Welcome to Founders 15. Today, Keven Lavelle (Founder of Mizzen and Main) sits down with Simon Hill-Norton to hear the story of Sweaty Better, a British retailer specializing in women's activewear.
Simon shared the origin story of the business, as well as lessons he has learned along the way. He explains how “being married to somebody who doesn't allow me to take myself or doesn't allow me to take the business too seriously and just insists that every day has a dose of something fun or special in it” is one of the highlights of his work.
Simon is the embodiment of a humble leader and as the co-founder of Sweaty Betty with his wife and creative visionary, Tamara, he’s changed how the UK looks at not only active apparel but fitness itself. After seeing a very unique market opportunity 20 years ago, the same time Lululemon launched, they started selling active apparel.
After many years, they realized they needed to launch their own brand, and Sweaty Betty as we know it today was born. From his Friday breakfasts with the boss to how they continue to evolve as a 20 year old business, this podcast is packed with genuine takeaways for anyone looking to be a better leader, spouse, and parent. Enjoy.
- 7:30 - How the athletic apparel world used to approach women: “shrink it and pink it” and the way Simon and Tamara approached market research.
- 9:15 - Sweaty Betty had to undergo a massive pivot due to unsustainable gross margins
- 14:00 - How Simon makes sure to drive culture and stay engaged via Induction Days and Breakfasts with the Boss
- 18:15 - Bad jokes about tea and Britain
- 20:00 - Simon’s true inspiration is someone he’s never told this to
- 23:30 - The use of Memento Mori to maintain perspective
- 27:30 - Thoughts around sacrifices and the idea of “nothing to lose”
- 34:00 - Lessons on catalogs and getting and utilizing customer data
- 35:00 - Thoughts on the return to community
- 40:00 - The name “Sweaty Betty”
- 42:00 - The future of Sweaty Betty
- 48:00 - The love of the reality that this “stupid idea” is something people so enthusiastically embrace
- 56:30 - Simon’s favorite book, Feral
Kevin Lavelle: This is Kevin Lavelle, and you're listening to Founders 15. I launched Mizzen+Main to bring advanced performance fabrics to traditional menswear. So just like deciding the world needed a better dress shirt when everyone said it was crazy, I decided to launch Founders 15 as a unique new discussion experience, where conversations will be founder to founder, eliciting and enlightening back and forth of two people with an overlap rarely found in other interviews.
Today, we have a guest who is not only a great business leader, but a friend. I've been fortunate to spend a fair bit of time with Simon, including most recently a week around Asia. I love every minute of time I get to spend with him. And after listening to this podcast, I think you'll know why he is the embodiment of a humble leader. As the co-founder of Sweaty Betty with his wife and creative visionary, he's changed how the UK looks at not only active apparel, but fitness itself. After seeing a very unique market opportunity 20 years ago, the same time Lululemon launched, they started selling active apparel for women. After many years, they realized they needed to launch their own brand. Sweaty Betty, as we know it today, was born from his Friday breakfast with the boss to how they continue to evolve as a 20 year old business, I think you'll have several genuine takeaways and be inspired to be a better leader, spouse and parent. I know I was. Without further ado, Simon, thanks for joining us today. I am so excited to have this conversation with you.
Simon Hill-Norton: Kevin, thank you so much for inviting me. Look forward to it.
Kevin Lavelle: So let's just start with a little bit of context. Tell us in a few words about your business so people can understand where you guys are today, and a little bit about kind of who you are as a person and your family.
Simon Hill-Norton: So I'm CEO of Sweaty Betty. This is a business I started with my wife, who is the talent in this organization, and I consider myself as the management. We have 62 stores in the UK and the US. That's now the wrong measure because we're falling out of love with retail. 50 percent of our business is online and we design and make the most beautiful women's activewear in the world. That's our mission. Personally, I'm married to my business partner, Tamara. We have three kids who two of whom are teenagers, and they're a constant inspiration and branding for us, and we'll work full time on this. This is deeply personal and incredibly important to us, both as a couple and as a family. The kids have featured in some of our campaigns when we've done teen leggings and recognize that both their mum and their dad, you know, work hard to give them everything that we can give them.
Kevin Lavelle: That’s wonderful. My wife and I worked together for a number of years at Mizzen+Main, and I think I recall at our breakfast or dinner that we had with El Catterton. One of the rules that they had described was never invest in a company run by a husband and wife, and both of our companies are run by husbands and wives. So knowing that you guys have a unique story being business partners, tell us a little bit about your launch story, specifically around the timing and trigger points. When was the idea? When was your first prototype and what happened to make you say it's time to start this company?
Simon Hill-Norton: So the launch story is that we both wanted to run our own business, but for different reasons. I think in my case, I love building things, whether it's, you know, with my hands at home at the weekend and during my studies and university time, I was always running little businesses, whether it was making T-shirts or taking 50 people skiing. So I made some money out of it. In my wife’s case, she claims that she's unemployable and just had to be the boss, and that was the only way it was ever going to work for her. And she just loves products. She's a sort of fashionista. And so anything that could have worked in that area was great for her. And what happened was she was working. I was working in finance for four years after university. She was working in a husband and wife run business called Knickerbockers. In the U.K. we had this single product businesses Tie Rack and Knickerbocker Sock Shop, which literally sold ties, underwear and socks. And this husband and wife were running knickerbockers, and they asked her to look into some sort of gym clothing line that they wanted to launch. And she met a fantastic brand in the U.K. who had a great product and the guy who owned it said, in fact, he was called Kevin as well, Kevin. He said, Hey, Tamara, the problem is there's nowhere I can sell this product. And this was the moment for us. This was the moment that we thought, hold on a sec. This is beautiful product. We were pretty sure that more and more people were going to be working out in the future, although this is very early days, 20 years ago. But that was the light bulb moment where we said, hold on, there's a gap in the market. No one is serving this customer. And how about if we started a business selling activewear to women and there were there are a whole lot of things that are wrong with that statement and didn't make sense at the time.
