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Growing a successful business - OutsideIn

Case Study

OutsideIn is one of the UK's fastest-growing streetwear brands. The business has focused on addressing homelessness since launching in 2016 and has grown from a single-person start-up to a recognisable brand sold across the UK, Europe and US markets.

David Johnston, founder and CEO of OutsideIn, discusses ways his company has grown and shares key lessons from its journey.

Getting started

"Before I started the business, I had volunteered at homeless charities and helped run a street photography page in Edinburgh. Through this, I met many people experiencing homelessness. I felt a strong desire to help and realised their need to feel valued and deserving of new clothing."

"I formed OutsideIn and created our 'Wear One, Share One' initiative where, for every item of clothing that our customers purchase, we donate another item to someone experiencing homelessness. We have now donated hundreds of thousands of products across the globe."

"In 2017, we won a competition and got a free stall at the Belfast Christmas Market. Despite preparing for weeks to ensure we had enough stock, we sold everything within days."

"People seemed to love our products and also wanted to support rewriting homelessness. It made me realise there was room to grow because homelessness is not just a Northern Ireland problem."

Diversifying our products

"The business has changed much since the beginning. We started as an online business selling only winter headwear. Once winter ended, our product was no longer in demand, and we realised we needed to diversify our range to keep running the company. We now sell t-shirts, fleeces, sweatpants, hoodies, socks and much more."

"That said, we try not to launch too many things together. We prefer to focus on and perfect one product to ensure we don't compromise quality before developing the next one."

Diversifying our sales

"From starting online, we now sell through events and pop-up shops across the UK. We also have a small permanent shop in Belfast."

"Some of our early events flopped. There were times when we sold two products over five hours. In contrast, when we found people interested in our range, we could sell two hundred products in that same timeframe. Every setback has come with great learning."

"The pandemic hit us hard, like many businesses. Events generated 50% of our revenue at that stage, so we had to refocus on online sales. We strengthened our social media presence, improved our website and coordinated online advertising. This shift allowed us to grow into new markets and quickly adapt to external factors outside our control."

Devising our growth strategy

"We knew we had to prepare for growth from a logistical and cash flow perspective."

"We looked at our hiring capabilities, HR, warehousing and products. We ensured we created systems and workflows that were fit for the future and can accommodate our growth - this has been critical."

"Had we not strategised or planned for growth, we wouldn't be here."

"Focus groups have been helpful for new markets such as America or Europe. They have helped us understand the different needs of customers there, whether it be online shopping experience or fashion choices."

"Analytics data has helped with the strategic planning of where we should try a pop-up shop, telling us where our customers are from and which cities we need to target."

Mitigating risks

"It's important to take time to assess every opportunity. The larger you grow, the greater the cost of it going wrong. The bigger the risk, the more time we typically spend assessing."

"Having people in your team that don't think as you do has been critical. I want to take risks, but having someone on my team who is risk-averse has helped us grow at a safe rate and prevented us from going off track."

"Establishing different revenue streams has been another way to lower risks."

"Other things, like getting help from Invest Northern Ireland with recruitment and exports and learning from experienced mentors and other businesses along the way, have been vital in supporting our growth."

Lessons learned

"If there's one key learning I would share with other business owners, it would be to make sure to breathe and switch off. Trying to do it all yourself can lead to burnout. I think getting key roles into our business quicker and taking that risk sooner would have helped to structure it at a better point."

Case Study

David Johnston


David's Top Tips:

  • Recruit a team with complementary skills and outlooks - this will help you make the right decisions, including when to take risks.
  • Before you invest in products, invest in people and their skills. You are only as good as the team around you.
  • As you take on new staff, ensure that everyone understands your vision, mission, and core values. Otherwise, you could end up with a culture and business you never planned.