Interview: Heist Studios CEO Toby Darbyshire on raising finance and revolutionising underwear
Disruptive hosiery and tights brand Heist Studios has just completed a second round of seed fundraising with Firstminute Capital, JamJar, Pembroke VCT and other existing investors injecting a further $4.4m into the business. Heist was also recently named as one of the innovative businesses to have received backing from Dame Natalie Massenet and Nick Brown's new venture capital fund – Imaginary Ventures – which was one of five investors to plough $2.6m into the fast-growing brand last autumn.
Having raised $8.1m so far through two angel investment and two seed funding rounds, the brand is ready to revolutionise women's underwear in general having already achieved great success with its luxury, seamless tights. CEO Toby Darbyshire talks to The Industry about setting up the brand, the power of customer feedback and his plans for the future.
Before we get on to Heist, can you tell us a bit about your background, before you started Heist and how you came to set it up?
I started my career at management consulting firm Bain & Company, later moving on to co-found home energy provider Engensa, with the aim of delivering solar panels to the masses.
After exiting Engensa to Chinese renewables company Hanergy, which later licensed Engensa to IKEA as part of their in-store solar offering, I found myself looking for other consumer sectors in need of disruption, and co-founded Heist in 2015.
When the business was started in 2015, what was the niche you identified and how did you go about developing and making the product?
Heist was started by myself and co-founder Edzard van der Wyck as, during conversations with our partners and friends, we were amazed at how much airtime underwear garments got, for all the wrong reasons.
It was clear that existing underwear brands design for aesthetics and sideline product functionality, because they are designing for what women look like rather than the lives they lead (e.g. Victoria’s Secret). Unlike sportswear where superbrands invest heavily in product innovation for athletic disciplines, underwear – worn all day every day by women for their entire lives – is neglected. We saw an opportunity to disrupt this $110 billion industry and started by reimagining the humble pair of tights to prove we could innovate.
We then, not knowing a huge amount about underwear, talked to our friends and worked with a group of 67 women who helped us understand how we could reimagine the much-overlooked pair of tights, as the start of our mission.
What is it that makes your hosiery so different from the other products on the market?
We redesigned tights by understanding what women did – and didn’t – want from their hosiery, to create a laundry list of issues faced by tights wearers to work from. Then, we asked three questions to radically change the design:
- - What would stop tights digging in at the waist? An adaptive waistband.
To design a waistband you can move in, we looked to the flexible waistband on yoga leggings for inspiration. We treat our waistband as a separate component to the legs, and knit it using a dedicated 3D knitting machine. Our waistband is available in two heights: Low, to sit comfortably on the hips, or High, to hug the waist.
- - What would stop tights itching the backs of the thighs after a few hours? The highest quality yarn.
We wrap 5,000 spirals of nylon around each inch of elastane (that’s ten times the industry average) to create the softest yarn in the industry. And, we slow down our knitting machine to operate at 400 rotations per minute (the industry average is 700 to 1,200) for an even coverage and fewer missed stitches.
- - What would stop tights slipping down all day? A seamless design.
We decided to do away with annoying seams from our tights. Rather than knitting, cutting and stitching together two legs with a front and a back seam, as with conventional tights, we knit ours in a single tube, removing the gusset. Then, to get rid of the two remaining toe seams where the machine starts knitting, we tuck them under each foot.
Tell us about the team, who are key players in the business?
We are a mission-driven brand so everyone on the team is truly committed to innovating and genuinely excited by this.
We’ve built a best-in-class team of inventors, material scientists and engineers who are using customer-led insight, cutting-edge technology and a design philosophy rooted in dynamics.
And in fields traditionally, and unfortunately still to this day, dominated by men, we have women leading. Combine those skills with the voice of our female customers wanting change in an industry, and we have the power to create something genuinely innovative.
You have achieved tremendous sales growth, which channels and markets have been the most successful for you?
We could never have anticipated the growth we’ve enjoyed. We knew there was a calling for good tights, but we couldn’t have foreseen how quickly our community of fans would grow.
After some great launch press we saw growth through word-of-mouth activity. Our email community and social media engagement has also been key for us. Alongside this, we’ve invested in a range of channels, including out-of-home advertising on the London Underground, and digital advertising.
You were named as one of the businesses to receive investment from Dame Natalie Massenet’s new fund, Imaginary Ventures. What will you use the investment for?
Imaginary’s funding will help us expand our product range, build out our team and expand into new markets. Natalie and Nick Brown have unrivalled experience across our industry - their focus on understanding today's consumer and how best to serve them is really valuable for us.
What is your relationship like with your investors? How involved are they in the business for instance?
Our investors support Heist through their thorough advice on commercial strategy, branding and creative. We’re excited to work with each of them to grow Heist!
You are promising new products in 2018, in the women’s underwear space, can you give us an insight into what we can expect?
We’re applying our philosophy for tights to a range of other items in the underwear category. Watch this space!
Beyond 2018, what is the vision for the brand?
Getting technical with tights is just the beginning. Heist’s mission is to change underwear, to design for life, not just for looks. We gain an understanding of what women want from their underwear, apply expertise in the way bodies move throughout the day, and invest in innovation when it comes to our products.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs in this space who are perhaps looking for investment to grow their businesses?
Never underestimate the power of customer feedback. Our worldwide community are hugely engaged with the brand and our mission - they have been from the offset - and we recognise the value of this. We are using our position as a DTC [direct to consumer] brand to find novel ways to involve our customers at every possible level, including them in our communications, our successes, even our design process.
Having an understanding of what women think about our products is crucial, so for us at Heist, engaging our customer goes beyond customer service; we credit our customers’ feedback and vision with the insight that will enable product development and positive growth.
Image: Hanah Young