First of all, the sports industry did not really serve women. I think they would admit it. They talked about the women's department as the shrink it and pink it department so they would make smaller garments and put pink on it, and they thought that was sufficient. So the idea of this new category that we were trying to invent in the UK at the same time that Lulu were inventing it in North America so successfully was very new, very innovative and very exciting for us. So that was the beginning, Tamara, identified a gap in the market. We did, you know, we did a questionnaire with 100 people and asked them where they buy their gym clothes and whether they were members of gyms, and they were increasingly members of health clubs or gyms. But they had no answer to why they buy their clothes. They would buy their clothes when they flew to New York and we thought, This is not sustainable. There's an opportunity to. And that was the beginning. And you asked about prototypes. As a matter of fact, we took a slightly easier route. We filled our shop initially with third party brands, so we had Nike and Adidas, but the things that sold really well were European brands with very, very beautiful fabrics and very beautiful cut and styling. And so our initial customers were looking beyond the brand name and really into the quality of the garment and its performance and the fabrics. And that was the beginning of Sweaty Betty.
Kevin Lavelle: And so when did you make your first Sweaty Betty, your own brand name garment?
Simon Hill-Norton: Yeah, well, that was a pivot, so that was a massive pivot for our business, so we started with a shop in Notting Hill. It was when Notting Hill the movie came out. Notting Hill was a super cool, edgy part of London, rich and poor living side by side. And we filled the store with these other brands. It took really eight or nine years of opening stores by now. Let's say we had 20 stores across the UK and we just couldn't make money. It was. It was really genuinely, I think it may actually be technically impossible to make money selling other people's brands in small stores. These are 1000 square foot stores. They've got relatively high sales density, but in total they're low turnover stores. They're 750k dollars a year. Turnover stores and the margin isn't there on third party brands. And so when we started making our first Sweaty Betty garments was after I met with a private equity guy and he said, Hey, I love your business. I love all the numbers. There's one number that has a problem, though. And I said, What's that? And he said, your gross margin, your gross margin is 10 to 20 points below where it should be, which is, you know, the profit on the product because we were paying the brands so much for the product, we just weren't making the money we needed to. We were proudly ending the year at 52 percent. And he opened my eyes to the fact that the fashion brands are in the high 60s and 70s at the end of the year. So that was the big breakthrough. It was a pivot for the business. Our, you know, our purpose never changed. We wanted to dress this affluent, well-educated woman in the best activewear in the world, but we pivoted from selling other people's brands to selling Sweaty Betty brand, and that was, you know, that was the next chapter for us. After eight years, we moved into this own brand vertical, you know, business definition, which was absolutely essential, critical to our success. And really the most important pivot we've made so far.
Kevin Lavelle: Yeah. So that's a pretty significant change for not only you and your wife, but the company overall. So talk to me about defining your culture. How do you define and defend it daily? And you don't have to necessarily talk about the full pivot of culture that happened when you changed how you operate? But what would the most important lessons be around defining your culture?
Simon Hill-Norton: So we're very purposeful. As I know you are in defining culture, defining our purpose, overall purpose and defining our mission. A mission for us is more a sort of five year big, hairy, audacious goal culture right from the beginning has been about empowering women. And in fact, our purpose, the purpose for the business from the beginning. Although I have to say we weren't, you know, we had much cleverer and smarter people join us later on. That helps put it in words. But from the beginning, we've said Sweaty Betty exists to empower women through fitness and beyond. So, so much of what we do is about empowering women and I, as a man, have to stand back from a huge amount of decisions, which is, you know, suits me financially. But I have to stand back from a lot of the decisions because it has to be by women for women. And so culturally, we have been on a tremendous journey with culture. But really, it is about, you know, if we can spend more time and effort recruiting the right people, we have a very, very active and successful referral friends program. We would always recruit a friend over someone we don't know. We would always promote internally over external, wherever possible. But when you're growing at 30-40 percent a year that you know, people quite often can't keep up.
So that's number one, a massive focus on the people that we bring into the business. Secondly, it's like, you know, like you working with your wife, we make everything personal. It feels like a family business. I meet every single employee. Today we have seven hundred and fifty three people working with us today. And I have met every single person that joins our business. We have an induction day. I attend it with that. And if I can't make it, I join it by Skype. But beyond that, we, we we used to have. So we try to keep it as personal as possible, for example, every Friday. We have a thing called breakfast with the boss where I go to a store or I meet a team out of their normal working environment and I have breakfast with them. And that's when we talk about boyfriends and girlfriends and what's going on in their life, but also what turns them on about the brand and what, why they joined, what excites them. As long as Tamara and I can stay in touch with that, that feeling of positivity. One of the five questions, one of the questions I asked is What do you love about Sweaty Betty? So I don't even let them say whether they love it. They love the brand, and I sort of put it in their mind that they love it. And it's extraordinary. Have you just asked that question? And listen, which is what I do on a weekly basis? You get this very coherent and clear stream of consciousness coming back at you. And those are the things that we try and reinforce, and they are largely around treating it like a, you know, family business, giving people extraordinary opportunities way beyond where they would expect the sort of responsibility they would get and what they think of as a regular business and always listening. They love the fact that, you know, without fail, someone in every group will say, it's so amazing that everybody wants to know what I think and how I feel. And so those are just some simple ways that we think about culture and try and build it actually more than defend it, just build it up.
