Shaper: Howard Harrison

Show aired on 19th August 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was the Average White Band with Pick Up The Pieces. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM, I’m Elliot Moss. Thank you very much for joining me for our Saturday morning slot. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them we bring someone who is shaping the world of business and we call them Business Shapers. I am really pleased to say my Business Shaper today is Howard Harrison and Howard is the CEO and Co-Founder of Knomo and Knomo make really gorgeous things. They make bags and accessories which aide you in your life as you live it and we’re going to be hearing lots from Howard and how he set up his business back in London in 2004. In addition to hearing from him you’ll be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your burgeoning business and then we’ve got some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul; we’ve got Nina Simone, Kamasi Washington and this from the one and only Mr Miles Davis.

That was Mystery from Miles Davis. You are listening to Jazz Shapers and as I said Howard Harrison today is my Business Shaper, he’s here in the hot seat. Howard is the CEO and Co-Founder of Knomo – K N O M O – of course I would have thought it was Knomo. I mean if I was a child Howard I would have gone is it Knomo then.

Howard Harrison
You wouldn’t be alone there’s many people have used that.

Elliot Moss
I guess, it’s really nice to meet you, thank you for joining me.

Howard Harrison
Thank you for having me on, it’s great to be here.

Elliot Moss
Tell me you set up this business in 2004 but you have been doing a lot of things before that and we’ll come to the business but tell me a little bit about your background and how you arrived at deciding to set your own business up.

Howard Harrison
So I was a Lawyer by training. I’m from South Africa, I grew up in South Africa. I trained and worked as a Lawyer and moved to London in ‘97 where I became a Banker. I was kind of, I guess did a reincarnation where I saw there was maybe, it was easier for me as a South African to work as a Banker rather than, I worked in London and Switzerland and New York. I did an MBA and worked at FMCG so I went through many things, many kind of corporate things and I guess was dissatisfied in a corporate life and quite frustrated at the end of it and so that’s what gave me the inspiration to start Knomo.

Elliot Moss
When you did your… I have two or at least two schools of thought on the world of entrepreneurism there’s one which says you don’t need to go to school or university just get on with it and I’ve had plenty of people on the programme like that and there’s others at your end of the spectrum who are super educated in the traditional sense and as you said you’re a lawyer then you’ve become a banker. The MBA is not just any old course that’s one of the best courses in the world. Do you feel you learnt all the things you hoped to learn by trying all these different worlds out? Has it equipped you to be better at what you do now?

Howard Harrison
Well I like to tell myself that all those years that I invested were well spent. I am not sure that’s the case. I think anyone can be an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur is about an attitude. Maybe I should take that back I’m not sure anyone can be because I think some people crave stability and don’t like taking risk in their life. I think naturally that was my mind set so potentially if I did it right from the outset I would have been quicker at doing it but there’s no doubt that being a Lawyer and being a Banker you learn many things that are useful in business later down the line.

Elliot Moss
And then there’s the transition which I find interesting so you go from that, you’re quite right most people that don’t become entrepreneurs don’t want the instability, don’t want the rollercoaster. Help me understand so you’ve done all these things and then, is there a moment, an epiphany where you say you know what I can’t do this anymore I need my own box, I need my own train set as it were and if there was that moment how then did it spin into Knomo, how did Knomo arrive in your head?

Howard Harrison
So the, I think right from my early career I always knew I wanted my own company so there was always a kind of seed in the back of my mind that I wanted to do it and I constantly would come home at the end of the day and chat with my wife and say that I’m just not happy, I’m not enjoying what I’m doing and so then the idea, so there was always the, we were looking at different ideas, we would brain storm ideas as to what we would do. The idea for Knomo came about when I was travelling, I was in an airport and I was just observing the number of people walking through the security taking a laptop out and you’ve got to remember this was 2004 so desktops were still outselling laptops. So most people were still very stationary and weren’t moving around and it just became, and I noticed everyone carrying these ugly black bags and I kind of thought and at the same time I had started a new job, actually in Reigate in Surrey and my wife had started a new job in the same month and we’d both been given these ugly black bags almost at a similar time and we came back and said we were given this bag but we would never use it and so it seemed very wasteful that you were given something that you would never use at all and we thought… and often businesses start with an itch where you have a personal need and you think I can do something better. So there was always a search for what could we do and then we saw an opportunity that we didn’t think was being served.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out more about how the personal itch has been scratched and we are sitting here thirteen years later with Howard Harrison one of the Co-Founders of a lovely business called Knomo. Time for some more music this is Spanish Harlem from Aretha Franklin.

That was Spanish Harlem from Aretha Franklin. Howard Harrison is my Business Shaper, CEO and Co-Founder of Knomo and they make bags, they make accessories and it started in the corner of an eye once upon a time back in 2002/2003 I imagine.

