Tom Probert was on a family adventure, cycling through the Pyrenees, when he got the idea to create his own clothing brand.
It was a family tradition to go on long biking trips in the summer.
“As a graphic designer and a frustrated T-shirt designer, I’d design T-shirts for each adventure. That’s when I thought – maybe I could start my own brand”, says Tom.
He found himself in a cafe, atop a mountain, sketching out designs, scribbling words and ideas. A year later, he launched Pilgrim Cycling Co, a clothing brand that celebrates “the soulful side of cycling”.
He ran a Kickstarter to launch his first collection. It reached its funding goal (￡2500) in 5 days and raised 2.5x its goal (￡6409) by the end of the campaign.
Getting a Kickstarter to succeed is not easy. If you launch one today, there’s a 40% chance you’ll succeed. If you’re running a campaign for a fashion item, it’s even harder. Only 27% of all fashion projects on Kickstarter get fully funded.
Tom knew nothing about manufacturing T-shirts when he got started. He had never crowd funded before, either. But he did have a clear idea of the brand ethos and the story he wanted to tell. And he had the tenacity to stick with it.
“It was a bit of a compulsive thing”, he says.
Tom breaks it down for us in this interview: How his bedroom piled up with boxes of T-shirts before he could find the right supplier. How he landed on just the right illustrator for each of his design concepts. And how he took to the streets of London to reach his audience niche!
When did you first feel like you wanted to create your own clothing brand?
I’ve always wanted to have a little line of T-Shirts. I signed up to a studio in London to learn screen printing and started to do it for some personal projects. It gave me the realization that I’ve got this skill that I can now combine with my graphic design skills, and print whatever I want in big quantities. The only logical thought from that point was – what can I produce for people to buy?
Tell me about the moment when you got the idea to start a cycling-inspired clothing brand.
My family & I started a tradition of going on long bike adventures in summer. The one we did last year was in the Pyrenes. As a graphic designer and a frustrated T-shirt designer, I’d design these T-shirts for each adventure. Last year, having recently learned screen-printing, I also made the T-shirts. That’s when I thought – maybe I could start my own brand.
When you’ve got 7-8 hours sitting on a bike all day, you’ve got all this time to think. There’s something about being on a bike that gets the creative juices going. It’s the best thing, I think!
I found myself at the top of a mountain, in a cafe, getting my sketchbook out and starting to write stuff down. Just scribbles of ideas & designs. I drew this eye. That’s become the logo for the brand.
What was the first step you took?
I came up with a name – Pilgrim. It distilled all the ideas I had into one name.
The next thing I did was to find illustrators to collaborate with. In order to do that, I had to communicate to them what the brand was. That forced me to communicate all the ideas I had into a neat visual document.
What did this visual document have?
It was effectively a mood board. A few pages that combined images I’d seen online, photos I’d taken on cycling trips & words that summed up the ethos of the brand.
Where did you go looking for illustrators?
I went on a website called Behance where creatives put up portfolios of their work. At a glance you can see what their style is and get in touch with them through the website. I made a collection of illustrators who had a style that fit & I started to get in touch with them.
My approach to it was – I’ve got this brand, are you even interested in doing it? It was important to me that they feel it at an emotional level rather than it just being a transaction
How did you land on your first illustrator, Harriet Taylor Seed?
I had quite a developed idea about what I wanted the style and the color palette to be. I specifically wanted a pattern for this particular illustration. Harriet’s work had perfectly the visual style that I wanted. She is a prolific pattern designer.
You made an important discovery when working with her. Can you tell us about that?
I imagined the process would be that I would have a clear idea of what I wanted, communicate it to the illustrator, they would do it & I would have the finished design.
But once she started designing stuff & sending it back to me, it changed the idea of what I wanted the T-shirt to look like.
She produced 4 or 5 times the amount of individual elements than what I used in the end. Seeing the designs in real life versus what was in my head was different. Also, there were practical constraints – when I started going to printers with the designs, I realized they were going to be way too expensive to produce.
It was a steep learning curve. I learned a lot about printing very quickly and this fed back into the design process. It surprised me how much other factors could change the way the design turns out.
Did you experience the same iterative process with the other 2 illustrators as well?
They were all different.