Kevin Lavelle: It's a wonderful thing. I’m taking some notes here. So you talked about those first few years and how difficult it was to really kind of make any money. And then the pivot that happened kind of a hallmark of a lot of founders is making next to nothing or nothing for the first few months, first few years. How long was it until you felt like, OK, now I'm actually making the equivalent of the normal salary for someone at my level.
Simon Hill-Norton: Yes, I'm pretty embarrassed to answer this question, because I've never considered that we've got that yet. You know, one day it'll be a successful business and we will relax. I can't answer your question about the equivalent salary for someone at my level. If I had stayed at my previous job for the last 20 years. You know, I would be working. I would be earning extraordinary amounts of money and I don't think about that with Sweaty Betty. I don't own that intentionally because I like the idea that my salary is not disconnected from the rest of the business. I think of the shares that I own in the business as my real gain. But the answer to your actual question is I joke that our first 10 stores that we opened were all in London and they were all within cycling distance of our house. And while that kind of sounds comical, it is actually true. We we did not have the money to service our car or indeed even dream of sending our children to private school, which is sort of a well-trodden path in the UK for the first, well, really, until I met, I had this pivotal meeting with the private equity guy who said, You know, your gross margin sucks, you've got to you've got to sort that out. Everything else is great. So honestly, quite honestly, for 10 years, we were break-even every year and it felt like pushing water uphill. Part of the challenge was that the market wasn't ready for us. We were actually 10 years ahead of the curve. So even five years ago, there were only three yoga studios in the whole of London. And so we were trying to sell activewear and more importantly, trying to sell a lifestyle and active lifestyle that we both enjoyed. But really, the rest of the population didn't understand or appreciate. So to answer your question, I would say eight to 10 years before the business itself could afford to pay us reasonable salaries.
Kevin Lavelle: Do you think that that yoga number is because Americans need yoga to start relaxing and you guys have your afternoon tea? Is that why it took so long for yoga?
Simon Hill-Norton: [laughter] I think it is. So I think it's great. Earl Gray tea and clotted cream and scones. So I love your show because we've always had as part of our company beliefs, you know, we let the message be very purposeful about sort of company beliefs and culture and stuff. And one of them has been that we love tea and clotted cream, which no one understands. But it's, you know, it's just like, let's not take life too seriously.
Kevin Lavelle: Absolutely love it. So. You guys have built something truly extraordinary. And it's obviously taken you guys a long time. It takes a long time to sit in it and know that eventually you will make it. Who are the people who helped along the way? And I'm going to add a caveat that it can't be your wife because I know that would be your answer.
Simon Hill-Norton: Yes, that is my answer.
Kevin Lavelle: Who has most inspired you? And it could be a famous entrepreneur, or it could be a friend, or it could be a family member other than your wife?
Simon Hill-Norton: So, I'm really bad at having heroes, and I don't follow people, and I always feel almost guilty about that because it's such a good question and my guilt was only slightly diminished this month. I went to a retail dinner and the previous head of MI6, which is a foreign secret intelligence service, was talking and somebody asked, Who are your heroes? And she said, You know, I just don't have heroes. I look at people that I admire and I say to myself, I wonder if I could be as good as them or is there something I can take from them that would be helpful for me. But if I was forced to make a choice, I would look back at my parents, who I probably have never told this. But my dad was an incredibly professional, devoted military officer and worked his way up to the top of the Royal Navy. So he has this drive to succeed and be the best in a sort of corporate military environment. And my mum just ran little businesses at that, you know, not just she ran little businesses because he was away for huge amounts of time. So she taught me we were very self-sufficient family because we did not get paid very much, even relative to the population. And so we were always growing our own things, building our own stuff. She pretty much built our house. And then she was always starting businesses, you know, a little, you know, children's clothes business. So I would go back, you know, deep down, fundamentally, my character was formed by my parents, which is probably the truth for all of us. And my dad was the drive and my mum was the creative energy to build businesses and grow things from nothing, which is what excites me the most.
Kevin Lavelle: I love hearing that, and that's truly wonderful. So the next question I think a lot about and I struggle with every day, how do you stay sane? What is it that you do to stay grounded? And as you said, you're meeting so many people all the time, including the 750 people that are looking to you for your leadership with your wife. What is it that you do each and every day? Do you do it every weekend? What are those things that you do to stay sane?
Simon Hill-Norton: So probably this is the answer you banned me from using before, but my wife and I are completely different characters, so if I'm the consultant that you know, wants to emulate his dad and get to the top of the tree she literally lives for today. What are we doing today? That's fun. What would be great fun to do tomorrow? And you know, I'm sweating away because I can't afford to pay salaries, whatever it is in the history of the business. Just just stop worrying about those things. We're going to go paddleboarding tomorrow night. Oh God, please, could you just share some of my anxiety and my pain? And she's like, No, no, come on, life's too short. Let's just have a great time. So the 100 percent answer to the question is being married to somebody who doesn't allow me to take myself or doesn't allow me to take the business too seriously and just insists that every day has a dose of something fun or special in it. And of course, children are just a ridiculously huge part of that equation. But that's my answer. I do. Do you know there are things that happened during my week that are very consistent that give me freedom and release, but really having it deep down as part of the DNA of a family unit is incredibly helpful. And my goodness, if she had been to business school and had worked at McKinsey or Bain. I think we would both be quivering wrecks because it's just too tough, isn't it? You know, you've got to get out of it as often as possible.
