Sam Jones is the owner of the ground-breaking sustainable clothing line, Little Yellow Bird.
Sam started her business off the back of Creative HQ’s Lightning Lab and I in fact saw her while I was in the audience at the presentation that day. Boldly, she didn’t ask for investment but kept pursuing her company, her way, with 100% ownership. While the company started out with a focus on uniforms, it has now evolved into also making beautiful basics which are made lovingly in a fair and equitable manner. Her sustainability insights report (which you can read here) evidences the fact that when you buy a garment from LYB, you are buying something which has had everything considered from a sustainability perspective, from cotton to packaging. This is why Sam is so passionate about making sustainable style for everyone, and allowing people to vote with their wallet. Also, she’s a banging female business owner – and I like that!
Over soup and haloumi at Poquito, we shared thoughts, ideals and discussed why sustainable fashion is more than a trend.
Lucy Revill: First question is: where were you born?
Samantha Jones: I was born in Christchurch. I grew up moving around a lot, so I lived in different places every few years.
LR: What did your parents do?
SJ: My dad worked for Immigration New Zealand, so we got posted overseas and moved about, and my mum’s a nurse.
LR: Which countries did you go to?
SJ: We lived in Russia from when I was about ten till 14, then came back to Wellington, then I finished high school in Indonesia.
LR: What was Russia like, because I have a bit of a fascination about Russia?
SJ: Yeah, same. I didn’t really know anything about it when I moved over there, and it's so different, but such rich culture and strength. I fell in love with Russia, I think, and I ended up going back there after uni. I lived in a different city. The buildings and architecture are amazing, just like all the artworks that are contained in them, and the people actually are really kind. Yeah, I loved it, but I was really young when I lived there.
LR: Which city did you live in?
SJ: Moscow when we went as a family, and then I went back in my early twenties. I lived in Saint Petersburg.
LR: How did you survive? Did you have to learn how to speak Russian?
SJ: Kind of. When we first moved over there in the late ‘90s there wasn’t widely spoken English, but we went to an international school so our schooling was in English. But day-to-day my Dad and I spoke it pretty well, so we were kind of like the family translators. But then I forgot it all, and that was part of the reason I went back and I lived with a Russian family that couldn’t speak English, and I relearnt it. Forgotten most of it again now though.
LR: It's funny how languages are like that.
SJ: There aren’t really many people here who I would speak to in Russian. It's fun when it comes up every now and again – it comes back pretty quickly as well, which is cool.
LR: Where in Indonesia did you go to high school?
LR: What made you decide to come back to Wellington? After you finished high school, what did you do?
SJ: I was in the Air Force for six years. I went to Canterbury Uni because I had no idea, actually. I had no life plan, or goal, or anything when I finished high school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just kind of jumped on that bandwagon of ‘go to uni like everyone else’, and didn’t know what I wanted to study, and so took a whole lot of random papers. Then, in the first year, I came across an Air Force scholarship. My Dad had been in the military as well, so I was kind of familiar with that as a career option, and I got a fully funded scholarship through them. So I did that, and then after I finished uni I was bonded to them, so I had to work there for four years. I was a supply chain manager for logistics. So I kind of randomly went into this career because it was a way to fund myself through uni, and then it's turned out to be really valuable for starting a fashion company.
LR: That’s so interesting. What happened when you finished working there? How did you decide to leave?
SJ: That was actually a really hard time for me. I’m always really passionate about things that I’m involved with, and it got to the point where I wasn’t enjoying my job anymore, and wasn’t excited to go to work, and actually it was a low point. I was just really unhappy, and so I left. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I moved back home and lived with my parents, went back to uni. I had gone from always wearing a uniform in the Air Force to suddenly needing to find a part-time job in the commercial sector, and I couldn’t find clothing – even just generic and not even ethical clothing was difficult to find. There weren’t many corporate workwear options for women that fit the style that I liked. That was the idea for the business, so it was totally random. It was just solving a problem that I had. Having lived in developing countries, and seeing the pollution and impacts of manufacturing I knew if I was going to create a business, it couldn’t contribute to that.
LR: How did you become involved with Lightning Lab?
