Rachel Smith-Bingham made the move from management consulting and media into fashion to establish BUNKS, her swimwear brand for men and boys, that combines unique design, exclusivity and a respect for our oceans. Here she talks to The Industry about her entrepreneurial journey, ahead of appearing at our next event in London on 28 February 2018.
Please tell us a bit about your background and how you came to set up your own brand. You worked with a number of entrepreneurs and is it fair to say they inspired you to become one?
There are quite a lot of questions in this question:- My ‘working’ background spans over nearly 25 years – after my undergraduate degree in Political Science I undertook a year’s ‘mini MBA’ part of the course work was to set up our own business and brand – this was in the days when men still wore Y front underpants in SA and the small group I was in chose to go with the idea I proposed and set up a business that made and sold men’s boxers short which were sold to fellow students at the University of Cape Town. A big part of the success was because we tapped into the excellent sewing and manufacturing skills in Cape Town to make the products. The boxer shorts sold out! A seed was no doubt planted then that one day I’d set up my own business.
Two decades later, having worked as ‘management consultant’ helping large organisations undergo fundamental change, and then latterly as Director of People and Talent for two media companies undergoing growth I am now back to where I started – having gleaned a lot of experience on the way (some of it seemingly unrelated but related). Therefore, to answer the second part of the questions – some of the entrepreneurs I have worked with (and others I’ve met along the way) have definitely inspired me – however I think I’ve always been an entrepreneur and am at a time in my life where things have fallen into place to make it happen.
I am not from a retail or ‘fashion’ background so I have needed to learn a lot too. One point that’s really important is that I have set up BUNKS to be a brand that is related to memorable holidays and travel rather than as a fashion brand.
What was the niche you saw with Bunks and what did it take to get the brand off the ground (e.g. finding suppliers, staff, backers etc).
The niche I saw was to create a boys’ swimwear brand that integrates with the beach and ocean environment rather than clash with it (it’s about where you’re going to for your holiday). That’s why the fabric designs and the look and feel of BUNKS so important to the brand.
I have invested my own money and I have currently one backer. Not being from ‘the industry’ finding suppliers and key staff has been one of the biggest challenges – I’ve had to figure this all out myself. I’ve made some mistakes and no doubt have a lot more to learn. I’ve listened a lot and taken really helpful advice from others that have steered some of the key decisions I’ve needed to make.
The product has some unique attributes, such as the environmentally friendly packaging, the swing tag/luggage label and the UV protection in the fabric, what were the most important brand qualities for you to get right?
That BUNKS does not add any more plastic to the world’s oceans and that there is an exclusivity to BUNKS – the production runs are small – which adds to the uniqueness of the brand.
UV protection is a standard for most swimwear brands so it was a ‘given’ that the fabric has to be UP50 protective (especially since BUNKS started with boys sizes).
You are a mother of two sons, did they play a part in inspiring you to launch BUNKS?
Yes, absolutely. A few aspects of my life seem to come together with BUNKS – my sons; our happiest moments on holidays and my entrepreneurial drive. What I do relates directly to them.
It is still early days for the brand but you branched out beyond the boys’ market into men’s, do you have a vision for further expansion in mind?
Yes, however, I want to see how 2018 goes for BUNKS – it’s an important year that will help inform the next stage for BUNKS.
Tell us about your team, who are the key players, and when launching a brand which were the roles it was key to get right?
The BUNKS product technical developer has been so important during the testing phase and for the ongoing manufacturing; the small branding agency who really helped BUNKS during the development stage and ongoing artwork and website management; the freelance BUNKS fabric designer is a gem.
The freelance social media person who oversees the BUNKS Instagram – she’s been great at steadily growing the follower base organically. I outsource the online order fulfilment (posting out orders) to a company that is also the BUNKS warehouse in the UK – they’re important however it’s so crucial to not rely on outsourcing ‘customer service’.
This sounds like a lot for a start-up however everyone at this stage contributes on a part-time basis. The individual expertise they all bring are key. The next key hire will be an omnichannel marketing and sales manager to grow the online sales (which currently make up 15% of total revenue to date).
You are sold online and have been picked up by third-party sellers and pop-ups already, what is your plan for distribution of the brand?
BUNKS is just in the very early days of being picked up by third-party sellers – linking BUNKS with the premium travel and lifestyle sector is the next phase for the distribution of the brand.
Having worked with entrepreneurs, were there common mistakes you saw that you were keen not to repeat with your own business?
Know when to start ‘letting go’ to allow others the ability to contribute fully to grow the business. I’ve also seen entrepreneurs not behave like leaders. When the time comes – I want to lead well.
On a more positive note, what attributes do you think make a successful entrepreneur?
Having one or two people you know and trust to talk to as a sounding board is so important. Bringing out the best in others around you. Being able to positively handle uncertainty – be brave – one needs to make difficult decisions.
Starting a fashion brand is tough, particularly at the moment, do you have any words of advice/encouragement for those looking to do what you have?
It’s still early days for BUNKS but I’d suggest if you’re going to start out – start with a focused line and build on that rather than trying to build everything all at once. Whatever if you decide to do – do it well. To succeed you should be prepared to explore and find the opportunities to sell your product. It’s often the hardest aspect if selling doesn’t come naturally. To grow your brand you will need to people to buy your brand.
Rachel Smith-Bingham is a panellist at The Industry’s next event at W London – Leicester Square on 28 February 2018 where we will be interviewing three leading female entrepreneurs. To book your ticket for £45+VAT, please visit our event booking page here. (Use code VIP20 for a 20% discount off the price).
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