Glasgow-based TangledTartan is the brainchild of Niki Smith and Ian McCusker. Recently we spoke with Niki Smith about the challenges and rewards of running a new business.
I have 30 years’ experience in the Culture and Sport industry, managing teams and projects across Sport, Arts, Health, Play and Education at a senior level. This work involved managing buildings as well as teams. Much of the work revolved around events such as the World Pipe Band Championships, the Glasgow Marathon and, in 2014, playing a key role in the Community and Cultural Programme for the Commonwealth Games – probably the most amazing time in my career. The most enjoyable aspect of all the roles I have had has been the direct interface with people.
Ian has 40 years’ experience as a Graphic Designer, the last 15 of which he has run his own consultancy. Ian would tell you he learned the trade in the old days when everything was done ‘on the board’ – not entirely generated and assisted by computer programmes as it is now. Ian’s work covers all aspect of industry; pharmaceutical companies, major exhibitions, web design through to providing the design aspect for cultural and sporting organization’s advertising and literature. After all these years, Ian thrives on the creative aspect of the job and loves nothing more than providing fantastic design to support an organization’s growth and brand value.
The common bond for both Ian and I is our complete and unadulterated love of Scotland. We believe there is nowhere else on earth as beautiful and awe-inspiring as Scotland. From its rich history to the rolling Hills and Glens, from the architecture to the people it has it all, and we have both done a bit of travelling in our time to know.
It was this love of Scotland that was the starting point for the business. We had long seen the raft of Scottish memorabilia available and wanted to bring something new and fresh to his marketplace; something that anyone with Scotland in their heart could identify with and feel proud to wear or own.
So about 3 years ago we embarked on a journey to find what that something was.
As a starting point we wanted to understand what feeling it was we wanted to evoke in people; what were the things that people felt about Scotland, what are the things that make Scots and Scots Kin so fiercely patriotic.
We believed the notion of belonging to something, the Clan system and that very clear lineage gave people a sense of ownership in their land.
There is not a Scot of direct or indirect line who doesn’t tell you they have a Scottish ancestry. Couple this with the extraordinary beauty of the land, and you have a strong proud race.
We then looked at the things that people see as being Scottish, truly Scottish – whisky, tartan, bagpipes and so on – and this was the basis for the design stage.
After many, many months of trying ideas we thought that linking tartan and the clans into a brand, or design could work. The key was that it wasn’t just tartan, the whole world does something with tartan, while we wanted to do something to tartan, and the Tangles were born. We had effectively taken the traditional tartan pattern and “tangled it up.” It is still recognizable as a Tartan of sorts, but with a modern, fresh look. It was very important that the colours reflected the original tartan, but be bolder and brighter. The addition of the Clan name and motto was a given.
Once the concept was agreed upon, the potential of this brand was obvious. People could have their own Clan Tangle on a range of products, and it was new and exciting. The introduction of Scottish Hero and Homeland Tangles evolved slightly later through people not having a Clan but wanting a Tangle.
We invested in industry standard equipment such as heat presses, specialized printers, etc, and attended more training sessions and new business seminars than we could shake a stick at.
Fortunately, our roles are very clear; Ian creates the Tangles and provides all the design work for social media, advertising, bespoke Tangles (perhaps ones with additional wording) and the website design and maintenance.
I take care of social media, customer engagement, make all the orders up, source suppliers and products and cover all necessary admin.
It has been a huge learning curve for both of us – we didn’t know how much we didn’t know!
The single biggest challenge for us has been time, Ian still runs his own business and it is only recently I have retired from my career of 32 years. We only officially launched in February 2016 and it is still very much a juggling act to develop at a pace. We are taking things a bit at a time and continually testing the market to check that we are travelling in the right direction – needless to say adjustments are being made along the way.
Other challenges would be social media and the time involved in servicing this properly when it is only one person doing it can be very onerous, finding the right posts with the right content and then being on top of it 24 hours a day – very challenging.
Another issue is to retail or not to retail – as of yet we haven’t approached, or been approached, by any retail organizations, as we are concentrating on building our brand and ensuring our product is right. In many ways large retail orders would be easier; the work would be outsourced and we do have suppliers on hand to do this. The work would then be in the co-ordination and supply of goods rather than the in-house fulfillment. I think it is inevitable that retail will ultimately be our route.
Still another challenge is learning whilst doing: as with all new business the learning takes place while you are doing in the main. You will always be learning, but at the beginning it is such a raft of learning that has to be done its tough – but good too.
As well, shipping internationally from the UK is very expensive, so recently to alleviate this we have opened a shop on Red Bubble and Merch by Amazon. These multiple seller sites are based in Australia and Canada, and Amazon as you know is everywhere. It is a slightly different product range from the one we offer, but the brand is the same.
We haven’t had one bad comment since we launched, and we are praised for our customer service, our products, the design, our packaging – and that just makes us feel amazing. It also shows that the prep work that we have done has been worth it. It cancels out all the other challenges.
We have a range of nine products just now; Adults and Kids T shirts, Aprons, Bags, Mugs, Travel Mugs, Coasters and Placemats, Teddies and Baby All in Ones.
We are about to introduce some new products to this over the next month or so, in order that we keep the offer fresh.
At this stage we want items that are useful ,that people just love and can pick up at a reasonable price for themselves or to post to relatives.
In the absence of retail outlets at this point, and according to our analytic,s our core buyers are aged between 30 and 65 – so a good broad range, predominantly in the UK but also Australia, Canada and the US. Sales to these areas are growing steadily.
Our future plans we think will broaden this out even more.
Most of our engagement is via social media and ongoing paid advertising through those channels. We also target big tourist attractions in Scotland with leaflet handouts, including the Edinburgh Tattoo, visitor centers, Tourist boards, Clan gatherings, major events, etc.
Recently we have advertised with yourselves as a start to achieving a wider audience.
There are masses of really good quality Scottish themed products out there – and of course some not so good! Most Scottish products have similar subject matter, Scottie dogs, Scottish scenery, thistles, etc. There is nothing else like ours because we have created it – so it is, in fact, unique.
The internet has been invaluable from the aspect of learning easily, seeing and researching the competition, seeing how other people sell online, its endless. The ability we have to build a following and to reach people we could never have dreamed of is amazing. The key, really, is knowing how to use it to your best advantage, and that is the time consuming bit.
You can, however, be overwhelmed by the volume of products out there you have to compete with and the constant need to be ‘on it.’ Getting your pitch – or your one second of airtime – to be as productive as possible is tough, but when you do get it right its brilliant.
As we are a recent start-up we have a very clear direction of travel and clear developments we want to take forward.
We will enhance our product range, giving people more choice as well as introducing a couple more design ideas we have.
We will step into the event dressing side of things, Clan gathering functions, weddings, anniversaries, christenings and so on – the potential is huge. Customers would be able to have their special event dressed for their Clan, banners, tablecloths, place settings, stationary, favours, A boards – the list is endless, and can be done for pretty much any event you can think of.
We will approach large organizations and venues to see if they would like to use one of our designs, for example Holyrood, the Scottish Parliament would look amazing with our Holyrood Tangle illuminating their building for events and as part of their merchandising package.
With Ian’s contacts and experience in the print trade, and my experience in events, we know this is a winner.