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Back in 2012, two young Exeter university students decided to set up a company selling onesies. What has transpired since then is the establishment of an international lifestyle and sports brand, with two young entrepreneurs making most of the opportunities that have been given to them. Chris Rea and Tom Carson established Young Ones at the height of the onesie trend, and from humble beginnings have created a company that has various aspects. From Y1 apparel and events, to customised high performance and off-pitch clothing and their extensive hockey stick range, both Rea and Carson have managed to successfully combine a lifestyle brand with a sports company. Y1 prides itself on its high quality and attention to detail as well as its great relationship with its customers. Their success as entrepreneurs is easy to see and even earned them a spot on the famed business program Dragons Den, all whilst they were at university! The Guide sat down with Chris Rea to talk about the beginnings of Y1, the challenges and successes of running a start-up and why you have to be brave in entrepreneurship, in what was an intriguing insight into the world of business.
Where did the idea of Young Ones come from?
‘Tom Carson and I have always been very entrepreneurial, and we had set up various businesses before establishing Young Ones. The first company I started was a Leavers Hoodie business and then in my first year at Exeter University, Tom and I set up a beanie hat company that sold Exeter University Beanies and we managed to get them stocked in the university shop. Then we set up what it is now known as Young Ones or Y1. It was originally just a product-based company to make a bit of money on the side. We started it during the Onesie trend back in 2011 and we saw that there was a gap in the market for cheap, but good quality onesies for students, and we realised that there was a serious demand for them. Consequently we went to a few factories and had samples made and then came across one supplier that were willing to do a smaller minimum order whilst maintaining quality onesies. We then put in an order for 200, but these sold out really quickly and from there we began to make it more commercial and put in larger orders. But at this point there was no brand just a product.’
''Throughout those 3 years we had really grown into the market and our online side of business, with custom apparel for teams was booming''
Was the onesie business a starting point for Y1 or the pre-cursor?
‘Yes 100%, the onesie business was the beginning of the Y1 brand. After we had created the product-based business, we wanted to create Young Ones into a brand, with an ethos and a lifestyle. The name Young Ones came about because we didn’t want to name the brand after onesies, because we knew it would have a limited life span, as once the onesie trend died out, the brand name would also die. From that point onwards we were still sticking to onesies at first, however, the real money came from custom onesies for sports teams. Bristol Snow Sports ordered 600 in one go for their upcoming ski trip to Val Thorens and I think that was one of the main turning points for the development of Y1, because from there onwards other University Snow Sport teams began ordering custom onesies for their own ski trips. Then ski trip companies began to get in touch about ordering onesies too and it was at this point where we saw a real opportunity to expand and create a lifestyle brand. We started to produce custom hoodies, tracksuits etc. for university and club sports teams. I would say from then that is when the Y1 brand, as you know it, properly took off.’
So did the clothing/lifestyle brand come before the hockey side?
‘We didn’t actually launch the hockey side until 2015 so for 3 years we were just a clothing brand and we had managed to create an appeal across the sporting board with the clothing side. This had come from our interaction with university sports teams and club sports teams and throughout those 3 years we had really grown into the market and our online side of business, with custom apparel for teams was booming. Whilst our onesies were still our main source of revenue at that point, I think that is what got us onto appearing on Dragons Den, due to the sheer popularity of the product.’
''Throughout the whole process you are being drilled with really detailed questions about profit margins, overheads and basically just all of your figures and numbers''
What was appearing on Dragons Den like in your final year of university?
‘It was an amazing experience, although pretty terrifying at the same time! It really is like how you see it on television, but on TV that cut quite a lot out, as in reality you’re in the room for about an hour and a half. Throughout the whole process you are being drilled with really detailed questions about profit margins, overheads and basically just all of your figures and numbers. I think we did well because we knew our figures really well. Not only that but we were a really profitable business with very low overheads and the fact we were still young and at university appealed to them too. In the end we were offered a deal from Duncan Bannatyne, who offered us £75,000, and we said yes on TV. However it is not a binding deal on screen and afterwards we had a think about it and decided we were not willing to give away 40% of the business at that stage and so we parted ways with Bannatyne.’
Once you had got the lifestyle brand fully established, how did you mange to set up the hockey side of the business?
‘When we set up the Young Ones hockey company, both Tom and I were playing international hockey at the time, Tom for Great Britain and myself for the USA. This really helped as it meant that the hockey community were really getting behind the idea of Young Ones, especially in regards to the custom apparel. This allowed us to really establish ourselves in the hockey community, which helped when making the sticks and gave us credibility. We then began to manufacture sticks but it was a slow and steady process, as we didn’t want to rush into it as our reputation was on the line and we wanted to create a really high quality product. As Tom was in the GB team, we tested proto-type sticks with some of the GB players, which was great as it allowed some of the best players in the world to test our product. We also had players using our sticks at the Olympics, although at the time the sticks had different sponsors stickers on according to whom the player was signed with, but again this allowed us to develop the product and gave us the confidence that the sticks were high class. As a result we pushed to take it to market and roll out more sticks, which we began by promoting in the South West of England, around Exeter. This then led to the signing of several big international players and from there the hockey side of the business really took off.’
Thank you to Chris for his time.
Interview conducted in April 2020.