31 January 2019 Feb/Mar 2019

How pyjama startup Yawn grows without VC cash

After a lucrative career in management consulting and VC advisory, Alice Whiteley had saved up enough cash to bootstrap her pyjama brand Yawn.

When life became exhausting for Alice Whiteley, she decided to dedicate her life to sleep. ‘I was really tired,’ she jokes, reflecting on the launch of her pyjama brand Yawn in 2014. ‘I went shopping for cool, characterful pyjamas but couldn’t find any. So I decided that was the business idea I’d been waiting for.’

Whiteley doesn’t have a background in fashion or retail, but after working at consulting firm McKinsey and Company, and stints advising various venture capital firms, she has developed a knack for strategy and knew VC funding wouldn’t be right for her business. 

‘Venture capital can be fantastic,’ she says. ‘It suits a particular type of business – those with a super scalable model where being first to market is key. But I’m not a 20-something entrepreneur with a tech idea. I’m a 41-year-old mother of three.’

A practical approach

Whiteley’s approach to running Yawn is as pragmatic as the advice she would have given her former clients: keep costs down, have a long-term plan and put some solid goals in place. 

For the first two years of business, she ran the brand alongside her management consulting work, only going full-time once a product range, customers and stockists were in place. She also approached two other entrepreneurs to come on board as co-founders: Philip Koh and Roly Grant of London brand agency Without. In exchange for a 30% stake in the business between them, the Without founders created the brand and print designs for Yawn, and the business is now based at Without’s Clerkenwell studio. 

‘We [also] use freelancers cleverly, we invest in talented juniors and develop them, and we outsource anything that we can’t be brilliant at, like warehousing,’ Whiteley says.

To pay for stock, the founders have loaned capital, which will be recouped as the pyjamas are sold. ‘As the business grows so will the cost of the stock, so this working capital will be an ongoing need,’ Whiteley explains.

Pros and cons

While a slow and steady approach creates strong, sustainable businesses, it does mean making sacrifices along the way. Despite competing fashion brands relying heavily on Instagram to engage with new and existing customers, ‘I haven’t got the budget to drive marketing awareness significantly at this stage,’ Whiteley admits.

Crucially, she has also been unable to draw a salary from the business to date – instead, she depends upon savings made during her previous career. ‘It’s incredibly hard and I’ve made sacrifices, but I put money aside to do this.’

Growth goals

Whiteley expects Yawn to hit profitability in the next 18 months, and in the meantime she is laser-focused on delivering her targets: growing revenue and repeat business year-on-year. ‘I continuously look to the “proof points” that show financial success is on its way,’ Whiteley says.

The brand’s revenue growth has averaged 98% year-on-year, while Yawn now has more than 35 stockists internationally (up from just three in 2014). Most recently, it secured US retailer Anthropologie as a stockist – and has since fulfilled several orders for the brand. ‘We are definitely on our way,’ says Whiteley. 

For more case studies like this, purchase a copy of Courier’s Feb/Mar issue – featuring a 24-page step-by-step guide to launching a new business in 2019, filled with best practices, key questions, dos and don’ts and expert advice.