The Menswear Style Podcast

Ben Farren, Founder of SPOKE

March 18, 2021 Menswear Style Episode 120
The Menswear Style Podcast
Ben Farren, Founder of SPOKE
Chapters
The Menswear Style Podcast
Ben Farren, Founder of SPOKE
Mar 18, 2021 Episode 120
Menswear Style

SPOKE is a vertically integrated online menswear brand. They use an eCommerce model to give men exactly what they're looking for: properly made clothes that really fit, without the luxury markup. Their  clothes are cut in more sizes, from the very best fabric and trim - then sold direct to the consumer, at a great price. SPOKE'S wishlist wasn't big. They just wanted clothes that fit, felt and looked great. They didn't need to stay obsessively on trend and didn't need an endless carousel of changing styles. Most of all, they didn't need to buy them in an over-decorated retail palace teeming with other people and annoying shop assistants.

In this episode of the MenswearStyle Podcast we interview Ben Farren, Founder of SPOKE about the founding story and ethos behind his menswear brand. With a focus on shape and fitting, the brand offers over 400 sizing variations within their trousers category.  Our host Peter Brooker and Ben also talk about financing and raising capital, the benefits of product marketing through social media, selling through the direct mail channel, and the problems with standard garment sizing.

Whilst we have your attention, be sure to sign up to our daily MenswearStyle newsletter here. We promise to only send you the good stuff.

Show Notes Transcript

SPOKE is a vertically integrated online menswear brand. They use an eCommerce model to give men exactly what they're looking for: properly made clothes that really fit, without the luxury markup. Their  clothes are cut in more sizes, from the very best fabric and trim - then sold direct to the consumer, at a great price. SPOKE'S wishlist wasn't big. They just wanted clothes that fit, felt and looked great. They didn't need to stay obsessively on trend and didn't need an endless carousel of changing styles. Most of all, they didn't need to buy them in an over-decorated retail palace teeming with other people and annoying shop assistants.

In this episode of the MenswearStyle Podcast we interview Ben Farren, Founder of SPOKE about the founding story and ethos behind his menswear brand. With a focus on shape and fitting, the brand offers over 400 sizing variations within their trousers category.  Our host Peter Brooker and Ben also talk about financing and raising capital, the benefits of product marketing through social media, selling through the direct mail channel, and the problems with standard garment sizing.

Whilst we have your attention, be sure to sign up to our daily MenswearStyle newsletter here. We promise to only send you the good stuff.

Unknown:

