In this edition of the #WorkLifeShow we caught up with Ash Stephenson, co-founder of Beacon & Armour to chat about entrepreneurship, starting a business with a partner, over jacket potatoes and their love of British craftsmanship.
What is it you guys do and how long have you been a business for?
We've almost been together for two years. It's quite a funny story. Zadk and I were working full time for this charity. And this charity has buddy lunches so when a new person comes into the company you get paired with someone that's been there a while. Zadk came into the company and was paired with me, so we went for lunch and we just clicked. I think it's incredible when you find someone who understands the way that you think and finds you funny as well. Do you know what I mean? You’ve got the same sort of humour. Entrepreneurial stuff was very much in the conversation and I remember once we decided to go for a jacket potato... and that's how Beacon & Armour started. We both had our jacket potatoes and then we said, 'Hey bro... wouldn't it be funny if we started a company called jacket potato and we just sell cool jackets?” After that we sat down and we actually started to speak about values and we realised that it had to be more than jackets and it had to be cooler than jacket potatoes as a brand. It's been such a fun journey so far.
So what was the concept for the name then? How did you move away from the jacket potatoes into something, a little bit cooler, I should say?
We sat down, we started to speak about things that we really value. You know personally, so for example, we spoke about a lot of what we've learned from British culture like heritage and legacy and high-quality things. We were like, “Man, those are some really cool values that we want to keep in our company” and that changed everything. So it changed where we get our stuff made, it changed the way that we present ourselves. It's interesting choosing a name for a company nowadays because you have to be super creative. For example, actually this week I've been trying to figure out a name for another brick company that I'm starting, which is a story for another day. But, yeah just trying to think about how you can use the word brick creatively in a business name. It's just so interesting, it's quite challenging actually. The way that we went about it was, we started to think about these values and tried to describe them in different ways. So the word 'beacon' is really about leading people somewhere, it's a lighthouse, and one of our values is storytelling. We think storytelling is really necessary in our culture today. People really need to know the story behind things that they purchase. It makes them meaningful. So that was the reason why we chose Beacon. And then Armour was about protection. How can you lead people to these stories that are meaningful but how can you also protect the people behind the stories?
That makes sense, especially if you asked any of your friends right now, ‘where'd you get your jacket, I love it?’ If you have a story they're more likely to go and find something similar to what you've got than if they just said 'Oh, I got it from a shop down the road'. If there's an actual story behind it, that also probably helps sales does it?
Exactly it's the way that clothes used to be made and that's what we're trying to do. For example, this jumper right here it's a Guernsey jumper. I didn't know about this jumper. Zadk didn't know about this jumper, but when we spoke to some really old British families, they loved the Guernsey jumper because for them it was a story that was passed down the generations. And so we decided to look into it. In the 1600's, these fishermen families on the island of Guernsey would each knit their own jumper and on the top third they would have their own family pattern and then the jumper would be handed over to the next generation. There's something quite special about the way that people used to wear clothes but also hand them over. Imagine as a kid you get this jumper but it's not just practical, it's got a story behind it like, your dad was out at sea you might have even been in a shipwreck. This jumper carries that story and that's what we love about what we've learnt about British history. Zadk and I, one of the things we value is learning through everything. I'm from South Africa. He's from Singapore but we've come and we've started a British brand because I think we really value what we've learned here over the years.
That's fantastic and that's obviously why the business is continuing to work. So more onto who you have working for you now, do you have a lot of people who work for you? How many people are in your business?
It's currently just Zadk and myself. With our jumpers, we actually worked with a lady called Victoria and she was amazing. The reason why we reached out to her was because she knows knitwear really well. I think that's important when you start to think about different products for you or for your company. Sometimes, take the humble approach and realise that you don't know everything. So the way that we work is very collaborative. We want to be able to find people that are experts in their field and then let their strengths cover our weaknesses. And so we worked with Victoria, she helped us design these jumpers, and then with our bags, we worked with a bag manufacturer that does this day in, day out. Zadk and I like more about finding these people. We're good at our own things but the way that we work with people and the way that we're wanting to grow our team is in that way. So it's very flexible and fluid.
