IoD 99 member Fleurette Mulcahy co-founded Attollo Lingerie with best friend Alice Holden in 2013. With the company launching online this spring and big plans for the future, the pair are now struggling to run operations by themselves. Mulcahy asks for expert advice on a small business’s first hire
Student union bars don’t have a reputation as being the birthplace of good ideas. But for Fleurette Mulcahy and best friend Alice Holden, both then students in their second year at King’s College London, a celebratory drink after handing in an essay resulted in something far more inspired than a hangover – a business. “We both have similar, awkward bra sizes and for years we moaned about being unable to find fashionable, comfortable bras that fit us,” says Mulcahy. “We decided then to stop moaning and do something about it. We took the plunge and founded Attollo Lingerie.”
With a name meaning, simultaneously, ‘I lift up, I raise, I excite’ in Latin (“when we’re pitching we always get a little chuckle from that”), Attollo set out to produce comfortable, fashionable bras in sizes not usually stocked in high-street stores. But with no experience in fashion or design – both Mulcahy and Holden were studying geography when they founded Attollo – the pair realised the only way to get the business off the ground was to get help from people who knew what they were doing.
After a market research survey revealed there was indeed a demand for specialist lingerie – “We found that women felt the exact same way as us; they didn’t like the shopping experience, they didn’t like what was available in their size and they were just crying out for a new brand,” Mulcahy says – the duo put their social skills to good use. “We gave up our prior commitments and started going to networking events four or five nights a week.”
At one of their first events, Mulcahy and Holden were introduced to a pair of businessmen interested in investing, but on the condition the girls quit university to pursue the venture full time. “It didn’t make sense for us to leave eight months before graduation,” says Mulcahy, “but their interest solidified for us [the sense that] we had an idea that people would want.”
In addition to their fruitful networking, the pair won Best Pitch at the King’s College Lion’s Den competition, receiving £750 in prize money (“It should have been £1,000, but we had to pay a post-grad £250 to be on our team because we weren’t actually eligible!”). They were selected by the vice principal to represent King’s College at the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards in 2014, coming second and receiving £2,000. “We were also lucky enough to get £15,000 each in Virgin Start-up loans, and by the end of 2016 we had raised £150,000 through private angel investors.”
With funding secured, they hired an experienced designer they’d found on LinkedIn to develop some prototypes. The pair used recommendations to find a lingerie grader who could size the products, but finding a manufacturer proved to be their biggest challenge: “We didn’t realise when we started that a lot of manufacturers won’t give you the time of day if you’re somebody they don’t know. You can send a million emails but it’s like hitting a brick wall, especially if you don’t have the training or skillset – you can’t necessarily use the right language.”
Despite being introduced to manufacturers and suppliers through their prototype designer and a design consultant sub-contracted from one of the UK’s top lingerie brands, the pair found manufacturers weren’t willing to work in small batches. “Bras have 30 to 40 components each and it’s really important they’re created in the right way,” she says. “As a new small business we were adamant that we would minimise stock risk and start with a smaller run to prove the concept and fit, and then grow our range in light of customer feedback.” After a visit to one factory on the continent ended in disappointment, Mulcahy and Holden located another able to produce in small batches and which could be flexible with the sizes and styles produced.
With European suppliers and manufacturer, Mulcahy and Holden expect to feel the effects of Brexit, but their attitude is very much “business as usual” until Article 50 is triggered and they know more. “[Brexit] was a hard pill to swallow, but you have to pick yourself up and just carry on,” says Mulcahy. With the company launching its sales this spring, the duo are doing just that, working with a creative digital agency to finalise their campaign content and strategy, while planning a series of ‘bra-fit parties’ where customers can be fitted – with shop sales and online retail both part of the strategy.
“Our five-year goal is to have a flagship store in London and by that time have a line of swimwear, nightwear, shapewear, sportswear and mastectomy bras,” she says. “We also hope to expand overseas in Europe and the US online within the next few years.” Within the next two years, Mulcahy and Holden aim to have Attollo stocked in larger retailers such as John Lewis and Asos. “That would just be really incredible for us.
