Dictatorships rarely work, says Johnnie Boden
A view from Johnnie Boden

Dictatorships rarely work, says Johnnie Boden

Johnnie Boden worked for several years in a job he 'loathed'. This spurred him on to try something new and he founded his eponymous mail-order fashion business in 1991.

I was an avid consumer as a child. I would scour the market for the most interesting products.

I loved giving unusual Christmas presents. However, I drifted into the wrong job and spent five years wondering what my break could be.

It was only when I worked in the US that I saw the opportunity of direct-mail clothing. I’d always been interested in clothes and realised then that being a challenger brand in a big market was the way to go. That’s what Boden was and is.

Be yourself. Being in the wrong job caused immense frustration and made me determined to try something new. I also realised that being oneself was the only way to go.

It is no longer enough to sell stuff. In our sector, there is so much stuff – indeed, there is overcapacity, and some outstanding companies. The trade-off between standing out and being commercial gets tougher.

How do you make your T-shirt the one your customer wants to buy? Do you change the shape, or introduce interesting but tricky-to-wear colours – and risk alienating your loyal customer? If your brand stands for things your customers love, you have a greater chance of success. But how do you evolve a brand while not losing its essence? If you are successful, lots of companies will do similar versions of what you do.

Competitors notice. The same issues apply to brands as to products. Which bits of a brand do you keep, which to drop? It’s a very hard balance.

We have to get used to thinking quicker and not expecting what we did last year to work as well this year. Move faster all the time, but never change for change’s sake.

It is a cliché to say you can find inspi­ration everywhere, but it is true. The difficulty is in knowing which filters to apply. I have made too many mistakes in allowing our historic success to blind me to changes in the market.

I built a business that was almost anti-fashion, but those days are gone. I should have noticed these changes in customer behaviour more – or rather, not blocked them out. In other words, you need to know where you are going at the same time as finding inspiration.

The web has brought inspiration closer to home. Thus the second critical filter you need to apply is in selecting who you share ideas with. Most great ideas require teamwork. Your team needs not just to be very talented, but to share your vision. I probably initiate 10%-20% of the ideas in this business and have no input in about the same amount. But I shape the rest.

I still love my job. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. I am very lucky. I like helping create lovely things, working with a lot of wonderful people and the process of change. If life isn’t about change, what is it about? However, when I start making too many mistakes and losing my vision, I’ll stop.

Dictatorships rarely work. One of the difficulties as an owner-founder is that, while providing much of the vision, you need to share, too. It is difficult to strike the balance.

When things get tough, as they always do, the team looks to me to provide the answers – even when they simultaneously tell me I am an infuriating control freak. So I have learned not to be shy of taking control and trying to develop a thicker skin. As long as I listen too.