So you were saying about the skills that you both bring to the company, how would they differ? Are they similar or are they completely different? Do you bring different skills as different people or are they similar skills, you just support each other on that?
I'm personally more of a risk-taker like Zadk is a little bit more calculated and strategic and I think having both of those traits kind of works really well together. You know I like7 to call myself a conceptual architect. It's something I used to really dislike about myself in the past. I used to see problems everywhere and some people would find that quite negative. I would keep on saying oh that's a problem we need to solve it. But I've realised it's actually a gift and it's part of who I am. I'm very grateful for the fact I have this ability to zoom out of a situation and to be able to see the cracks but then be able to also think about how I can creatively fix them. Whereas Zadk is a little bit more on the ground and practical, and so we really complement one another one another in that way. We've got traits that are very similar like we're both passionate about branding. We love branding and that's something that we've really tried to deeply root into Beacon & Armour. Everything we've designed from start to finish has a golden ratio, we're geeky like that.
So as you've said you and Zadk, the co-founder of the company are also very good friends. How do you guys manage to switch off from work and not talk about work all the time and still manage to be friends?
In terms of work-life balance, because we were both working full-time jobs in London which is which is quite a full-on city and the thing about starting a business is there's a lot of sacrifice that you need to make in many different areas of your life and Zadk and I both had to make that sacrifice financially but also with time. So it's difficult talking about work-life balance when you know you're working a full-time job but then you've got a start up on the side and you've got to get this thing off the ground. So we would often work into the night. So there was a huge sacrifice then but I think it really set us up. I just recently started working full-time for Beacon & Armour so that's two years in but we had to make that sacrifice in the beginning. Now I can go to gym anytime I like.
Well congratulations on now working full time on something you're very passionate about. We were speaking a little earlier about you as an entrepreneur and you had an interesting story to tell me about bricks?
This is a new project that I recently started with my dad. Like I said, I love problem-solving so for me, Beacon & Armour is a project that I'm okay with if it works out or even if it fails. I realise that I'm going to learn something from this. So I'm just always trying to solve problems no matter what but at the same time I don't want to spread myself too thin. But with these plastic bricks, I was sat with my dad in South Africa in February last year and it was summer there and we were sat on the deck and my house overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. I said to my dad, who's an engineer, ‘Dad how can we solve the plastic issues in the ocean?’ Then I slightly looked down from the ocean and there's a township there and then I said, ‘Dad how can we solve the housing issue in the townships in South Africa?’ It kind of clicked to me that when I was a kid like I used to play with little plastic Lego bricks and that started a journey with my dad where we decided that we were going to try and make bricks or building material out of plastic that can't be recycled. It solves so many problems which I love. It solves job creation in South Africa which is a huge issue, it cleans up the townships because now suddenly plastic becomes valuable, a bottle on the floor is now like a possible brick for someone's house. It gives people a sense of pride about the place where they live and hopefully it gives people a safer place to stay so that's a really recent project. We're still in the development stage of that.
Back to what you said earlier with the fact that you often looked at the risk involved and you just saw the cracks and you looked at the problems quicker than you looked at you know, the glorious parts of the business. That also shows that you're seeing a problem that is worldwide at the minute - the plastics in our oceans and you're seeing that as a potential business that's going to help many people, so that says a lot about you. Is there anything else that you particularly like about your business sense?
I think I really like the fact I'm a risk taker. There's a saying that says without risk there's no reward and I've realised not many people like to take risks. We're quite comfortable in our 9 to 5s and in our routines. I think there's something quite amazing about that, but at the same time, we need the pioneers. Think about how things used to work hundreds of years ago and when people would be pioneering into uncharted territory. They didn't know what they were getting themselves into but there's another saying that I love that says 'pioneers always walk the paths of most resistance' If you think about a jungle, they're there with machetes cutting the paths and people just come in behind them. Pioneers usually don't ever get the glory. I realised for myself, I'm pioneering some stuff and I'm trying my best to but even if I don't get any of the credits that's ok because usually there's people that come in behind and really take the ideas and take it to the next level. A clear example is MySpace and Facebook. Do you know what I mean? What I've realised as well, as someone who's got a little bit more of a pioneer attitude is that I like to take risks but I need to work with people who are settlers. In order to take territory you need to bring settlers along with you, so that you can continue to take territory. So they're not necessarily risk takers, they are the people that want to fulfil the belief. There's really value in both sides. I'm not encouraging everyone to take risks but I think it is really important to take risks as well. You know even if you fail it's okay because it's about actually learning from your experience and then using that knowledge to improve on your next venture. You have to have failures in order to learn to not make them a failure.