With Alan Berry Rhys, I sent him a page of sketches of different elements. I knew what his work was like & I asked him if he could apply his style to this subject matter. Alan was brilliant to work with. He got it instantly. He added a lot of himself into the design. For example, on the T-shirt that he’s designed, there’s a tin of sardines that he added on. I thought it was cool.
With Mick Brownfield, I had a clear idea of the design which was a 1950s comic book – an innocent, slightly naive image. I had the composition for it and knew the exact details I wanted. I just didn’t have the skills to illustrate it myself. Eventually, I found Mick. He’s been a commercial illustrator for God knows how many years. He’s illustrated magazine covers from when I was a kid. He’s quite legendary. He took my sketch and executed it perfectly in the style I was looking for, without having any creative input in it.
The next step was manufacturing the T-shirts. Tell me about the biggest challenge you encountered when doing this.
From the start I knew I had 2 options: I could print & produce them myself or I could approach a screen printing studio and pay them to do it. I went down the second route, because quality was the most important thing for me. I’m not setup to produce big quantities, consistently.
I had to find a screen printer to do it. That took a bit of a search. All of these things were massive hurdles for me. The design side I was comfortable with. Actually producing & manufacturing things – I had absolutely no idea!
It was a lot of Googling & asking screen-printing friends. Eventually, after trying out loads of different brands, my bedroom just piling up with boxes of T-shirts from different companies, I managed to find a really good screen printer.
These guys actually had a showroom & rep in London. They’ve got this awesome approach to sustainability and ethical sides of the manufacturing process. I was really sure that I had found the best possible supplier for the garments.
When you were hitting hurdles on the production side of things, what do you think made you stick with it?
It was just really good fun. I loved doing it. In my day job as a designer I’m doing one small part of the whole workflow. It’s really liberating to be in control of all aspects. I got my teeth into it. It was a bit of a compulsive thing.
What was the moment you decided you were going to run a Kickstarter to fund the first collection?
As soon as I decided I was going to use a commercial printer that implies quite a big cost. I didn’t have any spare income of my own, so I need to generate the funds. I’ve been a big Kickstarter fan as long I’ve known about it. It was my first thought, really. I didn’t even look into other ways of doing it. I just thought – this fits. I’ve got everything I need to put together a nice presentation.
Kickstarter is a great way to bring your product to market and gauge if customers will buy it. Before this point, was there any validation you sought out from other people on the designs?
Very little, to be honest. In fact, the first time I got a gauge of whether people like the T-shirts or not, was when I did the video shoot with a couple of friends. I’d been so secretive about it, for no good reason apart from probably just being scared about what people would think. I was convinced myself that I was coming up with a good idea and nice designs.
I didn’t have any feedback other than from my girlfriend and my parents – and I more or less ignored their feedback. Doing the Kickstarter was a total leap of faith & it was terrifying.
Tell us about how you got your Kickstarter video created.
My brother is studying film in London. He’s also a keen cyclist and was well behind the project. He and his friend agreed to produce the video for me. They were the perfect team to work with – super enthusiastic, young and eager to put into practice what they’re learning. They had access to professional grade kit for free through their university. And also they didn’t require any kind of payment. They did a great job!
Your campaign reached its funding goal of ￡2500 in 5 days. How did you build support for your campaign before you launched the Kickstarter?
In terms of the building blocks for creating a successful Kickstarter campaign:
First, I got the concept very clear in my own head. I distilled it into very simple and easily digestible words and visuals.
Second, I had to communicate the concept very clearly. All the writing I did for the brand – the script for the video & everything else – had to be stripped back to its essence. It can become quite complicated. I tried to keep it simple so that people just get it instantly.
Third, and this is crucial – it’s almost quite scary to see how much you need to do it- is to drive people to the site. You can have a really good project, but that in itself isn’t going to make people go there and pledge money to it. It’s about trying to spread the word as much as you can.
How did you do that – spread the word before launch?
I set up all the social media channels 6 months to a year before the Kickstarter happened. My girlfriend advised me to do it. It turned out to be really useful. All the way through the design process, I was posting pictures on Instagram and that was going directly to my Facebook & Twitter feeds.
I started using Buffer, which is a nice app to schedule your social media output. You can rack up a whole list of posts and schedule them to go out at certain times.
So by the time the Kickstarter launched, I already had a modest following of people who knew what was happening. That just gets you started.
I noticed your website was up around February, months before you launched. Were you getting any feedback through the website?