Howard Harrison
Yeah the idea probably started in 2003 where we got all the ideas together. We started the business at the end of 2004.

Elliot Moss
So here you are taking you back then you’ve discussed this with your wife and I think we’ve all done that at some point with you know your other half you say what can we do is it going to be frozen ice cream is it going to be something. You know you found it from a place which was an authentic place.

Howard Harrison
Yes.

Elliot Moss
What are the first few steps and obviously in the back of your mind helps you as a lawyer so you can structure stuff, you understand money because you’ve worked in banking these are now ticking all these boxes making you feel good but seriously what are then the first two or three steps that you take to go we’re going to do this?

Howard Harrison
So in our case it was we needed a product and so it was a very product focused business and so we had to go out and find a designer and the idea was so we had a kind of a brief, it wasn’t a formal design brief but we wanted to create a bag that you could use 24/7. So you’d happily take it on holiday but had all the functional attributes that matched those ugly black things that were being issued and were commoditised products and so we found a local designer who created some product for us and the product looked ugly, you couldn’t flog it for a tenner at a flea market it really looked… so we spent probably a year trying to get the product right and it was a painful process because as you say I’m a Lawyer and a Banker and while I have I think a pretty good eye for what looks good and what function needs to work I think to try and create it myself was quite challenging. So that was the first step and then afterwards was finding manufacturers and trying to get it made at a price that we thought we could retail.

Elliot Moss
And did you know where to start in terms as you say we had to go and find a manufacturer. What often strikes me as a big thing to undertake you know because I haven’t made stuff, I haven’t had to go and commission a design in a factory wherever it is in the world? I mean how did you know where to start?

Howard Harrison
And now it would be much easier I mean there’s kick-starters starting all the time and online you could go online and find a manufacturer. In 2004 without sounding old there wasn’t that endless resource and anyone you were seeing online wasn’t worth their weight in gold you wouldn’t want to speak to them anyway so it was through networking. I went back and I found other big luggage companies, I got introduced to some manufacturers and we probably went through five, at least five before we found one that was appropriate and was willing to do the MOQs, the minimum orders that we needed because as a small business that’s one of the challenges is most want to run big production runs which you can’t afford to fund.

Elliot Moss
So you get the stuff, it’s kicked off, the business is now going. At what point did you realise that you might have had a winner. At what point did you say do you know what this is going to work and I don’t mean just with the first product but I mean the business in general. Was there again a moment or was it more gradual than that and what iterate it.

Howard Harrison
So there’s been, I mean there’s always been these good moments in the journey where you all of a sudden get into significant retailers where you have huge, huge months where you think wow all of a sudden the business is going to a new level. I think it’s always been, it’s always been a slow burn because the channel didn’t exist for our product we were a premium functional product and if you go into a department store it wasn’t clear where you would find our product. Whereas online it worked right from the outgo. We had a really strong business, we sell to more than a hundred countries online and people love the product. So online was always a build and we’ve grown every year online right from the beginning. In retail we got into Apple which got us access around probably into forty countries around the world. We got into some other major department stores which were brilliant but there wasn’t one day that all of a sudden it came to fruition I don’t think.

Elliot Moss
It wasn’t like the Wizard of Oz.

Howard Harrison
It wasn’t, I wish it was.

Elliot Moss
You know sometimes I do too and I was waiting for the dream sequence to kick in but it didn’t. Stay with me for more from Howard Harrison my Business Shaper, CEO and Co-Founder of Knomo. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that some words of wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I meet someone who is shaping the world of business and if you haven’t caught me every Saturday for the last five years well that’s okay because you can go into iTunes put in the words ‘Jazz’ and ‘Shapers’ and listen to a whole host of those brilliant guests there. Alternatively you can catch us on CityAM.com there’s lots in there too. Howard Harrison is my Business Shaper today he is the CEO and Co-Founder of Knomo they make lovely bags and accessories and if you were listening earlier you will find out that he is very well distributed across the world with really brilliant partners I mean lets, you know Apple is about as good as it gets in the world that you’re in and I believe you’re also in Harrods, I think you, or you were in Harrods is that right?

Howard Harrison
So we are in Harrods, we are in Selfridges, we are in department stores across the world.

Elliot Moss
Do you still kind of pinch yourself that this idea that you had back then thirteen years ago has become a real thing and that people can see it and that you see people using your products.

Howard Harrison
No not really I think your expectations keep on moving with you so it’s not as if you, I think it’s just business that you get up in the morning and you have good days and bad days and we are very happy with where the brand is going, we are excited with, and I think we’ve just only begun the journey. I mean we’re thirteen years in but it really feels like now the business is getting real traction. So we’ve very ambitious as to where it will get to but no I don’t think we, we don’t believe we’ve made it yet.

