Student startups: the onesie company

Keely Lockhart chats to the founders of onesies company Young Ones about their business success

When we get to speak to Tom Carson, 23, and Chris Rea, 21, they're still riding high on a £75,000 investment from Dragon's Den business magnate Duncan Bannatyne, who dubbed them"investment of the year".

Their clothing company, Young Ones, caught the Scottish entrepreneur's attention during the show and he quickly snapped up a 40 per cent stake in their business.

Chris and Tom established Young Ones in 2011 while they were studying at the University of Exeter's Business School. The company has found cult status among university students by selling custom-made onesies for £60, as well as bags, jumpers and wooden glasses that rival merchandise from the likes of Jack Wills, Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch. Chris and Tom took time out from their hectic promotions schedule to chat to us.

How did Young Ones start?

We first met while playing hockey together at university. Then in 2011, when Tom was in his final year, we started designing and selling our own sportswear and offering a few onesies on the side.

At first, the sportswear was something we did a bit more seriously, but as soon as the onesie orders started taking off, we put the sportswear on the back burner.

Although onesies were really popular at the time, no retailer let you customise them with logos and colours. So we started offering university sports clubs, and societies and students in general, the chance to customise their onesies, and that really turned Young Ones from a student startup into a clothing brand.

How much did it cost to start up the business?

Chris and I both invested £1200 of our own money into the business to buy the first set of stock. Then we asked for another £1000 from my brother to buy more stock for our first Christmas, which we paid back pretty quickly because we sold out.

Overall, we've tried to keep the business as cost-free as possible so we've never spent that much on advertising. We started off using our contacts at various sports clubs by emailing and Facebook messaging them about our products, as well as sending out a few samples.

Surrey Snow Sports was one of our first customers - they ordered about thirty custom onesies and it really took off from there. In our first year we sold 200 onesies online, then last year we sold over 700. It's slowly snowballing and, hopefully, after the investment from Duncan Bannatyne, it'll keep going that way.

How have you managed to continue to successfully promote Young Ones without paying for advertising?

We get a lot of publicity through word of mouth and through people posting photos on Facebook. We also employ brand managers and brand reps at a number of universities to promote Young Ones, which has helped cultivate the idea that Young Ones is an exclusive clothing company.

I think it also helps that our brand image really appeals to students. We've always tried to be genuine rather than too serious, and offer our products at a fair price - which students really appreciate.

There are times when spending a bit more money is worth it, though. When we first started, we had a free website that we built. But we paid a little bit of money for a website last summer and it's made a massive difference for us because students love ones that are a bit more creative and different.

It's turned us from looking like an obvious small student startup to something that actually could be a bit more professional.

What are the challenges of running a startup clothing company?

When we first started, it was a real challenge trying to find a supplier who'd work with orders for very small amounts of stock. You find that a lot of good suppliers want to have large order quantities, which is easier to fund if you're a larger business.

Fortunately for us, we managed to find a supplier abroad who accepts quite small orders thanks to the relationship we've built with him - he knows that initial small orders often lead on to bigger ones.

The smaller your business is, though, the easier it is to react to problems. We've even noticed that we take longer to do things as time has gone on because we have more people involved in the company.

Where next?

I think it's fair to say that, as we're both graduates now, we might not be as down with the students as we used to be! But we've both got strong links to universities and we'll still stay in touch with students through feedback from our brand managers.

But, hopefully, in a few years' time we'll be far more established so that we can offer a really cool range of products to all young people, not just students.