The website I set up was a holding page. It literally just had the logo, a little writing about the brand & a series of mood images in the background that tried to portray the feel of the brand. None of the T-shirt designs were up there.
Because I come from a branding background, I always want to tell the story of a brand. If people can relate to that, that’s the first step. The designs are just another way of communicating the story.
The holding page that conveyed the feel of the brand
That’s a great point.
What else did you do to drive people to the site?
I reached out to blogs that were related to cycling or outdoor adventures. I had to do a bit of work to find the best blogs that were aligned with the brand. I spent a lot of time emailing bloggers with the Kickstarter page & writing to them about the brand. Probably half of them sent out a tweet or wrote a feature on their blog.
This was absolutely crucial in getting more people to the Kickstarter. It’s quite a captive audience – you know these people are going to be into cycling, so there’s a good chance they’d be interested in a new cycling brand. There’s a lot of blogs out there that have a huge audience.
What did you say in your emails that convinced them to write about you?
The Kickstarter actually did a lot of the work. I found it such a useful tool to have everything about my brand encapsulated in one place. Then you write a nice email around that, show that you’ve actually looked through the person’s blog and relate to them in a human way.
You also took to the streets to do some grassroots marketing. Tell us about the bike tags you created!
I made an attempt to spread the word out in a non-digital way. I screen printed 200 flyers that were made in such a way that you could loop them around and secure them onto a bike frame.
I went around London for a few nights. If I found a bike that I thought was cool & fit into the Pilgrim aesthetic, I’d quickly attach a flyer that said, “ Nice bike! You clearly cycle in style, so you might like Pilgrim Cycling Co.”
It was really good fun. There’s no way of knowing how many people looked at it & then went to the Kickstarter. But it’s something I’d do again. It’s a neat way of targeting your audience. Also, I always wondered whether the person that owns the bike that’s next to the bike that got the flyer, might be even more intrigued – because they haven’t been deemed to have a cool-enough bike!
Did you see any trends during the funding period that corresponded to your marketing activities?
There were peaks and troughs but I never really managed to establish a trend in that.
How did you come up with the pricing for your rewards? For example, the screen-printed T-shirts were ￡25 -￡35, while the posters were ￡50.
The T-shirts were fairly straightforward. You go out and see how much T-shirts cost & put yourself in a certain part of the market. I wanted to do the rewards for the T-shirts, more or less, how I would price them in real life.
I wanted to fill a whole range of price points. So I put these packages together – packs of T-shirts, mugs & patches. I wanted people to be able to choose from any price point between ￡10 to ￡100. I needed something to fit the 50 pound mark. I thought if I did a limited edition run of prints that I’d done myself, there’s an extra bit of value attached there. There are only 50 posters and they’re all going to be individually numbered and stamped.
The posters are beautifully designed.
What’s one key piece of advice you’d give to someone running a Kickstarter to launch a product?
You have to be really active in getting people to see it. In terms of my attempts at doing that – it probably rested on getting the social media accounts up before I did the Kickstarter. I’ve found that in social media, people respond most to behind-the-scenes stuff. It goes against my instincts; I feel self-conscious about it. But that’s what people respond most to.
If you can give people a glimpse into your process before the Kickstarter, take them on a journey in an engaging way, that can start a buzz about your project.. Now you’ve got a captive audience just to start you off.
What’s next for Pilgrim Cycling?
The website’s going to go up where you can buy the first collection. I’ve got plans to do a really nice sweatshirt because I’ve had a lot of interest in that.
What I really want to get into is creating garments – designing and manufacturing a range of different garments from scratch. I don’t want to print onto pre-made T-shirts forever. Finding ways to tell stories will always be part of the brand. But creating garments is what I really want to get into.
I’ve got an idea for a cap which is currently in development where I’m collaborating with another brand. That’s exciting because it’s something I’ve designed myself.
It’s going to be a case of taking a pause for breath once everything is sent out to the Kickstarter backers, and getting ready for the next stage.
What’s the best thing about having your own company & doing your own thing?
Without a doubt, having this brand that people respond to. I can go to a really awesome illustrator or someone who does brilliant typography and show them the brand, and they’ll get excited about it. They’ll want to be part of it. Having put in the effort to build it and getting to a point where I can present it to people – it’s so rewarding.