Nathan Alexander, CEO of BODA SKINS
Shortlisted for two PD Ports Northern Powerhouse Export Awards, BODA SKINS is entering an exciting new period in its growth, branching out into clothing and accessories in 2019, from its beginnings in leather jackets and recent introduction of its luxury Shearling collection. BQ caught up with CEO, Nathan Alexander, to learn more about the company’s growth.
Manchester-born designer and CEO, Nathan Alexander, founded BODA SKINS in 2013 after love took him to Turkey. While the relationship broke down and he found himself sofa surfing, he was introduced to leather factories, igniting a boyhood memory of a beloved leather jacket his mum brought him back from New York, “the coolest thing I’d ever seen”, Nathan says. Designing his ultimate leather jacket became a new focus and BODA SKINS was born.
The £3.5m turnover company has gained a reputation for its leather jackets, which are handmade overseas and sold via its website, earning the admiration of international talent from all over the world including Justin Timberlake, Winnie Harlow, Khloe Kardashian, Olivia Palermo, Candice Swanepoel and Johnny Depp.
With celebrities like this wearing his designs, how does Nathan keep his feet on the ground? He laughs modestly and says: “When it happens it’s the coolest thing ever. With celebs, they can wear any jacket they want - that they wear something I’ve designed is such an honour.
“But in terms of keeping my feet on the ground, to be honest, you just don’t even have the time to breathe; you see it but you’re onto the next thing, you know? I don’t look back; I’m always looking forward. I’m a success now, but it soon passes and you appreciate that, so it keeps me grounded.”
It is celebrity endorsements like this, as well as its influencer marketing strategy, that has helped the company to achieve its international success. BODA SKINS exports to America (over 35% of exports), Europe (over 35% of exports) and Australia.
Nathan also introduced international pop up tours that give people around the world a chance to try before they buy. The 2018 tour took in 23 locations including London, New York, LA, Zurich and Sydney. The tours also allow Nathan and his team to stay close to and learn about their customers, which can be a challenge for an online business.
“We’d say on Instagram, ‘we’re at a luxury hotel this weekend - come and see us’”, he explains. “And I got to talk directly to the customers, who didn’t realise I was the founder, so they were honest and I learned a lot that way. It’s easy to lose touch because you sit in front of a computer and people are buying online. But seeing them in person, you notice what trainers they wear, whether they have tattoos, how they speak, how they interact with the jackets and I get ideas on improving the product and what else they might want.”
This customer insight is really important to Nathan because, like many founders, he realised with hindsight that he’d started out being product-focused. “A mistake people can make is to try and appeal to every market, but you can end up appealing to none”, he says. “I just loved leather jackets, and I was focused on making the best possible jacket I could at the best possible price I could for the customer.”
Nathan was inspired by IKEA and how they make luxury products available at an affordable price.
“By saying what customer you want to target, it dictates your product, marketing, tone of voice, etc. At the beginning, I didn’t say ‘this is our audience’, so we’ve had to learn as we go. If I was doing it all again I’d start with this and say ‘this is our customer, so our brand is going to be like this,’” he confides.
This approach is working well for BODA SKINS’ 30-strong team. The company has recently invested £0.5m in new premises in Salford and launched its luxury Shearling collection at the end of 2018. The year was capped off nicely, with the company being shortlisted for e-commerce exporter of the year and most entrepreneurial exporter of the year in the PD Ports Northern Powerhouse Export Awards.
“I’m so honoured we’ve been shortlisted”, says Nathan. “It was a lovely surprise.” Exporting is in the DNA of the business, as Nathan explains: “I set up in the recession, so the market was never intended to be the UK. From the get-go I designed BODA SKINS to be an online company so that no matter what’s going on in the world there’ll always be a market that’s doing okay - so I was always focused on selling to the world.”
It’s been a learning curve and like many things in business, Nathan’s learned from challenges. “I was never wholesaling - only selling one-offs”, he says. “You learn along the way when you start shipping jackets into Switzerland and they all get stopped at customs and attract extra tax. So you just have to adapt and inform your customers and crew of this. It’s important customer service staff know. It can, of course, affect pricing and therefore affect customers differently as we get a complete mix - some people see the jackets at £500 and think ‘that’s so cheap’ and buy three, but others save up for years for one.”
There’s a note of understandable pride in Nathan’s voice as he explains that the company hasn’t received any external financial support in its five-year history, and acknowledges the support of mentors along the way, including an international trade advisor from the Department for International Trade, who Blue Wilson, BODA SKINS’ managing director said she found “extremely helpful in offering advice on importing and exporting; we really appreciated having a sounding board.”
This year will see the team launch its new collection of clothing (jeans and jersey t-shirts and sweatshirts) and accessories, in pursuit of its aim to become a £60m turnover business by 2023.
Nathan’s really excited about working with the new materials. “I've only ever worked with leather jackets before, so bringing in the jersey and jeans collections feels almost like I’m starting a new business”, he enthuses. “It’s like I've been painting in black and white and now I'm painting in colour.”
BODA SKINS introduced a new jewellery line in 2018 and plans to add caps, scarves, belts, bags and backpacks to its accessories range.“Branching out into new product lines brings a natural fear that it won’t go right, but I’m sure it will”, says Nathan. “This time next year I’d love to be celebrating the successful launch of the new collections. If we were bringing in the kind of sales figures we want that would be amazing.”
Naturally driven and forward-looking, Nathan admits he doesn’t often take time to stop and appreciate how far he’s come as an entrepreneur. “My wife tells me it’s amazing and I know it really is”, he says. “But it can be hard to see when you’re so wrapped up in 300 orders going out, or the product page isn’t right, or the buckle on that jacket’s just a bit too high.”
One thing is clear; despite the inevitable internal and external challenges that every business faces, BODA SKINS is very well positioned for a bright 2019 and beyond.
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