5 Minutes With Ben Farren, CEO & Founder, Spoke

Founded just four years ago, Spoke is a London-based menswear ecommerce retailer that enjoyed four-fold growth in 2016, trebled revenues in the first half of 2017 and now trades in 40 countries. A dominant force in the chinos market thanks to their online fit finder, the brand has now branched out to polo shirts. The Retail Gazette caught up with founder Ben Farren to learn more.

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Ben Farren Spoke CEO

Congratulations for the launch of Spoke’s polo shirts range!

A new category entry is always exciting – but this has been a couple of years in the making, so there’s a lot of anticipation around this launch – and a genuine sense of mission.

It’s a problem I’ve wanted to address since day one. Small, medium and large doesn’t (and shouldn’t) cut it – it’s a blunt sizing scheme, designed to manage inventory, not to deliver fit.

That’s why we’ve developed over 30 sizes and the extra time we’ve given the product has been spent fine-tuning the finishing touches. Having spent four years taking “crotch shots” of our chinos, it comes as light relief to take some pics above the belt for a change.

Tell me about the story of Spoke.

It’s a cliche, but if you can’t find what you are looking for, sometimes the only answer is to build it yourself.

I was tired of falling between sizes. I wanted my wardrobe staples to fit better. I cared about that more than almost anything else – and I knew I wasn’t alone. So, I started Spoke four years ago with the mission of building a better, smarter menswear brand that really delivers on fit.

The brand now trades in 40 countries – how are you planning to invest the funding of over $5 million?

We want to use the investment we’ve raised to grow our product range – continuing our obsession with fit – and upgrade our offer outside the UK.

“It’s a cliche, but if you can’t find what you are looking for, sometimes the only answer is to build it yourself”

More and more online-only retailers are evolving into “clicks-to-bricks” retailers. Examples are Missguided, Joe Brown and of course, Amazon. Is there a bricks and mortar future for Spoke?

I don’t think you’ve fully realised your brand until you’ve created an experience in real life.

There will always be customers that will want to touch and feel your product and try it before they buy it. Our customers regularly visit us at head office and we know that they deserve a better experience so we definitely want to create a temple for the brand.

I don’t think that this sits in opposition to being a digital brand – it’s just another way for your customers to encounter you.

How is Spoke different to other online fashion retailers?

We put fit first – and in my experience, traditional brands and retailers find that very hard to do. When you spread your stock thin over lots of locations, something has to give, and the first thing to go is sizing.

We bring a mildly obsessive, nerdy quality to our product development. We keep ourselves focused and we sweat the detail. The result is that our clothes fit our customers, not the other way around.

How is Spoke addressing some of the challenges facing the high street as a whole?

We’re somewhat protected because we promise our customers a different kind of retail experience than the high street which occurs in their own home, as opposed to a badly-lit changing room.

What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector, given the current climate?

For a lot of retailers, the likes of Amazon poses an existential risk. As simplified as it is, the best response to this is to build a well-loved brand.

Almost 20 per cent of our customers come back within 30 days and that’s because they’ve encountered a brand that they like and that’s the best protection I’ve got.

Describe your role and responsibilities.

I started the gig and I still interfere in everything. But I have a great team now and increasingly, I focus just on marketing, tech and looking after the money.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before Spoke.

I don’t have a background in retail or fashion – I am a recovering management consultant, and ran another startup in Africa. Sometimes I think my limited experience in retail has helped bring a different perspective.

For the rest, it’s been a gruelling process of learning on the job and surrounding myself with great, passionate people.

What got you into retail in the first place?

My goal was never to get into retail but rather, retail is an emergent property of the product opportunity I’m chasing. I saw a customer and a product opportunity and ecommerce promised an answer to it.

“Sometimes I think my limited experience in retail has helped bring a different perspective”

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

It’s being totally invested and never really switching off in any kind of sustained way.

That’s my experience of being an entrepreneur and I think that this collides with retail because retail is exhausting just by its nature.

Retail is a hamster wheel that never stop turning. If you take the relentlessness of being an entrepreneur and you marry that with the fact that you’ve always got to be selling, it’s multiplied and it can be intense.

And the most rewarding?

Abstractly the most rewarding is the growth, we’re selling hundreds of thousands of chinos which is incredible.

The moments that really count though are often the anecdotal wins – when I see someone wearing our product out in the wild, when I receive some feedback from a customer that thinks what we’re doing is inspired – those are the biggest lifts.

I do sometimes stand back and feel gratified by the headline growth but I also recognise that encountering happy customers is just as important as the high-level stuff.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career in retail?

Try to find your marathon pace because it’s never going to stop. You’ve got another number to beat next month and you’ll drive yourself mad if you don’t find some kind of marathon pace.

Also, try not to check sales on your phone every two minutes at the weekend (I’m tragically bad at this one).

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