas, I find them everywhere, and everyone has them, and they’re always so exciting and amazing. But, they have to be done right and well or else don’t bother. And when they are not done right, they can do more damage than good, and you’ve wasted precious time, energy and money. Or, you push people to burn out, you take things too far, and it’s not sustainable. I have made this mistake many times; in the beginning, I wanted to do it all and do it right now. Over the years, I have seen how sufficient time, planning and realistic targets lead to well-executed and prideful activities.
- Embrace failure: Don’t let it put you off. In many ways, failing drives you to succeed. I used to take losses really badly, personally and would get hung up on them. But I’ve learnt the importance of failing; it can build a stronger business, resilience and tests the concept. I have made so many mistakes or failures along the way. Each one has helped me hone my vision and understand what is driving value and where I need to focus my business to ensure it’s responding and solving an existing, real-world problem. I consider my first business, my womenswear brand, a failure, I put it on hold and then closed it after finding more success with Lone Design Club. Could I have made it work? Could I have done things differently? Perhaps, but to see this fantastic opportunity within retail, to support this underserved community of brands and customers and to solve a real tangible global problem meant I needed to have been on the journey. Without that first-hand experience as a designer, trying to get my products to market, it’s unlikely LDC would have come to fruition and that I would be on my current path. As tough as failures are, they shape us for the better.
- Focus on one thing and do it really well: Find your niche and make it your USP. It’s easy to want to rush, to try to run before you can walk. But it dilutes your business, your messaging and customers can see through it. This has been one of the biggest lessons for me. When you overstretch yourself and your team, mistakes are made, you lose your focus, and it’s easy to confuse your audience. In the early days of business, in my experience, there’s nothing more important than focusing on your point of difference and owning it before branching out into new avenues.
- The importance of the team. It’s not about you; it’s about what you can inspire from others. Surrounding yourself with the right people and fostering a culture that people want to be part of is key. I remember being asked once in a pitch session “this all sounds great, but you can’t clone yourself, how do you ensure your level of enthusiasm and drive is across a growing team?”. A fair question and one I’ve come to ponder often. I think this is one of the most challenging parts of the business to get right. I have been through the good and the bad of HR, but it is amazing what you can accomplish when you find the right people, and the weight that gets taken off your shoulders as you have the full team’s support to drive the business forward.
- Build a network before you need it: One of the best pieces of advice I have been given, which I had not focused on so much until recently, was the importance of contacts and network. There’s a sense of pride in doing things your way and making your own path, but much of business is about who you know, who can help and who you can leverage. I never put a lot of stock into this in the early days; I would focus on building my brand, putting all my efforts and spare time into this, not prioritizing socializing and networking events, feeling like I should be doing “proper” work. Now, I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn! If it weren’t for the pandemic, I’d be at every networking event possible. Who you know and who can help is crucial.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Through the LDC platform, we’re giving smaller, independent and sustainable brands access to areas of the fashion world that wouldn’t have been possible in the past. Opening up space for brands to focus on being sustainable whilst entering the market and at the same time providing consumers with more information on how important they are in the quest to make the industry fair, ethical and responsible. How they hold power in their hands to accelerate this change via their spending choices.
On the personal side, I am continuously working on it. Trying to practice what I preach, buy less and spend well. Use what platform and opportunities that come my way to speak about subjects such as sustainability in fashion, transparency and fair pay and by supporting other incredible projects such as Swapchain, Fashion Revolution and Common Objective.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The sustainability crisis in the fashion industry is all too real. We’re in a cycle of overconsumption, waste and too much heading to landfill. At the same time, we have a long way to go to obtain fair and ethical production and manufacturing, as well as too little support for social responsibility.
If there’s one thing that I can achieve with LDC, I hope to help people change the way they shop. If 2020 has shown anything, it’s that we do have the power in our hands to create this change. We have a responsibility to be careful and conscious in our purchases. We need to be educated and aware of our choices on people and the planet and work consciously to limit our destruction. As brands, we are responsible for creating safe and fair environments for workers, who are paid fairly and treated well and commit to fostering diversity and social accountability.
Creating newness is a big challenge, especially looking at the circular economy’s positive impact, and I would urge all brands to drive towards using what is already out there. Recycle, repurpose and renew instead of opting for new materials continually being brought into the cycle.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
There are many thought and industry leaders I admire. To name a few; Yvonne Chenard, the Founder of Patagonia for his incredible passion and dedication to sustainability and protecting the environment, his story and journey with Patagonia is awe-inspiring and; Natalie Massenet, perhaps an obvious one, but I’d love to meet her. Her journey with net-a-porter is nothing but inspirational. She changed the way we shop, proving the value and reach in the digitization of the luxury fashion industry.
Founding the Imaginary group was a significant step, and I have been following her investments and journey here for a while. To have the opportunity to speak to her, ask her thoughts and advice on the industry and its future would be amazing. I think we’d have a lot to talk about!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
This series was inspired by Female Founders First, a program by Barclays and Techstars designed to provide female founders with resources to grow, scale and advance their businesses.