The $150m Aussie brand that Australia rejected: Sean Ashby, aussieBum

After literally being laughed at here in Australia, aussieBum founder Sean Ashby took his apparel ideas overseas, securing none other than luxury London department store Selfridges as his first stockist. Now his business has global sales in excess of $150 million.

 

In this episode of the My Business Podcast, Sean reveals the scale of the rejection he faced and how he used that rejection as motivation to succeed.

Tune in as he explains how taking the initiative, daring to take a risk and infusing the “spirit of Australia” into his product enabled the aussieBum brand to take hold and flourish.

Speaking on the podcast, Sean reveals:

  • His journey from $30,000 at his dining table to $150 million global empire
  • How blatant honesty has helped secure business opportunities against the odds
  • The cheeky marketing tricks he used to build a massive social following
  • Why he thanks counterfeiters for helping to grow his business

 And plenty more!

 

Full transcript

Adam Zuchetti: Welcome to the My Business Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. Adam Zuchetti here, and my regular co-host, Andy, is along for the ride although struck down with the flu, aren't you?

Andy Scott: Oh, I've got a man cold again, which it's not the first time that we've talked about this. So clearly not taking my vitamins, mate. Not getting enough sun. That's clearly what the issue is. Which is a weak segue onto today's guest, but -

Adam Zuchetti: It is an interesting segue, yes.

Andy Scott: He started out his business in his dining room in Drummoyne in 2001. Since then he has really established a global brand with sales all over the world and turnover of about $20 million. I think the real interesting part is only 15 per cent of those sales actually come from here in Australia. But enough of my yakking, mate. Introduce today's guest.

Adam Zuchetti: A lot of people would actually be familiar with this brand, and I know that I myself am one of those. So we've got Sean Ashby, who founded aussieBum. Sean, thanks so much for joining us here in the studio today.

Sean Ashby: Thank you for inviting me.

Adam Zuchetti: It is a really iconic brand. Can you just give us a really brief overview of how it came about. Because you've got one of those really relatable stories of starting out on the dining table and then growing to something that is now world renowned.

Sean Ashby: I think it's like anyone who has their own business. They were working for someone else to start with, and mine I was working in the corporate end and in marketing and worked my way up the corporate ladder to the top, and when I got to the top I realised it wasn't just about what I loved it was about politics and everything else that comes with it. And that wasn't me. So I ended up on the beach thinking I'm gonna have a change of life and I'm gonna become a personal trainer and all these things. Then I realised that's not what I wanted to do, I wanted to do marketing. But by that stage the industry I worked in, technology, had evolved, and I actually was undervalued ... couldn't get a job ... or I was overqualified in other industries.

At that time I used to wear a certain style of swimwear, and one day went to the shops, couldn't buy it. Very disappointed. Decided this can't be that hard, I'll make it myself. So hence that's what I did. And then I made it for friends, and then from there I thought, hang on, if you can't buy this in stores I'll go to the retail stores and sell it. At that point retail said who the heck are you and who would buy this and no one buys this and go away. And I did, and I went back to my home and built myself a website and went to a bookstore and bought an e-commerce software solution and built that and then started selling it direct to consumers, customers.

From there up today, you're talking over $150 million in sales and a business that is now truly global.

Andy Scott: When you say "this," the specific product you're talking about is...

Sean Ashby: Swimwear.

Andy Scott: But a specific type of...

Sean Ashby: Ah, yeah.

Andy Scott: Your first line, what was it?

Sean Ashby: It's a nylon-style swimwear that Speedo used to make. That was very iconic against the Australian backdrop. That's what everyone wore when they went to the beach. But it was at that time around 2001 where Lycra came in or Spandex came in. Quite frankly it may look great on women, but I just thought it looked ridiculous on men. So I wanted to keep with the culture. Rather than conform to what everyone else was wearing I stuck with a classic.

Andy Scott: You mentioned obviously your background is in marketing and that you were in the corporate world and you didn't enjoy what you were doing and you were driven to do something else. I'm interested to know, was it that you saw a gap in the market and that's where thought there was the business, or that you found a passion and that's what drove the business?

Sean Ashby: Good question. It was on the beach with a friend Michael and we were both unemployed at that time. I'd saved for a home loan, to buy a home – that's the great Aussie dream. So I had about $30,000 in the bank. But because I didn't have a job I couldn't buy a home. Also, I couldn't get a job. So I was like ... I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder in the sense of no one will give me a job, God damn it, and life is ... How dare they? And it was at that time where I was also whining about how I can't find the swimwear that I used to love wearing. I put one and one together and made two.