Hello and welcome to another episode of The menswear style podcast. I'm your host Pete Brooker. On this episode I'm going to talk to founder of spoke Ben Ferran, and spoke is a new kind of menswear brand focused on legs and fit. That is literal in this life worse in a poorly fitting pair of trousers and seven years ago, they set out to banish them forever. Half a million pairs sold later, they cut their strides in over 200 sizes custom finished to order for flawless fit. Of course, only one pair is your perfect size. So they built an online fit finder with a machine learning algorithm to help men find their size and not a fitting room insight. Spoke stock a large range of products from casual drawstring chinos to Italian wool slacks, by their best selling stretch cotton sharps. And they've recently added premium denim and swim shorts too. You can find out more about the brand through the website at spoke hyphen, London calm. And here is Ben Ferran to tell the story of how it all began, I became increasingly preoccupied with the idea that ecommerce was a way to solve both of these problems at once. So I think the way most people tell the story, the genius of e commerce lies in the opportunity for digital arbitrage. So cutting out the middleman cutting out the retail overheads, to offer you a better product at a better price. That's how people often think of direct to consumer brands in fashion and outside the sector to and I suppose my position on that is that it's largely bollocks. It's just not true. I everything that I save in rent, I have to give back in the form of the rent I pay to to Facebook and Google I live in fear of tumbleweeds spinning across my website, and people not visiting I pay extensively to make sure that they do. So I don't think there is that as a fundamental shift in the economics that explains the value of e commerce instead, I might my position on it is a digital model ecommerce websites this wonderful opportunity to focus really hard. I'm not in Thrall to footfall I'm not trying to make as much as the passing trade as I possibly can. I can use the reach of the web to go after one customer with real singularity of purpose and vision and send them a stream of products and messages that that really resonate. And in that lies, you know, some really strong economics, you know, if you do that you're able to acquire customers at a lower price. And you're often able to inspire more loyalty through that very direct and focused connection that you're making with them. And I think that is a large part of the genius of e commerce, this opportunity to focus. But additionally, I can solve that fit problem that I mentioned earlier. You know, when I'm able to gather all of my inventory in one place, rather than spreading it thin, I can run through dramatically more sizes. And that opportunity is only improved when, when I also finished order, which is something we do here at spoke. So suddenly, rather than offering the usual 20 to 30 sizes. In in trousers, which is where we've made most of our business over the last six or seven years, we're able to run to 400, soon 600 size variations, silhouette variations. And that's really powerful. I mean, fit isn't rocket science, anybody that tells you they've soul fit by coming up with a clever new pattern that is better adapted to the male body is just it just is full of it. That's not true that if you can't patent a pattern, and and so you know, the only way to deliver better fare is to run to more sizes. So for more granularity in the way that you in the range of sizes that you offer. And as I say, through a remote digital model, we're able to do that. Most especially because we finish every pair to order. And yeah, that's the model that underpins our business. Great. And did you So did you start with trousers primarily and then work your way through to more products? Yeah, to trousers, still very much the heartland of our business seemed like a good beachhead. If you look at an app almost any any brand or retailer, you know that the trousers tend to be in fifth or sixth slot. They're an afterthought and Yet they are half of the outfit. Really, really hard to get right. We all know the purgatory of shopping for trousers, you know, walking into a dimly lit, changing room with a small pile of them and stumbling around in your pockets and stumbling around as you as you try them on. And they do that awkward dance in front of the communal mirror outside. I mean, it's a really terrible experience. And one that it struck me I had tonnes of headroom for improvement. I simultaneously seemed to be neglected by a lot of other brands, you put all of that together, it feels like a good a good beachhead, to explore these ideas. And, and certainly, that's what we focused, as I say, over the last six or seven years, Ben, whenever I'm done doing these chats, I always talk to my girlfriend afterwards. And the the one question she always asks that I forget to ask is, how did they raise the capital? Because she's money oriented? She always goes, Well, how did you get going? So I'll put that to you on behalf of my girlfriend? Sure, no, it's good question. It's a really important question. I mean, there's no doubt that starting an apparel brand is a it's a working capital hungry business and and figuring out how you're going to find out that is an incredibly important part of the journey. So how did I do it? I bootstrapped initially. So I put away a little war chest in my previous life as a management consultant. And merrily spent my way through that, and the first sort of six or nine months of preparation. But in so doing, was able to cut a few 100 pairs of trousers and more importantly, sell through them at a reasonable pace to friends and friends of friends in a way that demonstrated some traction, and was enough to give me the confidence and conviction to put a pitch together and put that pitch in front of initially friends and family. And after that first round to cross the Rubicon and pitches to institutional capital to, to formal venture capital investors, which I did for the first time, in order to say, at the end of 2014, I was able to raise a few 100,000 pounds refining called forward partners who have been great partners for the business ever since. And with the money that they raised for me, we were able to hit a whole new set of milestones to get the business to, you know, six figure sales per month. And at that point, a new raft of venture capital investors became interested. And I've been able to repeat that trick a couple of times since to grow the business, the scale is out today. Okay. Interesting. I'm curious to know your your saying about what you save on rent you spend on digital marketing, when you first launched this 2013. your social media Instagram wasn't like the monolith that it is today, etc. And what was the landscape like for you? If you can remember back then, when you launched the brand and the e commerce site, what was you know, what were you entering into? It felt like the market was was ready