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Interview with Tom Cohn founder of Kigu

Interview with Tom Cohn founder of Kigu

An increasingly common site on the streets of the UK is to see people dressed up in animal costumes – particularly on a Friday or Saturday night. If you have seen anyone wearing such an outfit, then there’s a good chance they purchased it from The word ‘Kigu’ is short for ‘kigurumi’, which literally translates as ‘costumed animal character’ in Japanese. Kigurumi are already hugely popular in Japan, where they are worn as both streetwear and pyjamas, but they’ve never been sold outside Asia before. Kigu was the first company to bring these amazing animal suits to Europe.

Easyspace recently interviewed founder Tom Cohn:

Q1. Tom, tell us a little bit about your background and what led to you to becoming an entrepreneur and setting up

I’m 27 years old and grew up in Alexandra Palace in North London. Growing up I was obsessed with skateboarding, music and partying. I went to Sussex University where I studied Geography with Management Studies and as part of the course we had to write a business plan. I had been introduced to kigurumi (Japanese animal onesies) by some friends who had brought them back from a trip to Japan. So decided to use the idea of importing, rebranding and selling kigurumi to the UK festival market as my business plan idea.

Following graduation I couldn’t find a job and I’d always wanted to be self-employed, so I decided to put the business plan I’d devised at university into action. Together with my best friend Nick, we pooled together £4,000, built a quick and easy website and bought 300 kigurumi from Japan to the UK to sell to friends and other like-minded people.

Q2. What was involved in setting up Kigu i.e. choosing a domain name, website, ecommerce system, premises, staff, securing suppliers, etc? Did you follow a business plan and how difficult was it getting the business established in the early days?

Cost dictated every choice we made. We used whatever was free or very cheaply available. We used Big Cartel as our ecommerce platform because it was very cheap and we only took payments through PayPal. We had a close friend build our website in a day. Another friend knocked up a logo. There was no money for staff or premises, we just did everything ourselves and worked from home, storing our stock in my parents’ attic. We didn’t follow a business plan as such. We just did all we could to get our brand out there!

Established the company was easier than I thought. Staying in stock was the problem. As cashflow was so tight, we couldn’t afford to buy more Kigus until we had sold our current batch. We’d then have to wait 6 weeks for the next delivery to arrive from Japan. This led to us being sold out for long periods, which was painful. But in the end I think that helped our cause. It made Kigus really hard to get hold of which seemed to boost demand even further.

Q3. How did you market your business when you first started and how do you promote it now?

At first we promoted our business through word of mouth. We got all of our friends to wear Kigus when they went to festivals and out clubbing and it started to catch on. Soon celebrities like Lily Allen, Florence and the Machine and Alex Turner were spotted wearing our stuff, which caused a snowball effect in terms of demand. Social media was a vital, free way of getting word to spread about what we were doing.

On Kigu’s first anniversary we decided to throw a party, with the help of Diesel UK. We gave away 100 Flying Squirrel Kigus to guests and offered a free bar. Unsurprisingly, tickets sold out in a matter of minutes and the event was featured on a number of high profile blogs and websites. Since then we’ve run about 4 big events a year, from a Guinness World Record breaking piggy back race to a party in a container in Shoreditch. If we can build our brand by doing things that are fun for us personally, then all the better!

Q4. How do you use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, to promote your businesses? How successful has it been for you? Any advice on how businesses can use social media to promote themselves?

Facebook is the social media channel that we concentrate on most. We use it to post things we think our fans would find interesting, update people of new products and events and ask people for feedback on new products and ideas we’re bringing out. We try and be as responsive as possible. People like to feel that they’re involved in the direction of the brand. And we want them to be! We’ve never paid for any Facebook ads or promoted posts so our following isn’t as big as we’d like it to be. But the level of engagement is outstanding. We’ve started having a more focused approach to Twitter recently which has seen our number of followers grow by a thousand or so in the last couple of months.

I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice in this area, but I believe social media is used most effectively to start conversations between brands and their fans. If you’re simply updating your followers on company developments, opening times, best sellers etc then don’t be surprised if you’re engagement is low. Also, it’s a good idea to make the most of the great social media apps out there which can make life a lot easier. We use TweetDeck, Topsy, TwitterCounter, N0tice and check our Facebook insights in depth on a weekly basis.

Q5. You originally went out to Japan to source suppliers of Onesies. How easy was it dealing with Japanese companies? Do you continue dealing with your original suppliers?

