Independent brands meant business at Pakhuis de Zwijger*, Amsterdam during the 4th edition of the Indie Brands Event (30 May 2013). Traditionally a night of inspiring talks and panel discussions on all things indie, the evening’s festivities took on a more serious tone, turning its attention towards the business side of brands. While much of the previous discussions centered on products and branding, practical themes such as access to funding, rising trends and the preservation of authenticity were thoroughly explored during the course of the event.
Playing to the Crowd
Due to their inherent nature, indie brands are quite adept in finding creative ways to start a business. At a time when capital is proving difficult to come by, these savvy entrepreneurs have turned to alternative methods of funding, oftentimes directly soliciting the customers themselves. As a matter of fact, the social phenomenon of crowdfunding has been responsible for the viability of hundreds of start-ups, innovations and even creative projects such as books and films over the last few years. Nevertheless, the potential gains from this platform should never be overestimated.
“Crowdfunding is not for everyone,” says Maarten de Jong, director of Oneplanetcrowd – a Dutch crowdfunding platform for sustainable concepts. “[It] is a lot of work. It shouldn’t be done just for funding.” Although the rewards may be clear, the success of this financial instrument depends highly on both the quality of the idea and the promotional efforts of the entrepreneur. “If you’re not ready, don’t show it yet,” warns De Jong. “The crowd is very critical.”
Julia Chapman, a junior partner at pymwymic (Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is Community), seconds the motion. Despite her organization adhering to the more conventional style of funding (think angel investors and serial entrepreneurs), Chapman still insists that the same rules apply when pitching a business to the crowd: “Have your act together. Be ready. Have your business plan ready. Be prepared. Know what you’re talking about.”
Similarly, social distribution was another innovative, community-driven business model that was introduced to the indie brands audience. Whereas up-and-coming online publications have depended on pre-orders and subscriptions to ensure the future of their operations (even though the final product has not yet been made), international design magazine Works That Work (WTW) aims to involve their readers as partners in their enterprise.
“No one does a magazine for themselves. They do it for the readers,” claims Peter Bi’lak, editor-in-chief and founder of the magazine. By relying on its customers to partly manage the publication’s distribution (for 10–20% of the profit), WTW bypasses standard circulation networks, deepening their relationships with their readers in the process. “Distribution is a serious business to be considered before starting any publication,” the editor admits. As a magazine entirely devoted to design, a complete rethink of the existing system was only natural. “The idea is simple,” Bi’lak explains, “to bring the readers as close to the magazine as possible.”
Business over Cause
Indeed, social involvement (read: responsibility) is a key element in an indie brand’s DNA, not only in terms of marketing but also in regard to its core business strategy. On the other hand, buzzwords such as eco-friendly, fair trade and made local currently litter the corporate landscape, reducing them to altruistic gimmickry rather than viable ideals. As big businesses stake their claim in the practice of social responsibility, several exceedingly committed social entrepreneurs were invited to set the record straight.
“We’re not trying to be saviors or anything,” says Paulien Wesselink, founder of O My Bag. The international relations graduate-turned-businesswoman takes pride in establishing a fair trade platform for Indian craftsmanship, creating exquisite products from sustainable, eco-friendly materials. “It costs a little bit more to produce fair trade because of social working conditions,” Wesselink reveals, “And eco-leather is expensive.” Still, the brand is founded on the idea that consumer choices can ultimately change the world.
At the same time, shoemaker SuperKoeien has taken a no-nonsense approach to establishing a business by consolidating their operations in Kenya. Sourcing their leather locally and building equal partnerships with Kenyan workers, the brand is able to support a budding cottage industry and provide much-needed employment for marginalized groups. The result is a one-of-a-kind product that promotes fair trade.
“Profit is necessary for a business to function, to cover costs and expand,” adds Sebastiaan Soeters (Ph.D.) co-founder of BlackStar Bikes. Through the manufacturing of bamboo-frame bicycles in Ghana, the company (albeit on a small scale) is able to diversify and industrialize the African nation’s exports from basic raw materials to intermediate and finished goods. In spite of its noble cause, Soeters is convinced that the label “Made in Africa” is actually detrimental to the continent’s economic progress as the trademark implies a negative connotation in the Western world. “I’m really proud of the fact that the first thing people say is, ‘Wow! What a cool bike!’” Soeters declares. “When people ask us what we do, we just say we make bikes. Everything else is just a back story.”
Ironic though it may seem, putting the business first is beneficial to the cause. Since development aid is proving inadequate in stimulating economic growth in the developing world, enhancing a country’s trade capacity and advancing its industrialization remains paramount. Without the mandatory income, these indie brands are unable to achieve their humanitarian goals, be it the improvement of social working conditions or initiating trade creation.
Keeping It Real
It goes without saying that positive growth is fundamental to any enterprise. In the event that an indie brand matures into a full-fledged business, commercial success may be a stone’s throw away. At a certain point, authenticity becomes difficult to maintain as a brand decides to go mainstream. Those that have carved a particular niche run the risk of alienating their original audience by setting their sights on the maddening crowd. Be that as it may, no indie brand can remain small forever.
“Selling out is definitely the new keeping it real,” affirms Sarah Bagner, a.k.a. Supermarket Sarah. “Commercial success is absolutely entrenched in success, otherwise it would just be a hobby.” Pioneering a creative, online marketplace where the items on sale are aesthetically displayed on curated walls, Bagner was then invited by Selfridges (London’s premium department store) to set up her own pop-up shop in-store. What followed was a slew of design collaborations and even her very own publication. “I think it develops your brand when you collaborate,” Bagner shares via a live interview on Skype, “because it makes you see things about your brand that you’ve never seen before.”
While collaboration may be the gateway to commercial success, denim accessories label IKKU is showing some restraint. “We tried to build our brand by being selective of the stores we are selling [at],” explains co-founder Janneke Grootings. Although a major collaboration with a world-famous denim fashion house is in the works, the company has decided to keep it under wraps until the deal is confirmed.
Meanwhile, lifestyle sock brand Alfredo Gonzales is still coming to terms with its own success, collaborating with the likes of PONY and MINI Australia. “We love doing marketing but we don’t like the business side,” confides founder Dennis Ebeli. “Everyone says what you can do with the brand, but it’s difficult to actually do it.” Operational difficulties aside, Ebeli openly admits that he has no qualms about selling out, especially considering the scale of their on-going collaborations. “We don’t have any money. To be out there and being a part of [MINI’s] €1 million campaign is a dream come true. I’m using them!”
Whatever the case may be, authenticity lies in the brands themselves. As Indie Brands author Anneloes van Gaalen puts it, “There is nothing wrong with commercial success as long as you stay true to yourself [and to your own story].” In other words, come as you are and not as something else. Though authenticity cannot be faked, it can most certainly be mastered. For each and every indie brand, the journey begins by being themselves. ✌
☞ For more information on Indie Brands, the Indie Brands Events and other brands featured in the Indie Brands blog, visit the websites listed below:
☞ All event photographs featured in this post and in the Indie Brands Blog are courtesy of Laura Barbante and Gerben van Heijningen.