The hard-earned wisdom of Nancy and Eileen from Cucumber Clothing.

Nancy Zeffman and Eileen Willett co-founded Cucumber Clothing in September 2017 and it’s now a recognised brand that has customers all over the world. Says Nancy “I can’t say that I set out to work in fashion. My background is in ad-vertising (at Saatchi & Saatchi) and Eileen’s is in fashion. Cucumber came at an opportune moment for us when our chil-dren were starting to flee the nest and we decided to dip our toe into the world of start-ups. We had no idea where it would lead us. We were both mums in our early 50’s. Between us we had two dogs, six children and what we thought was a damn good idea…”

And clearly it was, especially for menopausal women who really value their cool, breathable fabrics. So we thought we’d find out what makes the co-founders tick and the lessons they’ve learnt in the process of launching a successful brand.

Every penny has to be justified
Nancy: “Being a tiny start-up on a shoe string budget, we have had to look at things differently and find innovative ways to achieve our goals. Unconventionality is what we stand for, both in terms of how we get things done and in what we are doing. Every penny has to be justified. We have to make everything we spend work extra hard. In a personal capacity, wealth is really when you have your health and happiness. Anything else is a bonus. Of course money is important, and life can be very expensive; but without the first two, it means nothing”.

You have to celebrate your wins
Nancy: “Since launching Cucumber in September 2017 it has been a rollercoaster ride, and sometimes you can get so bogged down in the day to day that you forget to pat yourself on the back and acknowledge what you have actually achieved. We hope that Cucumber will go from strength to strength, but either way, we have launched a label that is a recognised brand and has customers all over the world”.

Values really matter
Nancy: “Quite early on we decided to try and outsource our fulfilment (picking, packing and shipping to the customer). We pride ourselves on excellent customer service – we personally answer every email and actively encourage feedback. Fielding out this part of our business was nerve-wracking as this was the first time we had no control over part of our customer’s experience with us. We were horrified when we began receiving complaints of wrong garments received, double orders sent and boxes marked ‘shoes’ (we only make clothing)! It was a month-long very expensive experiment with endless firefighting, but it underlined to us the value we place on customer service”.

It helps if you’re on the same page
Nancy: “The ‘team’ is just the two of us (although we are excited to be hiring our first pair of extra hands soon). With no board of directors to answer to, when we want to make a decision on anything, big or small, we just discuss it and go for it. Luckily, we seem to be largely on the same page with our values and what we are trying to achieve, so the decision is never a hard one. For example, we have now eliminated all plastics from our chain. We use 100% vegetable starch bags that completely decompose, to keep our stock clean from factory to storage. This, together with our fully recycled and recyclable postal sacks and packing tape, is a big outlay for us, but one that we feel is hugely important and is close to both of our hearts”.

Create space in your day
Nancy: “It can be very hard to switch off when you run your own business. Every day is a finely tuned balancing act – work life and home life tend to merge into one, especially during these challenging Covid times. I do try to find at least an hour every morning to walk my dog. I love this hour of my day, even if I’m saying it through gritted teeth in a freezing hailstorm. If I have the time, walking with a friend and stopping for an Earl Grey tea make this the perfect start to the day. Exercise is very important to me. I try to diarise it, or some days it just wouldn’t happen”.
Eileen “Creating space in my life and in my head has been an essential in running a startup. Startups are insatiable om-nivores that devour any and every bit of time in your life – not an entirely healthy way to live your life. I’m quite a social person, so make sure I see friends and family as often as possible. Whether that’s getting together for an early morning swim, sweating through a yoga class together or sharing wine and food, these connections keep me grounded. Exercise has also been a necessity for me to keep a calm mind and have a good night’s sleep. Favourites are the aforementioned wild swims and hot yoga, but I pretty much like trying anything that will work up a good sweat”.

Certain traits really make a difference
Nancy: “I think that to launch a brand takes three main characteristics; determination – if you want to go for something, you just have to give it your all and see it through; organisation – there is always so much to do and not all of it can be done at once; which leads me on to prioritising – and this means in a personal capacity too. You have to learn to priori-tise yourself sometimes so that the business can be supported by two mentally and physically fit and happy co-founders”.

