Getting Cardigan Bay Making Denim Again

In founding two jeans companies and an award-winning lecture series I’ve learned the importance of three things in business: talent, luck and knowing the difference between the two.
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In founding two jeans companies and an award-winning lecture series I’ve learned the importance of three things in business: talent, luck and knowing the difference between the two.

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Firstly, I would like to talk about what isn’t luck. When I was 17 I had a market stall selling sports goods. I had a car that didn’t have a petrol gauge, so I never knew if I would get home or not. So I had to get good at counting the miles, and understanding the miles per gallon of my little Fiat 128. It was like card counting with petrol. On the days on the market stall when I didn’t sell anything, I didn’t have any money for petrol, so I knew I wouldn’t get home without running out. That wasn’t bad luck. That was bad sales. There is another example of when luck had no role to play.

A few years ago I sold howies, the company I started, to Timberland. I had done my homework. The motivator was to make the company stable as a business and to secure it firmly in Wales. There was a much more lucrative deal in terms of investment on the table from someone else, but that would have meant moving the business to California. Timberland told us that they understood the importance of Wales to us as the founders. So we went with them. In less than 18 months, I was told unless I moved the warehouse to Holland and the design to America, they would ‘spin us off’. (That means they would sell us).

I had made a mistake. But it wasn’t bad luck. It was bad judgment. I just wanted to believe what people were telling me, because I wanted it to be true. If I had let my head speak to my heart, I would have come to a different answer. So I’ve learned it’s important that you know what is down to luck and what isn’t. Otherwise you can think that your huge success could be down to talent when it may be really down to being in the right place at the right time. And equally, your huge failure could be down to bad luck and nothing at all to do with your talent.

It can take a while on planet Earth to work out the difference between the two. Mostly that is taught from making mistakes or learning to listen to your instincts. Difficult learning is not easily forgotten. The key thing for creative people in business is to learn to be both the creative force and the businessman. If you want to stay independent, you have to be both of those people. Then you won’t need to rely on luck too.

Another thing I have noticed about luck is how it flips in time. When we think of bad luck in the moment, it has a habit of turning out to be the best of luck later on. Look at Steve Jobs; look at how the pain of leaving his own company taught him the importance of being the creative and the businessman combined. It made him into an amazing combination of skill-sets. Those difficult lessons were not lost on him. Pain taught him well.

I don’t believe Steve Jobs would have gone on to do the things he did at Apple in his second stint there unless he had been ousted from his own company. Again, looking back, it was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to him. It just didn’t feel like it at the time, I bet.

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For me, having to leave howies was the lowest point of my life. To leave the company I started, with all my values embedded into it, and to have someone own it that didn’t love it, was almost too much to bear. While I didn’t realise it at the time, it was going to be the best thing that would happen to me. Luck can fool you that way. You think it’s all bad, when really it’s the most amazing thing ever.

After leaving howies, I spent three months writing a plan for a jeans company. My investors were keen for me to get going again. But I was less keen to run around the same track twice. So I put the plan on a shelf and didn’t look at it for over a year. I went running instead. I thought it was a good idea to replace one pain with another. Both the dog and myself got really fit. I did a lot of miles, but I didn’t make a lot of jeans. I spent my time on getting The Do Lectures (a set of lectures that my wife and business partner Clare and I founded) to stand on its own two feet. It turned out to be one of the best things I had ever done.

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Paul Arden, my old boss, kept telling me to chase the work and not the money. I spent two years on The Do Lectures and worked for free because I loved it. And it turns out that love pays you well in the end. The Do Lectures got voted one of the best “ideas festivals” in the world by the Guardian, the website got nominated as one of the best websites in the world by dot.com, and over a million people go to the site to watch some of the most inspiring talks on the web. Even though I didn’t know it at the start, the idea has given back to me in many amazing ways.

