JOE meets the two Irish entrepreneurs behind Compression gear brand, COBRAW
If there are two things we love here in JOE it’s playing sports and looking good...
So we jumped at the chance to have a chat with Conor Teehan from Tipperary & John Broderick from Kilkenny, the two Irish cousins behind Ireland’s very own Compression gear, COBRAW.
Recently, the lads signed Irish footballer Shane Long and Irish long-jumper and 200m runner Kelly Proper as brand ambassadors, so we had a chat to find out how to make it as a successful start-up in Ireland.
JOE: So, lads, why did you choose to go into the sports clothing market?
John: I think for both of us sport has been in our blood. Since we could walk we've had hurleys in our hands and all of my fondest memories from my childhood revolve around sport in some way. The love for GAA grew into a love for every sport.
Since I've got older I've developed a passion for fashion and clothing also. I always dreamed of having my own clothing range and one day we just decided “why not give it a go?"
So we decided to go about manufacturing clothing that we would be excited to wear before training, clothing that made us want to run in spite of the howling wind and rain outside. With COBRAW we want athletes to wear our clothing and think “Yes, this is the product we have been waiting for”.
Conor: Basically, the love of sport. We both have suffered injuries that seriously restricted us from getting involved in sports for a year or so. You’d miss it. But once we could play GAA, soccer, rugby, athletics, etc. again, the feeling of enjoyment from that is almost unequalled.
We researched compression gear that was currently available for three years before we released our first COBRAW range last year. We liked the confidence you gain from wearing compression gear but felt like that sportswear sector had not advanced since Skins became the dominant force. Brands such as Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, etc. are very market driven. We really wanted to develop a collection that was product driven.
John did most of the designing (if you call sketches on the back of a receipt ‘designs’) with a pencil and paper and we got a graphic designer to convert them to digital format. We must have changed designs up to 50 times before we went in to mass production.
JOE: Was it difficult to stand out from the crowd at first? Is it still tough?
John: Of course. Making yourself heard amongst the multi-millionaire companies is an incredibly daunting task. However, we are firm believers that if the product is of top quality, eventually, over time, people will stand up and take notice.
We have used the first year to grow organically and we are learning where COBRAW fits in the market before developing a marketing campaign.
JOE: What has been your biggest barrier since starting up the company?
Conor: I think trying to get respect as an unknown company at the start was very humbling. At design, manufacturing and retailing stages it is hard to push your brand and there have been days when you feel like nothing you do is going to work no matter how much effort you put in.
As the great David Brent said: “You have to be thick-skinned in business.” We had to get an Office quote in there somewhere!
But then there are some wonderful people who see what you are trying to do and know that every company starts out small. These guys take a chance on you and we owe them a lot. People from our local areas, small business owners, family and even my students have contributed so much to getting us off the ground.
JOE: Have you had many mentors? What has been the best advice they've given you?
John: As someone who never did business of any kind in school or college, I never had any mentors in that area. However, since we started this business I have come in contact with some amazing young people who have started their own businesses and are already reaping the rewards.
The thing that has surprised me most is how helpful these people are, and how much they are willing to show you. I hope to be in that situation where I can offer valuable advice to someone who has an idea that he or she is willing to transform into a business. I think I'd get great satisfaction from that.
COBRAW brand ambassador, Shane Long
Conor: Basically, neither John nor I had much experience with designing sportswear, manufacturing, E-commerce, sales, etc. and we wanted to be involved in doing each of those by ourselves. This way we can learn our strengths and then hire or outsource responsibilities that are not our core strengths.
People and organisations I have fed off are the likes of Liam Casey and Darragh Hudson at PCH International. They are a hugely successful Irish company but make a real effort to build items with start-ups and if we have questions, they are very approachable.
JOE: What has been your greatest moment since starting up?
John: For me, it's opening that first box of our products in Kilkenny for the first time. Until then, COBRAW was all words, drawings and colours on paper and computer software, but to physically pick up something that you have designed from scratch was an incredible feeling.
