How a naïve idea turned into a multi-million pound company

“Stay unbelievably close to what your customer wants.”

This simple piece of advice helped to propel Clare Hornby’s fashion brand ME+EM from a “naive idea” to a £40m-turnover business. “The key thing is to get your product right – and you only do that by understanding your customers,” she tells FEBE. “If you know them inside out, your business has got a good chance. If you don’t, you’ll stall, no matter how many brilliant things you do.” 

Clare first learned the importance of walking in your customer’s shoes – and ideally in their socks, shirts and scarves too – in the late 1990s and early 2000s while working for ad agency HHCL, the outfit behind legendary ad drives such as the ‘You’ve Been Tangoed’ campaign. She says: “I came to understand the importance of customer insight. One memorable project involved repositioning the AA. We interviewed mechanics who told us that their customers – stranded drivers – saw the AA van in a similar light to a police car or ambulance. That piece of customer insight was gold dust and led to the ‘Fourth Emergency Service’ campaign.”

What advertising didn’t teach Clare, however, was how to launch a direct-to-customer clothing brand whose customers would eventually include royalty (The Duchess of Cambridge) and award-winning actresses (Emma Watson and Gillian Anderson, to name but two). That’s something she had to work out for herself. 

The Harrods years

The journey began in childhood when the ME+EM co-founder would go shopping for fabric with her mum, craft raw materials into garments and then sell them at the local market. The fledgling fashionista wanted to become a buyer, so she studied retail marketing at Manchester University. A trainee job at Harrods followed. “I got a taste for luxury because you could use your staff discount in the sales,” she says. “I developed a special passion for Armani. In fact, my Armani suit led to my ad agency job. The interviewer loved it so much that she didn’t really listen to what I was saying and just hired me!”

‘Give up now!’

After Harrods, Clare spent many happy, hardworking years in the ad industry. But in 2005, she felt the entrepreneurial call of the wild and, of course, it had to be fashion. “I’d become both a mum and a step-mum, and to keep all the wheels on the track, I needed to do something for myself,” she says. “So I went for it.”

Launching a clothing brand felt right. But getting the idea off the ground proved fiendishly difficult. She recalls: “Harrods aside, I had no relevant experience. I look back now and realise just how naïve I was. I didn’t know a supplier, a fashion journalist – noone in the industry at all. What’s more, I remember flying to New York on a research trip and talking to a passenger who worked as a fashion buyer. I told her that I was launching a clothing company with almost zero experience. She told me to give up immediately.” 

Soul-destroying

Naturally, Clare was not about to take that advice. However, a few months later, after part-re-mortgaging her home to raise funds, she very nearly did quit. “If I’d known how challenging it would be, I probably wouldn’t have started,” she says. “It was sheer naivety that got me going. But sometimes it’s best if you know nothing about the road ahead because you can’t see the obstacles.”

She continues: “One of the most soul-destroying moments was going to my first fabric fair. I wandered around, not knowing where to begin. Finally, I went up to a stall, introduced myself as a new online business, and asked to see their fabrics. They sent me packing because they ‘didn’t deal with internet traders.’ So I couldn’t even get an appointment to see suppliers – they wouldn’t speak to us.” 

Wrong name, wrong product

It was Clare’s husband, Johnny, who persuaded her to keep going when she was about to pull the plug. A breakthrough deal with a Portuguese fabric supplier – a friend of a friend of a friend – followed. And after much soul-searching and hard work, what finally came out of the tumult was a company called Pyjama Room – the precursor to ME+EM. Clare says: “I sat down with my friend Emma [Howarth] and we decided to go for a gap in the market based on loungewear.” 

However – and here Clare’s “stay close to your customer” mantra comes in – the duo soon realised that Pyjama Room was too narrow a concept. “It wasn’t close enough to what customers wanted – so we renamed and relaunched the business as ME+EM. That’s when the growth started.”

Stick to first principles

The ME+EM butterfly emerged from the Pyjama Room chrysalis in 2009, spread its wings and flew. That transformational journey taught Clare many lessons. “Small business is about patience,” she says. “Once you’ve started, you can work the rest out as you go along. You’ll make mistakes, of course you will, but if you keep going and stay close to your customer, you’ll grow. My advice to anyone considering launching a business is simply to press go and get better over time. We began with the wrong name and the wrong product. But we listened to our customers and finessed it.” 

There’s “finessing it” and then there’s “smashing it”. Attracting A-list celebrities falls under the latter. Is there a secret recipe for winning such golden customers? “No,” says Clare. “It happens by sticking to a principle – in our case creating flattering, functional, fashionable clothes for modern, busy women – and not deviating from it. If you do that, you eventually get noticed. We didn’t chase it. The more you stick to your strategy and deliver what you set out to do, the more recognition you get. It’s word-of-mouth marketing, essentially.”

Lesson learned

The mother of five’s answer brings us back, once again, to that idea of “staying unbelievably close to what your customer wants”. The story of ME+EM teaches us that if you stick to that aim, then everything else – with hard work and a sprinkling of good fortune – falls into place. Clare concludes: “Whoever your customer is, whether B2B or B2C, my advice is to navigate your business around their needs. Talk about the customer all the time. Never stop thinking about the customer.”

That philosophy helped ME+EM to double in size in the two years before lockdown and grow a further 75% in the past 12 months. Maybe it’s time more of us took a leaf out of ME+EM’s beautifully-put-together, customer-obsessed book.