In this new installment of Founder Stories we talk with David Hieatt one of Britain’s most inspiring Doers. As founder of Hiut Denim and the DO Lectures he speaks to Freja about the power of good stories, the importance of finding your passion and taking the first step to do something great.
David, you launched the DO Lectures in 2008, can you tell us what motivated you to start it and how you managed to convince speakers and attendees to come to the first event in Wales?
In a way the first one is always the hardest because you don’t have any formula to follow. Everything is new and you have to create your own blueprint. Oddly, the idea came from a text a friend sent me one day. It was the quote “Don’t just stand there, do something”. My friend was begging me on to do something even though I was already running a clothing company at that time. Apparently he didn’t seem to think I was doing anything. During a conversation around the dinner table with Clare we started thinking how the people that inspire us the most have gone and done things and that we could learn a lot from them about doing something meaningful in life and work.
The first event was really hard to organize. It was very tricky to get guest speakers because we didn’t have a website, we didn’t have a venue and we had no track. But what we did have was lots of enthusiasm and we told everybody it was going to be amazing. The good thing is that it actually was amazing. Then, once you have a track record, it gets easier. Once you get one speaker it’s easier to get another one and to build a network of people who are interested in what you do. Trying to persuade people to come over to the furthest reaches of West Wales isn’t easy though, but till now we’ve been pretty successful at it.
I feel like we always talk about the big waste of supermarket food and we write long articles about it but to me the biggest waste of all is somebody’s potential when they don’t fulfill it. To me the gap between what you could be and what you are needs to be narrowed as much as possible. There are many reasons why people put barriers up, it’s either lack of confidence, fear of not being good enough or failing. But there are always a bunch of people out there who actually just want to change and do things and that’s the reason we started the DO Lectures.
As you said for the first DO Lectures you didn’t have any blueprint, you had to create your own formula for success, what were the main lesson you learned during the process?
I think that the biggest lesson was not to be frightened by the amount of work that we had in front of us. Launching the first event was not easy but it was the most exciting one because we were literally building the stage a day before the event. Also we didn’t know if the speaker would arrive, they said they would, but how can you be sure ? Keeping calm and not letting fear win was the biggest lesson I learned. The good part of it is that when you start doing you get the confidence to do more things.
The DO Lectures are now also taking place in Australia and California. How and why did you decide to expand to other countries than Wales ?
What is interesting about the DO Lectures is that the speakers as well as the attendees are so intrigued by the event that when they go back home they tell their friends about it. Duke Stump who does the DO Lectures in the US was first of all a speaker. When he participated he was so smitten by the whole experience that he told us he wanted to take it to America one day and I said that when that day would come we would definitely do it with him.
We tend to work on the relationship with the people who come to the DO Lectures as we feel that the best way to understand the spirit of the DO you have to be there and feel it. You have to share the experience, smell the air, eat the food and live in the community for the four days.It’s a very loose relationship inasmuch as there are not really any rules, there is just a spirit, the optimism, the open-mindedness, the laughter and the food that we want to keep, but we want them to bring their own stories as well.
The DO Lectures are at the moment a non-profit event and on your blog you wrote an article about the importance of doing work for free. Could you tell us why you think side projects are so important?
Side projects are really important because they can become your main thing. But, a side project by the notion of it, is generally that thing that doesn’t pay you straightaway and so you need to be able to give it time to get established. I find that to be true when I was running Howie, we started back in 95 and only had our first a paycheck in 2001. If I had put a lot of financial pressure on a given period of time it perhaps wouldn’t have survived. The thing with side projects is that they are like baby trees. You have to let them be in the ground for a while and let them take root. You can’t put too much pressure when it’s still young. For the DO Lectures it could take us 10 years before it can pay any money at all but it already paid us in a lot of ways, we have met many incredible people, made many great connection, and we now have amazing memories so we are very grateful for it.
To be fair, we haven’t asked it to be a business yet. You can make plans and have ideas on how it should be but it might take a while for you to understand what you really want it to be. As we speak we are still thinking about what we want it to be, and that’s a great question to always ask yourself. It’s important to give these things time.
You assisted to so many inspiring talks but if you had to choose one or two that really moved you which one would it be and why?
That’s not an easy question. Different talks, different reasons but I think that I’ve never seen the DO audience so quite as during Maggie Doyne’s talk. I’ve never seen so many men look at the floor in all my life because they didn’t want to look up otherwise they would have cried their eyes out. She did that to the audience, so in terms of remarkable I think she really showed what a young lady could do when she was driven to do it.
Another great talk was the one of Mickey Smith who talked about his passion for photography and making great surf films. His talk was very different but as inspiring as he basically talked about the importance of finding your love and doing it with great passion. Those are the two talks that for different reasons have stood out to me. With Mickey Smith I do regret not putting seaweed on the floor so that it would have smelled like the sea and if I have the chance again I’ll definitely do that.
