Mike Hughes meets Tom Brown, who offers a warm Welcome to his customers at his Leeds skateboard shop.
Prefer to listen? We've made this story into a podcast!
A big part of the definition of a local business should be that it is part of the community. Its awareness of location should go way beyond what the sat nav says and should dig deep to find out about the people it works with and the service it provides.
Tom Brown gets that. After working in social services making sure young people didn’t get lost in the system, he knows that his skateboard shop in Thorntons Arcade in Leeds city centre is also a meeting place and a chillout zone.
“For about ten years I worked with a charity based in Wakefield which worked in youth support all over West Yorkshire,” he told me. “I also worked with a government body called Connexions, which involved lots of one-to-one and family support. There were some amazing projects and I met the amazing co-workers and kids who were connected to them.
“We worked from Garforth to Bradford to Hebden Bridge – all over the region. But then in 201112 the Government cuts started kicking in and the organisation I was working for went from 45 staff down to three in about 18 months and there were various waves of redundancy which I managed to avoid.
“I started Welcome while I was working there because it was a passion I had always had. We got in a couple of skateboarding lads with a bit of retail experience and got them to run the place.
“The rule of a city is that it only really needs one ‘core’ skateboard shop to offer a lot more than just being a commercial outlet. There had been some really good ones in Leeds, but eventually they almost put each other out of business.
“So there was a gap, but my mates Sam Barratt, Ashley Kollakowski and I always presumed someone else would step in. But after about 18 months of no one coming forward, we had another conversation with a local entrepreneur with good contacts and a foot in the door with student nightlife because he part-owned a couple of bars.”
The breakthrough came when a record-shop owner offered the use of a basement. Within six weeks the shop was open and those early contacts started to make the difference. “We looked at the other skate shops that had been in the city and thought we knew where they had gone wrong. One had the shop right, but I think we had more business sense. Another one had diversified too much away from pure skateboarding and the third was part of a big chain which started focussing on its website.
“I’m pretty good at keeping track of things, so I thought I could handle that side of the business. Also, I did a lot of skateboarding and had good contacts through sponsorship, and Sam worked for the skateboarding division at Nike.
“We had confidence and felt we could make a go of it, but we couldn’t afford to lose any money, so we put a very small amount in just in case it collapsed after a few months.”
We are all pupils in Tom Brown’s entrepreneurial schooldays here. Already have a passion for – or at least a deep empathy with – your chosen sector, and don’t throw everything you have at it from the first day. It will be your dream business but not everyone will get the idea and there is competition around every corner, particularly if you are working in a popular area rather than with a breakthrough product. Take a deep breath, look around... and then go for it.
“I think it is important to work out how small you can start, and at the same time think of what you can do to make an impact. We started with a very small amount of stock, but were always getting our name out there among local skateboarders, even if that was just giving away a T-shirt every month.
“We offered the shop up as a local hub, got Josh Hallett working on our social media accounts (there are now more than 1,200 followers on Twitter and 1,600 likes on Facebook) and made sure we had staff who knew the scene inside out.
“I had been skating since I was a kid and I was 32 when I opened the shop so I had been extremely passionate about it for about 20 years,” said Tom, now 39. “Whichever city I was in I would know where the skate shop was. Not always to buy something but to meet people in a new city and find out about the local scene.
“I had entered a few competitions, and knew back then that the whole industry was built on magazines, photos and videos. So we would be taken on tours – five or ten of us with a driver and a cameraman - and do demos at skateparks.
“It dominated my life, so I had videos and interviews out there which ticked the boxes for sponsors. It was done for the passion, not for the paycheck.”
The shop has been open for five years and even in that short time the industry has changed and Tom has had to be on his toes to keep pace and stay relevant to a very selective audience. His success at that meant expansion was soon on the cards.