So I used the money that was of no use, and I recall my comment to Michael was, "If I'm gonna stuff my life up then I'm gonna do it my way rather than just let it piddle away into nothingness." It was taking that first step, that was the most frightening step to take. I should say it took me a good year to really go, "God damn it, that's it, I'm doing it."

Adam Zuchetti: It is a really common thing as you say, but what was it that really made you have that final push to go, "Yes, I'm doing this" and commit do doing it?

Sean Ashby: In all honesty, what it was was every week I'd catch up with my mates at the pub. Everyone wants to talk about what they're doing, what's happening in your life and that. So each one takes a turn. I've done this or work's really tough at the moment. They get to me and it's like, "So how you doing, Sean? How's that idea coming along?" And because I'd spruiked it for so long and it only worked for so far and then I realised I've gotta jump. Because if I don't I'm just going to be a person that's all talk. I've always been a person of action, so it was ... Having my own motivation and my self-worth, because it was my self-worth, my self-esteem, because at one time I was very successful and I wanted that back. It was at that point I was prepared to fight for it.

Andy Scott: When you first started out we were talking earlier you'd got your product, you were gonna go bricks and mortar. You went door knocking on retailers, stock my product. You pretty much got door after door slammed in your face. How did that feel for you and what was the decision that you made to change the business?

Sean Ashby: You're asking really good questions, because I can even visualise exactly one instance where I was like, "That's it, end of story." It was … I'd flown to Melbourne, hired the car, the car rental, gonna drive down the Great Ocean Road. Because there's all these surf shops and they'll all buy my product, all my swimwear. So I've got in my car and I've literally gone door knocking at the retailers. I got to this one major retailer and talking to the salesman, he goes, "Hang on, let me just get all the staff together." And there was about like a dozen staff. And he says, "Okay, now start."

So I'm in a surf wear store that sells board shorts, and here I am with my nylon Speedos and I’m talking to them about the qualities of this. Quick drying, you can run around, it's fantastic. At first, they're all smiling. I thought isn't this just killing it. But little did I realise they were pissing themselves laughing because I am the anti of what they represent. I was trying to sell them something that's the last thing on earth they wanted. When I realised what the manager had done for his own amusement and also for the staff's amusement, walking out the door I thought, "That's it. I'm gonna prove them wrong."

The second instance was with a major department store. They too had ... "Yes, sounds so interesting, so interesting." And I'd call them back and always this buyer wasn't available. Like, "Oh no, he's in a meeting." Or "No, no, no." I'm thinking he's truly in a meeting. Weeks went by and in the end I called but I didn't say it was me. And he said, "Look. Didn't you get the point of the meeting and why I haven't spoken to you? It'll never sell. It's a ridiculous idea. Just stop annoying me." It was those two instances that had me go, "Game on, buddy, game on."

Adam Zuchetti: How did you come about with the first big bite of the cherry, the first one that came on board and said, "Yes, actually, we're gonna buy your product"?

Sean Ashby: Oh, I remember now. Selfridges. It's about two in the morning, and the phone's ringing. It was probably about 12 months into selling, but was only selling to people directly.

Adam Zuchetti: And this is Selfridges in the U.K.?

Sean Ashby: London. This is...

Adam Zuchetti: The big one.

Sean Ashby: This is the department store in the world. This is the one that all other department stores go to copy or to be inspired. So I picked up the phone, "Hello." And the guy on the other ... I can't do an English accent ... He goes, "Oh this is David from Selfridges." I didn't even know who Selfridges was. "Oh, yeah, yeah. Do you know what time it is?" He goes, "Look, I want to buy your swimwear. It's fantastic." At that time the Kylie Minogue video clip had come out, and our swimwear was featured in that, which made news. And David saying, "Can you send me over samples." And I'm like, "Sure. Who are you?" He goes, "I'm David Walker, head of men's wear for Selfridges." Little did I understand that this guy was God, and I was talking to God at that time. I'm like, "I'll do it in the morning. David, what's your address?" He goes, "You can find it, you know, just ..." "Just give it to me anyway" – Oxford Street and all that. It wasn't until the next day that I looked online and I see this building, and it was like the Palace, Buckingham Palace. I literally was just gobsmacked. My jaw hit the ground.

Adam Zuchetti: You must have thought you were dreaming.

