Title : Star of Enterprise: Marko Kiisa, UPMADE
Date : 2 November 2017
Each month, The LOWdown sits down with one of the stars of the European startup and entrepreneur community. This month, we catch up with Marko Kiisa of UPMADE; an Estonian sustainable design company revolutionising the fashion and clothing sector by reusing industrial leftovers in their manufacturing process.
LOW: Why did you set up your company?
A: Learning more and more about the devastating environmental and social impact that the global fashion industry has gave us the understanding that we have only 2 options: either we forget about being a designer and choose another profession, or we go and change the industry from the inside. Ignoring something changes very little. We believe in positive action and role-models rather than restrictions, bans and blacklisting. Starting a company to achieve that positive change in the way that the fashion industry is functioning was just the next organic step.
LOW: When did you set up your business, and how long did it take?
A: Our company’s foundations are based on a scientific research on industrial upcycling: turning leftover material as-it-is into products through design. That research included a PhD dissertation by Reet Aus, an Estonian sustainable designer. The formalities of setting up the business in Estonia were super easy; working out a business model is another issue. We did know the field and the potential positive impact we wanted to work towards, but it took many years of additional field research to form a sustainable business model out of it.
LOW: Did you have a ‘lightbulb moment’ (i.e. which led to you starting your business, or which triggered a change in the way you did things)?
A: I guess one of such moments was meeting Mr. Naved Hussain, CEO of the Bangladesh Export-Import Company (BEXIMCO), at a very early stage of our field research. He is eager to prove that not all manufacturers in Bangladesh work on the dark side of the industry. When he listened to our assumptions and hypotheses about the solutions that industrial upcycling can generate, he immediately understood the potential of what we were proposing. He truly opened the doors of his huge factory and that inspired us to keep up the hard work.
LOW: Where did you source funding to set up your business?
A: The seed capital was raised among three individuals, two of them acting as advising investors and third one, Reet Aus, as the lead inventor. One of the first steps we also took was a successful Kickstarter campaign – the first successful Estonian one– to raise additional funds to develop the Up-shirt. It went super well, and the upcycled Up-shirt is now our international bestseller. Its message, “The tee with the tiniest environmental footprint”, still inspires and touches people.
LOW: Were there any EU, national, regional or local business support services, programmes or funding initiatives that helped you set up or grow?
A: Two years ago, at a very crucial growth stage of the company, we received EU funding support from Enterprise Estonia. It helped us to focus on polishing the business model and expand it towards export markets. The project was so successful that we were granted another funding period for a follow-up project.
LOW: With hindsight, which would have been the single most valuable skill to have before setting up your business?
A: I don’t believe in singling out anything from a such complex set of skills. There are so many... Awareness. Persistence. Curiosity. Transparency. Integrity. The combination of all of them, and yet so many more.
LOW: What is the single best piece of advice you have received along the way?
A: To start the business in the first place.
LOW: Who or what are you inspired by?
A: We are inspired by people and businesses that actually strive to do right by both the planet and the people, while still chasing profit. Minimizing one’s damage is, by far, not good enough anymore. Take, for example, Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard – an astonishing person with admirable principles which were applied to his business from day one. I hope every single person comes to an understanding that their every yen, buck or pound does make a difference to whom you give it, the one you sponsor and support and advocate.
LOW: What is the USP that distinguishes your product or service from its competitors?
A: We are actually targeting a very grey area in the fashion industry that few wish to acknowledge and talk about. Our awareness acts as our USP: we offer a low-hanging fruit for any size, from a fashion brand which wants to start cleaning up after themselves. We offer a credible way that allows for an easy communication of our achievements to the public, while also making perfect sense financially speaking.
LOW: How would you describe your progress so far? Are there any significant challenges you have had to overcome?
A: Our progress and growth has been very organic, almost slow -but steady. This has been our survival strategy in a way, because we indeed are world pioneers in the field. The biggest challenge, besides the academic research and field work, which does not earn but only burns, has been filtering out the win-win-win business model. It means proving your point to all stakeholders involved the solution to the wide and complex problem of textile waste and leftovers.
LOW: How are you planning to grow your business?
A: We will soon close the first deals with international brands implementing the UPMADE method and start to produce out of their own leftovers. We will expand their actions in more and more factories in different countries. These brands will be huge role models in the industry.
LOW: If you were in charge of the government ministry for SMEs and start-ups, what would be the three most important changes you would make to help them grow?
A: I would facilitate a well-balanced cooperation between innovative, future-looking start-ups and well-established corporations. There is currently a huge gap between them, but both sides often have huge benefits to get out of such partnerships.
LOW The best thing about being an entrepreneur is…?
A: ...seeing the very short connections between your (in)actions and your results. Every single day.
LOW: What do you see as the key trends/disruptors for 2017 relevant to entrepreneurs?
A: If you have not started to figure out how to fully implement sustainable practises into your business strategy, you are already too late. In 10 years’ time, there will be no market for your damaging or single-bottom-line-oriented product.
LOW: If you could go back to when you were about to start your company and give yourself a single message or piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Learn to say “no” as much as possible. Multitasking does not work. Less is more.
Keep up with UPMADE’s latest developments at http://upmade.org/. Return to The LOWdown