SJ: I was at UCE (so University of Canterbury Centre for Entrepreneurship) and the manager there sent me the link for the Lightning Lab and was like, ‘Hey, apply for this,’ and we applied for that and got in. So that was why we moved to Wellington.
LR: Had you started the company yet?
SJ: Yeah, it had been going for maybe eight months or so. I only planned to come to Wellington for three months. I just loved Wellington. At the end of the accelerator I just stayed, and have been here ever since.
LR: What was the company like when you embarked on your Lightning Lab journey?
SJ: Really tiny. We didn’t even have samples back then. I think we had made 20 or 50 shirts. We had sold about $10,000 worth of product total, so that was the stage we were at. We had a little bit of early-stage traction, but not much.
LR: What was the experience of going through the incubator programme like?
SJ: We wouldn’t be where we are today if we hadn’t done it; I think I learnt a lot about myself and about how I wanted to do business. The most value was in all the connections and people and networks that we got through it, but I also learnt that I didn’t want to just follow the general tech model. We got up at the end of it and knew we didn’t want to raise investment at that time. We just weren’t ready. If we had, we would have wasted so much money and probably gone bankrupt. So we just took our time, and I think that’s been the best decision we made.
LR: How did you make that business decision?
SJ: We were in the weird position where if we got lots of sales we wouldn’t need investment, but we would be investable; but if we didn’t get any sales we would need investment to keep going, but no one would want to invest in us. Over the course of the Lightning Lab, we actually accelerated our growth in terms of how many sales we got pretty rapidly, so we didn’t really need investment at that point. I mean, everyone needs money for really rapid growth, but we were still learning. I feel like the last couple of years have been mostly about learning what does and doesn’t work. We’ve honestly made heaps of mistakes, and we’re only now at a point where I would feel comfortable trying to scale it. I didn’t feel comfortable two years ago trying to grow it quickly, because I knew we didn’t really know what we were doing.
LR: How important is it for you to trust your instincts when it comes to your business?
SJ: Really important. As the founder, or the main person who’s been at it for the longest, you will know it better than anyone else. I get advice from so many amazing people, but often it's conflicting, so being able to filter the advice and then apply it to yourself, I think, is really crucial.
LR: What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way, in your journey so far?
SJ: Communication is a big one, both within our own team here and also in dealing with our suppliers. We’re dealing cross-culturally, with time barriers, often not in person, and that’s really difficult. It's been made easier by my going to India a lot. I go over there a few times a year, and we’ve now got a full-time person on the ground over there. But even just here: it's really easy to make assumptions that people are thinking a certain thing, when maybe they’re thinking something else. And so just being really proactive and having regular catch-ups with everyone, and asking them how they’re going and how they’re feeling, and do they still like their job? That’s something I think I’m still learning how to do well.
LR: What have been some of the real highlights of the business to date?
SJ: We recently released our impact report, which was a real highlight for me because it was a milestone that I had been wanting to do for ages. And so to visually see what we had achieved over the last three years was pretty cool. Yeah, that was probably one of my favourite things. Also, I always love going back to India and seeing the impact projects and stuff that we have been involved with. One of the first girls we funded on my trip in November last year ran into her house and came out with her high school certificate. So she had finished school, and that was pretty special as well because that just never would have happened had we not crossed paths. That was quite humbling and quite cool to be a part of.
LR: Describe how the supply chain goes for Little Yellow Bird, how the process of ordering a uniform goes?
SJ: We’ve got our own basics range, some of which are in stock here in Wellington, and then we can also offer custom-design stuff. Generally we do make to order, so apart from our basic stuff everything is made to order. It reduces a lot of waste as well. We then purchase in the fabrics, and then we’ve got a unit we work exclusively with in New Delhi, which produces most of our stuff. All our cotton comes from two cooperatives, so we trace it right back to source. We’re not so involved in the day-to-day of getting the cotton from there to our factory. But we are involved, in that we know exactly where it's gone through, and we’ve visited each stage. But we’re definitely more involved at the end of the supply chain getting a fabric and then turning it into garments.
LR: How do you do that?