Elliot Moss
And I guess that is reflected in the fact that you’re fundraising or you have been in the last couple of years in the sense that you want an injection of capital, that you want new investors. Tell me a little bit about the thinking behind that and what you’re going to do with the money.

Howard Harrison
So we fundraised last year, we raised some private equity investment and the basis of that is we wanted to go into retail and we also, we had a US joint venture which we wanted to own completely and so we bought out our US partners and have 100% owned subsidiary in the US and then from a retail perspective we’re a month away from opening our first stand alone store in Covent Garden in Seven Dials actually so that will start in August this year.

Elliot Moss
Does it worry you that the sense economically is slightly hard to define. I mean you know we’re living in strange times or is this a you know what I’ve got a great product, that’s going to be a great location for me and it’s all guns blazing.

Howard Harrison
Yeah I see huge opportunity, the world is changing there’s no doubt about that but I think it kind of plays into what Knomo is all about. Knomo is about being entrepreneurial within your own time and finding ways to find a living and I think we found in 2008 many people left corporate lifestyles and either became freelancers or took on multiple jobs and found their own personal freedom and Knomo is about that so I see this whole change economic change as really being a catalyst for what will help us drive the brand.

Elliot Moss
I love the meaning of the name it comes from knowledge and mobility put together and then your mission statement ‘an average life isn’t for us’. These mission statements are often gobbledy gook I mean there’s a great column in the FT with Lucy Calloway which talks all about the rubbish that businesses spout. That sounds quite a normal nice statement to me. Where did that come from and how early on did you decide you needed the mission statement?

Howard Harrison
I don’t know if we’d strictly define it as a mission statement we also talk about live free so the genuine, authentic mission from the business right from the word go is that we felt that the idea of working a 9 to 5 in a cubicle was the most uninspirational way you could lead your life and so if you could engineer either through a corporate or through an entrepreneurial venture, if you could lead a life that is much more free and flexible I think you’ll be a happier person at the end of the day and so for us the aspiration is to become a brand that is about adventure but an adventure in an everyday life if that makes sense. So I think groundhog day is a movie that always sticks with me as someone and I kind of, I like to think us as being the country of groundhog day where you’re stuck in this kind of time warp where you repeat the same thing every day.

Elliot Moss
That sounds like a good way of living. Stay with me for more from Howard Harrison my Business Shaper. Time for some more music right now this is Kamasi Washington with Cherokee and it’s featuring Patrice Quinn.

That was Cherokee from Kamasi Washington. I am with Howard Harrison and we’ve been talking about his business called Knomo and talking about freedom and mission statements and it feels like actually yours makes sense in the context of what you’re trying to do. You seem incredibly calm and measured. Tell me about passion for you and where that fits because I imagine that to be able to deliver and to innovate and to expand you have to really want it. Do you want it every day?

Howard Harrison
There’s no way you can be successful as an entrepreneur without wanting it. My exterior may be calm but I am incredibly, I guess deliberate in everything I do. This is a, it’s a tough category, it’s a quite competitive business we are in in terms of the category we are in. We are trying to do something completely different which means you have to be doing it that much harder than people that are doing the conventional thing. Yeah I think I’ve never met an entrepreneur who doesn’t want it and isn’t incredibly ambitious with where they’re going.

Elliot Moss
You talked about you know doing, you said something just then about you know when you do it you do it properly and there’s this focus. I know that you do a lot of exercise as well again some people I’ve met over the years, very successful people have been super disciplined, super disciplined Do you think that’s just the type of person that does well, that has that ability to be that disciplined whether its work, whether it’s play, whether it’s, whatever it might be.

Howard Harrison
Yeah I think if you’re a lazy person generally being an entrepreneur is probably not going to work and I guess I’ve done many ultra-marathons or kind of long sporting events which take a lot of discipline too and take a lot of preparation and that’s what business is about. It’s about preparation and putting in the hours.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for much more from Howard Harrison my Business Shaper, CEO and Co-Founder of Knomo. We’ll be having our final chat with him plus we’ll be playing a lovely track from Nina Simone and that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

Love Me Or Leave Me from Nina Simone one of our brilliant Jazz Shapers. Howard Harrison is my Business Shaper today just for a few more minutes, he is the CEO and Co-Founder of Knomo. If you don’t know their stuff check it out, go to knomobags.com I think that’s right isn’t.

Howard Harrison
Or knomo.com.

Elliot Moss
Or knomo.com. The stuff you make is both functional and interesting to look at. I mean it’s aesthetically pleasing the lines are right. I mean I’m no designer but I buy stuff and I like stuff that works for me on both those levels and you talked earlier about the ambition for the business and you talked about the funding. Is it just about more stuff? Is it about cleverer designs? Is it about more countries? What do you mean when you say there’s ambition for the business?