Then around a year later, I was speaking to Gideon, who used to design jeans for me, and he wanted to know why I wasn’t doing the denim plan. I told him I was still looking for the ‘why’ of it. I knew I ‘could’ but not ‘why’ I simply had to. To understand purpose is to understand what drives you. And that’s important. It’s the wind in your sails. Then he said, “Isn’t it just to get the town making jeans again?” And that was it. The why: To get the town making jeans again.

I had found my purpose. It was not judgement. It was not skill. It was not planned. But it was just pure and utter luck. My town just happened to have been the place where they made more jeans than anywhere else in Britain. My joke about Cardigan is it’s a bit like Hollywood. In Hollywood, it’s hard to find a waiter who isn’t going to be an actor, director or scriptwriter. In Cardigan, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know how to make jeans. The driving instructor who used to train all the machinists. The guy on the way to Aberporth with the hamburger stall who used to cut jeans. The pub landlord who was a Grade ‘A’ machinist. Our town is full of stories like that.

Of all the towns in the UK, Cardigan probably knows more about making jeans than any other. It made jeans for three to four decades. It made 35,000 pairs each week for a very long time. It was Britain’s biggest jeans factory, employing 400 people out of a town of 4,000. This had nothing to do with talent or judgment, but everything to do with luck. I didn’t know about it when I moved here. I didn’t really think about that when I had decided to start a denim brand. It was just something that was meant to be.

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Having all these amazingly skilled people in my town who just happen to know how to make great jeans is pure luck. Malcolm Gladwell talks about having to do 10,000 hours to become a grandmaster in chess. In our town, we have people who have spent 20,000 hours, 30,000 hours, and in some cases, 40,000 hours making jeans. This town is full of grandmasters of making jeans.

I think luck is when two or more things just collide fortuitously. For me, the collision of me wanting to start a denim brand and the town that I live in knowing more about making jeans than almost any other is a happy coincidence. The thing about luck is to recognise it as such, but to make sure to take advantage of it. To run with it. It might not come your way again.

The other aspect of luck is timing. The importance of timing to luck is like meat to a burger. You can have every element going for you, but if the timing is wrong, it just won’t happen. The other word for timing is zeitgeist. The other word for zeitgeist is trend. Being able to look ahead and see
where things are going is a skill that actually has little to do with luck. When I go running up the Preseli Hills, when the wind is blowing in my face, it’s the opposite of a zeitgeist. The conditions are against me. When the wind is behind me, I fly. The zeitgeist is with me. And as with running, business is much easier when the zeitgeist is with you.

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The timing of making jeans in Britain again appears to be the start of a new trend. Bringing back manufacturing to the UK, micro-factories and the idea of buying less but buying better quality are all very timely. To understand that we need to go back three years in time and look at the banking crisis. Something happened in that moment, and no one has really articulated it. It was a profound moment for Britain- a jolt. People felt vulnerable; they knew the country no longer made as much as it used to, and we didn’t grow as much as we should do either. Both of these things unsettled everyone.

The service industry will always be important, but we have learnt the hard way that it can’t always be relied upon. So I think an odd consequence of the banking crisis is that it will get Britain making more things again. And importantly, customers will want them. They will seek them out. They will pay a bit more for them. They don’t like feeling vulnerable.

And lastly we want Hiut Denim to be about ideas. Having ideas is not really down to luck, although it can often play a part. Our jeans will be the first pair in the world to have a HistoryTag - a way for memories to be attached to products via a website (historytag.com). HistoryTag will let you see your jeans being made and, if you chose to, you can upload photos of where you went in them and say what you did in them. It’s like an iTunes for memories. It means one day when your jeans get handed down or end up in a second hand shop, their stories will go with them.

The internet is good at stories. Yet other jeans companies didn’t see the value in telling them. But we did, especially as we want to make something that lasts. And the longer our jeans last, the more stories they will have to tell. Lucky us.

David Hieatt created The Do Lectures, an inspirational series of talks hosted at a secluded campsite in West Wales. He is the recent founder of Hiutt Denim.

This article first appeared in quarterly magazine Ideas Illustrated. You can buy it here .