Kevin Lavelle: Game changer for me. Last year, someone introduced me to Ryan Holiday and some of his writings and maybe a Memento Mori coin. Remember, or keep in mind, you could leave life tomorrow or leave life today.
Simon Hill-Norton: Oh, really?
Kevin Lavelle: It's a coin that you carry with you every day as a reminder that don't take anything too seriously and focus on the things that matter most because it could all be gone in an instant.
Simon Hill-Norton: So it's physically in your pocket at all times.
Kevin Lavelle: Yeah, I carried it with me every 365 days of 2017, and it massively changed my perspective and I don't carry it with me every day anymore. There were times where it fell out and it really stressed me out trying to find it, and I was like, OK, you're missing the point here. But...
Simon Hill-Norton: Like when, like when you and I went surfing, right?
Kevin Lavelle: Yes, I don't remember where I left it, but I know there was some level of anxiety about losing it.
Simon Hill-Norton: That's lovely. I love that
Kevin Lavelle: So speaking about surfing, if everything would be 100 percent fine while you were gone and you had somebody that could handle all the nuts and bolts and somebody that could work through all of the creative and brand aspects that your wife does so beautifully while you're gone, what would you do for a month? And let's for now say that school and kids activities aren't aren't a challenge. You're able to just, yeah, go away and do something. What is that?
Simon Hill-Norton: Yeah, I mean, we both have always had a plan to have a year away, which we haven't achieved yet. But it's still, you know, I think that I would love a month. I have a different answer for a month, but for a year, I would absolutely love to live in another country and I would like to teach entrepreneurship at a business school. I went to a business school in France and that would massively appeal to me to sort of be the few things that I've learned to be able to express that I don't have the time to. Incorporate them into a coherent sort of body of thinking and writing, and then to be able to teach that would really excite me for a month. I have a deal with my brother in law that we are going to go and live in the French Alps, and we're both going to train as mountain guides. This is never going to happen because it takes about five years to become a qualified Alpine Mountain guide. But we both were pretty, are pretty good skiers, and we just love the idea of that self-indulgence, of just skiing every day and learning as well would be great fun.
Kevin Lavelle: It sounds. It sounds amazing. So we've talked a little bit about the long initial struggle of getting things off the ground and really kind of scraping by. But could you put a finger on what you feel like the biggest sacrifice was in starting your own business? And I think you and I both agree and most entrepreneurs do that. The sacrifice pales in comparison to the reward of getting to build a business and lead a team and work with amazing people and all of those things. However, there are sacrifices and some pretty significant ones. What would you say would be your biggest sacrifice?
Simon Hill-Norton: I find the question hard to answer. I love risk, and so I really thrive on the highs and the lows, and in my spare time, I choose to do sports that scare me. And so, you know, certainly the sacrifice was not losing the stability of a regular job. I couldn't wait to get out of finance and to go on this adventure. And the biggest, I mean, the biggest sacrifice is purely money. There was just no money. And and the reason and that's the reason it's not scary for me and my wife, which it should be. First of all, we came from a very stable family background. Not financially. But maybe it's because we never had any money. You know, we didn't. We had nothing to lose. And I think that's a really important point. So the sacrifice was the salary we had sort of disappeared. But like I said, my wife is like, Well, how about we just go down to the coast on a train and play in the sea? It doesn't matter. And yeah, so not nothing, you know, it takes time and effort and focus. We're pretty selfish people anyway. So friends got, you know, pushed aside, certainly. But none of it felt like it was like you said, it's all it all feels worthwhile, even in the depths of when it's not working. It still felt like a tremendous adventure, huge excitement. And that's what I choose every day over sort of a regular routine. Not a very satisfactory answer to the question, but you know...
Kevin Lavelle: Yeah, it's a different perspective and a very healthy one. And I think as you've mentioned earlier, Tamara's ability to keep you sane and grounded and remind you what really matters is one of life's greatest blessings that you have. So let's talk about you. You mentioned earlier the pivot from selling other brands to Sweaty Betty’s own brand. That's a huge change for your business, but would you say that or something that's happened since then was the. Call it a tipping point, and it may not have exploded your business 10x overnight as some do, but was there something that happened after you launched your own branded products that really changed the game for who you were as a company? And if so, how did you make that happen and have you tried to do it again?
Simon Hill-Norton: The move to our own brand was absolutely fundamental. It happened pretty much when the global economic crisis or slowdown happened. So it was a big risk because it cost money. And I went to the investors and said, Hey, guys, we got two choices here. We either batten down the hatches, reduce costs and keep our heads down until the economy turns around or we follow the dream of building our own brand business. And they happily voted for the second option, which meant we had to raise more money. So their own brand was a tipping point in its own right because by now, the web was becoming very dominant. And if we had been selling Nike and added our stuff, we would have just got killed by the multi-brand web players. In terms of growth, boringly, we have just consistently grown at between 20 and 30 percent every year. So the tipping point on the top line, there was no tipping point. We just consistently grew solidly and securely. The movement to own brands moved us from 55 52 percent gross margin and added more than 15 points. So even when we were, let's say, 10 or 20 million pound turnover, 15 points on 20 million, that's three million pounds just come straight through. And so the tipping point for us was this move to our own brand, which tipped us into being a profitable business. And then you can start following your convictions. You've got your own money to spend. You don't have to go cap in hand to the investors the whole time. And so that was the profitability tipping point was a really big deal for us, and it changes the way you think about every day business. You start making much more long term investment decisions in terms of top line. That was the thing that we enjoyed the most. Interestingly enough for us, it sounds very old fashioned now, but a catalog. So we got into strategic customer acquisition through catalog, mostly in the U.K. and then in the US. So I was meeting two million catalogs a year in the US and three million in the UK, and that was very, very exciting. It feels really significant growth. But more importantly, it took us as a business and me personally, what customer you know all about customer acquisition, the metrics, how you think about it. And that was exciting for us, and it is more relevant today than it ever was, as we have so many ways of spending our money digitally. And what I love is that my business is well versed in the language and the discipline and the metrics of customer acquisition, which is nice. It's so important as we as we allocate our spend.