“It’s been a challenge, but we grew and after two years under the record shop we realised that we could push on and get a unit of our own. We wanted to be in the Thorntons Arcade because it has a history of great independent shops, so I took voluntary redundancy just as we had our second kid, and set up the new shop so I could have enough time to look after our new daughter (the family is wife Emily, son Theo, aged six and three-year-old daughter Rose). “It was a bit scary at times, but it is true when people say that sometimes redundancy has a silver lining and I am so much happier, stress-free and can really concentrate on the shop.
“For the future, it is a fine line growing the core shop in a city. You have to be able to sustain yourself while at the same time realising that your customers don’t like to see stores ‘selling out’ and turning from a core shop into a chain store.
“I think we will remain as one physical store which can really do something for the skateboard community and keep its identity, and also push the online side of the operation.
“But part of that core shop will always be working with kids. The store is set up with the footwear and the clothing downstairs, so people who might just be passing will see a nice pair of trainers and call in and they will get great customer service.
“Then on the first floor there is a TV playing DVDs and a seating area for kids to hang out. Me and the staff know all the local kids from when they are 12 and 13 getting into skating. They don’t go to the same schools because their social backgrounds might be entirely different, but this common interest bonds them together.”
Leeds has mastered the art of developing into a centre which can provide bases for global financial institutions alongside aspirational new businesses and a backdrop of great education, restaurants and bars – which makes it the perfect site for a hip business like Welcome.
“There is a huge student population which is great for us, and so much happening with nightlife, music and clothes shops. I think everyone is encouraging each other, without any harsh competitiveness. We are all so happy that there are passionate independents moving in.
“Because of that I used to be sceptical about what business support organisations could offer, but the Gazelles have just been able to link us up at a session with John Graham, the founder of Go Outdoors. The fact that someone like that would have time for us is amazing, so it is a serious opportunity for us to have time with him and fire some questions at him.”
Despite the workload and the obvious buzz Tom, gets out of the Welcome shop, it is still a device he can use to see more of his family. Like many entrepreneurs who have their heads screwed on the right way, the hard work and commitment is to provide a future.
It’s a great fantasy to shut yourself away in the lab shed office and emerge blinking into the spotlight a few months later. But if there are children to be read to and taken to school, and a partner to listen to and bills to be paid, then you can’t shut the door. It often has to be Peppa before profits.
“Emily’s support has been hugely important,” Tom readily admits. “She is a lecturer at Leeds Beckett and if it was only going to be my income that supports the family I would have been looking for other work. But to have that safety net and someone to share the responsibility with has been amazing.
"I do as much childcare as she does and am pretty adaptable to that, which is important for the kids. It is a partnership. Emily travels a lot with her work, so I will take myself out of the shop and let Martyn (Hill), Sam (Charlesworth) and Dave (Tyson) run the place while I keep an eye on things from my laptop.
“They are fantastic – they know the industry and they know the shop. They are all different personalities, but they are one of the major assets of the place.”
As well as his human assets, Tom has to stay in top of the physical stock he has in the shop. The smaller independent core brands are selling well, like Dime from Montreal which started small and has grown with a strong social media following (2,000+ on Twitter)
They carefully control their audience by choosing only a set number of UK outlets. Welcome sells itself to Dime and Dime sells itself to Welcome and a deal is done and the market for each grows by just the right amount.
“We have a mutual respect and that is kind of how the whole thing works,” says Tom. “There are also the more commercial brands like Adidas (2.5m+ on Twitter) and Nike (5.7m+ on Twitter), who also like to restrict the availability of their skateboard ranges to proper stores. So the whole industry is driven by exclusivity and now about 95% of the stuff we stock won’t be available at any other shop in Leeds.”
That exclusivity is testament to the reputation Tom and his team have built up in such a short time. He leads a firm in a cutting edge, radical and vibrant sector, but that hasn’t stopped him being a businessman. The wardrobe of any good entrepreneur will always need a shirt and tie and a suit next to the T-shirt and trainers. There might only be one suit among 25 T-shirts, but you need to keep it in good nick just in case.