The topic of finding what you love and doing it with passion reminds me of the tagline of your blog that is “Do One Thing Well”. What would you say to somebody who hasn’t found what he loves or is conflicted by different passions? How does one find the focus in a society filled with opportunities and choices?
It’s true that these days with so many opportunities available the main questions is how do we narrow down to try and do them well. As much as we would like to think that we can do everything well some things just require focus on therefore we have to try and settle on one thing.
One thing I found is that you probably will find a truth is your hobbies, the things that you do when you don’t have to do them. I think you somehow should follow these interests and then you can start thinking on how you can make them into a career. I think that’s a really good way of looking at it rather then go and simply ask what career you should pursue. Your hobbies have already told you what you are interested in and because you are interested in it you are going to get good at it. So my advice is to ask “Why do I spend my time doing that in my free time?” and the answer is probably “Because I’m genuinely interested in it.” If you are really interested in something, pursue it. In terms of work environment it’s good to know you are at the bottom of the ladder of something that interests you.
I know it’s a question that a lot of people, especially these days, have trouble answering because there are so many opportunities and there is a danger that you will do some little of this and that and not make any one of them matter. But, at some point, not straight away, you should settle and make that one thing in the best way you can.
So when you have found what you love and you start doing it, what is the best way to share and grow it? In you article “A Manifesto of a Doer” you talk about finding your multipliers and the power of influencers, can you tell us more about it and how we can find the multipliers for our projects and business?
The ethos of the multiplier is that there is a really small number of people who can help you but they can have a huge influence. The way they find you or you find them is because you have common ideas and objectives and so they are going to help you if they think what you are doing is amazing. Your paths will cross because of the similar road you are on.
The reality is that you might reach out to somebody who doesn’t get what you are doing at all and the chances of them helping you are pretty small. The multiplier for you are the people that really get what you are doing and understand how hard you work for it. You probably know them already because they are probably doing the same thing as you in a different industry or environment. The art of finding your multiplier is to look around you because you probably know them already and you admire their work.
That is certainly a great way of growing a project and business. I saw that you run a workshop on how to build a great brand with very little money. Could you give us one main advice on how to do that?
I think the key for a small company is to understand the power of stories. The key thing for a small brand with no marketing budget is to understand the power of their story and to tell it in such a way that it connects emotionally with the customer. Thanks to the internet we can now share stories fast and free and there’s never been a better time to do that. If you are a small company now and you can tell your story in a compelling way you can reach your audience quickly and with great impact. There is a real art to understanding your story and understanding why it would connect with someone and that’s what I try to share during my workshop.
Could you give us an example of a company that know how to tell a great story?
I’ve always been a big fan of Patagonia clothing. Sure they make outdoor clothing and yes their stuff is very very good but it’s the story they attach to their product that makes you feel emotionally attached to the brand. When I’m emotionally involved in that company then I’m more likely to share their stories because is not just another garment, it’s a garment plus a story and I think that Patagonia really understand the art of storytelling as well as building emotions and purpose into their company and their products. Thanks to that they have managed to grow as a company by doing remarkably little marketing. Their customers are fans and I do think that the best companies in the world will make you feel something emotionally .
You certainly have an amazing story to tell about Hiut Denim, the company you founded in Cardigan, Wales. Could you tell how and why it all started ?
The town had 400 world-class denim makers, it was the biggest denim making town in Britain but in 2001 the factory closed and those 400 makers had nothing to make anymore. At the same time Clare and I were leaving our old company we saw the opportunity in front of us. I love to make jeans and I love my town. It might be luck but the great thing about opportunities and luck is to be able to see them. There we were in a world-class denim maker town and at a time where the advent of Internet could help us fight a battle. A different battle, not the one of whom could be the cheapest but the one of whom could be the best and most innovative. Internet is key to Hiut Denim as we are paying for the best materials on the planet, we are using the most expensive labor that we can find and to do that we have to be direct to our customers. The Internet has changed everything for us because reaching our customers directly enabled us to afford the best materials and the finest labor.
The challenges for us were that we never started a factory before. But the good thing is that in the town everybody is a maker of jeans. It’s a little like Hollywood where behind every person there is a director, actor or producer. So what we did is that we asked people how to set up a factory and got the best answers we could get. Our job was much easier because they’d already done it before.
The second challenge was how we could stand out in a very busy world with no marketing budget especially when all your competition has massive budgets. Here we go back to the power of the story. When I say “My town used to make jeans” or “My town used to be Britain’s biggest jeans maker” then that’s a great way to start a story. Then when I say “ We are set up to get 400 people their jobs back” it’s a very emotive story because manufacturing goes away but very rarely comes back. That’s why stories are important, because you can go and tell them for free. Because it’s not marketing, it’s just the truth.
Our next challenge, as we are growing will be to make sure we manage our growth as you are most vulnerable when you are growing, both as a child and as a business. We started three years ago with 5 people we are now 14 so we have 386 to go, we have a little way to go. We try to do it in ten years but a lot of the big growth will come in the last three years. So we just have to be good parents and be patient.