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Hands Not Thumbs /// 005 /// Oli & Tor Grogan - Stitches + Steel

DB
Let's just go from the start, I'm really interested in how the idea for Stitches + Steel came about. Was there a particular goal in mind?

Oli
It probably wasn’t as romantic as perhaps it might look! Tor comes from a graphic / interior design background, and my background is in the surf, skate and snow industry. I was predominantly working in surf and skate shops and actually, it was a chance encounter by moving into the sailing industry for a short period that got me thinking…

I saw that there were so many insane products in the sailing world, the way they were made, the way they were built, there’s a real ‘fit for purpose’ nature to them, but I just thought the application of them in the industry was really underwhelming, so I thought we could use this gear, but in a much more interesting way.

Tor and I were using our van daily to travel in to work, but we were also using that thing to camp and travel in, so we just tried to repurpose the equipment I was seeing in the sailing world into something that we could use. It sounds a bit cliche, but we were our own first customers. We would go camping and surfing over a weekend and would sling our double mattress in the van, inevitably, it would come back covered in salt water and sand!

We thought it would be really nice to be able to keep the size of that double bed but without it being there all the time, so figured we’d use sailing blocks and pulleys, screw them into the roof, make a lifting / droppable bed, and just test that for a month and see what happens!

One day, we were in a car park, lowering the mattress from the roof, and people started crowding round, being like “holy shit, do that again!”. We saw the huge interest in what we were making, so that’s when we went away and started to figure how we could sell them.

The materials we wanted to use were: carbon fibre, stainless steel, marine grade aluminium and sail-loft quality canvas. Initially we started with some really boring products, but they were really well made!

Then, we thought we’d take my experience with skate, surf, snow marketing, which as far as I'm aware, is the coolest sector to be in, and applied it to a demographic that (take this with a pinch of salt) is inherently less cool than those guys and see what happens. So when Tor created the branding, it just spoke to a surf market who didn’t want big Hawaiian flowers on their products, which is all we saw was out there at the time!

Tor
There was never an intention to set up a brand and sell things to a customer with a van at all. It was a lot more organic. We had a van, we ended up making some pieces for it and then someone asked if they could buy it, it did just come really naturally.

Now we're very much dictated by the customers that buy from us, in terms of how they use their van and what they're using it for. Whether it's to go mountain biking or to go sailing, or just to sleep in. It's really helped shape the brand. Our customer could be a tradie and Monday to Friday, they've got all of their gear in the back, but come weekends, they're wanting to sleep in it and go surfing! So how do we make products for them that can accommodate both?!

DB
Okay, so in your eyes, when was the turning point, that you felt it became a ‘brand’ rather than a side hustle?

Oli
I remember we sold hundreds of pieces on eBay before we even put a name on them. They were just real high end products, jet black, no logos, and people were just freaking out!

So then I thought we need a name for our eBay page, so came up with Stitches + Steel, thought “that’ll do”, sent it to Tor and asked her to make it look pretty!

Then, a few of the right people found it, the most notable being the crew at ‘The Rolling Home’. They made these really beautiful journals and we got asked if we wanted to be in the first issue. That then connected us to just like, friggin' heavyweight vanlife people! All of a sudden, we are just sat alongside some monster players. For me, that’s when it turned into a brand, before it was just a product, with a simple logo on. After that, it was apparent that it was the brand that people wanted. They didn’t want any other product, they wanted Stitches + Steel pieces.

DB
So going back to the sailing product inspiration, do you think using these techniques is what defined you as a brand? How did the idea of using the products in a van actually come about?

Tor
We ended up using them just because it was around us. We both come from sailing backgrounds, we always had various blocks, ropes, shackles etc sort of just lurking around! I think every sailor has that big bag of “bits” that they drag around and use to fix their boats with! 

Oli
I think sailors are problem solvers, and they just like to tinker and they like to invent, they're inherently handy. I think what sailing lacks is the beauty of some of the systems these people create.

So we put certain parts of the hardware into our products. You may laugh, but we use one block in a certain place, it's slightly more expensive than others, but it clicks in such a lovely way! I think it's just important to have these details. That product wouldn’t feel the same it didn't ratchet! I think we've found this ability in seeing the beauty in these articulating systems that are missed by sailors.

Tor
I guess boats and vans are both designed for such small spaces. You step into a dinghy, you are often so restricted by the surroundings that you've got to make the most of every nook and cranny! So there’s a lot of synergies with the interior of a Van, just making the most of those tiny really awkward places.

Ollie
Yeah, if it can make sense on the water, then it made sense on land, right? Our thoughts were, if the systems could survive going across an ocean then they’re going to be fit for a journey down the A303!

DB
So what obstacles have come your way that you hadn't anticipated?

Tor
The last two years, Brexit massively threw a curveball for us. I think 30% of global sales were into Europe.

