Setting Up Shop: Tom Cohn, Founder of Kigu

He took a university project importing Japanese animal suits and turned it into a £1m business. Tom Cohn talks about setting up Kigu, selling it and the dark period that ensued…

Tom Cohn, 30, left university and turned his final project into a real life business venture; importing animal suits and selling them online. He sold the business for over £1m seven years later but rather than feeling elated, felt lost and unmotivated.

Where did the idea for Kigu originate?
For my final project at Sussex uni, a group of us had to write a business plan. My idea was a free-range kebab shop but we ended up going with someone else’s idea – importing suits from Japan and selling them at festivals.

After uni, I didn’t have anything to do so I thought: that was a good idea – I got a first for it – let’s put it into action. By then, a year or so had passed and so I didn’t exactly use the business plan, just the idea – and decided it wouldn’t be so festival-focused, more about online sales.

Why did you opt for a partnership?
I’d always been a bit too scared to try anything by myself so I asked Nick, my really good friend – who’s really reliable, and who I spent a lot of time with – if he wanted to be involved.

I didn’t think Kigu was going to be successful, I just wanted to share the experience with someone else – and it’s more fun to work with a friend. At that stage, we didn’t really think of it as a business – just a wheeler-dealer way of making a bit of cash.

How did you launch the business?
We built a website in one day. Hamish, our friend, did it. Another friend did the graphic design – Jamie Brown. We used Big Cartel to do a shop; it’s really easy to use.

We’d each saved £2000 by living at home with parents, also Nick was doing pizza delivery, and I was doing random odd jobs – AQA, market research groups. So we bought 3000 suits from Japan and sold most of the first lot to friends, then friends of friends would buy from the website. Before we knew it we’d sold out.

People think it’s the happiest day of your life selling a business but you end up on a path searching for meaning, which can be quite damaging to your psyche

What was your marketing strategy?
We spent no money on marketing – it was all word of mouth. Then we used Facebook and at that time, everyone would see your posts. People were less wary of ads. Now you only see what Facebook wants you to see.

It was new and we were small so the first photos were of people on drugs or really pissed – or both – in their costumes, being ridiculous. That caused it to spread in an east London, underground way. We spent all the money we made buying more.

How did you discover the Japanese manufacturer?
Via Google. We thought they were Korean so went to the Korean embassy and had all these meetings with them – trying to find a company that didn’t exist. Then we googled it again and realised they were Japanese.

Only one company was making them. Sazac (the manufacturers) invented the product and had been going for 15 years but no one knew about them here. We made them quite successful. They had never exported out of Japan – maybe to Korea and China, but not out of Asia.

They treated us like royalty when we went over there. They bought us ornamental cats and traditional Japansese umbrellas. They’d take us out for really expensive meals. One time, they pulled out giant African land snails and barbequed them in front of us. I ate them but they weren’t nice.

When did you start to see signs of success?
At that stage, we were broke so anything seemed like serious money. After six months, we were easily able to support ourselves in our relatively un-lavish lifestyles. After a year, we were making more money than we could spend – so we were accumulating money in the business account.

At the height of our success, we were selling 400 Kigus a day for £40 each, plus shipping. We were earning £23 after VAT on each one. And we didn’t have any overheads. We paid something like £500 a month for our office and struck a good deal for storage – it was free. We’d just pay them per outfit that was sent out.

How did you learn about the various elements that running a business requires?
My business degree (joint honours business and geography) was actually slightly helpful in terms of the terminology. But with the marketing, we just put on parties to promote the product.

The first party was for 100 people, we had 100 flying squirrel outfits that were faulty, so we got a refund and gave them all away with tickets. Everyone paid £10 to get in and Diesel let us use a small warehouse for free so all the money went on booze.

Did you start the ‘onesie’ craze?
The onesie hadn’t come out when we started. One Piece – a Norwegian company – started at a similar time and charged £150 for an all-in-one outfit but it was just the two of us. A couple of years later, the whole onesie thing was massively hyped by the media.

When something hits the mainstream to that extent it signals the beginning of the end so at first we avoided using the term ‘onesie’. But we were linked to it and by the end, had to backtrack and use the word, as everyone was googling it.

When did you decide to call it a day?
Nick had moved on a couple of years previously to focus on his music (he’s now one-half of music-producing duo Dusky) and I was bored. I felt like I’d outgrown the image.

The business had seen its peak and I didn’t want to be managing a diminishing return, as I thought it would be depressing. We could have expanded and set up Kigu in other counties but I didn’t feel I had the motivation to do that.

So many business people spunk money on absolute crap; things they don’t need

How did it feel, making the decision to sell it?
I didn’t really feel emotional at the time; I thought it would be a good idea. But it all hit me once I actually stopped because I went from working in an office every day to having nothing to do. I’d also just broken up with my long-term girlfriend.

I’ve since discovered that it’s really common to feel quite lost. People think it’s the happiest day of your life selling a business but you end up on a path searching for meaning, which can be quite damaging to your psyche. You have to reevaluate what motivates you in life.

Serial entrepreneurs seem to be the absolute minority. Most people, apparently, have one big business and sell it. I met a guy who sold his business for £40m, a woman for £30m – and they both said the thought of starting from scratch again wasn’t appealing.

I’ve come to realise it’s more about learning and experience than generating income. A lot of entrepreneurs are motivated by power, experiences, wanting to be their own boss. Once you’ve sold the business – you have status, you’ve been your own boss. So people then get involved in charities, or mentoring.

What are you doing now?
I’m a builder, renovating a property with a friend.

Advice for budding entrepreneurs?
My advice is you should just try it because a lot of people I know who’ve started something and tried really hard have actually succeeded. But if you’re going to start your own business, reduce overheads massively.

If you can live somewhere cheap, or with your parents, it gives you a big advantage because you can afford to be making very little money – maybe take on a part time job to give you some pocket money for a social life and to get the basics while building the business.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice at every stage – there’s plenty of help out there. A lot of really successful people feel guilty about their success and want to help others so if they’re contacted directly they will probably be really willing to help.

We had a mentor called Vince who helped us from day one all the way to selling it – and we’re still in contact now. We asked to meet him once a month for guidance. I’ve met other people and said would you mind meeting for a coffee – 9/10 people are up for it. I don’t even drink coffee.

Lastly, don’t waste money – so many business people spunk money on absolute crap; things they don’t need. We set our website up for free, used Big Cartel for three years – $10 a month – the site was hosted for £2 a month. Prove it’s going to work before borrowing money to buy a £10,000 website because that’s what everyone else has got.

Do you (or your kids) own a Kigu? Which animal did you go for? Let us know in the comment section below…