I’ve always had a knack for generating income, which is why entrepreneurship has always intrigued me. At school, I was one of the guys who would open his locker at lunchtime and sell popsicles and candy to the students. He always stocked the snacks that people were interested in at the time and earned over $100 a week.
Then I started selling in-demand products on eBay. I remember going to a spa once and collecting many pairs of complementary slippers, then selling them so I could afford to go to the spa again. I liked the idea that the more I worked, the more money I could earn.
From 2012 to 2016 I went to the University of Stirling in Scotland and studied business administration. I was training to be a manager, but I didn’t know what I wanted to manage when I got out of college. So after graduating, I spent a few months traveling before returning home to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and began looking for jobs for university students. I soon realized that I didn’t want to spend my life running in the corporate rat race. I didn’t want to work for someone else just because that’s what most people in society do.
The idea behind starting my own business.
I knew I wanted to be a business owner, so I started thinking about what it could be. I had previously thought about having a clothing store; I would often look around in retail stores and think: How could I do better? I also spent four years doing street photography and meeting a lot of people who were homeless. So, I knew that I wanted to help people.
So I had the idea to create a clothing brand that would address homelessness. The products would be modern, but also of good quality to keep people warm. When a customer would buy an item of clothing, he would get one for free and is challenged to give it to a homeless person. He wanted the customer to deliver the product himself, which made the business unique. I decided that this business would start with me designing winter hats.
Although I had a great idea, I had no money. So, in September 2016, I plucked up the courage to ask my mom for a $2,400 loan to start the business, intending to pay her back within a year.
My mom has always been very supportive, but she doesn’t have a lot of money. She was under a lot of financial pressure to take care of my siblings and me. So when I approached her, I was very cautious, knowing that if she didn’t pay her back within a year, it would affect not only me, but my family as well. But that pressure pushed me to work more because I knew she wasn’t lending money from a bank, it was from my mom.
After he agreed to give me the loan, he also offered me an extra room in the house so that I would have a place to work from. But she said that she would need it exactly as she was after a year!
When I started working in my business, I was 24 years old. It was me, alone, in a room with my dog running around. It was one of the toughest years I’ve ever had. From September my mom gave me the loan until the same December she was making sure that my business plan was solid. In the end, I gave myself six months to make sure my idea was bulletproof. The concept of giving back with the purchase took a lot of work, so research became a big part of what I did.
During that six-month period, some friends and family suggested that I get a part-time job to support myself, but I decided against it because I wanted to put my all into my business. Sometimes I couldn’t even afford to go to the movies because I barely had money to live on.
There were a few days leading up to Christmas 2016 where I would work from 9am to 4am and wake up early in the morning ready to go back to work. During that time, he worked seven days a week.
I constantly wondered, is it worth it? But for me, the more time I spent on the streets volunteering and talking to the homeless, he encouraged me to keep going.
I started out selling hats during the holiday season, but after three or four months, sales began to dwindle rapidly to the point where there wereme there were 14 days in which I did not earn money. So, I started creating more products, like t-shirts and then caps, to make sure that I have summer products and not just winter products.
It was not easy; I always try to make sure that my dog’s hair does not come into contact with the products. I was going to my local post office with carts and impatient people behind me waiting to pass fifty to sixty hat orders at a time, including the ones with pom poms and bonnets.
During the first year, I also started hosting events in hotel lobbies and meeting people face to face, since my website was not gaining much traffic. He would put up a controversial sign that said, “Rewriting Homelessness” and people would say “How are you rewriting homelessness? This is shameful.” That would be my opportunity to explain the model of the brand.
For the first two years, it was taking risks and not being afraid or discouraged when things didn’t work out that allowed my business to succeed. Due to the long hours and hard work I put in, the brand expanded rapidly within a year.
In the summer of 2017, I was given a 1000 sqft warehouse in Belfast free for the first few months. Even though my business was still small, I always wanted to create the perception that the brand is bigger than it actually is, so that I could grow into it. This also meant that I was able to move out of my mother’s house and pay her back within a year, as promised.
As I expanded the business, the team began to grow and another warehouse, later Belfast, also became our 6,000 square foot headquarters. We have a great room for designers, event planners and marketers; It is a space where everyone can collaborate.
Handing out over $1 million worth of clothing
By 2022, we had delivered over $1 million worth of clothing to homeless people around the world. Additionally, since I started the business in 2016, over 125,000 items have been donated to homeless people around the world.
Owning a business that aims to help the homeless is controversial because many organizations that give back as much as we do are charities. But we want to wake up an industry known for generating profit and show people that what matters most is what we do with that profit.
I wanted to create a business that would inspire other businesses to give back, and I feel like sometimes when you become a charity, you’re just going to inspire other charities. So I wanted to create a purpose-driven business that makes profit, and makes it in impactful ways. This, in turn, can inspire other companies to give back in a similar way.
When someone purchases a product on our website, they have the option of nominating us to donate the additional product in their name to one of our partner charities or to donate it to someone in need. Approximately 35 percent of customers chose to donate the item themselves, and the remainder chose to have us donate the additional product on their behalf. We have received so many inspiring stories from clients about their interactions with someone in need and how it has truly challenged the way they view homelessness.
In 2020, we decided to self-deliver the extra product that comes with each sale, as contact was restricted during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we are considering going back to the old model because we were empowering our customers to be a part of the donation process.
I am grateful that we currently have over 35 full-time and part-time staff members working for the company and we have one staff member working in London and one in New York.
Those extremely long days were not fun. But he was motivated to keep going because he knew the “why” behind what he was doing. Fashion was never on my agenda and clothing is still something I’m not a professional at. But I’m a pro at communicating, having a vision, and making sure I can take people on that journey.
I think we need to do something a little different if we’re going to get noticed. As long as charities and people on the street believe in what we do, it’s worth doing.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
As Newsweek associate editor Carine Harb was told.