Oli
Yeah, it just slashed our turnover, not that we're big on cheesy numbers. But yeah, 30% of our turnover just went, off the back of a vote. Trying really hard not to sound sour about it. It was just a shame. Not selling into Europe sucks!

Tor
I think maybe in the long run, it might even be beneficial though, as it has made us bring ourselves back to our core market, which is in the UK. The plan now is to really go hard, and do that properly. So maybe actually, in a few years time, we'll think, “Oh, thank God that happened!”.

Oli
To add to what Tor says about to “bringing it back.” We don’t mean to bring manufacture back. We are ‘pro world’. The old stereotype that Far Eastern labor and manufacturing quality being crap, that you get bad quality from China etc is just bullshit!

It's not the case at all. Where's your phone from? Where's your computer from? Where are some of the most amazing products in your life from? Those guys are insane at making quality goods, we know that because one of the factories we use for some of our products makes some of the best boat sails in the world. Where are they? Not in England?

We use all sorts of amazing manufacturers all over the world, but also a huge amount of our manufacturers are based in the UK as well.

DB
So my follow up was gonna be, how have you overcome these challenges? But it sounds like it's just something that's been put in place. Brexit isn’t something you can't really overcome, is it?

Oli
I think we've been really lucky, we've worked really hard on building a brand, not a business. Tor and I are complete brand nerds, we thought if the brand came first, the business would follow.


Tor
When I think over the last like couple years, we’ve had the whole Brexit wobble, then obviously COVID came, and in a weird way, because people were forced to stay in the UK we by chance had a great summer off the back of that. So it kind of felt like well, one thing tailed off but it got scooped up by the other.

DB
For sure! The ‘Staycation’ movement through COVID was massive, right?

Oli
Yeah! These close-to-home adventures, we've definitely leant on a bit over the last couple of years. It’d be interesting to look back at our history and sort of pinpoint lucky moments, I think we'll go “wow” that moment where no one could go away, and had to jump in a car or a van and go to the local beach, I think it was quite cool, and maybe made people realize what beauty there is around the UK. It was great for us, I mean, we blew up, we sold out online instantly, which was both good and bad!

Tor
Yeah waiting for stock because of COVID was so painful! We’ve grown very naturally. We didn't know that COVID was gonna happen, we didn’t know how that would affect the world. We could only be reactive to a point, as we do rely on a lot of people and resources, it was tough as a lot of factors were out of our control.

DB
Being in such high demand is a good problem to have though, right?

Oli
Absolutely. But also bizarrely painful, obviously you'd much rather look at empty shelves than full ones, what was tough though was trying to keep customers happy with something that was completely out of our control. People were getting aggressive that we didn’t have any stock and demanding to know where it is! It was wild!

Tor
On the flipside to that though, we found a lot of people to be very forgiving and actually quite loyal. I think we're really lucky that our customer base is a really, really nice bunch! We do work really hard trying to keep customers, and we want to keep them on board and have them on the journey with us.

So, Yeah, I do think people were quite accommodating for the fact that at times it was a bit late and there really wasn't much we could do!

DB
It comes back to what you said earlier though, which I thought was quite interesting, when you said you wanted to build a brand first and the business will come after. I think these anecdotes you’ve told is proof that you’ve done just that!

So, last question. On your website it says: “we travel light and we travel considered and with that, we'll go further in all senses.”  So with that being said, what have you learned from your experiences so far, and how are you going to take that into the future?

Oli
That’s a great question. I think what you just touched on, with the relationship between the brand and the customer for us is huge. We're reluctant business people, and what I mean by that is, we're not cheesy business guys, we're not in it for the bottom line, we don't brag about money or profit or turnover, we don't drive flashy cars.

I think the one thing that we've learned is we actually really enjoy being in business now we're here, we’re not in it to make a boatload of money, we're in it because we have learned to like it. What we love are the people around us that we're working alongside.

Also looking forward, hopefully if it all goes to plan, we should be a B Corp business by the end of the year. It's been a three-to-four year journey. Anyone who’s been involved in a B Corp business knows you've truly got to be in a slightly different mindset in order to achieve that, it’s the ultimate stamp for a business that marches to a different beat.

Obviously, cash flow is the lifeblood of any business, you’ve got to make money, but I think using your business to empower people and just be good people is far more important.

Going back to our Mission Statement of “Travel light go further”. For us it means bringing a different mindset. An uncluttered lifestyle, without that need for excess. I don't really want to throw any Van-lifers under the bus here but when I see someone jumping into a £100,000 van full of gadgets and gizmos… there's a good chance you're not truly getting away from it all. I’m obviously biased but I've always found that when you jump in a completely empty panel van with not a huge amount of plans or strict agenda, that's when you truly are having the best time. I think that is quite a rewarding way to live and travel.

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Comments


  • Great article, I have always loved your ethos, and so refreshing to not be in it purely for the dollar dollar bills y’all. 🤙

    Will horrelli on
  • Great read! Been s fan for years love what both you guys are doing :)

    Ben Phillips on

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