SJ: Again it depends on the product. We work with a local pattern maker for some of the custom design stuff. She helps us kind of tweak ideas because I’m not a fashion graduate or anything. I know what I like, but I wouldn’t be able to make a pattern or grade it. So we do that. Then we will get samples made in India. We will get the first round of samples, and do tweaks or make changes to the fabric. The hardest thing is getting the sizing right. We will get the size set samples and then often it's a case of ‘let's change something about this size’, or sometimes the small needs to be the medium, the medium needs to be the large, or something like that – trying it on different body shapes and different people to see what looks good.
Then once we’ve locked that in, depending on what it's for (if it's for a customer that’s ordered a couple of hundred, then we’ll go straight into production, or if it's, say, these dresses are a new product then we’ve launched them as pre-sales, so people can pre-order them), we manufacture the fabric in the colours that we want. So with this dress, we designed the stripe, so we have to let them know how that looks, and then do our first production run. Then it's about keeping it in stock because it can take up to a couple of months more if you need to make the fabric again so that’s a balancing act.
LR: When did you go from being just uniforms to being clothes that are stylish basics as well?
SJ: It's just been a natural kind of progression. We first started out with blouses that were just for individuals, then we moved into the uniform market, and then as new products came on, friends would ask for them like, ‘Can I have one of those?’ or, ‘Can I have something like this?’ So we would just add them on, and we’ve just organically grown the website to stock these.
But now it has switched. Like, for example, we were getting a lot of requests for the dresses that weren’t specifically for a company, and people were asking us to do other basics. So we’ve kind of done that one around the other way, where we’ve done the dress but we can see it probably working in some hotels, or in a dark navy. So we will try to sell it into those companies as well, but we’re really just trialling it. We’ve had really good feedback. Personally, I just love wearing them.
LR: I didn’t know it was yours.
SJ: Oh, yeah. This one we’re actually not going to release, so this is just a sample.
LR: I really like it.
SJ: We’re doing this dress in navy, grey, and mustard, so we’re releasing them in block colours first.
LR: Why did you decide not to do the stripe?
SJ: We didn’t have any of the fabric left over, so we did the sampling and then I would have to have this fabric made again. I think we’re going to do it around the other way: so blue as the white, and white as the blue.
LR: I like it just the way it is – sorry. I love anything French-looking. For you on a personal level, what’s been the impact of growing a business through your 20s and early 30s?
SJ: I think I’ve just really grown as a person, and literally every day. I always think now, even if it fails and I walk away with nothing, I would have learnt so much in experiences. And even just the people that I’ve met: it's infinitely valuable. You learn so much and you get to meet the coolest people. For me, I was really looking for a challenge, and starting a business is definitely a challenge – so I definitely got that. Everything that I have learnt has been incredibly valuable, but also it's cool to feel like I’m doing something positive for the world as well, because that was what I was missing before.
LR: Who are some of your favourite people who you’ve made these for?
SJ: Wellington Chocolate Factory is probably one because I love their chocolate and their ethos. We’ve just started working with Peoples Coffee, which is another awesome Wellington brand. I love working with companies when where they’re really brand-aligned, and I love what they’re doing. Probably the coolest one is this company in America because it was so out of the blue for us and they’re one of our biggest customers. That was really exciting when we landed that company because we were just this tiny little Wellington company, and this much bigger brand contacted us and was like, ‘Can you send product to America,’ and we had never done it before at the time, but we had to take the chance so we were just like, ‘Sure.’
We definitely bit off more than we could chew initially, but it's been really good to work with some super understanding early customers who have helped us grow and learn through that process – having those key people at the beginning who just believed in the mission, or the values, I think, of the company.
LR: How do you personally deal with stressful times, or when something goes wrong and you feel really anxious? Do you have things you had to learn how to do to take care of yourself during those times? And how good are you at generally enforcing them and not picking the scab?
SJ: Traditionally I tend to really over analyse things. I used to over analyse things from every different scenario, at times that can be helpful but it can also be really damaging and time-consuming. I’ve learnt to let go of that and in order to be successful you often have to do what is right for you or your company and not worry about what other people think about it. One thing I have learnt is to have a routine or something to reset – my reset is to go and have a massage, which is a real luxury. I actually ended up buying a 10 massage concession card as my birthday present to myself last year. It ends up being way cheaper and super helpful when you have had a stressful day or week to know you have those there. When I am really stressed, I will just book one in and then I know that it's coming up, and then I just completely zone out for an hour, and then I always feel so much better for the next week.