Yeah that's quite interesting. What do you do in your spare time when you're not working in business? How do you wind down?
I love going to the gym.I love traveling as well. I think that's an awesome way to continue to be inspired. As creative people we need to keep our inspiration fuelled and I think travel is a great way to do that because it comes back to the learning side of things like learning from different cultures. You put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable and when you're uncomfortable I think that's where you learn a lot. I was recently in India, trying food I've never eaten before, speaking to the locals, going on a tuk tuk through Mumbai where there's no road lanes and you think you're going to die. It's just so much fun. I love it. To be honest, whether I'm working or enjoying my free time I think both of those include adventure... in their own rights.
Brilliant, so you spoke a little bit about the jumpers, obviously, the fabulous jumper you're wearing at the moment is from your business but you also sell a lot of other items? So talk to me about the partnerships that you have worldwide and the stories behind those.
Something that's been really exciting about Beacon & Armour is we've always kept storytelling at the core of what we do. To give you an example Zadk and I spoke a lot about how we want to make a backpack and we were walking in South Kensington one day, together, going for lunch - classic - and we walked over one of the pedestrian crossings and this truck, this big truck stopped for us and it was this amazing maroon colour and it had gold typography on the cab and we looked at each other we're like, ‘Oh my gosh who hand paints their trucks nowadays? That's insane!” So on the side of the truck there was a number and it said the company name which was JR Adams and we were like man we need to speak to these people. So we actually called them and we spoke to this guy. We needed to tell these guys stories and then from that place we were like let's book a ticket to Newcastle. That's where they were based. So we got on the train. Here's the thing about investments because the train ticket to Newcastle is not cheap and this is also about risk, we don't know who these people are or what they're going to be like. It's a trucking company, it could be dead. When we got there, oh man, we just had the biggest smiles on our faces because we met the most amazing people. When we met John I thought he was the most hipster guy I've ever met in my life! Real hipster. This started a journey where they said to us ‘We will donate you some of our truck tarpaulin and you guys can turn it into products’ So then we partnered with M-24 who actually takes truck tarpaulin and turns it into backpacks. So, from start to finish there's a story behind our products and now someone can buy a bag and they know exactly where it's come from and you know the story. That's how we go about creating products for Beacon & Armour. The same with our mugs. We're pivoting slightly this year, we feel like we're gonna start making more of our own products.
What do you want to make, give us some exclusives?
We're actually going to be making another backpack but this one is going to be the perfect bag for a Londoner. That's our aim. When I was on the tube this morning I put my bag down and the straps were just dangling out and people were standing on them. That's a problem I need to solve. There's also a lot of travel in my life, so just learning how to manage those relationships from the other side of the world, it's not the easiest thing, to be honest. I think remote working has pros and cons. In one sense it's amazing that I can work from wherever I am but sometimes you lose connection. Connection is so important when you meet someone in real life there's something about being in the same place and we've had that with every single person that we've worked with in terms of our product range. So remote working, I see it as a way to possibly kind of inspire new products and just it's my own story that I'm going on. Who knows, I might run into some other person who's making something. Zadk and I always give this example, imagine the guy in Peru who's making wooden chairs but he's struggling to sell them. How can we help him? That's one of the things we keep on saying. The cons to remote working are the disconnection that you have because everything's over email or video chat or whatever. And that guy with the chairs in Peru probably doesn't have Facetime. Traveling is important to be able to find yourself in places where you can meet someone like that. But, another big thing is loneliness. I think co-working spaces are nice but in a city like London you're just by yourself traveling and sitting around at different cafes and hotels and co-working spaces and that can be a little bit lonely. So I think there's something quite beautiful about being able to put a group of people around you when you work remotely, putting these healthy parameters in place to keep you happy.