Kevin Lavelle: Jumping in the catalogs is a pretty significant jump and not something that you can do all that lightly. But I imagine you did a couple of tests. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to go from, we're going to test this, to I'm so confident that we're going to scale to five million catalogs a year.
Simon Hill-Norton: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things that I have done from the beginning is we've been very good at collecting customer data as a retailer. That's quite unusual. Back in the day online, you get a lot of customer data. Obviously, you have to deliver the product directly to the customer. So we had a good customer database of existing customers and exactly as you said, we tested it. We didn't have a single Mac in our business. I remember we had to buy our first Mac for a graphic designer, so we outsourced everything. We had a catalog design agency design and we had a, you know, some other agency by the name for us and we did the whole thing on a shoestring. And that and we did two things. One was a catalog to acquire customers and the other was a catalog to existing customers. Both of them performed way above our expectations and industry metrics. And so incrementally over that first year, we would increase the circulations from 50000 to 50000. Then it went one hundred and fifty, then it went to 250. And in fact, we never went above 250 for any single mailing because of what we did and I learned not to because it didn't work very well. And yeah, it is trial and error, the whole thing. But it was really bootstrapped to start with. We spent no money on it. Then we allocated resources to see what we can do. And so everything was outsourced and then it worked very, very well. And we had at least five to eight years of very strong growth through catalog.
Kevin Lavelle: So one more kind of growth question on this. You mentioned at the beginning kind of falling out of love of retail and obviously with the way that digital is growing and how you guys are able to spread your message across so many different customer acquisition channels. What are you thinking of in terms of how you're changing your retail approach?
Simon Hill-Norton: A very hot topic. We're incredibly proud. I'm very proud of our location, so what we've done with the locations and the reason I start with this is that I think that where I have my stores will transcend, will survive the retail meltdown. So my stores are almost without exception. Apart from some of the US stores are in what I would call a local neighborhood. So the store is next to the local organic butcher, the local organic greengrocer, the dry cleaner, the, you know, the beautiful coffee shops. And so I think that the customer, my customer. During all this economic turmoil and political upheaval, she has learned not to trust the banks, not to trust the politicians, really, not to trust the institutions both in North America and in the UK. And she has, you know, I think we're returning to the community. Yeah, we're returning back to family and community. And so the fact that all of our stores are in those little local communities is something that I love. I find that a very romantic type of retail. I'm a little bit allergic to malls, which are just too sort of overtly commercial for me. So I think that I think the locations will survive. But what we're actually doing to answer your question is, you know, people do want human interaction. And from the beginning of business, we have run free yoga classes, free pilates classes, free classes in our stores every day. In fact, we run a hundred classes a week for free. And so we're giving a thousand people a week access to free fitness, and many of those people are just beginning on a journey to a sort of healthy lifestyle. Many of them have perhaps had children and want to get back into shape. And that's the sort of beginning the genesis of how we think about our stores. We call them local wellness hubs, so you can go into any of our stores and just say, Hey, I'd like to take up yoga. Can you recommend a studio? And you know what the answer should be? Yes. I was just talking with Kat. Yeah, she's the founder of this studio over there that we all love. And by the way, she's teaching on Thursday night. So why don't you come in on Thursday and give it a try? So we're using this. We've always done this in our stores, but it's going to be much more of our focus going forward. We're trying to get a little bit more space in the stores for those sorts of conversations and sitting down and talking about wellness and the sort of local community initiatives.
Kevin Lavelle: And so when you say falling out of love of retail, it's the things that are happening across the retail landscape, a lot of those you see in a negative light the way that you guys are executing what you're doing, you feel is how it should be done for Sweaty Betty.
Simon Hill-Norton: I mean, I was referring to the sort of industry falling out of love with retail. Deep down in my heart, I'm a retailer, which is a constraint in today's world. I haven't fallen out of love with it. Having said that, Kevin, I do not see it. It is playing a different role. And, you know, maybe this is too frank, but in our business, it has been the profit engine of our business as we've invested to get the digital side up to 50 percent of revenue. I don't see. I do not plan to do retail in five years. Time will be the profit engine of our business. I think it will start to play a different, more community oriented role. It'll introduce people to the brand. We know that they will then shop online. And I think the challenge for all of us retailers is to reconcile how much value we attribute to a store. I mean, I happen to be lucky enough to have all our stores make money, but let's say in five years time, 20 of them do not make money. Do I close them or do I stick with my belief that, you know, giving free classes and having a community presence is important enough. And, you know, it's hard to do the math to attribute the lifetime value of a customer that was acquired through stores. Is there a time when it doesn't add up and that that will be and that time is fast approaching for many of us.
Kevin Lavelle: For context, is Sweaty Betty a particularly British term? Or is it just kind of a slang thing that you guys heard out and about?
Simon Hill-Norton: So Sweaty Betty is a particularly British term. It's a very derogatory comment that you would make about someone. But what we did like is that Tamara read the Archie comics back in her youth. So there's a Betty character there who's a pretty cool girl, and we love the fact that Betty is sort of a California cool surfer girl. So I think it transcends the British, but in the UK, it's definitely an insult. It's like a derogatory term.
Kevin Lavelle: But you guys were able to own it in your own way, and that's where we are with your customers.
