Yahoo! Report: The how in howies

The Yahoo! Big Idea Chair interviews return with the howies founder Dave Hieatt.

His desire? To make people think about the world that we live in. Profits come second - or should that be third, after mountain-biking?

Dave Hieatt and his partner Clare set up howies - aka "Cardigan Bay's third-biggest clothing company" - in 1995 from the living- room of their flat. For the first six years, they held down full-time jobs and ran the business part-time. Dave was a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi, Leagas Delaney and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Clare a writer at The Body Shop and Imagination. In 2001, they left London to run the business and in December 2006, with 20 staff and a turnover of £4 million, they sold a majority stake in the company to Timberland. Their aim throughout? "To try to show that there is another way to do business, and to try to change things that we think are dumb."

On the moment when we decided we'd go for it, sell up in London and live the dream There were a few meetings when I thought I'd had enough. When a company that sold diet sugared water mentioned that Glasgow was a strong market because people there had a lot of heart attacks, I thought: "I can't do this, it's rubbish." David Abbott always knew what I was planning, but soon afterwards I faxed AMV from a snowboarding holiday and said I wasn't coming back. Another defining moment was when someone sent me an e-mail listing the 50 most important brands: Adidas was 23, Nike was 12 and we were nine. The world was taking us more seriously than we were, but we were still working in advertising, doing howies part time, using the AMV photocopier to print our catalogues on Friday nights when everyone else was getting drunk in the bar.

On our vision Clare's joke is that I'm the passion and she's the brain, but the truth is we defer to each other a lot. Our fundamentals are making good product, making it in a way that's important to us and good service. We do 90 per cent of our business through our catalogue and website. We like to have a relationship with our customers and a voice; I think we might have been one of the first companies in Britain to do a blog, for example.

On manufacturing We make our clothes wherever the materials are - merino in New Zealand, organic cotton T-shirts in Turkey, jeans in China, button-down shirts in Portugal. We let Patagonia do the audits and we go in under the radar.

On our culture We sell play so we need to live it. I mountain-bike a lot and it's frowned on to work a weekend at howies. I run, I canoe to work sometimes. I haven't built my own house yet, but it's my dream, I'm building the scrapbook.

On our first agency, Dye Holloway Murray I've hired Dave (Dye). I've known him since Leagas Delaney when we did my first set of T-shirts together. He's one of the few people in the world who makes you feel you're in safe hands. Plus, he's hungry, he'll challenge us and we'll challenge him. We want to create new content, create debate and do things differently. I imagine we could put stuff up on YouTube, for instance. For now, our four catalogues a year speak for us. We spent £6,000 on advertising last year. But now is the time to go tell people about this little company of ours. What we make and what we stand for.

On the Timberland deal In 2005, Clare and I realised that we would need more funding and that this time it would take millions of pounds. We had already remortgaged our house twice, and used the rest of the house to guarantee the company overdraft, all our savings had gone into howies. We didn't have any more money to give. We spoke to three companies around the world that did business our way, but Timberland felt right from the first phone call. It has made a commitment for carbon neutrality by 2010, it was voted one of the "100 Best Companies to Work For" by Working Mother magazine, it was the first company to issue an environmental audit on a shoe so customers can see what it took to make it ... this is stuff to be proud of, for howies to strive for. We sold a majority stake, but a condition of the deal is that we will maintain creative control of howies as we always have done.

On moving the howies brand into other areas If we can make products in a low impact way, there's no reason we can't transfer that way of doing things to other products. Our dream is to make shoes, toiletries, bags and books, things with a second life in mind.

On the distinct selling points of online Online allows you to do things, to talk, to change things quickly, to build a community, to shape things. We don't even know what it can do yet - video blogs, social networks, the power of community, it's amazing. The wisdom's in crowds now.

On a big idea in sports clothing I think the big idea in our field will be more cradle-to-cradle thinking when products are designed. Consideration for a product's second life will become as important as its first life. Products will be made so they can be un-made. Already the electronics industry is designing for disassembly. Customers will begin to frown on products that don't use resources efficiently. There will come a day when every product will come with a sustainability index so we can all see the true cost of a product.

On a big idea for the future in any field I think the big idea will be the power of community. The internet will pull like-minded social groups together. And it will be those communities that will go about changing things. For example, the average domestic power tool is thrown away after only ten minutes use. Even though it might spend years in your loft. Ten minutes is less than the active lifespan of the adult mayfly. Yet, a power tool consumes many times its own weight of resources in its design, manufacture, packaging, transportation and eventual disposal. So if one day a community sprung up called loftshare.com with the idea of sharing all those power tools that just sit there gathering dust, then we all consume less and make our resources work harder for their supper.

If you live on planet Earth, you will have heard of Russell Davies, Campaign columnist and blogger extraordinaire at russelldavies.com. He talked about this interview on his blog and we invited people to submit questions for Dave. Here's one, posted by Ben:

The line "Cardigan Bay's third-biggest clothing company" is charming and has served you well. Post-Timberland, will that now change? Just five years ago, there were three of us at howies. And a third of the company was on maternity leave. That left just Pete and myself, with the help of a 56K modem, doing everything. It was nuts, stressful and just a brilliant moment in our lives. Since then we have gone on a journey from tiny to small that has been all those things too. The reason I wrote Cardigan Bay's third-biggest clothing company was it was true then and remains true today, but I wanted everyone here to get used to the idea that size doesn't matter. The thing that does matter was trying to find lower impact ways of making our products and trying to use our company to make people think about stuff. Those are our rainbows to chase. So nothing has changed. We come in each day and keep chasing them. Then we ride home.