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In it for the long haul

Written by Hannah Prevett on Tuesday, 02 April 2013. Posted in Scaling up, Interviews

Dessi Bell, founder of sportswear brand Zaggora, on learning to build a brand that lasts

In it for the long haul

What do corporate banking and entrepreneurialism have in common? Ostensibly, not that much. One requires following a well-trodden path in an environment burdened with regulation and red tape; the other hacking through the undergrowth to carve a new path of your own. But that isn’t to say there aren’t overlaps or lessons entrepreneurs can take from the banking industry, says Dessi Bell, founder of sportswear brand Zaggora.

Bell worked at JP Morgan for five and a half years before setting up her company with husband Malcolm in 2011. “I think working at JP Morgan was one of the best things I’ve done,” she says emphatically. “There’s two reasons. Firstly, there’s just a tremendous amount of stuff I learned from colleagues, whether it’s a negotiation or the ability to execute deals. But the main thing I learned is not being put off by complex problems.”

“To work in that kind of environment you need to be very good at starting with a whole set of problems you need to solve for the client before breaking it down. Then you realise that everything is doable,” she explains. She has then been able to apply the same mantra to building her own business. “That’s exactly the kind of approach I’ve taken to building Zaggora: if you want to get from A to B, all you have to do to find a solution is to think about all of the steps you’re going to take in between.”

The idea for Zaggora, which makes gym clothes that help you slim while you sweat, came to Bell when she was engrossed in her role at JP Morgan where she was part of the team that focused on raising and restructuring debts. There was frequent travel to Moscow, too: due in part to her Bulgarian heritage (Bell was born and raised in Bulgaria until she was 15) a large proportion of her designated clients resided in eastern Europe.

By Bell’s own admission, it was a hectic lifestyle. In 2008, she was set to marry then-fiance Malcolm, who she had met at LSE (“which, along with running the Women In Business Society, was the only enjoyable part of the experience”). Alongside the challenges of a high-flying career in banking, and the travel the role entailed, the petite Bell also felt pressure to get shape for the impending nuptials. “I said, ‘I’m going to see these pictures for the rest of my life so I need to make sure I look great,’” recalls Bell.

But as she submitted herself to gruelling gym sessions, she wondered if she could be getting more bang for her buck when it came to her tri-weekly workouts. Even after the wedding, she was thinking about how exercise could be more efficient. “I called my mum when I was on honeymoon and said, ‘Mum, if I can come up with a pair of pants that you just have to put on and then they help you get more out of your time, there must be other people who are going to want this.’”

In between work and jetting backwards and forwards to Moscow, Bell started doing bits of research. She found some research conducted in the UK as well as Japan and Australia, which was examining the link between heat and exercise, and how it could help improve circulation as well as calorie burn. “Heat has been used to treat obese patients in Japan for years,” she says.

But it wasn’t until a couple of years later, in 2011, that Bell and her husband felt the idea was solid enough that they started to look into creating a protoype. The first item on the to-do list was finding a supplier. “We went through different product suppliers in the Far East; some were great and some weren’t, and we got some samples made,” says Bell.

So, for the science bit. The Hot Pants (as they’re officially called, but banish any thoughts of buttock-skimming short shorts: they come in three lengths – cycling shorts, capri pants and full-length leggings) and workout tops are made with a multi-layered fabric that has a heating element on the inside. There’s also a bit of insulation, which means that the wearer won’t necessarily feel there’s anything going on while they’re wearing them, but when the shorts are removed, they’ll notice how much more work they’ve done.

“What’s happening is that your body’s generating a bit more heat while you’re working out,” explains Bell. “That actually increases your calorie burn because your body’s working harder to cool down.”

And if you don’t believe Bell, she’s got the pointy heads at universities to back her up. “We originally worked with University of Brighton here in the UK to test the product on people in order to be able to say this is what happens in numerical terms.” The products have also been tested at the University of Southern California. 

“The results are unanimous across the board: you do burn more calories while wearing Zaggora,” says Bell proudly. This can actually motivate the wearer to do more exercise, she says. “They feel that because they’re getting more out of their time they will actually invest more hours in being active.”

It’s helpful that the slimming-boosting power of the pants has been verified by a university in the US, seeing as that’s where the biggest chunk of Zaggora’s customers are. Of the 550,000 items now shipped, around 51% have headed to the States, 14% to the UK and 13% to France. But wearers aren’t confined to north America and western Europe: there is a long tail of 120 countries where customers reside.

The voracious appetite for Zaggora products has added up to an impressive £10.7m turnover in the financial year to June 2012, with a further hike in sales expected this year (although Bell is remaining tightlipped as to financial forecasts). All very impressive for a business that only launched in July 2011. 

The entrepreneur is adamant that the company’s focus on social media has been key to its meteoric growth. Back in the summer of 2011, Bell was thinking about ways to counteract the initial scepticism that people were likely to have about the product. “The only way we could think of was getting loads of positive feedback that was publicly out there for everybody to see,” she said.

The Bells decided to send out 500 pairs of Hot Pants to bloggers. “Maybe 300 wrote back on our Facebook page,” says Bell. “That’s how we started our Facebook following.

“It’s probably the best thing we did in terms of decisions that we took strategically to grow the business because it gave us credibility straight away.” This isn’t to say that the sceptics were silenced immediately, she says. 

“A lot of people were still sceptical when we had 20,000 followers. It was clearly not a fad at the point when you have thousands of women posting comments, but it’s always very easy to be sceptical. I still have people saying, ‘This is nonsense, I don’t believe it.’” 

But there are plenty who do believe the products work. At the time of going to press, Zaggora’s Facebook page had more than 378,000 likes. One of the company’s strengths continues to be the way it engages and interacts with customers. For example, with new products, such as the Zaggora ‘Twisty’ top, coming online soon, fans get a say in which colours it’ll be available in. 

However, for Bell, the messaging has to be much more about disseminating information on health and fitness than just the products they’re trying to flog. “That is really our reason for being: we want to motivate women through tools and content to try to engage in as much activity as they can,” she explains. 

Ensuring the web tools were in place to enable the team to maximise its brand value online has been a focal point of late. The new website is due to go online in the next month, with updated features and snazzy new content. The strength of the brand is what makes the difference between customers buying a pair of Zaggora leggings or a pair of Nike leggings, says Bell.

“The thing that differentiates who the customer is going to purchase from is who they have the most affinity with in terms of brand messaging. That is the intangible bit that is the most difficult – and most valuable – to build." 

About the Author

Hannah Prevett

Hannah Prevett

Prevett likes to think she's something of an expert when it comes to small business. Having cut her teeth writing about tech, she latterly moved on to such illustrious titles as Growing Business, Management Today and the Sunday Times to indulge her enthusiasm for entrepreneurship: from P&Ls to private equity and all that's in between, you can't keep this girl away from the heady world of start-ups. 

Back in the day when she had spare time, she would spend it networking, horse riding, drafting and re-drafting ideas for novels, and playing auntie to her niece and three god-children. Those were the days...

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