Simon Hill-Norton: Exactly. And flipped it. And what the women tell me is that, Hey, we get it. You men don't understand. You think that we don't sweat, you know, you think that we just perspire gently. Actually, we have to work really, really hard. Yeah. So we think of it as cause and effect, you know, sweaty and then Betty. So, you know, you got to work out really hard to look like you want to look and it's great. And that's what women tell us. They get it. They get the irony and the juxtaposition.
Kevin Lavelle: It's such a great background. So looking forward, where do you see Sweaty Betty in 10 years?
Simon Hill-Norton: Well, I think I mean, what's so fantastic is we spent these 20 years, you know, battling a way to create this category called active wear in the UK. And now we're in the US and of course, we have international website and the whole world about three years ago woke up to this idea that you could in the same way that you've innovated so profoundly with dress shirts missing in Maine, the whole world has woken up to, well, why shouldn't my yoga clothes be so beautiful and so well-designed that I can wear them to a board meeting or to the school run or whatever? So this category is just emerging as far as I'm concerned. We're incredibly well placed because we have some of the best manufacturers and some of the best designs in the world. And I think, you know, my ambition for the brand is that I would like to be the number one premium women's activewear brand in the world. This category, as this movement of living healthy lifestyles and wearing the lifestyle that you're living goes international or global is not just to, you know, London, New York, L.A. It's actually Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Sydney. I mean, the Australians have always been incredibly active, as you know. And so what I would love to be is the premium offer as Lulu. Lululemon is doing an incredible job of growing internationally. And they are, you know, they're there. So I don't know what the right reference point is, but they're the most well-known brand and they're the gap of the category, let's say, sort of incredibly well known and very solid, reliable product. I would like to be the more fashionable, more premium version. So in essence, I need to take the brand up and I need to take the brand global and that's what we're working on at the moment.
Kevin Lavelle: It's great. And I I don't know if you knew that you said this, but something that just came out, I think encapsulated it so well. It's where the lifestyle that you're living, and I think that is a perfect encapsulation. So looking ahead, global domination, which I love to hear. But if you could go back to the beginning and I think you'll see a trend where I don't let you answer some questions in the way that I know you will. Other than launching your own brand sooner, if that would be your answer, what? What would you tell yourself? The one thing you'd tell yourself at the beginning, if you could go back and give just a piece of advice across time, what would that be?
Simon Hill-Norton: Yeah, for me, it would be. We lost a lot of years and we lost a lot of years because I lost my nerve and we lost a lot of years because we didn't have the finance and the economics weren't working. So I think. And and and how could I have not lost those years, honestly, if I had had an investor who had invested behind a multi store lifestyle brand? We could have, we could have, we could have probably gained five years on our growth story. So it turns out what I've discovered later and I had to work it out myself by pulling the accounts in the UK, everybody has to publish their accounts so you can have access to the powers of most businesses. It turns out that there is a minimum scale at which you will never make money running a multi, a small multi multi store, small size business. And that magic number I had no idea about the magic number happens to be 10 million of revenue because you just cannot afford any central costs below 10 million because the store sort of suck it all up in rent and stuff costs. So I would go back and say to myself, Hey, did you know you got to get to 10 million as fast as you can? So go and find the money, find the backers that believe in what you're doing and just just get that. Don't worry too much about analyzing the performance of every single store. So we would lurch from a year where we opened five stores to a year where we opened those stores because we just, you know, we just lost our nerve or it wasn't working well enough. So that would be that. I would also change just maybe having someone on the journey who had done it all before and could just guide us and prompt us and say, Hey, don't lose your nerve, it's going to work. Keep going. But if anything, go a little bit faster.
Kevin Lavelle: So knowing that retrospective and also the delay in starting your own brand since starting your own brand, what has been your single biggest regret if you could go back and change something since the launch of your own branded products? What is the one thing that stands out to you as a regret?
Simon Hill-Norton: Oh, no, that's a terrible question. I can't. So I have this, I have this awful filter. Whenever I get asked anything like that, what's the worst? You know, I have no idea. I mean, my brain just doesn't work like that. I don't even really understand what I regret. Maybe that's my answer. The only thing I tell myself is that I will only ever regret things that I don't do, and because I don't do them, I don't remember that I didn't do them. And I don't regret that. You know what I mean? So I actually don't know. I don't. We don't have any regrets business wise. Yeah. So my regret is that in the first couple of years, I did not have on board either an investor or a board member who'd done it all before and seen it all before. And he could have kept us, kept us, kept us straight.
Kevin Lavelle: So on a happier note, and please remain unfiltered, what brings you joy every single day?
Simon Hill-Norton: Yeah. You can tell I didn't have PR or media training. Unfortunately, I hope I'm not being too frank. I think I have enough. I'm already thinking that I'm really going to regret this interview. Kevin sort of softened me up, and he's asked me all these nice questions, and I've told him exactly how I feel, and then I'm going to publish it and feel embarrassed. And for me, I get so much pride and I'm sure you do as well that that stupid idea that you wrote down on the back of a, you know, a beer mat and me and my wife sort of scribbled it down. But fundamentally, the thing that brings me the most joy is the people and the customers that we work with. That sounds like such a throwaway, but let me just explain. Let me explain what I mean. We're not in America, in England. That sounds sycophantic. That's right, because we're not such wonderfully positive people as you are. We're much more cynical. But what I mean is we genuinely Tamara and I are very sort of straightforward people and we don't there's not much protocol around us or there never has been. And maybe that's a reaction to coming from military families, which is all about protocol and dress codes and arriving at the right time and all this kind of stuff. And every day. What gives us the most pleasure is people that we recruit or women that come and show with us who just say, You know what? You have fundamentally changed my life and sadly, we normally get those stories when they resign and go on to greater things, which we love and embrace. But when you get that letter from a customer or face to face and they say, you know, I came and I wasn't too sure who I was, and I was a little bit uncertain about what I was doing with my life and this job or this, the lifestyle you're promoting has really, really changed my life. And that for us, you know, deep down, back in the day, the thing that link tomorrow night as we wanted to make a difference and to have that validated so many years later firsthand by people we work with and people that we serve as customers is kind of awesome. And so for me, that's it. It's a non-family answer. I would have a different answer family, but for business that is, you know, that puts a spring in your step every morning.
