Interview with Entrepreneur and Author, Mike Stevens

Experienced entrepreneur Mike Stevens has been at the forefront of eCommerce for over a decade, founding and scaling confectionary brand Peppersmith before taking time out to write the definitive guide to D2C selling. Now, he’s on a mission to reinvent home textiles with sustainable homeware start-up Kuroa, and he’s teamed up with Huboo to take his winning product proposition to market…

Tell us the story behind Kuroa?

Kuroa is a sustainability-focused homeware brand with an initial focus on bedding. It’s a Finnish word that traditionally means bringing together cloth, but it can also be used to bring together people and ideas.

What we want to do with Kuroa is address the massive sustainability shortcomings within the home textiles industry – issues like excessive carbon and water usage, pollution, biodiversity loss, and the repeated abuse of workers in the production chain. We saw the amazing progress being made within the fashion industry and recognised that the approaches being adopted by forward-thinking fashion brands could be used for home textiles too. 

We launched in June 2023, selling high-quality bedding bundles and pillowcases made out of tencel, an amazing fabric made from sustainably sourced and certified eucalyptus trees. Not only is it soft and silky, but it’s great for temperature regulation, and it’s hypoallergenic – so customers are getting luxury, function and value without harming the planet.

Were you concerned about starting an eCommerce business in the current climate?

Yes, absolutely. It’s always hard to bring new brands to market, and right now, consumers are thinking twice before buying, while raising money is also much harder. 

However, I believe that when you have a good idea that has demand, it’s your duty to do it. To win in the current climate, our brand must be sustainable, look great, and be functional. There’s a vast group of customers out there who want better quality products from brands that share their values, rather than the commodity, price-driven goods that continue to flood the homeware market.

You’re a serial entrepreneur. What are some of the key learnings you’ve made on your journey so far?

At the start of my journey, I was offered the chance to help out at a scrappy startup in South West London. That company turned out to be Innocent Drinks. I was one of the first employees, and I ended up staying there for eight years as the brand gained lift-off. 

Not only was I incredibly lucky to work at one of the defining startups of its generation, but the experience taught me the importance of luck in entrepreneurship more broadly. No matter how strong your proposition is, all brands require luck to get off the ground, and that’s why, as an entrepreneur, waiting until the ‘perfect time’ to launch is folly.

Innocent Drinks also taught me that you need a very strong brand if you’re going to break into new territory, it’s something my colleague Dan Shrimpton and I had to put into practice when we founded good-for-you confectionary company Peppersmith. 

Peppersmith was my first foray into eCommerce, and I quickly learned the value of D2C selling, both for revenue generation and as the best way to connect with your customers. In fact, I was so sold on D2C that I ended up writing a book about it.

We sold Peppersmith after eight years. Managing the transaction while still trying to grow the business was by far the toughest part of the entrepreneurial journey. It was exhausting.

You mentioned your love of D2C. What was it that compelled you to write the D2C playbook?

We saw a lot of D2C success at Peppersmith, as did many like-minded peers at the time, but there was no consensus on the right way of doing D2C. There was no best-practice book to buy, so I vowed that when I left Peppersmith, if there was still nothing on the market, I’d write it myself.

When I exited in 2019, I was uniquely positioned to tell the story. I had the time and motivation, and because I was a founder speaking to other founders, rather than an academic or journalist, it was easier to interpret their answers and build out a series of themes and foundational strategies to follow when starting a D2C business. 

Why is D2C still such an effective strategy for eCommerce start-ups in particular?

Indirect channels – from retail and wholesale to third-party marketplaces – are hugely valuable to brands of all sizes. But the reality is that getting into retail and wholesale is incredibly difficult for a new brand, while it’s very hard to make money selling solely via third-party marketplaces like Amazon.

D2C is a strong place to start for a new brand, giving you direct contact with your customers from day one so you can listen and evolve your proposition. Of course, the world is so competitive now that eventually, you’ll need to go multichannel – but you don’t need to do this from day one.

How did you come across Huboo?

The plan was always to outsource fulfilment from launch. At Peppersmith, we began fulfilling everything from our offices, but we quickly saw that moving to a third-party fulfilment provider was essential for growth because, operationally, fulfilment is so intense. You don’t get this in retail because all your products are shipped to one delivery point. D2C is totally different. 

I was introduced to Huboo in 2022 and saw that the company was plugged into the pan-European D2C world. I liked the focus on technology and efficiency – Huboo looked like the ideal partner to get our business off the ground.

As an eCommerce startup, we must carefully consider all aspects of our proposition – the packaging, the delivery partners, the delivery times and costs – and ensure that our fulfilment partner can manage these effectively to keep our customers satisfied. We’ve bought into Huboo’s ethos and approach, and now we’re working together to put it into practice. 

Finally, what are your long-term aspirations for Kuroa, and how important is the fulfilment operation to achieving these goals? 

Our strategy is to become a multi-product, multi-category brand catering to different customers’ home textiles needs. To achieve this, we need to keep looking upstream and downstream, ensuring our suppliers can produce products sustainably in sufficient quantities, while our fulfilment is flexible enough to meet seasonal uplift and scale with us as we grow. 

Eventually, we’ll need to sell via both wholesalers and third-party marketplaces and figure out an effective fulfilment strategy to facilitate this move to multichannel. I’ve always been very envious of brands that can do it all in-house, but the reality is that for most brands, this is impossible – you have to have the consumer product perfect from the get-go. For everyone else, trusted fulfilment partners like Huboo are the best way to get your business growing. 

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