Philip Start bounds into the local coffee shops with enviable energy. In search for a quiet place, we settle at the homely Italian-owned cafe that overlooks one of the busiest streets in Shoreditch. The doors are wide open welcoming customers who seem to be regulars. The owner of the place that has been here for over ten years gestures “ok” to our humble request to moderate music. “Perfect,” we mimic back and dive into our conversation about Hackney and the business climate of the area Start could observe from its inception.
Mr. Start, the menswear brand and store founded by Philip Start is on the corner of Rivington Street and Charlotte Road and welcomes with a neon sign “made to measure.” Launched in 2002 with his celebrity wife Brix Smith-Start, Mr. Start is a “contemporary sartorial destination, providing both ready-to-wear clothing and a made to measure service.”
“We’ve been locals to the area since 1999,” says Philip and sips his coffee. “We moved from West London looking for a bit of a fresh start. We saw a potential in the area where nothing really was happening. There was only a hairdresser’s Tommy Guns here at that time. We saw the opportunity: the place attracted people who were interested in how they look. I also liked the whole vibe around the Rivington Street with pubs scattered around and people gathering outside. So, one day my musician wife said, “Honey, there’s nowhere to shop here.” I’ve been a retailer my whole life, we were not doing much business-wise at the moment, and we liked the area, so our idea materialised into a shop.”
Mr. Start was opened in “the middle of nowhere with nothing around it. It was certainly a challenge. We had to attract people to come here, and that’s what we did!” Philip recalls the early days of the brand. Start says Mr. Start is a solution for men who want to dress in a certain way locally.
The shop with crispy shirts and stylish suits became one of the distinguishable spots of the Hackney area, the very heart of the busy East End.
Much has been said about the evolution of the area (Hackney) for businesses. What’s your take on it?
Hackney was discovered over the last few years. It is very green with the parks mingling in with the Victorian houses, warehouses, and public spaces. It is no longer a no man’s land, London has moved East. From a business point of view, the South East has become a new Soho. From a living point of view, Chelsea and Fulham were predominantly areas desired by people. Now Shoreditch is the new Notting Hill and Chelsea. It is developing quickly with more people looking to move to Hackney which became a mecca of creativity and entertainment.
I believe, the emergence and expansion of the Tech City, put us all in a win-win situation. We all attract each other, it is how it works: mass creates more mass. Opportunities arise parallel to the development of the area and I certainly think it’s a change we should embrace.
Consumers are bombarded with thousands of services and brands. How do you cut through the noise?
Sometimes you have to be noisy, but there are times when you’ll work your way forward with less shouting and more work. You have to be careful with your strategy: first build and then keep consistent with your reputation. We won the trust of many customers who shop entirely with us – it is something you should value the most. We are a small business not rushing to become bigger because we value what we have and don’t want to lose it on the way to expansion. A fashion business is not like a tech business where you are concentrated on the size or growth all the time. We are a solution for men who want to dress in a certain way. We stand out by being authentic and doing what we can in the best possible way.
What’s your top tip for having a successful personal branding?
My personal brand is changing. I am a lot more outgoing about it than I used to be twenty or thirty years ago when I didn’t really want to have such at all. I didn’t think I was that interesting, I didn’t even call myself a designer for many, many years even though I was one. Whatever I do, I do it with precision and care. There aren’t any tips on sustaining a successful personal brand, you just need to be true to yourself. There’s no magic formula, it’s about finding your own way and dedicating yourself to make it work. Experiment, try, don’t be shy.
What are the three things anyone thinking to start a company should consider first and foremost?
Everyone thinks they have a great idea, and probably everyone oversimplifies what it takes to run a company. Get it right: you’ll face costs you have never thought about before, things will be taking longer than you expect, the competition will be higher than you imagined initially. Globalisation has contributed to the last point – the competition won’t necessarily come from your locality, but may be based anywhere in the world. Thus, you have to be very sure of what are you doing and once you decide it, you have to try and stick to it as much as you can. If you see that it is not working, you have to know when to give up. It’s ok to fail today, we didn’t have that luxury when I started my first business.
Do you see a difference in how business is done in comparison to how it worked back in a day?
Definitely so. Nonetheless, I am not one of those saying “oh, in my day it used to be like this or that…” It changed greatly, but it is what we got and now we have to find our way in it. There’s never a right time to start anything. You know, my first business was launched during a recession and I didn’t even know it was happening. Nevertheless, it worked. I was interested in the idea, I was passionate about making a success of it and it did work. So, accept the fact that being an entrepreneur is about taking risks.
What do you think is the current state of the fashion industry in London? Do fashion startups transform the industry?
It’s a fiercely competitive industry and finding a niche that would work for you is extremely hard. It’s not only about creating something outstanding but also about understanding the logistics behind running the actual business. The fashion industry is no different to any other business in that sense – you have to follow the same structure. Nowadays startups in fashion are heavily based on technology. Making a product is not as hard today as it used to be. As I said we are surrounded by changes and we should be trying to make the most out of the benefits they offer. If we look back all the time, when are we going to have time to look forward?
What trends have you observed in the last five years in East London, specifically the Hackney area?
East London is going through a Renaissance of the Renaissance. It’s becoming more of a luxury area. Everything changes and if it means better business and improved social cohesion, then it is great. If you live and work here you know everybody. The area has preserved the vibe of a community. You come to a place like this, ask to turn off the music and they will say “no problem.” The area is in constant transition but it is a healthy transition that makes it vibrant and alive. By battling the changes you are wasting time and energy, instead, accept them and make them work for you.
How have you built your team? What were your criteria for your first hires?
I have always provided the environment where people could learn. At the end of the day, it’s your attitude that matters. Experience shows it’s about making yourself indispensable. You do the extra bit without whining over it. Constantly bitching about how something doesn’t work is not the right attitude. It’s about giving your everything and if it doesn’t work out, then you know what to do.
I hired people who showed passion for what they were doing. My aim has always been to help them get a rewarding experience. It matters to me if anyone I employed has said they learned something whilst working with me. That’s part of what I am trying to achieve by running my business.
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