Kevin Lavelle: Couldn't agree more. I resonate very much with that, and I love hearing it from friends building great things. So I'll butter you up with my answer. First, you and you can feel better about yours. My most recent embarrassing professional moment has actually been a series of embarrassing professional moments. We have a nine a.m. stand up huddle where the whole team stands up and just talks about, Hey, here's my priority for the day. Here's a challenge I'm facing, and here's how I'm doing today. Just looking people around in the circle, looking each other in the eye builds a level of camaraderie and friendship and unites people. And we've had so many people joining over the last six months. We've had summer interns joining. We've had part time. We've been hiring and I'm in and out of the office traveling a lot. And at least four times in the last six months, I've walked in and not known that there was a new person in our circle of 40 people. And you'd think after doing it one or two times, I would ask someone to help me make sure that that doesn't happen. But somehow I think I won't, and then I do it again and again. So most recently, it's not knowing that there's a new person in the room, and it's not as if we have hundreds of people. It's around 40. So that's mine. So now I'm going to ask you for your most embarrassing professional moment.
Simon Hill-Norton: Kevin, it's such a tough question, and I think I don't have an anecdote for you and I need some good anecdotes, and I think you have more experience doing this kind of thing than I do.
Kevin Lavelle: I’m good at embarrassing myself through answering these questions.
Simon Hill-Norton: You are good at answering questions cleverly with good anecdotes. But in principle, you know, for me, everything, nothing. We didn't know anything about what we were doing. So I wonder if I'm just unembarrassed because I am constantly screwing things up and making the wrong judgments. But the beauty is I'm surrounded by women who seem to be incredibly nonjudgmental, much more intuitive than I am. And that's that there will be one from this morning. There'll be one from yesterday. I can't scale them. I can't give you the most embarrassing of all. But I would say what has helped me is to recognize that I have no idea what I'm doing constantly out of my depth in America. I think you've got to fake it till you make it, which for me is just like the whole point is to be out of your depth and know what you're doing. Otherwise life is too dull. So absolutely, I have a whole load of regular occurrences where I sort of go, how embarrassing. Luckily, I don't embarrass easily, so not a satisfactory answer, but that's how I think about that one.
Kevin Lavelle: No, I think that's great. So I think you covered this earlier as you think about global domination. But do you want to do this for your whole life or do you want to find a time to say we have accomplished all we set out to do and now I want to go be that professor.
Simon Hill-Norton: And the second, the latter, we definitely I mean, we couldn't be happier. Tamara is in her happiest zone where she has a design team and she's surrounded by product and she's trying to perfect it and make it better and surprise the customer with new things. And I, I say the way I express this is, as I say, I don't want this on my tombstone. I don't know if that resonates in the states, but you know, I feel like I would like to do several of these in my time and not necessarily business exactly. As you said. I love to teach at business school. And I'm very, very passionate about the environment as a surfer and a skier. I spend a lot of time in nature and not enough ever. And that's become topical now, and I would love to spend some of my energies in that area as well.
Kevin Lavelle: So you have literally just the perfect Segway any interviewer could ever ask for it when you talk about your tombstone. How do you want to be remembered?
Simon Hill-Norton: It's a great question. I would like to be. Remembered as somebody that people went to. For advice or for coaching, and that's my kids, I love the way my wife has created an extraordinary relationship with our children, where they're constantly asking for our input rather than rejecting us and pushing us away, which is a remarkable bearing in mind. Two of them are teenagers. I love the idea that people would want to ask my opinion and see whether I can help them with my experience and thoughts about the world. So to be somebody that is respected and whose advice is sought as simple as that beautiful.
Kevin Lavelle: Well, we've got a couple minutes left and I'm going to go through some rapid fire questions and the most important two items here. We'll take inspiration from tomorrow and let's not take ourselves too seriously. There are some pretty ridiculous questions in here and to just fire off whatever comes to mind. There's no wrong answer unless it's a really embarrassing answer. And then this can be your most embarrassing professional moment.
Simon Hill-Norton: OK, so this sounds really frightening.
Kevin Lavelle: Yeah. These will be quick, quick questions, multiple choice and just fire off whatever comes to mind. How many hours of sleep do you typically get a night?
Simon Hill-Norton: Eight hours without fail.
Kevin Lavelle: I absolutely love that. So there's this new gene editing tool where you can basically select genes that you want to replace. If you could replace one gene, if you could fix one thing about yourself genetically, what would it be?
Simon Hill-Norton: I would not be six foot five because I have a constantly sore back as the world is designed for five foot seven people. And I have to bend down to do everything I want to do in my life.
Kevin Lavelle: All right. Well, then I guess I don't want to be six five. What is your favorite fiction and or nonfiction book?
Simon Hill-Norton: Oh, so at the moment I'm reading, I'm going to give you a nonfiction is Feral by George Monbiot. He's a sort of eco activist. And this is post conservation rewilding countries. It's about rather than trying to conserve things like we imagine they used to be. How about just giving vast tracts of land over to nature and see what happens to it? And it is quite remarkable what happens.
