Q&A: Howard Harrison, Benoit Ruscoe, Alastair Hops, knomo

Tell me about the business and where it came from?

The idea for knomo was hatched on a business trip in 2004 while waiting in line at the airport. I (Howard) realised that virtually all the other businessmen and women around me were carrying an ugly nylon laptop bag that was similar to the one I had also been forced to carry with no other alternatives available. It was a 'Eureka' moment, and while canvassing others for feedback, two of my friends agreed that there was real potential and we decided to team up to build a brand.

How did you settle on what the 'brand' would be?

After realising the potential that the market offered in stylish technology-relevant accessories, we decided that knomo would focus on creating everyday bags that are stylish but also perfectly utilitarian. It would be a fusion between a fashion accessory and a functional workbag.

The brand name came about as a fusion of 'knowledge' and 'mobility', and although we have taken some criticism for it being a little confusing to pronounce (the k is silent, like in the word 'knowledge') we have learnt to love it - it is pretty unique!

How did you secure funding?

The business was funded for the first two years by our savings, supplemented by bank finance. We didn't take a salary during that time. In 2008, we raised equity investment from the Capital Fund and also from business angels. In 2010 we were struggling to increase our bank trade lines despite significant growth and so were forced to do further minority equity fundraising, which we found via our main Asian supplier. This has worked very well to supplement our working capital, whilst also strengthening our sourcing partnership.

How do you keep knomo fresh and cool? I mean, it looks to me like both the fashion and tech industries move on pretty fast...

It is definitely a challenge to work seasonally on collections to fit in with the fashion industry and keeping to their buying seasons, while also keeping up with changes in technology items. We started to work with an Italian design house who have been instrumental in updating the product and introducing innovative materials and designs. On the tech side, most of us in the business are real tech fans so we all try to keep up with the hottest gadgets and gizmos anyway!

What influence and support has Apple had on the business?

Apple has always been a brand that we loved before starting knomo and it became more relevant when we hit upon the idea of designing technology accessories. Apple is a phenomenal brand that is moving very fast in both product design and innovation as well as in its retail presence, and the energy and excitement behind this brand has definitely fuelled and motivated our growth. Our presence in Apple stores has boosted knomo's visibility and provided credibility, and Apple has been supportive of what are trying to do, since the very beginning

What, in your case, is the key to managing growth?

Constantly being aware of all the various needs in the business and trying to find budget to support that. Otherwise, the most important factor has been managing working capital over the last two years, while our business has been growing by over 55% per year, and credit has become impossible to access.  We have improved our forecasting capability as well introduced stronger product ranges with faster sell-through.

Can you describe how you coped with the setbacks along the way? I'm thinking in particular of the recession?

The recent recession has certainly had an impact on us but while we carried on increasing sales through organic growth and international expansion during the credit crunch, the biggest challenge has been accessing working capital.

Can you give us the scoop on some of your collaborations, how did they come about?

We started off focussing on fashion collaborations and worked with London fashion design duo Belle and Bunty and from there we have worked with much larger companies like Bafta, Twentieth Century Fox and musicians like Erick Morillo. The Erick Morillo collaboration is our largest to date, and came about via our brand manager. We approached Erick about the chance to design a range of bags that cater to a DJ's needs (all DJs use a laptop these days, rather than a turntable!) and he was thrilled to get involved. We pitched the idea to Selfridges who loved it and we worked together to create a launch event where Erick could host a party in the store and meet and greet customers.

What is your biggest challenge?

Constantly keeping our designs fresh and relevant to both fashion and tech markets, and trying to innovate the functional aspect are key challenges.

What's the single most important thing you would say to someone thinking of starting up their own business?

Be very clear on what you want from your business and how you want to achieve it. Work out what you stand for and stick to it in all areas of the business.

What is knomo's five year plan?

In the next five years we would like to see knomo to become a highly desirable brand in our existing markets. We believe we can continue to grow revenues at over 40% per year through expanding our distribution in existing markets through concessions and potentially our own retail online. We also intend to enter into Asia, including Japan, China, South Korea, and India. We always welcome feedback via our twitter account or our Facebook page and we'd love to hear what Smarta's savvy readership think!

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