This week’s champion of change are Forbes 30 under 30 Emily and Betsy Nunez, Founders of Sword and Plough – a fashion company that works with veterans to re-purpose and recycle military surplus fabrics into fashionable bags and accessories. This unique social enterprise has a quadruple bottom-line: supporting veteran employment and entrepreneurship, bridging the civilian-military divide by educating the public about the challenges for those serving in the military, reducing waste and damage to the environment, and donating a portion of profits to organisations that support veterans.
What was the dream when setting up Sword and Plough?
From the beginning, Sword & Plough was about more than just cool bags. We’ve always been excited to create great products, but our hope was that those products could be used as a platform to promote change. Our dream has always been to build a brand that would encourage conversation around veteran issues and ultimately work to bridge the civilian-military divide. We’ve made some incredible progress, but we still have a long ways to go.
A lot of businesses are now combining social good with profit. Do you believe this to be important for a sustainable business?
It’s exciting to see peers within our industry and others take similar steps towards social responsibility. The success of large companies such as TOMS has really gone a long way to convince others that social responsibility and profitability are not mutually exclusive. It’s unfortunately hard to believe we’ll ever live in a world where social good is essential for business sustainability, but that is certainly something that we can and should all push for. The socially conscious consumer movement is growing quickly, and more business are beginning to take notice. Consumers are willing to spend a little more to know where their product came from and what it stands for, and that is important because consumer habits certainly impact business decisions.
How has your experience in the military helped you launch a business within this sector? Do you feel prior experience is important for building a start-up?
Working for the Army has provided me with an incredible set of skills including communication, problem solving and leadership. We use these skills on a daily basis at Sword & Plough. Prior experience is certainly important for building a start-up, but where that experience comes from is far less important than how you utilize it. None of our team members had any experience in manufacturing or fashion prior to our launch, but we were able to leverage the skills we had developed at our other jobs and throughout our lives to build a successful company.
Young entrepreneurs fear being turned down due to their age. Given how young you ladies are, what has your experience been with this?
People are always surprised by how young we are (and how young our company is), but we’ve never missed out on an opportunity because of our age. Our generation has done some pretty incredible things and young entrepreneurs have become more of the norm than the exception. Investors recognize this, and if you present yourself and your ideas in a professional manner, people will take notice.
You started in 2012 and in 2015 you landed a feature in Forbes. How did you do it?
Our journey over the last three years has truly been a roller coaster ride. Late nights, lots of emails, frantic phone calls and last minute trips to our manufacturer were all part of that journey. We have an extremely dedicated team with a common vision in mind and through all of the ups and downs, we never lost sight of what lay ahead. When there was a problem (and there were many) we worked together to troubleshoot it. Dedication and teamwork is what helped us get to where we are today.
Raising funds for a project or an idea can be a daunting task for start-ups. Paying interest or giving up equity are two things early businesses, especially young entrepreneurs seek to avoid for as long as possible to focus on accelerating growth. What alternative forms of finance are available for start-ups?
The traditional investor route can certainly be daunting for startups. This was something we struggled with early on. We had a product and a vision, but we hadn’t exposed the brand to a market beyond our friends and family. We weren’t willing to give up equity (what entrepreneur is?) and we also weren’t ready to take on the additional responsibility that comes with an investor, so we decided to go the crowdfunding route. Crowdfunding isn’t for everyone, but there are so many amazing platforms out there it’s definitely worth exploring. In addition to providing us with the initial capital we needed to start production, our Kickstarter campaign allowed us to test our product/brand in a real marketplace and it helped us gain exposure.
You’ve had a very successful crowdfunding experience. How much do you feel your campaign’s success has contributed to Sword and Plough’s journey?
We probably would not be where we are today had we not gone the Kickstarter route and successfully fulfilled our campaign goal. Kickstarter allowed us to fund our first production run, it provided us with an incredible amount of exposure, and perhaps most importantly, it gave us the confidence we needed to take the next big leap.
Is business as hard as everyone says it is?
Running a business certainly isn’t easy, but the challenge is what makes it so enjoyable. When something goes wrong or doesn’t work out the way you expected, you can’t just pick up the phone and call someone to fix it. You’re the person on the other end. Especially in the early stages (when you might still have your old job) starting a business means late nights, early mornings and lots of headaches, but the success that can come with the hard work is well worth it.
What advice would you give to a young and aspiring entrepreneur?
Don’t be afraid to take a risk. That idea in the back of your head will never become a reality if you don’t at least give it a try. And once you take that initial leap, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask your friends and family for feedback, bring on mentors, build a community of supporters. You may not always like what others have to say, but learning how to accept advice and criticism is an important step in your journey to success. The worst case scenario is your idea will fail, but you will be better off for having tried.