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Ross Darling and Carol James, managers at the Tjukayirla Roadhouse

Vollebak: How to succeed by breaking all the rules

Steve and Nick Tidball don’t believe in following the rules. The British twin brothers ignored traditional business thinking when they co-founded Vollebak in 2016, by using science and technology to create clothing for the future. 

Steve and Nick were two of the biggest names in advertising and knew little about running a clothing line when they decided to turn their passion for adventure into a business. Despite their lack of experience, Vollebak has experienced 100 per cent year-on-year growth since its launch, and the brothers have built a global brand that is often compared to Tesla and elBulli.

Breaking the mould

One of the fundamental rules of clothing has always been to design for the present, which means designing for what people want and need right now,” explains Nick. “Nearly every clothing brand does this.

“We take an entirely different approach, by designing clothing for the next century rather than the next season. It means we ignore questions like what colour people like or what kind of things are fashionable and in style now, and instead focus on much bigger questions about the challenges that humanity will face in the next century, and how clothing can equip us for those challenges.”

Steve believes that the other way that Vollebak breaks the mould is with their approach to innovation. 

“The conventional approach is to focus on one challenge and one solution,” he explains. “But we work on a whole series of interconnected problems to do with the future of clothing at the same time. We pursue almost every interesting avenue we come across, because we believe that this approach will lead to the greatest amount of innovation. 

“With sustainability, for example, our innovations extend from creating ultra-durable clothes that can be worn for 100 years and outlive the wearer, to making clothes that you can bury and leave to biodegrade in the garden once you’ve finished wearing them. We don’t pin the future on any single idea.”

Conventional thinkers may view Vollebak’s approach as risky, but Steve disagrees. “I think we’re willing to take on complex challenges that other companies might not be prepared to take on, and this is because we’re 100 per cent focused on innovation,” he says. “For us, the most risky thing we could do in the clothing industry is to make the same clothing as everyone else.”

It is hard to look at Vollebak’s success without acknowledging Nick and Steve’s undeniable marketing skills, but Nick puts their ability to attract attention into a wider perspective.

Our focus has always been on making the most innovative products we can,” he says. “So, we think about the problems that no-one else is working on. And we’ve found that by doing this, the clothes themselves become the marketing. 

“We made our first ever product so unusual – it was a pink hoodie that zips up over your face to help you relax – that Jimmy Fallon ended up wearing it on The Tonight Show. To launch our Deep Sleep Cocoon, which is designed for deep space travel, we rented the billboard right outside SpaceX HQ to ask Elon when their rocket for Mars was going to be ready as we’d finished our jacket. And right now, ten of our customers are paying for one of our 100 Year Hoodies in 1 per cent instalments for the next 100 years until either they die, or we do.”

Telling stories has been fundamental to building the Vollebak brand.

 “In setting such ambitious goals for our clothing, like storing sunlight, or helping slow down your brainwaves, it’s inevitable that we end up with fascinating stories to tell,” says Steve. “We place a lot of emphasis on describing the initial problem to our customers, as well as explaining why nobody has attempted to solve it before, and then we tell them how we got to our solution. We tell the story in the most interesting way possible, and in a way that people can understand.”

The Remote Store 

In their latest counter-intuitive move, at a time when COVID-19 has forced many retail outlets to close their doors and sell online, Vollebak’s first remote store has opened in the harshest and most remote of locations, the Australian outback.

 “We make clothing for some of the most extreme places on the planet, from the snow-bound poles to the harshest jungles and deserts,” says Steve. “These are places where you find out who you are, and where what you wear can be a matter of life and death. So, it made sense to us that you should be able to buy our kit in the places it’s designed for.”

Nick explains how they found the Tjukayirla Roadhouse: We knew we wanted our first Remote Store to stock the new edition of our Planet Earth Shirt, and while that shirt is designed to help you thrive anywhere on Earth, its system of concealed air vents means it’s amazing to wear in for very hot conditions. So, we decided to look for a store in the middle of a desert. 

“With over 1.37 million square kilometres of desert, Australia seemed to be a good place to start looking. We worked with Sydney-based director James Dive, who we know well from our advertising days, and he led us to the Great Victoria Desert and the most remote roadhouse in Australia.”

The Tjukayirla Roadhouse is a three-day drive or a private plane ride from Perth and is run by Ross Darling and Carol James, and their dog Bronson. These unlikely stars are the subject of Remote Store One, a short documentary from Vollebak and internationally recognised director James Dive. The 12-minute film explores the role that stores in remote locations play in our lives, as travellers and adventurers, and how while these stores might be in the middle of nowhere, to some they’re home.

The Roadhouse will stock the new edition of Vollebak’s Planet Earth Shirt for whatever price Ross and Carol decide to sell it for.  Marketing gold.

Steve and Nick’s three top tips for other entrepreneurs

  1. If you’re going to start a business, build it around the things you love. For us, it’s adventure and design. So, we have a brand that designs the world’s best adventure clothing.
  2. Look outside of your own industry for inspiration. If you only spend time looking at your competition, you’ll end up mimicking what they’re doing. Exploring what’s going on in other industries is more likely to lead you to ideas and opportunities that no-one else is thinking about.
  3. Be incredibly truthful about who you’re designing your product for, and why they’re going to want it. If you haven’t got a clear picture of the first 10 people who are going to buy it, you’ll struggle to find the first 100, 1,000 and 1,000,000 customers. You need to know who they are and why they’re going to love it.

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Clare Loewenthal

Clare Loewenthal

Clare is an author, business commentator and passionate contributor to Dynamic Business. She was the Founder and Publisher of Dynamic Small Business magazine, which became Australia’s largest small business publication.

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