Sarah Jordan is Co-founder of Y.O.U (Your Own Underwear) Underwear – an ethical business producing 100% organic cotton underwear for men and women where every purchase provides underwear to people in need. Y.O.U underwear has just launched its first product range and is currently fundraising with a Kickstarter campaign so it can start to deliver its mission and provide underwear to people who need it.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I have over 20 years' digital and business experience across not for profit, commercial and publishing sectors and am a member of the BIMA Hot 100. My background is in digital and technology, and I led digital departments at Oxford University Press and Oxfam, before setting up my own strategic consultancy business three years ago. I have also been active in the startup sector for many years, advising and being on the Board at a number of businesses as well as running my own personal/professional development programme for women in Oxford and London for several years.
In 2016, I volunteered at the Uganda International Marathon, working in communities where I saw the impact of women and children not having access to the basic necessity of underwear. This really inspired me to do something about it and I returned to set up Y.O.U with my business partner Lily. Y.O.U is Your Own Underwear, a business with a buy one give one model providing underwear to people in need.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me entrepreneurship is about having the ability to do something you love and to make a difference to other people. With Y.O.U, I love the flexibility and freedom it brings – you are in control of everything, how you work, every element of the business – and ultimately the success – or failure – of that business is down to you. It involves a huge amount of hard work, resilience and creativity, but ultimately is one of the most satisfying things you can do, particularly if you are running a business with a positive social impact.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
We've always had really good feedback from people, as they love the idea of a sustainable business making organic cotton underwear that is also trying to give back. Momentum really built as we went through the FFWD pre-accelerator in London this summer though. That was an amazing opportunity to really step back and think about every aspect of the business, from the problem we were solving, our customers, the financial model, our vision and growth plans, to brand and marketing. It was hard work but brilliant, we made amazing friends and connections, and even pitched to potential investors at the end. Those three months moved us forwards more than anything else.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Resilience, focus and listening.
Being an entrepreneur is amazing, but it's also incredibly hard work and definitely a rollercoaster ride. You need to be prepared to work harder and longer than you ever have before, and also to deal with the setups that are inevitable.
You really need to be able to focus, because there's always too much to do and you need to ruthlessly prioritise.
And you also need to be able to listen and learn, particularly from your customers. You need the confidence to trust your instincts at times, but also to get out there at every opportunity, talk to people and get feedback on your products. Your (potential) customers are your best critics.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
The ability to do something you love and to make a difference to other people. I also love the flexibility and freedom it brings – you are in control of everything, how you work, every element of the business – and ultimately the success – or failure – of that business is down to you.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
I was thinking today about Anita Roddick and she definitely inspires me. Anita founded The Body Shop in 1976 and her values around social responsibility, respect for human rights, the environment and animal protection, and working with local communities are things that are also very important to me. She fundamentally believed that businesses have the power to do good and I think she was really ahead of her time in that. She was also very creative and did a great job of bringing those issues into The Body Shop stores and products in an inspiring and very human way.
If you had 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Like Anita, I also believe in the positive power of businesses and I would love to ask her advice for someone trying to set up a social business now. Although overall awareness of social and ethical issues has increased, in some ways it's a more challenging market and it's even harder to get noticed and have the impact you want. How do you create a market leading brand where the quality and appeal of the products stands alone but there is also a positive story behind it?
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
My biggest learnings are probably around having the confidence to trust your instincts more, to get your products out there as soon as possible because customers are the best critic, and to ask for help more.
Our biggest challenge has been doing everything ourselves, especially on top of day jobs to start with. We’re really lucky that there’s two of us, but we are still learning so much so quickly – about fashion, design, manufacturing, distribution, packaging, importing …. everything! Ensuring you make the right decisions, quickly, that enable you to act and take advantage of opportunities that come up, but that also keep you on the right track for your long term vision for the business.
How have you funded your ideas?
So far, our business is entirely self-funded by us as the two co-founders. That has been a challenge though and it's always a balance between being able to spend time on the business and still bringing in some income to pay the bills. To start with we built Y.O.U on the side of full-time jobs, but at some point you have to jump in fully in order to give it the time and focus required.
We have just launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to help get our first range of products launched and to start providing underwear to people who need it most. We have a target of £20k to hit by 11 December, so any support for that would be amazing!
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Not as yet, but that may be an area we look at in 2018.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Oxford(shire) has a rapidly growing startup community, so there is increasingly less of a need to travel to London to get the support and expertise required, which is great. It's still small enough for it to be a well-connected community as well and you feel like you can have more of an impact in it as a result.
I think the connection between the University startups and entrepreneurs in the wider community could be improved, as currently they are still quite separate. It would be great if local startups could use the new Oxford Foundry workspace for example and improving links with Alumni would also be helpful.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)
The British Library has some great resources and startup focused events, which are affordable and accessible. I would also recommended getting onto an accelerator programme such as FAB, as that gives you a huge amount of resources and support, as well as access to the community. OBSEA also has great workshops and sessions. I also personally run workshops specifically to support women looking to start their own businesses - Bold (www.becomebolder.com) - so would obviously recommend those too!
Any last words of advice?
Just do it! If you're even half thinking about starting a business, I would 100% recommend it. It's incredibly hard work but also one of the most rewarding things you can do, especially with a social business.