Five years ago if you were to tell me that I would own a sports clothing brand I wouldn't have believed it. I still find it a little crazy to be honest.
Conor: Every time you see someone wearing your brand is a pretty good moment; be it on TV, newspaper or local area.
Also, seeing new orders coming in to COBRAW.com that we know are a few connections removed from friends and family is nice as it shows that we are doing some things right.
JOE: And your worst?
John: Trying to scrape money together for orders is tough and hearing, “sorry we love your product but we're going to stick with “X”, because people are familiar with it really rattles your confidence.
No matter how much rejection we got from people in the business world, however, it was nothing compared to what Conor received every Friday and Saturday night in Hayes' nightclub. Conor always said: “Every no is one step closer to a yes”.
A great line, but easy to say when I was the one who had to carry out the selling!
— Cobraw (@Cobrawco) February 8, 2015
Conor: I do have thick skin alright. As John concentrates on the appearance of the product and Irish sales, he has the tougher task. Convincing people to try your product can be frustrating. But we learn from these things and we’ve seen a significant increase in orders since offering a free 30 day return policy on COBRAW.com
JOE: What are your three pieces of advice you would you give to somebody starting off?
John: 1. As Mark Cuban advises, invest your own money in the beginning and try to avoid loans. It is only when you start losing your own money that you will realise if this is what you really want to be doing. If you are willing to go for broke with your hard earned cash then you know it's something you're passionate about and something worth pursuing.
2. Listen to advice from people who have been in your position. I think there is a certain bravado in the beginning. You see the glory but not the pitfalls. Advice from people who have walked the road before you is invaluable, even if it isn't what you want to hear!
3. Hire a good accountant! There are rules, regulations and deadlines in the financial world that, if not adhered to, could seriously hurt a small business. Plus it takes a lot of pressure off the directors that can focus on product development and sales.
JOE: What are your “cheats” or “hacks” for making life easier in the business world?
John: Pawn as much of the dirty work off on your cousin whenever possible! Having a sizeable bank account will definitely make anything in life easier. Unfortunately, as a teacher, I was never afforded that luxury.
Conor: Yeah, be receptive and patient with a grumpy relation. Other than that, utilise as much free software and free advice you can get. Don’t hesitate to approach people for advice.
Though there are no real hacks. You’ll generally get out what you put in.
JOE: If you weren’t doing this, what do you think you’d be doing now?
John: Well I'd be in the classroom cutting dovetail joints and shouting at students to sweep their benches before they run off to the next class! Teaching is fantastic and I'm in a wonderful school. I'm never in a bad mood getting up in the morning and that is a luxury that a lot of people don't have.
Conor: Repeating school as a mature student trying to avoid the heavy hand of John. Otherwise a male stripper. The options are endless really…
JOE: Who’s the better sportsman between the two of you and why?
John: Me! I'm never going to concede second best, especially to my cousin! If he lost weight maybe we could sort it out in the ring and decide once and for all but I think that's asking a bit too much of Conor....
Conor: I think John once won a “Cards Against Humanity” game. Is that a sport? If not, the Tipp man wins each time.
JOE: What are you plans for COBRAW going forward?
John: Become the biggest sportswear company in the world! Seriously though, I think it's important to have serious, achievable short and long term goals. Right now we're focusing on releasing quality products and gaining a foothold in an extremely competitive industry. But to repeat myself, quality comes before anything else.
I have a dream for COBRAW and it might be a little crazy, but everyone's allowed to dream aren't they? I would love to combine computer technology with our sportswear in the future, and it's something we have started looking into.
Whatever we decide to do, we'll give it 100% effort anyway, of that I'm sure.
Conor: In a few months we will have compression pants that are like nothing else on the market. Pants that actually assist your performance, recovery and look damn sexy.
Before the end of the year, we will have new shorts and shirts with new designs and features that nobody else has. We also plan to be retailing in five other countries.
Long-term, just to continue to bring exciting products to market and not let market or fashion trends dictate what makes people enjoy sport most.
JOE: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, lads.