Dealing with Japanese suppliers is fantastic. They’re extremely polite, loyal, honest and a pleasure to do business with. We’re still using the same supplier that we have had since day 1 and we’ll continue to do so, simply because they make the best product on the market in terms of both design and quality. When we go on trips to Japan they give us a great welcome and really look after us. There are a couple of rituals you have to observe when dealing with the Japanese. It’s important to recognise the relatively strict company hierarchy they have in place and the old “always give and receive a business card with two hands and a bow” is still very true today. One thing I have noticed though that, largely out of politeness, the Japanese never like to say “no” to anything. This can make them hard to read. So you’re never quite as sure of where you stand on certain things as you would be with the Chinese, say. But maybe that’s just my personal experience.

Q6.Have you had any problems dealing with suppliers, and have you considered manufacturing them yourself?

The only problems have arisen from demand outstripping supply which has happened on a number of occasions. When we first started dealing with our supplier they had never exported outside Asia before. So we had to grow together. We have considered manufacturing ourselves and have done so with additional product lines, but for animal onesies, nothing less than a Japanese one will do for Kigu. There’s just too many other, inferior products about to get greedy.

Q7. You are a co-founder of Kigu with your business partner Nick Harriman. What advantages/disadvantages are there in having a business partner, as opposed to starting up on your own?

There are lots of advantages. Splitting the risk and startup costs is one thing. But the thing I most enjoy about working with a partner is having someone to share the ups and downs with. When you’re doing well, you can go out and have a drink together to celebrate. And when things go wrong, at least you know you’re not the only one suffering! Nick and I have known each other since we were about 3 years old. We grew up on the same road. So we know each other incredibly well and efficiently as a team. Our skills (or lack of them) compliment each others’ and we always come up with the strongest ideas when working together. The only real disadvantage is that decisions can take much longer to make when they have to be OK’d by two people. Having one person in charge can certainly streamline processes.

Q8. What’s it like managing your business? Do you have any staff or do you outsource tasks? Describe your typical day.

Managing my business is a lot of fun and hard work. We have one full time Business Manager, Katia, who takes charge of pretty much everything from social media to wholesale and customer service. She’s fantastic. IT, graphic design, fulfilment etc we outsource and everything else I do myself. My typical day consists of answering an endless pile of emails, updating a number of spreadsheets to ensure everything’s running smoothly, meeting with potential retailers or collaborators and going through samples for new and exciting products we can add to the range. I usually work from 10am to 7.30pm.

Q9. You currently sell via your online shop, but have you tried or considered setting up a highstreet shop or partnering with one?

Most of our sales come through our website, but we do sell products to a couple of other retailers like Urban Outfitters. We’ve run pop up shops before which have been really successful. But I still think our products are a bit niche for our own high street shop. Selling online is much more efficient and allows us more time to spend on product development.

Q10. How do your Onesies match up against your competitors and how do you stay competitive?

I honestly believe that you won’t find a better animal onesie anywhere else in the world. But they’re not the cheapest. Ours are £40, while you can find an inferior onesie (and sometimes a complete knock off of one our designs!!) for around £30 or less in shops like Primark. We stay competitive by ensuring ours are the best quality and coming up with new ideas for products people love. We try, as much as possible, to be proactive when coming up with new ideas rather than reacting to what other people are doing.

Q11. If you had the chance to start Kigu all over again, what would you do differently?

I would have protected our IP on a global scale from the outset. I would have launched Kigu Kids more quickly (we only did this at the end of 2012 and it’s already doing so well). And I would have invested in a better website sooner too. We’re building a new one now, but we could have done with it about 9 months ago.

Q12. Which entrepreneur/person has inspired you the most & why?

As an avid skateboard fan I’d have to say either Tony Hawk or Rick Howard (who owns Girl Skateboards). I like it when people are able to run a successful company that incorporates things they actually enjoy. It’s not all about the money.

Q13. What advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own business?

My advice would be to get some support. We wouldn’t have been able to get Kigu to where it is today without the help of two fantastic mentors, which we got through the Bright Ideas Trust. There are a lot of extremely successful people out there with lots of time on their hands, desperate to invest their wisdom into developing new businesses. If you’re under 30, these people are even easier to find. So don’t feel like you have to do everything by yourself because you don’t.

Q14. What are your future plans for Kigu?

At the moment we’re all about new products. We’re working extremely hard to develop new animal onesies and come out with some different, but complimentary product ranges. We’re hoping to have one new range out by Christmas 2013 and another out by Spring 2014. Both have never been done before, so I’m excited to see if people actually like them as much as we do, or not!

Thanks Tom, from everyone at Easyspace.

To find out more about Tom and his business please visit his website