Launching a brand means being visible
Nancy: “Launching a brand (on a shoestring budget) and setting up a website are one thing; driving traffic to it is quite another. We have had to really put ourselves out there and shout out about our brand to anyone who will listen. Fortu-nately, as a fabric led fashion brand making anti-crush, cooling, stay fresh and comfortable clothing, many journalists have been interested in writing about us. Two days after launch, Lisa Armstrong, the Fashion Director of the Daily Tele-graph wrote a piece on us and we woke up that morning to a string of sales. We haven’t looked back since. This is no mean feat for a brand with no marketing or PR budget”.

You have to back yourselves fully
Nancy: “Soon after our launch, so many people told us that we should go on Dragons Den, to the point that we thought why not? We applied, thought nothing of it and then, once almost forgotten and several hurdles later, we found ourselves in front of the dragons being filmed for the 12th series of the show. It was a surreal experience and we knew that, having signed our rights away, being there was about making ‘good’ TV and we didn’t want to be a YouTube sensation for the wrong reasons! All in all, it was an experience – we didn’t get funding – but we got some great publicity, which is so cru-cial for a small brand like ours. The whole experience taught us to back ourselves fully. We have had so many positive comments from the show. Going in front of the dragons with no notes and knowing they can ask you anything, and know-ing the producers want you to slip up, taught us that preparation is everything. But we did it and honestly, anything else now is small fry”.

Kindness goes a very long way
Nancy: “Be kind! One of the best things about starting a business has been all the amazing people we have met along the way. We’ve found from day one of our Cucumber journey that almost everyone, male or female, has been encourag-ing and full of ideas to help us. We’ve tried to do the same for others. Kindness is the best”.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss
Nancy: “Both of us work by the mantra – just go for it and don’t over think it, ignorance can be your best friend at times. If either of us had overthought the process of launching a brand and realised fully what we were taking on, I think we would have hesitated and not be where we are today. You have to seize every opportunity and just believe in yourself. So many things can get in the way of your bigger dreams and aspirations. Focus on what you really want and the rest will just have to wait. Life is too short for regrets. It’s important to look forward, not back”.


And a few thoughts about life

Women are often ignored
Nancy: “Certainly when I started out in the world of advertising many years ago, it was a hugely male dominated envi-ronment and men’s opinions were listened to much more, despite many of the brands I worked on being FMCG (fast moveable consumer goods) that were marketed at the typical ‘housewife’ on her supermarket shop. And, as a young married employee, many of my (male) work colleagues would joke that I needed to leave early to get my husband’s sup-per ready for when he got home from work! Luckily for me, I have never been shy, so I was able to brush it off. Having said this, it does permeate the culture. For my daughter’s sake, I am pleased that things have moved on hugely and when I think back to some of the situations I found myself in, that astonishingly I never questioned, as it was the norm, many of them would just not be acceptable anymore. There is still a way to go though. Launching a female fashion brand is clearly a different experience. Most, but not all of our contacts are female. Also, being in my 50’s, I am not trying to prove my worth any more. I know my worth and I don’t need another person, male or female, to confirm it”.

Mature women are awesome
Nancy “I think by the time we reach our middle years, hopefully we have accepted who we are and are not trying to prove a point any more, or be ‘the best’ whatever that is. For me, it is the first time I am no longer juggling other people’s needs as well as my own. Are there some grey hairs and wrinkles emerging? Yes, but early mornings and late-night meetings no longer pose a childcare crisis”.
Eileen “This may be a generalisation, but looking back over my life I find that the older I get, the closer the bonds that tie me to my female friendship groups. There is an incredible feeling of support, love and kindness that flows through them. I don’t think this has always been the case – possibly when we are younger we are in competition for so many things. As you age, this drops away and what is left are strong, wonderful and generous women who have nothing to hide and eve-rything to give”.

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