Flip-flopping to success

Kieran Corcoran pays a visit to social enterprise Gandys – whose flip-flops are coming soon to a store near you

The laid-back entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley are famous for doing business in t-shirts and flip-flops. But California is warm, and it's an altogether different calibre of businessman who greets me, proudly flip-flopped, in the middle of January at his Clapham studio. Rob Forkan, clearly dedicated to his product, is one of two brothers behind Gandys, a social enterprise that produces flip-flops and invests a proportion of its profits to help deprived children in India.

The brand, which has now taken form as an array of colourful, vibrant summer footwear, had an inauspicious birth. A year and a half ago, Rob woke up next to Paul, his brother, at a music festival with, in his words, "a mouth like Gandhi's flip-flops". On this turn of phrase they decided to found a business, and today the boys are preparing to hit the high street. In spring, major stores like Sole Trader, ASOS, Topman and Selfridges will start stocking their flip-flops, putting their business to the ultimate test.

They certainly have an impressive product on their hands; designed, I am assured, off the back of years of flip-flop experience. "My brother and I spent most of our time travelling in flip-flops, so we wanted to make our own ones that were durable as well as stylish. There's nothing worse," Rob informs me, with no hint of exaggeration, "than when your flip-flops break when you're out and about. There also aren't a lot of established flip-flop brands, so we saw the business opportunity too."

Starting out

I'm a little surprised that Gandys has gone from nothing to the high street in so short a time. Rob and his brother had no great retail experience and aren't, in Rob's words, "fat cats from the City in suits".

The secret, it seems, is a mixture of determination and sheer audacity. "We tried everything," Rob says, "like turning up at [Topshop owner] Sir Phillip Green's office, and asking him to come down and look at our flip-flops; cold-calling suppliers; sending out boxes of cupcakes with our branding on to raise awareness, and hassling magazines and papers to give us a mention."

When I press Rob on what he thinks buyers from the high street's top stores saw in him and his brother, it emerges that, as well as an eye for a good flip-flop, the story behind their business venture is a big draw.

"My brother and I left school when we were only 11 and 13 years old; our parents took us travelling to India and we went to school there. It was a crazy experience compared to growing up in London and gave us a completely different perspective on life."

Tragedy, and opportunity

"Unfortunately in 2004 we were in Sri Lanka when the Boxing Day tsunami hit, and we tragically lost our parents that day. It was awful, but it makes you realise that life's too short and that you have to make the most of it. We've been on the other side of the world in the wake of a disaster, with no money, no food, no passports, no help. It spurs you on."

And the resolve they gained from their loss carries over into the business world. I mention in passing how risky an entrepreneurial career can be. "Risky?" Rob replies. "You say it's risky - but if you believe in what you're doing and you're passionate about it, nothing's risky. People ask how we signed up every major retailer in England and whether we were intimidated. But compared to escaping a tsunami, going into a meeting about a pair of flip-flops really isn't that intimidating."

So it's clear that, for better or worse, much of the brothers' resolution and inspiration was forged in India. And its a debt they've not forgotten: 10 per cent of the profit Gandys makes is given to an Indian charity that provides care and education for deprived children in India. Even before the product has been released for mass retail, the company has funded a teacher to educate 100 children.

Giving back to Goa

"We lived in India, in Goa, and spent many happy years there with our family, so first and foremost we wanted to make a difference there. It's a lot tougher to get by in India without an education, and that's why we felt strongly about using our business to help children by teaching them."

Social enterprises like Gandys have been on the rise in recent years, straddling the boundary between business and charity. I ask Rob why he thinks they're the way forward.

"People just have less money to give to charity at the moment", he observes. "But even if you don't have much money, and are reluctant to sign up to give to big charities at regular intervals, you still need new shoes, or a t-shirt. And if some of what you spend goes to a good cause, then it lets you give in a way that you feel a connection with, and can afford. That's why it appeals to people."

Creating a business like Rob's seems like an attractive prospect, and lavish media attention has made entrepreneurship a more alluring path than ever. Rob is a mite more pragmatic. "It's a great career path if you don't want to sleep!" he says, only half joking. But he's still keen to emphasise that a world of possibility is available for those with commitment: "There's a lot of pessimistic people out there who will tell you your idea won't work.

"I wouldn't take any advice from anyone who hasn't been there themselves. We've found that when you take the risk and do something you believe in it's often not as scary as people think it will be.

"It is lots of work. But if you're passionate about it, you'll enjoy it. And the difference when you work for yourself is that when you have a really good day it feels fantastic, and you get to reap the rewards of the progress you make. The buzz from that, from coming from nothing to make a difference in people's lives, isn't worth trading for anything."