The people starting businesses today have heard all the usual advice. And they’re choosing which bits to ignore. Meet three founders who are looking beyond the traditional definition of success – and forging their own path to get there.
“Move fast and break things.”
The mantra made famous by Facebook is perhaps the best known piece of advice for 21st century startups.
But times have changed. Many of today’s entrepreneurs would rather be slow and mindful than quick and chaotic. In fact, a whole new generation of business leaders are carving out their own paths to success by ignoring the usual advice and prioritising kindness, consideration and care for people and planet.
It’s an approach that holds big appeal in a world emerging from a pandemic with a changed outlook on what really matters. 5 spoke to three female-run startups on how they’re putting their values into action, and doing business differently.
A business “aligned with the future we want”
“We ignore a lot of rules,” says Kendall Barber. The Canadian entrepreneur launched the ethical shoe company Poppy Barley in 2012 with her sister Justine. After a lightbulb moment at a handcrafted boot store in Bali, the Barbers decided to offer the custom-made shoe experience to anyone with access to the internet and a tape measure. However, they didn’t just want to address the problem of fit, they also wanted to focus on who made the products, and what materials were used.
From the start they knew that they would need to do things differently to make their company work. The traditional fast-fashion rules of stacking it high and selling it cheap, wouldn’t work for this custom-made shoe company that uses artisans in León, Mexico to handcraft its shoes. Neither would the pace of the fashion seasons, which have expanded to seven a year.
Other rules they ignore include wholesale mark-ups and pressure to maximise profits, says Kendall. “These business rules are not sustainable and not aligned with the future we want.
We’re creating a new kind of luxury for the people and planet. Our promise is elevated footwear and accessories at fair prices [using] responsible materials and ethical manufacturing.”
The pair set themselves the goal of selling 100 pairs of made-to-measure boots in the first six months. They are now a multimillion-dollar B Corp, and in January 2021 they launched a collection of eco-friendly shoes made from cactus leather.
By creating a slow fashion business, they have also learnt how to slow down. While the focus of Western startup culture is to grow fast and sell, Barber said that in Mexico, entrepreneurs often have a different outlook. They look at the long game and produce a business they can give to their children. Barber says she has been inspired to slow down and work with more “intention and consideration”.
While they plan to launch homewares and further accessories in 2022, the pandemic has also made them rethink the future. “[The next year will be] one that takes the lessons of the past months – doing less, enjoying more, caring for our planet and communities – and transfers into a business driving a better future,” she says.
Making people face up to racism, using VR
26-year-old Morgan Mercer has built a business out of making workplaces more caring and inclusive – with a helping hand from cutting-edge technology. She’s the founder of Vantage Point, a virtual reality training programme designed to show people what it’s like to experience racism or sexism in a virtual office scenario.
The mixed-race daughter of a Trump supporter and a Democrat had the idea for the business after coming face-to-face with her own prejudices when she spoke about immigration to a friend whose family were immigrants. After also facing prejudice herself, Mercer wanted to create an experience that would help you understand what it was like to be in someone else’s shoes. The former digital marketeer turned to VR to bridge that gap. “We use virtual reality to teach fighter pilots and create compelling experiences like gamification,” says Mercer. And now thanks to Vantage Point, the tech is helping break down barriers between people.
But to achieve that, Mercer found she first had to remove obstacles in her path to launch her business. Her Twitter bio reads “I read the rules before I break them,” and she lives up to those defiant words. Instead of waiting until she had a prototype that she could show potential investors, she had to fake it until she could afford to make it. “I didn’t have a VR headset, so I had to improvise,” says Mercer. “I created a mock-up using Photoshop. It was a visual image of what it would look like in the headset.” But Mercer’s belief in her product helped her raise USD$4.25 million (€3.5 million) in funding.
As Mercer was pushing boundaries with her product, not everyone understood its value. “A lot of people didn’t understand the concept before #MeToo. Now everyone understands it,” she said. When trying out a new anti-racism module in 2020, Mercer quickly realised that people didn’t understand Black Lives Matter. She would have to go back to basics. However, returning to the drawing board didn’t faze Mercer. “It continues to validate what I do and why I founded Vantage Point. We are focused on shifting and solving these values,” says Mercer.
Great products matter more than great profits
Entrepreneur Amber Fox-Eyre showed that she was ready to take an unconventional approach to business when she chose to launch her plant-based ice cream in the traditional farming community of the Isle of Wight in the UK. In 2017 the former nurse sold her home and quit her job, determined to show that vegan ice cream could taste as good or better than dairy versions.
“Doing right for the people and the planet has been the guiding light on how we do business,” says Fox-Eyre. “We put quality and sustainability over and above profit making.”
Putting product over profit meant that Fox-Eyre sought out ingredients such as organically-grown cashew nuts and Fairtrade coffee. She also made sure that the packaging fit her people-and-planet-first brand by choosing 100% recyclable tubs, lids and labels, and even sourcing vegan ink.
“We thought our ice cream would do well, but it started outselling the dairy ice cream to a point where ours completely replaced their range,” says Fox-Eyre. “This blew us away, because it was predominantly non-vegans who were purchasing our ice cream over the non-vegan option, and in a farming community too.”
But staying true to her mission paid off. This year, Fox-Eyre received £400,000 (€465,000) in funding from investors, launched the UK’s first vegan ice-cream subscription service and plans to open her own gelato store.
Photos courtesy of Poppy Barley, Vantage Point and Beau’s Gelato