for this, I think, you know, I wasn't inspired by this kind of Cambrian explosion of direct to consumer brands, mostly, admittedly, in the US. But I could see an awful lot of direct consumer apparel brands, growing very fast and delivering some very impressive numbers in a short space of time. And I couldn't think of structural reasons why that wouldn't happen in the UK. So I didn't ever feel like it was a specially hostile environment or bad timing. And no point that it occurred to me that I might have gone too soon. And actually reflecting specifically on on digital marketing, I'd say that it was pretty good time to be on Facebook. It's true that Instagram hadn't quite become the beast that is today. But Facebook, ads were just getting going. And I'd argue Actually, it was it was a it was a it was a greener field back then it was less competitive. So cheaper to have a cheaper inventory on Facebook. And yeah, I mean, you know, to be honest, I think about the kind of eye watering the low customer acquisition costs I was paying back in, in 2013 and 2014. and wonder why why didn't where I didn't push the accelerator harder. It was it was actually it was actually a great time to be to be advertised, at least on those channels. So yeah, it's good, good way to get started. And you know, the beauty of Facebook that I suppose the really important difference between the rent that I might pay a landlord and the rent that I pay for Facebook and this has become incredibly salient over the The past 12 months is that I can elect to stop paying Facebook on a dime, you know, I could just slashed my budgets to zero tomorrow if I want to, which is, of course, not the kind of relationship you typically formed with a landlord. And I mean, my word that's been important in the last 12 months, you know, our ability to modulate our spend in response to a very changing demand picture has been, has been incredibly, incredibly helpful, obviously, in difficult circumstances through COVID. But back then back in 2013 2014, that the fact that you know, you, you have this advertising channel over which you have so much control over daily spends, is really important for giving you the confidence to invest in your marketing, it makes the whole thing feel manageable for a risk perspective, in a way that I think really helped me to, to get the brand off the ground and properly scaling. Right? And do you have any kind of other inventive ways to leverage traffic through various social platforms? Or is it or is it literally just kind of Google ads, pay per click, etc. I mean, there's no doubt that the VCs were the backbone of our growth over the last over the last four or five years. In the early days, we were seeded by friends and family and their friends and family. And then that, you know, was obviously, that was obviously multiplied by by the referrals that follow your initial sales. And referrals continue to be a really important part of the mix, since then, but in terms of supplying, you know, a continuous stream of customers at the top of the funnel, your paid advertising has remained important as the ad has expanded beyond those online channels to some offline channels to. So for a while, we found that heading down the traditional catalogue route was incredibly look for us was, it was a really great way to scale. You know, in the early days of doing that back in 2016, felt like turning on a tap. It was it was extraordinary how many customers we were able to acquire how quickly and it turns out, you know, direct direct mail is a pretty sophisticated space, you know, the data modelling that goes on to select, you know, the prospects that you might send a catalogue to is pretty sophisticated. And the, you know, the targeting is good. And so you tend to convert pretty well, I'd say that space has got a bit more complicated over the last couple of years. And if there's two things work there, and GDPR, which I think is an important and positive developments, as nonetheless, reduce the turnover in the in the pools of data that you can, you can buy into to find new customer prospects. So it's just, you know, it's a, it's a less consistent supply of great new leads. And it's just become more competitive. I mean, just look at the volume of stuff coming through your letterbox every week. It felt like we were one of relatively few menswear brands back in the day, but even even that is changing now. And so you know that that may not be the opportunity that it once was. But I mean, that's just another pay channel industry to say that pay channels have formed me a really important part of our growth over the over the six or seven years that we've been trading albeit that it is you know, having healthy organic metrics and making sure that people continue to, to refer you to their friends is is hugely important to me, the economics stack up and I'm pleased to say that that two has always been a feature of the business and it's the fatter you get that multiplier on top of the stuff that you pay for that you can really make it work. Yeah, well, listen, it was actually quite a blessing in disguise I suppose to find find your website because since lockdown, especially shopping for trousers, because I'm kind of awkward sighs I've actually just refrained from buying any kind of trousers online because you know, I kind of slide between the gaps like many guys do with like the thick fires, but short legs, you know, and you get your typical brands that might be a size down or size up, depending on what the brand is. So I've been wearing my last pair of jeans down to the last fret. And I'm finding your website with the different algorithms of where you could actually adjust your file size as well. So it's not just your waist and your leg size, but you can put it through a little fit algorithm to you know, depend on whether you want a slim leg or a slightly wider leg. Could you just talk a little bit about that please and and how you managed to tweak and formulate and get the kind of the fit ratio to where it is today on the website. Sure. And suppose the first thing to say is that besides pay proper attention to those half sizes and making sure that we cover all the odd numbers, which applies just as importantly in the in the leg as it does in the waist. I mean, quite literally, half of the world has an odd numbered leg. And yet, it's virtually impossible to buy to buy trousers outside of the standard 3030 to 34 inch legs. Which means that there's this huge raft of people taking everything that they buy to the dry cleaners to have them properly shortened. Right. And that's a huge issue that we address. I literally did that yesterday, I literally did that yesterday, both parents, it's so annoying, it's so tedious, it's a really binary thing you know, if you can, if you can take something out of the box and put it on and wear it right away, that is a dramatically better experience than any level of adjustment that you might have to do afterwards. And I think we've all been trained to think this business of going