Kevin Lavelle: Daily music playlists theme. What kind of music to listen to every day?
Simon Hill-Norton: Well, so I cycle to work every day if I'm going into the office. In fact, I cycle to work if I'm going to stores. And sadly, music has been taken over by podcasts like this. So I'm listening to Guy Raz, I think and listen to all of those. But yeah, talk radio and well, talk radio in the UK is sort of possibly more intellectual than what you're thinking of. So. So podcasts and thoughtful programs about current affairs and business.
Kevin Lavelle: Great. What is your wake up drink of choice and your wind down?
Simon Hill-Norton: Oh, I got terrible, boring answers to this. So in the morning, yeah, boringly, I will drink green tea. Jasmine pearl, actually green tea in the morning with my breakfast. And when I go to sleep, we have a yoga tea, which has licorice and fennel in it. So not very rock and roll.
Kevin Lavelle: I'm afraid that is an aggressive set of flavors though. So this could be described as either your last meal, what would it be or what's your favorite meal?
Simon Hill-Norton: My favorite meal is changing a lot as I become much more aware about the impact of animal farming on the planet generally. I'm a very passionate vegetable grower, so the answer would be some extraordinary Middle Eastern vegetable dish. I don't even know what it is yet, but it would definitely have cucumbers and pomegranates and aubergines and potatoes and fennel and sort of crazy mix of flavors. But it would be vegetarian.
Kevin Lavelle: There is no way that doesn't become the best answer to this question over the arc of this podcast. Do you have a particularly strong pet peeve?
Simon Hill-Norton: Yes. And it drives my wife insane that this annoys me, but I don't know how this, but basically I'm constantly dissatisfied with the status quo. I don't know if that's a disease or a thing. And she finds it so tiring because I question everything all the time and it is relentless and boring and tiring. And that's my peeve. Just being complacent. Why would you be complacent when there's stuff to do and exciting things to change?
Kevin Lavelle: It's absolutely the best pet peeve I think you could ever ask for. So you mentioned podcasts earlier. Do you have a favorite podcast of the moment?
Simon Hill-Norton: Yes. So of the moment, it's Guy Raz with his family stories. How I built this.
Kevin Lavelle: Do you have an estimate of how much you spend on Amazon in a month?
Simon Hill-Norton: Yeah, I'm on prime and we have a delivery. We have three deliveries a week. Let's say that, but that is all very low value items. So if I had to add it up, it would be $200 a month.
Kevin Lavelle: Very good. What TV show could you watch over and over and over again?
Simon Hill-Norton: You know, we don't even have a TV in our house. I don't watch TV. OK. That's terrible. I have watched breaking bad. I can think of some. I laugh, but none that I would watch again.
Kevin Lavelle: Fair enough. What is your personal favorite article of clothing?
Simon Hill-Norton: [laughter] Wet suit. Everything I do in a wet suit I love.
Kevin Lavelle: Would you rather fight off 100 duck sized horses or one horse-sized duck?
Simon Hill-Norton: No, it definitely would have to be this. It would have to be the small ones. I don't think they could kick me to death. 100 duck-sized horse. Maybe they could. But I mean, swans can break your leg and they're not the size of a horse. No, that would terrify me. A horse. So stop. I'm already having nightmares about that.
Kevin Lavelle: This is one of my favorite questions I've ever been asked. So I know you talked a lot about it, you love surfing. You have skiing. You have one favorite single place that you love to travel to.
Simon Hill-Norton: Yes, we have taken the chance to build a house down in the south coast of England, which, believe it or not, doesn't rain all the time. It is sunny, it's beautiful. It's in an area of outstanding natural beauty called Chichester Harbor, and we sail and paddleboard and kayak and fish. And it's very special to so it's a family, it's our family place for weekends.
Kevin Lavelle: Lovely. And lastly, what is the best gift that you have ever received?
Simon Hill-Norton: Oh, I just got my answer straight away, but it sounds once again sycophantic and, you know, love is the best gift you could ever receive, in my opinion, from anybody. [
Kevin Lavelle: Every other answer on every other episode is just going to pale in comparison to that. It's lovely. Well, Simon, this has been taking notes personally of things that I've already taken away. And what excites me so much about doing these conversations. You and I have gotten to travel quite a bit together and share lessons of building Mizzen and Maine and Sweaty Betty and have built a great friendship. And the reason we're doing this is so people can hear some of these great great anecdotes and interactions and the very human reality of what it takes to build a business. So you just could not have asked for a better first guest. This has been an awesome conversation and I look forward to getting some reaction. Where can people find you online? What's the best way if they want to ask you a question or reach out to you?
Simon Hill-Norton: So prior to this, I'm pleased to say that I've managed to keep my digital footprint to an absolute minimum, but I think you're going to trash my 10 years of careful curation.
Kevin Lavelle: That's great. Well, thank you so much for spending some time together today. It was a fun conversation
Simon Hill-Norton: All right, Kevin, it was a great honor to be invited. Thank you. I appreciate that. And you do know that your shirts have changed my life. I've told you already that I did SoulCycle at seven am and I had an 8:15 breakfast with some important people. And normally I would sit through that breakfast soaking wet and a cotton shirt, and I put on my first ever Mizzen and Main, and I was cool as a cucumber. So thank you very much as well.
Kevin Lavelle: I love it. Well, listen, I mean, this was great. Thank you so much for a wonderful first session, and I hope everybody out there is listening to this. Enjoyed it. And go check out Sweaty Betty for all of the ladies in your life.