Howard Harrison
So our ambition is to become a global business and a globally known and loved brand so at the moment we’re a business that’s building awareness and probably better known locally. In the US, it’s a huge market for us and we’re going to grow both our retail and wholesale business as well as our online business. So we’re a multi-channel business, we sell through many different doors. We’ve got some really good retail partners but we’re a small brand for them and so the business will grow as the category grows.

Elliot Moss
And in all of this and we haven’t mentioned the money, I’m not interested in revenue necessarily. Obviously the business has grown, I believe you’ve got around fifty people that work for you. Is the money important Howard as you look at this? Is it about being world leaders and having a valuation of X and you become a wealthy guy and all that stuff.

Howard Harrison
No not to me, I used to think it was, I don’t believe it is anymore I think for me it’s this personal mission to create a business that’s got staying power and that will be around a long time and I don’t think about legacy but for us we’ve got a brilliant team at Knomo and everyone, the ambition that we have is less about a revenue number or a profit number and more about creating a long lasting brand that people will buy into and love and see real value in what we’re doing.

Elliot Moss
And it sounds like there are obviously good and bad days but when there’s, where does the depth of happiness come from? When are you actually in flow as it were if we were talking about a swimming analogy from it? When is it that you’re not conscious you’re doing stuff but it is just working really well?

Howard Harrison
So when people, when you see people using the product and liking the product we’ve got a really good, a very positive review rating people love, once they buy into the brand we get lots of repeat purchase and for us that’s the mark of success when you see really happy customers who come in and say what you guys are doing is different and is special and then for us it feels like what we set out to do at the beginning we’re starting to achieve some of those goals.

Elliot Moss
Good luck with the opening of the new store.

Howard Harrison
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
Continue to be calm on the outside but obviously furious and stressed and whatever else is going on in the inside. You hide it really well by the way.

Howard Harrison
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
People have probably told you that before.

Howard Harrison
After a coffee.

Elliot Moss
Listen thanks very much for spending some time with you just before I let you go what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Howard Harrison
So I love jazz and last year at Ronnie Scott’s we saw Joe Stilgoe and if you’ve got it a track from him it would be great to hear that.

Elliot Moss
I’m sure we have got a track for him and we’ll be playing that in just a moment, thank you so much.

Howard Harrison
Thank you Elliot, cheers.

Elliot Moss
That was Joe Stilgoe, the artist of choice from my Business Shaper today, Howard Harrison. Someone who had a personal itch to fix a problem that he saw when he was walking through an airport and someone who actually then went and did something about it. Someone who has created a category, very, very inventive world of bags and of accessories that are beautiful but also functional and someone who has maintained at least a calm exterior and a super disciplined underpin and I think that’s been a really big reason why he and his business have succeeded. Do join me again, same time, same place – that’s next Saturday, 9.00am for another edition of Jazz Shapers. Meanwhile stay with us because coming up next is Nigel Williams.

Howard Harrison

Previously a lawyer in South Africa and and investment banker in London, New York and Zurich, Howard quit corporate life 13 years ago to found Knomo. He was frustrated with commutting and long office hours and didn’t want life behind a desk to his narrative for the rest of his career.

Knomo is a brand focused on creating perfect accessories such as beautiful and functional laptop backpacks; travel bags; phone cases; and tablet covers. Knomo products are now sold all around the world via knomo.com and into more than 1,500 retailers in over 40 countries. Knomo is currently opening its second store in Covent Garden. The brand’s mission statement is “Life organised to LIVE FREE” and is focused on inspiring people to do the unconventional and seek freedom in their lives.

Howard comes from South Africa and lives in London. Prior to Knomo Howard was a lawyer in South Africa and an Investment Banker in London, New York and Switzerland. He holds an MBA from Insead.

Follow Howard on Twitter @howardmharrison.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

I guess I was dissatisfied in a corporate life and quite frustrated at the end of it and so that’s what gave me the inspiration to start Knomo.

I like to tell myself that all those years that I invested were well spent. I am not sure that’s the case.

Often businesses start with an itch where you have a personal need and you think, ‘I can do something better’.

We found a local designer who created some product for us, and the product looked ugly. You couldn’t flog it for a tenner at a flea market.

In 2008, many people left corporate lifestyles and found their own personal freedom, and Knomo is about that. I see this whole economic change as really being a catalyst for what will help us drive the brand.

If you could lead a life that is much more free and flexible I think you’ll be a happier person at the end of the day. So for us the aspiration is to become a brand that is about adventure, but an adventure in an everyday life.

There’s no way you can be successful as an entrepreneur without wanting it. My exterior may be calm but I am incredibly deliberate in everything I do.

I’ve done many ultra-marathons or long sporting events which take a lot of discipline and take a lot of preparation and that’s what business is about. It’s about preparation and putting in the hours.

The ambition we have is less about a revenue number or a profit number and more about creating a long lasting brand that people will buy into and love and see real value in.