Sean Ashby: Yeah. Well the funniest one was though, so I've sent it over and there was about 20 pieces that I'd sent over, and I'd never been to London before. Get to London. I didn't want to go there really, because it was winter and all I was seeing on TV was gloom and whatever. The customs guy says, "What are you here for?" And I'm already game on, boy. "I'm here to sell my swimwear. And I've had all my knockbacks." He goes, "Who are you selling to?" "I don't know, but someone and, you know, David." "Well, who's David?" So anyway, that got me very excited and motivated. So I've gone into Selfridges and met with ... No, first gone and looked at my product and I'm not happy, because my product's just on one wire rack. And I'm looking at everyone else, Calvin Klein and all the big brands. They get all this wall space and all this other stuff and I've just got this piddly little rack. That's not good enough.

I got into the meeting, and David who I didn't know doesn't go to these meetings ... So David's come in, "Sean, so good to see you. What do you think?" "Well I'm not happy. Not happy at all, David." He says, "What do you mean? You're selling in Selfridges, it's a great success." I said, "Yeah, but have you seen how it's being sold?" And I've got so much pride for what I'm selling. No one had ever, not stood up to him, but no one had ever behaved that way. I was behaving very Australian, because I saw myself as equal to David. Anyone that talks to me I treat them as equal. I didn't realise I was supposed to bow first, and speak when spoken to.

It was that that actually found a place in their heart. That is why we have been there now for, goodness, over 10 years. Then when you look at other very big brands and take Von's for example. They lasted some 12 months. It was simply because I guess the spirit of Australia came with me in the personality, but the passion of what I had to sell also translated to the people that were the big decision makers.

Adam Zuchetti: aussieBum, even the name, I mean the whole culture behind the brand is very much that Aussie beach guy.

Sean Ashby: Yep.

Adam Zuchetti: Was it this experience that really led to the brand being established along those lines or was it you already had the brand in place, it was already there and they just happened to recognise it, and that was more validation for you?

Sean Ashby: Yeah, it very much was so. The reason for aussieBum is I'm an Aussie, I was a beach bum. The way that I'd marketed the brand from the very start was exactly how I saw and wanted the brand to be, and I wanted to be, for the lack of a better expression, my alter ego. So it was something I couldn't be. But I wanted to create this "Look at this perfect person and his perfect lifestyle." What I loved doing was turning the cameras on myself and everyone else involved, because what we got to show was the smoke and mirrors and then go, "Well this is really us." And people loved that. So when people like David saw the brand and they'd followed it online so they'd seen the behind the scenes videos and they'd seen all the antics of what we used to get up to, that's what they fell in love with.

And I could tell many a funny stories when dealing with the big end of town and behaving in a manner that was very traditionally Australian, very Kath & Kim. But that is also what earned us a place and a reputation with a lot of these major companies.

Adam Zuchetti: It's interesting given that whole background that you were really tailoring to the Aussie bum identity. You were saying before we went on air though that you only really became successful in Australia after becoming successful overseas.

Sean Ashby: Yes.

Adam Zuchetti: That's quite an interesting juxtaposition to have.

Sean Ashby: I think in the very early days when I was selling online, the most common thing a person in Australia said to me is, "You must be very disappointed you're not selling in David Jones." Or "You're not selling in Pitt Street in Sydney. And selling online." And by this stage, e-commerce was picking up overseas. But it wasn't until the likes of Kylie Minogue and featured in her video that was shot in Spain, and also Selfridges and Harvey Nichols and Harrods and names, names, names. I think Australians actually look up to what's happening overseas more than what's happening here. And because a lot of our brands are cannibalised by global brands, we actually put them a few notches above. But when you see an Australian brand successful overseas, that's when an Australian accepts the brand as being theirs, and it starts to get a name of being recognised as iconic, as our brand is now. Also being recognised with value, so there's a commodity to it.

Adam Zuchetti: Did you actually actively go overseas first?

Sean Ashby: No. Everything was online, so for me ... And also I didn't have the money at that time to have that luxury. So I was literally selling and producing something Australian, but I didn't realise that the world was so in love with Australia and they just wanted a piece of it. That piece, when they're watched a video or seen an image, that piece is I can get this swimwear I've just seen. And I can wear that to the beach in Brighton, for example, in London or in Germany. I think that's inherently how the brand has grown.

Andy Scott: It's interesting that you mention how people have an image of Australia overseas. Obviously as someone who moved from England about 17 years ago, I too, had a very clear image of what Australia was. I knew that Foster's Lager was the lager that everyone in Australia drank because Hoggs had sold it to you, you know, and that's how it was. Did you find ... When did you realise that that's what sold overseas and that that's possibly something that you should ... I suppose -

Sean Ashby: Yeah. It's a good question. I realised it when people were talking about the locations of where we were shooting. Also about the fact of never been here and it's always been a dream of theirs. I think it's a lot harder for business today to, call it, have those benefits. Because at that time international travel was only just kicking off, so people were still displaced in physically being able to go somewhere. For a brand like ours, it was a connection. Today, however, most people have been to all parts of the world. Australia is still a dream for many people simply because it's so far away. That is what I think builds on the fantasy.