That’s kind of my ritual when I’m getting really stressed. But also just going to the gym, going for a walk with a friend – that’s something that I’ve got to make the time to do because often you feel like you don’t have time, but that’s when you really need to make the time to go and just chill out and do something totally unrelated to work.
LR: What would you say to any people who were wanting to wear more sustainable fashion, but feel overwhelmed by it?
SJ: I would say just start small and just start with something. I feel like a lot of people, if they start to learn about it, feel like they have to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe of sustainable things. But, in my opinion, that’s actually the worst thing you can do because the stuff that you’ve already got is actually the most sustainable option. So I always say, ‘Pick one or two really long-lasting things that you love and are going to wear.’ Obviously, the most sustainable thing is the best option but it’s also really important to buy stuff that you’re really going to value and wear for a long time because the whole point is getting rid of the fast fashion culture.
LR: If you were looking to invest in sustainable fashion, what would be five classic things in your wardrobe that you think should be prioritised, and what would be five things that you could do without? In other words, what are the things you think people get the most value from having in their cupboard?
SJ: Obviously the staples and the classics: a plain dress that can transition from casual to dressed up, a really good quality coat, a really good pair of boots. I have a pair of boots that I’ve had for ten years now, I think, and I get them resoled every few– it's just so good. I’m a big jeans and tee shirt wearer, so I’d probably say a pair of jeans and a really nice quality tee shirt.
LR: That’s five things. So what would be the things that you should avoid buying. I mean if they’re sustainably made, but won’t last as well?
SJ: I think vintage classic pieces are timeless and you’re still going to look good next season, but if it's something really novelty – I hate the novelty kind of women’s march tee shirts that are probably not made with women’s rights in mind – or something that’s really on-trend, say, to do with a movie or a dress up something like that. They’re a bit wasteful.
LR: A onesie.
SJ: Yeah. That’s really difficult for us as well. One of the things that we sell a lot of is the conference tee shirt, for example, and I really hate that sometimes. Often they’re really ugly, with heaps of branding all over it, and I know people are only going to wear it once. We’ve had a couple of really awesome people who have come to us and said, ‘We need our people to be distinguishable, but we also want them to wear it after the event.’ So we’ve done a few where we’ve done, like, a cool striped tee shirt for 50 of the volunteers or a specific colour and no branding. Everyone knows who their volunteers are, but it's a really nice tee shirt that the volunteers can take away and actually use. So that’s always a difficult personal kind of conflict that goes through my head, but then at the same time you’re like, ‘Well, I would rather we were producing it and it's an organic tee shirt made with organic cotton under ethical conditions.’
LR: Finally, what are you doing next? What are you looking forward to, and why do you like living in Wellington?
SJ: I’ve just started working on this really exciting project. It’s basically going to be a supply chain tracking platform. We would use Little Yellow Bird as the trial or test case, but then hopefully, eventually, the idea would be to sell it to other brands and get them to use the technology, so that you as the consumer could scan the barcode and literally see all the steps that have gone in. You could see that this cotton was grown in 2017 and came from this farm and then it went here, and it was a three-month process or whatever it is, so that people can really see how much effort goes into it. Then they will realise that if they’re buying a $5 tee shirt, people were either exploited or the environment was damaged in the process.
So, that’s what I’m most excited about at the moment. I’m also excited for summer; I love the warm weather. It's getting warmer again. I’m popping over to the Social Enterprise World Forum soon so we’ll get a little bit of warm weather, hopefully.
LR: Where’s that being held?
SJ: In Edinburgh, so I’m going over there for a couple of weeks, then hopefully by the time I get back it will be warm again.
LR: Well, nearly warm – spring.
SJ: Yeah. And the thing I love most about living in Wellington is my lifestyle here. I live right in the centre of town. I have never owned a car in Wellington. Everything is super accessible. I can walk down on the weekend to buy my veges, and there are a million great cafes around the place, and just heaps of cool people. I haven’t lived in Wellington very long, but some of the people I consider my best friends live in Wellington. I found it relatively easy to find people that had similar values to me when I started looking for them, and so I feel like Wellington is quite a friendly place.