Six years ago I stood on a windy hillside in the far west of China watching teenage herders drive yaks to the safety of their tented camp, and contemplated the idea of leaving a well paid career to start a venture with no precedent of working.
Months later I was drawing my final salary payment and heading into a wilderness of uncertainty to follow a path of hard work, metaphorical (and sometimes physical) roadblocks, a surplus of ideas and energy, and a constant shortage of funds.
The proceeds of that final salary payment are long gone, and with Khunu nearly five years old and feeling like my prodigal child, I sit in our shared office in east London trying to erase doubts about my own ability to make ends meet, and focus on a growing feeling that we are building something great.
Why London? Shouldn’t I be in China? Yes and no, and I’ll be back in China soon (and regularly), but as any good MBA graduate will tell you, you should always be based near your customers and not suppliers.
Why London? Our customers are here (they just don’t know it yet), international people love Khunu, and London is now the world’s most international city. I love New York, but these days London feels less British than New York feels American. I’m also tired of applying for work visas.
Is London expensive? Yes and no, and the gap between London and Beijing has narrowed considerably. Against the grain of common manufacturing logic we are also making in London. Customers and suppliers in one city – products made and sold locally – we like that.
What about wool purchasing and social good? Did we move the yaks and herders to Britain? No we didn’t – EU regulations on importing 2,000 non-indigenous bovines are challenging at best, and with thousands of migrants battling their way through the Tunnel in Calais the political environment is hardly open to mass migration. Instead we’ve taken our partnerships in Qinghai to a new level, empowering them, and us, with more control over the supply chain - more on that soon, but check out our Instagram feed to get a feel for things.
So what can you expect from us this year?
Some world firsts for one, assuming we can get them through development – yakland might not be Silicon Valley but we do innovate and create things nobody else has. Sign up to our newsletter or social media channels to learn more in due course.
What else? A business mentor once told me to focus on what you do well and then do it even better. Obvious advice but often ignored by those at the coal face. Our men’s sweaters are great, people love them, and people love our accessories, so that’s where our focus will be. Over the next few weeks expect to see a tight range of gradually improved men’s classics and some great 100% yak accessories. Most of them made in London– plateau to product.
Can you buy Khunu in stores? No not really, but a few partner stores that share our philosophy will have stock. New partners will be on the website this October. Why aren’t we in stores everywhere? Simple. Being in stores means we would need to sell and make large volumes to cover tight margins - the cost of making our products correctly and with careful attention to detail is surprisingly high, even in China, so we’d rather cut out the middleman, pass on the benefits to the customer, and make things when they’re right.
Perhaps one day we’ll open a store of our own - a funky warehouse space with a comfy leather sofa, beautiful shots of the people and places we’ve visited, and strong, aromatic coffee to great weary travellers – but not this year.
Six years ago on that windy hillside I dreamt of building a company that helped the very herders I was watching tend to their yaks. Six years on, as I watch spools of yarn unravel onto a knit machines in north London, that dream is starting to feel like a reality.