“The biggest difficulty we are facing now is realising that we’re at a point where we need to delegate aspects of the business to someone else,” she continues, adding that Attollo plans to take on interns to assist with the running of the business over the next few months, but also hopes to employ its first member of staff in 2017. “We really want to find somebody with a shared vision and a passion to learn. We studied geography, we didn’t have any background in fashion, so it’s all about the determination to make it work. Perseverance fixes a lot of things.” What advice will this month’s expert panel offer?
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Fleurette Mulcahy CV
Education BSc in geography at King’s College London
Career Maths and English tutor, Kumon 2009–11
Impact team member, Abercrombie & Fitch 2010–15
Founded Attollo Lingerie 2013
Bra fitter, Bravissimo 2015–16
Fleurette Mulcahy is a member of IoD 99
Attollo Lingerie ask: How do we ensure our first hire has the same passion and determination as us to hit the ground running in a small, fast-growing company?
Julie Nerney Transformation director, CEO, NED
You have a great product and are working on a brand strategy and content which underpins that. A strong brand platform should encapsulate your passion, values and personality for the business. Use that when you recruit.
Use the tone of voice in your advert. Tell the story so far and the plans for the future, imbued with your own enthusiasm. Be clear about what your new hires will do. Be clear about the kind of person and experience you are looking for. Give them the top three reasons to work with you. Frame why this is an attractive opportunity. Then use recruitment avenues where you know the kind of people you want are searching for their perfect role.
Skills and knowledge can be learned – attitude and fit are by far the most important features for the first hire in a start-up. When you meet people, spend time on questions that give you an insight into what makes them tick; get a real sense of them as individuals and how they’ll cope in a small, growing, changing business as much as the technical stuff you need them to do.
Julie Nerney is a member of IoD Sussex
Simon Gray Founder & CEO, Career Codex
Having run my own recruitment business in the past, I’ve experienced the challenges of hiring, not only people for my clients’ businesses, but also for my own. The passion you have for your company is very hard to bring in. For you it’s everything; but for an external hire, no matter how much they appear to be with you, it will always be in part just a job.
Bringing in the right person is about attraction, selection and then retention. Be the face of your business, tell your story and you’ll attract likeminded people to join you. Get under the skin of their motivations when you meet them to select the right individual. If someone is passionate about something they do away from the office, there’s more chance of them being passionate about your business in the work environment. Then for me, retention is about communication and ongoing training in bringing your new hire on the journey and empowering them to grow and develop along the way. The internship route is a great option, too. It’s a lower commitment for you and for them, and through the placement you’ll both learn if there’s a fit before a permanent contract is signed.
Simon Gray is a member of IoD East Midlands
Sheetal Gill HR business partner, Gill HR Consultancy
Employing your first member of staff can be daunting but also exciting. Identify what key attributes an ideal candidate would have. This helps you attract the right candidates for the role.
At interview ask questions about why they wish to work for you. What passions and interests do they have? Prepare some pointers for ideal answers beforehand. Share your business values and objectives, and their role within this. This helps them to see what their contribution should be and also make sure they understand the business vision.
Most importantly, whenever possible ask your staff for input and feedback on business ideas and decisions. This will make staff feel valued and therefore motivated and engaged in the business. As business decisions are joint, so is the responsibility to fulfil them. This way your staff grow with your business. You may not always be able to implement their ideas, but that is OK – so long as you explain your rationale they will more than likely understand. So keep the communication open. Good luck!
Sheetal Gill is a member of IoD London
Thanks very much to the panel. We feel excited to be expanding our team and will definitely draw on your advice along the way. Taking on interns will be a great way for both parties to gauge whether the role is a good fit ahead of making a longer commitment. It’s also really interesting to see some core themes throughout – particularly the importance of communication and personal development for the new team member. We’re both keen to take on feedback from new employees and gain their fresh perspective on our plans. We hope that this, combined with being explicit about what their role is and how it contributes to Attollo’s wider goal, will make them feel motivated and valued to help grow our brand.
It’s useful to see how those more experienced than us prepare for the interview process. We’ve already put some of the advice in place, eg using our own ‘brand voice’ and telling our story, with the assumption that this will resonate with the right people. It’s very helpful to see your other pointers, such as candidates being explicit about the top three reasons they want to work for us, or for us to prepare notes on the ideal answers we’d be looking for. We’re looking forward to putting this advice into practice and feel better prepared for having received it.
What advice would you give Attollo Lingerie? Email us