The owner of an Aussie start-up, which has developed and manufactures ‘unbreakable denim’ clothing, speaks to My Business about innovation, getting a product to market and taking on the world.
Turning your passion or hobby into a business is nothing new – in fact, many of the world’s best businesses have been established this way. As a keen motorcyclist, Mike Lelliott grappled with the idea of how to improve the safety of clothing.
His 14-month journey of research, trial and error, and production has led to an impressive world-first ‘unbreakable denim’, which he sells through his growing start-up Saint.
Disruption through innovation
“[My friend and I] were talking about what's available in [terms of] protective clothing, and we spent the day riding in standard denim and T-shirts through a 40-degree day, and realised there was nothing in the market, nothing available that would fill the role of an all-day wearable, single-layer protective garment,” Mike recalls.
“So that sparked the question for me of what can be done at a fabric technology level to design and develop new fabrics. I sort of dove into it.”
Mike says he spent considerable time researching existing fabrics and production techniques, first looking at why Kevlar has become “synonymous with motorcycle wear over the past sort of 25 years” before moving on to industrial military protection gear.
“That's where I drilled down to ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene … because it's the strongest fibre in the world,” explains Mike.
This global search saw him investigating how to spin and weave the fabric into a single layer of denim.
The testing process was an anxious one, Mike admits. However, he says everyone involved kept looking at the glass as half full, and each unsuccessful test brought them closer to their goal.
“It comes down to three key tests on the fabric and the garment,” says Mike.
“One of those is you've got a 60-foot sandpaper on a sand belt going at 22 miles per hour, you wrap a bit of fabric around a metal ball that's got a sensor in it, and you drop it from a certain height onto the sandpaper, and it's how long the fabric survives on this sort of aggressive sanding until it loses its integrity.
“Another test is all about piercing, so you've got a razor blade on a spring pulled back to a certain distance and that's released onto fabric and it's measured on how far the blade penetrates the fabric.
“And the third test is a burst, where you put the fabric on a metal cylinder and secure the sides, and then a big rubber ball blows up to 1,200 PSI to see if that bursts the fabric.”
Mike says there are different levels of road safety wear, with basic roadwear required to last a slide of between four and seven seconds. Saint’s initial product rated 3.67 seconds, and the next 5.9 seconds. However, it is one of the newest products that Mike is most excited about.
“We're releasing a … denim which has a 14-second slide time, which outperforms any of the race leathers on the market!” he says.
“If you limit yourself to one region, you limit yourself too much in realising your potential.”
Investment for the long term
According to Mike, the 14-month development process was a highly costly exercise, given that the only means of sourcing and manufacturing his product required suppliers and skills beyond Australia’s borders, as well as around 15 product prototypes.
“There wasn't any one place I could go to and say, 'OK, this is a throughput solution'. From that point of view, it was costly because it shifted us from being a small Australian start-up into 'How do we create a unique product?', and the only way to do it was in a global sourcing space,” he says.
With a solid idea and the research and market knowledge on board, Saint was able to attract significant venture capital to see its dream become reality.
“The 1st of May 2014 was when we pressed go, and our first products were available a little bit over 12 months later. The top of our Christmas tree, our unbreakable denim, was [released] around September ,” says Mike.
“We're just finishing our first 12 months of trading, and at the end of 12 months we ran a small loss, and at this point we're just crossing over into a break-even point.
“Our key aim over the next 12 months is to step over that tipping point, where we've gone into break even, we're covering our costs. We've got 10 staff in our office now, where we started with two, and momentum and excitement is building. But it's very much what actions we take from a product point of view and a market position point of view over the next 12 months that will cement our success.”
Spreading the word
Part of maintaining that growth trajectory is building momentum in the marketplace.
Thankfully for Saint, the uniqueness of its innovative products is helping spread the word through social media and word of mouth.
But the real clincher has been the company's focus on its niche of motorcycle wear, given that everyone working in the business is a keen rider.
“It's not difficult to market the business, we're doing it on the DNA of 'unbreakable'. The sense of the unbreakable product and also the unbreakable spirit and freedom that you find in the motorcycle experience is a pretty desirable blend,” Mike says.
“When I look at the social feedback on Instagram or Facebook or through other platforms, there is a high level of excitement about what we're doing. We are truly first to market and I suppose even catching a wave before it's starting to break.
“At this point there’s a high level of excitement, high consumer engagement and I suppose I get it every single day when we're looking at Instagram and seeing how many people are tagging us and reposting them wearing the same gear from all sorts of different places in the world.”
Saint currently employs 10 people but, as Mike explains, there are plans to grow the brand worldwide.
“At the moment we're doing up a wholesale network and stocking online through our own website. Going forward, setting up our own retail store and then seeing how we roll that out globally, because I think there is a real right and reason for saying unbreakable denim can sit on the high street alongside a lot of other denim brands,” explains Mike.
“The business needs to be global and initially own the motorcycle space as their premium go-to for protective denim clothing.”
He adds: “We want to stretch out within our specialty space. If you limit yourself to one region, you limit yourself too much in realising your potential.”
Business name: Saint
Industry: Manufacturing and retail, motorcycle wear