to the dry cleaners is normal and acceptable. And it just it does, it doesn't seem like something we need to put up with in 2021. So so that's obviously something that we're solving for alongside those those odd numbers ways. But the other thing is you say is that we try to address the build of the man there are some very different ratios out there between waist and size of waist and size of seats or thigh. In other words, you know some guys are really heavily set and some guys are really lean. And it seems to me like in a trouser category there has been this utter preoccupation for as long as anybody can remember with the lower half the leg and how wide your hem is course the trend over the last 10 to 15 years is to make those quite narrow. And you know marvel at the boot cuts that we were all sporting in the late 90s Yeah, me too. And make no mistake they're coming back you know those those but but but the point the point is that you know, that has always been the preoccupation and when we started spoke, we took a position that actually the top half if anything matters more or getting that ratio right between the waist and the thigh is where the magic happens you're talking to a guy who's got a bigger seat or bigger thigh and it's really painful you know the, the way they solve the problem is by buying a pair of trousers fundamentally too big certainly too big in the waist, and then they'll crank up a belt to try and make it work and it's uncomfortable and unflattering. If instead you can make sure you create a trouser that opens out properly in the thigh and seats immediately underneath the waist then then you you can eliminate that trade off you know they can buy something that fits perfectly in the waist without a belt and and yet offer them the space in the thigh and see and the reverse is true by the way i mean there's plenty of guys out there and myself in this category you have no seat at all are just as incredibly child way down and you know who find that you know a trouser with with any room and it just flaps around in a way it looks really terrible from the back and you know for those guys are build a on narrow a car is perfect. Again, they could find out the fits perfectly in the waist and yet it's still flat straight through the rest of the leg. So that was really important. And then it's worth mentioning that actually our our size scheme runs to four dimensions. So so we have ways including the odd sizes, leg in virtually any leg length, those three builds a B and C for different levels of heft in your in your thigh and seats. And then we also offer a different offence in the lower leg in the moment we offer a regular leg which has a gentle taper and then a more sharply tapered leg for those that are looking for that consistent with that trend that I referred to earlier. We've got a we've got a straighter leg coming to in the not too distant future so you can make those make those alterations below the knee as well to suit your to suit your style or taste but but more importantly to suit your to your shape and your fits. We have everything covered at the top of the very interesting and I'm just trying to find my way through the website to see if you do any pleated trousers or can't see any coming they're coming all right are you getting there we're just coming in autumn winter and I mean maybe you want to come here you want to head in this direction but um, you know that we had to cut back on on the by last year and and consequently, they didn't reach the range quite as soon as we planned but you can expect some stuff in the not too distant future. Nice. And do you think we've pleated trousers Kind of making a full circle coming back. And typically with pleated trousers, they're worn higher up, like on ice. Do you think that's something that you'll be factoring in as well into the algorithm? Oh, yeah, we're definitely changing the rise to accommodate that in that particular trouser. And we'll be styling it in a way that's consistent with that. When we sit photographed, so yeah, I mean, this is definitely a scene of stylistic choice that we are catering for here. And, but it really requires a fundamental rethinking of the silhouette. It's not just a case of, you know, chucking some plates in. Yeah. Do you know where my mind is going with this? Ben? I'm thinking Cary Grant, to catch us to catch a thief. And yeah, absolutely. I mean, we when I, when I think about how we market this, those are exactly the sort of references that we'll be making. Right. Okay. I mean, like that whole film, the first half is more about his trousers. And it is about Monaco or anything else going on in the film. So, I mean, I was glued to the trousers. Yeah, I mean, how would it stand legally? Would you even be able to use any kind of screen grabs from certain films or references? Or is that going into a bit of a dicey crop? Probably not scale. I don't know what you can do on social. I haven't really looked into it. We sometimes Yeah, often there are creative ways of making those references without ripping them off directly in a way that gives you some sort of dodgy legal exposure. So but we'll never be able to do that. And so about the spirit of that film, because I think you've nailed it. Interesting. Well, listen, Ben, I could talk to you for hours about trousers about Cary Grant but I appreciate you've got a life to lead for anyone listening that wants to check the trousers out that and other shirts and T shirts and other things going on in the spot. So I spoke hyphen, London, calm place to go and also on Instagram, spoke underscore London, but we'll leave all the links and references over in the show notes that people can find and, and have a good time over there. And also, I should say, but when I went on the site, I was expecting after doing all the the algorithms of putting in my sizes, my weight, I complimented myself and put shredded p in because there's like a bad day, you know, average Joe and for Pete, you know, I've ran today I can put shredded p in as expected like this result to kind of come back and go There's 180 quid for a pair of trousers. Yeah, but very accessible prices. So yeah, we're definitely trying to create something that's Yeah, it's it's got this got some reasonably wide appeal. I think that's important. Otherwise, it's hard to convince yourself you're solving a big problem. So yeah, hopefully that's that's where they get paid. Yeah. Awesome. Great. Well, Ben, thanks again for your time, and best of luck. Thanks. Thank you, Ben. Thank you all for tuning into this episode of The menswear style podcast. If you like what you hear, why not leave a review it does help my ego. Don't forget to check out the show notes for this episode and all content pertaining to fashion watches, grooming and lifestyle over at w w w dot men's dress code at UK. We're on the social also at men's wear style. If you want to be a guest on the show, and tell us about your brand and your journey, you can email us here at info at menswear style.co.uk and until next time