For a brand like ours it was a combination of the iconic male and ... Because we're known for our sporting success and also our lifestyle being at the beach. So it all worked hand in hand.

Andy Scott: Did you find something that had worked so successfully overseas, that bringing that back to the Australian market where it possibly didn't stand out as much was a problem and have you had to change how you market, perhaps, aussieBum within this country?

Sean Ashby: Interesting point. Because of the way that I market the brand, and when we think global, and in different countries people have, call it different tolerances for different ways of marketing. Australia is very conservative. Now myself, I'm very colourful and we're selling swimwear, selling underwear, so it's cheeky, it's sexy. And because it's the male form I'm going for it because that's what sells the product. Now in Australia, we're not used to that. So when they started to get a taste of my marketing and with the brand, it was automatically pigeonholed as "Oh, you know, that's just a little bit too ... No, no, no, no."

What's interesting is that there are billboards that we run in the U.K., Germany and L.A. that run without any incident. In Australia we're not even allowed to put those images up, because they feel that people will find it offensive, which I find ridiculous. Today it's matured a little bit more and we've got a bus campaign for example running, and there's a man with a pair of underwear and he's very beautiful. The Australians are warming to that more. So I think if anything coming back to Australia people just weren't prepared for here is an international brand and here is how it's marketed. And it's marketed uniquely. So we don't look like Bonds, we don't look like Calvin Klein. That also is I think what created concerns. At the same time, that's what people love about it is the fact that that's aussieBum, it's always been cheeky, it's always been out there. It's very proud of its origins and it won't change simply because different people have different values.

Adam Zuchetti: I'm interested to ask you something else you were sort of talking off air about. You said that retail follows summer globally. Now obviously, tailoring swimwear in particular, here in Australia we're at the opposite season to your primary markets in the U.S., U.K. and things like that. How does that really affect the flow of design, the flow of production, the flow of sales for the business?

Sean Ashby: One of the cool things is we still manufacture all of our swimwear and underwear in Australia. Now I class Australia as the start of summer for the world. So that is where all of the new ideas are first released and also where all the risks are taken. Because we manufacture locally, it means that I don't need to forecast and indent huge volumes, because if I did I'd be in a lot of strife and my designs would be a lot more conservative to avoid the risk. But when I do hit on something that is very successful, bam, straight back into manufacturing and I'm picking up the sales as I go.

Over time, summer's passed then we head into the North American summer, by that stage I've matured the design range and I've also picked up on new trends that are emerging overseas in the spring collections. Again, I'm able to add into that fold. And by the time we hit the big mother, which is the U.K., Germany and France, all guns are a-blazing and we know exactly what works, we exactly what cuts and what colours are going to be successful.

Andy Scott: You mentioned about risk there, and obviously when firms start out generally they have less to lose, so they're prepared to risk more. As firms get bigger, they become more risk averse. Do you think -

Sean Ashby: Oh, not me. No, no, no.

Andy Scott: This was gonna be my question. Do you think it's important for continued success that an organisation always has somewhere where they can play with risk? Maybe not the whole business, but somewhere they can play with risk?

Sean Ashby: Yes. Look, my business wouldn't be here today if I didn't take risk every week. It comes down to innovation. It's such an important part of a growing business. If you don't have innovation, then you don't have a business in today's world. Also being the competitive side as well is that if you're following with the pack, then ... And there's times where you can do that very quietly and very successfully; however, you still have to take the same risks to grow. Those risks ... On one side, a little bit more educated, but that actually is often where failure occurs, because you become so fearful of what you're going to do because you think of all the things you know could happen. Whereas in the earlier days you didn't know about any of that so the risks you were taking you just saw it as normal.

I actually try to, for the lack of a better word, be naïve. When I'm taking risks I look at the financial impact, but I've already budgeted for that. And I'm quite prepared to fail. And with failure that actually motivates me. But without failure that's where complacency kicks in.

Adam Zuchetti: That's financial risk though. But once you're as passionate as you obviously are about your business and what you do and you've built that brand and that reputation, the reputation can take on a life of its own and is potentially worth more than the financial cost of big risk. So how do you actually go about that and stop that risk of damaging your brand with trying new things?

