Aussie Bum founder Sean Ashby talks to Kat Slowe about his unique way of doing business and reveals how he has found a fresh lease of life that is driving a range of innovative new projects.
“I was an Aussie, but I was also a beach bum – that’s why it was called AussieBum,” says company founder Sean Ashby. “I really didn’t do anything. And, that is how it was started.”
Now the owner of a global business, with an annual turnover in the tens of millions, an estimated 1000 e-tail orders a day and a bevy of high profile stockists – that includes the like of the UK’s Selfridges, House of Fraser and Harvey Nichols – Ashby has come a very long way from his days spent simply with sea and surf. Yet, his voyage has not been without turbulent waters.
Ashby’s first career saw him work as a marketing executive – in the music industry – for international entertainment giant Warner. Despite an early passion for this sector, once he had reached the pinnacle of what he could achieve with the company, Ashby soon realised that the job wasn’t for him.
“You have an image of what you think a role will be, what you expect,” he explains, “and then, when you get into a role, it’s not quite what you imagined.
“So, I thought, I am going to become a personal trainer. I did all of that and I realised in that industry you just become a psychologist for people. They tell you all their problems. I realised that wasn’t for me and I tried to get back into the music industry.”
Unfortunately for Ashby, the rise of digital downloading and websites such as Napster mean that his job had pretty much disappeared. Over the coming months, he applied for position after position to no avail. “The recession really was happening early to me because I couldn’t get a job.” he says. “I was either underqualified or underqualified. So, then I became a beach bum. I spent a lot of time on the beach because you didn’t spend money.”
It was while he was ‘bumming’ about that Ashby’s idea for AussieBum was formed. Every year, in Australia, there used to be a particular style of swimwear that Speedo created, which was described by locals as the ‘classic Aussie cozzie’. On discovering – after attempting to buy it – that the style had been discontinued, Ashby decided to make his own version the classic Aussie swimwear. He started out manufacturing products to sell to people on the beach, but was soon looking to expand his operation, an undertaking that he quickly realised would not be as easy as it first seemed.
“I started to present to all the major retailers and department stores in Australia,” says Ashby. “Everyone basically rejected the project, saying ‘you are competing against Speedo and all these other major brands. What makes you think that an Australian brand, a company called Aussie Bum, people would even want to buy it?’
“That’s when I got a bit of a chip on my shoulder, because I could sell it comfortably to people directly but buyers were saying ‘the trend is lycra, the trend is all these other things’, whereas I was very focussed on the classic Australian swimwear costume.”
At the time of the dot bomb, when most e-commerce was withdrawing from the internet, Ashby decided that if he could not sell his products to retail, he would build his own website and sell them direct.
He spent three to six months developing a website, getting all his mates together and photographing them on the beach in his swimwear. He then put a media release together and sent samples with the release to different magazines all over the world.
“Ironically, my very first order actually came from London,” says Ashby. “ Two days later another order came and another order. Today, we now enjoy many orders. It all started thanks to the Brits.”
Business really took off when the product was worn by all the models in the music video for Kylie’s hit song Slow. Only weeks later, the head buyer for menswear at Selfridges got in touch. “He called one night, which was really surreal because I didn’t know who Selfridges were,” says Ashby, “and it was funny coming from my bedroom, having to ask, ‘so, could you tell me Selfridges is?’”
Today, 70 percent of AussieBum’s business is done through its e-tail site and 30 percent through its bricks and mortar stockists, who include some of the world’s biggest names in retail. And, contrary to the standard practice, Ashby is keen not to expand his business further.
“I don’t want our brand to become like an Adidas, a Levis or a Billabong, where you can buy it anywhere,” he says. “I still really like the concept that it is boutique and that it is very niche driven… Keeping it at a premium, you don’t make as much money but the brand lasts a lot longer in the long run.”
However, with ever ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ having joined the online swimwear and underwear business since the company was founded, Ashby recognises the importance of continuing to have a strong USP. With an almost unheard of turn-around time of just one week, the number of new designs is only limited by Ashby’s creativity and energy.
Despite employing around 40 people, Ashby still does all the design and photography himself. It was this work load that left the entrepreneur, in 2009, burnt out and – after working 12 to 18 hour days consistently over an eight to ten years period – he chose to take a few years sabbatical from heavy innovation. However, energy, motivation and joie de vivre now restored, Ashby is now back in the driving seat and determined to let his pent up creative impulses loose. “I was like ‘I’m buggered, I’m knackered, I have had enough’,” he says, “so I had a bit of a lull in terms of I just wasn’t being inspired. But, more recently, the adrenaline has all come back, so I am creating all new stuff again.
This Autumn, AussieBum has launched its new WrestleMe swimwear, which is based on the traditional all-in-one men’s wrestling suits. “In the very old days, men in Australia wore swimwear that was like a one piece bikini with straps over the shoulder,” explains Ashby.
The label is also introducing Merino wool underwear, using wool that has been sourced from local sheep, and a new type of underwear that is made from a milk resin. The latter will launch in time for the Christmas holiday season.
And, it is not only his brand’s products that Ashby is now looking to focus his renewed energies on. The managing director is also looking to revamp the company’s successful e-tail site. The new site will change the way that the business seeks to communicates with its customers, embracing social media as a means to directly heighten profits.
Images that customers have uploaded of themselves wearing AussieBum swimwear or underwear, formerly only featured on the brand’s Facebook page, will now be showcased on the main website. Furthermore, AussieBum will be looking to connect with its customer by utilising the latest social buzz in new and innovative ways.
“Let’s say, for example, it is a thundering storm in London,” says Ashby, “we are going to embrace that with the content that we put on there that day, as opposed to planning weeks down the track… There are heaps of shoots that I have done where it has been p*****g down with rain. So we will put an image up there and then we’d put a byline that says ‘Forecast today in London: p*****g down with rain. Great day to wear this!’”
Every member of the company is encouraged to input into the overall social media content. “I guess it’s like being on the Starship Enterprise,” Ashby continues. “Each person has got their own terminal and each person in the company is contributing in a social media way.”
This method of using social media to promote the company’s products to consumers is just another example of how, when Ashby is on his game, he is able to spot opportunities years ahead of the competition. And, he is well aware of the risk he takes by boldly going where no man has ever gone before.
“It’s being different not for the sake of it, but being original,” he says, “as opposed to falling into the belief that ‘if you don’t do this, you are going to fail’. I am quite prepared to take that risk but, at the end of it, at least I am doing it my way as opposed to the way that people think it should be.”