Sean Ashby: I think the biggest risk my company faces is the day when I wake up and I don't want to go to work. That being said, it's the day when I've got nothing to do, when I'm not relevant, when I ... My passion is burnt out. Hopefully I can pass the baton on to someone else, but that's probably the greater risk. Because if you're going into work with a level of complacency or a level of "this is how it has to be, this is the bread and butter," I think that's when your business will mature. And we're talking ... These are fashion brands 16 years young. Most fashion brands don't last that long. It's because we've kept reinventing ourselves, but I've also never accepted what we've done as being good enough. And that goes back to the early years of self-esteem in myself and really using that as a driver rather than fearing it.

Andy Scott: I'm interested in the people that you've obviously brought into the organisation and that you'll talk with as well. Do you think it's better to have people that buy into your vision or do you think it's better to have people that are gonna challenge you and your vision?

Sean Ashby: Yeah. Look, I'm at my best when I can see that somebody has a natural gift, whether that be in creative or whether it be in business, and they don't know it. Because to me it's so satisfying to be able to work with someone and watch them grow and evolve. It's very, very hard in the early stages. Most people don't like me, full stop, because I'm very brash, very blunt, and very driven. And I also have very high expectations of them. Whereas they don't have them of themselves. However, watching them succeed is what also motivates me and drives me, because I'm competitive, so it's like, "I have to stay one step ahead here. This person's a little bit too good."

I think having a culture that is driven by pride or passion, but also driven by look what we're doing, we're on a global stage and we've got a brand that has a very big voice to a very big community. We can influence that. And that I see as very important. That's what for many in the team today are very much driven by. That being said, there's also many people that have gone on to start their own businesses, and what amazed me was that people said to me, "Aren't you annoyed? They've started up this business." I'm like, "No, I'm so proud. I am just so proud and so excited that they believe that they can." And they can, and they do it very well. That to me is a job well done.

I was at a business dinner with NAB recently, and we were talking about entrepreneurs and people going out in business, and you'd lose good talent. And I said, you know, there's this one guy at work and it's review time where we sit down and how you going and all that. And he said to me, "Sean, I've decided I want to start my own brand or I want to create something, but I want to sell it through aussieBum." I was like, "How dare you? How dare you?" That was my first reaction; however, thinking about it later I thought one, good on you for having the nerve to ask that question, but why not? Why not? Because I'm gonna retain an amazing person, and it's also gonna grow my business, but I'm also gonna have the opportunity to plant seeds in my business for the next big thing.

And that I think is where business is changing. You've got these bigger organisations are bringing in entrepreneurs to start up their own ideas. There's nothing stopping me from doing the same, but within my company.

Adam Zuchetti: This element of reinvention, which seems so important to you and to your business, both in terms of the product mix but also the people, is that how you deal with sort of cheap knockoffs and things like that? If you're constantly reinventing yourself, you're basically constantly staying ahead...

Sean Ashby: Well it's great ... I have to thank the counterfeiters for developing Taiwan and also good parts of China. I haven't had to spend a cent there. Because it's of such poor quality, those that have bought it or they've looked at my website to buy products, they then come to me because I'll pay top dollar to get the product because they just like the brand. People say, "Why don't you go after them and all the factories?" You shut one factory down, another one will open up. The trick is to stay ahead of them, and that being every week we're releasing new product and every week we've got a new campaign. No manufacturer could keep up with what we're doing. That's kind of how it's managed.

Eventually also, these poor manufacturers lose steam, and because our core products keep changing, it also makes it difficult for people to take advantage. If anything, it's the big end of town that basically take a design of ours and then put it into their retail store. That I initially took as a very big compliment. I even ... There was one brand, big international brand, that copied something stich-for-stich. I remember seeing it in the store, I was so excited I had to take a photo with me. "Look at this, we've made it, we've made it." Today, it's just part of business, and once you're comfortable with it, it's not as frightening.

Adam Zuchetti: All right. You had a fascinating story, and I think there's so many more things we could discuss, but we've run out of time, haven't we, Andy?

Andy Scott: It seems that way.

Adam Zuchetti: Yes, sad but true. Sean, thank you so much for coming in and talking to us. What's your website?

Sean Ashby: aussieBum.com.

Adam Zuchetti: aussieBum.com. So if anyone wants to check out your products and things...

Sean Ashby: Yes, we're on sale at the moment, 50 per cent off, last 72 hours.

Andy Scott: Ever the sales marketer.

Adam Zuchetti: I think I know where I'm heading then. If you've got any more questions, you can always feed them through to us. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we can put them Sean's way. We'll also get some stories up around a lot of the things that Sean's discussed. So that's on the site mybusiness.com.au. Tune in again next week when we'll have someone else in the studio with us. Thanks for tuning in. Bye for now.

Andy Scott: See you guys.

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